August 18, 2004

Tales From Burma...

Burma, or Myanmar, as the junta government prefers to call it, is a very mysterious country, due to it being closed to the outside world by the military for more than 30 years. It has only been in the last decade, that the country has reopened to visitors. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and elected leader of Burma, has been in a constant battle to assert her right to rule, and is currently under house arrest. She strongly advised travellers not to visit, as a stand of protest against the military government. In support of her movement, both the UN and the US have placed economic sanctions upon the country. Unfortunately, this has done little to punish the ruling military elite, but rather created terrible hardship and poverty for the good common people of Burma.

The first time I visited, I did so out of curiosity at seeing a so-called Pariah state in action. I remember being somewhat anxious on my arrival at Yangon airport, having heard stories of brutality by the military. At that time, all visitors had to exchange $200 into "funny money", called FEC. This was basically a system for the government to procure hard currency, especially from more politically aware travellers, who would spend their dollars only at non-government establishments in Burma. On my arrival this month, I was pleased to discover that the FEC had now been banished to history.

Rangoon (or Yangon) is a marvelous city. It is my favourite in Southeast Asia. Having been constructed largely by the British, under Raj rule, the streets follow a grid pattern, which makes it an easy city to comfortably stroll. There are also many grand buildings of the colonial age, steadily mottling with age, but ever becoming more charming. Perhaps the most striking feature of the city, is the contrast between the brownness of the buildings with the lush greenness of the many, many trees that line the streets.

Out from the European architecture that dominates, nothing can prepare you for the impressive majesty of the Shwedagon Paya - Burma's holiest Buddhist site. It looks like a golden tear drop from the sky. Rudyard Kipling described it as a 'a golden mystery...a beautiful winking wonder'. The famous stupa is surrounded by many small shrines to the Buddha - all filled with devout worshippers, either praying or meditating. Of all the Asian countries I have visited, none have conveyed such Buddhist devotion as Burma. There is a tangible air of Buddhism actually living within these Burmese temples. Perhaps, this energy of faith comes largely out from the frustration of living under such a harsh repressive regime. On two occasions, taxi drivers have informed me that the reason that rebellion has not occurred in any large sense, is mainly due to the pacifist philosophy of Buddhism and the belief in Karma. For the Burmese, they perceive their suffering as part of Karmic justice, that must somehow be worked through. One driver explained that the military government is obviously very happy with this arrangement, and encourages Buddhist practice.

After spending a couple of pleasant days in the capital, I then flew up to Mandalay. Unlike Rangoon, which was suffering its yearly five month monsoon cycle, Mandalay was relievingly dry.

I returned to the excellent Silver Swan Hotel, which I had stayed at previously, and immediately went out on a search for a trishaw driver, called Ryaw-Ryaw, who I had become very friendly with one and a half years ago. He had written the location where he waits for customers on a piece of paper, so I had a rough idea where he may be among the 2000 other trishaw drivers who work in the city. Unfortunately, he was not there, so I asked trishaw drivers at the location, if they knew him and where he may be. There is a real camaraderie among these men, and they immediately set about trying to track him down for me. For the rest of the day, I went to Mandalay Hill, which is dotted with various Buddhist temples.

In the evening, I visited the famous Moustache Brothers. I was very surprised that they remembered me, and they furnished a very warm welcome. The brothers are a popular comedy troupe in Burma. They became internationally recognised, after two of the brothers were arrested for speaking out against the government, and were sentenced to six months in prison. Later, one of the brothers, Par Par Lay, was sentenced to seven years in a hard labour prison camp, where his family were disallowed from visiting him. Famous comedians from around the world protested his imprisonment and petitioned for his immediate release. After five years of hell, he was finally freed.

Today, the brothers are blacklisted from touring, but they continue to perform nightly for visitors at there small home. Their performance combines comedy routines with traditional dancing, which their wives are experts at. I wish that I could hear and understand their Burmese routine, because I am certain that their satire would be biting.

As I was leaving the Moustache Brothers, a trishaw driver called out to me. There was my old friend, Ryaw-Ryaw, waiting for me! He is a very quietly spoken man, with a good heart, so I was delighted to fulfill my promise to him, that I would use his trishaw if I ever returned to Mandalay.

The next day, he was there waiting outside my hotel. We spent the day visiting various temples. In the evening, on my return, the air became dense with thick smoke. As we continued on, the traffic around us was frenetic, and people were running around to discover the source of the smoke. We quickly discovered a very large fire consuming a cinema. As I watched the flames lapping at the building, an old Muslim gentleman came up to me. He looked deeply into my eyes and said, "God does not lie!"

I woke-up very early the next morning, so as to take the slow boat to Bagan - the ancient capital. At 4:30, Ryaw-Ryaw was there to take me to the river. I had been a little concerned that the trishaw might be too slow to get there, but we arrived well-ahead of time. I said goodbye to my friend, who I will see again some day.

On the boat, I sat with a wonderful Chinese Malay gentleman, called Steve. We immediately hit it off, and shared many jokes and traveller's tales together. He had found a very nice perch on the boat next to the tea stall, so that became our spot for the 12 hour journey up river. For reasons I cannot explain, he quickly acquired the nickname, Tony Blair. When people would join us, I would introduce him as the Prime Minister of Britain! As a sport, he really played it up.

The boat gently cruised up the monsoon swollen river, often stopping off at various villages to pick-up or drop-off passengers. I enjoyed enormously the company of two Burmese families on the boat. They could not speak English, but it is amazing to see how far a smile can go. In Burma, smiling is like gold. These people suffer extraordinary poverty, but their smiles are like none other. There is a genuineness that is so apparent in the joy they share. Without Romanticising their difficult lives, there is a true sense that these people understand what is truly important for life. In the developed world, our lives have become cluttered by technology, ideology and choice, and we are no happier for it.

When we finally arrived at Nyaung U, a small village near Old Bagan, I decided to stay at the same guesthouse as Steve. A five foot tall trishaw driver, with a balding crown, dark complexion and betelnut-stained teeth, approached me for business. I was immediately struck by his falsetto-like voice, and thought that he was an interesting character to spend time with. This was the best decision I had made on the whole trip.

I stayed at the Eden Guesthouse for four dollars a night. Whilst cheap and basic, it was very clean and run by very charming people. Each night, at eleven, I would buy them a glass of beer. Beer consumption is not a major pastime in Burma, as intoxicants of all types are frowned upon by the Buddhist edicts. It is also highly expensive for the local people. I was shocked to discover that each of the hardworking staff at the guesthouse, only earnt $5 a month!!!

The next day, as promised, my trishaw driver, U Aung Pone, arrived at the guesthouse with a horse, cart and driver. The driver, U Thein Thein, was a slightly rotund man, with a mole at the side of his face. Unlike my trishaw driver, who would accompany us as we trotted around the Bagan area, he spoke no English at all. I liked him immediately, and knew that these were going to be good lads to pass the days with.

Bagan can be found on a vast plain. With the exception of distant mountains and a large winding river, nothing else ruffles the flatness of this place. When climbing to a high vantage point, the exceptional beauty of the thousands of Buddhist stupas becomes apparent. From every position, stupas jut out, demonstrating a long history of extraordinary Buddhist faith. It is not Angkor, but it is a different, more gentle treasure of deep expression, that has no equal anywhere in the world.

Whilst my driver looked after Nandar, our horse, Pone would take me into the various temples. As a Buddhist, I find it quite natural to pray at each of the temples, and this surprised Pone. He seemed very satisfied in my genuine interest in the sites, and noted how many foreign visitors just come, take a snap and leave, with very little appreciation.

My obvious enthusiasm strengthened the bond I had with these two men, as the day progressed. I later informed them that I wished to visit Mount Popa - the holiest mountain in Burma, and the site of an animistic tradition that believes in Nats (spirits). Even though it is only sixty kilometers from Bagan by car, neither of my new friends had visited it. They knew that I would rent a car, and asked if it would be okay if they came with their two eight year old sons. I was delighted.

After a pleasant journey, sat at the back of a pick-up, we finally had sight of the mysterious white tower of Mount Popa, which is the remains of an ancient volcano. At the top, a cluster of temples hang precariously. As is the way in all Asian temples and shrines, people must remove their shoes before entering, so barefoot we climbed to the peak, avoiding the aggressive monkeys that have a habit of grabbing at clothing and bags. There had also been a rainstorm, so the tiled floor and steps were now treacherously slippery, requiring slow, methodical walking. Once at the peak, we all partook in giving offerings and enjoyed the views of the cloud-draped mountains.

The 11th Century Shwezigon is Bagan's equivalent to Rangoon's Shwedagon. I had visited during the daytime twice, but Pone informed me that the best time was at night. At six, he picked me up by trishaw. He was so correct in taking me there in the evening. Beautifully illuminated, the golden stupa glowed against the twilight sky. We sat at one corner of the temple complex, just marvelling at the tranquility of the place, that was accompanied by the many chimes tinkling high above and the murmur of people praying. We sat silently for more than an hour. It was a very special time, and I felt that it was shared with a true friend in Pone.

Both Thein Thein and Pone wanted to invite me to a village festival outside Bagan. After the special time at the Shwezigon, Pone then took me to his village, where I was surprised to find more than a thousand people celebrating. There was a large scaffold stage, with various canvas backdrops. At one time, a canvas of the Buddha was unfurled, and a psychedelic light show flashed upon it, as traditional music was played. As the only foreigner there, I attracted a lot of attention, and people were so delightfully welcoming and engaging. In another country, where alcohol is flowing, I may have felt a little intimidated, but there was absolutely no threat of any kind from these lovely people. Families just sat and watched local dances, people performing skits and individuals singing popular Burmese folk and pop songs. It was an honour to be invited to the three day event, and I promised that I would return the following night.

The next day started with a visit to a group of very enigmatic temples, built in carved out sandstone caves. Everywhere was shedded snake skin, so I was very nervous about where I stepped. I later learnt that Pone was also very concerned about snakes! In one tunnel complex, an old temple keeper showed us around by flashlight. As the light splashed down the long, dark passageways, bats of various sizes began to flutter about. It was very Indiana Jonesesque. The chambers are still used today for meditation by monks.

In Japan, foreigners call the fatigue of visiting too many temples, templing out. I think that I have a higher tolerance than most, but I must admit that on this day, after visiting so many stupas, I was beginning to feel the wear. However, some of the wall paintings that still exist in a few of the temples were spectacular. I was fascinated to learn at the Three Pagoda site, that Mahayana Buddhism had also flourished in this predominantly Theravadan (Hinayana) land.

Mahayana (The Greater Wheel) is a type of Buddhism that developed out of the original teachings of the Buddha, but introduced the concept of Bodhisattvas - saintly enlightened beings who choose not to enter Nirvana, until all living beings have achieved freedom from suffering. This school of Buddhism spread from Northern India, into Nepal, Tibet, China, Mongolia and Japan. Theravadan (The Lesser Wheel) is often described as being closer to the Buddha's teachings, and is the dominant form of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

At the Three Pagoda Temple, were many wonderful detailed images of various Bodhisattvas. I never expected to see Mahayana images in Bagan. The temple itself was only half finished, because the builders had to flee from invading Mongolians. In another nearby temple, there was a combination of Mahayana, Theravadan and Hindu iconography of absolute visual glory. UNESCO had recently worked to protect and restore the priceless paintings.

Once again, I visited the festival and enjoyed the company of Thein Thein's family. His wife runs a very small store, that sells everything from Cheroot (Asian cigars), Betelnut, rice and groceries. She was a very kind lady, and obviously a great mother, because her son was so well-behaved and polite.

There was an unusual skit on the stage, that involved a guy killing himself with a knife. It seemed to go on and on, but there were times when I thought it was very funny. The lead performer would do this hilarious wailing song, each time he looked at his dead friend.

On my final day in Bagan, Pone invited me to have lunch at his home in the village. We met Thein Thein at his wife's store, where I ate fruits and played with the local children. Afterwards, we walked to Pone's new home, which is a very basic, but very clean straw roof hut. His wife and children gave me a warm welcome, and I must admit to being unbelievably happy to have made such fabulous friends. They really took me into their hearts.

As I waited for the food his wife was preparing, Pone showed me a few photographs he possessed. The first was an old, creased black and white picture of his father, who had been in the army, but was shot dead in the Shan State conflict when Pone was a young boy. He then showed me some other photographs that a Spanish lady had sent to him. In one, was his old hut. I noticed a pig at the front, and asked if he still had a pig. He told me that he did not, and that he could not afford one, because he was still paying for his new home.

As lunch was served, which was rice, boiled vegetables and fish, I was suddenly inspired by a thought. I asked Pone how much a pig costs to buy. He told me that it was 30,000 Kyat (about $30). Straight away, I said I wished to buy him a pig. He began to shake and looked as if he would cry. His wife came, and the two were so grateful. He told me that he would use the money for his son's education, rather than on a pig. It really moved me, and I thought how easy it would be to sponsor his child's education. His boy is only eight, but I learnt from one of my hotel workers, that a year's university tuition costs $100. Unfortunately, I know that if I sent money to Burma, the mail would be opened and the money pilfered before it reached Pone.

I feel that I was blessed to meet Pone. He gave me access to the Burmese world that many travellers would not be privy to. In that very Buddhist land, where Karma is so strongly adhered to, I thought that it was our Karma that we should meet. At every temple he prayed, and I suddenly considered that perhaps, our friendship and my small gift was an answer to one of those prayers. He was certainly a gift to me. And I will always be his friend.

I reluctantly left my friends, holding back tears and promising that I would return within a few years to see them again. After an hours flight, I arrived back in Rangoon, which was suffering horrendously from monsoon rains. Because of the weather, it was difficult to do much walking around, as some roads and paths became flooded with overflowing drains. On my last day, I went to the Shwedagon, but like Mount Popa, the floor was very slippery, and I was constantly concerned about falling over and breaking my neck at such an auspicious place.

Returning back to Bangkok is always a shock. In comparison to slow, underdeveloped Rangoon, Bangkok is a busy, bustling city with all the energy of modernisation. It certainly has its charms, but I immediately missed the simple, honest smiles of the Burmese. Development does not bring happiness, but it does bring an addiction to materialism; and materialism can never replace the joy that can be found in the simple heart.
- El-Branden Brazil -

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