Began, Burma

The Dinner Guest – Began, Burma (Myanmar)

Kipling said, “Burma is like no place you have ever seen.” He was talking about Began. A huge temple complex at the bend of the Irriwaddy River where there are over 3000 temples, some as high as a ten story building.These temples date back to the twelfth century, and cover many square miles. They poke up above the plain, some gold, some white, some a red stone. Most are completely abandoned and open.
I arrived in Began by steamer. It was my intention to climb one of the taller temples and go out a high window and then climb up the outside to get a good view of the plain to photograph the setting sun slapping just the temple tops.
I rented a bicycle and rode with great difficulty along the dirt paths which crisscrossed the entire plain. It was vert hot. I was sweating a good bit. I was alone, I saw no one else. There was a tall red stone temple which stood above all the others and that’s the one I headed for.

Began, Burma

Burmese Temple – Began

All the temples were surrounded by a square wall, about eight feet high. Each one had four gates. North, South East, and West. I leaned my bike against the wall near a gate. I had about 100 yards to cover before reaching the temple. The ground was hot and parched and full of dead prickly grass and plants. It is an important custom among Buddhists to remove your shoes when ever you enter the temple grounds. I am not a Buddhist, But, I respect their traditions. I removed my sneakers and ran across the hot ground, trying to not step on the thorny plants. I reached the temple right at one of the large ornately carved doors.
It was wide open and just inside was a large seated Buddha, eight feet high. He was covered in dust. I passed him and I could just see a stairway before it became pitch black. I found the stairway and groped up it feeling each step as I climbed upwards. I was very afraid that I might find a snake. I’m afraid of snakes. Especially the poisonous ones in Burma.
I probably climbed five stories before I saw light up ahead. I came to a large doorway that lead out to a stone ledge. I Looked around and decided that I could go higher climbing the outside of the temple.
I figured I had about a half hour before the sun set. So, I climbed as fast as I could. I found a good spot. The Irriwaddi was just in back of me and in front were scores of temples, large and small. Two large white ones glistened in the distance. I decided then that I would see them tomorrow.

Began, Burma

Buddha at Burmese Temple – Began

I looked around. Below me was a lean-to hut with a young couple busying themselves around the hut. The woman was gathering small sticks. She took them around to the front of the lean-to and started to build a fire. I watched the small puffs of white smoke rise slowly towards the trees. The husband looked on expectantly. It was dinner time. I started taking pictures of them. When all of a sudden the husband looked up and saw me and waved. I waved back and took his picture. At this point I felt a little embarrassed having been caught. So I raised my gaze to the horizon. Their were yellow parched fields with temples dotted around. In one distant field I could see goats grazing.
A noise startled me. I looked around and here came the husband with a big smile climbing up the outside of the temple. He greeted me with the Burmese word,”Mingalaba” Which means something like “Hey, How ya doing?”. I smiled back, said,”Mingalaba,” and motioned for him to sit down opposite me.
With a big red toothed grin he held up a bag of beetle nuts and offered me some. I took one and popped it in my mouth. He spoke no English and I spoke no Burmese. He pointed to himself and said “Zarni”.I told him my name was “Bill”. I then showed him my camera and pointed to the setting sun and the temples spreading out across the plain. He nodded rapidly several times that he understood my intension. He turned and looked at the sunset and pointed to the beginning of a rising bank of clouds. “Oh Shit” I said aloud. It wasn’t looking good for my sunset shot.
I heard a squeal, and his wife came around the ledge. Her dark eyes were creased in a broad smile. She came directly to her husband and sat up close. He put his arms around her and they both looked at me. So, I took their picture. She said her name was Nanda.
They talked to each other for a few seconds and smiling started to pantomime that they wanted me to have dinner with them. I Glanced at the clouds blocking the sun. I realized that I wouldn’t get my shot, so I happily agreed to dinner.
The climb down was effortless. I kept one hand on the wall to keep my balance in the dark. We popped out into the fading light of day, We went to the nearest gate where I gladly put my sneakers back on. They really felt good. Then we walked towards their lean-to. The fire was just red coals and Nanda immediately left us to gather some more wood.
Zarni motioned for me to go inside and sit down on the bench / bed which ran the full width of the lean-to. There was nothing else in the room except the small fire and a metal grill propped up over the coals. There was no chair. The floor was dirt and the walls were open. A light breeze moved through the room giving some relief to the hot dead air. Underneath the bed was the pantry.

Nanda returned with an armload of small sticks. She got the fire going again. Zarni and I sat on the bed and watched her. He was so excited at having me as a guest that he didn’t know what to do. Everyone was laughing. The two of them talked excitedly back and forth and a decision was made to show me something. Zarni quickly reached under the bed and pulled out a beautiful bone handled carving knife.
He held it out to me with both hands for me to examine. I took it gently and looked at it carefully and told him in english what a fine knife it was, all the while turning it over in my hands. They were obviously pleased at my reaction. I smiled and said excitedly, “Wait until you see what I have.” I reached behind me and pulled out my buck knife. Not just any old buck, this one I bought twenty years ago in Santa Fe. I was just another tourist walking by the indian vendors at the Palace when I saw this knife laid out next to a bunch of silver necklaces. The handle was made of turquoise, mother of pearl and silver. I bought it right then and have rarely been without it.
I handed it to Zarni and he held it up for Nanda to see. She came over and the two of them admired the knife. They were chattering back an forth while pointing to the different stones. I reached over and opened up the blade. What a great reaction, It would have been a superb commercial for Buck.
Nanda reached under the bed and pulled out their one pan and several rather used looking cans. She put the pan on the grate and dug rice out of one can and brown stew looking stuff out of the other and put them into the pan. Then she brought out the dinner ware. There only two plates and their two forks. She set them down in the sand next to the grate and used one of the forks to stir.
Zarni and I sat there carefully watching her. She squatted next to the grate and very confidently watched over our dinner.
It was dark out side now. I am always amazed how quickly it gets dark the nearer you get to the equator. Dinner was ready. Nanda had put the food on the plates. She handed me my plate first, with the clean fork. After she handed Zarni his plate she squatted on the floor facing us.
Here’s the test, they both sat motionless watching as I took my first bite. Dam, it was good! I let out a woop and laughed and told them how really good it was. Far better than I was expecting. They were so pleased. I felt a real feeling of Love for these two. They had nothing and they shared it. They were pure, uncorrupted. Lao Zu would refer to them as the Uncarved Block.
After a very quiet dinner Nanda took the plates and put them into the pan. Then turned and spoke to me. I think she was thanking me for being their dinner guest. I smiled and put my hands together in front of me and gave her a polite bow.

Began, Burma

Bye bye – Began, Burma

I had to think about leaving. But, first I had to find two gifts. I dug around in my camera bag and pulled out a beautiful fan I had been carrying around since China. It was a medium size fan made of white plastic, but moulded to look just like an ancient ivory fan. It was quite beautiful.
When I handed it to her, her eyes got real big and she squealed with delight. Wow, that was a home run. Now what did I have for Zarni? I dug back in to the bag and couldn’t find anything that seemed special. Then I found two very nice ball point pens. I pulled them out and handed them to Zarni. He seemed very pleased. Then he got down and looked on the shelf under the bed and came up with a giant grin and handed me a roll of film. Not in a box but with the tab sticking out the end. I was flabbergasted. And I let him know how pleased I was.
I pointed outside and indicated it was time for me to go. The three of us walked outside. I was glad to see the moon was full. I have to ride about two miles, and I didn’t pay much attention on the way here. They gathered around me and pressed me to come back for another visit. I said I would. We shook hands vigorously, lots of smiles. I felt really good. It was an unforgettable dinner.
I got on my bike and wobbled off into the dark.

— Bill Stanhope

Burmese women sleeping on the train tracks - waiting for their ride

Sleeping on the Tracks – life in Myanmar/Burma

This is my favorite photo!  I was in Rangoon Burma waiting for the fast train to Mandalay.  I had time to kill so I left the magnificent late nineteenth century British railroad station and walked out to the yard. I was surprised to see cows walking through the tracks. There were also many people camped in the yard. I saw a small walk over bridge which took you from one side of the yard to the opposite side. As I was walking over the bridge and looked down to see these two ladies waiting for some train. It was an amazing sight.

Another wonderful dispatch on life in Myanmar/Burma from the intrepid Bill Stanhope – [Kevin เควิน Khaosan]

Riding up Mandalay Hill in Burma

A few years ago I was backpacking through Burma. I arrived in Mandalay by the fast train (which took 18 hours, and stopped at every station that I could see) from Rangoon. One of the places I wanted to see was Mandalay Hill. There was a great temple at the top where the Buddha had stood and pointed down to the plains, and said “Someday their will be a great city here. So Mandalay was born.

mandalay hill lovely ladies

Giggling up Mandalay Hill

When I got to the bottom of The Hill there were two ways to get up. The first was to walk by the two giant guardian protectors and up 400 steps. The second way was by taxi. It was really hot, so I decided to go up by taxi. I know what you are thinking, Bright yellow cab with a meter. That’s not it. It was a 25 year old Nisson pick up truck with a fabric surry on top of the bed. Fine with me. Waiting with me were five young Burmese ladies. We stood there in the sun waiting for the signal, from the driver, to get in the back of the truck. It came, and we all piled in. I smiled at them and they all giggled.
The ride up was slow and bumpy. I had my camera on my lap, and picked it up and motioned to them that I would like to take their picture. They giggled and chattered back and forth to each other. I took that as yes and started taking a few pictures. They laughed and giggled and several covered their faces with their hands.
We reached the top and I thanked them and bowed. They all giggled. The Temple is huge on top. There were many rooms. It was breath taking. I just walked around taking pictures. And every so often we would run into each other and they would dissolve into giggles every time they saw me. And, I would take their picture.

Down the Irrawaddy River on a Chinese Steamer

Down the Irrawaddy River on an old Chinese Steamer

I was traveling on a 50 year old Chinese steamer down the Irrawaddy River in Burma. It was a three day trip on this local steamer because it stopped at every village along the way. I was the only westerner on the boat. And I was the only westerner that some of the passengers had ever seen. Young children burst into tears at the mere sight of me. Which caused the parents to smile and laugh at their children’s discomfort and to assure me that they were fine with my being there. No one has a beard in Burma and I must have looked pretty scary.

I had no idea what to expect when I climbed up the one wooden plank to board the ship. I had paid for a cabin and it turned out that I was the only person staying in one. Everyone else quickly marked off their place on one of the three decks. As I walked past this colorful mass of people, many people called to me to join them, and started to make room for me to put down my blanket. I smiled and thanked them, but, I didn’t feel comfortable doing that. At least not right away. So I went past a bunch of unoccupied cabins to find mine. It was a metal box with two metal beds attached to the wall with space between them, a sink, a window and one bare light bulb in the ceiling. Well it was quiet. The bathroom, I found out, was a big common room with a trough on one side and several holes in the floor. Right out in the open. And it was at the stern of the ship.

The first day we slid down the river like a dream. Dotted along the banks were beautiful gold and white temples. Every village had it’s own pagoda. Sometimes just the top of a golden spire was visible poking up through the palm trees. The new passengers were huddled in a colorful mass at the edge of the beach, with there bundles, and bags of vegetables, and chickens. The steamer would just plow into the sand beach and put down a single plank and they would scurry aboard in a big hurry to get their spaces marked out.

I spent the first day standing by the rail and watched the countryside slip by. I was anxious to take pictures, but, I was afraid of insulting the passengers. So, I just had the camera with me. Pretty soon some family would smile at me and indicate that they would like me to take a picture of them. Gradually they excepted me and my camera and when I pointed my camera at the them, everyone would smile.

I discovered there was no dining room. Everyone brought their own food. I had brought three packages of Ramon Noodles which is almost all I ate. Their were faucets of boiling water which is how I made my soup. I was often offered food by the passengers, but, I always politely refused. I was afraid of getting sick. But, I did except one egg and a banana. I thought they would be safe.

As the day wained the steamer prepared for the coming night. I found out that because of all the sand bars the ship didn’t run at night. What they did was ram the steamer into the beach and a crew member would scramble off the bow with a rope and drag it up into the jungle and tie us to a tree. Then as the evening darkened other ships, attracted by our bright lights would maneuver next to us and tie the boats together. In about an hour we had five other ships hooked on. The bright lights attracted a plethora of moths. They were every where. But, all of a sudden the lights went out. My cabin was black.

I walked back to the deck and was amazed to see little cooking fires, like fireflies, all across the deck.

There was an excitement in the air. A din of conversation chirped through the night. After dinner and clean up. Everyone began singing the most haunting melody. These were Buddhist prayers that everyone knew. It was beautiful beyond description.