The Mahamuni Paya is a vast complex just south of Mandalay. It has a plethora of entrances, passages, courtyards, pagodas, buildings and shrines all connected by tiled walkways lined with stalls. It thronged with worshippers, many kneeling before a much-venerated Buddha image a mammoth, ancient golden statue cast in bronze around the first century AD. The thirteen-foot high statue had been plastered with gold leaves for so long that it was now completely covered in gold to a depth of six inches. Only by men though. No women are allowed to touch it.
In a nearby courtyard one small pagoda housed six bronze Khmer figures that had been brought (stolen) from Angkor Wat. Everywhere I went there were crowds of people. I reflected that you wouldn’t find this amount of devotees at nine am on a Monday in any Western cathedral.
Now and then men sat at tables collecting one thousand kyats as a camera fee. I did not use my camera; instead I gave my one thousand to a young man with a withered leg who hobbled about on a crutch.
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Then I tried to find my way back to where my shoes and taxi waited. I went down several of the long walkways, streaming sweat in the humid airlessness, but none of them ended in the sight of my shoes. After a while I began to get desperate, thinking that I could be in there all day. I grabbed a man in a dark-green uniform, possibly a soldier, and although he didn’t have any English he led me to someone who did, one of the fee collectors. This man took me in tow and trundled me around looking for places I might remember. But it all looked the same to me. He exhibited me to people, and seemed to be asking if they had seen me before. Finally we came to a table of fee collectors who said that they had how could they forget me, the weird foreigner? and pointed in the direction I had come from.
Just then, my driver appeared. He had been searching for me, realising I had been missing for too long. I shook my guide’s hand fervently in gratitude for my deliverance. I really wanted to kiss him, but I controlled myself. He was probably saying, ‘ Silly senile old bat’.
Back on our tour the cheerful gnome asked if I wanted to see the monkeys fed. I said yes, I loved monkeys. But this was another misinterpretation. It was not monkeys I was taken to see being fed, but monks.