People looked surprised to see us.
The cheerful smiles we got from locals in Dawei were hidden behind long stares and raised eyebrows in the small southern town of Ye—only open to foreigners since 2013 and often skipped on travellers’ itineraries because of its lack of beaches and big sights. As we sped down the highway on our scooter, only a few people returned our waves hello. But the day was sunny and the air was still relatively cool as we blasted past gum tree plantations and army training camps, and we were excited to check out the countryside in this overlooked part of the Golden Land.
Our map pointed to a place called “Banana Mountain”. When we arrived there were no bananas to be seen, but there was a monastery. A tall pagoda sat on top a nearby hill, from which four enormous Buddha effigies stared down at the countryside in all directions. We parked our motorbike in the shade of a tree and trudged through the dusty heat to check it out.
Although the pagoda looked relatively new, the colossal Buddhas were really impressive. Each statue had a slightly different expression, ranging from “serene” to “bemused”. The bottom of the structure was ringed with an ornate hallway full of gold Buddha statues and flowers. It looked like a sacred place and we didn’t feel like taking our shoes off to go up, so we paced around in the oppressive sun and snapped photos.
A nun in the hallway stopped her cleaning to smile at us from the shady corridor, then made an eating motion with her right hand. “There’s food up there!” She pointed up towards the main monastery buildings then made the motion again. “Go get it!” We nodded and thanked her. Our stodgy guesthouse breakfast was still working its way through our guts, but why not check it out? We headed towards the staircase to the monastery.
The Myanmar people mean business about their Buddhism. Apparently Buddha is pretty conservative when it comes to wardrobe, so unlike other more pragmatic countries in Asia, in Myanmar there is a strict dress code for temples. No bare shoulders, no exposed knees, no shoes and no socks allowed anywhere within the temple grounds. This usually means you have to take your shoes off at the gate and expose your tender soles to the elements: gravel paths, stone stairs and, the worst, hot tiles that have been baking for hours beneath the hot Burmese sun.
We slid our shoes off into the sand and began our ascent. It was only noon, but as we climbed the rough, unfinished stairs up to the monastery, the bricks were already blisteringly hot.
At the top the scene was almost fantastical, with immaculately tended trees and fountains, brightly-painted statues, and beautiful monastery buildings surrounding a gleaming golden stupa. Tiny coloured flags flickered in the breeze above our heads, and we craned our necks to look at them while everyone else at the temple turned to look at us—the two unexpected foreigners.
After a few minutes of wandering around, the nuns found us. We were surrounded and gently corralled into a large covered area where groups of men were eating at low, circular tables. They also turned from their bowls, eyeing the quiet commotion the nuns made as they rolled out a bamboo mat and set a table down for us.
The oldest nun, who was probably around 70, beamed at us as she directed the youngest girls to bring out dishes of food and pitchers of water. Burgundy cloth swirled around us in a storm of flashing smiles and wide eyes as the girls went to work, and before we knew it there was a feast of ten dishes laid out. The youngest girl, who was wearing Angry Birds pyjamas and still had a head of wild hair, enthusiastically spooned rice in our bowls. “Thank you! Thank you!” we hooted at them repeatedly, not really knowing what else to say. One of the older nuns joked sternly in Myanmarese, “Stop saying ‘thank you’ and just enjoy it!” We took the hint and quickly dug in.
Aside from the resident kitten and ageing dog, everyone left us alone to eat for a while while they cleaned up the other tables. Like two Amish kids at a Chinese buffet, we eagerly dug into each new dish, all of which were vegetarian and full of spicy, sour, and unfamiliar flavour combinations that tied our tastebuds in knots. After a few minutes, some of the younger nuns broke the ice by bashfully asking if they could have their pictures taken with us. They pulled out shiny Samsung smartphones and posed demurely. Mook did the same and ended up looking like one of the crew:
The oldest nun returned and shooed the girls away, and with the help of another bespectacled teenaged nun she began to tell us the Mon and Myanmarese names for the vegetables in the dishes. We wouldn’t remember them later, but we gave it our best effort anyway. An older guy popped his head in and bellowed hello, then gave us bananas and mangosteen, and a bowl of the sweetest mango I’d ever tasted. Everyone watched, amused.
After lunch the elder nun persuaded in gestures, “Now that you’ve eaten, you should go give thanks and pray.” She pointed at the four-buddha pagoda. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and Buddha deserved something in return. We nodded and grinned, without knowing exactly what we were supposed to do.
But first—Miss Angry Bird pyjamas had something to show us. We stood up and tottered across the hot tiles towards the back of the monastery where the kitchen was. In the shade of a tree sat a rabbit hutch with about five manky long-eared rabbits, panting in the heat. Buddhists are vegetarians so the rabbits obviously weren’t for food. What were they doing there? We oohed to be polite and the young girl smiled, happy that we were happy about the rabbits.
Next we got shown a small cage—only about one metre long and half a metre high—that was the cell of a young gibbon. It swung around wildly and yelled, obviously distressed about being taken away from its mother. Its brown beady eyes stared at us widely. It was hard to muster up a reaction to please Miss Angry Bird, but a stream of pilgrims that walked past the cage cooed in delight when they spotted the monkey.
We weren’t really sure how to react, but then the small girl suddenly chirped, “Okay, goodbye!” bowed, and hopped away. We were off the hook.
It was time to pay for lunch. We scurried back to our shoes, then across the dusty yard to the pagoda. We climbed barefoot up the stairs to the Buddha-ful hallway and made our way past the golden statues to the main entrance of the pagoda. The nun from earlier greeted us and motioned to ask if we had scored lunch. We told her yes, and that we were going to give our thank-you prayers. She beamed happily.
The entire time, a busload of pilgrims visiting the temple had been watching us with surprise, like we were two kangaroos at a birthday party. They stared, giggled and smiled, cameras at the ready. We hadn’t met the Buddha dress code, so the nuns at the door gave us two longyi sarongs to wear, but we couldn’t figure out how to tie them correctly. People gathered around and laughed, bemused, watching while the nuns politely wrapped us up tightly. Longyis on, the crowd went wild. A photo snapping marathon kicked off, and soon babies and young girls we being thrust in front of us while mothers and fathers snapped away furiously on their smartphones. Everyone squealed and hooted.
After the crowd settled down, it was time to ascend the pagoda. We climbed the stairs up into the dark first floor, which was lit only by sunlight streaming through a few windows. The walls were painted a dark red and encrusted in ornate golden woodwork, while the floor was a dizzying pattern of pink and burgundy tiles. There were several chambers where Buddha statues sat demurely, and as the pilgrims wandered around just as awestruck as us, they steepled their hands in prayer at each statue before snapping more photos.
Everyone beckoned us to follow them up staircase after staircase towards the top, giving us big smiles and making small talk as they went. “These tiles were made in Vietnam!” beamed one guy who said he was originally from Hanoi. A pilgrimage veteran, he boasted his internationalism by explaining how he’d done the rounds at temples in India, Thailand, China, Vietnam, and all over Myanmar. Pilgrimages are Myanmar’s main form of domestic tourism, and apparently Ye’s Pupawadoy Monastery is one of many hot spots.
After a slow climb we made it to the seventh floor—a small room with four Buddha statues to match the giants outside. The jovial atmosphere disappeared as the pilgrims put on their game faces, ready for some serious praying. Some prostrated themselves in front of each statue, forehead to the floor. Others gently touched the statues before bowing their heads, whispering prayers and sacred words as they went. Once again we weren’t sure what to do, but as our chaperones were busy we just quickly clasped our hands in thanks and put some money in the wooden box next to one of the statues before making a swift exit onto the balcony.
The view from the top was an awesome prize for the easy climb. Perched just above each Buddha’s topknot, it felt like we could see to the end of the world. Lush jungle stretched out in every direction, blissfully unmarred by the unsightly trappings of the modern world; there were no tall buildings, no smokestacks, and no power lines. The air was clear and silent, and the only sounds were the whispers of prayers and the tinkling of the wind chimes at the very top of the pagoda. Aside from the beating heat of the sun, it was a perfection that could make even an atheist contemplate the nature of the universe.
But spiritual people we are not, so we soon escaped back into the cool of the pagoda and made our way downstairs. The pilgrims merrily cautioned Mook to watch his head on the low-hanging beams over each staircase, getting in their last curious questions on the way down.
We made another donation into the nuns’ big silver bowl, returned our longyis and said thank you one last time. It was fun being a guest, but exhausting after a while, and we made a swift exit before the next round of photos and handshakes. On our way out we passed another gibbon, this time a chilled-out adult who was sitting on a bench surrounded by curious people. Some people were handing it pieces of banana and one guy was offering the great monkey photo classic: a cigarette. The crowd turned to look at us but thankfully the gibbon was more interesting, so we hopped on our now searingly-hot motorbike and zoomed away.