Category:

Golden Buddhas and Puppetry

January 20

Awaken early to chanting outside. Breakfast on top floor of hotel. Picked up at 8:30 and stop by Aung Lin Htet’s house for wifi connection to check emails.

Stop by place where gold is being hammered by hand in order to make thin sheets for gold leafing.

From here we drive to Mahar Myat Mu Ni, Myanmar’s second holiest pilgrimage site, which houses a 4-metre high Buddha statue, made of gold and decorated with precious jewels. The image was brought from Rakhine State, southeast of Mandalay. People file by (men only) and leave small sheets of gold leaf to be added to the Buddha.

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We also see a parade of small children being celebrated as new monks and nuns. It turns out that the cute little girls in yellow are little boy monks, adorned as if they were small kings.

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This pagoda also houses bronze statues won as war booty. People, often carrying small children, file by these statues, rubbing the statues and touching themselves, believing that various body parts will be healed through this ritual.

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From the pagoda, we drive to the home of Dr. U Tin Maung Kyi, a former urologist, with wide interests including puppetry, cartooning, cultural history of Burma and archeology. He has written on a wide range of subjects and lectured in other countries, including at Brown and Columbia in the US. To say that he is a character would be greatly to understate matters. He regaled us on his many pursuits, showed us a puppet he had designed and made, including the costume (pictured next to him below), and expressed his view that the current government is bluffing and that there could another coup, but at the same time describes Aung San Suu Kyi as “our Moses”. He knows and admires the Moustache Brothers, and either ignored or missed our comments indicating that we thought they were terrible. We were connected to Dr. U Tin Maung Kyi by Aung Lin Htet’s father, who we met later in the day.

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Lunched with Aung Lin Htet, then back to the hotel to rest and blog. Picked up at 4PM and drove to Shwenandaw Monastery, which is made entirely out of teak wood with beautiful intricate carvings. It was originally part of the royal palace built by King Mindon and moved to its current location by his son, King Thibaw in the late 19th century. It is the only major building from the original wooden royal palace to have survived the bombing during World War II, and thus is the only authentic part of the royal palace which can still be seen today.

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We drove by, but did not stop at, the Kuthodaw Paya, site of the world’s largest book. Located at the foot of Mandalay Hill and built by King Mingdon in the 1800s, 729 white stupas within the complex contain the complete text of the Tripitaka, Theravada Buddhism’s most sacred text. We continued on to Mandalay Hill a 230-metre hill located near Mandalay. Along its path are several monasteries and temples. We enjoyed the view and a nice, but not spectacular, sunset over the Irawaddy River.

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Waited in a long line for the small, slow elevator down, then continued on to dinner outside at a Chinese/Thai restaurant. There we met Aung Gyi and Daw Julie, Aung Lin Htet’s parents. He is an internist who will retire next month and continue writing essays and poetry. Daw Julie worked as a nurse before her three daughters and son were born. Their youngest daughter is a PCP grad, currently studying in New Hampshire, and the second daughter, who joined us at dinner, will begin a 3-month course to study for medical exams in Melbourne in May. Aung Gyi is Buddhist and Daw Julie, Christian. Each wanted Aung Lin Htet to be raised in their religion; he opted, in his general non-conformist and critical way, to follow neither.

Aung Gyi drove us back the short distance to our hotel, where Carol and I went up to the roof for a beer and nuts, and a traditional puppet show, before retiring.

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