The first weekend of school, back in January, all of the students (except for a small handful that had gone home for the weekend) went on a trip to Mt. Zwekabin. Its peak stands just over 700 meters high with a monastery and pagoda at the top. Climbing it is a popular activity for both foreign and local visitors.
Approaching the bottom, the road passes through a field of buddhas, and after the parking lot at the base of the mountain, the uneven stairs begin their upward journey. We started somewhat early to beat the heat and after about an hour and a half reached the top. The views were amazing and there were monks (and monkeys) everywhere!
Once we had all made it back to the bottom we headed to nearby Kyauk Ka Lat (pronounced chauk ka lat – a lot like chocolate) Pagoda. Quite picturesque, but a very short visit, it sits in the middle of a man-made lake. (Michelle and I returned here while her mom was visiting, to find that part of the lake was drained while work was being down. It was not quite as picturesque without the water!)
Next to the pagoda is a Buddhist monastery that serves free vegetarian lunches. The food was quite good and we all left with full bellies. While we ate, I took the chance to ask the school manager about these free lunches.
The Karen state (where Hpa An is located) is the home of the KNU (Karen National Union) which has been called the world’s longest standing resistance. Due to the fighting and violence that has resulted, there are a lot of people that have had to leave their homes, a large number of IDP (Internally Displaced Persons). Due to there being so many people that had lost their property, homes, and livelihoods the monk at this monastery apparently began serving lunches to help them out. This became something of a tradition and continues today. The school manager explained all of this to me, but then quietly added that he was not sure that the Buddhist monastery is completely fair. I asked him what he meant by that and he told me that they discriminate against Muslims. I asked him how he knew this and he told me that there was a sign stating that Muslims were not allowed to set up businesses there. This was in an area full of small stands selling everything from water to snacks to clothes. I thought of the recent reports of violence in the Rokhine state and remembered that Myanmar still has some serious reform work to do.
loaded in the 3-wheeler
At the end of the day we were headed along the highway back to school, when the 3-wheeler begin to veer off the road. Through some mechanical problem of the 3-wheeler (we later learned that it was constantly beset with mechanical problems), the driver had lost control. The 11 of us in the back felt ourselves leave the road and crash through a barbed wire fence. Fortunately, the only injuries were a few very small cuts from where the barbed wire had whipped past the driver, nothing worse. The fence belonged to a collection of about 8 or 10 small thatched bamboo huts (2 of which we very narrowly missed) that comprised a tiny community that had sprung up around a small gravel mining operation that was digging out the side of the adjacent karst peak. What amazed Michelle and I most (beyond the fact that no one had been injured!) was that the people that emerged from the huts were in no way angry or upset. As they gathered around our attempt to exctricate the 3-wheeler from the tangle of barbed wire and concrete fence posts they were curious and laughing. Even more amazing was that as soon as our students had arranged motorbike rides to ferry michelle and I back to the school, they all returned with tools to begin repairing the fence! We passed by the same spot about a week later and the fence looked good as new thanks to their hard work.
the hut we just missed hitting
All’s well that ends well!