A highway, a monk and a full moon

One of the most important events in the Buddhist calendar leaves a bus traveller with time to count lots of hats.


AS I WAITED for the bus at dawn with two Frontier colleagues in Lashio, northern Shan State, our host warned that the 174-kilometre journey to the Chinese border might take some time. “Today is the Full Moon of Waso,” he said. Not knowing at the time that only lunatics travel on the Full Moon of Waso, we gamely bade him goodbye.

The bus corkscrewed into the mountains, and at 9am we hit traffic. Curiously, everyone else on the road seemed prepared; lorries flung open their rear doors to reveal women and children who sprang into action, assembling and distributing snacks.

As a crowd formed around the bus, we opened the windows and a dozen hands reached inside to pass us gifts of sticky rice in banana leaves, pickled tea-leaves, slices of unripe mango, falooda and shwe yin aye, cartons of soybean milk and cups of lemonade.

By midday the bus was littered with greasy plastic bags. The sun was blazing and we had moved just 100 metres. Outside, the snack vendors dispersed and a procession of finely dressed pedestrians advanced: the women in coloured silk and high-heels and the men in Shan baun-bi.

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At first I gawped and took photographs. Then, with nothing else to do, I counted them as they passed. At 1,000 I gave up and counted their tattoos, then their hats (there were Pa-O hats, cowboy hats, Shan hats fixed with mirrors, hats that were really bunches of leaves, and militia hats, worn by men who also carried guns).

My colleague went off to make enquiries and returned two hours later with valuable information about the hold-up: There was a hti daw tin pwe, or “putting on the royal umbrella festival”, a mile or two ahead, he said.

The Kachin Defence Army, a Tatmadaw-aligned militia, had arranged the festival and the guest of honour was a monk called the Maing Hpone Sayadaw. This monk had recently predicted that the 12 young footballers trapped in the Tham Luang caves in Thailand would be found alive, which had catapulted him into superstardom. Tens of thousands of people had come to see him.

At 5pm we walked a mile along the road, to where the column of pilgrims was snaking up a hill. There, we realised our journey was indefinitely on hold: the traffic heading north was using all four lanes of the motorway, as was the traffic heading south. Worse, the drivers had parked and disappeared.

We ducked into a roadside café, whose shelves were almost empty. There were a couple of dusty bottles of Grand Royal whisky and we nabbed the last two cans of coke. It was getting dark and we panicked as we realised we would have to spend the night on the road. Did we have enough food? What about water? Should we walk to the nearest village? Would we die here?

Back on the bus, the other passengers were in a jovial mood. The driver was playing Myanmar-language covers of Bon Jovi songs and telling a story about another long bus journey, which had everyone roaring with laughter. Lan peiq deh, he shouted periodically. “The road is blocked”.

At 10pm, a group of monks began to direct the traffic. Our bus edged forward, then picked up speed. We cheered, until suddenly we were sliding backwards and there was the stench of burning rubber and we leapt out, fearing for our lives. Luckily, perhaps because we had dedicated the entire day to celebrating the anniversary of the Buddha’s conception, the bus rolled to a stop and in half an hour we had pushed it back onto the road.

It was midnight when we reached the festival gates, which were decorated with photographs of the Maing Hpone Sayadaw, serene against a bucolic backdrop. Then, a tollgate, so we could pay for the pleasure of having spent 18 hours in traffic and finally, at last, we were free.

The road was clear and in the light of the Full Moon of Waso we could see the rolling Shan mountains. “Come back foreigners,” the driver shouted, to the roar of a Bon Jovi chorus. “I invite you, come back and enjoy the festival next year.”

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