|Swarmed by girls at the pagoda|
One things I’ve noticed about temples here is that they seem far less sacred than in Thailand, with a more human atmosphere I’ve already noted. It’s not just the neon and blinking Christmas lights. In Thailand, the temples are crowded by tourists and Thais come to have fortunes read or to earn merit by offering money or prayer. Here, people just lounge about. I see children playing at dusk in the stupa pavilions. People gather in the shade of Buddha to chat and socialize. The pagodas seem less held apart than the equivalent Thai wat, more of a common ground people use for gathering.
So I went in the sanctuary and sat and tried to feel the peace that generally gathers in the corners of these places. Whatever your faith, you can feel the intense devotion of the people that have prayed there, their focused earnestness. But when I turned around I was surrounded by dozens of children, wanting to take photographs of me and with me, and making fun of me, I think, my size and my hairy legs. When I turned my back to them I’d hear evil cackling laughter and then when I faced them it’d stop.
But I was trapped there, at the entrance, so when they took photographs of me I whipped out my camera, too, thinking I’d beat them at their own game, or at least get some good pictures from it. One girl especially, clearly a mean girl, a ringleader, her face made up pale, kept circling around for a second and third picture, and finally I had to escape. I felt like Angelina Jolie. How odd it is to be swarmed by paparazzi, or even friendly fans, when all I wanted was peace and serenity!
Several of the girls, the ones I liked the least, wrapped their arms all the way around my waist. Another bizarre invasion of my personal space, something that also seems to be a much higher priority in Thailand. I even touched a priest, for the first time ever. They’re not supposed to touch women at all, not even their own mothers. I thought the stigma must be less here, somehow, but have since been disabused of that notion.
He stood beside me for a picture too, with his betel nut-stained mouth, and our arms grazed each other. I shouldn’t have been surprised—he was the monk hanging out with schoolgirls, after all. But now one of us is probably going to hell.
Later, I went to the beach, to dip in my toes and eat fresh grilled oysters and fried shrimp, and I found out that all the people hanging out at the temple were Mon. I thought they were a school group, because they were in uniform, but the red longyi and white shirt marks them as Mon, a tribal group unique to southern Burma. At the beach, tuk-tuks and sohngtaeous full of them pulled up, all stuffed with Mon in the same garb, blaring Psy and American hip hop from giant speakers set up in flatbed trucks.
No wonder they were so excited to see an outsider. It’s one of their special Buddha days, a pagoda day, arranged by the lunar calendar, and even my Burmese motorcycle driver (a quarter Mon, on his father’s side) was shocked by their quantity.
They have their own flag—a majestic golden gamlang duck on a field of red. Their own language, closer to Thai. They use Burmese script, but the reading of it is unintelligible to Burmese speakers. Even their own uniform. They’re allowed to wear whatever they want at home, my guide tells me. But when they go out they’re meant to wear the white and red, to mark them as Mon.
On the drive back to the guesthouse, as we drive past the Mon pagoda in the Mon town, I see a banner for the First Annual Mon Gathering, a sort of Mon family reunion. No wonder there were so many.
As I see them all gathered, my main feeling is envy. What must it feel like to belong so thoroughly, to so completely know your place in the world? I’m an alien here, for sure. Even in Thailand, my heart’s home, I don’t belong and never will. In the States, although I look like I belong, if you don’t scrutinize my clothes too closely, I don’t. Not in Maine, not in Michigan, not in Massachusetts, not in Tennessee, not in Illinois.
According to my Myanmar phrasebook, Mon scribes were brought to Bagan after the sack of their capital by the Burmese king in 1057. Burmese script is really Mon, adapted to the Burmese language. These people know their place in the world. They know exactly where they fit. Their fathers and grandfathers and children and children’s children.
As I walked past the hordes of Mon, I caught the eye of an older monk dressed differently from his cousins, in his priestly magenta robes. His tattoo, though, was unmistakable—the Mon bird on his upper arm. He met my eye and didn’t smile. He could tell, I think. He’d spotted me. An imposter.