October 2013

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Stories of the Shwezigon Pagoda

The Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan, Burma. Photo by David Lansing.

Every morning, over tea, Sai tells me something new about the Shwezigon Pagoda, which I have been assiduously avoiding.

“Do you know why the temple was placed here?” he asks as I cut into a piece of dragon fruit.

“No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me.”

“Because the king placed a tooth of Buddha on the back of his white elephant and set the animal free with this oath, ‘May my white elephant bow down at the spot where the tooth relic wishes to reside.’ And this is where the elephant bowed his head.”

I wasn’t going to ask Sai why the king had a white elephant or the tooth of Buddha.

Another morning: “Do you know why the king could not complete building the temple?”

“Tell me.”

“Because he was killed by a rampaging buffalo.”

Again, there were unspoken questions: Why would the king be in a position to be killed by a rampaging buffalo? And why the hell didn’t his white elephant save him?

Another morning: “There are twenty-one lions, sixteen crabs, and sixteen sea frogs at the Shwezigon Pagoda.”

“Fine, Sai. Let’s go see the crabs and sea frogs today.”

So we went to the Shwezigon Pagoda. Which I knew we would sooner or later. I just wanted to make Sai work for it. It was beautiful. Of course. And when we were finished admiring the golden stupa and the sixteen crabs and sea frogs, I had a question for Sai: “Did you know the sound of a drum beaten on one side of the pagoda cannot be heard on the other side?”

Sai lifted his eyebrows and looked surprised. “No, I did not know this, Ko David.”

I nodded and walked on.

Photos by David Lansing

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In search of Burmese cuisine

Our meal at the Nanda restaurant in Bagan was fine, just fine. But it wasn’t very Burmese. Photo by David Lansing.

I’ve been complaining to our guide, Sai, about not getting a chance to eat any traditional Burmese food. So yesterday he took me to a place where, he promised, I’d have a good meal. The restaurant was called Nanda. To get to it, we had to walk by a couple of grand tourist shops (which should have immediately set off alarms) and once inside were seated at a long table filled with German tourists who had just arrived by bus. Obviously this wasn’t going to be what I had in mind when I asked Sai to take me to a traditional Burmese restaurant.

Burmese culture is characterized by onana, the all-pervasive avoidance of doing anything that would offend. Thus you never touch a Burmese on the head (not even children). You always allow the oldest people in the room to eat first. And you take foreigners to mediocre restaurants because you know they would be offended being offered fermented fish or a laphet thoke salad (pickled tea leaves) or a sour soup made with tamarind.

Instead, Sai ordered us large prawns, simply prepared, rice fried with peas and pork, and a large omelette. The best I can say about the meal is that nothing we were served was offensive. Which, I’m sure, is exactly what Sai was hoping for.

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Burmese mohinga for breakfast

No two bowls of mohinga are ever the same, but this version, with a big dollop of pungent balachaung sauce on top, is pretty representative.

We haven’t really eaten much in the way of Burmese food here in Burma. Which I hear isn’t all that unusual. The Burmese are under the impression that Westerners don’t appreciate their cuisine. Which may or may not be true (how can you dislike something if you never taste it?). Surprisingly (or maybe not), the better the hotel, the less likely you’ll get a good meal. The four- and five-star resorts stay away from anything too exotic. Instead, you get mediocre Italian, lousy French, and boring American.

In Burma, everyone—and I mean everyone—has mohinga for breakfast, a sort of rice noodle soup made with a pungent fish broth and seasoned with a ubiquitous Burmese condiment called balachaung, made from dried shrimp, tamarind, shallots, turmeric, garlic, onions, chili, and god knows what else. I’ve asked the staff at our hotel restaurant for mohinga and they just laugh and point towards the sidewalk stands nearby which, unfortunately, are never open when I’m having breakfast. No mohinga here.

You don’t think they’re going to offer Americans stinky fish noodle soup for breakfast, do you? Instead, we get flat omelettes. And runny scrambled eggs. Nasty looking sausages and limp bacon. Sigh. Usually I’ll just ask for a pot of tea and make myself a fruit plate: dragon fruit, papaya, bananas—whatever looks good. But what I would do for a stinky bowl of mohinga.

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A monk in the prayer hall of the Htilominlo Temple in Bagan. Photos by David Lansing.

Sai wants to go to the Ananda Temple today. It is worth seeing, I know. A large temple in the shape of a perfect Greek cross, four 31-feet-high teak Buddha images facing the four cardinal directions, 80 reliefs depicting the life of the Buddha from birth through enlightenment, all capped by a golden stupa that reaches 168 feet above the ground. Impressive, I’m sure.

But Ananda is foie gras and I want a dish of fresh fruit. Ananda is a Bentley and I’d like to ride in a horse and buggy. Ananda is big, complex, and very touristy. I want small. Manageable. Quiet.

So we go to the Htilominto Temple, of which I know almost nothing. Except that there is almost no one here. And it looks lovely. Small, but lovely.

As we walk through the dark, empty corridors inside the temple, Sai gives me a condensed version of its history: Built in 1218, the site was chosen when five princes were standing in a circle with a white umbrella in the middle trying to decide which of them would be the next king; the umbrella tilted in the direction of Nantaungmya, the son of one of the former king’s concubines, who built the temple to celebrate his coronation.

Sai knows I’m a sucker for a good story.

It surprises me that there is almost no one here except us, a man selling prayer beads, and a monk in the prayer hall. It is so quiet that it truly feels holy. Holier than any other temple I’ve been to in Bagan.

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A problem at the Bagan market

There’s lots of fascinating things to look at and buy at the Bagan market–until the beggars find you. Photos by David Lansing.

Alex made a mistake at the market in Bagan yesterday. When one of the young children that immediately started following us around handed him a small jar of thanaka, the yellow paste everyone here puts on their face, he took it. I don’t think he even knew what it was. He looked at it curiously, smiled at the kid, and then tried to hand it back.

The kid wouldn’t take it. As far as he was concerned, he’d made a sale.”Ta htaun kyat! Ta htaun kyat!” shouted the boy.

Alex asked our guide, Sai, what the boy was saying. “He want one dollar,” said Sai.

“Give him a buck,” I said, “just so he’ll leave us alone.” By now there were five or six other children, all under ten, clamoring around us, all pushing things at us: gum, bananas, bags of what looked like dried fish.

Alex tried to give the thanaka back to the boy. ”Ta htaun kyat!” he yelled. Alex started to reach for his money.

“If you give the boy a dollar, fifty children will follow you around the market,” said Sai.

In fact, the crowd of youngsters had now grown to more than a dozen.

“Look, I don’t want this,” Alex told the boy. “Take it.”

The boy refused. So Alex put the jar on the edge of a vendor’s table. “There it is,” he said. “I’m not taking it.” And then he walked off.

The boy grabbed his jar of thanaka. But that was not the end of it. Now the pack of children followed us wherever we went, all of them pushing things at us and asking for kyat. It got so you could not even stop at a stall to look at a Buddha or the baskets of odd spices because if you did, a dozen, two dozen kids would harass you. So we told Sai we wanted to leave and quickly we hustled out of the market.

The thing is, we all wanted to buy something—sandals, a longyi (the ubiquitous sarong-like cloth worn by both men and women), beaded bracelets—something. But because we started to feel like we’d been surrounded by a pack of feral dogs, in the end we bought nothing. And left in a hurry. A situation not good for anyone but particularly not good for the vendors at the market.

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