When I was in Mandalay, they were holding an annual multi-day chinlon tournament on the grounds of the famous Mahamuni Pagoda, so I invited my friend Maw Hsi and some of the kids from 90th Street (where U Tin Chit’s small teashop is located) to attend one night.
If you’ve never heard of Chinlon, or seen it played, it’s a very fast-paced and exciting sport. It’s similar to the game of Sepak Takraw that’s played in other Southeast Asian nations, using the same type of cane or wicker ball (slightly larger than a US softball), but without a net or teams facing off against one another. Basically, a group of people (usually in groups of five, and almost always men) form a circle and kick the ball around. In these chinlon tourneys the men are constantly in motion, rotating counter-clockwise while kicking the ball around to one another. The object is to keep it in the air as long as possible. By saying “kicking” I’m simplifying what these talented athletes are doing. The kicks come from all angles; behind the back, using the side or heel of the foot, and in many cases the guys are performing acrobatic kicks and using their heads to propel the ball. No hands, please! When a really talented team gets into a rhythm, it’s a mesmerizing sight.
I had assumed we would hop in a little blue truck taxi and take that from the teashop to Mahamuni, but Maw Hsi waved off my suggestion and said that we could walk. I’m an avid walker and don’t mind a long stroll, but my first thought was: how long is it going to take us? I’m familiar enough with Mandalay to know that the pagoda was not located in the surrounding neighborhood, so the thought of a multi-mile hike didn’t exactly thrill me and my already tired legs (cycling around town all day, every day took its toll). Maw Hsi estimated the walking time at about 45 minutes, and the kids didn’t appear too shattered at the task, so off we went.
What a great idea the walk turned out to be! We cut through all sorts of colorful little neighborhoods and across creeks (complete with scary little makeshift bridges) and a few major roads. It was one of those amazing, impromptu Mandalay tours that tourists never get to experience. Women were outside cooking or selling food, men were repairing motorcycles, children were playing games, and monks were chatting with locals. And once they caught sight of me and my crew of twelve, there were always looks of surprise and a few howls of laughter.
When we got to Mahamuni the tournament was in full swing. Actually, it starts in the morning and continues into the night, with only brief interludes as an endless parade of teams (some from other countries too) demonstrate their chinlon prowess. I assume there is some sort of judging system, seeing as how no team is directly competing against another one at the same time. Along with the players, there is an announcer and an accompanying orchestra! Yes, a traditional Burmese style band with drums, cymbals, and a few other noisy instruments liven up the atmosphere as the chinlon ball is being kicked around. Festive it is! The venue wasn’t as packed as it had been on previous visits, but there was still a vocal mix of local and a section reserved for monks (including one novice who was napping on his friend’s shoulder). Once again, not a tourist in sight.
At one point, I handed the camera over to Zin Ko, my trusty 10-year-old photography assistant, and he took some photos of the action, and even shot a short video. The kid is getting the hang of it. We watched two teams play for the better part of an hour and then adjourned to the adjacent pagoda, a huge one and the most revered Buddhist spot in Mandalay. The kids paid their respects to the giant Buddha figure, and then wandered around the rest of the grounds, ringing bells, beating drums, and just doing the silly things that kids love to do. I watched it all, enjoying their antics and the friendly vibe that resonated. We walked back to the teashop on 90th Street, where U Tin Chit cooked up a batch of fried rice for the crew. Tired, yes, but man, those kids were obviously very hungry too; second helpings for all!