Our school has an annual charity event- Buddhist Katina Program (giving amenities to monks and donating money to build their Buddhist school, managed by monks). They invite the parents and students for a party after school and ask them to donate during the week and while they’re there for the fun (I believe—this info wasn’t shared with the teachers, though I later heard they raised over 9 thousand dollars with the events). This year, the PTO chose a nearby Buddhist temple to support, called Ma Soe Yin Thiri Temple.
It started early in the week as families’ donations to the monks were showcased on traditional shelves that looked like easels. Then on Friday afternoon, the first part of the party began. Crews started preparing around lunchtime. There were TWO bouncey castles. There were tables and tables of parents offering delicious snacks and treats (52 different kinds!)- baked banana and sticky rice, papaya salad, stir fried noodles, glass noodles, mote hin gar soup (a local breakfast), jelly desserts, milk tea, ice cream.
And out on the back field of the school was the clear highlight of the day—a MASSIVE bamboo pole that was perpendicular to the ground- about a foot of it buried in the dirt to hold it steady. A little contraption was attached to the pole by a pulley. It was the spokes of a bicycle wheel and from the metal wires hung 10 envelopes (which we later found out were full of small bills of the local money- kyats). The pulley allowed the contraption to be moved up in case the game was too easy AND was attached to a greasy rag. When the rag moved up and down the pole, it greased the pole, making it rather difficult to hold onto. There was also a small bandstand with local instruments and 5-7 betel-nut-mouthed men beating out a local melody. One was also a rowdy-mouthed announcer/commentator.
I was quite shocked when I first saw them starting to play this game—CHILDREN were climbing up other CHILDREN to make a human tower to try to stand tall enough to reach the envelopes. Some men stood by and around the kids, cheering them on, helping them strategize, and lifting small(ER) children onto the backs of the friends. We all watched in shock and amazement as the children’s bare feet blindly climbed over bottoms, up backs, yanking shirts, over shoulders, and nearly into mouths during the climb. There was such dedication in the kids’ faces, such strength as they pulled themselves up and stood as tall as they could, reaching. There was also pure agony and pain in the faces of the lower base kids. We all laughed, wide eyed unable to look away from the struggle. Any time doubt came to the spectators, the men near the tower of bodies would throw another small child into the mix. Multiple kids would be climbing the same tower, and the lower ones, just trying to stay up right. There were a couple of times that the second child up lost their control and wound up with legs over the shoulders of the first child on the ground, torso spread onto the arms of the accomplice men as the other children climbed each other on top of the second from the bottom’s now horizontal shoulders. How this was seen as a kids’ game, I may never understand! I watched for well over an hour, absolutely mesmerized as the children schemed and attempted the battle. A couple of groups of adults tried, but mostly it was the elementary students. When the 10th envelope was finally captured, the game was over. Then the professionals stepped in and climbed the slick pole with ice cream in hand or slid down it upside down. After seeing how difficult to conquer the pole was for the children, we were all quite impressed.
In the morning the next day, they had another ceremony at the temple that was receiving the donation. 67 monks live there. We put on our formal longyis (local dress) and headed there on motorbike. There was a religious ceremony in the main prayer hall. The PTO presented the head monk of the monastery with the money and amenity donations for the monks. Then the lead monk gave a Buddhist message and a blessing with water drips. So I’m told. We were directed instead to the food tables, which was fine. Plastic chairs and folding tables were arranged in the lower story of a building under construction. We were led to a table by one of the friendly PTO dads. Then we received a quick service- plates and plates of delicious local FOOD. The best by far was the pork, but there was also chicken, fish, shrimp paste, a little green salad, broad beans, soup, and a heaping spoonful of rice for each of us. Once we finished the main course, we moved to the dessert table—coconut jelly, condensed milk desserts with nuts, bananas, oranges, and more! One of the parents from my class came over to say his boys were at home playing, which I think was his way of saying hello.
We’d noticed none of the local co-lead teachers came. Later I heard there was a rumor that this temple is somehow related to the local Mandalay anti-Muslim extremist monk. Had I known that, I might not have gone either! But it’s hard to understand all of the nuances of the information we receive. You never quite know…