I stepped carefully, picking only the driest and most solid looking patches of ground that rose up from the primordial swamp of horse piss that constituted the path to the tiny improvised dock.
Christ, I was tired, which was odd considering there was a strict 10pm curfew. People couldn’t venture outdoors until morning under penalty of death. It seemed dramatic from the clerk gal at the hotel, but I was in no humor to test it out. We knew the drill before coming to Burma in the first place. Still, the idea of some bloated “Officer of Civilian Compliance” stamping papers and chirping out orders that impacted my destiny switched on some weird pitchfork wielding, ‘don’t tread on me’ inner rage-thing (that I, of course, ignored).
We were told that the best way from Mandalay to the old city was by boat. We paid a few kyat and climbed aboard a long narrow wooden vessel that had an old diesel engine sputtering in back. A kid, presumably the Captain’s son, no more than 10, made ready and we began chugging across the river. After completing his chores, the kid came over and sat by us. I noticed he was smoking a cigarette. Confused and alarmed, I acted out a pantomime that conveyed the sentiments,”Hey! Your Dad will see you!” and “You’re too young for that!” The kid, understanding me completely, carefully put the cigarette out, stowed it in his pocket and produced a ragged old cigar butt which he lit, laughing as he did. We roared; what can you really say to that?
From our first muddy steps onto Inwa it was clear that the place was special. 21st, hell, 18th century technology has passed the place by completely…save for plastic flip-flops. What’s sure is that it is a remote section of an already remote place and it looks, smells, and feels completely authentic. I sort of felt like a bastard even being there-hulking over the natives in my well-fed whiteness to “have a peek”. I tried to mitigate this feeling with the talk softly/smile broadly policy I was developing.
On the ferry over, the smoking kid had made several awkward references to the “Ho-Kaa” waiting for us on the other shore. We chewed on that one for a bit to no avail and it was only when the emaciated horse and wooden buggy appeared to tour us around that we had the “Ahhhh” moment.
We bumped & knocked our way down the narrow primeval roads stopping frequently for passing livestock. Coming out of yet another lush thicket, we caught our first glimpse of the superb ruins of Maha Aungmye Bonzan. Although not as old as the village itself (est. 1300’s) the Bonzan ruins are glorious and have a mystery and energy deeper than almost everything else I saw that day.
Dismounting our cart for a closer look, we were swarmed by about 12 local children, all peddling various chochskies. I agreed with myself that I would buy nothing as it would only add to their selling fervor, but they broke me down in about 4 minutes. I ended purchasing several pounds of crap for those back home from the little salesmen.
There were no security guards, ticket takers, guides or any of the usual tourist handlers that one expects at a historic sight. Indeed, the place is no Colonial Williamsburg or renaissance fair and thank heavens for it. Ruins are ruins for a reason, and a few centuries of neglect had beaten the old monastery into perfect antiquity, complete with weeds and grasses growing from the walls.
The kids instructed us to dispense with our shoes before entering the hallowed area. We explored the various shrines, turrets and sculptings, and made our way to the cavernous first floor. Lit only by the 3 or 4 other entrances, the tomb-like structure was dark and cool with low ceilings. It smelled of the ox and goat dung that littered the dirt floor. In almost total darkness we walked carefully along in our bare feet. I quickly grew more concerned about making it across to the exit than actually seeing the place. I snapped a flash for a picture and wished I hadn’t. Slight squeaks and a tiny breeze right over my head confirmed the presence of bats, now stirred by our blustering. Panic suggested that I run full bore towards the door stepping on or over my companions as needed. Amazingly, my voice came slow, yet high and quivery, when I said “Guys, I think we need to go.”
Twenty seconds later found us outside again; I manically patted myself down paying special attention to my head and neck area to be sure some damn bat hadn’t taken up residence there. Foolish & unwarranted, but the little fuckers scared me cold. The kids covered their mouths giggling and pointing at our silliness.
As we rounded the corner back to the dock (and eventually to the magnificent U Bien Bridge), I saw 2 local women bathing themselves in the waters of the Ayeyarwady river. They wore some type of sheer bathing frock and were as natural and shameless as they were beautiful. My inclination was to avert my eyes, but I did not, rather I drank them in with the rest of the simple grace and authenticity of Inwa. They waved and smiled as we passed.
To be continued…