As I write this, a blissful cool night breeze is blowing in from the open windows of our cabin. The flickering of the electric lights illuminiates the room just enough so I can make out the beetles and the assortment of unfamiliar insects scuttling arond my feet. In a few hours we will be leaving for the Shan state. We have been at the Chapoday Monastry for three days now… three days of thin matresses, stifling heat, and endless battles with mosquitos. Three days of listening to the endless chanting of Buddhist prayers– really, endless — that plays amplified on loud speakers throughout the monastry, waking you up at 6 AM every morning– as well as at 1 AM and 2 AM and 3 AM and 4 AM and 5 AM.
Three days of happiness.
When we first arrived at the monastry, we were all a bit apprehensive. We had just come off of three days at a beautiful hotel in the even more beautiful Bagan, where we spent the days sampling the fantastic ethnic restaurants, touring the city in horse drawn carriages, and exploring the dozens of golden pagodas that seem to dot every other street.
But now orientation was over, and we all knew it was time for us to step out of our comfort zones and dive into exploring the real Myanmar– not just the glossy tourist version. We knew there would be challenges, but I don’t think any of us imagined our first one would be so… wet.
When Syon first informed us that the monastry only had bucket showers, it sounded simple. How hard could dumping a bucket of water over your head be? But do not be decieved — taking a succesful bucket shower is truely a work of art. First, you must strategize. Will you sit on the top of the toilet or stand? Each position poses its own risks. Sitting gives you much more stability, but you need to reach farther to fill up your bucket which usually spills about half of it in the process. Standing is much more efficient (an experienced bucket shower-er can often wash in as few as five buckets), though the floor can become quite treacherous when wet. Once you have made your decision, you must move quickly– you most likely are sharing the bathroom with at least four other people.
Turn on the tap (don’t even bother hoping for hot water), fill up your bucket, and awkwardly try to turn it off with one hand before it floods the bathroom. Shampooing and conditioner prove to be a complicated procedure, in which you must scrub your hair with one hand whilst stimatanwously throwing buckets of water at your face. Using body wash is also a skill, in which you have to contort your body to find the best position for you. Holding the bucket of water between your chin and chest is quite a popular one, as it leaves two hands free to wash the rest of your body. Now dry yourself off with a towel and smile, enjoying the feeling of satisfaction at successfully completing your bucket shower!
By the end of our stay at the monastery, we were well on our way to mastering bucket showers. Thank goodness too, because we certainly got quite dirty during our stay. Our first day at the monastry, we took a “taxi” to mount Popa. To clarify, taxi in Myanmar really means a pick up truck with the thirteen of us crammed in shoulder to shoulder in the open back– not as comfortable as a cab but way more fun! Situated on top of a dormant volcano, Mount Popa is one of the most important religious sites in the Nat spirituallity. According to legend a thousand years ago, a flower-eating ogress called Me Wunna once lived there. She fell in love with a mortal named Byatta, whose job was to gather flowers from the mountain for King Anarwhrahta of Bagan. The king disaproved of the liason, and he excuted Byatta for it, imprisoning Me Wunna’s sons in the castle. The ogress died of a broken heart and, like Byatta, became a Nat, or spirit, still living in the mountains today.
After climbing hundreds of stairs, sucessfully dodging the vicious monkeys but not so sucessfullly dodging their poo, we finally made it ot the top of the mountain. But the view definetly made all the primate feces stuck to our feet worth it. The jagged peak of Mount Popa wears a crown of gold. Golden temples, golden shrines, and golden buddhas glow in the sun, contrasting with the green and brown patchwork of farms and villages down below.
The next few days passed in a blur. While we had some downs (you can only eat so much rice in a day), one of the highlights was ‘helping’ young monks making clay bricks. It’s a long and tenuous process, first gathering the rice husks, then scooping them into a pit of red clay, combining it with just the right ratio of water. Then came the fun part, all of us having to take off our shoes and roll up our pants and step into the clay pit, mixing up all the ingredients with our feet. All the while the little monks were giggling at us. Somehow, between spreading the clay into the molds and preparing them to be baked, a mud ball got splattered onto on of the their shirts. What followed was an all out clay war, balls hitting everyone from every direction (though miraculously avoiding the head monk)! I maintain that us Dragons won, but our mud coated clothes seemed to tell a different story. After, we all stumbled back to our rooms, washing up, eating dinner, and falling fast asleep the minute our heads hit the pillows.
It was a good thing we went to sleep so early too– our last day at the Chapoday Monastery was certainly a busy one. We were woken up at the crack of dawn, ready for our first official trek of the trip. We took took a “taxi” to a nature preserve about forty minutes away, and set off for our two and a half hour journey up the mountain. We had not even made it halfway up before the rain started. But despite the rivers of water running down the path and soaking our shoes our spirits remained high. It also didn’t hurt that we knew we had pastries and hot tea waiting for us at the top. Sadly by the time we got to the peak, the mist was too thick to fully see the view, but at least the rain had stopped! By the time we finally made it back to our car, we were all smiling, exhausted but happy that we had accomplished this great feat together.
If you told us three days ago that we were going to miss Chapoday Monastry this much, I don’t think any of us would have believed you. But utimately it didn’t matter that our matreesses were too thin or or the bucket showers too cold– it is the people that we shared all these experiences with that we will remember. So far Myanmar has been such an amazing experience, and I can’t wait to see what adventures await us next week!