At the pagoda a huge crowd wandered about. The full moon festival was in progress. This Paya’s holy treasures are five small ancient Buddha statues that have been plastered with gold leaf over such a long time that now they are unrecognisable blobs. Kyaw told me that one has increased in weight by several kilos.
This day was a time to offer flowers.
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Kyaw encouraged me to buy some lotus blooms and then he made an offering of them in front of the appropriate statue. Kneeling, he bowed his head to the floor three times with my flowers clasped in his hands. A woman approached Kyaw with two pieces of gold leaf and asked him to apply it for her. Only men can step up onto the dais on which the statues sit to make offerings or put gold leaf on them A sign beside it said, ‘No ladies allowed’. My mother was finally vindicated. She was always telling me there were things ladies could not do but I never believed her. Mind, you wouldn’t find me buying gold for an idol that thinks it’s too good for me to touch it. Get your own gold, I’d say.
Moored beside the pagoda in a covered dock was a big, glittering golden boat with a prow in the shape of a hamsa bird’s head. Once a year it is used to ferry the gold Buddas around to all twenty-five lakeside villages to spend a night in each. Originally all five statues went walkabout annually, but in 1965 the boat capsized in a storm and all the Buddhas went to the bottom of the lake. Four were recovered and one was left to be searched for again in the morning. But on returning the four to the pagoda, the fifth was found to be already there, waiting for them The next year the same thing happened a storm and a lost Buddha returning of its own accord. Then the people got the message that the fifth Buddha did not like to travel and so now only four go on their little annual holiday of twenty-five one night stands.
I was surprised when Kyaw told me that he firmly believed this. There was a storm because there are photos to prove it, but as to the rest … Oh well, lots of people believe far more unlikely Christian miracles. But I did like the way Kyaw bowed and prayed at each site we visited. An unbeliever can still take pleasure in someone else’s trusting faith.
Outside in the grounds we joined a throng of people pushing their way through a packed market. There were Shan and other ethnic people in colourful traditional dress patronising the tea houses and eating places that offered their particular food, along with stalls piled with many kinds of fruit, spices and local produce.
Back in the boat, we moved on to the fisherman’s village, with me resisting all offers of visits to weavers, silver smiths and any other place where I knew I would be pressured to buy stuff I didn’t want. Like ship’s engines, I have seen enough workshops to satisfy me for the rest of my life. And especially I did not want to see the Paduang, the ‘long necked women’, who have had iron rings placed around their necks until they are deformed. They are on exhibition at one of the villages and are high on the tourist sights list. I believe this is gross. If tourists didn’t go to gawk at and photograph them, these atrocities committed on women would die out.