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Note 19 - Myanmar

February 05, 2006


Note 19 - Myanmar

Dear Friends,

After a brief stop in Bangkok for the New Year night, I arrive to Yangon (Rangoon) the capital of Myanmar (Burma). I share a cab ride from the airport with a Norwegian. He talks only about his multiple women encounters in Thailand, how many Viagra pills he has and how badly hangover he is. I nod mindlessly and look out the window. I like the drive. There are not too many cars on the road. The streets are lined with green trees. It's green everywhere until we are properly in the city. The pickup trucks are passing by. Outfitted with benches, they are the "local buses". Some are more crowded then others. From the crowded ones, people hang off like the grapes off the grapevine. Men are wearing some sort of long skirts, mostly of a darker, finely checkered pattern. These are called longyi, a wide tube off fabric worn as a skirt with the excess tied around the waist into a special knot. Occasionally they untie the knot, stretch out the material and retie it again. The movement is completely automatic. Some women wear longyies as well. Everyone is in some sort of flip-flops or sandals. The real buses, not the remodeled trucks, seem to come from the fifties. This is probably what they are. The hotel we come to is in the old part of the city, where streets cross each other in a Manhattan-style grid manner. Luckily they have only one room available and I take it, so I can escape ramblings of the Norwegian, who is walking over to the hotel nearby. Hotel is in an old and decaying colonial building. It occupies just one half of the second floor. On the same floor there is some accounting business. Downstairs there is a bureaucratic office and a convenience store. Staff at the hotel looks like a bunch of teenagers. They are very friendly and some speak decent English. A room for $5 gets me a bed, a breakfast in the morning, an air-conditioner that works when electricity is on, and very clean shared toilet and shower facilities down the corridor. There are 7 rooms in the hotel. A French couple occupies one room. A French guy with his Vietnamese girlfriend occupies the second. There is a German guy who is replaced by an American on the next day in the third. I never see people from the other rooms but I know the hotel is full. We all meet and chat with each other at breakfast and in the evenings.

The second day I go to visit the Shwedagon Paya (pagoda). This is the most famous pagoda in Myanmar and probably one of the most beautiful sites I've ever seen. Many years ago, when Myanmar government was granting only 24 hour tourist visas to visit the country, I still think it was worthwhile the trip just to see the Shwedagon complex. I go there in the morning. A huge golden stupa high on a hill is accessed by one of the four great covered staircases; some marble some of intricately carved wood. The paya itself is on a large square covered with marble and surrounded by dozens of large and small temples holding all sorts of Buddha statues and areas for praying and just resting. There is gold everywhere, which looks nice in combination with green and dark red paintings on some of the wooden structures and with the white of the marble floors. Monks in dark brown-red robes and nuns in light-pink stroll around. There are very few people and almost no tourists. It's getting hot and after making a few rounds and snapping a few photos I take a rest in a cool shade of one of the temples. I'm immediately approached by a couple of young monks. They like to talk to visitors as they are studying English and want to practice. Later in the trip I got a bit tired of "English practices" as they happen way too often. But the guys are nice and we have the usual conversation that I will later run through about 100 times. How long have you been in Myanmar? Which country you come from? How do you like Myanmar? Are you married? How old are you? How long will you stay? That about covers it, but with their limited English it stretches into a long conversation. I do not mind. I walk around some more. People come to the paya to pray, to perform some interesting rituals where they pour water on some of the symbolic figures around the paya. Incense is burned in front of the other figures. It is late afternoon and tourist groups start to arrive. I'm happy I came early and enjoyed the site without the groups crowding the area. I wait till the sunset adds touches of deep red colors to the yellow shining gold of the paya. Then it's dark and projectors are turned onto the paya. Candles are lit. I walk around one more time and leave. I will come again.

Another day passes in Yangon and in the evening I board an overnight bus to Mandalay, accompanied by Philip and Nguen - the French-Vietnamese couple from the guesthouse. Later we will end up sharing guesthouses and transportation all through Myanmar. The bus is advertised as comfortable and air-conditioned. It is indeed pretty good - much better than anything I ever had in India or Nepal. Unfortunately air-conditioning indeed works. And it works full power despite the fact that it's pretty chilly outside at night. Everyone is freezing and sneezing, including locals who came prepared with the blankets, but the driver prefers to keep it that way. So the tea stops which happen arbitrarily through the whole night are quite welcome. Everyone gets out and tries to warm up. Finally we are in Mandalay. A guest house is similar to the one in Yangon, including the young staff. Mandalay used to be the capital of many kingdoms that were replacing each other during the last millennia in this land. Unfortunately, not too much survived from those times. But there is still quite a bit to see in the so called ancient cities around Mandalay. A 2 kilometer long wooden bridge high above the river with supports made entirely of teak wood is amazing. Monks in colorful robes stroll up and down the bridge between the monasteries on both sides. There are many large and small pagodas all around the region. In the evenings we climb some famous hills near Mandalay for sunset views. We take a boat up the river to see yet another ancient city. An immense pagoda has been started there by one of the ancient kings, but never finished. The walls that have been built are seen from many kilometers away. They dominate the landscape.

One of the days we go see "Moustache Brothers Show". They used to be classic street comedians - a wide spread entertainment in Mandalay and Myanmar in general. But their jokes at some point got too sharp for the taste of the military government and they were closed and some of them sent to jail. That made them famous. There was a lot of commotion with support of westerners for their release and when they were released, they were allowed to run the show only for foreign tourists, only in their house with two guys from military intelligence present at the show. So we go and try to enjoy the show. Unfortunately, the brothers must have quite adjusted the show to what they must have thought westerners would find funny. So instead of the natural, local humor the jokes often include names of famous Hollywood figures, jokes about dollars and money with just a little bit of jokes about bribery and corruption in Myanmar. But even the later ones are totally spoiled since after making a joke, or even before making it, the brothers go into explanation of it. I still have to find out the true reason why explaining a joke makes it less funny, kills it. I have some theories, which relate to our ego being offended when the riddle is explained to us too quickly. But there must be more to it. Returning home from the show on a rickshaw we hear some laughing noises from a side street and made a stop. There, surrounded by a big crowd of locals a real show is going on. Two guys, very similar to the brothers were making a comedy show. Everyone is laughing. We do not understand a single word but the guys are so obviously funny that we enjoy just as much and stay for a long time. That fixes the mostly sad impression made by the Lonely Planet's "must see" Moustache Brothers.

We leave Mandalay the next day and drive by a shared taxi deep into the Shan Province which borders China.

I wake up before sunrise in my tiny room in Mr. Charles's guesthouse in a little town of Hsipaw. Two streams of noises are coming from the street right under my window. One, of someone fixing his motorbike. The other, from a small building on the other side of the street, where people are gathering for some sort of a morning prayer. The noises last for an hour. Then it's quiet outside, but it's already 7am and the guesthouse slowly fills up with noises of morning activity. No sleep then...

I feel an urge for some exercise and do a yoga routine for half an hour. The promised hot shower is indeed very hot and the water runs strong - a rarity on my travels. Breakfast is served outside. It's the usual two bananas, toast with jam and butter, an egg and a cup of coffee or tea. Somehow, all guesthouses in Myanmar serve the same breakfast. I chat with other guests. At 9am Mr. Chan appears wearing wide-brimmed bamboo hat, aviator-style sunglasses and traditional Shan trousers. He suggests a walk to the local villages. Four of us go. On the way out of town we walk through a noodle "factory", candle "factory" and a rice processing "plant". Each of them is no more than a small house with a few locals doing mostly manual labor with some help from primitive machinery. Then we are outside in the fields. There is not much activity, as the harvest time has finished recently. We walk into a small village. Houses are elevated above the ground on wooden poles; walls made of weaved bamboo, thatched roofs. It's mostly women and children in the village. Kids from everywhere run towards us, greeting us with "bye-bye". The braver ones get closer, touch. We are a different species to them. One of the little boys is fascinated with the dark hair on my forearms. He pats it, pulls it. I do not object. Women sit outside their huts slicing bamboo poles into thin stripes. These will be dried up and used for weaving fans, walls, hats, fences, baskets. In one house a woman is making cheroots - local cigars. She is paid $7 for making a 1000. In one day she can roll about 100. You do the math... In another house we are offered tea. We relax in the shade under the house and sip Chinese tea. Then we hear some wood-cutting activity nearby. There is a wedding preparation for tomorrow. A large bamboo tent is being set up. The bride is 18. She is collecting and washing some flowers to be placed in a little shrine of her house. Every house has such a shrine. Girl's mother gives each of us a cigarette. This is a wedding invitation, Mr. Chan explains. I stash the cigarette in a shirt pocket. Mr. Chan is finished with his tour and we are let free. It's noon and it's hot. Slowly we go back. In the town I separate from the others and go to the market to a little food stall of Mr. Bean. It's actually Mrs. Bean who works there. Lonely Planet made her famous by listing her in the last two editions and she proudly cites the page numbers for both editions where one can find the references. A bean salad is small, but filling. She promises a ginger salad for tomorrow. Soon I am back in my room, hiding from the heat. I read another chapter from Coetzee's "The Master of Petersburg". I like the book, but I stop myself from going onto the next chapter, trying to have the book last longer. Then, on an impulse, I light up the cigarette - the wedding invitation. It is very light, but being a non-smoker, I immediately feel lightheaded. Yet, I smoke till it is a little butt, burning my fingers. Then I pull out my notepad and write down this story of a day in Myanmar. Now I can rest.

My next destination is Inle Lake, famous for its floating markets and local tribes surrounding the lake. We arrive exhausted after a slow nine hour ride on a local bus, where a seat is just a wooden bench, the road has only patches of flat pavement between the potholes and the dust covers everything. The lake is not very accessible from land. Narrow and wide channels through the reeds and vegetable plantations lead to the lake. I take a walk on a dirt road surrounding the lake to go to the daily market in one of the small villages. Sugar cane growth surrounds the road on both sides. In some places locals harvest the sugar canes. In one place I come closer to take some pictures. They give me a stalk of the sweetest, juiciest sugar cane I have ever tried. I arrive late to the market and there is not much activity - some vegetables and simple goods are sold, but most people are already packing and leaving. I return in a back of a pickup with a bunch of locals. There are a few monasteries next to my guesthouse. It is amazing how many monasteries and monks there are in Myanmar. There believed to be between 3 to 6 million monks in a country of about 40 million people. Anyone at any age can become a monk. Quite unusually, one can become a monk in Myanmar for just one month, or one year, or for whatever period he wishes. It is quite customary for every person to become a monk or a nun and live in a monastery for some time. Many families send their kids to the monasteries from a very young age. Every early morning a stream of monks leaves the monastery doors to go collect donations. They are dressed into a robe and each hold a black round pot with a recessed lid. They go from door to door, from shop to shop and people give. Just a little. Not money - that is rare. Usually it is food. If the food is ready to eat, the monks would sometimes eat it right away. If it's uncooked rice, then it will go to the monastery kitchen. If it is some money, then they will go to the general needs in the monastery. Food, especially rice dominates in donations. Almost everyone gives something, I guess because almost everyone in the country either have been or will be in this position at some moment in life. So they can relate. We take a boat ride on the lake. It is a motorized canoe which can hold about 5-6 tourists. Or about 20 locals as we can see later. For tourists chairs are set up. Locals just sit on the floor and load the canoe so that it barely sits above the water. Fisherman paddle their tiny canoes by standing, balancing on the very tip of the canoe on one leg and wrapping the other around the paddle. That way they use the power of the leg to paddle. When they have to turn, it looks more like an exotic dance on one foot rather than paddling. They must have an amazing sense of balance. They set up long thin nets or use a huge conical shaped net which they drop down to catch crayfish. Once again we are at a market. This one is a bigger, more active. We see people dressed in distinctive closing, stressing their belonging to one or the other small tribe. There is a gambling with big money at stake in a nearby tent. I'm allowed to step in but not allowed to take pictures as gambling is highly illegal.

The next and most famous tourist destination in Myanmar is Bagan. A flat land filled with over 4000 large and small pagodas and temples all dating from a period between 11th and 13th centuries. All built of red brick, the bigger ones usually covered in some white stone outside and some have gilded spires. The large ones reach height of over 60 meters. The smaller ones can be no more then a couple meters tall. Most of them contain several Buddha statues. The more famous ones are said to contain a Buddha hair or a piece of his bone deep inside. Spread out in an area of no more than 3-4 square kilometers, these temples create unbelievable landscape. Sticking out of the low mist at the sunrise or colored in deep shades of red-brick at sunset, they are absolutely magnificent. I rent a bike at my guesthouse and spend a couple of days riding dirt roads between the pagodas, climbing up on some of them, entering the others. From any point I look, I see a different set and a different pattern of spires rising up around me. There are many tourists and this is the first place where I see the "official" tourists who bought packaged tours back at home and are now shuttled on big fancy buses around the countryside. A few days in Bagan and I feel like I cannot do sightseeing anymore. I still have a few days left on my visa and I know that overstaying is not a big problem in Myanmar. So I call up one of the Buddhist Meditation Centers near Yangon and find out if I can come and learn and practice. I commit to come for 10 days. Next day I get to the center. I think that if we look deeply into why certain event occurred, or why we undertook a certain action, we can realize the true reason. There may be certain laws that govern our lives, but usually we are not sensitive enough to recognize them and so we satisfy ourselves with superficial explanations of actions and events. For quite some time I had a desire, almost a need to try the Vipassana Meditation. This is a Buddhist meditation technique which teaches one to live in the present and see the things as they really are, as they really occur. The technique itself is quite simple and involves alternating walking and sitting meditations, where in the walking meditation one is concentrated on observing every element of the foot movement and in the sitting meditation one is concentrating on observing the rising and falling of the abdomen with breathing. When the thoughts come one must observe them, labeling them with "thinking". When the noise is heard, one observes it with a label "hearing". If a pain comes from long sitting, one just observes it with "pain" label and amazingly, most of the times it just goes away. So one observes everything and comes to the primary objects of observing walking or breathing when there is nothing else to observe. To observe, one must slow down considerably. For example, in walking meditation it takes me 5-10 minutes to cover 10-15 meters of distance. This is because each step gets separated into many observable parts: "intending to lift heel", "lifting", "intending to raise foot", "raising", "intending to push forward", "pushing", "intending to drop", "dropping", "touching", "intending to press", "pressing". Observing both the "intention" and the action makes you observe both mental and the physical parts of the walking process. It makes you concentrate quite deeply on every action, sensation and thought. I find that concentration sharpens as I proceed with the exercise from day to day. One of the days I am thinking (and observing that fact as well) about the reasons that led me here. Why am I willingly subjecting my body and mind to something that on a surface borders between boredom and a slow torture? At that moment I realize how much my mind is lacking concentration. I suddenly remember many events in the last decade or more, when I got caught or accused of not listening attentively even to my close friends. Back then I would protest and sometimes would even be able to repeat what was said to me, but I now realize how right they were. My listening, my concentration on the subject was often superficial. My mind would be somewhere else, daydreaming, planning or thinking of past or the future. I feel the need to apologize for those events probably long forgotten, of distant past. I apologize for having hurt some of you by ignoring, or inattentively listening to what you had to share with me at one of those moments. I also realize how much time has been lost due to this lack of concentration on the present. As we only live in the present, any time we are not mindful of it, all this time we do not live. At least our mind does not live it. Our body does, but we are aware of that only sometimes, indirectly, after the fact. I am trying to determine a moment when my concentration on the present started to decline. I come to a conclusion that coming to US have been that moment. The “land of opportunities” – the dreamland. Of course it is not the land that is to blame. Nonetheless, life is turned into living for a dreamed up future. “I will get a Green Card and then I will live.”, “I will finish graduate school, get a job and then I will live.”, “I will get a house and then I will live.”, “I will have a family and then I will live.”. These are not necessarily the exact thoughts, but they show the pattern. Meanwhile the life is passing by and while personal participation is very active, it is still on a superficial, surface level, keeping the attachments to the future. With that future being nothing else but a projection of the past. These are the thoughts that come to me in the meditation center. The life here is really slow. I slow down not only during meditation times. Eating, walking from place to place, getting up and going to bed – I do everything slowly and try to do every action mindfully. It is difficult. Sometimes I forget and slam a door or make a fast move. But most of the times I’m as slow as everyone else is around me. There are a few foreigners in the center. There are monks who also study meditation. There are nuns. There are Myanmar people who come to the center as well. I discover that I am among the short-timers. Some people stay 5-6 month. I barely survive the desire to leave after first 3 days. I use all will-power I have to stay. It is actually good food that convinces me to stay till the morning of the 4th day. After that, the crisis is over and I stay till the end. The schedule is simple. 3:30am – wake up and start meditation. 5:30am breakfast then meditation till lunch at 10:30am. Then it is meditation with short personal breaks until 9:30pm. There is no food after lunch till the next morning. Only some juice in the evening. I cannot do so much meditation. Occasionally I slack and just go for a walk around the campus. But after a few days, even just walking around, I cannot escape observing my own footsteps, so I am not slacking completely.

Despite the efforts of concentration my mind often wanders and goes back to the thoughts I was trying to formalize over the past few months. I believe there is a strong imbalance, disharmony in the current civilization between the progress on the material, technological, scientific side and the progress in the development of consciousness. Science can take a credit for advancing very rapidly the material side of life. I would say that religion in many aspects tries to undertake the role of advancing consciousness. It seems to me that it failed in this role and could not get even close to the speed of material developments of existence. Sometimes we see a little, undeveloped village and think - what a happy, harmonious life these people have. Indeed, material and consciousness levels there match more closely. Maybe that’s why we intuitively feel such a place to be harmonious. But it is impossible to scale down the material side everywhere. Firstly, there is some value to a progress and secondly, there would be not enough consciousness to follow through with such a reduction. So, the question becomes how, if at all possible, to speed up the progress of consciousness. All of the utopias ever thought up were utopias exactly for the reason of that mismatch. For the reason of wrong expectations about consciousness. Some of the utopia theories were turned into revolutions, which either failed immediately or led to even greater social disasters, creating monstrous societies, where everyone had to wear a supposedly higher level of consciousness as an external mask, with often an ugly reality hiding behind it.

There is one more question that is on my mind for the last few months. It is a question of the freedom of choice in our lives, in the decisions we make. It was prompted by a small conversation on the Annapurna trek with one of the western tourists. It was something simple about me having a choice coming there or not and the local people not having that choice. What I come to realize though is that any choice that was ever made could not have been different unless at least some of the circumstances are different. Indeed, if I made some choice in the past, it was based on the environment, my memories, and thinking, which is sort of an inference method based on memories and the environment (which is part of memories anyways). If all the variables were the same why would I ever make a different choice? One may argue that if you think some more, you may make a different choice. But what would make you think “some more”? Only a change in the environment or in the memory, but we assume those to be the same. I’m sure there is a flaw in my reasoning and someone with a basic degree in philosophy will probably point it out to me very quickly. If you can, please do. Otherwise I will remain of an opinion that any choice made, was the only possible choice that could have been made in the circumstances.

I hope I do not exhaust you with my ramblings about subjects which I understand very little. Let me get back onto the traveling path. I spend my last day in the meditation center and decide that it is time to leave Myanmar. It is either Cambodia or Laos that I want to visit next. Most people I meet recommend Laos. I have just over two weeks until my friends arrive to Thailand from New York. I want to meet them and decide to spend the two weeks of waiting traveling in Laos. I fly to Bangkok, spend a night on a noisy Khao San road – the backpackers center of Bangkok. Next day I book a ticket for the overnight train to the border with Laos. I walk to pick up a ticket and see Ben, the Dutch guy I traveled with in Annapurna region sitting in a cafÊ. What an unbelievable meeting. We sit down in another restaurant on a street and drink beer and chat. An hour later I recognize a familiar face in the passing crowd. She sees me as well. This is Rachelle from France – we’ve met before in Rishikesh and then in Ladakh and later again in Rishikesh. Two accidental meetings with people I know that happens in a time stretch of one hour… This feels a bit surreal. Unfortunately I have to say good bye to both of them as my train is leaving soon.

Next day I wake up near the border with Laos. I get a visa on the border into my almost expired passport, but in Asia no one seems to care about such minor details. I enter Laos.

I have to stop my story here as the Laos story will come in the next Note.

I do not feel that I did justice to Myanmar in writing about it. It is an amazing country with very friendly people. It is not yet spoiled by tourism. It has some fantastic sights and some wonderful foods. I feel that I need to come there again. This time to steer further away from the sightseeing track towards unexplored regions. But that will be next time.