Sunday, February 16, 2014


One of the coolest things we did in Myanmar happened on the last night we were there.  While heading down to Chinatown for the night market, we heard music coming from a nearby alley.  We looked down the length of it and saw a stage set up at the far end.  Thinking it may be a concert, we walked in for a closer look.  A short way in, we reached a point past which people were taking off their shoes.  Sacred event space?  Intriguing.  That day was a national holiday, Union Day, so it was probably a public event with Buddhist backing, or vice versa. 

We took off our shoes and walked further in.  The street was covered in woven sitting mats with a central red aisle for walking.  On both sides of the aisle, people were seated in clusters and holding pages covered in Burmese script.  We walked and walked past about four sets of mini screens and loudspeakers, and maybe two hundred sitting folks, until we got close enough to the stage to see what it was.  A big golden throne, in front of a splendid backdrop depicting what seemed like paradise to me.  The throne was empty though. 

We sat down on the mats and took our places among the people.  Soon, a man came over and handed us each a plastic bag with a bottle of water, a juice bottle, and a baked item.  It felt like kindergarten snack time.  People around us were looking at us and smiling.  Some dude walking around with a big looking camera even got us to pause for a photo, maybe for a newspaper.  Then, the music changed.  It went from being instrumental and recorded, to being a live, single voice chanting.  The chant was slow, sounded nasally and female, and was in Pali I think.  People shifted their posture so they were now sitting facing the aisle rather than the stage.  Some had their hands in their laps, looking down, and some were looking up with their hands pressed together at their chest.  We turned to face the aisle as well. 

A bell started ringing, about one chime every ten seconds.  Then we saw from the same direction we had come, a procession.  In front were two men carrying a bell shaped gong between them.  In the back was a man holding a golden parasol.  And in the center of the procession, under the parasol, an old monk.  As the monk walked past, people on both sides of the aisle bent and touched their foreheads to the ground over and over.  When he came by us, it was very difficult not to bow.  The monk finally reached the stage and sat down in the golden throne.  The chanting continued.  It was beautiful and well orchestrated and felt like just the right amount of ceremony to end our visit to the most overtly Buddhist country of all that we had visited. 

We decided to leave before the monk started talking, because that seemed like the least disrespectful course of action.  Picking up our shoes, we took the sidewalk all the way back out of the alley, put our goodie bags on the table at the entrance, and felt grateful for the chance to witness Union Day, Buddhist style.

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