20 January 2016

Myanmar: Barefoot with Buddha in Burma


Buddha is BIG in Myanmar.


See the size of the people entering on the left? But this Buddha doesn't look very comfortable. 

This reclining Buddha, still under construction, will be 180 meters long. 
The world's largest. 

Okay, picture this:
It's not finished, so there's rebar and concrete, bags of cement, nails, pieces of splintered wood, metal bars and scaffolding everywhere. Since it's a sacred place, shoes - must be removed. 

Even the construction workers go barefoot. 

Barefoot! 
On a major construction site!


The flip-flop is the national shoe of Myanmar. Driving motorcycles or paving roads, everyone wears flip flops. 


Pilgrims, welders, concrete workers - on this enormous construction site -
...everyone is barefoot.  

Many of the staircases are unfinished. 
Open balconies stretch railing-less over chasms. 

It's unsafe beyond imagination. But kids are running around (barefoot). 
School groups are visiting.

Everyone seems to think it's quite normal. 




Inside the massive Buddha, there are four floors with depictions of hell. 

Scenes from some of the 500+ reincarnations of the Buddha's life. 
(There are apparently 13 levels of hell.) 

It's graphic and somewhat frightening. 

It's also very odd, just being inside a huge Buddha.


Buddha's hand positions all have a special meaning.


Buddha statues crown every mountain top in Myanmar. 
Temples contain thousands of Buddhas. 
There are city squares full of hundreds of stupas. 

(In Myanmar, temples and stupas are both called pagodas. 
Pagodas are hollow, so you can go inside, and stupas are solid.)


Golden stupas - forever.


Caves are filled with thousands of Buddhas. 
There are Buddha amulets, Buddha shrines.

Even rural fields are filled with rows and rows of Buddha statues. 


These caves were dark - I used my cell phone to see my way through.


As one fellow told us - "Everywhere here, there is Buddha - Buddha!"


Buddhas - all the way up to the ceiling. Over 500,000 here.


The week in Myamar is divided into 8 days.
Each day has its own color, number, and spirit animal.

However, Wednesday is divided into 2 days.

The spirit animal of Wednesday morning is an elephant with tusks.
Wednesday afternoon's animal is an elephant without tusks.

At the pagoda, you give your offerings at the shrine dedicated to your day - the day you were born.


Saturday shrine. I was born on a Saturday.

Everyone gives constant offerings to these Buddha statues. 
Flowers, incense, food, but mostly gold and money. 

Small sheets of solid gold leaf are for sale. 
These are pressed onto the Buddha statues. 

Some statues are full of layers and layers of gold leaf.
The original shape is long gone.


This Buddha is unusually auspicious. He has become quite lumpy with gold. Only men are allowed.


Each pagoda has a story. 

The Hpaung Daw Oo Pagoda.

The story of these 5 lumpy Buddha statues - the "Sandalwood Buddhas" is one of the favorite stories. A bit bizarre, but this is a country where bizarre is an everyday thing.


These were originally 5 sandalwood Buddhas. Now unrecognizable under layers of gold.
They're VERY heavy.


Where the 5 sandalwood Buddhas live.


The Royal Bird Barge


Once a year, the 5 Buddha statues are taken out on a procession aboard this royal golden barge. 

One year, a storm came up, and the Buddha statues fell into Inle Lake. 

Divers were only able to retrieve 4 of the statues. 

Disheartened and upset, they returned the 4 statues to their proper place in the palace -
-only to find the 5th statue - back right where it belonged.


Off on a horsecart. Bet we can find another Buddha.



16 January 2016

The Vanishing Sea Gypsies - Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago

Sea gypsies! 
What a great name. 


Myanmar sea gypsies, who call themselves "Moken", live on boats.

They're easy to spot - they travel with one bigger boat, called Moken Kabang.
And a bunch of little boats, called Moken Sabang.


The harbor of Ma Kyone Galet, with Moken boats. One of the few places on land where they come.


The Myanmar government is trying to get the Moken to settle on land.
Send their kids to school, probably pay taxes, be counted. 

But the sea around the Mergui Archipelago is still host to dozens of wooden "Moken" boats. 
They live their own lifestyle, on the water, in their own handmade boats. 

Speak their own languages. 

Some of the last sea gypsies in the world.


Moken Sabang - the little boats.


When the Moken saw our boat...
this woman and her son paddled over to trade fish for rice and fruit.

She had the fish, we gave them rice and fruit. 

There aren't many boats out here.
Only Moken - and the squid fishermen.




Myanmar squid fishing boats have a very definite look. A bit strange to us. 

- Squid fishing!

The lights on the "arms" light up at night to attract the squid. 

However, the strings of electric wiring look VERY sketchy.




The blue tubs are to separate the different types of fish. 
Then they're transferred to a larger boat, which takes the catch to the port town. 

So these boats might not return to port for a long while. 
This is a BIG archipelago, and we only traveled the southern part.


Fishing traps - handmade on one of the beaches.


Several times, we traded beers for squid.

4 cold beers for a whole BUCKET of fresh squid and fish!




Erik with a variety of crabs, fish, and squid. For 4 beers.

The Myeik Archipelago is off the coast of Myanmar. 
There are about 800 islands. 

Only a handful are inhabited. 

You can't visit the islands. 
Not unless you're on a liveaboard boat. 

There are no hotels, no guesthouses, no ferries. 

No stores, no place to buy provisions. 
We brought everything we needed with us. 


However, we fished - successfully - and enjoyed fresh wahoo sushi 30 minutes later!



Irish Captain Brian and a tasty wahoo.


Erik making wahoo sushi.


At night, the Moken link their boats together. 
They hang out, eat, tell stories.

Things people do when they live on boats. 

We could hear the sounds of their voices from our boat. 
Sometimes music.

They were curious about us, and very friendly. 
When they took off in the mornings, they'd circle our boat for a closer look and wave. 

-Guess we look as strange to them as they do to us.


Wonder what the Moken thought of this mode of transport-?


We visited the Moken village of Ma Kyone Galet, and the kids were pretty excited to see us. 
They're learning Burmese (not their native language) and English. 



We were definitely a "happening" at this school!




Erik - with tanaka - tries to include the shy kids in the photo, too.


These girls are Myanmar, not Moken. 
They were temporarily in Ma Kyone Galet for an exchange program.




They were genuinely surprised to find we didn't know what "tanaka" is. 

It's a paste made from a tree bark they all use for protection against the sun. 

They had fun putting it on Erik.






We were introduced to everyone. 

This old woman, they told us, is 120 years old! 
And her friend, a sprightly 90 year old. 

The young girl is wearing tanaka.


When you're 120, you can wear what you please.

We took paddle boards and kayaks up a mangrove-filled river at dusk.

Saw sting rays and hornbills. 

It was about sunset, and very loud. 
Sounded like monkeys.

Luckily - the sound came from birds and a cicada-like insect. 

Good. 

I'd hate to run into monkeys with nothing but a paddleboard.


If you look closely, there's a fresh waterfall on the beach. 


While snorkeling, we discovered a large sea snake, violet and black vertical stripes. 
 As the snake became interested in us - a speedy getaway was in order.

That night, I read that Myanmar is home to more types of venomous snakes - than anywhere else in the world.


Stan, Trish and Erik, who joined us from his home in Bangkok.


The feeling of being so far away from civilization was overwhelming. 
We showered under fresh waterfalls on deserted islands. 

Snorkeled, swam, read, watched stars.

No one around but fishing boats and sea gypsies. 

Sea gypsies! 

Indeed.


Beach BBQ with fresh fish. And wine. Our catamaran in the distance.



Zoe III - "home" for us in Myeik. 


It is hopelessly beautiful and impossibly romantic.

Thank you to all who made it possible....!

15 January 2016

Of Monks and Monasteries in Myanmar

Myanmar is filled with monks. 

There are monks in trucks, monks on buses.
Tall monks, small monks, fat monks. 

Monks everywhere. 


Every man in Myanmar is a monk at some point. 
Sometimes only for a few weeks. 

Sometimes for years. 


Myanmar monks wear maroon. This one in orange is from Laos. The tiger too, I suppose.


Monks have 227 rules to follow. 

They aren't allowed to cook. 
Not allowed to handle money. 

Women
are not allowed to touch the monks.
Or even sit next to them on a bus. 


Posters in temples show the 13 levels of hell. 

Believing is key.


This monk was halfway up a rock pinnacle. His silver bowl is ready to receive offerings.


Small boys dressed up for their first day as a novice at the monastery.
Novice monks only have 27 rules to follow. They might even be home by dinnertime.


Trucks are filled with money trees. And of course a Buddha statue.  
It's the end of the Buddhist equivalent of Lent.

Everyone is out celebrating.

This means a MASSIVE sound system, cranked up full volume, full distortion. 

The offerings go to the monasteries.


The first truck has the money tree. The second truck has the massive "Wall of Sound".


Trucks are equipped with enormous speakers, and a group of young guys dancing. 
It's a holiday, full moon, fireworks. 

Everyone is excited.


Gardens FILLED with thousands of Buddhas.  Buddha is BIG here. 



Monasteries, monks, golden pagodas. 
Statues of Buddha, offering bowls. 

Bells, gongs, and blessings. 

There's a golden pagoda on top of every mountain.

They're in caves, on rocks, in villages. 

In gardens and at the river's edge.



Barefoot in Buddha-land. A cave filled with yet more Buddhas! 


But more on Buddhas later.

It's time to explore.



10 January 2016

Spirit Houses of Thailand - and a Ghost-Filled Building in Bangkok



Every building in Thailand has a spirit house.




It has to be in a special location.
Preferably where the shadow doesn't fall on it.

It's usually on a pedestal. 
Even commercial buildings can have a spirit house.

In this miniature house, there are all sorts of offerings. 
It provides a home for the protective spirits of the property.

If these spirits aren't appeased, they can cause trouble.

And no one - likes angry spirits.



Erik adjusts a spirit house offering near a cave outside Hua Hin.


From my balcony in high-rise Bangkok, I can look down from the 28th floor and see a number of spirit houses - in gardens, at street corners, on tiny platforms in the corner of a lot.


Even trees can have spirit houses.


Boats have spirits, too.




Every day, offerings have to be made to these spirits -

Strings of flowers.
A bunch of bananas.
Any fruit will do. 

Food, even sodas (they're partial to red sodas, with a straw!)

Incense, candles.


All to keep the spirits happy. 

Or - there could be consequences.




In Bangkok, there's a large unfinished high rise building. 

49 stories tall. About 80% complete.

They say it will never be finished.
No one will work there. 

No Thai feels at ease entering the building.

It's abandoned. 
It has ghosts. 

Those spirits are not happy.


This spirit tree even gets a soda 6 pack!


Perhaps - for the price of a few mangos and a string of jasmine.
Things could have been different.

Who can tell how spirits work?



Cheers! From Bangkok, Trish, Ray, Erik and Stan.