April 2014


Let Me See

Even now that most affluent visitors tote smart phones into the temples, the real resource for history and directions is the kids. There are usually a handful of kids attached to any major temple, willing to give a history and tour for a few thousand kyat (maybe 2-5 USD). Since most of them don’t have a school, it’s their venue to learn and practice any languages they’ve been trying to learn. You’ll get the most information in Myanmar, of course, but some of the kids have straight up memorized the English guidebooks. Either way, the tours are pretty decent, and certainly more fun than waving your phone around in the air, trying to get service.

Trumpet Flowers

These trumpet flowers were taking over the side of our hotel in Aung Ban, up in the mountains of Shan State. It always tickles me that plants Western gardeners tear their hair out trying to coax to life grow as common weeds in their native habitats.

Inle Waterways

Inle Waterways

I don’t think I’d ever tire of how beautiful that valley is.

Outer Walkway, Bagan

In traditional Myanmar temple architecture, larger temples are built on a square plan with two rings of corridors. An inner sanctum was reserved for royalty – usually whomever commissioned the building of the temple, along with their family. In many of Bagan’s temples, these corridors are still restricted. The outer ring, however, is accessible to all. This set of corridors opens to the exterior of the temple, letting in light through archways and high windows to illuminate the frescoes for common supplicants. Many of the temples have begun running fluorescent lights in to better illuminate the remains of the art, though this damages the fragile remnants.

Keeping Up Appearances

Keeping Up Appearances

This issue of Behind the Scenes takes us east from Mt. Popa to Mandalay. Temple traffic is heavy in the cities, and especially up Mandalay Hill. Its commanding view of the valley makes the temple an attractive spot for tourists – especially now that one can drive most of the way. This in turn attracts students from the nearby monasteries, guide schools, and university, who make the fairly arduous trek up each evening in hopes of meeting people with whom they can practice their English.

When I was there, I got handed off between several groups of rather shy students, hearing about where they grew up, what they were studying, who their best friends were, and what were the easiest & hardest accents to understand. When learning a new language it’s tough to find sympathetic listeners – people who will let you speak slowly and make mistakes or get things almost right – and that’s especially true for English. A lot of Brits and Americans assume that proficiency correlates with intelligence and don’t really appreciate the effort that goes into it (probably because so many of us are monolingual). Given how risky it was for people to learn English under the junta, and how few schools there are still, I was more than happy to sit back and chat while we watched a magnificent sunset. Should you ever find yourself in the area, I’d highly recommend it.

Mandalay Temple Bazaar

Eldritch from the outside (or perhaps just sketchy as all get out), but markedly more welcoming within.

Alright, VT.

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