To the Bespectacled Buddha with Jean-Claude Van Damme

PYAY (aka Prome) was probably most famous as the site of the capital of the Pyu kingdom of around 1500 years ago, and the resulting ruins.

It was 160 miles or so from Rangoon. And what miles they were. The on-board film was Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer, on VCD (Video Compact Disc), a lower-quality, less reliable version of a DVD. The VCD kept cutting out, which made the young monk on the front seat very agitated.

I might not have understood Burmese, but it was pretty clear that he was demanding the film be put back on pronto, yet he didn’t protest when the ‘steward’ turned it off for no apparent reason well before we reached Pyay. I wasn’t too happy, though: I never did find out whether Jean-Claude gave Tong Po the thrashing he deserved.

There were some impressively massive Pyu ruins scattered in the countryside around Pyay, such as zedi that were, what, 10, 15 times taller than a human standing at their feet. Basically, though, once you had got up close to one and marvelled at the way that something so huge was made from tiny bricks, you didn’t have to get so near to the others, so you could see the rest from a trishaw in less than a couple of hours.

Less simple to get to was what I had mainly gone to Pyay to see: the “Bespectacled Buddha” at Shwedaung Pagoda, a few miles away. The Buddha was pretty big, seated, and (surprise, surprise) wore glasses. This might not be much of a deal for some, but for a person who had worn glasses since she was seven years old, it was un-missable.

I took the public bus. No one seemed able to tell me where to get off, despite my frantic gesticulations of praying and touching my glasses. Then one young man, who must have spent most of the journey trying to find the correct English, got off the bus. “Follow me,” he told me, so I did.

We ended up going to his house, where he collected a pushbike with a pillion seat at the back; clearly, he was going to take me to the pagoda. What you have to bear in mind is that it was virtually unknown for a Burmese woman to travel anywhere on her own, even to the market. Even a Western woman on her own was something of a curiosity, and people went out of their way to look after her.

I managed to persuade the young man I would be OK walking – Shock! On my own!! – if he pointed me in the right direction. As I left the village I passed an archetypal grass shack on stilts, from which there blared some very loud, very rocky music. Yes, Burmese people might not have had much of a government, but they did have rock music (as opposed to the cheesy Euro disco carnage so common in Thailand).

Bespectacled Buddha, Shwedaung paya, near Pyay

Bespectacled Buddha, Shwedaung paya, near Pyay

When I got to the pagoda, I was impressed to see that the Buddha’s spectacles were of the round, gold-rimmed type I wore for many years. The first pair was placed there about 200 years ago, by a local chief who hoped the gimmick would attract more worshippers to the pagoda. I don’t know whether it worked, but it certainly attracted an English Colonial officer stationed in Prome, whose wife was (apparently) cured of eye trouble after he visited the pagoda.

It didn’t seem to do anything for me, though – I still needed my glasses.

From Burmese Daze – the book. Available directly from me (£6, including p&p in the UK); or from Lulu, Amazon, or to order from your local independent bookshop or via Hive. E-book available from Smashwords.

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