Melody scrambled out of bed and looked out of the hotel window. “Look Jess they’re here, get up, you’ll miss them. Get your camera”
Knotting a sarong round her chest, Jess yawned bleary-eyed and peeped out of the window and gave a big unladylike yawn. Her jaw dropped as she glared out at the sight going past their window.
A solemn procession of Buddhist monks in maroon robes emerged from the early morning mist in Yangon. Each of them held a brass alms bowl in front of them. They filed through in bare feet in order of seniority. They walked mindfully on the dusty ground with downcast eyes, while the hot rising sun blazed mercilessly on their shaven heads.
The two friends were temporarily mesmerised, tongue tied by the unexpected spiritual spectacle. Jess snapped out of the reverie first, and started bombarding her friend with questions because Melody was writing her PhD. on comparative religion, so was familiar with Buddhist rituals.
“Mel. Where are they going?”
“Morning alms round” came the passive answer.
“What’s that, are they begging for food?”
“No monks don’t beg for food. People place food in their bowl to earn merit. It is a great privilege to offer alms to the homeless monks. They only eat two meals a day and the last meal each day must be eaten before midday.”
“Wow” said Jess, listening to her own empty stomach rumbling for breakfast.
“Look, somebody is offering something, why is she taking off her sandals and bowing with joined hands?”
“It’s a sign of respect.”
This experience was so new to Jess she forgot to take any photos, anyway, she thought philosophically there’s always tomorrow.
“Let’s go for breakfast Mel I’m starving.”
“What’s on the agenda after that?”
“We will go to Scott’s market in downtown Yangon for your souvenir fix. But do take some decent photos, I must prove to my supervisor that I did come to Myanmar as part of my research.”
“Yah” replied Jess wiggling into her jeans and tank top.
“Don’t forget to carry a big scarf in case we come across some temples, they won’t let you in with exposed arms.”
The continental breakfast was very satisfying.
They left the hotel looking for a bus to the Famous Scott’s market. Finally, the bus arrived, it was already full but it stopped to take more passengers. So, the two girls squeezed themselves in and were on their way to the market. It was hot and steamy in the bus but there was no other mode of affordable transport on their student budget, hence they persevered and arrived at their destination safely.
It was Jess’ first overseas trip so every sight and sound was awesome. A piercing sound filled the atmosphere, beckoning the faithful Muslim to the mosque for midday prayer. Most people disregarded the call, “Allah ho Akbar,” but the faithful responded to the call and hurried to the mosque for Friday afternoon prayer.
Melody and Jess stopped to look and were surprised that there were no women going to pray. They found it odd but did not stop to query because the pull of the exotic market was too strong to resist
“This is awesome,” exclaimed Jess fascinated by the souvenirs, jewellery, and paintings. “It’s like Aladdin’s cave, Mel.”
“Yes, and you’re the genie, best you stay in the lamp, otherwise you’ll buy half Scott’s market and won’t have any money to spend at Inle Lake.”
“You said it is only a great big lake with a strange fishing method. There won’t be anything to buy except fresh fish and vegetables which we can’t take home. So, I might as well spend my money now.” True to her word Jess strode towards the stalls to examine the souvenirs, tenderly feel the silk longis and scarfs while Mel watched.
“I’m exhausted and parched” cried Jess, after she had gone through most stalls.
“Hungry too I would imagine” replied Mel patiently looking at Jess loaded up with bags of all shapes and sizes.
They headed towards an open cafe and sat down on bamboo stools. The aromatic smell of food titillated the girls’ tastebuds and they suddenly realised how hungry they were. They ordered a fresh coconut drink to quench their thirst, followed by curry noodle soup, a standard lunch time favourite of the local shoppers. It was very satisfying and so cheap.
The shopping, food, the sheer volume of people, the scorching sun and the continuous call to prayer unnerved Jess.
“I’m dead tired Mel. Let’s go back to the hotel.” She pleaded.
They took a taxi back and collapsed on the bed as soon as they got into their room. The fatigue caused by souvenir shopping and sightseeing was overwhelming. By the end of the shopping spree Jess was an emotional wreck.
Mel looked tenderly at her friend fast asleep on the twin bed, smiled at the first-time overseas traveller and closed her eyes and she too fell fast asleep.
“Jess, wake up you need to pack.”
“The coach is picking us up straight after breakfast to go to Inle Lake”
Jess reluctantly rolled out of bed and threw all her shopping into her gaping suitcase and sat on the lid to shut it.
“There” she said triumphantly and entered the bathroom, returning looking quite refreshed from a good night’s sleep and shower.
She’ll survive thought Mel and proceeded to drag the cases to the hotel lobby.
The continental breakfast was delicious, the variety of fruit was mind boggling.
Jess had never seen or heard about some of them, it was surprising to see so many varieties of bananas. She was busy photographing the displays, until Mel threatened to go to Inle Lake without her.
Once they settled comfortably in the air-conditioned coach, Mel audibly heaved a sigh of relief and closed her eyes to get some rest. But it wasn’t to be. Jess fed and rested had rejuvenated from her lethargy and was looking out of the coach window expecting instant explanations to all her queries.
This irritating habit was annoying but endearing as well, friends regarded her as naive and childlike and Mel agreed.
The deluxe coach finally reached its destination. The tourists felt rested and prepared to tackle the next phase of their journey. They had to get into small wooden boats, two to a boat, where they were given life jackets and warm blankets to put round their knees and feet.
“This is the famous Inle Lake in the hilly Shan state in eastern Myanmar. It’s 900 meters above sea level. The lake is 22 km long and 10 km wide. The Inthas are born, live and die on the lake” announced Mel while Jess gazed in amazement.
The motor boats whizzed past the vegetation and through the early morning mist.
“Look Mel. How amazing, that fisherman is rowing with his foot and casting his net with his hands.”
“That’s the unique sight the tourists from all over the world come to see, the lake gives them their livelihood all fruit and vegetables they need are grown on the floating islands”
“Don’t the islands float away, like some are already doing now.”
“Well they don’t float very far; the farmers pull them back and secure them with bamboo poles and the crop continues growing.”
In the evening when the sun was setting it cast a bright orange hue over the lake, there was an eerie silence interrupted by the muddy water splashing. Suddenly the silence was broken by a song in the distance.
“Unforgettable in every way. And forever more, that’s how you’ll stay.”
Nat King Cole Lyrics.
Mel heard a little sniffle and turned towards Jess to see her wiping away tears. “What’s the matter are you catching a cold?”
“No this lake is just so enchanting. It’s unforgettable…”
Photo by Bishnu Addison.