Wednesday, February 27, 2013


The gecko in the corner of my room high up near the ceiling has just given another chik-chik-chik-chik-chik, loud and percussive in the predawn quiet. He’s interrupted the silence several times in the last hour, as I’ve been lying half-awake here in my corner room in Yaunshwe. When I first woke, it was just after four. I looked out my  window and saw the almost-full moon in the western sky, red from the smoke-haze of the season, like a planet from another world. And then it slipped behind the high hills that rim this valley, and was gone.

Now it’s 6 am and in the distance I can here the putting purr of boats, the early ones heading down the river to Inle Lake. They’re going to pick people up and bring them back to town and dry land. Or  else they’re heading early to Indein, the place where today’s largest five-day-market takes place. Tomorrow the market is here in Yaunshwe. I’m sorry to have to miss it: we leave by plane tomorrow morning to get back to Rangoon.

Yesterday’s market was by the five buddha temple in the lake, so everyone who was there had come by boat: the P-O from their hillside villages (down to the shore by ox-cart or on foot, or in a crowded open-backed truck, then onto long black wooden boats); the Intha from their houses in/on the lake, houses on stilts or on small carefully built islets of hard-earned dirt. The market was large and airy. 

I’d been before, in 1998 with my kids, but at that time part of the market was a “floating market” with people on boats selling soups and snacks and trinkets. There’s a photo in Hot Sour Salty Sweet that I took there, a man’s tattooed hand holding a bowl of soup…  But when I arrived and saw no floating market I started to doubt my memory. Was I losing it? Was this the same place? But then where was the floating market?

When that kind of memory-doubt strikes, it’s always a relief when I learn I am not crazy…things do change after all, and in this case they have. Too bad. The floating market was lovely.

The above was written while I was in Burma, at Inle Lake. Now it’s a couple of days later and I’ve flown, via a night in Rangoon and a last dinner there with my lovely Burma food tour group, back to Chiang Mai. Here there is more reliable internet, and an easy space to get rested and re-organised. Travelling with a group of people, and moving every two or three days, leaves little time for reflection. And so once again there has been a long gap between posts here on my blog, for which I apologise.

Full moon day on Monday ws a big deal in both Rangoon and here in Thailand, maha budjia day. I went to Shwedagon early on Monday morning with three other people, walking east from our hotel for about ten minutes. Our destination gleamed gold in the dawn light high on a hill ahead of us. Up the long set of steep steps we went, after leaving our shoes at the bottom, expecting to find the calm atmosphere of an early Monday morning at the top.

Wrong. It was intense, peopled, celebratory up there. There was a buddha procession all lined up on a red carpet with fantastic musical accompaniment, a sequence of cymbal, deep conch horn, louder blare and drum that was oddly compelling. The buddha was gold and calm looking, being carried on a small palanquin by white-clad young men. Troupes of nuns were standing watching in their pale pink and vivid orange robes, shaved heads smooth and rounded. And monks of all shapes and sizes in dark red were walking or standing, crowds of them.

I crossed through the procession as it stood there, then joined the clutter of people who were walking slowly around the giant gold chedi. Behind me I heard the procession start moving. What a wild morning scene it was.

I stopped at the dragon (Saturday-born people’s) shrine to make offerings of water (pouring cupfuls on the buddha and on the dragon) and to drape onto the buddha the jasmine flower garland I’d bought on the way up. And then I rejoined the crowd, slowly walking on the cool marble, looking and wondering at it all.

Every time I am at Shwedagon I notice at least one new-to-my-eyes thing; the place is so full and complex that one can only take it in a bit at a time. On this last visit I “saw” for the first time a standing buddha, slender, atop a platform. The statue was gold, graceful and very pleasing. But that appreciative response made me pause.

For each thing I look at at Shwedagon I see with my western foreign eyes, not with the eyes of a “believer”. And so my first and primary response is an aesthetic one. I am drawn to a statue or drawing or mural or tilework, or I’m not. But if I were a simple believing buddhist, surely my first reflex on seeing that buddha statue would be one of awe and worship; would aesthetic judgement enter my reaction at all? It’s the same question that arises in Europe, when we see a, say, medieval wooden carving of the Virgin. We make a judgement about its beauty, its line and feel, and are also impressed by its antiquity, however it looks. Surely the peasants and others from the era in which it was created would have had little or no aesthetic response, but instead one of worshipfulness…

And this brings me to the article that came out about a week ago concerning the repair and renovation of a temple/gompa complex in Nepal’s remote Mustang region. There’s a controversy about the work that is being done (funded by foreign donors). The foreigner who is in charge began with an attitude from his training, which was to preserve what was there, in however dilapidated a state. But he changed once he had spent a lot of time with the villagers and monks. They wanted frescoes repainted and brightened, renewed and restored, not just conserved.

There’s been a large dispute. The man in charge said his view had changed because he had come to realise that the villagers’ needs and point of view should come first. He had decided that the western art-conservation approach was not appropriate to the situation, which involved a living much-used place of belief and worship, not a museum piece.

And so when I see bright neon lights sparkling behind a buddha figure at Shwedagon, or garish new paint at Wat Bupparam near my place here in Chiang Mai, I try to put my head in the place of the worshippers, rather than staying locked in my place of aesthetic judgement. It’s especially when the judgement is negative (“why did they make this so ugly?”) that I feel I need to put my imagination elsewhere, to try to understand another point of view, another way of seeing and relating.

When my aesthetic response is positive - that excited appreciation of something lovely - it cannot be repressed, nor should it be I think. It’s the feeling I had when I first saw the charming marble reclining buddha in a temple at Sagar, in southern Inle Lake. There’s a sense of delight and wonder. Time stops. And that response is not far from religious, is it?

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