February 5th 2017
Somerset Maugham wrote about the Shwedagon Pagoda: ‘The Shwe Dagon rose superb, glistening with its gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul of which the mystics write glistening against the fog and smoke of the thriving city’. It must have been 4 o’clock in the morning in the middle of monsoon. Today, on a sunny winter Sunday afternoon, all Yangon is here with their picnics.
The Sacred Hair Wishing Well is packed, there’s a birthday party at Buddha’s Footprint and sandwiches are being shared around in the Buddha’s Tooth. Even the monks (average age 19) are in on the act, noshing on biscuits and making rude jokes sotto voce. I sit on a step overlooking the massive gold plated Stupa waiting for the specific moment as the sun goes down that it will seem to catch fire, trying to figure out the elements of a Buddhist spiritual experience, since this event, which is truly transcendental, is being roundly ignored by everyone except the foreigners.
The marching grandma group brandishing matching bouquets over their heads provides a somewhat familiar religious image. Less so the grandmas wielding brooms (2 each) and making frantic sweeping gestures. Close inspection confirms they’re only pretending, so they’re not the cleaning crew. Still everyone is in a good mood and I am reluctant to tear myself away since it will involve interacting with yet another taxi driver who will be unable to explain why the trip back will cost roughly twice the trip there. Another Burmese mystery. I must have had some enlightenment up on the Stupa, since for once I let it go.
Earlier I decided to practice for my impending 15-hour train ride (at 20 miles an hour all the way north to Mandalay) by taking a quick spin on the circle line around the Yangon suburbs (which by the way find farmers plowing with buffalo or thigh deep in water harvesting the ubiquitous morning glory, rather than McMansions). Picturesque yes but the actual action happens inside the train. At first it’s fairly banal, (water, cookies) ramps up gradually (the lady with strawberries on her head, the guys with a pot cooking sweetcorn) a quick detour through quail eggs (are they cooked? In any event, no-one’s buying) to samosa chaat (prepared a la carte at our feet) to the full noodle café (uploaded, feeds us all and detrains within the space of half an hour). We’re half way into the trip when the mobile chefs are quickly replaced by massive sacks of morning glory destined for Yangon dinner tables tonight.
I fear the train to Mandalay will not be relaxing, but this time at least I will have an upper-class seat, with padding.