March 2014


In a nation where, for fifty years, the only way to avoid conscription was to join a monastery, the grocery stores have adapted well to the basic daily needs of their customers. Robes, fan, and begging bowl included, plus a few snacks to see you through the first day.

Frankly, I’m stumped as to why it’s written in English on the side.

Gone Swimming

When shimmying down from Mandalay Bridge to catch some fish or take a swim, it’s nice to have a stash of dry clothes to come back to.

bicycle man

Bicycle Man, Aung Ban

This interim decoration of stupas is fairly common, nowadays. Certain interpretations of Buddhism stress monetary expression of devotion in rather unproductive fashions, like spending a poor village’s every cent on coating its stupa in gold leaf. Oftentimes this gold standard of exterior decorating is preceded by a coat of spraypaint, to make sure that passersby know that you’re almost there. It’s a variation on the theme of keeping up with the Joneses, common (sooner or later, but usually sooner) to every religion that involves humans.

And, as in all other religions, what is remarkable about Buddhism are the people who view these peacockeries as bunk. These are the ones who spend those meager earnings on improving infrastructure, education, and the lives in their community. Often with budgets dwarfed by those of the gold-leafers, they quietly and insistently turn their world around. They bring teachers, rice to seed the field, a doctor, good roads, timber for a bridge, love for a child, or simply and open mind. Rather than declaring their religion, they enact it. In doing so, they make is possible for others to believe, and for humans to become humane. They have my respect.

Mandalay Twilight

The principal temple in Mandalay is, by square footage, mostly a bazaar. It reminded me a bit of Praha, actually, since both cities are known for their marionettes and there are stalls hung with them throughout the complex. Prague has an unquestionably superior electrical grid, of course; their monuments are seldom unlit except by choice. In Mandalay, where the relics are off-limits to women and can only be viewed by cctv, the whole rhythm of the place is interrupted by the intermittent blackouts. Of course, while the gender disparity was uncomfortable, the ladies do tend to fare better during the blackouts, since they have the wide courtyards and moonlight while the men stumble around in the pitch-black reliquary corridors.

rain cow

This cow works at a palm grinder’s not far from Mt. Popa. Every part of the plant has a use. Wood for posts, leaves for thatch, nuts for food, and sap for making wine, tea, sugar, and candy. I have to say, palm wine is potent stuff, but delicious.

rain crows

There appears to be no corner of the world inhospitable to the corvidae. This one greeted me my first morning in Yangon.


Mt. Popa is renowned for its infestation of monkeys (so much a problem that we nicknamed it Mt. Poopa), but they are at times dignified little creatures. This one managed it for all of forty seconds.

As a sidenote, I should mention that monkeys and dogs – both of which the temple has in abundance – are the two major reservoirs for Strongyloides stercoralis, a particularly nasty parasite. Humans are infected by skin contact with infected feces, such as from walking barefoot. Incidentally, shoes are prohibited in all Buddhist temples, monkey poop or not. I would recommend being screened when you get back to the US or Europe.

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