To the Bespectacled Buddha with Jean-Claude Van Damme

Pyay is probably most famous as the site of the capital of the Pyu kingdom of around 1500 years ago, and the resulting ruins.

It’s around 160 miles 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 understand Burmese, but it was pretty clear that he was demanding the film put back on, pronto, yet he didn’t protest when the ‘steward’ turned the film off for no reason well before we reached Pyay. I wasn’t too happy, though: I never did get to find out whether Jean-Claude gave Tong Po the thrashing he deserved.

The Pyi ruins, a few impressively huge zedi (stupas), were easily checked out in a three-hour trishaw ride. Here’s one of them, the Payagyi stupa:

Less easy to see, however, was the “Bespectacled Buddha” at Shwedaung Pagoda, a few miles out of Pyay. The Buddha is pretty big, seated, and (surprise, surprise) wears glasses. This might not be much of a deal for some, but for a person who has 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’s virtually unknown for a Burmese woman to travel anywhere on her own, even to the market. Even a Western woman on her own is something of a curiosity, and people go 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 much of a government, but they do have rock music (as opposed to the cheesy Euro disco carnage you get everywhere in Thailand).

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 Pyay (then called 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 need my glasses.

Bespectacled Buddha, Shwedaung paya, near Pyay

Bespectacled Buddha, Shwedaung paya, near Pyay

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