Alexander the Great

July 2, 2010

The chap with the glasses is Alexander. When I was in Yangon visiting Jennie, I spent my days exploring the city while Jennie worked. On a visit to the reclining Buddha one day I was approached by Alexander. In most countries I suppose you might consider him a tout. He spoke good English and wanted to show me every nook and cranny of the structure and he asked for money at the end of the trip. In Burma however, there is a distinct lack of tourism, and this tends to mean that touts are very few and far between. English is not widely spoken either, so it was actually a real pleasure to spend the day with Alexander and let him share his expertise on all things Buddhist. After our tour of the reclining Buddha he insisted I come with him back to his monastery and I went with him. What he unveiled to me was one of the most serene areas of any city I have ever been. Within about 2 or 3 square miles of semi jungle are hidden endless Buddhist monasteries small and large, rich and poor. The only sounds (depending on the time of day) are occasional Buddhist chants, gongs and bells or just the rain (it rains almost continuously from May to September). On one day I sat listening to one mans indecipherable prayers for a good 10 minutes. He seemed to repeating the same thing over and over so I guess he meant it, but the sound was hypnotic. The only colours it seemed, were the green of the jungle foliage and the terracotta or orange robes of the monks, that either hung from washing lines or adorned the men themselves. Every so often you’d catch a nun dressed in bright pink, made all the more vibrant by the grey skies above.
Alexander knew every single little path in the area and all of it’s hidden treasures. He took me to a monastery in which I assumed he resided. He introduced me to the high monk who offered me tea and Lephet Thoke (a traditional Burmese snack of fermented tea leaf salad -sounds awful but it’s delicious). We exchanged stories about our native lands and it was all very hospitable and generous.
I spent the next three or four days getting to know Alexander and the area. It soon became apparent that Alexander did not live in the monastery. He took me to many other monasteries in which he seemed always to know the high monk intimately, and in which he and I were always treated to tea and food of some sort. I began taking gifts to offer the high monks as thanks, as their generosity knew no bounds. After a day or so, Alexander took me to see where he lived. At the top of one of the many hills in the area was a temple, completely open air. He showed me the canopy under which he slept every night on a stone floor. One of his mates was already there and having a nap.
So Alexander was a homeless tramp. His parents had owned a jewellery business in downtown Rangoon (as it was). In the 60’s the building it was in burnt to the ground and his family lost everything. Now he spent his days looking for the odd tourist to tap up for cash and furiously studied English so he could trade his English lessons for food in the monasteries. In England tramps drink Special Brew.

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