Myanmar, former Burma, is often in the news recently. And mostly in a positive way. Now that the rough edges of military rule are being polished, Mick Palarczyk went off to have a look.
He concluded that Burma is one of the most beautiful countries of southeast Asia and found that the people are heart-warmingly friendly and very spiritual. The country certainly is poor, at the same time the landscape is dotted with gold-covered pagodas. Mass tourism is far off, but Myanmar starts to attract more visitors. Mostly they come for highlights such as the medieval Bagan temple-complex and the mountain locked Inle Lake. But it is while travelling its tree-shaded countryside roads that the true beauty of this mystical country reveals itself.
Judging too quick
Blistered foot soles seem unrelated to paying respect to Buddha. Until the day that you visit a Burmese temple barefoot, as required. In Yangon’s Botataung Pagoda I run from shadow to shadow, inwardly cursing. Any inclination to stand still and look up at the large bell-shaped stupa is punished immediately. The sun-soaked tiles of the temple grounds are so hot that even one second of immobility will melt the calluses off your feet. With a sigh of relief I reach the pavilion at the foot of the stupa.
Once inside I encounter another idiosyncrasy of Burmese temple visits: a floating Buddha statue that is moving mechanically, raised above twirling tubes supposed to look like waves. Enthusiastic devotees are trying to throw packets of folded money bills into Buddha’s lap. If you succeed you get to make a wish. Really, a carnival shooting gallery in what is practically the Vatican of deeply religious Myanmar?
That evening, in a little roadside restaurant just outside the temple walls, I enjoy a rice dinner. In the middle of the dining room stands the large canopied bed of the owner. Through a gap in the curtains I can see a toddler kneeling on a reed mat, milling something very fine on a stone plate with a heavy stone. I can see the child working away at this for more than an hour, by which time I am ready to accuse the owner of child labour. But when she puts the stone aside >>>
The next day I leave Yangon for the north in a taxi, starting my journey which will last many weeks. Just out of town the car stops by an ancient banyan tree. The taxi driver tells me that the tree is home to a nat (spirit), which is the guardian of those who are about to undertake a long journey. This is not a spot I can afford to ignore! He drives his car up in front of the temple next to it, and the priest sprinkles the hood of the engine with holy water. Next he buys a wreath of flowers and fixes it to my luggage. Will the tree spirits really protect me during my trip?
The first day we don’t notice much of their goodwill. On the brand-new and treeless four-lane road between Yangon and Bago, the old taxi is transformed into a hot oven by the burning sun, and I arrive at my destination that day feeling sick from the heat.
The next days, north of Bago, I find the road renovation works have fortunately not reached this far yet. Gnarly old trees bend the protective shade of their branches over and alongside the road. Over oxcarts that creak forwards, buried in mountains of straw. Over bright white stupas and meditating villagers. Over cheerfully clacking horse carriages and buses dating from the 1930s, loaded with school children. Over the pots of water that stand along the roadside for the thirsty traveller. Over a barber who has affixed his mirror against a tree trunk, shearing his clients under a roof of acacia leaves.
One evening, as the sun is setting in bloody reds over the rice fields, the regional bus that I now travel on suddenly slows down. Through the unglazed window I see a ghostly flame in one of the trees. >>>
As I travel farther north through the Sittang river valley, it becomes harder as a westerner to find hostels where I am allowed to stay the night. So when I receive an invitation to stay at a monastery from a group of football playing boy monks at the end of a hot and dusty day of walking, I gratefully accept. “Mister you sleep here tonight?” Moments later I can unfurl my sleeping bag next to a group of Buddha statues in an old wooden hall. I spend the rest of the evening teaching English to the various eager young monks.
Around ten o’clock I suddenly notice my stomach protesting against the unfamiliar foods of the past few days. When my impromptu students see me take some Norit pills (charcoal pills), they cannot be convinced that these little black pills have no flavour. I hand some out so that the boys can taste for themselves and to my astonishment I see them licking at the pills. Within seconds everything is covered in coal stains: mouths, hands, faces, notebooks and the red monk’s clothes. At that moment an elderly monk enters the hall to see if everything is going well with this odd western visitor. Once he has finished laughing, he calls out: “This has a been very good lesson indeed!”. The central tenet of Buddhism, that desire always leads to problems, has proven itself true yet once again.
>>> That evening, under a mind-blowing star-filled sky, we have long conversations about wisdom, tolerance and the carefree spirit of Burmese Buddhism. It brings me much closer to the soul of this special country.
Sons of the Lake
>>> My destination is Inle Lake, which lies between two cloud-topped mountain ranges. The azure lake is populated by a people who call themselves Intha, ‘Sons of the Lake’. Their houses, monasteries, weaving mills and goldsmith workshops balance on poles above the water. Their markets are held on boats, and they cultivate their cauliflowers and tomatoes on drifting islands fashioned from woven water plants and mud.
I meet the fisherman Zaw Zaw who offers me a boat trip over the lake. With one leg he balances on the bow of his slim boat while he wraps his other leg around the oar and pushes the boat forward that way. This is a kind of ‘walking’ rowing that you have to see to believe. Soon we are drifting between fisher boats that are each carrying along a large pointy funnel fish trap of finely woven bamboo. Like the fragile wings of enormous insects they slide lazily through the early sunbeams.
After fishing, Zaw Zaw invites me to the stilted house where he lives with his brothers and their families for a cup of tea. The children are excited about this visit from a stranger and run circles through the house, which rocks like a boat in a storm. >>>
When I leave the Shan Highlands, I continue my journey crossing the plateau west of Meiktila. >>>
Magical chessboard landscape
As I make the descent to the plain of Bagan the next day, my thoughts are with a different era of hardship for the Burmese people, as described in such vivid detail by Marco Polo. The Venetian world traveller looked on in horror as the army of the Burmese king was slaughtered by Mongolian hordes in 1277. “Even as they fled they were pursued, chased and chopped down so cruelly, that it created a pitiful spectacle.” Marco then travelled on, joining the victors on their way through the Irrawaddy Valley as they went to Bagan, the Burmese capital. “When the towers of the city are lighted up by the sun” he wrote, “they shine most brilliantly and are visible from a vast distance.”
Marco’s awe can still be understood today, seven centuries later. The days that I spend cycling on the plains of Bagan I feel like an ant on an endless chessboard. Dozens of colossal temples and thousands of squat, slender, high, low and golden stupas are like the pieces of a magical chess game. Between the stone rooks, bishops and pawns of this fairytale landscape lie the sleepy little towns and fields where goatherds wander with their herds. >>>
If you want to get a taste of the old times you must turn to the frescoes in the temples. In the back of the Kyanzittha Umin temple, for example, I find a mural made after the conquest of the city. >>>
>>> I wade out to the slender motor launch and moments later we are gliding through the mirror smooth surface of the Irrawaddy. Above the right bank a soft pink disc of sun traverses the towers and domes of Bagan.
On the white glaring sand of the left bank, fishermen villages slide by: a couple of reed mats, a pig and a bright-green field of onions. The monotonous scraping of our continuously bailing boat boy and the chatter of the market women merely serve to throw the mystical tranquillity of the river into sharp relief. >>>
Burmese rebirth still needs labour
Travelling northward along the Irrawaddy, I one day end up in a village where maybe I can stay the night in a hospitable monastery. On the village square I find a number of men drinking tea. One of them introduces himself in good English as Wynn and to my surprise he asks me if I want to stay at his house that night. At once a lively discussion breaks out in the little group and Wynn, startled by his own suggestion, stares at the ground. After all, the Myanmar government frowns on citizens offering hospitality to western visitors. But after fifteen minutes of confusion, Wynn shyly reports that the man next to him is a regional police chief and that he will try to get permission from his superiors. “We can await the decision at my house,” Wynn proposes.
My sympathetic host is a mathematics professor >>>. For hours we speak of the difficulties in his world and the better times that may now possibly lie ahead.
At eleven o’clock, his friend the police chief comes to tell us he has not had any success yet, but that he will make one more phone call. As I do not want to endanger these friendly people in any way, I prepare myself mentally for a night in the great outdoors. Wynn, however, refuses to let me out into the darkness under any circumstance. “I’d rather go to jail,” he says. An hour later the policeman brings the liberating but rather bizarre outcome of his phone call: I can stay the night if I stay on a different floor than the other inhabitants of the house. >>>
Halfway up, the student Hla, who likes making contact with foreigners to improve his English, joins me. While we climb up through a warren of temples and stairs, Hla tells me funny tales about student life in Mandalay. >>>. I treat Hla to a plate of strawberries and ask him why he wants to learn English so badly. “I want to be a good leader” is the surprising answer. “In government?”, I ask, jokingly. But the student is very serious. “Yeah, why not, anything could be possible nowadays!”
During the descent, the boy seems deep in thought. Until we pause in a temple at a kind of aviary. The cage contains a rather macabre group of statues: a Buddha, an old starved man and a corpse that the vultures and crows are feeding on. The statues are so lifelike that I cannot suppress a momentary shudder. Hla explains that they symbolise the Buddhist view on the end of this stage of life. But more importantly: they also represent rebirth. A smile comes to his face: “Actually it”s not a bad symbol for our country and the road to a new future.”
Translated from the Dutch by Elise Reynolds
Got the taste of it? Now have a look at all the other photos.