The next morning at 6, I met the guide in the lobby. 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. This had also been true for the attractive women yesterday; people from Myanmar look young. Tonton's shaved hair was slowly growing back. I learned that just a week ago he had been training as a monk. This time his eldest son, age 16, also became a ascetic monk and he proudly showed me his photo. He had done this ascetic training three times over the last 20 years.
We headed off in a car to Shwedagon, the world's grandest pagoda, 100 meters tall. It dates back 2500 years to when eight strands of the Buddha's holy hair were received and used to consecrate the site. Looking at a map, you can see that Myanmar is right next to India. So such origins are credible. Like Thailand, Myanmar predominantly practices Theravada Buddhism. And as in Thailand, you see monks wearing brown robes everywhere in the middle of towns. However, Myanmar has even more of them than Thailand. Theravada Buddhism traveled south from India and spread across Burma, Thailand, 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 I was fascinated 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 monastery serves the role of a community center. At the meditation center I saw robed monks quietly walking 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. While I was talking to Tonton near the meditation center the conversation turned to the military government.
An event in 1988 fanned the flames of the movement for democracy. Tonton was a student at that time, and in spite of his parent's objections, he participated in the movement. As the demonstrations became more intense, the ruler in power at that time, Ne Win, could not contain his frustration and 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 1000 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. However, the truth is it 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, and when he answered, "There's nothing we can do," I could feel the resignation behind his kind smile, and I felt the hurt as well. 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 disappeared from the public eye in the following period of history. I guess people in Myanmar seeks some kind of spiritual wealth in his or her own 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. When I asked Tonton why, he 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. People in Myanmar like to wear a skirt-like wrap called a longyi, regardless of gender. It seems to be the right thing to wear in this humid climate.
I was back in my hotel by 10 am. This time of year is hot, and you can only go sightseeing early in the morning or 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 here 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 three minutes and all I could do was to 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 sunrays were so strong that they hurt as they reflected off the asphalt. So this is what it's like to experience heat of over 40 degrees.
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, I headed for the riverside hotel, checking out the pagodas on both sides of the river.
The mountain range over the far side of the Irrawaddy River was beautiful. Dusk had just fallen. The river looked very low, perhaps because the hot season following the dry season had just passed. 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 started swimming 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.
May 16, 2005
Written from memory in my New York hotel