Madison Morrison’s Web / Sentence of the Gods / Life / Myanmar 2004

Myanmar 2004

Madison Morrison

Rangoon Retrospective

“Welcome to Myanmar.” Telephone Directory & Official Yellow Pages. “2004.” Driving Mr. Albert tells the true story of pathologist Thomas Harvey. “Welcome to Café Blues.” Who in 1955 performed the autopsy of Albert Einstein. “Snacks · Coffee.” Myanma Posts and Telecommunications. After finishing his task. “Maharbandoola Garden Street.” Harvey irreverently took Einstein’s brain home. “Kyauktada Township, Yangon. Where he kept it floating in a plastic container for the next 40 years. “Espresso Macchiato.” Olympia, Ibico, Gandamar Office Machines.


From time to time Harvey doled out small slices of the brain to scientists and pseudoscientists all over the world. Chicken salad, Fried chicken with pineapple, Fried chicken with baby corn. “Yangon, the Capital and the Garden City of Asia.” Who probed the tissue for clues to Einstein’s genius. Super Power. But when Harvey reached his 80s. Tokyo Pipe. He placed what was left of the brain. May Yu Machine Products. In the trunk of his Buick Skylark. Cheetah, Yupa Dagon. And embarked on a cross-country road trip to return it to the physicist’s granddaughter.


Places of Interest in Yangon:” Among the respected scientists. “City Hall.” Who examined sections of the prized brain. “The Customs House.” Was Marion C. Diamond. “Other Places of Interest:” From the University of California at Berkeley. “Sule Pagoda, The National Museum, People’s Square.” She found nothing unusual about the number or size of its neurons. Panda Hotel, Dolphin, Eva Construction Company. However, in the association cortex. Myanmar Yes, Carton Box, Supreme Water Doctor. Responsible for high-level cognition. Super Mega Engineers.


She did discover a surprisingly large number of nonneuronal cells known as glia. “A Padaung woman with brass rings about her neck.” A much greater concentration than we find in the average Albert’s head. New Golden Bamboo, Sigma Elevator, Galaxy Trading. An odd curiosity? “Panoramic view of Bagan with Ananda Temple.” Perhaps not. Fresh Air Conditioners. For a growing body of evidence. “Villagers crossing a suspension bridge.” Suggests that glia cells play. Hong Pang Wire and Cable. A far more important role than historically presumed.


“The moat and walls of Mandalay Palace.” For decades physiologists focused on neurons as the brain’s prime communicators. ABC Sunrise, Lobster Paint, Peninsula Enterprises. Even though glia outnumber nerve cells nine to one. “Balloon Festival.” They were thought to play only a maintenance role: Q & Q Watch and Clock, Plastic Manufacturing, Multilac Worldwide Paint. Bringing nutrients from blood vessels to the neurons, maintaining a balance of ions in the brain, warding off pathogens that evade the immune system. “A colorful market at Inle Lake.”


Propped up by glia, neurons were free to communicate across tiny contact points called synapses. “A scene of Myama village life, in which water is being fetched from the stream in a bullock cart.” And thereby establish a web of connections that allow us to think. Asia Point Bowling Centre. To remember. Ben Hur Trading. And to jump for joy. Espace à Venir Executive Serviced Apartment. “Idyllic Ngapali Beach on the Rakhine Coast.” Now such a long-held model of brain function could change dramatically. Hero Is For You! If new findings about glia pan out.


Recently. Double Espresso. Sensitive imaging tests. Fried Pork Ribs. Have shown that neurons and glia. Avocado Milkshake. Engage in a dialogue. Café Americano. From embryonic development. Hot and Sour Eel. Through old age. Papaya, Banana and Strawberry Milkshakes. Simply put, glia influence the formation of synapses. Fried Minced Pork Balls. And help to determine which neural connections. Fried squid in oyster sauce. Get stronger or weaker over time. Alcohol Strong Coffee. Such changes are essential to learning and long-term memory.


Shark Zone (Star Movies). Research has shown. Extreme Action (Jackie Chan). That glia also communicate among themselves. Dragonfly. In a network. Out of Africa. Separate but parallel to. (Robert Redford.) The neural network. Alien vs. Predator. And this influences how the brain performs. Spiderman 2. In other words, more than half the brain has gone largely unexplored. Shanghai Nights. “For Tom & Sara it was the perfect honeymoon . . .” Neuroscientists have concluded that glia may contain a trove of information about how the mind works. “ . . . until it began.”

Yangon-Pyay Maya

The mental picture most people have of our nervous system. Our trip to Pyay, situated at a sharp bend of the Ayeyarwady River. Resembles a tangle of wires connecting neurons. Some five hours by bus from Yangon. Each neuron has a long, outstretched branch — an axon — that carries electrical signals to buds at its end. Begins with a long taxi trip to the intercity station. Each bud emits neurotransmitters — chemical messenger molecules — across a short synaptic gap. The five-hour bus trip is uneventful, broken only for lunch at an open-air restaurant. To a twig-like receptor, called a dendrite, located on an adjacent neuron. The seats are nearly full, half with men, in their longyis, half with women, many dressed in their finery. But packed around the neurons and axons. On the sunscreen, in front of driver, ticket taker and his assistant. Is a diverse population of glial cells. Are two symmetrical images of Buddhist stupas, themselves symmetrical. By the time of Einstein’s death, neuroscientists suspected that glial cells contributed to information processing. Along with images of the Avalokiteshvara. But convincing evidence eluded them. And of nearby shrines. Accordingly, they eventually demoted glia. Between the Buddhas a mirror reflects our driver. For a long time research on these cells. Another, above his head, reflects him again from another angle. Slid into the backwaters of science.

Neuroscientists failed to detect signaling among glia, partly because they were using insufficient analytical technology but primarily because they were looking in the wrong place. They had assumed that if glia could chatter they would use the same electrical mode of communication found in neurons, generating impulses called action potentials that would ultimately cause the cells to release neurotransmitters across synapses, thereby igniting more impulses in other neurons. Investigators did discover that glia had many of the same voltage-sensitive ion channels that generate electrical signals in axons, but they surmised that these channels merely allowed glia to sense indirectly the level of activity in adjacent neurons. They found that glial cells lacked the membrane properties required to propagate their own action potentials. What they missed, and what advanced imaging techniques have now revealed, is that glia rely on chemical instead of electrical signals to convey messages.

Throughout our voyage there is never a moment for meditation, for contemplation of the passing idyll. Instead the bus company has arranged for the showing of two videos, the first a domestic soap opera full of violent passion, played by a small cast of Burmese actors, the second, an American film, set in Hong Kong during the handover, full of explosive special effects. The interval between the films is occupied with popular Burmese songs, with announcements of our arrival at various destinations, over an echo-enhanced microphone. The bus personnel smoke cigarettes, as do passengers, who often await the moment that they have mounted the step of the bus to light up. Only a few smaller panes above the bus’s large window panels allow any smoke to escape. An older woman fans herself to divert the unwanted fumes. Seated next to author, another woman has stationed an umbrella in her plastic shopping basket with its end pointed toward him, so that every time she moves, as he tries to take a nap, her umbrella nudges and awakens him.

Valuable insights into how glia detect neuronal activity emerged by the mid-1990s, after neuroscientists established that glia had a variety of receptors on their membranes that could respond to a range of chemicals, including, in some cases, neurotransmitters. This discovery suggested that glia might communicate by using chemical signals that neurons did not recognize and at times might react directly to neurotransmitters emitted by neurons.

Though idyllic, the landscape is hard to see, for two continuous rows of trees have been planted on either side of the narrow road that stretches for 288 kilometers. As the rain continues to fall intermittently, we glimpse rice paddies lacking in perspective, an occasional pagoda surrounded by a moat. Water buffalo vie with mechanized tillers, but the planting season is long past, as the crop lushly develops in flooded fields that reflect a uniformly grey, dour sky. Droplets splash onto us through the open windows.

To prove such assertions. Between the two symmetrically Buddhist monuments on the bus’s windscreen. Scientists first had to show that glia actually do “listen in” on neuronal communication. Is a third image, partly hidden by the first of the mirrors. And take action based on what they “hear.” It reads as pink, but it represents another golden stupa. Earlier work indicated that an influx of calcium into glial cells could be a sign that they had been stimulated. As the film that is set in Hong Kong — starring a stylishly leggy American black girl, who dominates her awkward white male companions — comes to a close. Based on that notion, investigators devised a laboratory method called calcium imaging. A green explosion destroys the upper decks of a freighter in Causeway Bay. To see whether glial cells known as terminal Schwann cells — which surround synapses where nerves meet muscle cells — were sensitive to neuronal signals emitted at these junctions. In the film’s dialogue the point is made that the firecrackers set off in celebration of the political transition may serve to cover the devastation being wreaked by the CIA on its adversaries. The method confirmed that Schwann cells did respond to synaptic firing. The clumsy Burmese film, followed attentively by the audience, consists of unimaginative camera work and a great deal of argument, fisticuffs and gunplay.

But were glia limited only to eavesdropping on neuronal activity, by scavenging traces of neurotransmitter leaking from a synapse? More general-function Schwann cells also surround axons along nerves of the whole body, not just at synapses, and oligodendrocyte glial cells wrap around axons in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). At my National Institutes of Health lab we wanted to know if glia could monitor neural activity anywhere as it flowed through axons in neural circuits. If so, how was that communication mediated? More importantly, how exactly would glia be affected by what they heard?

Aung San Traffic Circle

To find answers, we cultured sensory neurons. An heroic, gilded, fully uniformed Aung San. (Dorsal root ganglion.) Sits astride a gilded horse. From mice. In the town’s central traffic circle. In special lab dishes equipped with electrodes that would enable us to trigger action potentials in the axons. Walled to the height of a foot or so, the barrier’s surface is painted red with false rows of bricks, their mortar depicted in white paint. We added Schwann cells to some cultures. About the circle, cast high above on modern metal stanchions. And oligodendrocytes to others. Are billboards in gaudy colors.


Three dolphins leap together, exceeding the height of the first billboard. We needed to tap into the activity of the axons and the glia. Which advertises something packaged in cans designated “Whale.” To determine if the latter were detecting the axon messages. The dolphins have crested a wave and surmounted it. We used calcium imaging to record visually what the cells were doing. The next billboard, all in Burmese, maroon except for the blue waters of the river and white property lines, would seem to be advertising expensive real estate. Introducing dye that fluoresces if it binds to calcium ions.


Much higher above loom three penguins standing atop a snowdrift. When an axon fires, voltage-sensitive ion channels in the neuron’s membrane open, allowing calcium ions to enter. Above them in turn, against a mountainous background, read the quoted words: We would therefore expect to see the firing as a flash of green fluorescence lighting up the entire neuron from the inside. “‘Drink Quench & Stay Cool.’” As the concentration of calcium rose in a cell, the fluorescence would get brighter. Beneath the words are depicted two lemons, in front of which a spurting bottle of Quench.


The intensity could be measured by a photomultiplier tube. To the left an even higher ad. Images of the glowing cells could be digitized and displayed in pseudocolor. Admonishes us to “Live the Tiger life.” Or on a real time monitor. The “Tiger” in question indicated by a can of beer. Looking like the green radar images of rainstorms shown on weather reports. Adjacent to Aung San, from this perspective, is a peasant woman, who advertises “Gold Roast Coffee Mix.” If glial cells heard the neuronal signals by taking up calcium from their surroundings, they would light up as well, only later.


Staring at a computer monitor in a darkened room. We have relocated from a major urban center. My NIH colleague. To a tiny provincial center. Beth Stevens and I knew that after months of preparation our hypothesis was about to be put to the test. The pace of life has appropriately slowed. With the flick of a switch. The café’s songs are in Burmese, their romantic melodies doubtless reflecting the region. When we turned on the stimulator. The minivan driver’s assistant is making passengers wait within, while he solicits more customers before signaling that the driver depart. They responded instantly.


On a pseudocolor scale of calcium concentration, they changed from blue to green to red to white. Even the pace of pedestrians has noticeably slackened. As calcium flooded into the axons. Seven black crows float across a tangent of the traffic circle to settle atop a Burmese-language billboard. Initially there were no changes in the Schwann cells or oligodendrocytes. In yellow against a green ground have been added the words “Tam Computer Group” and “Premier Coffee Shop 1, 2, 3.” But about 1.5 long seconds later the glia suddenly began to light up like a string of Christmas bulbs.


In a gold chain, his breast bared, a man makes his way counterclockwise about the square on his new silver motorcycle. We must make democracy the popular creed, said Aung San. In opposition to the elegant flow of four long-skirted pedestrians, girls of eighteen or nineteen. We must try to build a free Burma in accordance with such a creed. A car, marked above on its windshield “Red Line,” circles, revealing as it passes us three golden ships on its white door. If we should fail to do this, our people are bound to suffer. In the café the video has been reprogrammed with 1970s rock ’n’ roll, re-performed in Burmese.


The panoply of billboards continues past idling tricycle taxiests, asleep or dozing in their vehicles. If democracy should fail, the world cannot stand back and just look on, lest Burma, like Japan and Germany, one day be despised. “18-8 Stainless Steel / Seagull,” reads a sign in white on black, “High Quality Tableware,” a green seagull soaring into a breed of Thai letters. Democracy is the only ideology consistent with freedom. On her motorbike a prim and proper girl honks. It is also an ideology that promotes and strengthens peace.  Coincidentally her horn is answered by two sullen beeps from a white truck.


Three passing monks, their robes in alizarin, chestnut and brown, look down into author’s notebook. It is therefore. “Power,” reads the most glamorous ad, its letters embossed with perspectivized drop shades. The only ideology that we should aim for. Three futuristic, space-suit-clad Burmese girls gesture as though on behalf of “The Force.” Somehow the cells had detected the axons’ impulse activity. As they advertise “Super Heavy Duty Cell Battery.” And responded by raising the concentration of calcium in their own cytoplasm. “New Super Fantasy,” reads a final ad that depicts a guy and his girlfriend.

Bagan: What the Dust Reveals

1  Shwe zi-go

Sunset visit to Shwe zi-go Paya at the center of Nyaung U on the outskirts of Old Bagan. Then the blessed one addressed his venerable disciple: The model Burmese pagoda begun by Anawrahta but not completed till the reign of Kyansittha. “It may be, Ananda, that to some of you the thought may come:” One is not really prepared for this experience. “‘Here are the words of the teacher who is gone, our teacher who is with us no more.’” The massive stupa both rises and reposes, its thousand hues of gold reading this evening against an almost cobalt blue. “But, Ananda, it should not be considered in this light,” said the Buddha. Gauzed with vaguely discernible white clouds adrift in the quiet, early evening heavens. “What I have taught and laid down as doctrine (dhamma) and discipline (vinaya), this will be your teacher when I am gone.” Worshippers — mothers with their daughters, single men in early middle age, a solitary monk — have sparsely distributed themselves about the great pagoda’s base, as barefoot author circumambulates its four corners.


The tinkling of wind chimes competes with the drone of unseen ritual recitation. According to Buddhism (Walpola Rahula) man’s position is supreme. “The Shwezigon derives its name from Jeyyabhumi, ‘Ground of Victory’” (Glimpses of Glorious Bagan). There is no higher being or power that sits in judgment over his destiny. “Tradition has it that the holy tooth, collar-bone and frontlet relics of the Buddha are enshrined here, the tooth presented by the king of Sri Lanka, the frontlet obtained from Thayekhitta near modern Pyay.” “One is one’s own refuge, who else could be the refuge?” said the Buddha. “Anawrahta placed the frontlet relic on a jeweled white elephant and, making a solemn vow, said: He taught, encouraged and stimulated each person to develop himself and to work out his own emancipation. “‘Let the white elephant kneel in the place where the holy relic is fain to rest!’” Others have entered to stroll the grounds. “And it was at this place, where the white elephant knelt, that Anawrahta began the Swezigon.”


Some to lounge and converse, others to devote themselves to meditation and the recitation of sutras. The Buddha’s teaching, especially his way of ‘meditation,’ aims at producing a state of perfect mental health, equilibrium and tranquility. “The chronicles go on to relate that upon the accession of Kyansittha, the royal teacher Shin Arahan urged him to complete the Shwezigon temple complex.” It is unfortunate that hardly any other section of the Buddha’s teaching is so much misunderstood as ‘meditation,’ both by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. “Kyansittha then marshaled all his people and quarried rock from Mount Tuywin in the East to build the pagoda.” The moment the word ‘meditation’ is mentioned, one thinks of an escape from the daily activities of life, assuming a particular posture, like a statue in some cave or cell in a monastery, in a remote place cut off from society, and musing on, or being absorbed in, a mystic or mysterious thought or trance. “Marvelously the pagoda was finished in seven months and seven days.”


The Buddha’s presence here is scarcely felt, despite the images devoted to his person. “The bell-shaped dome has been crowned by a hti (umbrella).” With a long pole an attendant taps at a fluorescent bulb under the pavilion’s eaves. “Near the eastern side of the stupa” (from The Lonely Planet Guide) “an indentation in a stone slab was filled with water to allow the Burmese monarch to look at the reflection of the hti without tipping his head backwards (which might have caused his crown to topple off).” At last the light goes on.

2  Khay Ming Gha

If Shwe zi-go temple is the sun, to which all other heavenly bodies bow, which is the moon? Does our solar system represent the rule or an exception to the rule? And are the rest but planets, asteroids and comets in their fiery brilliance? Though it is one of the questions driving modern astronomy, the answer remains elusive. Cocks crow from opposite ends of our horizon, answered in the near ground by chirping birds, author perched atop Khay Ming Gha, highest among the many temples of this village. In our solar system asteroids and comets coexist with rocky and giant gaseous planets. As we await the sunrise. Perhaps the same is true of other planetary systems in the universe.


The half moon, Venus and a star ride behind a slight cloud cover. The spectrum reveals a geometry of dust. The air is mild, slightly dusty. The disks span a range of temperatures: And moderately humid. Their inner parts, being close to the star, are warmer than the zone farther out. From the silhouette of a nearby pagoda the eye glides across and into a middle ground semicircled by many silhouetted fanes. Interestingly, most of the disks do not seem to have dust much hotter than 200 Kelvins. In most cases only their spires are visible from this elevation. Which is cooler than we would expect, if the disks extend down to their stars. As they rise into a hazy horizon.


Thus the disks appear to have inner holes. Low-lying clouds read as charcoal against a now faintly illuminated horizon tinged with pink. The intimation of these holes offered astronomers the first sign that the disk had a structure — one that might be caused by hidden planets. A car approaches, its headlights bright, only to pass quietly behind us. In 1984 Beta Pictoris was observed by using the 2.5-meter telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. Green has begun to emerge in the near ground grass. To detect the faint disk material against the bright stellar glare, a coronagraph was employed, a small mask placed on the telescope to block the direct starlight.


Now the reddish orange of a nearby pagoda becomes visible. The visible-light image revealed a magnificent edge-on disk extending more than 400 astronomical units out from the star. Here is another popular question: Author has balanced his notebook on the red brick column at the head of the stairway, a column that also serves as the corner of the stage’s railing. More recent observations have put the disk’s radius at more than 1,400 astronomical units. “If there is no Self, no Atman, who then realizes Nirvana?” Author records only what the eye observes. Before we go on to Nirvana, let us ask the question: Only what the ear detects. “Who is it that thinks, if there be no Self?”


The moaning chants of monks fill one corner, one quadrant, of the space before us. Beta Pictoris is a special case. All life is suffering, they say. It is relatively near (only 60 light-years away), and its disk is very large, very bright, and edge-on (which increases its apparent brightness). But life is also a picnic, a banquet for us to enjoy before the table is cleared. This combination of factors has made it relatively easy to observe. As we had seen earlier it is the thought that thinks, there is no thinker behind the thought. Unfortunately, astronomers have been unable to observe other disks with their coronagraphs. An insect buzzes about author’s head, finally settling on his neck.


In the same way it is wisdom (panna), realization, that realizes. The breeze picks up and with it the frequency and volubility of birdcalls. As observed from the ground in visible light, stars have a certain apparent size in the sky, determined by the blurring that Earth’s atmosphere produces in the starlight. There is no other self behind the realization. A smoky range of low-lying hills is echoed by a bluish, even smokier range beyond. A coronagraph mask large enough to block the star usually ends up hiding the disk as well. Suffering — whether being, or thing, or system — if its nature is that of arising, has within itself the nature, the germ, of its cessation, of its destruction.


At last the red clay of a recently plowed field enters the spectrum, red sandstone stupas also catching ambient light. At longer wavelengths, such as the far infrared, stars are faint, so the disks should be easier to see. Since dukka, samsara, the cycle of continuity, is of the nature of arising; it must also be of the nature of cessation. Sunlight is beginning to tinge the horizon yellow. But the atmosphere absorbs light at these longer wavelengths. Dukka arises because of “thirst” (tanha), and it ceases because of wisdom (panna). The armature of a modern crane, its base illuminated by the light of a yellowish industrial beacon, rises above a row of five yet more distant temples.


Light with even longer wavelengths, close to a millimeter, is detectable from the ground. “Thirst” and “wisdom” are both among the Five Aggregates. But until the late 1990s the instruments capable of detecting this “submillimeter” light had low resolution and low sensitivity. Thus, the germ of their arising as well as the germ of their cessation are both implicit in the Five Aggregates. Author detects the sound of little feet climbing the stair beneath him. This is the real meaning of the Buddha’s well-known statement: “Is anyone there?” a young, delicate voice inquires. “Within the body itself I postulate the world, the arising of the world, the cessation of the world.”


Thirteen years passed before instrument technology advanced enough to image other disks. Finally San Sang Yu makes her appearance. This means that the Four Noble Truths are found within the Five Aggregates. The final breakthrough came with the Submillimeter Common-User Bolometer Array (SCUBA), a sensitive camera capable of detecting light one millimeter in wavelength. Resplendent, her nine-year-old face has already been covered with thankaka. This also means that there is no external power who produces the arising and cessation of dukka. Her black hair has been made to gleam and a red rose has been pinned behind one ear. Or the world. She is dressed in lavender.


In 1997 SCUBA took images of several important stars. When “wisdom” is cultivated, it discerns the secret reality of things. These confirmed the existence of planets in orbit about Beta Pictoris. When this secret is discovered, the forces that produce samsara are calmed. Since then a dozen more disks have been resolved. And we experience no “thirst” for continuity. Through the use of ground-based mid-infrared detectors and the Hubble Space Telescope. In other religions the summum bonum can only be attained after one dies. San Sang Yu induces author to purchase five carved owls. But Nirvana can be realized in this life. He declines her family of elephants. One need not die to attain it.

3  Manuha

“He acclimatized himself to Burma. His body grew attuned to the strange rhythms of the tropical seasons. Every year from February to May the sun glared in the sky like an angry god, then suddenly the monsoon blew eastward, first in sharp squalls, then in a heavy ceaseless downpour that drenched everything till neither one’s clothes, one’s bed nor even one’s food ever seemed dry” (George Orwell, Burmese Days). We arrive at the Manuha, having been counseled by Ms. Cho to “think of the future.” Presumably the Maitreya is at issue here. “It was still hot, with a stuffy, vaporous heat.” We arrive early enough to enjoy the temple and its grounds before the heat of day sets in. “The lower jungle paths turned into morasses, and the paddy fields were great wastes of stagnant water with a stale, mousy smell.” All is brilliance: a blue sky above, the enormous Buddha gleaming above two devotees, a mother and her daughter, the latter silent, the former reiterating her stream of nostrums, as author carefully negotiates the narrow space. “Books and boots were mildewed. Naked Burmans in yard-wide hats of palm-leaf ploughed the paddy fields, driving their buffaloes through knee-deep water.


“Later the women and children planted the green seedlings in paddies, dabbing each plant into the mud with little three-pronged forks.” Behind the temple, before the grating within which lies the recumbent Buddha, four girls have just finished drawing water to fill depleted cooking oil cans, which they are helping one another hoist atop their heads. “Through July and August there was hardly a pause in the rain.” For the moment they have left running the plastic hose attached to the pump. “Then one night, high overhead, one heard a squawking of invisible birds.” They are laughing, bearing their burdens — the two already loaded — lightly, though it has taken all their seventeen-, eighteen-year-old strength to arise from a squatting positing with five-gallon cans of water atop their heads. “The snipe were flying southward from Central Asia.” They are skinny and giggly and delicious, in their flowery purple, magenta, red and blue longyis. “Then the rains tailed off, ending in October. The fields dried up, the paddies ripened, the Burmese children played hopscotch with gonyin seeds and flew kites in the cool winds. It was the beginning of the short winter, when Upper Burma seemed haunted by the ghost of England.


“Everywhere wild flowers sprang into bloom, not quite English but very like them — honeysuckle in thick bushes, field roses smelling of peardrops, even violets in dark corners of the forest. The sun circled low in the sky, and the nights and early mornings were bitterly cold, pervaded by mists that poured through the valleys like the steam of enormous kettles.” Within twenty paces each of the girls has removed the hand that had steadied her square oilcan. “One went shooting after duck and snipe. There were countless snipe, and wild geese in flocks that rose from the jeel with a roar like a goods train crossing an iron bridge.” Gracefully barefooted, they stride in file along a tiled path. “The ripening paddy, breast-high and yellow, looked like wheat.” Author mounts the steps of a pavilion to examine a sculptural display of nats. “The Burmans went to their work with muffled heads, their arms clasped across their breasts, their faces yellow and pinched with the cold.” As vivid as Hollywood stars but far more mysterious and sympathetic. “In the morning one marched through misty, incongruous wildernesses, clearings of drenched, almost English grass and naked trees where monkeys squatted in the upper branches, waiting for the sun.



“At night, coming back to camp through the cold lanes, one met herds of buffaloes which the boys were driving home, with their huge horns looming through the mist like crescents.” Chants of a priest, amplified by the temple’s sound system, have filled the courtyard and the village leading off and surrounding it. “One had three blankets on one’s bed, and game pies instead of the eternal chicken.” Reverently, author returns to the pavilion to negotiate his way among the temple’s keeper and the old men lounging about, who regard the blond foreigner as a potential source of wry comment. “After dinner we sat on a log by the vast camp-fire, drinking beer and talking about shooting.” He approaches them directly, so as to shame them into submission and challenge their provincial, racial assumptions. “The flames danced like red holly, casting a circle of light at the edge of which servants and coolies squatted, too shy to intrude on the white men and yet edging up to the fire like dogs.” Turning his attention to the lists of donors, in Burmese, he comes upon yet another list in English, of American tourists who have sought to make merit for money. “As one lay in bed one could hear the dew dripping from the trees like large but gentle rain.


“It was a good life while one was young and thought not about future or past.” “Special Prayers for Long Life and Happiness,” reads the chalked inscription, followed by the numbered names of various donors.


  1. Matthew_Carol Rothman.
  2. Seth_Jill_Stephanie_Alyssa Rothman. A woman kneels before a bell in the side court and takes up a small log before striking it.
  3. Steve_Tracy_Allie Simon. The bell, suspended from a maroon-painted pole supported by two cream stanchions, is surmounted with two lions.
  4. Michael Rothman. With the log she strikes the bell three times.
  5. Russell_Alice Rothman.
  6. Larry_Linda Akers.
  7. Cary_Ellen Fishberg. “According to Buddhist belief, those who have done evil in their lives” (Orwell again) “will spend the next incarnation in the shape of a rat, a frog or some other low animal.”
  8. Shelly_Barbara Estrin.
  9. Chuck_Barbara Estrin.
  10. Don_Gail Mizner. “U Po Kyin was a good Buddhist and intended to provide against this danger. He planned to devote his closing years to good works, which would pile up enough merit to outweigh the rest of his life.”
  11. Kathleen_Culla. “Probably his good works would take the form of building pagodas. Four pagodas, five, six, seven — the priests would tell him how many — with carved stonework, gilt umbrellas and little bells that tinkled in the wind, every tinkle a prayer.”
  12. Bob_Cheryl Meriweather. “He would then return to the earth in male human shape — for a woman ranks at about the same level as a rat or a frog.”
  13. Harold_Annie Herskowitz. “Or at worst as some dignified beast such as an elephant.”
  14. Sidney_Wendy Azriliant. The temple attendant steps to a charcoal fire tended by a squatting, middle-aged woman, blows on a deep-fried pastry to cool it off and returns to eat it, lounging on his bench. Another bell, from deep within the courtyard, sounds.


4  Gubyauk Gyi

Depuis des siècles, le nombre exact des édifices religieux de Bagan reste une énigme. Gubyauk Gyi Temple No. 1323 (its plaque at Myinkaba). Généralement, le chiffre le plus connu destiné à pouvoir mémoriser se compose comme un triolet rimé. This temple was built by minister Rajukar, the son of King Kyansitthar in 1113 A.D. Selon le poème birmane, “Hlè Win Yoe Nyan Nyan, Bagan Bhaya Baung,”seul les premiers quatre mots peuvent nous donner le chiffre 4446. This was the cave temple that Rajunar dedicated in order to enshrine a real gold image on behalf of his father.


Si on traduit le reste des mots utilisés pour rimer avec ceux de la première ligne, on aura le chiffre astronomique des monuments que Bagan ne peut probablement contenir. When Kyansitthar fell sick unto death. D’après le recensement de 1993 rassemblé par le Départment de l’Archaeologie. He set up four quadrilingual inscriptions. Il y avait 524 stupas, 911 temples souterrain, les cellules, les salles d’ordination, les bibliothèques et les pavilions de prière sur le site de Bagan. In Pyu, Mon, Pali and Myanmar — like the trilingual Rosetta Stone of ancient Egypt.


The temple is one of the finest ever built. Au total, on en a dénombré 2230. The exterior is decorated with exquisite carvings. D’ailleurs on a également découvert 892 édifices en ruines avec lesquels on estime aujourd’hui les anciens monuments religieux à 3122. On the frieze, dado, window pediments and pilasters. Parmi tous ces bâtiments culturels, ceux qui sont très nombreux, ce sont des stupas et des temples. The interior contains Jataka paintings, such as the sixteen dreams of Kosala. Le zedi (ou stupa) est une structure fermée dont l’intérieur abrite les reliques sacrées du Bouddha.

5  Ananda

“Most renowned for its pagodas is Pagan, in many respects the most remarkable religious city in the world (Shway Yoe, The Burman: His Life and Notions [1882]). Jerusalem, Rome, Kieff, Benares, none of them can boast the multitude of temples, and the lavishness of design and ornament that makes marvelous the deserted capital on the Irrawaddy.” Among the most beautiful is the Ananda Pahto, renowned not only for its elegant proportions but also for its four large images of the Buddha, positioned at each of the cardinal directions. “For eight miles along the river-bank and extending to a depth of two miles inland, the whole space is thickly studded with pagodas of all sizes and shapes.” Quickly author enters and perfunctorily moves from one enormous image to the next, returning to a corridor leading out of the temple’s western portal. “The very ground is so thickly covered with crumbling remnants of vanished shrines that according to the popular saying you cannot move foot or hand without touching a sacred thing.”


At the end of the corridor he settles in with early arriving merchants, who sell him a soft drink and seat him in a chair where he observes them as they unpack their wares and begin to entice him with lacquer products, fabrics, books about Burma. “Zedis are of many shapes and degrees of elaboration, but one common idea may be traced through them all.” An entire family is present, older and younger sister tending a film and trinket stall; older brother purveying more expensive products; the mother, an uncle. “If you ask a Burman monk the cause of the variations in the form of the paya, he will tell you that the Buddha left no instructions regarding them in the holy books but had only said that a small mound should be raised over his bones in the form of a heap of rice.” These beautiful people all receive the visitor hospitably, speaking politely in their limited but friendly English. Yet there is something missing, presently to be supplied. “The infant king Buddha in the womb of queen Maia resembled a lotus bud or a beautiful pagoda.”


Suddenly a sylph-like creature appears, taking a seat next to author. “The names of the various parts of the building recall the parts of the flower bud, with its young leaves folded in admiration.” Named Kai Shu Wa, she is eight years old but speaks precocious English. “Thus the rounded swelling just below the slender spire is called the hnget-pyaw-bu, the banana palm bud.” Dressed in traditional Burmese pajama outfit, red with yellow markings, her mouth is adorned with red lipstick. “At the extreme summit, on top of the hti is the seinbu, the diamond bud.” Her cheeks and nose have been covered with cream-colored thankaka, her ears highlighted with two golden pendants. “Which in not a few poor districts is represented by a soda bottle.” She is scintillatingly beautiful and has already taken a liking to author, who repeatedly causes her to laugh so that he may see her missing tooth again, as she bites her nails. “Which combines the resemblance to a flower bud with a lightning conductor.”


When author declines to buy the postcards that she is selling (he has already bought a set elsewhere), Kai Shu Wa presents him instead with the gift of a paper butterfly, invites him to dinner with her family and says that she hopes to see him at her school on the morrow.

6  Sulamani

“One hundred thousand years before the end of the world the Devas come down from their six blissful seats and wander about the earth with disheveled hair and mournful garb, proclaiming the sad tidings of the impending destruction.” A dozen monks have materialized to admire a swarthy form of the Buddha. Sulamani Guphaya was constructed in 1183 A.D. by King Narapasithu. “Once again they arrive a hundred years before the cataclysm.” Who filled in the earth over a concave excavation, where he had found a small ruby (whence “Sulamani,” the word for ruby). One by one they climb a ladder leading to a platform atop the Buddha’s lotus, above which devotees have applied gold leaf to his black body. “And all mankind strives to raise itself beyond the influence of destruction.”

Others, more ambitious, have already exceeded these monks in their efforts. “In any case the world must be destroyed.” For the Buddha’s forehead, eyes, lips and ears have been ornamented with squares of gold foil. “Three great principles of demerit determine by what means the catastrophe will be effected.” The images of dust surrounding the star named HD 141569, which is 330 light-years away, show two large spiral arms. More monks, having completed the circuit, emerge from around a corner, the youngest taking a seat on the floor to observe author’s activity. They could be caused by the double stellar companion at the upper left corner. “Concupiscence is the most common and the least heinous of these principles, and the world of the lustful will be destroyed by fire.

“Next comes anger, a more grievous sin than concupiscence.” An inner ring may imply an unseen planet. “And the world ruined by this sin will be destroyed by water.” At 5:00 pm the wind picks up, causing a thin imitation-linoleum floor covering to waffle in the breeze and making it more difficult for the semi-recumbent attendant to light his cigarette. The Vega system, 25 light-years away, has a bright clump at the top left. “Worst of all is the sin of ignorance.” Which simulations attribute to a planet with twice the mass of Jupiter. “The world of the ignorant will be scattered about the bounds of space by a mightily rushing wind, which begins so gently as barely to sway the leaves and flowers and ends by breaking up the vast bulk of Mount Myinmo and the Sekyawala circle of hills.”

The Formalhaut system, also 25 light-years away, is larger on the lower left side than it is on the upper right side, perhaps because of a recent asteroid collision. As we perambulate the winding halls of this quadrilateral structure we visit its four principal images. “Of 64 worlds, 56 are destroyed by fire, seven by water, one by wind.” At every turn, undistinguished greenish ocher, brownish red and charcoal grey murals rise above us. The center of the ring is filled with warm dust similar to the zodiacal dust in our own solar system. The second of the Buddha images, a chalky rose, is hardly compelling, as he stares down from his uninspired massiveness at the hapless suffering of the world. “Fire reaches to the fifth seat of the Rupa, to the beings called ‘Perfect.’”

Scenes of the Buddha’s own life, in great disrepair, decorate the walls of a niche in which he sits cross-legged. The Epsilon Eridani System, ten light-years away, has clumps and clearings, the possible handiwork of a Saturn-mass planet in an elongated orbit. “Water mounts higher by three seats to the eighth of the Byammas, and wind, one seat beyond this.” A Burmese guide is explaining to a Japanese tourist, who has protected herself against foreign pollution with a large floppy hat, another mural’s iconography. Independent but controversial spectral data suggest another planet closer in. “Fire, water or wind may destroy the world, but water alone can reproduce it, though sun and wind both have minor parts to play.” She takes out her camera to photograph the mural.

7  Damma Yan Gyi

At this great temple author is distracted by half a dozen loafing sellers of wares, who arise together to badger and cajole him. Durant la première période de construction. Among these sprightly 20-year-old kids, one proves to be especially lively. Sous la règne du roi Anawrahta. It emerges that he is the only university student among his colleagues. Juste après la conquête sur les Mons de Thaton. Asked what his name is. Le roi Manuha. “Double-o-seven,” he replies, to much laughter. Sa famille royale, les ministres. Together we all troupe about in conversation, to the neglect of the great monument.

Et les artistes mons ont été ramenés à Bagan. The topic turns to contemporary culture. Ce qui a fait un mélange de culture entre les Birmans et les Mons. “James Bond,” as he also calls himself, turns out under questioning to be a student of comparative culture. A cette époque-là, Bagan avait déjà des influences indiennes, chinoises, cambodgiennes et cinghalaises. But his principal subject of academic study is the history of Burmese culture. Les temples et pagodes construits sous le règne du roi Anawrahta (1044-1077) et sous celui du Kyansittha ont été inspirés du style pyu et mon.

Author, seeking guidance for his own understanding of Burmese myth and history, organizes a brief lecture, seating himself and the other “students” on a step of the temple so that 007, standing before us, may address us, or at least respond to inquiries. “If you will speak on behalf of Burmese culture, please tell us of your origins,” author begins.

“I come from moon,” says 007. The students laugh, as author begins to takes notes.

“And where, geographically, does Burmese culture come from? India? China?”

“Burma coming from another world,” he replies. Author concurs.

“How long ago did this take place?”

“7000 years.”

“Were the Burmese people indigenous to Burma, or did they also come from afar?”

“Burmese people also coming from another world,” says 007.

“And how many people arrived?”

“Four thousand million people.” Again the “students” laugh. Clearly author is missing something that others in the audience take for granted.

“At this time in history,” he asks, “who were the neighbors of the Burmese people?”

“The sun, the stars, the clouds, the rain,” Professor Bond replies. Turning to the present day, author inquires where most of the foreigners are now coming from.

“From France, South Africa and Australia, from America and Burma.” Again the “students” laugh.

“What,” he asks, “do Burmese people really like?”

“Like America,” says 007.

“Like rock ’n’ roll,” says his liveliest companion.

“Like disco,” says another.

“Like rap music,” a third.

“And what kind of food do you like?” asks author, assuming that fried chicken or hamburgers may figure in their responses.

“Mango,” 007 responds.

“Watermelon,” student # 1.

“Cucumber,” student # 2.

“Papaya,” student # 3.

“And you?” author inquires of student # 4.


8  That Byinnyu

Do these systems have planets as well as planetesimals? We continue on to an even more magnificent temple towering above the other monuments of Bagan. Even the youngest systems are old enough that giant planets would by now have had time to form. “That Byinnyu” takes its name from the Omniscience of the Buddha, which well suits its position above the other temples. The disks contain very little gas, suggesting that they can no longer form giant planets (which are mostly gaseous). Earlier we had observed this gem of King Alausithu’s as we had passed on our way to visit Ananda Patho. Either the systems have already created such planets or they are never going to. It is highly unlikely that denizens of earth will ever see two such monuments again.

“Thatbyinnu is a transitional temple, standing between the Early Style of the Ananda, half a mile to the northeast, and the Late Style of the Gawawpalin, half a mile to the northwest.” Figuring out which is the case will not be easy. Both are among the greatest temples in the world, rivaling the monuments of Angkor and Egypt. The samples of known planets and known disks do not overlap. “It is one of the earliest double-storied temples, but the arrangement is different from that of other such temples, much as if the new form were still an experiment.” To this day astronomers have been unable to confirm the presence of a debris disk around any star, other than the sun, that is known to have planets. We approach the temple with reverence but must first take a rest.

Planets in debris disks, and debris disks in other planetary systems, have so far escaped detection. Author heads across the forecourt to seek shelter from the threat of rain, ducking his head to enter a rattan shop. The disks themselves might betray the presence of planets. He is warmly welcomed in by Paw Shein, its proprietor, who offers him a seat as his wife hurries to fetch him a cup of green tea. The rain of comets onto Beta Pictoris is hard to understand unless a planet is present to exert a gravitational influence. After much hospitality and many pleasantries, the conversation turns to the nature of rattan weaving. Furthermore, on resolved disk images, astronomers can discern large-scale features: “Rattan,” says Paw Shein, “is sometimes very soft.”

Such as rings, warps, blobs and, in one case, a large spiral. By way of illustration he holds out a lady’s purse, beautiful work, delicately varied in its woven design. A planet in inclined orbit can pull dust into other inclined orbits, giving the disk a warp. None of his products is perfectly symmetrical; all show evidence of organic design. Planets can also sweep away dust, creating cavities and rings. We move about the shop examining many lovely examples of the craft: vases, boxes, miniature tables with four tiny chairs set about them. Or they can produce a wake of dust that looks like a blob. Many varieties of rattan have been employed. In the zodiacal dust our own Earth leaves such a wake. Curious as to the provenance of his raw materials, author makes inquiry.

“We get the rattan from Abbabama,” says Paw Shein, indicating an area alongside the banks of the Ayeyarwady River. “And while you are there,” asks author facetiously, “Do you ever see an elephant or a tiger?” “No,” says Paw Shein, “only dogs.” The rattan weaver laughs. “After you obtain the rattan,” author asks, “What do you do with it?” “We weave it together, step by step.” Dipping his head, author looks out from the rattan-covered bench for signs of more rain, but the clouds above the temple — with its elegant reduplicative cubes, its stylishly gold-tipped spires — have begun to clear. Grey and white, shimmering like a silver gauze, they drift now over a pale blue opening in the empyrean high above. Author returns, the artisan and his wife smiling, to drain his cup of tea.

9  Nat Taung Kyaung


Old Monastery Courtyard. The first beikkus dwelt under the shade of the forest trees. Author seated on a wooden platform beneath an ancient bo tree. Or perhaps in small huts erected to shelter them from the pitiless sun and the raging of the storms. Surrounded by children aged six to twelve. This explains why every Budh has a special relationship with a different variety of tree. Some with very snotty noses. As Shi Gautama with the bawdi-bin (the banyan). Many hold out their palms. Under which he attained his full dignity. To have either their own names or author’s name inscribed. And the eng-gyn-bin, the Sorea robusta, under which he was born and died. For some the crescent moon, for some, the sun.


And, as we are told, Arimadeye, the last Budh of this world cycle. The venerable monastery was established over two centuries ago. Will receive his Buddha-ship under the Mesua ferrea. It serves as the principal institution of higher learning, apart from more distant universities, in this relatively impoverished region. Hence the regard for trees, which the Burmans share with so many other nations, ancient and modern, and the fact that a clump of palmyras and tamarinds seen in the distance infallibly suggest a monastery. At this hour — mid morning — the monks are not in evidence, only three or four very young novitiates, who are playing a game with rubber bands in the dusty forecourt.


The official building is made of wood. Ordinarily the monastery is built of teak. And consists of stages. The shape is always oblong. Each with an elaborate railing. The inhabited portion is raised on posts or pillars some eight or ten feet above the ground. And with ornate, carved finials. They are, like the other houses in the country, never more than one story high. All the wood heavily weathered. For it is considered an indignity for a layman to have another floor above his head. But therefore all the more elegant. A fortiori for a member of the brotherhood. An older monk of twelve steps to the bottom of the stair, pauses to observe the scene, adjusts his red robe and nonchalantly traverses the courtyard.


A flight of steps, made of stone or wood, leads to the verandah, which extends along the north and south sides and frequently all the way round the building. If the steps are of stone, they are usually adorned at the foot by propylaea in the shape of two bilus, or a couple of manot-thiha — curious creatures, half man half lion — usually bold in conception, if somewhat rough in execution. As for the roof, the ends of the gables are adorned with pinnacles, each topped by a curious wooden flag, in turn surmounted with a an elegant hti. Shoeless author. Gilt and furnished with bells, copper, silver or gold. Crosses the courtyard. The whole elaborately carved. To rejoin his waiting horse cart and driver.

10  The Thirty-seven Lords

The cult of the Thirty-seven Lords is anthropomorphic. Menu: Kayin Talapan Soup. Offerings of pickled tea or toddy-wine are often made. Mushroom Soup with Water Spinach. And some gods have special likes and dislikes. Spicy Lentil Soup. Thus the Old Man under the Banyan Tree dislikes meat and drink. Pakistan Sour Soup. The Brothers Inferior Gold. Tamarind Leaf Salad. Being the sons of a Muslim. Mohinga (Fish Soup with Rice Noodles). Do not like pork. Coconut Rice. The Lord of the Mountain dislikes offerings of Saga flowers. Pomelo Salad. For he was tied to a Saga tree when he was burnt to death. Pennywort Salad (Myin Kuar Leaf). The Lord Minhkaung of Toungoo dislikes onions. Spicy Stuffed Brinjal. For did he not die of a strong smell of onions?


This cult has affected Burmese Buddhism. Cauliflower Pickles. For since the days of Pagan up to the present. Eggplant Chutney. Offerings of food and even robes. Burmese Chicken Curry. Are made to the images of the Buddha. Nga Paing Htok (Steamed Fish in Bundles). Both in private houses. Tiger Prawn Salad. And at the pagodas. Nga Phe Thoak (Feather Black Fish Salad). In times of national danger and disaster. Guava Jelly. The people believe that the Thirty-seven Lords are always with them. Burmese Chicken Noodles (Ohno Khaukswe). Men say that when the Tartar army. Htamani (Sticky Rice). Invaded the country. Fish in Banana Leaves. The Lords fought side by side against the Tartars. Green Chicken. And that some of them were wounded by sharp arrows.


Restaurant at turn-off to Shwe zi-gon. The great king Anuwrahta might destroy their shrines and remove their images to his Shwezigone Pagoda. In the dining room, seven tables set with 37 chairs. The great king Baynnaung might issue edicts constraining their worship. Three tables are covered in light blue cloths; two, in ocher; two, in red. But the gods and goddesses remained enshrined in the hearts of the people.


On the wall behind us:


“Peace of Mind to All:

  1. There is no success without peace of mind. 

  2. The successful man must have spiritual understanding. 

  3. A mind at peace is a mind that is free to conceive great things. 

  4. Liberty includes peace of mind. 

  5. Peace of mind is a basic liberty. 


Have a nice meal!”


Across the traffic circles stands an empty billboard, nothing but its bare silver panels visible, ten above, ten below:



         

         

Let us not forget the Thirty-seven Lords:

  1. Thagyamin (the King of the Gods)

  2. The Lord of the Great Mountain

  3. Princess Golden Face

  4. Lady Golden Side

  5. Lady Three Times Beautiful

  6. The Little Lady with the Flute

  7. The Brown Lord of Due South

  8. The White Lord of the North

  9. The Lord with the White Umbrella

  10. The Royal Mother

  11. The Sole Lord of Pareim-ma

  12. The Elder Inferior Gold

  13. The Younger Inferior Gold

  14. The Lord Grandfather of Mandalay

  15. The Lady Bandy-Legs

  16. The Old Man by the Solitary Banyan Tree

  17. Lord Sithu

  18. The Young Lord of the Swing

  19. The Valiant Lord Kyawawa

  20. Captain of the Main Army Aungswa

  21. The Royal Cadet

  22. His Mother, the Lady Golden Words

  23. The Lord of Five Elephants

  24. The Lord King, Master of Justice

  25. Maung Po Tu

  26. The Queen of the Western Palace

  27. The Lord of Aungpinle, Master of White Elephants

  28. The Lady Bent

  29. Golden Nawrahta

  30. The Valiant Lord Aung Din

  31. The Young Lord White

  32. The Lord Novice

  33. Tabinshwehti

  34. The Lady of the North

  35. The Lord Minhkaung of Toungoo

  36. The Royal Secretary

  37. The King of Chiang Mai

11  Vipissana Meditation Center

Grâce au roi Anaswatha et au moine vénérable Shin Arahan, le bouddhisme Théravada s’est propagé partout dans tout le pays. A breeze has suddenly cooled the Center’s courtyard. Dont le but est d’atteindre la délivrance. The weather is gradually turning more monsoon-like. Avec le développemente du bouddhisme. Clouds have covered the sky. L’étude des textes sacrés qu’on appelle le “Tripitaka.” Younger monks arise from a thatched pavilion to disperse. La pratique de la méditation. In the direction of their dormitory. Et de la perception perspicace du Bouddha. Playing with their robes as they follow the narrow path. Ont gagné. Swatting one another with their loose ends.


Et en même temps, les monastères et les établissements de l’instruction. Within a more permanent stuccoed building. Ont été fondés. Older monks continue to chant the scriptures. Et le nombre de moines et de nonnes s’est accru de jour en jour. Directed by a pudgy superior reclining on his dais. Les moines essaient de donner l’exemple de la vertu. The orchestration of the voices has not been well coordinated. Et d’une conduit rationelle. For the senior monk is dozing. D’atteindre la perfection spirituelle. Six mangy dogs. Et d’instruire les autres. Have distributed themselves about the courtyard, three lying on the sandy soil, three in postures of moderate alert. (Bagan: Payes des temples et des pagodes.)


A question-and-response session has succeeded the chants from within the monastic enclave. “In his ordination the pyin-sin takes upon himself no burden in the shape of a cure of souls.” The superior stands. “He is not a priest, like the Christian minister.” Silhouetted against the open window behind him. “Who undertakes to guide others to salvation.” Lazily he rearranges his robe. “Nor need he concern himself about his food.” He turns to continue his questioning. “For a pious population supplies him far beyond his requirements and expects no service in return. “The older students respond without enthusiasm.” “He has no sermons to prepare, nor is it expected that he will preach the law.”


The serene monastic compound is quite extensive. “When, of his own accord, he occasionally offers an exposition.” Each building is labeled with a sign in white Burmese letters on a pale blue ground. “It is not any feeble excogitation of his own that he delivers.” Designating its function. “But rather the words of the Great Master himself.” The breeze picks up. “Or of the noblest men of old.” A sprinkling of rain ensues. “His leisure is never broken in upon.” Though hardly enough to mitigate the drought. “By calls to administer consolation to the sick and the dying.” Within a minute or two the rain ceases. “His natural rest is seldom interrupted even to attend the last rites for the dying or the dead.”


Author, having entered the main hall — the lesson concluded — to seek an interview with the senior monk. “He is no minister of religion.” Now returns to the courtyard to take a seat himself. “All he must do is seek his own salvation.” In the hopes of accurately representing what he has learned. “All that is compulsory on him is the observance.” Before his memory should fade. “Of continence, poverty and humility.” And so, as he sits on a wooden bench beneath a tree, he summarizes his conversation with the 45-year-old master who has politely received him: “With tenderness to all living things, abstraction from the world and a strict observance of moral precepts, all tending to inculcate these very virtues” (Shway Yoe, The Burman).


L’éveil est le bonheur véritable, à la fois temporel et ultime, l’essence de toutes les qualités. Nous ne pouvons l’obtenir qu’à la condition que soient réunis quatre facteurs: la cause première, le support, la condition adjuvante et les moyens.


  1. That he has more than 80 monks under his supervision. La cause première est l’Eveil à l’état potentiel, naturellement présent dans l’esprit des êtres.

  2. That they each day engage in the study of the Pali scriptures. Le support est l’existence humaine, supérieur à tout autre du point du vue spirituel.

  3. That each day they practice recitation. La condition adjuvante est le maître spirituel qualifié, celui qui montre la voie sans erreur.

  4. And that only in the summer do they learn English. Les moyens sont les instructions que donne le maître.


Asked how it is that he himself speaks the language so fluently. Sans ces quatre facteurs, nous ne pouvons progresser vers l’Eveil. The master tells us that he has studied at a college in England. L’absence de l’un d’eux rend les autres inopérants. Asked if he found England attractive. Tous quatre sont maintenant réunis pour nous. He says that it was not a good environment for a Buddhist. Il nous appartient d’en faire en cette vie un usage profitable. That instead of four years he spent only one. Pensons à l’heureuse fortune qu’est aujourd’hui la nôtre. He has, however, subsequently visited France to conduct meditation exercises. Pensons aux actes positifs de nos vies passées qui l’ont rendue possible.


Author offers his respectful thanks. Réjouissons nous et avançons sur la voie (Bokar Rimpoché, La Journée d’un Bouddhiste).

12  Bu

“Truth needs no label: it is neither Buddhist, Christian, Muslim nor Hindu.” We arrive at the decorous end of our tour of Bagan, on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River. “It is not the monopoly of anyone.” Though modest in scale, Bu Phaya is perhaps the most elegant of all her gilded domes. “Sectarian labels are a hindrance to the independent understanding of truth.” It rises from within a crenellated enclosure. “And as men employ them, they invariably produce prejudice.” Against the backdrop of a Chinese pavilion. “This is the case not only with intellectual and spiritual matters.” Whose crests and finials are fluted with gold. “But with all manner as well of human relations and affiliations.”


The view of the river at this Bagan landing is expansive. “When we meet a man, all too often we regard him not merely as a human being.” From high above we look down upon its bank. “But, by so labeling him, we associate him in our mind with the characteristics of the label.” The Buddhas here have been carefully, aesthetically enshrined in their niches. “Yet he may be entirely free of those attributes that we have carelessly assigned to him.” Almost hidden from us, so that Nature itself has become the subject of this great pagoda. “People are so fond of discriminative labels that they even place them on common human virtues.” Grey clouds rise in majestic ranks above the distant opposite banks of the flood.


“And so they talk of different brands of charity, as, for example, of ‘Buddhist’ or of ‘Christian’ charity, looking down upon other brands.” So far distant is the opposite shore that its trees are barely perceived as green. “But charity is not sectarian.” Above the long line of forestation rises another, indented line, the ridge of low-lying mountains. “It is neither Hindu, Muslim, Christian nor Buddhist but rather like the love of a mother for her child a natural thing.” At the foot of the precipice where we have ended our stroll are lined up half a dozen boats, which, having deposited their passengers on the near shore, patiently await them. “Just as a mother’s love has no sectarian bearing, so with charity, a universal emotion.”


The scene quickly darkening. “Human virtues such as love, charity and compassion, tolerance, patience and friendship.” The sun, already set, casts salmon shadows on the undersides of light grey clouds above the bankside ridge. “Or their opposites.” The pilgrims. “Desire, hatred and ill-will.” Have reassembled. “Ignorance and conceit.” In preparation for their redescent to the shore. “Need no labels, since they belong to no particular religion.” They are in a jovial mood. “For the seeker after Truth the source of an idea is quite immaterial.” The young among them laughing. “The source of such ideas is a merely academic question.” As, in the now approaching chill of night, they huddle together.

Bagan-Mandalay by Boat

Pre-dawn departure: single gangplank withdrawn, single mooring rope reeled in, our boat begins to drift channel-ward, as author stands, foredeck, beneath forecastle, notebook laid out on a silver rail. An older wooden ferry, large cargo ship tied to its side — behind which a skiff — overtakes us. Our anchor mechanically raised by a button-operated winch, we slowly begin to move upstream. Now a noisier, second ferry passes, red at its waterline, white above its decks. The raising of our anchor complete, we gather steam, passing the second boat that had passed us, cutting quickly across its wake in pursuit of the first. On the eastern riverbank emerge low chalky sandstone cliffs. The sun has risen but is not apparent, layers of stratocumulus filling the sky from horizon to zenith.

Author returns to the lounge, where coffee is advertised as available at a small bar. CD inserted by the purser, the bartender at 6:00 am begins to sway to popular Burmese strains. Quickly he is joined by two other lively colleagues. On the eastern bank — author has taken a seat — have emerged half a dozen pagodas, situated atop the low cliffs. Suddenly the music has changed from sentimental ballad to Burmese hip-hop. A family group, arrived from lower deck, takes all five plastic, imitation-rattan seats at one of three white-clothed tables set up on the cabin’s Astroturf. Four of the staff, in dark blue pants, unofficial shirts and sandals, are in a party mood. One sits smoking, his bare feet propped on a small table before him. One stands behind the bar, the other two in front of it.

Intermittently, like a true seaman, each quickly glances out the window, checking on the boat’s position. The lounge is stylishly appointed. Behind its narrow bar, which barely fills one corner of the cabin, hangs a hand-painted portrait of a Burmese musician with a bowed instrument, her coif and long lacey dress traditional. From overhead descends a chandelier such as might have been fashionable in a middle class salon half a century ago, its large bulbs hidden within flowery porcelain. The four blue-clad personnel have taken seats at one of the tables to smoke and jape, joined by a fifth, still in polo shirt and longyi. Having got his vessel under weigh, the captain appears for breakfast, accompanied by an assistant. As the captain drinks his coffee, assistant reviews the lading bill.

Two conversational groups of four easy chairs have been arranged at the front of the lounge. Before each, on a low table covered in white cloth, has been set a vase of red roses, which rests in turn on a second, red cloth set on the bias, all held in place against the wind by old-fashioned glass ashtrays. Since no one occupies either conversational group, author takes a seat at one, removes laptop from brief case — to much attention from crew — and peers out open window past the ship’s flag at the silvered surface of the river, mottled with grey from a cloud cover mercifully inhibiting the sun from breaking through. The river here has widened, both banks covered with low-lying trees, in among which are the spires of white pagodas. Slowly we make our way across toward Ba Kogu Station.

The captain sounds a long deep horn as we approach the landing. We glide in past two fungus-encrusted pagodas, past many larger boats tied up side-by-side. Author, hoisting his gear, debarks to observe the scene. Many natives have visited the dock to witness our landfall, far more than required to load and offload cargo. A boy of fourteen squats on his haunches in a pensive posture, hair stylishly waxed above his forehead in a row of regular spikes, on his wrist a digital watch. After many reinforced plastic sacks have been hoisted onto the dock, several passengers debark past a group of loafing observers, among them a boy of twelve who has brought his soccer ball and his eight-year-old sister, in “Popeye & Oleaf” tee shirt, her four-year-old brother consigned to her care.


The world has five great historical rivers: Egypt’s Nile, Sumer’s Euphrates, India’s Eindu, China’s Hohundhoe, and Burma’s Irrawaddy. Unlike the Nile the Ayeyarwady is the color of coffee. Unlike the Euphrates it overflows. Longer than the Ganges, it is not so holy but is more productive. Like China’s mighty flood, it is steeped in history.


At four o’clock in the afternoon the sun is still beating down fiercely on the mile and a half broad stretch of water that extends far above and below Myanaung. The River was formed 45 million years ago. But the whole population of the town, and extended family parties from a score of villages round about, are gathered on the banks of the Irrawaddy, and bustle about regardless of the heat. Its name, according to some, may derive from the Sanskrit word irvati, which means “giver of refreshment.” Girls with flowers in their hair, and the brightest of dainty silk handkerchiefs floating over their dazzling white jackets. Others, however, say that it simply means big (Pali aeyar = big) river (Pali wadi = river). Their costly skirts trailing on the half-muddy, half-dusty grass, and the long loops of their dalizan necklaces swinging about on their bosoms, hurry hither and thither with unwonted activity. Its total drainage area consists of 166,000 square miles, nearly two-thirds of Myanmar’s total. Regardless of the detriment to the fragrant yellow cosmetic on their cheeks and necks, and heedless of the occasional remonstrances of the guardian duennas, who are hardly less excited than they. Over the past hundred years its delta has extended itself seaward by three miles.


Young men, ordinarily scrupulous as to their jaunty flowered turbans, and the folds of their hundred or two-hundred rupee waistcloths, now rush backwards and forwards. Starting from the mountains of the North, the River flows into the Andaman Sea. Apparently aimlessly, their guang-baungs twisted on anyhow. It is formed by the confluence of the Maika, in the East, and the Malikha, in the West. Or hanging loosely round their necks. The Maika, which has the greater volume, sometimes goes by the name of the Upper Ayeyarwady. And the cherished paso girded up tightly round their loins, reckless of creases. The two rivers join at the village of Tanphari, forty kilometers to the north of Myitkyina. While they have not a word to say, or even a glance to throw, at the fairest of the country’s daughters. From the confluence the River continues to Bamaw. Myanaung has challenged Thonkwa, hitherto the unconquered champions of all the low country, and the race, in best-and-best boats, is to come off this afternoon. Until it reaches the first defile, near Sinbo, between Myitkyina and Bamaw. The boats have started for the preliminary row over the course, and since the guardian spirits of the river must be propitiated, the votive offerings are therefore to be made.


 The boat is a beauty, and it does credit to the old magistrate in the sweeping curves of its lines. Low and as light as skilled hands can insure, it draws only a few inches of water and does not rise much more than a foot above the surface. So thin its sides the boat is tourniquetted together with twisted wire and bamboo; the seats serve more to stiffen it and prevent a wrench from doing any harm, than as conveniences for the paddlers. There are twenty-four of a crew all told, and the boat is fifty feet long. It is painted all black, save at the bow, where it bears a brilliant representation of the peacock, from which it takes its name.


Myat Thun Khing, one of the boat’s crew, who has been following in detail author’s account as he composes it on his laptop, consents to be interviewed: The second defile is situated between Sinkhan and Shweku.


A length or two behind them comes the Thonkwa boat, paddling along to the time of their celebrated rowing song, a mysterious gusty air that suggests, in its varying measure, the swirl of the river’s eddies and the rustle of the wind in the kaing-grass that lines its native creeks.


MM: Where do you live, Bagan or Mandalay? Here its green waters gleam a crystalline blue.

MTK: I live in Mandalay. As they cut through the limestone.


No wonder they have an unbeaten record; and U On fidgets about uneasily when the famous pe-nin of the Thonkwa boat salutes him obsequiously as the boat sweeps by.


MM: Your English is very good At Katha the river turns south again. Where have you learned to speak the language? The third defile is near Thabeikkyin.

MTK: In school. Where it resembles a mountain lake. And at the university. After this point the Ayeyarwady spreads out into the Mandalay Alluvial Basin.


At last there is a hush and every eye is directed upriver. The boats are turning, and now come drifting down to the starting place.


MM: What else have you been studying at the university? As it passes through central Myanmar, it is filled with many islands.

MTK: I am in my final year of chemistry. At last, the great delta begins to expand at Myanaung.


It requires a minute or two till the boats are straight and their bows level, but then, with a loud shout, they are off to a start by mutual consent.


MM: And what will you do after you graduate? At the first branch of the river begins the Ngawin.

MTK: I will continue working on this boat. Or Pathen, River.


The Myanaung crew jumps off with the lead and continues to pull ahead until half-way down the course, where they are clear and have a bit of daylight to spare.


MM: How old are you? At last the main branch enters the Andaman Sea, dividing into nine mouths in order to do so.

MTK: I am 23.


The backers of the Peacock are wild with triumph, and see victory before them, but the Thonkwa party is perfectly composed and declares that things are going fine.


MM: So old! Do you have any young friends? Along the course of its descent the Ayeyarwady’s major tributaries are:

MTK: My two brothers, one 22, one eighteen. The Chindwin, the Taiping, the Shweli, the Myitnge and the Zawgyi.

MM: What is your older brother doing? The Panlaung, the Samon, the Pinyin, the Nawin and the Mogaung.

MTK: He is a house painter. The Mezamu, the Yaws and the Salin.

MM: Hard work. And what is your younger brother doing? The Mon, the Man and the Mindin.

MTK: He is working in a shopping center. Here it changes course and flows from east to west in the direction of Katha.

The life along the riverside is gorgeous. We are skirting a grove of trees, in among which are grazing half a dozen pure white cows, tended by a boy in robbin’s-egg blue top and crimson longyi. Wading in the shallow waters, two young fishermen together work a narrow net. The sun has emerged, still slightly veiled by a skein of cloud. Its light catches the wide spreading branches of a huge tree, whose roots are submerged in water. At its base, up to his waist at the river’s marge, stands a solitary bare-chested man of 60.


Author to foredeck, whose bridge looks down upon the boat’s triangular prow, where two deck hands are manning long flexible poles, marked alternately red and white at one-foot intervals. Periodically they thrust them into the passing flood to gauge its depth. Suddenly from above, in undershirt, longyi and dark glasses, an unlit cheroot between his teeth, the captain’s assistant calls them back from their station, the imminent danger of sandbars having apparently passed. A mild sun has broken through the clouds.


It is late morning. All along our way the pagoda culture persists, most of the riverside shrines in white with gold spires, some spectacularly close to the water’s edge, bounded by sloping ghats, on whose sides little kids are at play. Older, quieter children shelter themselves in among the roots of the banyan. A farmer pauses in his labor to observe our passing. At a tiny cemetery a dugout canoe has moored, a wide-brimmed hat covering the head of the wife, a paddle in the husband’s practiced hand.


We have broached the eastern shore in the middle of nowhere, allowing a single passenger to land. No one awaits him; alone he trudges off through the fields. For miles and miles the western shore of an island has served as our own western limit, the true western shore obscured from view. Are we ourselves an island? Or is it the mainland that we belong to? If so, which is mainland, which is island? After our brief landing the island dwindles, again revealing the western bank, but noon has brought a stasis to our motion.


Two monks do their laundry, half clad, their brown robes floating on the muddy stream. Glamorously colorful graffiti, turquoise and cream, adorn a long wall, above which palms of irregular height fan out in star-like arrays. We pass a ghat colored like a European abstract painting with a semi-random arrangement of longyis — maroon and cream, pale green and purple, checked and white. Towns arrive and recede, their pagodas situated at a greater distance from the water than those of the villages.


It is early afternoon, our arrival in Mandalay still several hours away. Three Frenchmen, two men in late middle age, one accompanied by a slightly younger wife, have joined us in the lounge. Graciously man and wife agree to correct quotations in French by the Burmese and Tibetan writers that author has included in his text. Tactfully they suggest improvements in diction, add missing accents. The task complete, they return to their lively disputatious discourse, conducted in Parisian up-talk.


We land again for but the third time. Again no sign in the Roman alphabet helps us, only a member of the staff, with the town’s name: Myinmu. The sun having risen to uncomfortable heights, the cabin deemed not hot enough for air conditioning, author remains in his chair before an open door for a single view. Stilled a moment, the frame moves along, with the road, with green boats moored at bankside, with dwellings of decreasing grandeur, as we exit the town. On the outskirts gleams a pagoda, followed by tall grass.

Once the French contingent has left, we are treated to a video of primitive forces: snakes, fire and water, caves, rites and magical powers. The Snake King, our hero, is clearly Burmese, but the objects over whom he exercises his powers are all Chinese women. A secondary cast consists of Chinese men, who are revitalizing their potency by eating snake, by committing adultery, by conducting incestuous affairs with their daughters. The king and his retinue of worshipers, a troupe of committed women in their mid twenties, gradually become the focus of the film’s energumen.


He wishes to become human. Having transformed his hierophants into gods, he wants them to become human too. The object of his attention professes her devotion to snakes. The cast includes a Taoist priest, who has not stood the test; one of the incestuous fathers; others from the normal world, who are all gradually pushed off stage by pyrotechnics orchestrating a ritual of exclusivity. After an hour of semi-naturalistic business, the ritual begins in earnest. Elemental spirits are invoked. With vehemence they descend upon the King of the Snakes and his principal priestess.


Wind, rain and general fury ensue. Will the King of the Snakes die to be reborn in human form? All nature trembles. His priestess is unsure. “He has passed the water torture,” her five accomplices say. The thunder ceases. The full moon shines. The King of the Snakes challenges the King of Fire. Lightning flares; Earth bursts into flames. His priestess cowers. “It is too hot,” she says, “I cannot bear it.” Meanwhile, through the open portal of the lounge the serene, pagoda-sprinkled landscapes continue to pass over the plain-like expanse of the placid river. The ritual wind abates.


The King of the Snakes has returned to human form. “I have passed the fire test,” he says, but “the cost of being human is too high,” he adds. His chief priestess has been disfigured by the experience. He has become human and she no longer recognizes him. We move quickly to conclusion, with the two of them in human form engaged in typical Chinese activity: tourist excursion with snapshots. Her father, worried that she has vanished for good, solicits help. An Evil Sage tells him that they are crossing the bridge over the River Kwai. The Sage himself hastens thither.


Cut to the touristic couple, riding an elephant, playing games of hide and seek. Meanwhile, the Evil Sage has determined that they must die. From behind a rose bush the father appears, to solicit his daughter’s return. The former Snake King consents. There follows an encounter with the Sage. “It has been cruel of you to sacrifice girls,” he says. “But you have killed many snakes,” the king counters. We witness a snake in deadly combat with a lizard. Meanwhile, on the riverbank, a red-capped farmer leads his herd of brindled cows homeward for late afternoon milking.


At last the lizard gains the upper hand. The larger reptile kills the smaller.


“The river,” says Myat Thun Khing, “snakes into Mandalay,’ indicating his meaning by a double motion of his hand. For though his English is good enough to read with comprehension Myanmar 2004, his spoken proficiency is rudimentary. On the side of his bare calf is the tattoo of a winding serpent; on the bicep of one of his colleagues is a woman embraced by a boa constrictor, as though out of the video that we have been viewing.

The approach to Mandalay exceeds all expectation. Hill after hill, as though the hills themselves had been planned — to say nothing of their ornamentation — unfold in their ensemble as well as their precious individuality. Gold-topped, white-based stupa emerges from arboreal ground, a collective but invisible hand sorting and assembling the details under a blue sky scumbling together wind-drifted grey and creamy white.

Tiepolo would have been artistically challenged today. With the elegance of Fragonard and the naïve precision of Uccello, governed withal by a Southeast Asian sensibility, a variety of aesthetic effect emerges from an overall unity. It is truly breathtaking. After fifteen minutes of unrelieved exquisiteness, we veer at last and head toward a distant hill, it yet to be explained to us exactly how far we are from our destination.

The gap, which for two hundred yards has remained unaltered, suddenly disappears, and the Thonpanhia creeps steadily up the Peacock’s thwart.

At last Aung Zan, the Myanaung bow, sees the enemy’s boat for the first time since the start, and cries out for his teammates to pursue it.

But a few seconds later the rival bow is level with them, and the nose of the Three Fair Flowers shows in front to the length of its figurehead.

It is only a boat’s length to the winning-post, and Thonkwa leads by a foot. The oarsmen feel they are about to die from exhaustion.

A hush falls on the vast crowd as if they were stricken dead. Both men disappear in the water to emerge, clutching the prize simultaneously.

The day has cooled. It is 5:00 pm. The subdued passage of landscape that follows is almost a relief, broken only by the angelic touch of a cloud-suffused rainbow. The local color of deck and water surface are sufficient after such surfeit: orange life-saver, its holder in saturated red, rests just above the enamel green deck, over which the milky tan, grey-blue intervalled waves keep feathering hither. Mandalay is in sight.

Mandalay Fort and The Nanometer Realm

For most people the notion of harnessing nanotechnology for electronic circuitry suggests something wildly futuristic. The Mandalay Royal Palace (Mya Nan San Kyaw) at the heart of Mandalay Fort. In fact, if you have used a personal computer made in the past few years, semiconductors built with nanometer-scale features most likely processed your work. “Admission: one person, 50 Kyat” ($US 0.50). Such immensely sophisticated microchips are now manufactured by the millions. “Admission: one foreigner, $US 10.00.” Yet the scientists and engineers responsible for their development have received little recognition. We stand before an eight-tiered wooden structure (“at the head of the eastern staircase leading to the palace’s eastern platform”). You might say that these people are the Rodney Dangerfields of nanotechnology. Its roof in corrugated steel, painted rust red. (“The roofs are decorated with ‘bat-wing’ wood carvings.”) So here I would like to trumpet their accomplishments. The rest of the wooden structure has been gilt. And explain how their efforts have maintained the steady advance in circuit performance. The spire’s silver tip and hti are held in place by guy wires. To which consumers have grown accustomed. Two immobile cannons flank the entrance.


The recent strides are certainly impressive. “Mya Nan San Kyaw was first built by King Mindon (1853-1878), the founder of the Golden City of Yadanabon, Mandalay.” But, you might ask, is semiconductor manufacture really nanotechnology? Author viewing display of “historical photographs.” Indeed it is. Held with gold plastic tape against the blue ground of a bulletin board. After all, the most widely accepted definition of that word applies to something with dimensions smaller than 100 nanometers. “The Lily Throne.” And the first transistor gates under this mark. “King Mindon Seated on a Dais.” Went into production in the year 2000. “The Lion Throne.” Integrated circuits coming to market now. “The Royal Supreme Legislative Chamber.” Have gates a scant 50 nanometers wide. “The Spire with Seven-Tiered [sic].” That’s 50 billionths of a meter. “Wood Carving of the Central Palace.” About a thousandth the width of a human hair. “The Western Entrance Hall.” “Shwebo Min (1837-1846), the father of King Mindon and King Pagan (1846-1853) inherited the throne of Yadanapura (Inwa) from his older brother King Sagaing (1819-1837) and moved the capital to Amarapura.” Having such minuscule components conveniently allows one to stuff a lot into a compact package.


 “The Chief Queen’s Apartment,” “Officer who assist [sic] to Minister for Malon,” “King Thibaw and Queen Supalyat.” But saving space per se is not the impetus behind the push for extreme miniaturization. “The construction of the new Royal Palace was completed in 1202 Myanmar Era (1840 A.D.).” The reason to make things small. “At Aung Myay San Yar.” Is to lower the unit cost for each transistor. “Officer who assist [sic] for Watmasuk Region,” “Minister for Hlaethin (Navy),” “U Nyangi, Minister of Thonese Region.” As a bonus, this miniaturization shrinks the size of the gates. “Shwebo Min was succeeded by his son King Pagan, who was dethroned by King Mindon in 1853.” Parts of the transistors that switch between blocking current and allowing it to pass. “Duke of Pinthatown,” “Queen Theinni (Queen of Mindon).” The narrower the gates, the faster the transistors can turn on and off. “The new king wanted to move the seat of his kingdom to Mandalay.” Thereby raising the speed limits for the circuits using them. “Consequently, after consultation with learned clergy and laymen.” As microprocessors, then, gain more transistors. “The perimeters of the city were laid out and construction of this new capital begun.” They also gain more speed.


“Apart from the Hman Nan Saung (Central Palace) in which King Mindon was to spend the greater part of his days.” The desire for boosting the number of transistors on a chip. “The old palace was dismantled and reconstructed on the new site.” And for running it faster. “Using the same materials, transported from the old site.” Explains why the semiconductor industry. “Replacing only those items that had been damaged.” Just as it crossed into the new millennium. “The Central Apartment of King Mindon, however, was a new construction.” Shifted from manufacturing microchips to making nanochips. “Using materials considered auspicious according to the king’s date and time of birth.” How it quietly passed this milestone. “As determined by astrological calculations.” And how it continues to advance, is an amazing story of people overcoming some of the greatest engineering challenges of our time. “King Thibaw and His Troops.” Challenges that are every bit as formidable as those encountered in building the first atomic bomb or sending a person to the moon. “The Tomb of King Mindon.” All the details of the East Samoke, or reception hall, have been set up behind a permanent glass shield, with the king and queen represented as solicitous but not very happy.

Straining to Accelerate

As they stare out emotionless at the viewer, an equally affectless monk steps to author’s side to view the display, followed by his sister, her husband and his nephew. Most envoys sent to the Arbiter of Existence were treated very cavalierly in the way of interviews. The best way to get a flavor for the technological innovations that helped to usher in the current era of nanochips. Not a few in the old days waited long months without ever seeing the king at all. Is to survey improvements made in each of the stages required to manufacture a modern semiconductor. Here in “The Eastern Audience Hall” the king and the queen are seated on the so-called “Lion Throne.” Say, the microprocessor that powers the computer on which I typed this text. All, down to Douglas Forsyth, in 1874, had to approach the king shoeless and sit cross-legged on the floor, an unaccustomed attitude that did not tend to render the position less ridiculous. That chip, a Pentium 4, contains some 42,000,000 transistors intricately wired together. In various ways they were treated with every indignity. How in the world was this marvel of engineering constructed? When King Mintayagyi heard that Colonel Symes was coming, he went away to Mingon, to contemplate his gigantic failure at a pagoda. Let us survey the steps.


Thither the colonel had to follow him, congratulating himself on the circumstance that as the king was away from the palace, there would be the less trouble seeing him. We have entered into a huge chamber behind the throne, from which it is accessed by a staircase. Before the chipmaking process even begins. But he found himself vastly mistaken. One needs to obtain a large crystal of pure silicon. The room’s walls are coffered. On arriving at Mingon he was told to take up his quarters on an island in the middle of the river. The traditional method for doing so is to grow it from a small seed crystal immersed in a batch of molten silicon. A pigeon flaps up from the large dark hall, in which author is the only person. This process yields a cylindrical ingot from which many thin wafers are then cut. On this barren place, shunned by all Burmese as a polluted spot, where bodies were burnt and criminals executed, he had to remain forty days, and during all that time the court took not the slightest notice of him. It turns out that such single-crystal ingots are no longer good enough for the job: they have too many “defects,” dislocations in the atomic lattice that hamper the silicon’s ability to conduct and that otherwise cause trouble during chip manufacture.


In the next chamber another three-dimensional representation of King Mindon sits on a red octagonal dais leaning his right arm on an armrest. Finally he was admitted on a kadaw, or “Beg-Pardon Day,” one of those set apart for all inferiors and vassals to come and do homage and worship at the Golden Feet. So chipmakers now routinely deposit a thin, defect-free layer of single-crystal silicon on top of each wafer by exposing it to a gas containing silicon. Here, in the “Hall of Victory,” a large plaque in white on brown gives the details: For long it was the invariable custom to receive representatives of foreign states on these days. IBM pioneered this technology and has been selling integrated circuits made with it for the past five years. “It is a gilded building, its shape taken from the Zaydawun Monastery of Lord Buddha, so-called because conferences and consultations concerning important matters were usually held in this room with a view to overcoming the various dangers and threats to the kingdom.” Colonel Burney was the first to refuse to be so treated, and he carried his point, though the wungyis told the king the reason why he did not come on the appointed kadaw day was because he was sick. “A Cula type throne supported by carvings of ‘Hamsa’ birds stands at the front of the building.”


A new, faster method is gaining ground. We cross a golden threshold through a golden doorframe, passing out of this chamber into an antechamber (the “Mye Nan Connecting Passage”) open to courtyards on either side. The utmost protestations of Symes and Crawford failed to save them from humiliation. The key lies in the development of a precision slicing method. “In 1885 the British sailed up the Ayeyarwady and captured Mandalay.” Another favorite method of showing contempt for foreigners and exalting the national dignity was rather curious in its elaborate ingenuity. The French company that did so, Soitec, aptly trademarked the name “Smart Cut” for this technique. ”They carried Thibaw and his Queen Supayalat to Ratanagiri in India, where they were treated with respect but were still unhappy.” Which requires shooting hydrogen ions through the oxidized surface of the first wafer so that they implant themselves at a prescribed depth within the underlying silicon. Foreign missions were provided for by a tax levied on outcasts. “During the British occupation, the gold, silver, priceless jewels and other treasures, as well as archives recorded on parabaik manuscripts, were looted and destroyed by the imperialists and their lackeys.” The money was only collected when an embassy was expected.


 Because the hydrogen ions do most of their damage right where they stop, they produce a level within the silicon that is quite fragile. Delaying the envoy at the gates was an invariable device. “Lack of proper storage led to loss of records.” Just as he arrived at the entrance a band of princes would turn in from a side street, and the luckless representative of England would have to stop and bite his nails till they had all entered. So after flipping this treated wafer over and attaching it to a wafer of bulk silicon, one can readily cleave the top off at the weakened plane. “Some of the palace buildings were sadly converted into the war office of the imperialists.” Colonel Burney was delayed two hours in this way, and even Colonel Phayre, the first commissioner of the three coast provinces, in 1886, had to wait atop his elephant till the Engshemin and his train filed in before him. Any residual roughness in the surface can be easily polished smooth. “While other palace buildings were used as clubs and barracks.” Even IBM now employs Smart Cut for making some of its high-performance chips. “Many of the thrones became firewood for imperialist soldiers.” And AMD (Advanced Micro Devices, of Sunnyvale, California) will use it in its upcoming generation of microprocessors.

Honey, I Shrunk the Features

To reach the plaque describing the “Baundaw Saung,” a “Three-tiered, roofed building to the west of the Morning Levee Passage,” author must circumvent three women sleeping on the floor (it is noon time). “Here the Royal headdress, crown and circlets, along with many gems were kept.” Advances in the engineering of the silicon substrate are only part of the story: Naturally in the land of the umbrella-bearing chiefs, the huge htis afforded a prominent and obvious mode of marking rank. The design of the transistors constructed atop the silicon has also improved tremendously in recent years. The umbrella is twelve or fifteen feet high, with an expanse of six feet or more across. One of the first steps in the fabrication of transistors on a digital chip is growing a thin layer of silicon dioxide on the surface of a wafer. A poor man had nothing to do with these big umbrellas whatsoever, unless he were employed to carry one over his master’s head. Which is done by exposing it to oxygen and water vapor. If he owned an umbrella at all, it had to be short in the handle and otherwise of western dimensions. Thereby allowing the silicon, in a sense, to rust (oxidize). We pass through another antechamber, across an open pavilion to “The Central Palace of the King’s Living Chamber.”


Royal officials about the palace had their umbrellas painted black inside. But unlike what happens to the steel body of an old car, the oxide does not crumble away from the surface. “Where the ceremonies of Chief Queen’s Consecration, Princes’ and Princesses’ Novitiation and Ear-Piercing were held.” Country people and those not directly connected with the royal abode had the palm-leaf as near the original color as the varnishing with wood-oil permitted. Instead it clings firmly, and oxygen atoms required for further oxidization must diffuse through the oxide coating to reach fresh silicon underneath. At the end of this shallow hall King Thibaw and Queen Suphayala, more depressed than usual, glare out at their subjects. Some had permission to cover the wide surface with pink or green satin, while others, more honored, might add a fringe, either plain or embroidered. The regularity of this diffusion provides chipmakers with a way to control the thickness of the oxide layers they create. This time it is a nun and her family members who have joined author in his audience with King and Queen, to one side of whom rise two cloth umbrellas in white layers with gold leaf forms dangling from their skirts. A golden umbrella was given by special grace to the high wuns and the royal princes.


For example, the thin oxide layers required to insulate the gates of today’s tiny transistors can be made by allowing oxygen to diffuse for only a short time. Here we take our leave to walk about a room-within-a-room (“where the king kept religious manuscripts”). The white umbrella belonged to the king alone, and not even the heir-apparent was allowed to use it. The problem is that the gate oxide, which in modern chips is just several atoms thick, is becoming too slim to lay down reliably. We exit into the right-hand courtyard, where the sun is much too bright, the air much too humid, and so seek refuge in the “Western Queen’s Chambers,” where her majesty today seems not to be in evidence. One fix, of course, is to make this layer thicker. Matters were further complicated by the number of umbrellas. The rub here: that as the thickness of the oxide increases, the capacitance of the gate decreases. Nine white ones marked the king; eight golden ones, the heir-apparent. You might ask, “Isn’t that a good thing?” As the sun heats up the corrugated roofs, they begin to creak. “Isn’t capacitance bad?” The number of umbrellas for the rest of the royal personages depended upon their achievements, or the regard that the king had for them. Often capacitance is to be avoided.


We a have circled back to arrive at another entrance hall, which a plaque describes as “The Deer Throne.” Nonetheless, if they achieved too much and became popular, they were put to death. But the gate of a transistor operates by inducing electrical charge in the silicon below it, which provides a channel for current to flow. We continue past its open-air throne, also octagonal, and down several steps to a sidewalk that parallels a roadway. Distinguished statesmen and generals might have several golden htis, which were duly displayed on all public occasions, and were put up in the house in prominent places. If the capacitance of the gate is too low, not enough charge will be present in this channel for it to conduct. A man dressed in an olive military uniform cycles past. The king’s “agent” in Rangoon had only one, which very fairly represented the consideration in which Great Britain was held. The solution is to use something other than the usual silicon dioxide to insulate the gate. We pass a white, stuccoed structure (“used by the king to view the revelries of the lesser queens and ladies-in-waiting during the Water Festival”), from which a modern, baby blue water pipe extends, and continue toward a tower, where a seller of soft drinks and snacks is sitting asleep in his chair, his mouth open.


In particular, semiconductor manufacturers have been looking hard at what are known as high-K (high-dielectric-constant) materials. Though thirsty, author decides not to awaken him, and instead mounts the tower’s spiraling exterior staircase to arrive, out of breath, at a “No Littering” sign. A favorite trick of the king, Naungdaw Gyi, was to issue new edicts as to the length of umbrella handles and the proper measurement of the paso. Such as hafnium oxide and strontium titanate, ones that allow the oxide layer to be made thicker and thus more robust without compromising the ability of the gate to act as a tiny electrical switch. “From this tower the king would view the city at night, when oil lamps were lit at the pagodas in the city, for example, during the Thadingut Festival.” District officials used to make large sums of money by way of fines in those days, and occasionally they themselves fell victim to the same practice by others. Placing a high-K insulator on top of silicon is, however, not nearly as straightforward as just allowing it to oxidize. The view extends beyond the eight-tiered reception hall toward Mandalay Hill in the North; on to a range of verdant mountains in the East. Innocent, unwitting Englishmen got themselves into serious trouble by going about carrying silk umbrellas with white covers.


 The task is best accomplished with a technique called atomic-layer deposition, which employs a gas made of small molecules that naturally stick to the surface but do not bond to one another. Down in the courtyard, at an extremely leisurely pace, a caretaker is mowing the lawn; in the middle distance a single pagoda gleams with gold, in among other spires of more subdued colors. The offence was high treason and merited death. A single-molecule-thick film can be laid down simply by exposing the wafer to this gas long enough so that every spot becomes covered. Intervening between the tower and Mandalay Hill, modern buildings arise. None actually underwent the supreme penalty, but there were a number who experienced vivid denunciations and ended up in the stocks. Treatment with a second gas creates the molecule-thin veneer. To the north black smoke issues from a smoke stack; to the east more mountains rise above the city’s rooftops. Repeated applications of these two gases deposit layer over layer of this substance until the desired thickness is built up as a coating. All the buildings of the palace grounds are visible from here (“During the time of King Mindon the buildings were gilded with pure gold; however, in the current reconstruction metallic gold paint is used instead of pure gold”).


The metal, size and construction of spittoons, betel-boxes, cups and like, household furniture for different grades were rigidly demarcated and afforded the most minute evidences of the owner’s rank and his precedence. After the gate insulator is put in place, parts of it must be selectively removed to achieve the appropriate pattern on the wafer. Within the top stage of the tower graffiti have been written in whiteout, most in the Myanmar script, a few in the Roman alphabet. Anklets of gold (kyegyin) were forbidden on pain of death to children except for those of the royal family. The procedure for doing so (lithography) constitutes a key part of the technology needed to create transistors and their interconnections. “THIN Zin * I love you,” reads one. Silk cloth, brocaded with gold or silver flowers and figures of animals, might be worn by none but the royal blood and such of the wunkadawas, the minister’s wives, as received a special grace enabling them to use it. Practitioners once believed it impossible to use lithography to define features smaller than the wavelength of light employed, but for a few years now 70-nanometer features have been routinely made using ultraviolet light with a wavelength of 248 nanometers. “T. A. ENSK Ø WJO / MTTT / TTT /KTK.”


Similarly the usage as to jewels and precious stones was very carefully laid down. The general strategy now allows transistors with 50-nanometer features to be produced using light with a wavelength of 193 nanometers. We have ducked in out of the heat and into the Promenade Hall, “which was occupied by retainers whose duty it was to present the king with drinking water and the betel nut whenever he required them.” Very few besides the king and his kinsfolk might wear diamonds. But one can push these diffraction-correction techniques only so far. Now it is occupied by the ticket takers and sellers, the latter engaged in counting their take for the morning. Which is why investigators are trying to develop the means for higher-resolution patterning. The display of emeralds and rubies was restricted in like manner, and so with other stones less esteemed by Burmans. A long silver umbrella hangs on the wall. The most promising approach employs lithography, but with light of much shorter wavelength — what astronomers would call “soft” X-rays or, to keep with the preferred term in the semiconductor industry, extreme ultraviolet. All rubies above a certain size found in the country were the property of the king, and the hapless digger as a rule got nothing in return.


Several other officials, seated at a desk are occupying themselves with documents, to which seals are being affixed. His head paid the penalty, if he listened to the temptings of black merchants from India and chipped it so as to bring it under the royalty size. Semiconductor manufacturers face daunting challenges as they move to extreme ultraviolet lithography, which greatly reduces the wavelengths and thus the size of the features that can be printed. A woman’s handbag sits atop the table within a pale blue imitation wickerwork plastic container. Velvet sandals (Kadipa panat) were allowed to none but persons of royal blood. The prototype systems built so far are configured for a 13-nanometer wavelength. Another official sits in a blue plastic chair, alternately looking out the window, alternately smiling at author. The use of hinthapada, the vermilion dye that they obtain from cinnabar, was very jealously guarded. They are truly marvels of engineering — on both macroscales and nanoscales. Neither betel nut nor drinking water has made its appearance. The kemauk, a great wide-brimmed hat, was an honor eagerly sought after by the lower rank of officials. Though the prettier of the two ticket-sellers has a nearly full glass of tea at her elbow, which she now blows upon and takes two sips from.


At last a man in a longyi arrives to retrieve a baby’s red cap.


Second Mandalay outing, author heading for River. Seen at the nanometer level, the tiny features etched into the chip resemble tall, thin skyscrapers, separated by narrow chasms. Before long we have reached the Clock Tower. At this scale, traditional cleaning fluids act as viscous tidal waves. Its four stages in red brick, its five painted tiers of ornamental woodwork. And could easily cause things to topple. Topped by the inevitable hti. Even if that catastrophe can be avoided, these liquids have a troubling tendency to get stuck in the nanotechnology canyons. Across the street at the intersection extends a white, blue-lettered banner reading “Lucky Bird Co. Ltd. / Supplier of Computer Needs.” An ingenious solution to this problem emerged during the 1990s from work done at Los Alamos National Laboratories: Above rises the Ambassador Hotel. Supercritical fluids. In cream, olive, beige, turquoise and pale blue. The basic idea is to use carbon dioxide at elevated pressure and temperature, enough to put it above its so-called critical point. Continuing down the avenue, through the whole length of a city block, an official building, in maroon tile and white-painted concrete. Under these conditions carbon dioxide has certain properties of a liquid but retains a gas’s lack of viscosity.


Immediately before it, blocking two floors, is a billboard advertising “Artesunate / Specific Anti-malarial Tablet & Injection.” Supercritical carbon dioxide thus flows easily under particles and can mechanically dislodge them more effectively than can any wet chemical. “Myanmar Whiskey,” reads a second, equally imposing ad, the top of its whiskey bottle soaring another story higher. Mixed with the proper co-solvents, supercritical carbon dioxide can be quite effective in dissolving photoresist. Two much smaller billboards advertise crackers and two varieties of soda. What is more, once the cleaning is done, supercritical fluids are easy to remove: In the next block a large circular building is under construction. Lowering the pressure — say to atmospheric levels — causes them to evaporate away as a normal gas. Three school kids, two sisters in green skirts and white, green-bordered shirts, along with their little brother, ride by in a trishaw. With the wafer cleaned and dried in this way, it is ready for the next step: A monk with his bowl pauses for a white Toyota to pass. Adding the junctions of the transistors — tubs on either side of the gate that serve as the current “source” and “drain.” Opposite the circular building stands a white-tile-clad modern apartment complex.


Such junctions are made by infusing the silicon with trace elements that transform it from a semiconductor to a conductor. Another white car is prevented from entering the intersection by the ongoing flood of bicyclists, the women in long skirts and broad-brimmed hats. The usual tactic is to fire arsenic or boron ions into the surface of the silicon with a device called an ion implanter. At last it turns left past a pausing white truck. Once emplaced, these ions must be “activated.” An off-road vehicle labeled “The Surf” surges forward in the opposite direction, its horn honking. That is, given the energy that they need to incorporate them into the crystal lattice. An ancient, orange mini-taxi stops at the corner to pick up a passenger. Activation requires heating the silicon, which often has the unfortunate consequence of causing the arsenic and boron to diffuse downward. Swerving around the taxi, a black motorbike uses as blocking a right-turning van to enter the intersection. To limit this unwanted side effect, the temperature must be raised quickly enough so that only a thin layer on top heats up. A trishaw cyclist, dressed in a white Calvin Klein shirt and a bright red longyi, stops mid-street to take out a betel nut. Restricting the heating in this way ensures that the surface will cool rapidly on its own.


Today’s systems ramp up and down by thousands of degrees a second. “Go Thein Special Cheroot,” reads a sign above an aqua lintel. Still, the arsenic and boron atoms diffuse too much for comfort. “C.T. Wang,” another, accompanied by a none-too-healthy-looking set of teeth. Making the junctions thicker than desired for optimum speed. “Yoma Bank,” reads a sign in black on white, “your bank” beneath it in white script on a red ground. A remedy, however, is on the drawing board: High above, the bank’s name is repeated in phonetic Chinese approximation. Laser thermal processing, which can vary the temperature at a rate of up to five billion degrees a second. A maroon swastika has been rotated 45 degrees against a baby blue ground, both encircled in maroon and beige, the color of the house, whose first-floor shutters are open to reveal the back of a Nissan pickup truck. This technology, which should soon break out of the lab and onto the factory floor, holds the promise of preventing virtually all diffusion and of yielding extremely shallow junctions. A photography studio shows (1) graduating seniors, in colorful gowns; (2) prom queens, in silver crowns; (3) a just-married couple, he in a suit much too large for him; (4) two kids, nine and seven; (5) a middle-aged beauty; (6) a grandmother.


Once the transistors are completed. A sign in the shop next door reads “HLASENDI” (in red) “Girl & Boy” (in blue, the ampersand in turquoise) “Beauty Salon.” Millions of capacitors are often added to make dynamic random-access memory, or DRAM. “WELCOME,” say the gold letters on a green doormat. Manufacturing engineers are experiencing the same kinds of problems that they had encountered in fashioning transistor gates. Across the street a sign with an arrow (in yellow) reads “ARROW” (in avocado). Indeed, here the problems are even more urgent. Looking like a block of doctors’ offices is a building in stuccoed facings and tinted windows. And the answer, again. “Maitreya Buddha Temple,” reads its sign. Appears to be atomic-layer deposition. The gate is locked, but a happy Buddha in white ceramic and gold earrings, stands beside the door. The same technique that had been adopted for the production of the latest generation of DRAM chips. “Safety First,” reads a sign across the street, positioned under the firm’s name: “DQ Royal Construction,” to which has been added, “Modern Design * Standard Quality.” Once again a solution has been recycled to good effect. We are heading down 26th Street in the direction of Strand Road, a white-on-green sign informs us.

New Meets Old

“Vegas, A Name Known Round the World,” reads a sign for cigarettes. Atomic-layer deposition can also help in the next phase of chip manufacture, hooking everything together. “Rave,” another sign proclaims, “Non Stop Action, Non Stop Taste.” The procedure is to lay down an insulating layer of glass, on which a pattern of lines is printed and etched. The first “Rave” ad is echoed, diagonally across the intersection, by a second “Rave” ad. Then fill the grooves with metal to form the wires. “Myanmar Police Station No. (6),” reads a white-bordered blue-tiled sign in gold letters. These steps are repeated to create six to eight layers of crisscrossing interconnections. Ornamented with a shield in which a white star has been superimposed over a field of red, blue and yellow stripes. Although the semiconductor industry has traditionally used aluminum for this bevy of wires. “May I help you?” asks a sign at the precinct gate. In recent years it has shifted to copper. “Drug trafficking can get death penalty.” Which allows the chips to operate faster and helps to maintain signal integrity. We turn the corner and head down a side street. The problem is that copper contaminates the junctions, so a thin conductive barrier (one that does not slow the chip down) needs to be placed below it.


A large open-air market is in progress. The solution was atomic-layer-desposition. “Look!” Author puts notebook away to concentrate on shopping. The switch to copper also proved challenging for another reason: Flory was pointing with his stick to a stall, and saying something, but his words were drowned out by the yells of two women, who were shaking their fists at each other over a basket of pineapples. Laying down copper is inherently tricky. Elizabeth had recoiled from the stench and din, but he did not notice, and led her deeper into the crowd, pointing to this stall and that. Many high-tech approaches were attempted. The merchandise was foreign-looking, queer and poor. But none worked well. There were vast pomelos hanging on strings like green moons, red bananas, baskets of heliotrope-colored prawns, brittle dried fish tied in bundles, crimson chilis, ducks split open and cured like hams, green coconuts, the larvae of the rhinoceros beetle, sections of sugar cane, dahs, lacquered sandals, check silk longyis, aphrodisiacs in the form of large soap-like pills, glazed earthenware jars four feet high, Chinese sweetmeats made of garlic and sugar, green and white cigars, purple brinjals, persimmon-seed necklaces. Then IBM’s engineers tried an old-fashioned method:


Next they encountered chickens in wicker cages, brass Buddhas, heart-shaped betel leaves, great swatches of false hair, red clay cooking-pots, steel shoes for bullocks. Electroplating, which leaves an uneven surface and has to be followed with polishing. Papier-mâché marionettes, strips of alligator hide with magical properties. At the time, the thought of polishing a wafer — introducing, that is, abrasive grit — was anathema to this industry, which is downright obsessed with cleanliness. Elizabeth’s head was beginning to swim. Hence, those who experimented with this approach at IBM did so without seeking permission from their supervisors. At the other end of the bazaar the sun gleamed through a priest’s umbrella, blood-red, as though through the ear of a giant. They were delighted to discover that polishing made the wafer more amenable to lithographic patterning. In front of a stall four Dravidian women were pounding turmeric with heavy stakes in a large wooden mortar. That it removed troublesome defects from the surface. The hot-scented yellow powder flew up and tickled Elizabeth’s nostrils, making her sneeze. That it made it easier to deposit films for subsequent processing steps. She thought that she could not endure this place a moment longer.


The lesson to be learned here is that sometimes antiquated methods can be just as valuable as cutting-edge techniques. Finally we arrive, on the banks of the River, at a club called “View Point.” Indeed, combinations of old and new have greatly benefited the semiconductor industry. From its stage furniture (Pedvey speakers), its heavily made-up waitresses (it is 9:30 am) and the posters on its walls (liquor advertisements featuring scantily clad Burmese girls), this would appear to be the town’s hot spot. That it has advanced so far in the past four decades is testament to the ingenious ability of countless scientists and engineers to refine the basic method of chip manufacture. Through open windows we view the Ayeyarwady, over the roofs of thatched shanties. Four decades from now will the fabrication of electronic devices look anything like our current procedures? A slight breeze is flowing through the open doorways. Although some futurists argue that exotic nanotechnology by mid-century will revolutionize electronics. Among the two dozen people visible no more than three or four are working. I’m betting that the semiconductor industry remains pretty much intact, having by then carried out another dazzling series of technical advances, today beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

Mandalay-Pindaya Escape

On the day of author’s departure from Mandalay, instead of waiting ten hours for the bus to leave for Pindaya, site of the historic cave, which, he is told, would have meant, after a midnight transfer, arrival “early in the morning” (“at 5:00 or 6:00 am”), ten more hours later, he arranges for a car that will make the trip in seven hours, at but three times the modest cost of bus fare. As a foreigner, he must pay far more than a native, but the reward is a front seat next to the driver as well as certain prerogatives of the Raj.


Wizards and witches are very common in Burma. If a person has been bewitched, he visits a wizard, who utters an incantation that forces the bewitcher to his presence.


With two young Burmese passengers also aboard we exit central Mandalay, past construction reminiscent of Bangkok fifteen years ago: mid-size shopping mall, low-rise apartment complex, chain stores known throughout the region. Quickly, however, we reach the primitive outskirts of the city, to begin a grueling struggle with bumpy, pot-holed, dusty, washed-out roads. In modern Myanmar there seems to be no such thing as a filling station or a convenience store, at least not beyond the urban precinct.


There are good witches and bad. They are called sôns and wézas. The former delight in killing people, the latter try to overthrow the former.


After half an hour’s travel on bad roads, we suddenly enter a new divided highway. For the next half hour we dodge animals along its shoulder, wait patiently for motor scooters to clear from the left lane, ever vigilant of old ladies returning from shopping on their bicycles who are also using the left lane to approach from the opposite direction. Gasoline is dispensed from canisters alongside this “superhighway.” Fruit stands and piles of vegetables spread on the ground are the only other establishments.


The sôns also afflict people with epilepsy, fits and divers other ailments. The wézas are wise men, and they belong to four categories:


The divided highway come to an end, miserable roads recommenced, for another hour and a half we travel through an undistinguished, unproductive countryside, till abruptly we turn left, traverse a village and continue out of it on a much rougher one lane road. For yet another half hour a rather scrubby landscape, reminiscent of rural Cambodia, unfolds, until we begin our ascent into, and eventually up over, a rather modest mountain range that runs across the region. The day is warm but not uncomfortable.


1. the Pyada wéza, the mercury wise man; 2. the Than wéza, the iron wise man; 3. the Se wéza, the medicine wise man, and 4. the In wéza, the cabalistic wise man.


From time to time we are halted at control points, where a primitive red and white arm has been thrown down over the road and the driver must pay the police a “toll.” Before long the landscape begins to improve; as we ascend hill after hill it breaks out into rice paddy, vegetable field, lake and woods, a scenery reminiscent of photos of Vietnam. Gradually we mount higher and higher, careful not to fall off the one-lane of brittle asphalt. Rain begins to sprinkle. Mist seeps out of trees and encroaches on the roadway.


At this elevation life has grown markedly more primitive. Axes over their shoulders, tiny saws carried in small baskets on their backs, woodcutters tramp to and from the woods. Homesteaders are seen laboring in exiguous fields. Herdsmen, boys of ten or twelve, swat at their small flocks of goats, sheep and cattle to keep them out of our path. There is precious little else in the way of profitable activity, except for road repair, conducted by women, some of whom are engaged in building miniature bridges.


The Than and In sorcerers are the most powerful and efficacious, the mercury wizards devoting themselves to the production of gold and silver.


The mountain people seem depressed, not surprising given their economic circumstances. Moreover, unlike their lively urban counterparts, they are not physically prepossessing. A sense of style, however, persists. Except for the green and white of school uniform, every color combination is unpredictable: floppy green hat, pink tee shirt and a skirt in magenta, purple and silver stripes; a patterned top — tiny yellow flowers on a deep blue field — worn over turquoise longyi, both held in place by a crimson sash.


The medicine wizards are those who set up as professional doctors on the score of nothing more than their knowledge of herbs and simples.


The mountains themselves — through the half hour that precedes and the half hour that follows our steeper ascent — have been beautifully sculpted, as though by a Ming dynasty master of literati landscape. Paradoxically, at the height of our climb the houses grow more not less stylish and, unaccountably, larger too. The source of this mountaintop prosperity is by no means clear. Perhaps it is the opium poppy. At any rate, many spacious houses appear, many others still in the process of being constructed.


The title of iron wizard implies that a man has knowledge of the properties of all natural objects, and he can also act as medical advisor.


We pause, still in the mountains, for lunch, at a restaurant whose interior is covered with the same advertisements seen in the city; likewise, its red plastic imitation wicker stools. The menu too is the same. The only change has been in the weather, which is pleasantly cool, the skies grown overcast. Ten people — in addition to author, driver and our one remaining back-seat passenger — have taken up stations in the corners of this huge dining area, as distant as possible from one another, so as to observe the foreigner.


However many miracles the Than wéza may work, invariably he is exceeded in reputation by the constructor of cabalistic squares and symbols.


Across the road from the restaurant stand two new houses, each with a brand new, ornamental wrought iron fence and superfluous gate. The residential color scheme — a striking combination of three pastels per house — is reminiscent of decoration along the southwestern coast of India. As we leave the town, which stretches down the road for a mile, each of the region’s architectural options presents itself. This prosperous town culminates in an elegant, multi-spired pagoda, perched on a cliff.


His squares and symbols, like the horoscope, are in constant use by every Burman with dreams of prosperity.

Nature’s Code: Pindaya

6:15 am, Pindaya town. On April 14, 2003 scientists announced to the world that they had finished sequencing the human genome. The guest house restaurant not yet open for breakfast (though breakfast has been advertised for 6:00 am). Logging the three billion pairs of DNA nucleotides that describe how to make a human being. Author has walked the half-mile back to the outskirts of town. But finding the working genes amid the junk in the sequence remains a further challenge. The road bordered with gigantic banyan trees, whose branches reach far across it and on out over adjacent properties. As does gaining a better understanding of the behavior of the protein molecules that they describe. In among their lower, compact strands of trunk have been constructed little animistic altars. No wonder Human Genome Project leader Francis S. Collins has called the group’s accomplishment only “the beginning of the beginning.” Furnished with fresh cut flowers set out in vases on wooden planks.


Collins was also alluding to an event commemorated that same week: A conversational group of four married women has congregated about a table for gossip. The beginning of the beginning, 50 years earlier. The tones are literally hushed, lest the content of the discussion go any farther. When James D. Watson and Francis H. Crick revealed the structure of the DNA molecule itself. Each woman is wearing a sweater that is slightly too large for her. Those too were exciting times. None is having anything but a cup of tea. Scientists knew the molecule they had been able to visualize contained nothing less than the secret of life. Tea-clatch concluded, the four file out. “Pindaya” means an extensive plain of trees with white flowers. Each glancing back with a loving regard for author. Which permitted organisms to store themselves as a set of blueprints. The Pindaya Hill has three eastern caves and a southern cave, all at 4,970 feet above sea-level. Thereby converting this stored information back into live metabolism. Pindaya Town itself is at 3,880 feet.


Through three open portals we look at the lake, directly across the street. In subsequent years attempts to figure out how this conversion took place captivated the scientific world. A schoolgirl of nine or ten sits on the restaurant’s steps, waiting. DNA’s alphabet was known to consist of only four types of nucleotide. Meanwhile, four boys passing up the road pause together to peer down into a public well. So the information included in the double helix had to be decoded according to definite rules. The little girl, in green skirt and olive top, gets up and does several dance steps for author’s benefit. So as to tell the cells which of 20 amino acids to string together so as to constitute the thousands of proteins that make up the billions of life-forms. At last it becomes apparent why she has been waiting. Indeed, the entire living world had to be perpetually engaged in frenetic decryption. Not for school but for a plastic bag from the restaurant’s proprietress. As seeds germinated, eggs hatched, fungus spread and bacteria divided.


Pindaya’s caves belong to the limestone hills 200 million years old. During the interval they may have been inhabited by men. We have no way of verifying this, because archaeologists have not been allowed to excavate them, as they now contain religious images. Local authorities, led by the Buddhist monks, will never permit such a thing. If there had been a cave opening onto the north, primitive men would not have occupied it anyway. Primitive men prefer the south. They might, though, have occupied caves facing East.


At the time so little was understood about the DNA message that attempts to crack the genetic code focused on the mathematics of the problem. A swarthy couple takes seats side by side at a table, their backs to the wall. Many early proposals proved wrong, a few spectacularly so. Three women, bent almost double, trudge by in the narrow road, their vegetable-filled baskets supported only by a strap looped about their foreheads. Although their sheer ingenuity and creativity still provide fascinating reading. At 6:30 a single horn honks, its source not visible. In fact, when the actual code was finally deciphered, during the 1960s. All passersby turn their heads for a thumbnail census of the restaurant’s interior. It was disappointing. Finally, the first motorized vehicle of the morning appears, a tractor-engine-powered passenger van, filled with laborers on their way to work. Nature’s version looked less elegant than several hypotheses proposed by theorists. Live branches have been stuck into its radiator.


We approach the entrance to the caves through a large grove of banyan trees. Only in recent years have new discoveries concerning the structure of the code revealed just how sophisticated a piece of programming it really is. Several have exactly six large branches, as large as the trunks of smaller trees; they fan out star-like. Why nature chose these basic rules and how they survived three billion years of natural selection have started to become clear. At the beginning of the stair up the mountainside author takes a seat on the base of a stupa, next to which a horse cart is loading passengers and produce for the descent into town. We can now show that the code’s rules may actually speed natural selection while protecting life from making disastrous errors in protein synthesis. Demarcating the entrance is a concrete gate, its pillars in brown and white, its upper reaches in red and gold. Study of the code also provides clues to solving some of the challenges that face laboratories in the post-genome era.


In going back to the very beginning to understand the rules of life’s underlying structure, we discover tools for future research. Bright green salamander-dragons. When we speak of the “code” and “decoding,” we are being quite literal. Standing on their front legs. Genetic instructions are stored in DNA and RNA. Are resting their hind legs high above on the pillars. Both are made of one biochemical molecule, nucleic acid. As below they bare large white teeth. But organisms are mostly built from a very different type of molecule, protein. And dark blood red gums. So, although a gene is traditionally defined as the sequence of nucleotides that describes a single protein, the genetic sentence containing that description must first be translated from one system of symbols into an entirely different system. The ascent begins. It is rather like converting from Morse code to English. There are several hundred steps to mount, a formidable climb for young primitive man, much more so for aging author.


Climbing up from the Iron Pasada, one enters a cave filled with one pagoda and hundreds of Buddha images clustered about in no order whatsoever so that you don’t know where to sit and say the prayer or offer candles, flowers or food. So it is best to pray at the Shwe U Min cetiya, which is 75 feet high. Had it not been for the dynamite blast of 1925, it could not be so high. The folks maintain that this is one of the 84,000 pagodas of Asoka (274-232 BC), but there is no evidence for this. (Than Tun, History of Pindaya: Town, Pagoda and Cave.)

Cracking the Code

The broad steps are bordered with inset benches for resting along the arduous way. When Watson and Crick described DNA’s structure in 1953, their contemporaries could see that genes are written in an alphabet of just four “letters.” To either side, from under the canopy, extends a multilevel landscape. The bases adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine (A, C, G and T). To the left, two roads intertwine among trees of many varieties. That distinguish each nucleotide and form the rungs in DNA’s now familiar twisted-ladder. To the right the mountain slopes precipitously. The protein alphabet, by contrast, contained 20 different amino acids. At 7:00 o’clock this mid-August morning author is the site’s sole pilgrim. So the need for a multinucleotide genetic “word” to specify any given amino acid was obvious. Though a gorgeous girl of twelve strides on past him as he writes, along a parallel pathway. Two-letter combinations of the four bases would yield only sixteen possible words, or “codons.”


But triplet combinations produce 64 possible codons, which would be plenty. Entering the staircase at a point above him, she too takes a seat to rest. Little else was obvious about how genes might be translated into proteins. We have risen above — by the time that he reaches her — five stupas, all white except for their golden htis. Today we understand that gene sequences do use three-letter codons to specify individual amino acids. They are surrounded by young slash pines. And that several steps are needed to convert the gene’s sequence of bases into a sequence of amino acids. “Min-ga-la ba,” says the young girl, dressed in white pajama bottoms and a green-yellow-and-rust plaid shirt, heavy and too big for her. The DNA gene is first copied and edited into a transcript made of RNA. Author responds in Burmese. Employing similar nucleic acid bases, except that DNA’s thymine is replaced by uracil. Together we climb higher, reaching a plateau among a mini-grove of zedis, the bell-shaped stupas.


We gaze out over a landscape suffused with the smoke of early-morning kitchens. This messenger RNA (mRNA) version of the gene is then read by cellular machinery, three letters at a time. The cocks are crowing. While tiny cellular butlers, known as transfer RNAs (tRNA). The dogs are barking. Fetch the specified amino acids to be strung together. The birds are gurgling and chirping. But in the early 1950s this process was a black box. We reach a stupa whose lower four stages are painted white, whose upper three, gold. Leaving only an intriguing mathematical puzzle. At last we join the road as it winds upward, but we are still below the level where the true ascent to the caves will begin. And the first proposed solution came not from a biologist but from the physicist George Gamow. Many more steps remain. Better known as the originator of the big bang theory. The little girl, smiling over her shoulder, scampers off down the road toward a ticket taker’s stand before the entrance to the cave precinct.


For some source material to write about the Pindaya Cave we visited various monastic libraries of Pindaya. At Indè Min Gyaung we copied five leaves of a nine line Palm Leaf Manuscript titled “On the Five Precepts.” Composed in verse, it is by an unknown monk, who had stopped at Pindaya the ninth of January 1795 on his way to Lawksawk. We thought of using these manuscript pages as an introduction to this, our book about the Pindaya pagoda (Shwe U Min Zahdi), so here we have included its verses.


Gamow’s “diamond code,” published in 1954, elegantly combined the arithmetic of deriving 20 amino acid formulae from a four-nucleotide alphabet with the physical structure of DNA itself. Author ascends 54 more steps and pauses to rest. Gamow theorized that at every turn in the double helix there was a diamond-shaped space bounded at its four corners by nucleotides. The benches have proven very useful. These gaps, according to his theory, would allow DNA to act as a template against which amino acids line up. He mounts another 54 before pausing again. Determined by the nucleotide combinations present at each twist of the ladder. We have reached the entrance to the elevator only to discover that it is not operational till 9:00 am. His model eliminated one corner of each diamond. We pause again to rest. At this point he sorted the 64 possible three-nucleotide codons into chemically related groups. To survey Pindaya Town and its placid lake, amidst the ever expanding landscape.


At the foot of the final staircase a vendor has started up a tape of Burmese-adapted American rock ’n’ roll. It also allowed meaningful codons to overlap, depending on the “reading frame.” After catching his breath, author removes his shoes to ascend 108 more steps. Or where one began reading the sequence of letters along the DNA molecule. We reach a landing and face only two more stairs, the first consisting of ten, the second of nine steps. Such data compression represents an efficiency prized by coding theorists of the day. A maroon pathway of five tiles leads up their middle. Unfortunately, amino acid chains were soon discovered that Gamow’s overlapping codes could not account for. From the top of the first stair one looks up into the cave’s vertiginous ceiling encrusted with stalactites, beneath which are ranged a multitude of organically disposed images of the Buddha. Meanwhile, accumulating evidence suggested that DNA and amino acids were not directly interacting.


Accordingly, Crick developed his hypothesis that so-called adaptor molecules might be serving as intermediaries. A plastic sheet has been suspended within the cave’s entrance to catch drops of water. In 1957 he put forth a set of rules whereby such interactions might occur. Which flow off the sheet into a bucket. Simply put, his adaptors recognized only 20 meaningful codons to designate each of 20 amino acids. Others periodically ping against the thin metal shelves supporting vases of floral offerings. Thereby rendering the remainder of the 64 possible triplets “nonsense.” The first cave images are grouped about an imposing stupa. Rather than overlapping, Crick’s code was “commaless”: But as we proceed inward, things become more complex. Meaning that codons were invisible to the adaptors. We encounter narrow passageways, including a maze. Nature needed no figurative punctuation to designate the start of a reading frame. So indicated for the pilgrim’s benefit on a sign at its entrance.


Mong Pan* 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Hnget Pyaw Daw Tha 4 1 1 2 1 1 2
Mè ZaLa Tha 3 1 1 2 0.5 0.5 2
Tha Win Tha Ma 4 1 1 2 1 1 2
Ma ThiRi Tha 1 1 1 2 1 1 2
Yay Lim Tha 1 1 1 2 1 1 2


*1 = Units; 2 = Muskets; 3 = Guns; 4 = Lances; 5 = Powder; 6 = Lead; 7 = Flint


Native donors have had their names listed in Burmese. The commaless concept was so streamlined that immediately it won nearly universal acceptance. Foreign donors, in English. Until, that is, the data again proved an elegant theory wrong. “The Narcotics Suppression Bureau / Royal Thai Police.” In the early 1960s experiments showed that even supposed nonsense codons could provoke protein synthesis. “Miss Elsie Low / Singapore.” By 1965 the actual amino acid meanings of all 64 possible triplet codons had been worked out. “Sally / Penang, Malaysia.” No tidy numerology was found to apply: “Dr. Andreas Schaffert Reiner Woelpo / Germany.” Certain codons were just redundant. “Wankin Man & Tung Ming Fan / Hong Kong.” Some individual amino acids were specified by two, four, and even six different codons. “Tan Suttee and Family / Australia.” After all the enthusiastic speculation, many had come to view nature’s real code as little more than a random result of history.

Frozen Accident?

Indeed, once the code had been deciphered, scientists found that organisms as different as human beings and bacteria employed the exact same coding rules. The panoply of images is truly spectacular, the quietude immense. In the billions of years since the three basic domains of life — archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes — had diverged from a single ancestor, no variation had occurred. Nature in her glory has almost been exceeded, if the human vision, by contrast, is somewhat excessive, redundant and, due to the recent uniform coating of all the images in red and gold, a little gaudy. Consequently, the “frozen accident” argument, put forth by Crick in 1968, came to dominate scientific thinking. Author remains the only pilgrim. “The allocation of codons to amino acids was entirely a matter of chance,” he wrote. Having spurned the ticket-taker’s assistance, he is on his own. “But once the code had appeared, it was so fundamental to life that further changes would have been catastrophic.”


As we round a corner, the cave’s space opens up into a much wider chamber, in which the Buddha’s images are much farther apart. Darwinian natural selection rests on the premise that sometimes a small change in a single gene can prove beneficial, if it should allow the organism to fare better in its environment. At the center of this split-level room a natural rock has been designated “The Elephant’s Mooring Post.” Altering the organism’s decoding rules, however, would be tantamount to introducing changes simultaneously at countless sites throughout its genetic material. This cavern’s images are also much smaller and more “Burmese” in style than those in the preceding caves. As a consequence producing an utterly dysfunctional metabolism. The floor is damp from the dripping of water. It is like the difference between introducing a single typo and rewiring the entire keyboard. A stalactite has joined with a stalagmite to form an eternally moist column.


There are more than seventy Buddha images here that bear no resemblance to any other images found in Myanma. Moreover, no other site includes such strange images. We have no name for representation, let alone its function. When we examine works on Indian Buddhist Iconography we find that the cult of Bhaigajjhaguru is quite popular among the Mahayanists. In Pali the name is Bhesajjaguru but the Pali scholars respell it Bhisakkaguru. In Japan it is called Yakushinoyorai.


This straightforward reasoning, however, has since proven to be simplistic. We cross a narrow bridge, passing a grotto filled with a glass-enclosed temple. Although most living systems do employ the standard genetic code, scientists now know of at least sixteen variants distributed across a diverse array of evolutionary lineages that assign different meanings to certain codons. Ignazio Silvio has deposited a full-faced image high on the grotto’s wall, underneath another situated even higher, deposited there by “Myo and Nyo Nyo Malasyian Travel Service.” The underlying system remains the same: triple-nucleotide codons are translated into amino acids. We make a hairpin turn and detour into a high hallway of fantastic natural formations. But whereas most organisms would read the RNA codon “CUG” as the amino acid leucine. This chamber is only sparsely populated with Buddha images. Many species of the fungus Candida translate CUG as serine. We exit as we entered, in quietude.


Continuing along an all-but-bare corridor, we arrive at the “Black-Clay Hillock.” Mitochondria, the tiny power generators, have their own genomes, and many have also developed their own codon assignments. From here we proceed to the “Fairy’s Pool.” For instance, in the mitochondrial genome of baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), four of the six codons that normally encode leucine instead encode threonine. Whence we now mount more tiled steps to the culmination of the cave experience: a whitewashed grotto at the top of which is another unexplained “Myanma-style” Buddha. As discoveries of these variations proliferated during the 1990s, it became clear that the code is not frozen at all. Surrounded by seven smaller images. It can evolve, which means that it probably did evolve. At last we turn about to retrace our steps through many chambers to the cave’s entrance and the daylight. So nature’s standard codon-amino acid assignments, it turns out, are not at all random.


The way in and the way out, it would seem, are one and the same.

Damage Control: Inle Lake

Arrived at the town of Inle, decision is made that first outing should be an early morning trip by bicycle to the western villages. Every coding system must contend with the possibility of mistakes. At 8:30 many people are heading in to work, about half on foot, half on bicycles. But not all errors are equally damaging. Only an occasional man, in his twenties or thirties, is riding a motorbike. In English, vowels and consonants are very different. An occasional horse carriage heads for a village, but no motorized vehicle. So that the replacement of “s” by “a” makea thia meaaage aignificantly leaa eaay to undeatand. After passing by several villages set back from the road, author pauses at last a hundred yards from another, but a hundred yards across a body of water. By contrast, the letters “s” and “z” have a similar sound. A family is departing on a small flat boat, the young wife steering it by pole, so that husband and three-year-old son may debark and head toward town on foot. Zuch that thiz phrase remainz easily understandable. Now, however, author’s ball point pen runs out of ink, thereby preventing him from describing village activity, the large tree under which he has taken a seat, the margin of the water next to the high banked road, in which gorgeous reddish-purple lotuses are floating; all are disappearing into non-entity.


For an error-prone system, a good coding strategy would be one that reduces the effect of the occasional mistake. Where, then, to find another pen? In a living organism, errors come in many forms. Recalling a small store along the narrow main dirt road, author returns by bicycle. Sometimes the original DNA version of a gene changes (a mutation). He approaches the shop cautiously, stepping gingerly onto bamboo poles to reach its tiny window. Sometimes the wrong adaptor (tRNA) binds to the mRNA transcript of a gene. His requirement made clear by the imitation of writing. And misincorporates an amino acid into a nascent protein. After a moment’s pause he is handed a ballpoint pen. But even when scientists considered the code a product of change. When he offers to pay, however, he is told “No.” They noticed that it seemed to be arranged to ensure that individual errors are of little consequence. The pen belongs to the owner, who apparently has none for sale. As early as 1965 Carl R. Woese, then at the University of Illinois. Even though he is probably the only seller of writing materials to four large villages. Observed that similar codons (those sharing two of three letters) usually specify similar amino acids, so a mistake here or there does not greatly affect the resulting protein.


Author approaches one of the large villages on the unlikely chance of finding a merchant within. Defining “similar” with regard to amino acids can be complex: Along the klong that borders it, a whole family is bathing: The 20 amino acids differ from one another in all sorts of properties, from size to shape to electric charge. A skinny boy of seven, older brother of fourteen, bare-breasted sister of seventeen. What Woese and others noted is that codons sharing two out of three bases tend to code for amino acids that are much alike in the extent to which they are repelled by or attracted to water. They are pouring water over their heads from a blue plastic basin. This property is crucial to the ultimate functioning of the protein. Mother and grandmother not yet having decided to take the plunge. A newly made amino acid chain folds into a distinctive shape depending on the positioning of hydrophobic amino acids, which like to cluster together away from the cell’s watery cytoplasm, leaving hydrophiles to form the protein’s surface. Since a look down the village’s dusty alley identifies no store that would be selling ballpoint pens, author turns and recycles back up the path, past three children of six, eight and ten, who had earlier smiled at him but who now stretch their hands out for “money.”

Putting the Code to the Test

Along the road back into town we pause at a threshing ground. A remarkable feature of the genetic code. The side of the road, the road itself, its other margin serving for this purpose. Is that when a single-nucleotide error occurs. One machine is all the equipment needed. The actual and intended amino acids often turn out to be similar in hydrophobicity. Sheaves of rice stalks, stacked and already cured, are handed up to a boy on a plank, who feeds them into the thresher. Making the alteration in the final protein relatively harmless. The grain is deposited in a sack below, the chaff ejected atop a high pile, as girls of ten to fourteen stack the straw in bundles. But just how efficient is the code in this regard? Later the chaff will be burnt, if piles of ash along the road are any evidence. This is where, in 1998, we stepped in to develop the observations of earlier scientists. Author remounts his bike and continues, before long encountering a trishaw driver resting by the side of the road. First we took a quantitative measure of the 20 amino acids’ hydrophobicity. Though he himself has no pen that he is willing to sell, though he doubts that one is available in any of the villages, he recommends that author try the monastery and proceeds to offer detailed directions by gesture as to how one goes about getting there.


Next we used those values to calculate the genetic code’s error value, which we define as the average change in the resulting amino acids’ hydrophobicity caused by all possible single-letter changes to all 64 codons of the code. Author follows his directions to the letter, turning off the road at the sight of the sangkha flag and approaches the hall where monks are chanting. This value represents the genetic code’s susceptibility to errors but is of little meaning on its own. Here, however, he thinks better of the plan, turns back without disturbing anyone, and proceeds to the border of the canal leading to Inle Lake, where he finds a ball point pen in the first shop that he stops at. We needed to know how nature’s coding system stacks up against possible alternatives. Rather than return to the countryside, hardly a scene of writing, he decides to continue along the canal to observe what may be happening here. To generate these hypothetical alternative codes. After 50 yards, however, he must, turn back, for the road has run out. We had to begin with certain assumptions about realistic restrictions. Returning to the bridge, he crosses it for a closer look at a beautiful pagoda whose surface seems to be encrusted with many tiny mirrors. Under which a code would operate in a world made of DNA, RNAs and amino acids.


These little tiles from closer up read as either blue or white. One observation is that mistakes in translation of mRNA into a corresponding amino acid occur most frequently at the codon’s third position. Blue, because the sky has cleared above. This spot is simply where the binding affinity between the mRNA and the tRNA is weakest. White because a large bank of white cloud has settled above the western rim of the mountains surrounding the lake. Which is why Crick dubbed the phenomenon “wobble.” To the other side of the pagoda, on the canal’s eastern bank, have been drawn up three long black motorized skiffs full of produce. But synonymous codons — those coding for the same amino acid — usually differ by only their last three letters, so such mistranslations often yield the same amino acid meaning. From the first of these, white reinforced plastic sacks of an indiscernible vegetable — probably cucumbers — are being unloaded onto a handcart. Although this grouping of synonymous codons in itself reduces the error value of the code. From the second, large baskets full of small tomatoes. The mechanics of wobble make the arrangement more likely to be a biochemical limitation rather than an evolutionary adaptation. The third is stacked with redundant furniture.


Thus, to err on the side of caution when deriving our measure, we should consider only alternative codes that share this future. Second-day outing by canoe for Nam Thea, shrine of the nats. Moreover, it is impossible to put a hydrophobicity value on the codons assigned to the “stop” signal. Author’s two guides for the trip are a mother and her daughter, the latter 45, the former 70. So we kept their number and codon assignments the same in all the alternative codes. The mother situated at the stern of the boat, the daughter at the prow. Using these technical assumptions. Author taking his place at the center of canoe atop a red, yellow and blue woven mat. We generated alternatives. Drifting under the bridge crossed over earlier, past the shop where the pen was purchased, beyond the pagoda with mirrors for tiles. By randomizing the 20 meanings among the 20 codon blocks. We have left behind the boats, now empty, that were unloading produce. This still defined some 2.5 x 1018 possible configurations. A motorized skiff passes us as it heads toward the lake, its wake scarcely bothering the rhythm of these experienced paddlers. Roughly as many as the number of seconds that have elapsed. At 4:00 pm many residents alongside the canal are just finishing their baths. Since the earth came into being.


Wrapped in their towels, the women are combing their hair. We took large random samples of these possibilities. The men are still pouring water over their heads. And found that from a sample of a million alternative codes. The kids are still swimming. Only a hundred had a lower error value than the natural code. Having passed beyond the houses, we begin to hug the western bank, its grasses standing tall between us and the taller trees. Still more striking was our finding that we incorporated additional restrictions to reflect observed patterns. Another motorized skiff, filled with overturned wicker baskets, roars by on its way to the lake. In the way DNA tends to mutate. In among them three happily gossiping women, their black umbrellas open against the sun. And the ways in which genes tend to be mistranscribed into RNA. From the opposite direction comes yet another skiff, this one full of more white reinforced plastic sacks. Under these “real world” conditions. Stopping to debark, we climb the steps of a wooden house to find a woman, cross-legged on the floor, making cheroots by hand. The natural code’s error value appeared orders of magnitude better still. Her tobacco is from Mandalay, we are told. Outperforming all but one in a million alternatives. Her wrappers, from the local mountains.


A straightforward explanation for the genetic code’s remarkable resilience is that it results from natural selection. Offered one of the green cheroots and an ashtray, author declines to smoke. Perhaps there were once many codes. Offered a cup of tea, however, he happily imbibes, still dehydrated from an early morning run and his strenuous outing on the bicycle. All with different degrees of error susceptibility. Soya beans are offered in a small white dish. Organisms whose codes coped best with error. The daughter, also cross-legged on the floor, lights up her cheroot. Were more likely to survive. The mother takes a cup of tea. The standard genetic code simply won in the struggle for existence. Each new cheroot is shaped about a stick, then filled. We know that variant codes are possible. Two cheroots are made together, the long tube cut in half at the end of the process. So this assumption is reasonable. Within a round basket that contains chopped tobacco, leaves and apparatus to shape them is a wooden block with a daub of rice glue atop it. Evidence for the minimization of error as the driving evolutionary force behind the arrangement of the code has its critics, however. The cigar-maker, joined by her mother, is the center of attention; the mother accordingly takes a seat behind the daughter.


 Apparently, there is much to be gossiped about. Sophisticated computer searchers can certainly improve on nature’s choice. The paddler-daughter repositions herself, squatting on her haunches so as better to engage in conversation. Even when they have accepted the premise that a “good” code should minimize the change in amino acid hydrophobicity caused by genetic errors. Circulation has all but ceased in author’s legs, a discomfort caused by sitting on the mat. But computer predictions for an optimal code are limited to the criteria provided by the programmer. Accordingly, as the gossip continues, he gets to his feet and walks about the room, surveying its religious iconography and personal memorabilia. Most of the “better” codes that have been described so far are based on oversimplified assumptions about the types of errors that a code encounters in the real world. Though Buddhist icons are present, the family shrine is primarily devoted to nat worship. For example, they ignore the wobble phenomenon. In a case filled with knickknacks are postcards, presumably sent by family members, of Paris and Denver, along with a single American “action” figure. Which prevents their algorithms from perceiving the advantage of having synonymous codons differ only in their third letter.


This shortcoming emphasizes a second problem with designer-optimized codes. Returning to our canoe, we cross the canal and enter another klong, between two houses, past a boy fishing, to reach a deserted site of stupas. Natural selection is a “blind designer.” Suddenly a rainbow has emerged above the mountains. In that it can only grope toward an ideal. Rotating through ninety degrees. By choosing the best alternative within a population of variants at each generation. The remains of a giant Buddha have been painted white (its face), gold (its garment) and red (its lips). When we simulate natural selection in this manner. At author’s request we decline to debark, turning about to pass two youthful bathers, the fishing boy and more kids, at play in a shed for the long boats. We find that the degree of error minimization achieved by the standard genetic code is still rather impressive: Recrossing the canal we enter another klong. Typically less than three percent of random theoretical codes can evolve under selection to match its resilience. At last the sun dips behind a large grey cloud. In other words, the diamond and commaless codes once looked superior to nature’s own, but computers may generate yet more idealized codes. Giving us relief from the heat.


But merely demonstrating the possibility of better codes without taking into account the evolutionary process is of dubious relevance to understanding the strength of natural selection’s choice. This klong is much more residential than the others that we have entered. Indeed, the standard code is not only a product of natural selection. We may in fact have entered a village, for the waterways take many turnings, all familiar to mother and daughter. It may act as a search algorithm to speed evolution. Off the first klong we bear right into another. The impact-minimizing properties of the code. And from the second turn into a third. With its blocks of both synonymous codons and those specifying biochemically similar amino acids. Where the daughter must begin to pole our canoe through surface growth in the direction of a shrine set up on wooden stilts in the midst of a relative wilderness. Achieve more than damage control. We have arrived, it would seem, at the goal of our pilgrimage. “Smaller” mutations, by contrast with extreme alterations are statistically more likely to be beneficial. In considerable awe, author mounts the wooden steps of this corrugated metal hut, whose darkened interior, after the sunset-struck waters of the neighborhood, requires that the eyes adjust.


So by minimizing the effects of any change, the code maximizes the likelihood that a gene mutation will lead to an improvement in the resulting protein.

Making Use of the Code

A more muted light is entering principally from the north, where two windows have been cut and filled, or almost filled, with store-bought panes of square glass. A hole of equal size has been cut in the shack’s eastern wall. From the west, sunlight floods through the open doorway. No aspect of the shrine’s numerology has been left to chance. On a broad table before us, within the principal chamber, have been set out an arrangement of numerically significant objects. This “altar” is three feet high, six feet across and nine feet deep. Two parallel rows of five water pots recede from the worshipper, as do a like number of vases, each of them filled with red and yellow flowers. On the table have also been set out five circular receptacles, as the wax within them makes clear, for candles. Other water pots have been left on the table, outside the strict confines of those arranged by number, doubtless by devotees unacquainted with the numerical value of the other objects. Behind all the vases and bowls are two wooden racks for wooden batons and wooden knives. Finally, precise amounts of incense and calculated offerings of fruit have been contributed to the more permanent, symbolic array. Beside the principal chamber, to its right, is a second, much narrower chamber, in whose crowded space another altar has been established.


Number here is important, but it cannot by itself suggest the numinous quality of the deities represented or the piety with which they are evidently adored. Understanding the forces that shaped the code and how it in turn shapes evolution does more than provide an opportunity to admire nature’s skill as a primordial software designer. By a back waterway we next move on to another site of religious reverence. These insights can also help solve some of the toughest problems that we must face in 2004. Off another klong we arrive at a monastery inhabited by only two monks, though the scale of the premises suggests the lost glory of an earlier era. Sifting through reams of raw genome sequence data to find the actual genes is a priority in molecular biology. We are met at the landing by the senior of the two, at the head of the stair, by his junior. But current researchers are limited to matching the characteristics of genes that we already know about. At once the ritual interrogation begins. Taking into account the way the genetic code filters gene mutations can enhance these searches by allowing scientists to recognize highly diversified genes and perhaps infer the function of the proteins they encode. Author had hoped that he might first acclimate himself to the space and prepare for religious discussion.


Researchers can derive clues. “Where you come from?” asks the senior monk, instead, abruptly.

“I am coming from China,” says author, presenting him with a name card on which his name appears in both Chinese and English.

“How long have you been here?” he inquires, as though in Asian ritual. About the folded protein shape.

“I arrived at Inle yesterday.”

“Where are you staying?” That an amino acid sequence dictates.

“In a nearby guest house.”

“And where have you been in Myanmar?” adds the junior monk, lest he fail to exercise his prerogative too. By looking at the error-minimizing properties of its codons.

“I have arrived by way of Pindaya.” And how substitutions might affect the size, charge or hydrophobicity of amino acids.

America,” the second monk says, initiating another form of ritual praise, “is very great. You have George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy.” Author nods. “John Kennedy was shot,” the monk observes (overlooking Lincoln's fate). “America, very good!” he concludes, giving the thumbs-up sign: “Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge, GMC Truck.”


The third day’s outing begins too late (and warm) for comfort. We are to climb the “Elephant Mountain,” that is, the western range, shaped like an elephant, for a visit to the Pah Oh tribe. Myanmar ICT Park. Author’s guide, a former woodcutter, now in the off-season a trishaw driver, proves an excellent informant, for he is married to a woman from one of these tribal villages, speaks the dialect himself, and knows most of the local mountainside inhabitants in the half dozen locales that we will visit. Full facilities available for software development and IT related services.


As we are heading out of town on foot, in an easterly direction along his jogging route, author begins by presenting guide with details of the nat shrine. Welcome to the Myanmar ICT Park. The arrangement by fives, guide surmises, has to do with Buddhist practice, specifically with the five objects of veneration: “(1) pagoda, (2) meditation, (3) monk, (4) teacher, (5) father and mother.” Why twice five? When one joins one’s hands together to indicate respect, one’s fingers total ten. Have a good day! The number nine, locally inauspicious, is also to be avoided.


We are climbing toward Ta Eain (ta = step, eain = house). The Pah Oh language, says the guide, is related to Burmese, and is similar to the Shan language, which affiliates it with a language spoken in western Thailand. Under the guidance of the Myanmar computer development council. Till 1985 the Pah Oh had been an insurgent minority, but now they fly the white flag, unlike other Burmese minorities, who fly the red, or who alternate between the two. Their main crop is the leaf in which the cheroot is wrapped. For half the year they cultivate the leaf, for the other half, their garden.


Myanmar ICT Development Company. The Pah Oh costume is black. (MICTDC.) No one knows why. Was formed with eleven IT professionals and entrepreneurs. Their marriage customs allow the individual to choose his or her spouse, and each year for this purpose a 24-hour festival is organized in which males court females by throwing soya beans at the particular object of their affection. In 2001. The prettiest girl gets a whole pile of them, says our guide. As a private company. Though polygamy is not practiced, even the men who are already married participate in the festival.


Author inquires about the produce that yesterday he had seen being loaded and unloaded along the canal. It was expanded to 50 consortium members. “Heho,” says guide, “is potato city; tomato, Inle Lake, cabbage, Aungban.” In year 2002. Heho is the nearby city from which author’s plane will depart for Yangon. In June 2003. On his way from Pindaya, passing through Aungban, he had witnessed the transshipment of cabbages in its streets. These enormous vegetables, we learn, will be sent to Mandalay and to Yangon, from Yangon some perhaps into the international market.


To achieve public participation in ICT development. We have left the new dirt road to begin a more concerted trek up the mountainside. At 8:30 the morning sun is already hot, the exertion for the inexperienced climber considerable. Guide’s discourse regarding the Pah Oh people continues. In addition to rice, corn and wheat their principle crops — aside from the tobacco leaf — is turmeric, prized in Myanmar for its medicinal properties. Once every five days the Pah Oh village, we are told, repairs to the market at Inle. No sooner said, we encounter four people descending the mountain.



MICTDC was transformed from a private to a public company. The lead, and elder, woman is dressed in black, though her daughter has considerably more colorful attire. Two young men, unrelated to them, who will carry back the merchandise that they purchase, accompany mother and daughter. All pause for lively conversation, the older woman commenting on author’s girth in relation to the slenderness of Burmese men. Author says, much to her amusement, that he is preparing to have two babies, one boy, one girl. She is 81 but appears to be more at ease on the trail than author.


Our stay in the first village includes visits to several houses where the cheroot leaf is being dried in long stone ovens and stacked in baskets for transfer by oxcart to a nearby commercial center. First, however, the baskets must be conveyed down the mountain on someone’s back. The primary functions of MICT Park are: Before long we move laterally from one Pah Oh village to a second. (A) Facilitation of ICT infrastructure/operational space. On the way we encounter four wood-cutters, twelve or thirteen years old, loafing and smoking beside the path.


As we are entering the second village we encounter a water buffalo, tethered along the path before a house at which nearly a dozen children are playing. (B) Marketing promotion of ICT business at the global level. From a tangled field across the way a ten-year-old boy returns with a large armful of grass, which he deposits in front of the buffalo, who immediately addresses it, munching up huge mouthfuls. This second village, we are told, has acquired electricity, “from the waterfall,” and along with it, we observe, amplified radio music, along with electric lights instead of candles.


We have been graciously seated on the second floor in the house of the second village’s chief, whose wife, working below at the hearth, is surrounded by half a dozen children. (C) Skill development and the upgrading of local ICT professionals. The cool, spacious upstairs serves as living room, shrine and doubtless master bedroom as well. Tea is poured from a thermos jug, commercially purchased potato chips, pound cake and cookies proffered. A shy ten-year old daughter of the chief and his wife has taken a seat in the hallway just outside the door, for observation.


After author has recovered from the arduous climb, his audience increases, guide serving as intermediary for a major engagement with two of the daughters, two of their friends and two much younger participants. The shy girl has had her hair cut extremely short, which leads to jokes as to whether she be boy or girl. (D) Incubation of new start-up ICT entrepreneurs. One of her ten-year-old friends is very cute, the other, whose name is Ma Mi Sho, very beautiful. The younger children are under their care, which leads to discussion as to whether they have children themselves.


Ma Ji Tui, the liveliest of the younger children, points to Ma Mi Sho’s belly only to be slapped back into line. Myanmar ICT Park facilities: These little girls have heard of “America” and, says the guide, their brothers are aware of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but here all acquaintance with the subject abruptly ends. (1) Standby generator. There is only one TV among these villagers, it is in the other village, and the program selection consists of the two official channels. (2) Internet, fax & email facilities. None of the children has ever ventured down the mountainside.



Because their teacher must come up from Inle, by half-hour oxcart ride, followed by 45-minute walk, school is in session only from 10:30 am till 2:30 pm. (3) Fully air-conditioned systems. Not only are most of the children unable to state their full names, they also cannot state how old they are. (4) Free parking area. They do not even know the names of the Burmese movie stars whose posters adorn the sitting room. All this in a village but an hour-and-a-half’s walk from the tourist center of Nyaung Shwe, with its video rental stores, its dozens of international hotels and guest houses.


We return downstairs to the open hearth, where the 41-year-old mother is cooking a dish that consists of rice powder, onion paste, turmeric and salt, steamed in banana leaves, then opened and served with hot oil. (5) A fifteen-minute drive from international airport. This mother of five children, we learn, herself has never been to Nyuang Shwe, source of her salt and cooking oil. (6) 24-hour security and fire control systems. A merchant, it is said, brings rice wine up the mountainside as far as the next village down. MITCC Production Block Facilities include:


The crisis comes with sickness. (a) Fibre optic infrastructure. For in the mountains only traditional medicine is available. (b) Co-location services. The government has decreed that every village in the country must have a new clinic. (c)100 MBPS access to Bagan Cybertech’s Internet Services. Having said farewells, we pass the concrete block footings for a single-room building. The person to serve as the doctor, says our guide, has had only three months’ training. “Not enough,” he adds. Five years ago he himself caught malaria while sourcing rubies in the eastern part of the Shan province.


We continue on down the rocky route till it joins with a larger road. (d) Access to potential client’s LANS. Five of the seven men died, in the most advanced hospital of the region, at Tounggyi. (e) VolP capabilities. One of five children, he has little education, has picked up English by ear. (f) Gateway services from Bagan Cybernetics. He hopes to earn enough from the tourist trade to put three children through school and provide his wife with the medical attention that she needs for a heart condition. With taxes, tuition fees, and unreliable employment, this is difficult.


 Fourth-day outing, to Inle Lake, begins with preparation of the boat. Bilge water must be scooped out, the passenger’s wooden chair and cushions arranged, oil and gasoline added to the tank. Behind the guide’s house, which borders on a klong just off the canal, these procedures are observed by three adult hens followed about by their chicks. Biologists can also apply our awareness of organisms that deviate from the standard code to “disguise” genes for research. In fact the assistant turns out to be the guide, a boy in his early twenties, full of the usual questions. His English lessons have not yet included the words “Please” and “Thank you.”

The passage down the canal is a long one, but within half an hour we have arrived, on the lakeshore, at a five-day market. The black hulls of boats are lined up above the sedge, oxen temporarily untied from their carts to graze. Because a single code is nearly universal for all life, it has become common practice to take a gene such as the human cancer gene, and insert it into an organism, such as Escherichia Coli, that will churn out the protein that the gene encodes. But occasionally the organism fails to express the gene at all, or it produces less of the protein than expected or a slightly different version of the protein found in humans.


It is much cooler today than it was yesterday. Since 8:00 am, when we departed, the skies have filled with rather dramatic clouds. The surface of the lake mingles the reflection of their subtle greys with more subdued blues and greens. It is a large lake. Here and there, across its waters’ great expanse, the sun is breaking through to dapple its surface with light. We have set out again, this time on what appears to be a considerably longer journey, in search of a second market. This problem can play havoc with biology research, but we now realize that sometimes the failure arises because the organisms exhibit different preferences among synonymous codons.


The skies have begun to clear. We have covered a great distance in little time. Swiftly we turn into a lesser channel, past a small forest of pagodas, past an umbrella workshop. We skim beneath a narrow bridge, picking up speed as we traverse an even more minor waterway. We decrease our speed and make another right hand turn. Five ducks on a tumulus of bare dirt watch as we pass. Arriving at a silver smith’s, we are met on their private dock and invited in for tea and soya beans. The intent of the hospitality is purely commercial. The young guide, without consulting author, has scheduled the stop in the hopes of receiving a commission from a sale.


For example, the standard code contains six codons for the amino acid arginine, and human genes favor using the codons AGA and AGG. The skies have clouded over again. Exiting this stilt-raised town, its houses high and spacious, we enter into a riverine passage that snakes its way toward the mountains. We encounter small flatboats, a long boat moored in the channel as three swarthy workers dredge the bottom for sand, another long boat stacked with sacks of cement. The high grasses that grow up along the border wave gracefully, the water itself a milky tan. The dark green hills appear closer and closer, as our course takes us toward and parallel to them.


E. Coli, however, very rarely uses AGA and often mistranslates it. In amongst the hills are the spires of a few simple pagodas. Inle Lake is no mere tourist site but rather life itself. Along the banks of a hamlet have been constructed thatched sheds to keep the rain off the long boats housed within. We seem to be heading up a river that descends from the mountains, for at nearly regular intervals we mount six-inch levees, raising our keel as much each time. By knowing these variations and preferences we can design versions of the human gene that will work reliably when moved between different organisms. Finally we tie up at a tree.


Unlike the first, Intha Market, conducted in the open air, this second, Pah Oh Market is taking place under a long two-tiered shed. By early morning much of its business has been concluded. Women in black traditional shifts have wrapped bright orange plaid scarves into turbans high above their brown foreheads. Now they sit by threes and fours sipping tea at a long table, or wandering about, chatting and shopping. Other Pah Oh women have foregone the traditional shift for black skirts and colorful blouses, in patterned red, in purple plaid, in pure white. Some are still reloading banana-leaf-lined wicker baskets. The men, here, play a distinctly secondary role.


Among the produce and products at this fair, of greater interest than the standard agricultural items are the otherwise unavailable necessities of daily life: batteries, washing powder and rice noodles; candy, soap and mosquito ointment; candles, canned deer meat and toiletries; electrical connections. One seller of hardware items author later recognizes in his shop along the main street of Inle. Another offers a wide selection of pots and pans, of tableware, of plastic baskets. One can buy thermoses for tea, ceramic bowls and plates; glass chimneys for oil lamps; washing tubs, spoons in all sizes, metal containers for prepared food; knives, scissors and trivets.


“What products are you making here?” author inquires of Khit Soun Yinn.

“Silk, cotton, lotus,” says the laconic son of the shop’s owner.

“What means?” author rejoins. (We are paying a visit to his village.)

“Favorite: scarf, trouser, shirt, blanket cover, pillow cover, hat,” he says.

“Do you, then, make everything?” author asks.

“Yes. Blouse. Water bag,” he says, proudly displaying attractive samples.

“Do you make money too?”

“Little money.”

Author buys an item or two.


My aunt’s clothes were also aggressively her own (Mi Khaing, Burmese Family). “And what work is done here in the shop?” author inquires. This was especially noticeable with her going-out clothes. “Thread and weaving,” he replies. For which she would never have any imported materials. “Anything else?” She declared that imported silks, crêpe-de-chines and the like. “Spinning.” Could not be washed and beaten clean like the Burmese silks and cottons. “Silk worms?” Neither did they produce suitable designs for elderly spinster ladies like herself. “Only in Mandalay.” They were either gay and skittish, or of a soberness that depressed without pleasing one.


Where growing silk worm in Myanmar?” What she most loved were the ya-khaing longyis, in silk and cotton, woven in Arakan, into small check patterns. “Pin U Lwin.” But so stout that you soaked them and beat them hard before the first wearing, then washed them again and again until you had a pliant closely-woven fabric whose color and freshness lasted a life-time. Luckily, for the sake of English conversation, Ko Myint Thein Htun, father of Khit Sunn Yin, makes his appearance. For more dressy occasions my aunt wore zin-mè silks, the design from Chiengmai in Siam. A graduate of Yangon University, he was a history major.


A long conversation ensues. Kyi-Kyi sometimes wore Bangauk longyis, from Bangkok, but more often woven in Burma. Ko Myint Thein Htun gradually reveals his knowledge of India, Southeast Asia and China, and his acquaintance with Egypt, Greece and Rome. These were produced in the smoky blues, ambers and dull greens so beloved of elderly Burmese ladies. He imports silk from China and the Mandalay District. Silk weaving is one of the oldest industries of Burma. Sells cotton to the Thais. But the yarn is mostly imported. And silk to the French. Using imported yarns dyed with native vegetable dyes. His “coloring” comes from Varanasi.


The weavers at Mandalay, Amarapura, Prome and Shuedaung. If his life in Inle is provincial, he somehow maintains a cosmopolitan perspective. At Kyangin, Tavoy, Eindat and the Yew Valley. He takes great interest in author’s travels in Asia. Produced silks of exquisite pinks, blue-greys, gold and amber, reds and purples, dirty greens, all from the sunset skies, the birds and trees, never fading. Author asks many questions about Burma. Pan-nu, Kho, Mi-go, Hpet-hpu, May-yon, Payin, Kyet-thway, Yay-hnyi. Especially historical. Dove and smoke, leaf-bud, prawn oil, amber, cock’s blood, stripes and geometrical designs.


“The Burmese did not receive such a profound influence from the British as did the Indians,” he opines, in response to one such question, “because the length of the British occupation was not so great.” No wonder Kyi-Kyi did not understand the desire for novelty, for frivolity of birds. Nonetheless, he says, British institutions have left a distinct mark. Of giant flowers or sprouting fruit. As to why Burma fell: Such as are never seen on land or sea. The country was very “disunified,” the kings were “incapable of stimulating economic growth or political development.” We take our leave, grateful for such hospitality, moving next from silk-weaving to metal-working.


We tie up the boat once more, step out onto a narrow wharf and enter a shop in which a knife blade is being beaten out from a lump of red-hot iron. In one of our labs. Four young men with sledgehammers strike the tong-held mass in sequence. We are developing software applications. Another, with manual controls, works the bellows. Helping molecular biologists turn. To reheat the piece. Such theoretical observations about the code. Quickly. Into practical tools for genetic engineering for gene finding. The blade takes shape. And for predicting protein shapes. Meanwhile, yet another worker scrapes at an already forged blade to give it a cutting edge.


At the next stop, another cheroot-making shop, included in our itinerary over author’s objection, four girls are seated on the floor. She emerged from her bath with the longyi yi-sha [drawn up about the bosom]. All lovely, three of them sixteen (a supervisor, of eighteen), seated before baskets containing tobacco, cheroot leaves, sticky-rice glue and the tools of their trade. She then put thanaka on her face neck and shoulders. Each has thanaka on her cheeks, two on their necks as well, one on her arms. Face powder she condemned as having lead in it, but baby’s talcum powder she sprayed on her palms, rubbed them together and patted into her face.


“Where do you come from?” asks the most forward of the three younger girls. “The USA,” author replies. Then she moistened a brush the size of a baby’s toothbrush and rubbed the thanaka off her eyebrows and lashes. “Only one?” she asks, meaning, is author single? And traced her hairline in an exaggerated rectangle. “Yes, there is only one USA,” author replies. To produce what was considered a noble and beautiful forehead, a mahanahpu. Their real attention is focused on the two open portals of the shop, which enable them to keep track of the passing traffic of motorized skiffs. By this time the thanaka and powder were dry.


They are also, however, keeping track of a sentimental TV drama. And she rubbed off the uneven patches with a dry brush. Both sentimental and primitive, it concerns a giant crocodile who is menacing civilization, in particular, two lovers who are shown kissing beneath the surface of a lake. Author smiles at all the girls in turn, out of sympathy for their enforced labor. Then she opened a little jar — always an empty Tiger Balm bottle — in which she kept a mixture of oil and blacking. Grandmother has taken her position too, seated on the floor with her back against a pillar, to view the film’s climax, which involves the use of military force.


She dipped a special brush in this and drew her eyebrows and the rectangular hairline. Though occupied with the TV drama, the passing boats, the requirements of their work. She cleaned her lips and ear-studs with water. It is really author whom they cannot keep their eyes off. And then put sandalwood. Mother serves him tea and smiles. Other ground bark. The girls look at one another, glance at author, look at one another again. On her arms and legs. Drama finished, as the credits roll we see that it was made in Korea. Her hair had been dressed before her bath in a sadone, the coil built up in cylindrical form about a framework of combs and hairpins, false tresses.


Departing the cheroot-making shop. It is the universal hair style. The girls still waving through the portal as our boat leaves the pier, we head for the floating village. For all women after the age of about seventeen. We are entering the floating world by what might be termed the back alley behind two rows of houses, from whose windows babies of two- and three-years old, still in their mothers’ arms, are waving to author. And ladies like my aunt never go anywhere. The floating village does not seem a whole lot different from the non-floating village. Unless their hair is formally dressed in this way. If perhaps a little friendlier, a little seedier, a little wetter.


Over author’s additional protest we make yet another unscheduled stop — at a monastery. Both of us, along with other researchers, are investigating how the code itself came into being. Having visited two monasteries at Bagan and another at Inle, having declined such a visit in the mountains, there seems nonetheless no way to finish this trip without another monastic experience. How RNA first interacted with amino acids. Author enters in reverential posture but is determined to manage this event efficiently. How their association developed into a system of formal coding. Four lounging cats greet him, as though to say “What brings you here?”


And how the amino acid alphabet expanded during early evolution. They are enjoying their freedom from gainful employment in this idyllic setting, where the golden images are gorgeous, the sangkha flags flutter in the breeze, the tea is plentiful. This approach may allow inroads into many unresolved questions: Two monks sidle up to author, one peering into his notebook, which prompts him two write: Why 20 and only 20 standard amino acids? “How long have you been in Myanmar?” Why are some amino acids assigned six codons, whereas others have just one or two? “Have you been to Inle Lake?” But this monk does not read English.


We exit the monastic frame and continue. Within minutes dark clouds have arisen over the distant western range, where rain has become visible as a steady mist between us and the mountains. We hasten to skirt this phenomenon. Ahead the skies are still cheerful, with large fluffy cumulus mounting immediately above the horizon, while high above the sky is brushed with grey and blue and white. We have almost outflanked the rain, though ahead, where the town commences, more ominous clouds are drifting in from the West. We fight back a few sprinkles, speeding ahead to elude them. Could this pattern have to do with minimizing error?


Our next scheduled destination is “The Fishermen.” Loathe to leave the lake experience behind without having had the fishermen experience, author acquiesces. We surge forward, faster and faster, heading diagonally across the lake’s surface, as though to escape the threat of inundation. Suddenly, the engine threatens to fail. But it is just a moment’s quirk. With massive clouds encroaching, we resume our speed. A dragonfly, traveling at a tremendous pace, hovers above the boat. We draw even with the golden spire and bulb of a hillside pagoda. Our boat veers further eastward. Will we outrun the rain? The clouds above us have turned almost black.


The surface of the water has darkened, lending to all a dramatic foreshadowing. Raindrops pursue us, as the plot thickens. Amidst all we sight, approach and quickly pass three fishermen in their tiny boats. Having done with the fishermen experience, we leave them to their little nets, enter the canal and breeze on up it, still outracing bad weather, still hoping to reach town before downpour. The monsoon holds its breath. Life along the banks of the canal appears normal. Within minutes home is in sight. We turn off our engine, glide into the klong and debark without incident. Cracking the code has proved merely the start of understanding its meaning.

MM Imagines His Entrance into Paradise at Shwedagon Paya

Up early for the taxi to Heho, we arrive two hours before the flight to Yangon. Rangoon is atypical of the rest of the country, as is evident in its various styles of architecture (Barbara Victor, The Lady). The return to the capital will be a disappointment. A plethora of luxury hotels has recently been constructed downtown. Partly because the visits to Pindaya and Inle have been so idyllic. In anticipation that the city will become a mecca for tourism and international business. Partly because the return to Yangon forebodes departure from Myanmar two days hence. Farther along toward the Rangoon River shabby colonial-style buildings with wide verandas still stand, built during British rule, when Burma was presented to Queen Victoria as a New Year’s present. “At the end of the last world-period five lotus-buds sprang up on the Theinguttara Hill, where presently the Shwe Dagon pagoda is located” (Shway Yoe). Having considered Burma in the past and present, author imagines the future. For Buddhists, Shwedagon is the most sacred site in the country, one that all Burmese hope to visit at least once in their lifetimes (The Lonely Planet Myanmar). Our plane has taken off, and soon we are high above the clouds, heading south.


Continuing toward downtown Rangoon in the direction of the British and American embassies, one encounters modern high-rise residential buildings at various stages of completion, designed with sweeping driveways and landscaped with manicured lawns. “They opened their leaves and disclosed within each of them its chalice of thengan, the holy yellow robe of the monastic brethren.” Our flight is a short one, and before long we have landed, found a taxi and are heading toward the pagoda. In the heat of the day the great dome of the stupa glitters bright gold. Directly northeast of Rangoon we wind along tree-lined roads with views of the Shwedagon Pagoda. “Then a huge bird settled on the top of the hill, laid an egg, and from it was presently hatched the kalawaik (the bird who serves as the vehicle of Vishnu), which seized the sacred garments and flew up to the heavens.” Having descended upon the capital, we have begun our approach to Paradise. Whose opulent stucco homes were built by the British around a large artificial body of water called Inya Lake. “This event was an omen foretelling the appearance of five Buddhas in the present world cycle.” Shwedagon Paya can be quiet and contemplative, or colorful and raucous.


The world of reality has ceded to the world of possibility. “And accordingly the universe that had existed in the preceding kalpa was shortly afterwards destroyed.” The dome gradually emerges into sight. “It is called Dogonne, and is of a wonderful bigness, and gilded from the foot to the toppe” (Ralph Fitch, 1586). “With Mount Meru, the enclosing Set-ya-wala hills, the six heavens of the nat-dewas, and many of the lower seats of Byammas.” There are four covered walkways up Singuttara Hill to the platform on which Swedagon magestically reposes. We have descended from our car to continue the pilgrimage on foot. “Then followed myriads of years of chaos.” Undeterred by any mundane obstacles. The southern entrance, from Shwedagon Paya Road, is the one that can most properly be called the main entrance. We arrive, dazzled by the portal. “Then myriads more while Badda, the present world, was created, atom by atom.” The site is magnificent. Kipling called it “a golden mystery . . . a beautiful winking wonder.” “At last the earth was prepared to receive the first Buddha, then his successor Gwanagong, deposited on the Theinguttara Hill, whereupon Kathapa, the third Buddha, added a portion of his robe.”


We take the elevator, arrive at the giant nine-meter-high clinthe, legendary half-lion, half-dragon, who guards the southern entrance, remove our shoes and mount the first step. The legend of Swedagon Paya tells of two merchant brothers meeting the Buddha, who gave them eight of his hairs to take back and enshrine in Myanmar. “At the time of the fourth Buddha, Gautama, there lived on the Theinguttara Hill a gigantic scorpion, so huge that it devoured every day an elephant, and the tusks of its many victims were set up in a great ring fence around about its den.” We emerge from semigloom into a visual cacophony of Technicolor glitter, for around the mighty stupa cluster an incredible assortment of smaller zedi, statues, temples, shrines, images and tazaung (small pavilions). When the chamber that would house the hairs was built and the hairs taken from their golden casket, several amazing events occurred. “One day seven foreign ships passed along the coast, whose sailors, once they had seen the white glimmer of the ivory from far out at sea, landed to ascertain what it was.” We tour the stupa clockwise, confining ourselves to the mat pathway laid about the platform, for the heat of the paving stones is unbearable.


There was tumult among men and spirits, for the rays emitted by the Hairs of the Buddha penetrated to the heavens above and down to hell. Blinded by the sunlight at first, we gradually appreciate the extent of the monument and the glory of its consecration, as it rises from a square base through an octagonal transition to its circular elements, which dominate the upper reaches. The blind beheld objects, the deaf heard sounds, the dumb spoke distinctly, the earth quaked. We feel a tremor, perhaps a “three” on the Richter scale. “They began loading their ships with the precious treasure and were working their hardest, when suddenly they noticed the giant scorpion coming straight at them.” The winds of the ocean blew, Mount Meru shook, lightning flashed. “They rushed on board, cut their cables, and stood out to sea, but here a new danger awaited them, for a monster crab, rearing two gigantic claws out of the waters, threatened to crush anything that passed between them.” We gaze up past a band of down-turned lotus petals, on past a band of up-turned petals, onward still to the banana bud, final element of the zedi before the hti tops it. All manner of gems rained down upon them, till they were knee deep in treasure.


“There was no retreat; overwhelmed with terror, they drove before the wind.” Like the lotus petals below, the banana bud is covered with gold, 13,153 plates, each measuring 30 square centimeters. The scales fall from our eyes. “Barely managing to pass, the vessels avoided the claws with their yards and masts.” Overwhelmed by the heat, we seek the shade. “But the scorpion, following in hot pursuit, rushed up against both pincers with its bulky body, and they closed in an instant, crushing the monstrous prey.” Meanwhile, all the trees of the Himalayas, even those not in season, burst out in blossom and bore their fruit. Risking our balance, we gaze up again, this time at the seven-tiered, one-ton hti, plated in gold, on to a shaft hung with bells of gold, silver and jewels. “The crab itself died of the poison, and the neighborhood about the holy hill was thus freed from its terrors.” The topmost vane with its flag turns in a wind that revives us long enough for a final vision of Paradise. It is studded with 1100 diamonds not to mention 1382 other stones. We have finally achieved our goal. At the vane’s very top rests a hollow golden sphere studded with 4351 diamonds. We faint from delight. Its summit tipped with a single 76-carat diamond. Our pilgrimage is complete.

Madison Morrison

Front cover: Sandra L. Agens

Copyright © Madison Morrison 2004

The Working Week Press