A mysterious land of Golden Pagodas
As some of you know, I quit my job and run away to Burma … and now I’m back … writing about the experience (the Burma part that is). As I’m not Burmese, what I hear about this country seems to come mainly the news events that surround it and this often makes it seem like a scary place to visit, however the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.
Flying into Yangon airport, overlooking its vast fields and flowing deltas I could play “count the pagodas” as these golden cone pyramids appeared out from the green and wet landscape. Coming from freezing Sydney the first thing that hit me was the sweltering humidity and then soon after the torrential monsoon rain. You can say it’s also a Theravadin Buddhist’s utopia, where saffron robed monks walk barefoot through the markets and villages for alms round in the mornings and with temples abound every few blocks. It was quite a fascinating place for me, coming from a country where Buddhism is a kind of edgy side culture or a novel recreational pursuit to find myself somewhere where its revered, lived, breathed and celebrated by everyone, where monastic communities are supported, Dhamma is understood, and meditation is practiced.
Burma feels like a country frozen in time, like stepping out a tardis after being transported back 30 – 40 years. In Yangoon, an old taxi took us down town, through its wide streets we drove past trishaws and lorries jammed with people some hanging on off the back. We wizzed past brightly colored colonialesque buildings full of squatters while men and women walk down on the road in their tradition longyi (they are very comfortable btw) and leather sandals. With many foreign companies refusing to invest in the country, Burma’s economic isolation has also saved it from commercialised glow of neon McDonalds, Pepsi and Vodafone signboards. However, the industrialist aspirations of its people are not hampered in their imitation equivalents with soda brands like “Crusher Orange” instead of Fanta and creams promising to give your skin “less yellowish complexion”. You can always hear Delta Goodrem “inspired” hits belting out across the fields with their own Burmese lyrics on the radio… and they also absolutely adore Avril Lavigne (don’t ask me why).
In Bagan, we were able to witness an ancient capital lying in ruins. Our horse cart took us to some of the thousands of pink pagodas, stone stupas and temples centuries old which dotted the horizon near by the Irradawray river. Walking into these monuments you are met with the same grandiosity of a European Cathedral with 4 sublime Buddhas facing the four directions. However, as a “rich foreigner” your ability to appreciate the awe and majesty of timeless civilisations is always somehow hampered by persistent badgering of touts and self appointed tour guide come souvenir sellers hoping you would buy wares after giving you useful but unrequested factual details about the place. We found ourselves being chased down the block by a boy no more than 10 years old, selling postcards, while screaming after us “Today no very good business, you buy you make me very happy!” (it’s seems to be the same lines they all use). However, the human side of their people also soon came through when we found the lock our bicycle hopelessly stuck. While we contemplated the possibility of being stranded in the middle of this timeless but incredibly barren place, the touts and souvenir children soon gathered around, and after some unsuccessful attempts at opening it they called out to an old man in a house nearby and broke it open a screwdriver, without us having to buy a single bracelet or painting in return.
A few times we found ourselves in a “food centre”, being the only people who didn’t speak the language, it was both fun and frustrating to be hungry and struggling to communicate which of the strange but delicious looking dishes we wanted to eat. And oh yes, one more thing, the Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s a pretty special place which I think rivals the Taj Mahal. A massive monument in the middle of Yangoon, apparently containing the hairs of the Buddha, with its a glorious history of invasions, wars, folklore, something that I think everyone should see at least once in their lives. More on Burma soon….