It is a dry, hot morning in a dry, hot month. The baked dusty earth swirls up in tiny spirals where our feet tread, dirtying our longyis. The soles of our feet burn through rubber sandals. Ma Swe leads me along a dirt track between long wooden huts raised on piles. From one side comes the sound of the harp, steadied only by little bells and a wooden clapper. A warm female voice joins in, taking the melody. Ahead a wailing oboe, accompanied by shimmering bamboo xylophone. We pass hut after hut, strange music wafting from each. Ma Swe points to a larger building from which the sound of the spoken voice drifts. She raises a finger to her lips, and carefully we climb the steps. Before entering, I turn and look back to see how far we have walked. The sun blazes down unmercifully on the dusty path and with relief we slip off our shoes and step onto the cool polished wood of the floor.

Inside, an airy hall. Ten young girls in long silk longyis are posed, legs wide apart and knees bent. In front of them a teacher calls out movements, tapping a stick on the floor with each change. As we watch she taps smartly, and smoothly and slowly the dancers each raise one bent leg up behind them and turn their arms, elbows out and fingers arched backward. Despite our quiet entrance the class soon stops. The girls are excited by the presence of a visitor and the teacher welcomes us and begins to explain what is happening. The students are learning a court dance. First they learn the basic steps and then dance to a music accompaniment.

At that moment a flash, accompanied by a great clap of thunder brings screams from half the girls. I turn and look out of the window. A black cloud is almost above us where a moment ago all was blue.
“We’ve had no rain for months,” says Ma Swe. “It’s very good!” As she speaks the sky darkens and another crash of thunder heralds the rain. Within seconds it descends in sheets. Two boys leap up the steps, drenched and laughing. The teacher shouts something at them but it is impossible to hear her above the deafening drumming of rain on the tin roof. I have never seen such rain. It is accompanied by a cool gusting wind which whips into the hall, causing us all to shiver. By now the girls have all settled down on the floor. They are giggling, egged on by the boys, who gradually edge closer.

Then, as quickly as the rain starts, it stops. Big drops still drip from the roof but the cloud has already moved on. The teacher claps her hands. Too much time has been wasted. As the girls scramble to their feet the boys leave obediently, steam rising from their wet clothes.

We say goodbye and step out onto the veranda. The heat of a trembling sun already warms my skin. I look down at the path, but where ten minutes before dry dust burned our feet, a deep, fast flowing stream now flows through the campus. I marvel at the sight, and as I do so a large duck comes sailing stately down the stream, followed by seven small ducklings.
“Look, look!” I cry in delight, and the little dancers all run to the door, their lesson quite forgotten. Together we look and clap our hands and laugh. The duck leads her young proudly through the laughter and out of sight. Ma Lei and I turn to leave. I try to leap over the stream but land with a splash at its centre. The laughter is infectious. Everyone is laughing, even the teacher. Even me, wet and foolish. This is the effect of the rain. The monsoons have come. The fields will turn green. All may yet be well in this golden, troubled land. And the music will play.


I boarded the Irrawaddy steamer at 4pm. The packed boat seemed to be sitting much too low in the water already but there were still crowds of people milling around the landing stage, laden down with tiffin carriers and reed mats tied into bundles. Politely waiting my turn – unlike everyone else – I eventually made my way up the wobbling gangplank onto the deck which was by now a carpet of colour, as every inch was taken up by passengers, who had untied their mats, extracted their belongings and arranged themselves on the reed surfaces in their brightly patterned longyis, like so many butterflies. By the time the voyage began, people were chattering and laughing, passing tea around from thermoses and making cheerfully lewd jokes about the soldiers, who were also aboard in some numbers. These latter sat uncomfortably in groups on the deck, rifles upright between their legs, muttering to each other. My arrival on board provoked animated discussion. I was used to this but today I felt tired and looked forward to the privacy of my cabin.

I was travelling first class, at the insistence of my host at the museum, and so had been allocated the only cabin. Feeling rather ashamed of this, I followed a sturdy crew- member, his longyi pulled up between his legs and tied into a knot at the waist, as he beat a path through the sea of bodies. Smiling apologetically, I was led to the stern of the boat, where I was ushered through an open door.

The cabin was quite spacious and had windows on three sides; however I was surprised to find at least twenty other people occupying it. sitting on the bunk bed and on the floor. My appearance excited much jovial comment, and a young man was pushed off the lower berth to allow me to sit down. I was at once surrounded and subjected to a lengthy interrogation: where did I come from, how old was I, what did my parents do, was I married, where was I going, where did I get my longyi from, had I eaten yet?
“Just let me get through this bit,” I thought, “then they’ll leave me alone”. Sure enough, as the boat started to clunk and creak and we moved gently out into the centre of the river, my fellow passengers gradually fell silent and settled down to doze.

The door opened suddenly and a monk walked in. Immediately, the occupants of the upper bunk jumped to the floor and the monk was ushered up to replace them. Uncomplaining, the three who had given up the bed rearranged themselves on the floor. After a while I overheard people whispering. The monk wasn’t to be respected apparently. He had a portable radio. Naturally by virtue of his robes he kept his superior position, but otherwise he was ignored.

By now it was nearly dusk. I stepped out onto the deck and picked my way to the rail. Here I stood into the night, watching lives played out on the Irrawaddy. Everywhere on the river there was activity. Beneath the salmon sun small boys - sent out to wash - leapt into the water in great splashes of liquid gold. High up, oil lamps flickered to life as women prepared the evening meal, their little houses perched on stilts over the water. I watched, fascinated, as a woman walked along a bamboo plank to a shielded platform beside her house. Her head disappeared from view as she squatted to relieve herself directly into the water below. Standing up again, she waved to us cheerfully, and I waved back. Out on the broad river, little lights bobbed as fishermen laid their nets, calling to each other across the water for reassurance. More lamps glowed from villages along the shore, and the pagodas, illuminated by fairy lights from Taiwan, were visible for miles.

Finally I turned away. It was now dark and I was hungry. The galley was at the prow of the boat, and once again I edged around the other passengers. Some people were asleep, others talked quietly as they lay. The kitchen was an open fire on the deck over which a cook shook huge pans which hissed and sizzled. As I approached, I felt a sudden sense of unease. The floor seemed to be moving, as though it were alive. My step faltering, I saw that it was indeed alive. There were thousands of cockroaches running all over the deck. It would be impossible to approach the blazing fire without squashing them underfoot. Queasily I decided that perhaps I could do without food for one night. My skin was crawling, as though the cockroaches were running over me, and in my haste to get away I tripped over a woman feeding her baby. Apologising profusely I made my escape and returned to the cabin where the inhabitants of my bed gracefully made way for me and I curled up awkwardly beneath a grubby sheet.

It was hard to sleep in a room with twenty other people in it, and sleeping beneath a monk – irreligious or otherwise – was impossible. It felt all wrong, and I must have lain awake for two hours or more, listening to the gentle chugging of the boat and the occasional snores within the cabin…

I was woken at the crack of dawn by the sound of people getting up. In this part of the world, Getting Up is generally a noisy affair, with much hawking and spitting, raised voices, and no thought for those still asleep. Two women had already been to fill their thermoses and were now shouting to their husbands to get up. The smell from the neighbouring toilet, its handle long since useless, wafted into the cabin each time the door was opened. A young woman tapped me on the arm.
“We will soon be at Pagan,” she said. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Gratefully, I accepted a mug of hot tea sweetened with condensed milk. Despite the welcoming, inquisitive kindness of these travellers, tired and hungry as I was I couldn’t wait to get off this cockroach-infested boat. Wearily I repacked my bundle and went out on deck.

Here, everyone was awake, laughing, arguing, drinking tea and waiting for breakfast. Only the soldiers were still sleeping, slumped uneasily over their rifles. We had changed course and were now approaching the shore. A group of food vendors were waiting eagerly to sell their wares, rice cakes and mohinga, the fishy noodle soup, which they’d probably been cooking since 3 am. With much clanking we docked. Two men leapt ashore to secure the boat and position the gangplank. Before the vendors were able to board I made my exit, the only other person disembarking being a woman with a cage of hens. There were friendly shouts from the crowded deck and I turned to see many of the passengers waving goodbye. I waved back, then, lifting my reed bundle, I headed for the waiting bullock cart. After the usual exchanges I climbed up beside the driver, and as we jerked and swayed along the dirt track into the ruined city I looked back. The vendors were walking away from the river bank and the boat was manoeuvring back into the midstream. No one was waving now. The foreign passenger was forgotten as the business of breakfast took over.


There’s an ancient city in Burma called Pagan. It lies encircled by the Irrawaddy where that great river swings eastward towards the Shan Hills. A thousand years ago this was a mighty Buddhist city of temples, pagodas, monasteries and monks. Of course there were houses and lay-people too, but all life revolved around the upkeep of the monasteries and the worship of the Buddha.. Sadly, the houses have long gone, and the people with them. Pagan stands ruined on the arid dusty plain. Of its former grandeur some five thousand religious monuments remain, in varying states of decay. Although no one lives here, it stands - for the Burmese - as the pinnacle of their ancient Buddhist culture. Still today people travel for miles to attend one of the two pagoda festivals held here annually, and of course they reverently remove their sandals to enter even the humblest ruin.
For me too, this is a place of great spirituality. A café owner once told me, after spitting carefully out of the door, that he prayed to be reborn in his next life as a nat, a guardian spirit. That way he would be able to spend his entire life drifting happily and watching over the temples of Pagan.

I have been here often. I feel drawn to the place as though by an invisible thread. The river, the dust, the shimmering heat, the light of the late sun on the red bricked monuments, the thick stillness… all of that. Many times I have climbed shoeless up the narrow dark stairs to the high terrace of the Sulamani, and waited quietly for the sun to sink orange behind the river. A profound calm washes over me as I sit, insignificant against the weight of the past.

So now you know about Pagan, which I love, and where the curious little incident occurred, It could have happened anywhere of course, but fortunately it happened here, where there weren’t any people around to witness it.

I was on a two week tour of Burma, escorting a group of elderly travellers around the main tourist circuit. At this point we were on Day Two of three days at Pagan. It was late afternoon, and I lagged behind at the Shwesandaw Temple while Zaw, our guide, led the group off to view the gigantic reclining Buddha, which lay in a low, cramped building nearby. I can’t remember what I was doing – maybe photographing some reliefs, but as I walked towards the reclining Buddha I heard shouting, and I rounded a corner of the building to see my group gesticulating angrily at four or five young people- Italian it seemed. They in turn were shouting back. This behaviour was quite out of character for these elderly, educated travellers. When they saw me, they shouted even louder.
“Quick,” said Zaw, “Sort this out before you all get deported”
“What’s happened?”.
“Those two girls were sitting up on the image, next to the Buddha’s face, having their photos taken. Luckily there aren’t any other Burmese around or it’d be an international incident”

I looked from my angry friends to the bewildered and defiant young Italians. How to explain to them the enormous sacrilege of a woman’s unclean lower body coming into contact with the head of the Buddha – the seat of his Enlightenment? How could I deflate this situation, as clearly everyone expected me to do?
“It’s ok. You didn’t know,” I said. "This place: It’s sacred, like a church. Holy.” I made the sign of the cross, and several ladies nodded severely.
“Imagine this was St Peter’s in Rome. You know, ST. PETER’S?” They nodded. “Well, would you sit on the altar to have your photo taken?” I patted the Buddha’s podium and with much waving of arms I put my point across.

Gradually the mood changed. The young travellers, shocked to find that they had committed such a grave offence, became embarrassed and regretful. To them, this was just a beautiful place which had once been a great city. They hadn’t thought that the temples were still holy. They hadn’t meant to upset anyone. Realising their discomfort, Zaw and the elderly tourists were at once all reassurance and kindness:
“Never mind” …”It was a simple mistake”…”anyone could have done it.” “Enjoy your holiday” With a nod of heads we parted.

By now it was getting late. It was our second day of pagodas and temples. The group was tired and wanted to go back to the hotel and change for dinner. Luckily there was no lecture tonight. Hot and weary, we piled onto three bullock carts for the slow, jerky but infinitely pleasing journey back to the river side.
“Ooh, isn’t this fun!”
“ “How nice not to see any cars!”
“Isn’t it peaceful?”
“Silly people,” muttered one woman suddenly, and at once they all murmured their assent..
“ But they were so young,” said another, as though that explained it all. There was a pause,
“And after all, everything is so different here”
Zaw looked at me with a rye smile. It had been a long day and thank goodness we’d managed to salvage that one. With a leap he jumped from the cart and held out his hand to me with a small bow.
“Care for a walk in the dark?” he said. I took his hand and jumped out. We stood together and watched as our charges were driven trustingly into the Burmese night.


Texte: Copyright 2010
Tag der Veröffentlichung: 11.04.2010

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