Friday, November 13, 2009

Burmese Days

I just finished George Orwell's book, what a terrible one! I liked the
British humor for the majority of the book, but as common with
Orwell.. things went awry. He is a great writer though, and his
depictions of Burmese jungle and Burmese people in their small daily
nuances were really spot on. Describing an old woman who was paddling
him along the river, she smoking a cigar and sitting peacefully and
slowly pulling the boat along. He asked her how far they were from the
end point, she put her paddle down to think for a few seconds in
silence, then looked up, took the cigar in her hand, and replied.."a
man's call away."

I am leaving Myanmar today, sadly. I could stay here for another few
months! I had a great time at Inle Lake. Inle Lake is the second
biggest lake in Myanmar and its in the northeastern hills of the
country in the Shan state. It's about 2,900 ft high so it's hot in the
day but cold at night, such a treat after this humid southeast asian

I will be excited to get back to unrestricted internet, but other than
that, seeing Carrie before I take off to India, a haircut hopefully,
and maybe some more shopping, Bangkok does not sound exciting. I will
only be there a night and then I fly to Delhi.

Inle Lake was really beautiful and there are about 70,000 people who
live in villages around or on the lake. There are virtually small
towns on the lake with electricity lines, small canals that make up a
road system, and a huge complex of floating gardens where tomatoes
grow really well. The life here is like stepping back in time, with
this ancient leg rowing that people do with one paddle, weaving and
looming by hand, making thread out of the fiber in a lotus stem, and
making paper from pounding and straining pulp. There is a lot of
tourism, and a lot of farming.

I visited an orphanage where 40 girls lived and practiced weaving and
singing after school. It was on a hill overlooking Inle Lake, and the
girls were very excited to practice English with us. They want to be
tour guides and they study geography. They sang in unison, Country
Roads by John Denver, to my great surprise! I love that song. I
visited Red Mountain Winery also, which was such a treat! All the
equipment down to the bottles are imported from France and Italy.

I had the best interactions with local people in this country. I
didn't really see much of the underlying problems that people have
with their government. I know that they must report when foreigners
come to their restaurants or guest houses, and they record passport
information really thoroughly. Internet is unreliable. The main
problem is the lack of electricity. The people are only given a few
hours of electricity a night in the smaller towns. Power goes out all
the time. People are mainly self sufficient and sell their produce or
fish in local markets, I didn't see any infrastructure or industry
except the logging of teak. I saw barges on the river with huge logs
of teak and I am told this is all sold to India and China, benefitting
only generals and people related to the generals. These were the main
things I noticed that hinted to the military junta.

I was able to buy most things locally so I didn't support the
government as much as I could (except for some entrance fees to cities
and plane tickets). There are parts of the country that are restricted
to foreigners... the northern parts of the country where the tribal
fighting and drug lording are happening. I talked to a lot tour guides
and guest house owners and they all seemed really happy and excited
that I was visiting their country, that I cared about their country.
They seem deprived of outside contact and attention and I think they
really like to see white people here. I never felt unsafe, in fact I
felt safest here. I hope that the people of Burma have a chance to
progress sooner rather than later, they are very smart and very
interested people. It's a really tough situation with the economic
sanctions here, barring them from any progress. I don't disagree with
the sanctions though, because behind closed doors I know that life
isn't fair for the people here.

One piece of exciting news is President Barack Obama is planning to
meet with the Myanmar head of state, Senior General Than Shwe, and
Prime Minister Thein Sein in Singapore, this Sunday to begin talking.
Here is one article about it from the Asia Sentinel -

Hillary Clinton returned from Burma earlier this fall and reported
mainly that US sanctions were not working here.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Bagan temples

This country hasn't stopped amazing me. Every day just gets better and
I am so in love with the general demeanor of the people here and the
rawness of the land and the pace of life. It's like walking back into
the 1800s with horse drawn carts more common than cars and motos, more
candelit places than electricty lit, mostly everyone wearing longyis
which are just Myanmar sarongs. I have just spend the last few days in
Bagan which is the middle of the country and home to about 4000
temples. Marco Polo described the temples as "covered with gold a good
finger in of the finest sights in the world..." in his
1289 record.
Basically, the story behind the temples is that a Mon king sent a
Buddhist monk north to present day Bagan to convert a Bamar king. The
Bamar king was converted and so enraptured by it he ordered the Mon
king to send scriptures and relics to Bagan. When the Mon king
refused, the Bamar king marched down south, conquered him, and took
everything back to Bagan.And from there architects were hired and
ordered to build building and building to befit Buddha! This was in
850, and Bagan's 'glory days' lasted til around the 1200s. Monguls
invaded the area and tore down some temples and the place was
So now, the place is a dry arid plain between the Shan mountains in
the east toward China and Chin mountains in the west. Daily life
continues amidst these crumbling red brick temples...herds of goats
and cows stumble through the dusty maze of roads followed by their
corralers yelling what sounds to me like "chyyaa! hyyeeeee!
skkkiieeee!" Women in straw woven hats crouch low to the ground and
hack away at grass. I rented a bike and went through the plains alone,
pedaling by paya after paya and in some. Some small ones are kept up
by these gatekeepers who live by the temples. The first one I went
into hadn't been visited in a week or two the woman said. The thing
is, most people visit Bagan and Myanmar in these big prearranged tours
so they are locked into tour buses and sent to the most commercial
places. In American you can't even get a visa for Myanmar without
signing up for one of these. So being alone, I can wander around and
go to places that haven't been visited much and then meet the families
that caretake for them. The temples are crumbling, some of them, from
a big earthquake in the 70s. Many of them restored and some of them
just look like old brick chimneys falling into the ground.
It's hard to put into words the feeling from this adventure in Bagan.
At mid afternoon I reached the top of one of the payas with a giant
veranda on top as the circumference of the building. I walked around
in circles in total awe until I finally sat down. There was not a
single person there besides a herd of cows and their herder on a road
below me. The wind was blowing and the air dry, a simple pleasure I
have been missing for a few months, and the ancient Buddhist feeling
seeped into my skin and my bones I just looked out and wanted to
scream or cry I was so happy! I didn't really know how to express what
I was feeling, and then I thought, why express it?? There is no one
here but me! And I danced around and laughed out loud clenched my
fists and walked around some more!
Being alone here has given me so much opportunity.... to do things
like above, to move really slowly, and to meet local people. Almost
every time I sit down for tea or for food someone comes to sit with
me. Even in the temples in Bagan, a family eating under two sitting
Buddhas side by side asked me to join them, I did, and then I spent
almost 3 hours there talking to them and taking cover from the heat of
the day. People are given licenses to be vendors at different temples
and they live there also. This family lived, ate, sat, and slept in
the most gorgeous red brick temple with ancient paintings on the walls
inside of Buddha, bodhisattvas, elephants, stories of Buddha or his
mother, etc. all painted in cool dark stone hallways with excessively
large dimensions, all in reverence to Buddha. It was so cool.

Next stop is Inle Lake...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar

Title -Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar

I am sorry I haven't been able to blog for the last week or so. I am in Myanmar and I could not access the blog, but now I have figured out I can email my posts to blogger! The government has blogged various web sites here including gmail and blogspot. All of the internet cafes know how to get around the gmail block, and they all have gmail themselves. This is the first place I have seen gmail used so often. I wonder if it's because it is the one blocked. I asked someone, they said google gives good news, so the government blocked it. I wonder if people here just want the connection to the outside world they figure....use the engine that the government doesn't want them to.

(FYI ... since Phnom Penh I have gone to Angkor Wat and seen the ruins in Cambodia, then onto Bangkok, and now here. I have almost finished the article, just waiting on a few more tweaks, and then I am going to try and send it off to some newspapers. I will update on that as it unravels.)

Myanmar is the most beautiful and kindest place I have ever been to. It is teeming with people who are so curious and so interested and respectful of visitors. Especially since I am along, I am constantly approached at tea shops and on the street.."where are you from? are you alone? why? where are you going!" It's the typical way of greeting someone, to be that interested in their whereabouts. My favorite thing to do so far, since I am so astounded by the sweet people around me, is just sit at tea shops in these tiny little plastic charis on sidewalks and people watch. Within an hour I might have 3 or 4 different people come up to me and sit with me, practice their English and hear my story.

Myanmar is the local name, Britain renamed Myanma Burma after the Bamar people who were the majority, and then the junta restored the name in 1989).

I flew into Yangon from Bangkok a few days ago and immediately noticed differences from the other parts of SE asia. There are no motorbikes in Yagon cause the goverment outlawed them and I don't really know why. There are lots of book binding shops and book shops in general, some mandarin and just burmese books. No one has phones so there are these little tables every block or so with 2 or 3 phones on them for people to come pay by the minute. I stayed next to China town where many Indian descendants also live (their greats came over when Britian was colonizing both countries) so there were tons of Indian and Nepali chypati stands and curry stands. The food is amazing. Lots of fried little veggie balls, chicken cooked so slowly it falls off the bone, tons of little bowls of potato curries, chilis. There are tons of Indian guys sitting around tea shops playing checkers with bottle caps and chewing on betel leafs with areca nuts in them, which is this nut that is addictive and gives you a high, and it turns your mouth blood red. You spit out the remains after you are done so there are big splats of red juice that looks like blood everywhere. Pretty gross but it's always great to get a big smile from somebody with lots of red goop in their teeth! Let's see.... there are very few backpackers around, but there are lots of tour groups. Big beautiful gold pagodas that are 2500 years old sprinkled throughout the country.

Now I am in Mandalay which is about 10 hours north by bus. It's a new city surrounded by ancient cities (first century time period) and it's much smaller than Yangon, almost a million versus 5 million.

I had breakfast this morning with a man who was a retired army captain. I had met him last night at dinner and we decided to have breakfast before he had to go back to his village today. He was about 75 and the nicest, most peaceful man. He wanted to tell me all about Buddhism, about the simple life that brings little suffering, about how he was happy to know English from attending St. Pauls School in Yangoon when the British were here. He was so confused that I, a girl, could go to a St. Paul's also. I tried to explain to him that it wasn't always this way, but I don't think he got it. When I told him I was from Tennessee, he said "Oh tennessee williams! very good!" haha!
We talked and talked. Eventually I got up the courage to ask him about his being in the army and what that was like. He said that it was a small job and he took it because he didn't want to work on the farm at home. Now he has been retired for 25 years and receiving small pensions from the government. When he needs money he buys teak wood from the government and then sells it back to someone. When I asked him about what he thought of the government (very carefully and after a few hours), he said it was good, the country is so poor that it needs the discipline of the militray. I asked him how this could can taking people's resources away and keeping them in poverty be a good thing.... and he didn't really address it but he just said that he thought the government was what the people needed, and the American sanctions are only hurting the country's poverty problem.
So I walked away so confused from this man. He was so peaceful and sweet and had so much reverence for a humble life and for imitating Buddha. He was so understanding of giving, of generosity, and then he was also guilty of being part of the machine. How does this work?

This is the safest place I have been to yet. I am so glad I am alone, I am meeting so many people. People are constantly giving me directions and asking me questions or just giving me the biggest beaming smiles. The Buddhist way of life permeates all corners of life here, people are so generous, kind, humble, and peaceful.

I can't attach any pictures to the blog - access denied - so I will try and update when I can without pictures.