By Stephen J. Gallas
The baked clay temple towered over the clearing surrounded by lush green foliage, and served as the only landmark in sight. This particular temple was set away from the innumerable temples, pagodas, and stupas of Bagan, but that did not mean that it was any less majestic. A ribbed spire projected from its bulbous dome into the sky, and the six additional spires flanking the dome on terraces provided an ethereal symmetry. This temple, oddly enough, did not appear on any postcards available at nearby Nyaung U Airport or elsewhere.
Perhaps the obscure nature of this temple was due to the still emergent tourism industry of Bagan, or maybe it was due to the fact that the temple was sealed off. All of the local peddlers knew that tourists were drawn to the slightly taller but much more accessible temples. Ananda Temple, with its narrow, golden dome, practically had a market set up inside of it. Anyone looking to make a day’s salary by selling off a sand painting or a bootleg copy of George Orwell’s Burmese Days knew that it was best to camp out in the places such as Ananda, which was highly accessible and recognizable. That is, everyone except for Jojo and his family, but their reasons for camping out at the outlying temple were different: they lived in front of it. Because of the fact that the temple was in his backyard, Jojo was its unofficial tour guide.
As Jojo listened to the patter of rain on his corrugated tin roof, he packed a fresh chaw of betel in his mouth and watched the trees gently sway in the wind. With every raindrop, the footprints in the clay mud began to transform into puddles opaque with sediment. While one puddle near Jojo was rippling, he spit a stream of saliva maroon with betel juice into it and watched it grow dark. The putter of a motorbike snapped Jojo’s attention away from the puddle and to this newfound opportunity.
Two foreign tourists entered the temple grounds, one male and one female. They both wore helmets, which meant that they’d rented one of the motorbikes from whichever hotel they were staying at. The wife, or girlfriend, or whatever she was, had her arms crossed and her brows furrowed. On a clear day, Jojo might have been able to hear their conversation from this distance, but today he was just going to have to rely on body language. The boyfriend looked happy enough, but Jojo guessed that if the girlfriend wasn’t happy, then getting them to go inside the temple was going to be a tough sell. It had been a couple of days since he’d last had any foreign visitors, so regardless of the outcome, it was worth a shot.
He watched the couple walk towards the opposite side of the temple. The boyfriend’s gait was wavering a bit, and he tried to put his arm around his companion’s waist. Before his fingers could even settle on her hip bone, she pulled his hand off and shoved it away, and they vanished from Jojo’s view as they began their circuit around the temple. Once they had fully vanished,
Jojo went over to his son Khin, who was sleeping on a bed immediately behind the table behind Jojo, and jostled him awake. The boy moaned groggily, and the family chicken clucked near the foot of the bed.
“Get the flashlight,” Jojo told him.
“Why?” Khin asked, rolling away from his father.
“You know why.”
“I don’t want to go,” the boy said, sitting up.
“You have to go,” Jojo said. “Tourists trust children more than adults. If they see you first, they might actually agree to go into the temple. Okay?”
“Good. Get your longyi on.”
Khin stepped out of bed and reached between the paint brushes and stack of paintings to grab the long blue and green plaid skirt crumpled up on the table. He beat the dust off and snapped it in front of him to straighten out the wrinkles before stepping into the center of the cloth cylinder and hiking the it up to the top of his hip bones. Khin deftly grabbed the excess cloth of the longyi and tied a knot in the front. Jojo smiled approvingly and mussed his son’s hair. He turned his attention back to the looming temple. While he waited for the tourists to round the last corner, he pulled at the sparse hair sprouting out of his chin.
The tourists emerged at the far right corner of Jojo’s field of vision. They walked along the outer wall of the temple, with a distance between them that he would not consider intimate. They walked slowly and with their heads down, failing to appropriately enjoy the beautiful scenery. The way they carried themselves discouraged Jojo, and he even briefly considered calling off the plan. Knowing that actually shutting it down was nonsense, he motioned for Khin to come over to him, and grabbed him by the shoulder. At long last, the couple made their way to the secret entrance of the temple. Jojo was worried that their shoe gazing would lead to them missing it, because it was no more than a small hole above a ledge, a meter and a half off the ground. The girlfriend, however, looked up just in the nick of time, grabbed the boyfriend by the arm, and pointed the hole out to him. This was the opportunity Jojo had been waiting for, and he acted accordingly.
He checked to make sure Khin had the flashlight, and said, “Remember, be friendly.” He patted him on the shoulder, and sent him off.
Khin jogged to the foreigners, at the non-threatening pace that they had practiced, and approached the couple. The red-clay puddles splashed at his heels as his ran, and he cleverly made sure that he entered their sight through their periphery. That way, they were not too startled by his approach. Jojo watched the couple turn away from the entrance and toward his son, who presented them with the flashlight. He had taught Khin to greet tourists by using the English phrase, “Hello! Want to go in?” It was at this moment that he should have been uttering this to the couple. Jojo watched as the couple did not give his son a negative reaction. He saw the girlfriend grab the boyfriend by the arm, but not in a defensive manner. It was then that Jojo decided that he would enter himself into the interaction. Khin’s work was done.
The couple was busy trying to talk to the young boy when Jojo walked up to them with a smile on his face. He arrived at the stone walkway surrounding the temple and waved to them. He patted Khin on the shoulder, took the flashlight from him, and, switching to English, said, “Hello. Do you want to go in?” Khin giggled and ran back to their shack.
Befuddled, the boyfriend raised an eyebrow and said, “In where?”
The girlfriend rolled her eyes and said, “In the temple.”
“Oh. Why would we want to go in there?” the boyfriend asked, sloppily motioning to the little black gap.
“I don’t know,” she said, before turning to Jojo. “What’s in there?” She asked.
Jojo, understanding the need to be convincing, said, “There is a Buddha in there that is eight hundred years old.” He knelt down, and with his finger drew an imaginary square route. He said, “We go in, and go through the temple like this, before getting to the Buddha. It will take twenty minutes.”
The couple thought in silence for a moment, and the girlfriend said, “Let’s do it.”
“No. I don’t want to go in,” the boyfriend said. “I’m too drunk for that.”
“I told you to lay off those Myanmar beers at lunch,” the girlfriend said.
“How could I?” the boyfriend said, defensively. “Six of those big mugs cost like four dollars.”
The girlfriend crossed her arms, shook her head, and said, “Whatever. We never do anything spontranible anymore.” Jojo wasn’t sure of what the long “s” word meant. His English wasn’t perfect, and long words sometimes gave him trouble. Whatever the word was, though, set the boyfriend off and caused an argument to erupt between them. The couple was speaking too quickly and angrily for Jojo to be able to keep up, so he simply stood there with his arms behind his back and hoped that they would end up deciding to go into the temple.
After a few moments of going back and forth, the girlfriend turned to Jojo and said, “I’ll go in.”
Taken aback, Jojo said, “Really?” He motioned to the boyfriend. “Is he coming?”
“Nope,” she said, instantly. “He doesn’t need to.”
The girlfriend took off her helmet and handed it to the boyfriend. If he was being honest with himself, Jojo was relieved. One less person inside the temple made things easier for him. With that, Jojo climbed up onto the ledge and led the girlfriend through the narrow entrance into the pitch black interior of the temple.
Jojo landed on the old brick walkway inside, and extended his hand to the girlfriend for support. He knew that footing was uneasy for those who were not familiar with the inside of the temple, and he didn’t want his guest to trip. She did not take his hand, though. As soon as they were both inside, they took a moment to note how the patter of the rain was absent in the absolute silence of the temple. It was the perfect sound booth. The light from the outside only seeped a meter or two into the temple, so Jojo turned on the flashlight and pointed it into the depths.
No matter how many times he went in there, Jojo always noticed the pungent smell of mildew. The temple was dark, damp, and hundreds of years old, after all. He explained that there was a great deal of bats in the temple because they liked the darkness, but that there was no reason to fear them because they did not bite. Usually when Jojo explained this to tourists, it spooked them a little bit, but this particular woman found it amusing, and that took Jojo by surprise.
As they penetrated the darkness, the brick walkway dissipated into sand, and their feet sank into it. Jojo knew that like just about anything in Bagan, the sand was red. After a short time walking straight ahead in silence, and only following the beam of light, the girlfriend said, “I’m sorry about him.”
“It is okay,” Jojo said over his shoulder. “Most people don’t want to see the Buddha.”
“I think he thought it was dangerous,” the girlfriend stated, laughing nervously after she finished the sentence.
“There is nothing to worry about,” Jojo said, spitting a red stream into the sand. They arrived at a wall that blocked their path. They could continue, but they had to boost themselves up onto a ledge and crawl through a gap smaller than the one they’d crawled through when they’d entered. Jojo set the flashlight on the ledge so that it shined at the girlfriend and illuminated her path. He gripped the bottom lip of the hole, sticky with guano, and boosted himself up. He crawled through the gap, and turned around to monitor her progress. It was the first time that he had really taken a good look at her, and while she was squinting in the light, he thought that she was beautiful. Her blonde hair flowed down to her shoulders, and even though it was wet, it looked more lustrous than any hair he had seen before. He thought that she could just have easily been the actress from the The Italian Job, which had been on TV the previous week. He decided he should tell her that.
“You look like that actress from The Italian Job. I don’t know her name.”
“Who? Charlize Theron?” She laughed while stepping on a stone and wiggling her foot to make sure it was stable. “No I don’t.”
“Well, thank you,” she said as she boosted herself up to the gap. In order to make sure he wasn’t invading her space, Jojo grabbed the flashlight and backed away. He kept the light on the gap so that she could see where she was going. After she had squeezed herself through, and brought herself back down to path level, he proceeded onward.
It was then that the first bats flew by. They were little white fur balls, and other than the gentle “pfft pfft pfft” sound their wings made as they flapped by, they were completely silent. The girlfriend even remarked on how cute they were, and that it was a surprise for her to see that the bats did not squeak.
Once they had another opportunity to speak, the girlfriend asked Jojo, “How do you know where to go in here?”
“I learned from my father. And he learned from his father. My family has lived in front of this temple since before the war, but we could only go in after the Japanese blew open that hole. Before that — for over seven hundred years — nobody could come inside.”
“That’s amazing,” she replied.
“Yes,” Jojo affirmed. He worked his tongue between his teeth and noticed that one of them was wobbly. Probably from the betel.
The two of them continued in silence, with their line of sight being comprised solely of the path lighted by the flashlight. The light was a knife into the darkness, wedging into the bricks that had been set there by Jojo’s ancestors. What had it been like inside the temple when nobody could enter? Without an entry point, there were no bats. The Buddha simply stood alone in that grand structure, shrouded in darkness.
There was one more gap that they had to crawl through, and this one led into the most popular chamber for the bats. Deciding that the girlfriend would appreciate seeing the bats hanging from the ceiling, Jojo shined the light up at them after they had passed through the gap and gotten back to their feet. The bats were little fuzzy onions on the ceiling, and while the draft emanating from the entrance of the temple was barely perceptible, it was making them swing. Contrary to Jojo’s expectations, the girlfriend did not have much of a reaction to the bats this time. He guessed that seeing them so clearly made her uncomfortable.
“They are friendly bats,” Jojo reassured her. “They do not bite.”
“Yeah, I know. You said that before.”
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Jojo said, “We are close.” He continued on.
At long last, the two of them reached the Buddha. If he hadn’t told her that they had arrived, she most likely would not have noticed the statue. It stood there in an arched enclave dug into the wall on the right, about one-and-a-half meters tall. The Buddha was solitary and shorter than expected. The most surprising attribute, however, was that the little marble statue was headless.
“Why does he have no head?” the girlfriend asked.
“When the Japanese came to Burma, they wanted to kill the culture. So, they cut off his head.”
“Don’t they have Buddhism in Japan?”
“Yes, but it is different. We have Theravada here, and that is not the same.” Jojo said. He gestured to the statue. “Take a look at him.”
The girlfriend leaned down and brought her face to the stump of a neck. Jojo angled the flashlight so that she could observe it more closely. She reached her hand up to the shoulder, and ran a finger across the worn curves. Jojo didn’t particularly like the way that she was touching the Awakened One, but he knew that curiosity always got the best of tourists. The more acquainted the girlfriend became with the Buddha, observing the contours in the carved robe and the weathered hands melting into the body, the more drawn in she became. Her breath grew deeper every second, and her motions drew slower. Her eyes worked their way down the smaller-than-advertised relic, eventually reaching the temple floor. Tears dribbled out of her eye and onto the sand, dying it crimson. Jojo didn’t say a word, afraid that he might upset her further. He sniffled, wiped her nose with her forearm, and stood up.
“Will you take my picture?”
“Sure,” Jojo said, extending his hand for her phone.
She prepared the phone, and handed it to him. “I turned the flash on. Is that okay?”
“Yes, that is fine,” Jojo said, thankful for the cultural consideration.
He took a couple of pictures of her crouched down with the Buddha, but no matter how many pictures he took of her, her face was unable to express joy. He didn’t want to keep her down on the ground there all day, so he said the picture was good and handed the camera back to her.
She looked at the picture and sniffled, “This is incredible. Thank you for bringing me in here.”
“I like to do it,” Jojo said, unsure of how to reply to this kind of emotional reaction.
“Well, thank you,” she said
Jojo had a sudden pang of curiosity for this girl’s story. “I did not ask, but where are you from?”
“America. I’m from Chicago, and he’s from California,” she said, referring to the boyfriend. “We are teachers in Korea, though.”
“Oh, okay. I love Korea. Do you know Jeon Ji-hyeon? She is my favorite actor.”
“No, I don’t. I’m sorry,” she said, her gaze fixed on the picture. “Why couldn’t he have come in here and experienced this with me? Something’s been wrong with him this whole trip.”
“I don’t know, “ Jojo said, befuddled.
“He’s drinking more, and he’s acting really distant. And I wish he would have not had so much beer at lunch and just come in here with me.”
“If I go somewhere with my wife, I will do everything with her.”
“You’re a better boyfriend than what I’ve got,” the girlfriend said, cracking a smile.
Jojo laughed. “Should we go back?”
“Sure,” she answered. She let Jojo take the lead, and the two of them began to retrace their steps to the little opening whence they’d entered.
Leading the girlfriend back was easier than leading her to the statue, because she had clearly gained some familiarity with the inner labyrinth of the temple. Jojo gave her credit for being so adaptable, because she was better at picking up these nuances than most of the tourists he had previously guided. She didn’t make a sound when the bats fluttered past them, even if they flew right next to their faces. Jojo could sense a certain determination emanating from this particular tourist, and he guessed that she wanted to get out of the temple in order to really rub in the fact that she saw an ancient Buddha to her boring boyfriend.
They made their way out of the temple, and everything outside was just as they had left it. After having been transported to what felt like another dimension, they reemerged into the world of rain, swaying trees, and disinterested boyfriends. The boyfriend was sitting on the wet ground, tossing and catching his helmet.
As the trio gathered themselves on the walkway, Jojo asked them if they wanted to come to his house and look at his sand paintings. This was the moment he had been waiting for; unlike other people he knew, Jojo liked to provide tourists with a memorable experience inside of the temple with the headless Buddha before trying to unload his sand paintings on them. Judging from what they told him, some of his friends were extremely uncouth with their approach to peddling. Their method involved nothing outside of rushing up to the target and presenting their wares. No nuance, whatsoever.
The girlfriend was interested, and since the boyfriend was not in her good graces, he approved of her exploring her curiosity. For a moment, Jojo was thankful that the boyfriend had stumbled into the temple so brazenly.
While walking over to the house, Jojo overheard the girlfriend say, “I was sick the whole time in Bangkok and didn’t get to go out at all. Now we’re here, with the opportunity to explore temples, and you don’t do it with me? What is wrong with you?”
The boyfriend mumbled a response, but Jojo couldn’t hear it over the rain. He led them into the little patio area of his home, told them to have a seat, and introduced them to his wife Chit. She didn’t know English, so she merely nodded and smiled at the ragged pair. She had spread a liberal amount of thanaka on her soft cheeks, because the traditional yellow paste helped her keep a healthy complexion. After the introduction and stares from the foreigners, Jojo went into his sales pitch, while his wife looked on.
He picked up the first painting from the top of the stack. It was on canvas fabric, with the painting being rough to the touch. The picture itself was a mostly red elephant, but all in all it was a flourish of color. He made the effort to show the sand painting to them, and he demonstrated that the painting was waterproof and could be stored in any fashion — crumbled up in a ball, even — but he could not help but notice that he was not getting through to the couple. He was shocked to see that the girlfriend’s tears were streaming down her face, which was redder than he had ever imagined a face could get. He stood there dumbfounded, with the crumpled elephant resting in his hand. Chit looked at him, shrugged her shoulders, and told him in Burmese that he still had to try to make the sale. He had gone though the trouble of taking the girlfriend into the temple to see the Buddha after all, and the whole reason behind it had been to warm her up to the idea of buying a sand painting or two.
Jojo inched toward the seated couple and started, “You have a small backpack, so you can put thi—,”
The boyfriend tried to put his hand on the girlfriend’s shoulder, but she peeled it off and smacked him in the face. She crossed her arms and hunched over, averting her eyes from everyone in the vicinity. The chicken clucked. Jojo sat down and pulled another sand painting from the pile. This one was an elephant composed of seven women. He especially liked this one for its abstract nature.
As Jojo moved to gingerly present the painting to the couple, the girlfriend turned to the boyfriend, her wet ponytail smacking against her neck. She said, “Why would you ever fuck a Thai hooker while I was sick in the hotel bed? Are you nuts?!”
“I don’t know. Curiosity, I guess?”
“That is literally the worst answer you could have given!” She smacked him across the face again. Now his face was as red as hers. “I thought you were ready to take the next step in this relationship, but that is clearly not the case if you are banging Thai hookers.”
“It was only one.”
Jojo looked over his shoulder at Chit, who flicked her wrist at him, goading him on. Jojo did his best to explain to her what was happening, but Chit told him that this was most likely going to be their only sales opportunity of the day. She was right, like always.
“Fuck you, smart ass. You can stay here for the next couple of days like we had planned, but I’m going back to Mandalay right now. Take me back to the hotel.”
“You know the flight is going to cost about 300 bucks, right?” The boyfriend said.
“I’d pay a thousand if it got me away from you.”
“What about our long layover in Bangkok before going back to Seoul?”
“I’ll stay in Suvarnabhumi and wait by the gate. You can run back to your hooker.”
Jojo was happy that Khin was in the house and behind on his English lessons. It was clear that he was not going to be making any kind of sale, so he withdrew the seven woman elephant painting. The couple scooped up their helmets and started off.
Before leaving the sitting area, however, the girlfriend said to Jojo, “Thanks for taking me into the temple. It changed my life.”
Startled, Jojo said, “You are welcome.”
“How much for one of those sand paintings?”
In shock, Jojo said, “One for 15,000 kyats, two for 25,000.”
The girlfriend grabbed the boyfriend’s arms and said, “You’re buying me the seven-woman elephant painting. I need to at least get something out of this mess.”
“But I won’t have enough money for the rest of my time here.”
“Boo hoo. Buy me the fucking painting.”
The boyfriend sighed, and handed over three purple notes to Jojo, who in turn handed him the sand painting. He would have normally pressed the man to buy another, but he knew that this was no time to push his luck. After making sure all of their belongings had been gathered, the couple headed off.
Once they were out of eyesight, Chit sucked her teeth at Jojo. “You should have sold them one more,” she said matter-of-factly.
“I told you what was going on with them. That guy was a scumbag.”
“Eh. She’ll take him back.”
“What makes you say that?”
“If she were totally done with him, she would have not asked him to buy her a painting at all. Why would she want a token to remember such a terrible day by?” With that, Chit went back into the house to prepare. As she went in, he sat down in his painting chair.
Jojo grabbed a canvas fabric that had a picture stenciled on it. It was a copy of one of the wall paintings in Ananda Temple. Jojo grabbed a brush, dipped it in the green watercolor, and started to get to work, staying in the lines as much as possible. He wasn’t perfect, but mistakes were easily corrected. Jojo went on like this the rest of the afternoon. Every once in a while, however, he would glance up, hoping that another foreign couple would pay him a visit.
About the Author
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Stephen J. Gallas is currently an MFA candidate at Chapman University in Orange, California. Prior to attending Chapman, he lived in Korea for four years and worked as an English instructor. While living in Korea, Stephen met his lovely wife Jungeun. He has contributed to The Los Angeles Review of Books and The Cat’s Meow for Writers & Readers.
He can be found on Twitter @gallas_s, and on Instagram @steevbeevin.