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Westerner Behind the Wheel

By Oliver Hargreave 18 September 2020

5: A Sea of Impressions

The Ogres of Bilu Kyun

Bilu Island lies directly opposite the waterfront in Mon State’s Mawlamyine. In ancient times the island was reputed to have fierce peoples who sharpened their teeth and were likened to ogres. Apparently, this association is preserved in the meaning of its Mon name.

Joined to the mainland by a suspension bridge in 2017, Bilugyun encourages a slow pace on narrow roads through a gentle landscape of villages, rice fields, palms and plantations.

The island was long known for its makers of wood-framed slates once used by schoolchildren. Who would still want such a product? I linked my phone to an online article in The Irrawaddy and showed it to villagers. After driving back and forth, I was finally directed to Mudu Village, where the two sole remaining makers still turned slates out by the hundreds.

A large concrete image of a wooden pipe amid a traffic junction in Ywalut made the village of woodcarvers easier to find, but not where their houses and workshops were located in the village itself. Taking a guide would have helped me find out so much more about the island and its peoples.

Crossing the bridge back to the mainland with a slate, a few small wooden souvenirs and pictures on a memory card, I was sure of one thing: the islanders did not look like ogres.

The Win Saen Taw Ya reclining image / Oliver Hargreave

Concrete and steel

To attempt to drive in daylight more than 250 km and visit places along the way in Myanmar is ambitious. Unfortunately, the nearest sandy beach is about 250 km from Yangon, but Setse Beach is only 80 km on good roads from Mawlamyine, and there are places to visit on the way.

The national passion for Buddha images is taken to its colossal extreme at the Win Sein Taw Ya south of Mawlamyine. At 180 meters in length and 30 meters in height, the reclining image is the largest of its kind. To enter, visitors walk across a bridge and up through a series of chambers illustrating the Buddha’s life and teaching.

But it was the exposed trellis of concrete beams of a second, equally large but incomplete reclining Buddha image that drew my attention despite the presence of the preserved body of Win Sein Taw Ya Sayadaw reposing in a glass coffin in the Thawara Nipan Hall nearby. Concrete, when correctly mixed, reaches its maximum hardness after 100 years.

I bypassed Mudon on the way south to Thanbyuzayat. This is where the so-called death railway built by allied prisoners of war during World War II joined the old Mawlamyine–Ye line. A small museum at the site of the former junction sadly contained not much.

Apart from a possible lack of funding, why did the museum so lack content? Was it that the authorities cared little about the fate of prisoners who represented a despised former colonial master? Did a railway built by the Japanese have relevance to nationalist history, especially after decades of reporting in foreign media had shown that Myanmar’s military were no strangers to the use of brutality and forced labor?

After watching a video in the museum, visitors have little to do but wander outside to an old steam engine and take selfies. There is no reason to climb over a fence and walk down the tracks to where the death line diverges and disappears into bush.

One of several war graves maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to commemorate the prisoners who died building the railway is a short distance from the town center on the road west to Kyaikkami. There, a few young people sat in the shade and relaxed in that tidy, tranquil space. Around them, rows of plaques with the names of victims lay in silent testimony.

Bilu islanders playing the universal game / Oliver Hargreave

Oh for a beach!

The road west from Thanbyuzayat goes to a junction where you can either turn north for Kyaikkami or south for Setse.

Called Amherst by the British, the small town of Kyaikkami was where the Judson Baptist mission began. The remains of Ann Hasseltine Judson, who died of smallpox in 1826, lie in the graveyard of the town’s (Amherst) Baptist Church.

From two zedis on the nearby point, the ornate Kyaikkami Yele pagoda looked low in seawater that had partially submerged nearby mangroves. In the pagoda itself, the forecourt was awash; a man vigorously swept against wavelets spreading across its marble tiles.

Women had to use a separate entrance to a platform behind where men could view the sacred images. Was this for fear that their feminine forms would distract males as they beheld the shiny array of devotees around the Buddha, who sits enthroned above them beneath the shelter of an imposing golden Naga?

How long would this shrine’s noble assemblage withstand rising seas? With scientists warning that the heat equivalent of five Hiroshima-sized nuclear explosions is being added to the oceans every second, could it be long before a severe storm in the Gulf of Martaban sweeps the Naga into his watery kingdom?

And what about my own contribution to the rising tide of destruction? I had accepted pieces of silver to encourage folks to tour by car. Wasn’t this helping create megatons more carbon than all the Sayadaw’s concrete?

The wide stretch of fine brown sand and the shallow water at Setse Beach provided temporary relief from this disquieting thought. Families romped in the surf. At least one local restaurant in a grove of casuarina trees at the back of the beach had an English menu. There were no souvenir shops. The promise of a break by the beach and a relaxing night in a hotel was enticing, but I drove back to Mawlamyine.

Oliver Hargreave created “WorldClass Drives in Myanmar” for Yomacarshare.com. The opinions expressed in this article are not those of Yomacarshare.

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