Breaking Point

Through out SE Asia we’ve ridden our fair share of night buses. They are the cheapest and most efficient way to travel through the lands. And so it was, that we took a night bus from Bagan to Yangon, Myanmar (Burma). Renting a car was out of the question because of the laws in the country prohibiting how tourist can travel. A flight would only take one and a half hours but was well out of our price range and so, the night bus it was. We booked the trip on JJ (Joyous Journeys) Bus line, one of the most reputable in Myanmar. The trip by bus would be approximately 10 hours and would drop us off at the Central Rail Station in Yangon.

These treks via plane, train or bus are all part of the journey and although we’d rather the transitions be more efficient, this particular trip allowed us to see a few things. One, we saw parts of local life¬†on that overnight bus that we would not have experienced in any other way. And, secondly, on a personal note, it was on this particular night bus that I found my breaking point.

As we boarded the bus at 10pm, our seating was scattered throughout the bus and we noticed that we were definitely the minority. The hostess was kind and meek. She spoke enough english to communicate logistics but struggled to command authority from the other foreigners that were riding the bus. For instance, one of the bus riders insisted on taking the whole back seat of the bus, even though the seats were already assigned. The hostess was trying to explain to him in her broken words that the back was meant for the crew to take shifts sleeping in throughout the night. In the end, she didn’t argue but left the man to his own devices and resorted to using his single seat as their refuge during the ride.

We were all given a bottle of water and a wipe to clean our hands, as well as, a blanket and a small pillow. The bus fired up, the lights went down and people started to settle in for the long sleep. As I stared out the window, I noticed every now and then, activity along the roadsides. Even at the late hour, people made their way here and there, small burning fires, making street food, hoping for a sale from passers-by. And then all of a sudden, the night would go black again. No street lights or signs posted, just the ebony of night and the majestic stars dancing in the wide open sky.

At 3 am we eventually stopped at a “rest stop” which offered some western amenities (toilets and a cafe). The lights inside the bus went on abruptly and we were all told we had to exit the bus as this was to be a 30 min stop for our driver to eat his meal. We all stumbled off of the bus, while ladies with different food items on trays approached us aggressively trying to sell us their goods before we went into the cafe. Still getting our bearings, we took a quick look around the dark parking lot. There was a chill in the air as clouds blew in and shadows began to¬†cover the sky like a thick blanket. There were small camp fires burning here and there. The locals were covered in traditional dress and scattered throughout the parking lot; some sitting or sleeping on mats and some cooking over open fires. We saw truck loads of migrants (men, women and children) and other trucks with loads of women and children, just¬†silhouettes, being transported in the middle of the night, to who knows where, to do who knows what.

We all made our way across the parking lot to the toilet block but hadn’t discussed where to meet up after. However, assumptions had¬†lead us all back into the cafe,¬†all of us that is, but our son. My husband, daughter and I¬†sat for a moment waiting on him but after an uncomfortable amount of time a wave of concern began to wash over¬†us. We all split up and began to scour the area, checking the toilet blocks, wandering the faintly lit¬†laneway, looking in other buses and trucks, checking the vendors and doing it all over again. Our hearts pounding, we were in a quandary. He was¬†nowhere to¬†be found. We had lost our son! I started to think the worst. He was taken. I mean why not? Our son is a handsome¬†14 yr old fella. And, after everything we saw and learned in¬†Pattaya, Thailand,¬†my mind started to wonder. Panic set in as the bus driver yelled for us all to get back on the bus.

We all moved towards the bus, Craig boarded first and announced that he was going to look on the bus, to see if our son had gone back before us. I was last to board, waiting with bated breath to hear from the back of the bus. Time seemed to stand still as I took¬†my first steps onto the bus, darting my eyes back and forth over the grounds. This couldn’t be, we couldn’t just leave. Of course we couldn’t! I was about to alert the bus driver that we had a missing child. Language barrier or not, he should be able to hear the distress in a mother’s voice and take heed. Then, just before I could speak, Craig yelled¬†from the back¬†of the bus, he’s here! He’s here!!

He had been on the bus the whole time and had no idea that we had nearly lost our minds looking for him. He had gone directly from the toilet block back to the bus. He was just there, curled up like a baby, sleeping soundly in his seat.

As my rational mind returned I took note to breath, inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly. I gave him a big cuddle and went back to my seat.¬†Sleep evaded me¬†so I prayed. I could feel myself breaking. The episode at the bus stop had¬†exacerbated what was already there, lying under the surface. All these years on the road, all these faces we had seen throughout the US, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and now Myanmar, all the divine appointments, all the stories, the sounds, the smells, they all took my breath away. ¬†shutterstock_122158012_broken-heart1It was all becoming overwhelming and I was weary. Yes, we’ve had¬†many amazing experiences but we’ve also felt the sting of injustice and tasted the bitterness of corruption. We had gladly allowed ourselves to be woven together with the saints, sitting and listening to story after story from those the “Empire” would deem unimportant. We had taken time to feel and understand, to help share the burdens of the afflicted, to offer prayer and share our gifts of encouragement. However, I had to admit that our battle wounds were deep¬†and the load was becoming to heavy to bear. It was here in this moment that I realized that I had been shouldering some of these burdens on my own accord and finally surrendered them and laid them all down at the feet of the Almighty.

I wept, longing for¬†“Thy Kingdom come,”¬†asking for a new song, for a sort of prayer for¬†restoration for those I had met along the way but, also for my own soul. A¬†thirst¬†for healing began to flow out of me and this poem is what followed.

~Here we are rolling along this same old road, ragged and¬†worn, my heart is heavy, the hour is nigh¬†and I’m still awake.
~Thinking about that river that flows, down the mountains into the fold of love and life and happiness, for all who seek.
~Child of Love, don’t you see, the trees that run down the river to the east where the water flows from salt to life and the healing is complete
~And, when those trouble come my way and pride has mounted, so I can not see, I ask the Lord to show me the way because my heart faileth me.
~Then His right hand lifted me up, brought me out of the pit that had trapped me, set my foot on the rock of life, now I’ve been set free
~Child of Love, don’t you see, the trees that run down the river to the east where the water flows from salt to life and the healing is complete
~Well I sat upon that rock, looking out over the canyon towards the west, as the sun it went down, my heart it filled up,
~Then said I, Lo, I come; in the volume of your book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O God yea, I sing.
~Child of Love, don’t you see, the trees that run down the river to the east where the water flows from salt to life and the healing is complete
~…So I gave over myself and asked the Lord to teach me to pray, and he whispered in my ear, come down to the river with me.
~And he sang, Oh darling let‚Äôs go down, let‚Äôs go down won‚Äôt you come on down.¬†Oh darling, let’s go down, down to the river to pray.
~And he sang, Oh darling let‚Äôs go down, let‚Äôs go down won‚Äôt you come on down.¬†Oh darling, let’s go down, down to the river to pray.

Myanmar-river-small-mountain-river-Shan-State-Burma….And, this river of life, these healing waters, are all that make any sense to me right now. And, as each face, name or story comes to mind, I knew then, as I know now that I’m going to just need a little bit time to sit. Time to just rest at the water’s edge and pray. Time to allow the pieces of my heart to be woven back together.

The Land of Ten-thousand Pagodas

map_of_myanmarWe knew we wanted to visit Myanmar (Burma) ever since August 2015, ¬†when we sat around a table with Christy & Paul Penley¬†in Colorado Springs and learned about all that was unfolding in the newly opened country. However, our contacts there were limited and so we tentatively only reserved 9 days in the country and planned to take it day by day to see what would unfold. The trip to Myanmar would follow our time in Thailand and we thought we’d be flying from Bangkok to Yangon. However, after more research on the history and areas of Myanmar, we decided that it would be especially important for us to visit the ancient city of¬†Bagan.

This would change our original plan of flying into Yangon and set us back a bit as our flight from Bangkok to Mandalay would mean and overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, then a flight to Mandalay, then finally a three-hour bus ride to Bagan. It would be our most extensive and demanding travel in some weeks and thankfully, our hosts in Bangkok, the Tuggy family, welcomed us back for a short two night stay, which broke up our trip and allowed us to find the much-needed energy for the next chapter.

IMG_8794We hailed a taxi in Bangkok and set out for the airport, found the line to Mandalay, got our tickets and boarded our plane. The flight was short, about 2  hours. We landed and took an hour bus ride into downtown Mandalay. Then hopped on a short bus for the final three-hour stretch to Bagan. It was through the windows on that bus that we would catch our first glimpse of Myanmar.

We noticed that the infrastructure was simple and the poverty was striking, yet not offensive. The people were extremely friendly and welcomed us with big smiles (which may also have been a response to Craig’s grandiose mustache). Both men and women were dressed in traditional longyi and many of the women had their hair up and a wore yellow paint on their faces, which we later learned was made from tree bark. We quickly learned the “traditional” Burmese greeting,¬†mingalaba, in hopes that the locals would sense our¬†desire to connect with them. During one of our first interactions at a roadside stand we were well taken care of by three Burmese women who served us our first meal. It was spicy, simple and delicious.

A little history about Bagan, Myanmar. Officially known as the¬†Republic of the Union of Myanmar¬†but also known as¬†Burma,¬†has an ancient history involving the intertwining influence of both Indian, China and Thailand. And, although historians don’t always agree on the original history, many agree¬†that the¬†Tibeto-Burman-speaking Pyu people, were potentially the earliest inhabitants of Burma. They were heavily influenced by trade with India, importing¬†Buddhism¬†as well as other cultural, architectural and political concepts. It is said that in the¬†1050s, King¬†Anawrahta¬†founded the Pagan Kingdom and that the kingdom grew out of a small 9th-century settlement at¬†Pagan¬†(Bagan) by the¬†Mranma¬†(Burmans), who had recently entered the Irrawaddy valley from the¬†Kingdom of Nanzhao (Southern China).

IMG_0058It is also said, that Bagan was visited by the Buddha himself during his lifetime, and it was here that¬†he allegedly pronounced that a great kingdom would arise.¬†Buddhism stuck and TheravńĀda Buddhism ¬† ¬† ¬†(literally “school of the¬†elder monks”) is the branch of¬†Buddhism¬†that is practiced in Myanmar. It uses the teaching of the¬†PńĀli Canon, a collection of the oldest recorded Buddhist texts, thought to have been written directly by the Gautama Buddha¬†himself,¬†composed in¬†North India, and preserved orally until it was committed to writing during the¬†Fourth Buddhist Council¬†in¬†Sri Lanka¬†in 29¬†BCE. The text is believed to¬†contain everything needed to show the path to¬†nirvńĀna (or heaven).

IMG_0049During the Kingdom of Pagan’s height between the 11th and 13th centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed in about a 40 mile radius, with 2200 still standing.

In its hay day, the city was a cosmopolitan center for religious and secular studies, specializing in Pali scholarship in grammar and philosophical-psychological studies as well as works in a variety of languages on grammar, astrology, alchemy, medicine, and legal studies.

After the collapse of the Pagan Empire, the city underwent centuries of changes and has maintained a humble presence as a religious pilgrimage, as well as, a one of the countries main historical tourist destinations with an average of over 300,000 international tourists each year.

IMG_0024It was late in the evening when we arrived to our May Kha Lar guesthouse, ($50USD per night for 2 rooms) where we planned to stay for one night, as that was all we could afford. It would be a short visit but we planned to make the most of our time. We woke about 8am, ate a lovely breakfast, went across the street and rented two electric scooters for $8 each and began to make our way towards the Pagodas. We didn’t have an exact route planned but rather¬†followed our noses.

The Pagodas, traditionally a¬†funerary monument containing Buddha associated relics, were usually built to honor a notable person, or bring lasting remembrance to an important family. They sprinkled along the roadside and fields, allowing us to stop frequently, exploring the in’s and out’s of the structures.

img_1957_lzn1Originally, the bell-shaped brick structures were set on a square or octagonal base, and rose to a gentle peak gilded with metal (usually gold) and jeweled tops with a sacred parasol-shaped decoration called “hti”. Over time, however, the structures have lost much of their facades and most have weaned down to the original brick. All were four-sided with an opening on each side and each side had a large gold leaf painted statue of Buddha in a crossed leg sitting position. Some of the Pagodas had a tunnel that connected between the four sides and some of them didn’t. Some were old ruins and some recently renovated, like the Shwesandaw Pagoda which was built in 1057 by¬†King Anawrahta. It has a¬†bell tower which rises from two octagonal bases and is topped with five square terraces. This was the first monument in Bagan to feature stairways leading from the square bottom terraces to the round base of the pagoda itself and this pagoda supposedly enshrines a Buddha hair relic brought back from southern Burma.

After stopping off for a quick-lunch and seeing more¬†Pagodas than we could count, we decide to seek out some of the famous temples. We learned the temples also known as “gu” were inspired by the rock caves of Buddhist. Different than the surrounding pagodas, the temples were larger multi-storied buildings and were places of public worships that included rich murals with sacred shrines and images that could be worshipped. All of them slightly different in design but most¬†built as square or oblong structure with outer terraces representing Mount Meru, the symbolic home of the gods, and surrounded by a thick wall to separate its realm of the sacred from the outside world.

IMG_0112History and architecture aside, as a person who questions the motives of empire and any really establishment, religious or not, I’ll admit it was hard to make sense of it all. It seemed very focused on wealth and prosperity, which seemed quite the paradox in this noticeably impoverished land. For instance, the outer courtyards were filled with vendors, making their honest yet demanding plea for passerby’s to buy their products. Inside the Temples the walls were lined with multiple offering boxes and filled with cold hard cash and later we would learn about temples in the southern region that were made of solid gold, jewels and gems. As an ascetic however, I did appreciate the offerings of simple objects such as a lit candle or oil lamp,¬†burning incense,¬†flowers,¬†food, fruit, water or drinks.

While at one of the Pagodas a man was selling his traditional/religious art. He spoke english and seemed open to us asking him questions. He helped us understand that the material offerings were meant to nurture generosity¬†and virtue, as well as,¬†deepening one’s commitment to the¬†Buddha’s path. After seeing all of the full offerings (money boxes) it became apparent that nurturing generosity and virtue were held in high regard for the Burmese people. But, after seeing all of the poverty around us, the skeptic in me, wondered where exactly all that money went. None the less, I knew I didn’t have the whole picture so I shelved my need to seek¬†justice¬†and resolved to seek out more information about what the Buddhist leadership might do with these offerings.

Plan_of_Ananda_Temple_MyanmarWe made our way to one of the most famous Temples, called Ananda. Said to have been built around 1105 by King Kyanzittha, this perfectly proportioned temple heralds the stylistic end of the Early Bagan period and the beginning of the Middle period.

Legend says that there were 8 monks who arrived one day to the palace begging for alms. They told the king that once, they had lived in the Nandamula Cave temple in the Himalayas. The King was fascinated by the tales and invited the monks to return to his palace. The monks with their meditative powers, showed the king the mythical landscape of the places they had been. IMG_0142King Kyanzittha was overwhelmed by the sight and had a desire for building a temple which would be cool inside in the middle of the hot Bagan plains.

After the construction of the temple, the king executed the architects just to make the style of the temple so unique. Unfortunately, we were not able to enter the Temple because it was closed for a private guest tour. Word on the street was that Bono was there. So, we hung out in the parking lot, which also doubled as a place for vendors to sell their wears.

IMG_8969A young woman approached me. I wasn’t really interested in buying her clothing but felt compelled to talk with her. She had fantastic english and as we sat there for the next hour, she shared her story of growing up in a little village along a river and losing everything in Cyclone Koman. With no government infrastructure to deal with the devastation she along with her large family fled to Bagan to find work. For months they drifted, homeless and shelterless and then finally¬†found work/shelter guarding one of the temples. She and her sisters are no longer in school but rather they sell clothing at the temples to support their family. As we spoke I was taken by the thought that just five years ago this conversation would have never even been possible as the border to Myanmar had only just opened to the outside world. I was taken by her spirit and zest for life, her initiative to learn english by engaging with foreigners and I encouraged her to consider seeking opportunities to use her language skills to advocate for her people. Only 19, she smiled and thanked me for the words of encouragement. Swindled or not, I decided to use my tiny pocket-book to purchase her clothing. She suggested a traditional longyi and allowed me time to leaf through all of her choices. We exchanged e-mails before leaving and honestly, I haven’t stopped thinking of her.

IMG_0146As we turned to go, I saw Craig standing at the side of a truck filled, actually jam-packed with people, both young and old, waiting for who know what, in the hot sun. I realized as I approached the truck that they were absolutely enthralled with his epic mustache. They all sat staring at him, giggling with sheer delight for a good fifteen minutes as he stood by smiling, allowing them this simple pleasure.

From the Ananda temple we made our way to the Shwesandaw Pagoda to watch the sunset (which in and of itself is a good enough reason to visit Bagan). On the way, Craig’s electric scooter got a flat tire and we had to seek help from a local vender who happened to have a cell phone for us to borrow. We called the lady who rented us a bike and with in the hour her husband rode up and exchanged our bike for his. Luckly, the bike debacle didn’t cause to much of a set back and we arrived about an hour before sunset.

We could see the Dhammayangy¬†Temple, also known as the Kalagya Min, the ‘king killed by Indians’, in the distance and decided to take the off-road trails to get to it. This massive structure was built by the cruel¬†King Narathu in the 12 century and was said to be cursed because of his ruthless reign.

dirt bikeWe started to make our way but found that the sand trails were over-cumbersome for our mopeds and began to doubt our decision. We revved our engines and tried to push through but finally after a comical and somewhat dangerous drive we finally found our way back to a main road. We were covered in sand, sweat and our belly’s hurt from laughter. We never made it over to the Dhammayangy Temple. Instead, we stuck the road and made our way back to the Shwesandaw. We climbed up to the top and although it was crowded with tourists the view was spectacular. We didn’t end up getting any photos of the actual sunset but we did get one of this little darling, the sun glowing on her skin.

12509792_903008916480557_7715223405953009751_n

After the sunset, we made our way back towards our guesthouse for dinner but found on our way that my bike battery was running low. We struggled to make our way but the battery didn’t last the whole way. Graciana, who was riding on the back of my bike, ended up having to use both of her legs to aggressively push us along. We were laughing hysterically and I’m sure quite the site and as we neared a busier part of town we began to hear cheers and laughter. Her fortitude and my steering finally found us pulled up in front of the moped rental where we exchanged the bike for our final hour in Bagan.

Our last stop was the Black Bamboo restaurant, which combined a wonderful array of French and Burmese cuisine. It was a real treat to be sure and offered a bit of a respite from our sandy, sweaty day.

After dinner, we dropped of the bikes, picked up our luggage, which the guesthouse had been minding, and made our way to the bus stop for a long night of travel. We were exhausted but so pleased as to all that had transpired over the past twenty-four hours.

We still didn’t have answers to some of our questions but we left Bagan with more understanding of the common people and our hearts were full.