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CHINDWIN 1

BURMA: THE CHINDWIN

IN PROGRESS

All we have so far are notes, pictures and clues. Snoop away.

I’M REPLACING THE PICTURES

MONYWA / KANI / MINGIN / KALEWA / MASEIN / GAZAT / MAWLAIK / YUWA / AUK TAUNG / PAUNGBYIN / THAUNGDOT /  HOMALIN

As soon as I got on this bloody boat I knew I was in trouble. The smell hit me like cocaine. My head was spinning. A grey school teacher from Canberra looked at me and rolled her eyes. I didn’t care, I was being murdered.

Her little schoolmarm lips curled into a tight little schoolsnarl-smile.

‘It’s not bothering me,’ she said in a tight, schoolsnarl voice. Then she fiddled with her embroidery and tried to disappear. She was probably a lesbian. If she wasn’t she should’ve been. I would much prefer it if she was.

No, she was just one of those women who had never had any sex. They just don’t get it, these gals. No passion, just mute, mealy-mouthed disapproval,.She’d been teaching Disapproval to lucky primary students for thirty years. In Australia you can Matriculate in Disapproval.  So the natural Dog-loathing that one feels when faced with the mongrel was multiplied, escalated a notch with each complaint, turned a brighter shade of  silent rage as he moaned some more. Gawd, she thought, two more weeks of this?

*

They were a jolly, inclusive, friendly Aussie bunch. With the exception of the schoolmarm they made every attempt to tempt Dogster into their happy coven. Dog wasn’t biting. He sat alone at the far table and tried to eat. Something had happened to him, something very odd. With the stupidity of someone in the middle of a bad situation, he couldn’t put the pieces together.

‘Carm’n join us,’ boomed a real estate agent from Queensland.

‘Yairs, carmon over!’ screeched his wife.

There were ten of them, a tour group from Australia – or so I thought. Actually four were travel agents on a recce, led by Colin and Christine, their bosses. Becky was a big breasted twenty year old, Brad a thirty something explorer bruised in love. One of Brad’s pals had come along for the ride – and the cheap travel agent fare – with his girlfriend, a lushious Asian lass with expensive taste. A couple of Germans, a couple of Austrians and that was about it – a quarter of a ship load, heading up the Chindwin. This was the first trip up-river for a year.

The Chindwin is a rare delight; only available once or twice a year when the river is high. Only 120 – 200 tourists get there in any given year. Of course, the rarity of our appearance means that we are the tourist attraction, not the other way round.

MONYWA

The marvellous Sambuddhai Temple of Monywa has nearly 600,000 Buddha images of all sizes ranging from inch high to over seven feet. The pagoda complex covers a large area where refugees found sanctuary during World War II, looked after by the Abbot of the temple. The donation hall and other buildings apart from the main temple are massive two-storied buildings, charmingly covered on the exterior from ground to roof with large, coloured figures in high relief, depicting people going about their daily life. In a few niches figures of royalty or nobility hold up plaster placards warning the living pilgrims to have discipline or honesty. Whimsical touches can be seen in a husband apparently being scolded by his wife, or a brown plaster dog sneaking through a plaster door, only his hind legs and happy tail visible to the outside world.

In a separate prayer hall donated by the two Chinese brothers who made their fortune with ‘Tiger’ balm, their effigies stand at two corners looking on complacently at two larger than life plaster tigers clawing their way over a wall. They are the Aw Boon Haw Brothers who became millionaires and finally settled in Singapore. Out in a open compound, a group of women dressed to the nines in the fashion of the 1920s were just closing their silk parasols and chatting with each other: plaster pilgrims that have stood there since the Sambuddhai was built in 1940.

Overlooking this pagoda complex is a reclining Buddha image 333ft long set on a high hillside. It is the largest reclining image in the country as well as the most beautifully proportioned. The graceful arch of the eyebrows give the image an expression full of Metta, or ‘loving kindness’ that one must have towards all beings, according to Buddhist philosophy.

‘Never go into a temple,’ the travel agent brayed, ‘a-a-all the bloody same.’

There was simpering approval from six of the tourists. The travel agent came in his own little pack.

‘There’s a Buddha here, a Buddha there, a bitta smoke and mirrors. Same, same, bloody same…’

Nod, nod, nod from his entourage. I could see other heads nodding too. The travel agent was a very popular chap. Nod, nod, nod, grin, grin, grin.

Dogster’s loins twitched.

‘I don’t think that’s true at all.’

He heard a voice coming from his mouth.

‘That’s very ignorant thing to say.’

How to win friends and influence people.

‘That was the most extraordinary place. I’ve never seen anything like it. There were six hundred thousand Buddhas in there…’

The nodding stopped. I saw some of the others looking at each other. They had all stayed outside, following the general apathy. After all, one temple is exactly like another one, isn’t it? Same, same, Buddha same.  They were following their leader.

The compliance of Australians abroad always amazes me. For a nation of larrikins, grafters and boof-ballers they are remarkably nervous when faced with the unknown. Of course, if you live in Australia, pretty much everything is unknown – not that that has ever stopped an opinion.

It was late. As soon as I stepped back onboard the coughing started again.

Kani was uneventful, they looked at us, we looked at them – nobody talked.The group was suddenly surrounded by children. The ice was broken. From then on it was Pied Piper on crack. It was great to get off the boat. I noticed that the minute I got off the gangplank, the symptoms stopped. When I got back on, I was off again. In my cabin was the worst. Was I dying? Nobody else was having this problem. I had gone mad.

That night at dinner they told me about the special new varnish they were trying out on all the outside decks.

It’s not me – it’s you!’

Mingin: various temples and wooden houses that have stood for over a hundred years. The Min Kyaung or King’s Monastery houses old and beautiful Buddha images.

KALEWA

MASSEIN

’I think you are weak,’ he said, looking at me very directly.

‘Oh, yes, it’s true – I am weak,’ I babbled. “I’m an old man.’

‘How old?’

‘I’m fifty seven years old, my friend.’

‘So am I.’

We looked at each other. Comparisons were odious. Here was I, wizened, gaunt, puffing on a cigarette looking twice his age.

‘You are weak,’ he said again. ‘I think you are weak.’

I had no idea what he was talking about.

‘Yes, we all get weak as we get older… ‘

‘No, I think you are weak. Do you want to see the doctor?’

Ahhh. Weak means ‘ill’. Ahh.

‘I’ll take you on my bicycle, right now. You should see the doctor now.’

I lied, blabbed and fled to ‘join my friends.’

Morning assembly.  As I approached kids started to hurtle toward the playground, spilling out of every door, tumbling down the stairs towards their designated place in their designated line in the open space in front of the school. The headmaster appeared from behind them and slowly walked down to the front, dragging an overweight, out-of breath Australian with him.

John had forked up the inevitable cash. He confessed later it was the best thirty five bucks he had ever spent. He was introduced to the school and the wad of small bills he had handed over was flourished many times over the headmaster’s tiny head. A great fuss was made.

One of the senior boy students, a prefect, obviously, was dragged out of line to shake the hands of the benefactor, a hugely enthusiastic John, and led the school in three Burmese cheers.

One of the group, an elderly Australian woman, ran out to the front waving cash, hoping to grab a bit of the glory, but the moment was gone. Her wad of dollars was grabbed in a much more perfunctory manner and the guests were ushered on their interminable tour of the school while the rest of us hovered outside.

The classrooms were filling up and lessons about to begin but we tourists outside were far too fabulous a spectacle. Faced poked out the windows, giggling and laughing while inside, in front of their class, their teachers were trying to keep order. I was as disruptive as I could be.

I detached early, unable to control my bad behavior with the kids and headed down the hill for a quiet wander back through town. It was empty, just a few disinterested elderly shuffling along the dirt footpaths, a shop open, a wave. Things were returning to normal.

Between the three hundred kids at the school and the two hundred people sitting on the sandbar watching us as we arrived, we must have been observed by almost the entire population of the village, polite, smiling, shy, even a little detached. They were just watching.

Those who weren’t in the school were on the sandbar, waiting for us to leave. At the appointed hour the rest of them filed back out through the village and across the sand, gave their shoes up for cleaning, and silently padded off up to the cabins. I stretched and, at the last possible minute, eased off up the gangplank and into cabin 201.  It was covered in fresh red carpet. The smell of varnish had gone.

Now I coughed when I was outside the room, instead of the minute I walked inside. Still, for the fresh air, it was worth it. We were underway within minutes. They waved as we sailed away. Two hours had gone by from the moment I stepped on shore.

*

Everybody was in a very jolly mood. They had entertainment.

A monkey. A fucking monkey in a yellow shirt. A fucking monkey that looked exactly like me.

I hadn’t had any drugs in months, trust me, but when I saw that monkey it was like looking in a mirror.

I couldn’t bear to watch the poor thing prodded and poked for my amusement. Look at its arms, and legs. Exactly like mine. Same colouring. Same big ears. This was me in monkey form, trapped at the pleasure of strangers, lost forever somewhere up the Chindwin.

I swear it stared deep into my soul with those huge crazy eyes. For one knowing second I thought he recognised me.

‘Who’s the performing monkey here?’ he said.

I think that would be me…

PART TWO

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