“When I was 7,” admitted Win, as we stood beside a smaller golden rock representing the spirit’s boat, “I pushed the rock and felt it move.” Fortunately, Buddha’s hair has the strength of Super Glue and the ability to foil a child’s antics.
Despite the sacred nature of Golden Rock, the surrounding scene sizzled like a state fair. On a vast concrete terrace, visitors sprawled on blankets eating sticky rice and curry purchased from a row of food stands. Children chased electric toys and one another. Masseurs rubbed the knotted muscles of pilgrims, their hands slick with a blend of mountain goat oil and herbs stored in whiskey bottles.
Families snapped photos of each other and of me, considered a lucky charm and a novelty because of my Western physique. (I learned of my uniqueness at Shwemawdaw Temple in Bago, when a group from the Karen tribe requested a group portrait with me. I’m also in the photo album of members of the Mon race, including a young man who giggled and blushed when I flung my arm around his shoulder.)
Closer to the rock itself, the pageantry grew more solemn and spiritual. The air turned thick with burning incense, the curling smoke smudging the dark outlines of praying Buddhists. Bodies rose and fell, hands clasped, foreheads touching the ground.
The magnitude of the moment was intense. Even the sight of Golden Rock swaddled in bamboo matting couldn’t shake the worshipers’ veneration. The light of Buddha can shine through any renovation project.
On the beach
I felt so guilty.
No, not for that reason. My conscience was all red in the face because I was lounging on Ngapali Beach and not racing around the temples of the ancient city of Bagan or the floating villages of Inle Lake. I was acting like an irresponsible sightseer. But — excuse me, may I have another mai tai? — I got over it.
In my defense, my time on the two-mile strand in Rakhine state, on the west coast, was not completely self-indulgent. It was only 99 percent fluff.
In pursuit of my 1 percent of dutiful tourism, I left the pampered side of the beach — the one salted with resort chaise longues and peppered with restaurant chalkboards touting drink specials and fresh seafood — for the industrious side.
In the dimming afternoon sun, young Burmese men heaved nets onto bobbing boats, preparing for an evening run. Mothers tended to children, who often broke free to push a shell into the palm of a passerby. An older child wrote “my name is” in English, using his finger as a pencil and the sand as paper. He beamed at the American.
To pull out the old trope: Ngapali is Thailand’s Phuket 30 years ago. At this early stage of development, village bungalows outnumber hotels. Bikes, tuk-tuks and oxcarts dominate the main road, a single thread paralleling the beach. Silvery fish still sun-dry on blue tarps, as they had the day before and last year and a decade ago.
I cruised around on a rickety bike like Mister Rogers, waving to the neighbors. I stopped in at Ngapali Art Gallery, where the artist invited me into his studio. He handed me a bottle of water and directed me to the couch, across from a portrait of a Frenchman.
We talked about Kandinsky and metaphysics, and he shared his struggles as a Muslim and a minority in Burma. As the sky started to darken, he escorted me to my bike. He continued to talk, lamenting the cronyism that still pervades the government and the uncertainty that still hangs over the country. We shook hands, a strong shake between friends, and I pedaled off.
The next morning, I had to fly back to Rangoon, but I had one unresolved issue rattling around in my brain. After breakfast, I walked down to the shore, stuck a toe in the clear water and jumped into the Bay of Bengal.
Now, I had no regrets.