If You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It to Myanmar
“Every thought, every word, and every action that adds to the positive and the wholesome is a contribution to peace. Each and every one of us is capable of making such a contribution.” Aung San Suu Ki
When you rewind the tape on a life with someone, there are certain discussions that come into view with great clarity. For me, many of those are the “turn right, or turn left” discussions. When should you have kids; should you go to grad school; should you take a job in another state; should you quit a job; should you buy a timeshare or just eat the free dinner and take the coupon for the free flight you probably will never use. One of those discussions happened on the first trip. Anne and I were holed up for a much needed holiday rest in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We had found a long term hotel/apartment that backed up against one of the giant hawker courts and a farmers market. As a hunter/gatherer, my life had never been easier. The family’s food was close by, delicious and cheap. Chiang Mai was easy, and as a bonus, if any of us needed dental care it was also close by, competent and inexpensive. But after a week of easy living, we knew it was time to plan our next adventure. In Northern
Thailand we had two obvious choices. Turn right and explore Laos or turn left and discover Burma. (The US calls it Burma, Burmese call it Myanmar. I switch back and forth, I don’t want to support the Junta who changed it to Myanmar but I also don’t think Americans should go around calling things by their colonial names like Saigon, Bombay, Madras, etc.) I have a preference for exploring religious sites and Bagan in Burma is a Buddhist version of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat; 10,000 temples and stupas spread across a bucolic valley. In 2006, they were very remote and could only be visited in the back of a donkey cart. I voted for Burma. Anne, however, did not want to support the Junta. She voted for Laos. The subsequent slow travel down the Mekong and then a van across Laos was filled with misty mountains, local fishermen, saffron monks and was one of my favorite parts of the first trip. I didn’t think much about our discussion again until I started planning this trip. As I planned, Burma was stuck solidly in my mind.
Much has changed in Burma; the Junta has nominally given up some power. For the moment there is more democracy. Ayn Sung Su Ki is no longer under house arrest and is a part of their Congress. In 2007, the monks rose up in the Saffron Revolution and were subsequently shut down. Some of the country has opened to foreigners; other parts are still closed off. They do not want human rights activists documenting what is going on with some of Burma’s 135 different recognized minorities and six unrecognized minorities. It is easier to travel to Burma. If you are a businessman headed to the major cities you can get a visa at the airport. Tourists, it turns out, still need to apply at an embassy. We discovered that nuance at the airport in Thailand as we were checking into our flight to Burma.
Fortunately, in Burma and other developing countries, the Airlines are much better than in the US and Europe and if you miss a flight you have seven days to take another. And fortunately, a little extra cash can speed up the visa process. We touched down in Burma a couple days behind schedule. We only had one day to explore Yangon before we made the 8-hour drive to the temple valley of Bagan.
Yangon shocks the senses with its contrast of development and decrepitude. The British colonial buildings are ripe with tropical black mold, the shutters askew. Entire blocks look as if they could collapse any day, but across or down the street are new developments of glass business buildings, apartments or malls built with money pouring in from China, Thailand, India and the US. There are construction projects everywhere. The roads and sidewalks are torn up with workers busy building new infrastructure. Mixed with this new construction are the old Burmese capital buildings that stand as ghost buildings with the jungle working its ways from the surrounding fences towards the buildings. These were abandoned ten years earlier when the Government moved the capital to Naypyidaw. Myanmar spent billions to build a new capital and on one day, November 11th, 2005, they loaded up 11,000 trucks, 11 military battalions, and 11 government ministries and moved the capital 300 kilometers north. The official reason was, it will be easier to defend if the US invades, but it also separates the ruling class and their cronies from the populace, allowing them to trade traffic for golf courses and to live lives free of prying eyes. The old capital, minus the government,an is still a vibrant city. In another 10 years I can see it being similar to Saigon, I mean Ho Chi Minh City, 10 years ago.
In our one day in Yangon, we decided to focus on temples. We walked barefoot, undeterred by the monsoon rains and stifling heat, through the temple of the reclining Buddha and Shwedagon Pagoda. Burma is predominantly Buddhist, and the temples are a central part of the lives and identities of the Burmese people. At 99 meters tall, Shwedagon is the largest and most grand Stupa in the country. Some believe it is 2600 years old, however archeologists date it to the 6th century AD. Regardless of it’s age, the pagoda contains priceless relics including 6 of buddha’s hairs. Atop the stupa sits a 100 karat diamond and nearly 4 tons of gold comprised mostly of donated rings and trinkets from the ordinary people of Burma. The Palace in Thailand is filled primarily with tourists reflecting the glint of gold in their eyes and camera lenses. Shwedagon is primarily a place to pray, to worship and to meditate. Monks, nuns, and everyday worshipers wander with the tourists and say prayers at the different corners. I was especially moved by novice monks and nuns who walked around with their parents. It is a normal activity for people in Burma to become monks or nuns multiple times over the course of their lives. Some do it permanently, but some may only be tonsured for a few weeks or months.
After the intense rains and a heat index of 110, we were glad to trek to Bagan, which sits on the arid plains of Burma. The first half of the drive was on the new divided highway with a few rest stops serving busloads of tourists and public officials driving between Yangon and Naypyidaw and Mandalay. After skirting the new capital, the road becomes a two-lane highway filled with children walking home from school, family motorbikes with 4 or 5 people on them, donkey and oxen drawn carts and a favorite of mine, the Communist-era Chinese trucks that appear naked with their exposed engines and missing doors. The road was partly over dirt which our driver explained is underwater in the rainy season. Apparently there are car ferries that charge the “expensive” fee of $5 to float your car across the river.
After about 8 hours, we entered the Bagan Valley. On both sides of the car were temples and stupas. On any other day, each one would have been worth stopping and exploring, but we wanted to get an overview first and were headed to the large stupa you are allowed to climb to watch the sunset.
We were among the first to arrive that evening and the mob of local kids offering postcards and trinkets descended upon us. Mac and Asher began talking with the kids as Kieran watched passively from the side. I put on my, “I’ve seen this movie a hundred times” face and headed for the stupa. We kicked off our shoes at the bottom and climbed to the top; the heat of the rocks was tempered by the grit on the sandstone that rubbed under our feet with each step. At the top, it was like standing in the middle of a 360-degree postcard. Every direction offered a view of hundreds of rock stupas, palm trees and tamarind trees rising above farmers fields with purple mountains in the background.
As the sun got lower, more and more people climbed the stupa. Initially everyone walked around to imbibe the valley from all angles, but eventually people began settling into spots on the edge to experience the sunset in their spiritual way. A couple of yoga-practicing European women specked out one corner and became one with the sun and the stone. A group of Sri-Lankan women who were touring together set up an impromptu choir and sang religious songs. I joined the throng of paparazzi seeing what God had in store for the coming changing of the light. McKane and Asher hung out on the ledge, but Kieran had had enough and descended to the bottom to sit by the shoes. Sadly for him, the kids who were selling the goods recognized him as the quiet brother and decided to try and get him to open up. After about 15 minutes of hoping they would go away, he decided to wait in the car.
As the valley darkened, the crowd became quieter, the colors deeper and the enormity of the work that went into creating this valley became more obvious. I started pondering how much Anne would have enjoyed this and hoping that she knows how much we all think every day would be better with her presence. Kieran might have even stayed at the top.
The next day we did a sunrise excursion and an afternoon exploration of the many temples. McKane found that he liked the most obscure temples and directed our driver to the edges of the valley. In doing so we discovered more decrepit buildings, some filled with throngs of bats, some just crumbling after years of wear. Each one offered interesting views and perspectives on the valley. For sunset on the second day we wanted to go somewhere with a view, but without a crowd. With the help of a few locals, we were directed down dirt paths to a three story temple. Thanks to some Korean Buddhists, this temple was restored only 20 years ago, and we were allowed to climb it. The four of us and our driver made the climb to the top where we watched a replay of the night before. In the distance we could see the crowded stupa, but the peacefulness and the quiet of our little corner proved to be a wonderful second night. As the sun set we all talked about mom and shared some memories of her.
The third day we got up and looked at a few more temples before making the 8-hour drive back to the vitality of Yangon and our subsequent flight out of Burma the next day. After knowing what I do now about the Junta and Burma’s recent past, it is clear Anne was correct, and our “right” turn into Laos was the right choice. I am so grateful that the four of us had a second opportunity to take the “left” north of Thailand and see this beautiful country. It is only a matter of time before it is either changed by development or, heaven forbid, once again becomes more repressive. The answer to which way they are headed will become a little clearer after the election later this year.