Meet The-An, Flower Girl, and the three lucky pythons:
Daw, my designated driver for the day, takes me to Paleik, a small town some miles south of Mandalay, to visit the famed Hmwe Paya, better known as the Snake Pagoda. It’s named after three giant pythons that call this place their home.
Legend has it that some day around 33 years ago they came meandering out from the close-by forest and like a duck takes to water curled themselves around a golden Buddha statue in the temple’s main hall.
Since that very day the erstwhile modest temple has received a lot more notice, with hordes of revelers arriving to worship, watch the ritually held washing and feeding ceremonial that takes place at 11am daily, and even pose for photographs with the snakes, which are led by attendants to the main Buddha image.
The car comes to a grinding halt in front of the temple. I’m easy prey for the multitudinous souvenir and snack vendors that immediately descend on me. A cute little girl not older than four, probably sent by her parents to peddle the petals she carries on a string, greets me with a torrent of words.
“Mister flower lucky money lucky money flower flower lucky money lucky lucky…”
Chanting her sales pitch she follows me to the entrance, but then swiftly turns around and runs back to the dusty car park where a busload of Italian package tourists has just arrived.
I step through the gate into the temple’s main hall, just in time to witness the beginning of the daily washing and feeding ceremony. Watched by scores of curious eyes a skinny temple attendant approaches the golden Buddha statue the three pythons are curled around. One by one he carefully removes them, handing the first two to other attendants standing behind him, before finally carrying away the last one himself.
Chased by the crowd of bystanders they take the serpents to the adjoining room, where a large basin filled with water, sprinkled with flower petals, already awaits.
I feel someone pulling on my trouser leg. Looking down I see a little boy around nine years old. From his left hand dangles a bunch of pendants. Obviously he’s another salesman at work. Enthusiastically he beams up at me.
“Sir, you like lucky snake? Lucky snake very cool!“
"They sure are!“
He continues: "Sir, have many lucky charms, blessed by holy man and lucky snake! Very cool! Very lucky! Very cheap!”
Who would have guessed! Intrigued I’m watching the temple attendants remove the snakes from the basin and put them down on the tiled floor where half a dozen eager worshippers greet them with soft cotton towels and tenderly start rubbing them dry.
My little friend eagerly shares his wisdom with me: “Sir! Snake very lucky! You very lucky to see lucky snake! You buy lucky charm from lucky snake you get very very lucky!
After each of the pythons is thoroughly rubbed dry the temple’s attendants begin feeding their little darlings, one by one, from little silver mugs filled with what appears to be egg yolk.
Finally they are taken out to porch for a nap on the hot concrete floor.
I walk back out the main gate to get a better look, my little friend following me persistently. He tries a new trick.
“Sir, I have very lucky charm from lucky boy blessed by lucky snake for you! You no pay! I give you! No money!”
With his free hand he takes one of the pendants from the bunch and hands it to me. I eye the delicate yet badly crafted piece of work, an unshaped medal on a string depicting an amateurishly painted pink snake.
“Sorry! I have no use for this!”
I try handing the medal back to the boy.
“Sir! No problem! You keep! My present to you!”
“Sorry, I cannot accept this! I don’t want to take from you without paying, so please take it back!”
“Sir! No problem! You give me present also! Easy!”
Pondering if there’s anything I could give this boy in return for his “present” I can’t really think of anything. Fortunately he has an idea!
“Sir! I like your shoes! Look nice! Look lucky!”
“Excuse me, is it possible at all to set the air conditioning to heat the room please?”
Kin-Kin, my lovely room maid at the Mandalay City Hotel gives me a blank look. Understandably so, as the air temperature outside is in excess of 35 degrees Celsius.
I must be delirious. Perhaps the result of the mix of the broad-spectrum antibiotics, the fever reducing pills, and the rehydration cocktails I have infused myself with.
Dressed in my Gore-Tex trekking pants, my only long-sleeved shirt, and wearing two layers of sports socks I am stretched out flat on my large hotel bed, resisting the urge to cover myself with blankets. I’m freezing.
I’m sick as a dog in a country where decent medical care with very few exceptions is dismal, and the only one to blame for my plight is I. I feel like slapping myself in the face for my own stupidity, but for that I don’t have strength.
Two nights earlier: I’m walking off the light dinner of mutton curry with chapattis I enjoyed amidst a crowd of locals in a crater-in-the-wall restaurant with a pleasant stroll through the strangely obscure streets around my hotel in downtown Mandalay.
Passing a torch lit beer bar at the corner of a street the heavily accented sound of someone cursing in my mother tongue catches my attention. A few feet away I spot two Burmese guys in their late twenties, squatting on miniature stools at a miniature plastic table on the pavement in front of the bar.
They notice the foreigner eavesdropping and beckon me.
It turns out that the younger one of them has a sister married to a fellow countryman of mine, an airline pilot who used to fly in tourists on charter planes in earlier times.
Albeit being a bit drunk, my two new friends are nice enough, and we engage in a light-hearted conversation. They have lots of interesting stories to tell.
“One beer Myanmar for our friend” they holler out.
“No thank you, rather not, I prefer some juice!” I correct their order.
They look at me confused.
“No beer? Okay! You drink juice! One durian juice for my friend!” they holler out again, roaring with laughter.
This time I don’t correct them. I’m not a particular friend of this smelly fruit’s taste, but for humor’s sake I am willing to put up with it.
A few minutes later two more bottles of beer Myanmar for the guys and a large glass of milky Durian juice on the rocks for me arrive at our table.
I’m not sure if drinking this is a good idea! Food hygiene in Myanmar? How do you spell that?
Ah, what the hell, I never got sick from food anywhere but one time back home, and definitely never on my travels.
I drink it.
Stupid stupid me!
One hour later I walk back to my hotel, not without more or less involuntarily having received multiple hugs for goodbye from my newly found friends, their boozy breath still haunting me.
Yet I am oblivious of the fact that the inside of my hotel room will be the only place I’ll get to see in the next few days.
“Sir, you look very very sick!” Kin-Kin says sympathetically.
“What else is new?” I’m thinking.
As she scurries out of the room I fall back into a hazy state of mind and finally drift off again.
The pleasantly cool sensation of a wet cloth on my forehead snaps me out of my unpleasant dreams. Kin-Kin has returned. She carefully wipes my forehead with a wet towel in her hand.
I’m dreaming of Buddhist angels.
© Akulka. All rights reserved by the author.