Merrymaking in Myanmar

 

IMG_0005We pulled into the Yangon Central train station at 5:45am. We were just in time to see the majestic sun waking up. We’d come from Bagan on an overnight bus and were quite the sight. We still hadn’t solidified logistics with our host in Yangon, so were feeling a little unsettled.
While at that train station we began to take in our surroundings, noting that the main hall of the train station was filling up with local travelers, many of them wearing the traditional longyis, and yellow paint of their faces. There were many side rooms in the station, full of people, sleeping on floor mats, just rising from a long night sleep.  We went to the bathroom to try to refresh. There were two ladies sitting outside of the bathroom waiting for me to pay them a few coins to use the facilities. Once in the bathroom, I thought it unusual that one of the stalls was converted into a sleeping room and realized that it probably belonged the ladies manning the door, that this was actually their house. So, we decided to wait until we got to our host home to really clean up.

IMG_0010We were hungry and found a local vender selling these delicious pastries that you dipped in a coffee like substance and eventually the four of us reunited back in the main hall. Craig had already negotiated our tickets and we had finally connected with our host and boarded our train.

As we boarded the train a few things caught our eye. First, the train car we boarded said “Ordinary Class” on the side of the car. We thought that was pretty funny that we were riding the ordinary car. Second, we were fascinated by the many¬†riders¬†with unusually red mouths.¬†They were chewing something and would spit long streams of red dye out of the window of the train car. When they would smile we could see a twinkle in their eye, however, seeing their teeth was another story as most them were missing. There was one man who strolled through our car with a round metal tray filled with all sort of nuts, white powder stuff, leaves, and little bowls to crush stuff in. We later learned that he was selling a¬†sort of chewing tobacco, ¬†called Betle. We learned it was quite addicting and besides the loss of teeth, it‚Äôs also a leading cause of mouth cancer. The tradition runs 2000 years deep, so even with the new health information it will probably take a long while before it’s¬†looked down upon in¬†the common land.

IMG_0018We finally found our way to our host home and stumbled in about 9am. We were exhausted but excited to meet our new friends and hear about their journey from Phoenix AZ to Yangon, Myanmar. Mother/Daughter duo, Brenda and Nola, founders of the organization R.A.T (Run against Trafficking)  based out of Phoenix AZ, have worked for the past three years and raised thousands of dollars advocating for programs that assist victims of human trafficking. Through a series of events including a visit to Myanmar in 2013, they solidified their desire to come over and implement a similar strategy to raise awareness through their 5K R.A.T race. Three weeks prior to our visit they had facilitated their first run, which we learned was the first non-profit run in the history of Myanmar. It was a huge success and opened many doors with local leaders. We enjoyed hearing their stories of near misses and moments of divine orchestration at exactly the right time.

One afternoon, Brenda and Nola introduced us to their friend Rick Chase, who told us his story of working in refuge camps back in Canada and hearing the tragic stories of the people of Myanmar. He said, these stories inspired he and his family to give up everything in Vancouver to try to make a change. After doing a bit of research, Rick found that helping to meet a nutritional need was one ways he have a major impact. He decided to take a risk and start a local soy milk business called¬†Snowball Soy. He shared his struggles of starting a business in a foreign country but his vision¬†to feed one million people, orphans especially, across Myanmar, seemed to rise above the struggles. He’s brought over¬†a Canadian invention called a¬†Vitagoat¬†soy food processing machine. The machines are inexpensive to set up and can be run without any electricity, which means a Vitagoat can be used not just in urban areas, but in refugee camps and the middle of the jungle.

While at lunch with Rick, we made note of his language skills and he said that it was a necessity to learn the language and learn it well. He said he felt that it was a major contributing factor in the success of his business. We concurred and enjoyed the benefit of having someone with us that could communicate in the native tongue as our food seemed to taste better and arrive quicker than normal.

IMG_9036On another occasion, in our little neighborhood, we were invited by Mai, the owner of the condo apartments we were staying at, to perform a concert for the locals on her front porch. As we set up our instruments, people from up and down the street began to gather around. Music is a universal language and for that one hour we all spoke that same language and sang our hearts out. Merrymaking on the streets of Yangon was a highlight to be sure and meeting sweet Mai, her family and all of her neighbors was a sheer delight.

As the week progressed, I found myself ill and in bed but Craig and the kids continued to explore. Craig was quite popular on the streets of Yangon and found welcome in most places with his huge mustache and bright smile.

IMG_9087As he wandered the streets, he was especially fascinated with the construction process, tools and crews. At one point, he was watching in wonderment as a crew build a three-story building. One of the workers noticed him and waved him up to the third floor take a closer look. Language was a barrier but the smiles and hand gestures were enough to understand the process. The manual labor component was intense as they would mix the concrete by hand below and then take turns carrying the loads in metal bowls, on their heads, up to the third floor, in flip flops on uneven surfaces. Craig was especially in awe of the women on the crew who would carry the same weight on their heads as the men.

Then, on one occasion, Craig popped into a convenience store looking for a calendar of the infamous Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi. As he entered, the young man behind the counter quickly ran to the back of the shop to hide behind a curtain. Soon a few heads were peaking around the corner at Craig, hands to their faces to hold in their giggles. Eventually, they pushed a young girl forward and she slowly walked to the counter, eying Craig up and down with a big smile on her face, making a gesture with her hands above her lip clearly communicating that he was quite the sight. He got a kick out of their playfulness but didn’t find his calendar there. However, later, Mai from the condo, handed Craig a gift and it had a lovely calendar for him.

IMG_0019On another occasion, Craig was walking near the train tracks and saw an old-fashioned train control center. He began to poke in and around the building and was eventually invited by the two fella’s manning the booth, to come in.

He was excited to able to get up close and have a good look at the vintage mechanics of using levers to change train tracks. He walked in with his shoes on, which was a no no but the fella’s graciously gestured for him to remove them. Once again, despite the language barrier, these fella‚Äôs seemed quite happy to have Craig’s company for a little while; they admiring his big red mustache and he admiring their lever system.

 

IMG_9032And of course, you can‚Äôt go to Yangon without stopping by the ancient billion dollar pagoda in the city center. Craig and the kid went to visit the¬†Shwedagon Pagoda, known as¬†the most sacred¬†Buddhist¬†pagoda in Myanmar. It apparently contains¬†relics¬†of the four previous¬†Buddhas¬†of the present¬†kalpa. These relics include the staff of¬†Kakusandha, the water filter of¬†KoŠĻáńĀgamana, a piece of the robe of¬†Kassapa, and eight strands of hair from the head of¬†Gautama. According to legend, the Shwedagon Pagoda was constructed more than 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. Out of respect, no one can wear any clothing that shows¬†their¬†knees, so our son, who had gone in shorts, had to purchase a¬†traditional¬†longyis¬†and wear that throughout the grounds. He rocked it out.

IMG_9030History, traditions and legends aside, it was the immense amount of gold and jewels in the temple that really made an impact on the kids. When they returned they told me of the grandness¬†¬†of the pagoda, exclaiming that it‚Äôs worth was upwards near US$4 billion dollars. My mind couldn‚Äôt grasp what $4billion dollars in a constructed building would look like but they¬†described¬†it well¬†telling¬†of the¬†half a tonne of gold in Shwedagon‚Äôs umbrella alone. Then there was the 5500 diamonds ‚Äď the largest of which is similar in size to one that Sotheby‚Äôs auctioned for $10-12 million, and gems galore, including 2300 rubies, sapphires, and other gems, in the main spire and 4000 golden bells. Then there was the gold, jewels, and 21st-century LED displays that swirls around many of the Buddhas. Actually, it was quite overwhelming to even think about. With all the jewels abounding, we could imagine a hilarious Pink Panther movie being filmed here!

IMG_9045Near the end of our stay in Yangon we met Polly, a shop owner across the street from where we were staying. Her little sewing shop was called Gold Rose Design and Creation and she had about eight young ladies working for her. I decided to pop my head in and see about having my pants altered before we flew to Singapore the next day. She assured me they would be finished by evening and asked me to stop back then. I went back to our host home to pack and prepare for the journey ahead. We shared our last meal with Brenda and Nola at a local joint across the way and then went back to get my pants from the Gold Rose. It was about 10pm when I arrived and some of the girls were working on a beautiful beaded piece, others were cleaning up for the day. I sat down on one of the stools and began to chat with Polly, who spoke english fairly well. She shared a little bit of her story stating that she, her husband and little daughter owned the humble little sewing shop.

IMG_9069The more I listened, asked questions and navigated language, I realized Polly’s business was a creative way of caring for her community. She was providing a safe environment for her students and workers to learn and grow. Her sewing shop was a wonderful beckon of light and offered Polly and opportunity to nurture and train up young women by equipping them not only with a skill set but with a beautiful understanding of self-worth.  As I went to pay for her service, she waved her hand and said, no, this is a gift for you. Then she handed both my daughter and myself beautiful scarves as a gift as well. I was in tears by this point feeling the love that comes when we are showered with gifts. It’s meeting people like Polly that gives us hope. And, that’s what I would say about the most of the Myanmar people we had the delight to encounter. They were authentic in their interactions and genuinely hospitable people. They cared for us in their kind looks/gestures, guided us across busy streets, smiled at us with friendly amusement, and they blessed us with radical hospitality.

What a joy to be able to catch a glimpse of all the inner makings of the local people in places far off and lands of wonder. I hope that one day, we will be invited back and that when we come that we can bless our friends in Myanmar as much as we’ve felt blessed by them.

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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.

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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.