Monday, 22 February 2010

Meeting The Venerable U Kon Dala

The following morning, we awoke to the sound of prayers being chanted. This floated up to us, wafted with the aroma of onions frying. Being awoken with the sound of a sung litany of devotion is nothing new to us: remember last year how the muezzins’ call to prayer would intermingle above the roof tops of Old Jerusalem? But here the sound is more fervent, more individual, and somehow much more exotic. Breakfast was Shan style: noodle soup with lashings of fresh and dried chilli, complete with some UFOs (that’s ‘unidentified floating objects’, so we broke Greg’s number one rule of travelling, which is: “never put anything into your mouth that you can’t identify). Followed by a quick trip to a tour office to collect two ‘Giant’ 24-gear mountain bikes. And did they ride like a dream, so much better than the Laotian ones? Oh, YES!
Out from Nyaungshwe we sped, past the rice paddies and massive water buffalo. Then, “what’s this?” To our left was Ywa Thit village with its vast monastery, complete with stupas, and a track, which the bikes could manage. “Shall we see this place from close up?”
It all looked so grand! The monastery was made entirely of teak and, despite its huge size, only two monks were living there. In fact we noticed one of the monks at the window beckoning us to go over and chat. He was very excited to meet us, as he probably doesn’t get visitors as often as he’d like. We removed our shoes before climbing up the teak stairs to the large prayer room, complete with Buddhas, flowers and lanterns. The monk introduced himself to us. His name is The Venerable U Kon Dala. He threw open the massive teak windows of the prayer hall to flood it with light and gave us plenty of oranges to eat (and for jon to juggle with…) as we chatted. For a man in his eighties, he moved around in a sprightly way, making sure his newfound friends had everything they might need. In exchange we put some notes into the donation box and shared a packet of cookies with him. He was ecstatic to hear that we were English.
“Ing-ger-land, Ing-ger-land” he chanted as a litany of delight;
“Very good quality!” he exclaimed as he put his thumbs up, listing English companies and products from the 1950s, many of which are no more. His view of the great colonial power was exceedingly high, and his knowledge of British workmanship was viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. He showed us round the monastery, and was sad to see us leave. As we parted, shaking both of us by the hand, his other hand placed over his heart, he began slowly and deliberately, miming each word: "My dear brother..." as he wished us both bon voyage and contented lives. It must be a lonely existence out here, meditating for the peace of the world and only receiving alms from the few villagers who come here, the mighty monastery which once thundered with the sound of countless novices now home to just two wise men.

The day was still very young and we still had some exploring of the Western side of the lake to do, so we departed from the monastery and waved back to the chirpy monk. As we proceeded along the slightly bumpy and undulating roads, we met our friend, Gary, from Hong Kong. He pointed us in the direction of another stupa that stood high on a hill overlooking the lake, boasting a white dome and a large, old bell. It was at the very tip that we met two new friends, Marije and Seth who are both travelling together all the way from the Netherlands! There were also two Canadians there with whom we briefly talked about past travels. We stuck our curious noses into the interior of the monastery to find a monk sitting on a large straw mat with a flask and some small glasses. He beckoned us over, and over we went! We enjoyed several cups of green tea with this monk and the Hollandaise!
After chilling out for a while, the four of us cycled back towards Nyuangshwe, where we were to find a small restaurant to get some tuck and to organise the next day’s epic adventure. We arranged to meet Marije and Seth in the early morning, before splitting off to enjoy some more cycling around local villages. We pedalled on dusty tracks, passing houses made entirely from flattened bamboo, rice paddies, oxen pulling hefty carts and another monastery, which had a large Buddha sitting upright looking as though he was keeping a watchful eye on the surrounding villages.
As the sun was setting, we headed back to return the bikes and onwards to meet Gary for dinner. He knew of a restaurant serving traditional Burmese curries with all-you-can-eat rice, soup, pickled mango and dried up fish flakes and beans. It was very good value, but we needed to override the aftertaste with an avocado milk shake and a papaya version! We have established a local bar “Min Mins”, which is just sec secs away from our hostel. This is the ultimate place to have a smoothie, or five, to pass the night away!

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