At 6 am, I met my Myanmar guide in the lobby of the Strand Hotel. His name was Tonton, and he was of medium build with a wonderful tanned, smiling face. He appeared to be his early 20s, but was actually 36. I was learning quickly that people from Myanmar look young. Tonton explained that his shaved hair was slowly growing backーjust a week ago, he had been training as a monk. He proudly showed me a photo of his eldest son, age 16, who was also in training.
We headed off in a car to Shwedagon, the world’s grandest pagoda, 100 meters tall. It dates back 2,500 years to when eight strands of the Buddha’s holy hair were used to consecrate the site. Myanmar is right next to India, so such origins are credible. Like Thailand, Myanmar predominantly practices Theravada Buddhism, and you can see monks wearing brown robes everywhere in the towns. In fact, Myanmar has even more of them than Thailand. Theravada Buddhism traveled south from India and spread across Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam. One of its characteristics is doing ascetic practices and training for personal salvation. On the other hand, Mahayana Buddhism, which went from India to Tibet, Nepal, China, and Japan, has the salvation of all living beings as its main tenet. This is how Tonton explained the differences between the two strands of Buddhism.
After praying at the golden, glittering pagoda, Tonton took me to the monastery and meditation center. I am interested in Buddhism, and it was fascinating to see how it was rooted in people’s lifestyles. One of the best parts of any trip is going to areas not frequented by tourists.
Lots of kids had gathered at the monastery. I could easily see how the place serves the role of a community center. At the meditation center, robed monks quietly walked about. In Myanmar, they observe a unique technique for meditation of introspection, and I heard that they are required to be in a state of contemplation even during their break.
The conversation turned to the military government.
An event in 1988 fanned the flames of the movement for democracy in Myanmar. Tonton was a student at that time, and in spite of his parents’ objections, he participated in the movement. As the demonstrations became more intense, the ruler in power, Ne Win, threatened that if another demonstration broke out, people would be shot in the chest. The incident took place during the next demonstration. True to Ne Win’s threat, the military fired upon the demonstrators, and over 1,000 people were killed or injured. Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of General Aung San, the hero of Burma’s independence, happened to be in the country and took center stage. The democracy movement continues to this day, but isn’t making much headway.
The majority of people in Myanmar long for democracy and do not endorse the military government. I asked Tonton what he thought about it. He answered, “There’s nothing we can do,” and I could feel the resignation behind his kind smile, as well as the hurt. The country had been socialist before this military rule, and prior to gaining independence, it had been a British colony. Once culturally rich and militarily strong compared to Thailand, Burma faded away as time marched on. Perhaps the people in Myanmar seek to fill this void with spiritual wealth through ascetic practice and training.
We left the monastery and headed for the town center, which was surprisingly orderly and systematic. There were no bicycles or motorcycles. Tonton explained that the military had forbidden them. The only choice for those who cannot afford a car is to take the bus or walk. Upon closer inspection, I could see many people getting around on foot. Both men and women in Myanmar like to wear a skirt-like wrap called a longyi, which seems well suited to the humid climate.
I was back in my hotel by 10 am. This time of year is too hot to go sightseeing except for early in the morning or late in the evening. Myanmar has three main seasons: June to October is rainy, November to February is dry, and March to May is very hot. The best time for sightseeing is the dry season. May is actually too hot, so it’s not so good for tourism. Because of this, however, there were hardly any tourists around, and I could move around with ease. For me the best season to travel is when I can get around like this.
I left the hotel at around 1 pm and headed for Yangon Airport, stopping in at the National Museum on the way. I had a flight to catch at 2:30 pm for Bagan. The airport was so hot; it must have been over 40ºC. The glass in the waiting room was cracked, and waves of hot air from the asphalt runway came streaming in. I broke into a sweat within minutes, but all I could do was wait in silence for my plane to arrive.
It was an ascetic monk’s state of mind.
Finally, the time came, and we were guided onboard. I walked over to the plane, but the sun rays were so strong that they hurt as they reflected off the asphalt.
I had thought it would be a direct flight, but instead it went via Heho and Mandalay. Including Bagan and Yangon, this plane was visiting four places for refueling, traveling counter-clockwise. A direct flight would have arrived in less than an hour; this flight took over two hours by the time we touched down at Bagan Airport. Someone from the hotel came to meet me, and I headed for the riverside hotel, checking out the pagodas on both sides of the river along the way.
The mountain range over the far side of the Irrawaddy River was beautiful. Dusk had just fallen. The river looked very low, perhaps because of the hot season following the dry season. I went down to the sandy bank along the river and sat down. Closing my eyes, I breathed in the dry evening air and felt the energy of the earth. It was a quiet and peaceful place to be. After a while, I opened my eyes and was enveloped in the twilight.
Before it got completely dark, I went for a swim in the pool, and before I was done, the pitch black of night descended. I had a light supper, and my second day in Myanmar passed quietly.