2015
05.31

Mawlamyine — finally! About some local attractions. Travel back into the colonial past and why I keep staying here. About the Breeze Guesthouse and its pros and cons and its guests.

Unsurpassed is the travel back in time I experienced in Aleppo, Syria, where for a short week I lived in a huge Khan above the medieval, covered Souq. 2000 square feet were almost mine. I only had to share them with Olaf from Germany who worked in Aleppo. You can read more about this time if you scroll down in my blog. It is to date my all-time favorite place where I stayed during my travels, as I felt as if I could live and breathe the past. The shoe-market’s hustle and bustle unfolded below the kitchen window, and the soap- and spice-stalls were not far, distributing their aroma through the narrow streets of the market and into the khan. I never wanted to leave that place. I felt transported into fairy-tale Aladdin’s time. According to news reports the souq has been the site of major fighting and damaged multiple times during the recent conflict in Syria

I was reminded of that feeling of time travel when Mr. Ivan, the owner of the Breeze Guesthouse first showed me my room. It took my breath away. Two of the five windows of my absolutely gigantic room in the rundown blue colonial mansion situated at the river promenade open the view to the Thanlwin River. Two other windows open merely to expose the corrugated metal roofs of the adjacent buildings, and one window only stares at a wall less than 2 feet away. But where have I ever lived in a 20×20 feet room which is over 14 feet in height with 5 windows opening up into three directions?!

The blue color of the room matches the blue of the house’s exterior. It is shabby and dusty, peeling off in many places, but it has character. Mr. Ivan told me proudly that his grand parents purchased the home which originally had been built for an English merchant. Mawlamyine has attracted its fair share of colonial occupiers but also of illustrious people, Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell among them, to name just a few!

I couldn’t help but wonder if Orwell would have marveled at the same view from perhaps a window not far from here, or from the viewpoint up on the hill. I reminisced about how many of us in “good old” East Germany risked imprisonment to read, and pass on his famous book 1984 which was one of the most sensitive books on the list of banned literature… This town has something so quaint and charming that is hard to describe. It is unique in its tri-part layout and those pagodas certainly sparkle far and wide.

After moving into my room, I immediately began to “nest”, that is to move some furniture around until all was “just right”. I covered up the TV with a lace cloth and put a fake flower pot in front of it. Who needs a TV! I made an old reclining chair with a footrest the center of operations where I would blog and work on my photographs. I hung up my clothes and spread out my purchases from the island as decoration. I thought I would stay here for about 2 days, but that turned into 5… And really, I would have stayed longer if I did not have the distinct feeling that at some point I should get going to the “real” sites in Myanmar. But all seemed right here. I loved it.

On this note, I can only recommend both Mawlamyine and the Breeze Guest House to all and everyone. However…!

Most backpackers who arrive at the guest house will end up in a room 1/6 of the size of mine! Literally, the space of my room just one level below has been subdivided into six rooms with a narrow corridor in between. These rooms are stuffy, claustrophobic and simply overpriced.

As charming as all the staff are (that is the owner Mr. Ivan, and several managers whom I met, the most delightful Mr. Anthony and the very helpful Mr. Joe), overall, the guesthouse seems too busy saving money at all corners. Breakfast is nothing but boring and awful. Three cardboard-like slices of “toast” will be served with a blob of butter and jam that seem to be inspired more by war rations than by hospitality. A nearly blue, hard-boiled egg and an overripe banana come with it. Two French ladies tried to obtain an additional egg one morning and were turned down even after they offered to pay for it.

The same two French ladies had to put up with a full-sized rat (yes, a rodent rat!) whom they caught one day on their bed… I had a roommate too: a bat which occasionally flew around and then disappeared miraculously into one of the wooden pillars. And all, but all of us were bitten to pieces by mosquitoes and else in the morning the mosquito net in my room notwithstanding. One of my bites got huge and badly infected and I don’t even know what animal could have inflicted it; no mosquito, that’s for sure.

But all of this aside, the crowd of travelers at the guest house made up for everything: there were foreigners from every corner of the globe. And we all gathered at night outside the mansion on the covered, marbled portico for beer and talk. But then, there was the 10 PM curfew which put a damper on that. Particularly fun was it to meet among all the French travelers finally three Germans: Kim, Andre and Nils. For two nights we shared many beers — thanks Nils! — and much good conversation. I am sorry, I could not say my proper goodbyes to Nils. I will do this hereby! Happy travels to you three and perhaps, our paths will cross again, someday.

Finally, on the last day in town, I hired my trusted motor taxi driver Wingo to take me to the main attractions in town: the row of pagodas, shrines, and temples lining the hills of Mawlamyine, the Kyaikthanlan Paya, Mahamuni Paya, Seindon Mibaya Kyaung, Aung Theikdi Zedi, the U Khanti Paya and U Zina Paya. They are nothing short of stunning. The views are amazing from up there and once again, the weather cooperated and I even got some sun into some of my pictures.

What a place! Good night.

2015
05.30

COEXISTENCE

About criss-crossing Mawlamyine in search of temples, churches, mosques, and shrines on a hot and sunny (!) day on motor bike.   

About 300,000 people live here, which makes Mawlamyine a compact and manageable town.  On one side flows the Thanlwin River, one of the four main rivers of Myanmar.  The long drawn out town stretches and curves along its shores and is backed by a pagoda-studded hill.

At the Breeze Guesthouse there is no shortage of young guys hovering outside waiting for anyone to drive through town by taxi or motorbike.  Today, I hired Wingo to take me on a tour in search of places of religious diversity.  As it turned out, Wingo himself is Muslim, my luck, as it got me further into some mosques than I typically would be allowed.  In Myanmar, contrary to just about all the middle eastern countries I have traveled to, women have no access to the sanctuary!  At every mosque I would have been turned away:  No women — was the call by any man inside the mosque when I approached.  But I made it into four of them at least into the “outer” areas.  The most welcoming mosque of all was the only Shia Mosque in town with only 70-80 parishioners. All other mosques were Sunni affiliated.

Mawlamyine is typical for most Myanmar towns:  Pagodas, Dhamma Schools and Buddhist Temples dominate the cityscape, but there is no shortage of brightly colored Hindu temples, small and large.  There are numerous towers, indicating mosques and steeples with crosses to indicate usually Baptist Churches, but also Roman Catholic or Presbyterian ones.  To round out the picture you might find the occasional Sikh Temple and a fair number of Chinese temples.  And if you look carefully you will not miss the frequent small shrines dedicated to the local Nat.  You will most likely look in vain for a synagogue except in Yangon which I hear still has one.

As a tourist I will not be able to look much behind the façade.  On the surface all seems fine in the areas I have seen so far.  When I ask about religious coexistence the answer is usually:  “All is fine here”.

But here is a variety of incidental evidence which might shed some light on the trepidations and prejudices that simmer below the surface:

  1. Once I took a trishaw and for a short time left my bag with my driver (quite deliberately).  When I came back I was instructed by the very driver that this is not a good thing for a tourist to do.  He is a Buddhist, so I have nothing to worry about.  But if my guide had been a Muslim, I could not have trusted him…
  1. Another time I took a motor cycle.  My driver turned out to be a Christian.  When we visited a Buddhist Temple he dismissively pointed to the various shrines all around me stating how arrogant Buddhists are to think they are right about all this stuff.  Really, there is only one God…
  1. At every one of the mosques I visited today I was asked about my religion which I stated to be Christian (agnostic does not fly around here).  In 3 out of 4 I was warmly welcomed after that with the assurance that we are all brothers and sisters after all.  In the fourth mosque, where I had been mistaken for a Muslim since just for today I had chosen a hijab variation as my head cover, I first was quizzed on exactly what stripe Muslim I was and when I said that I was a Christian, I was no longer welcome but firmly thrown out…

And just for statistic’s sake, here is a link to the religious makeup of Myanmar.

What does this all mean?  I am not quite sure.

But my current assessment is this: despite this incredible variety of religions there seems to be little cross-religious education.  In the cities there are loose quarters of predominantly religious groups.  Chinese Taoists most likely live in the vicinity of the Chinese temple and so on.  Every group is suspicious of “the others”  and claims virtues such as honesty, hospitality, and piety for themselves.  And each group clearly can identify “the other” by name, culture, religion and ethnicity.

However, the question “where are you from” — trying to get to the root of an ethnic background — seems to be as misplaced as in many cases this question would be in America.  I asked my taxi driver that and he said:  I am Myanmar.  Yes, but where did your parents come from?  But it was not his parents, but his great-grand parents who once came from Pakistan.  He does not consider himself Pakistani at all.  He is a Myanmar.

There is perhaps one thing that unites all religious and ethnic groups: the continuing unhappiness with the state of affairs in the country in general; economic poverty, military government, politics, etc.  But few talk about it; not yet to me.

This most likely is not the last time that I will explore this topic.  I hope that more opportunities will present themselves to talk to people about their religions and how they see the situation in their country.  I will keep you posted.

It was a hot and sunny day!  Yes, they are still around.  Rainy season is not in full swing yet!  I can’t even imagine how it feels around here when the thermometer climbs into the 45 degrees Celsius range (113°F).  I guess it is “dry” heat then.  But at 35 degrees (95°F) and in this humidity, I am fried!  Quite literally, despite renewing my layer of sun factor 50 at mid-day, I had a sunburn in face and neck.

So perhaps, there will be a few good pictures after all, here and there, scratched lens permitting.

Good night.

2015
05.29

HPA-AN

Sacred sites around Hpa-an, the capital of the Kayin State.  About losing things and about who is winning:  Nature or Myanmar’s Buddhist Disney World.

It’s all about opportunities.  I arrived in Mawlamyine a few days ago and have not seen a single street in town except for the ocean boulevard on which I live.  I look out at Thanlwin River which somewhere downstream connects to the ocean.  I hear the ocean steamers honk and see little fishing boats tucker by.  Behind me unfolds the city.  But each day an opportunity arose to join a group of travelers on an excursion to explore the vicinity around town and it is a lot more affordable and more fun when you have some people with you.  So, the town has to wait.

For three days in a row the weather has been kind.  Humidity must be close to 100% and you can’t leave home without your rain gear.  But, rain showers come swiftly, are heavy, and are finite.  Temperatures do not rise much above 32 degrees Celsius, and travel as well as sightseeing is possible.  I will take this any day!  Thanks Tlaloc!  (That is the only rain god I know and so if he behaves, I shall thank him occasionally even if he comes from the distant pantheon of the ancient Aztecs.)

Today I joined Ruben and Marie, a couple from Spain, and Georgie from the UK.

Hpa-an was supposed to be my next stop, but when I heard it could be done in a day trip I was in.  I like Mawlamyine well enough to happily extend my stay here.

By the end of the day we had seen four caves and a lot of breathtaking rocks and scenery.  The flatlands are filled with rice and soy bean fields. Cows, water buffalo, and horses are grazing everywhere, and villages line the road.  The flat area is punctured by ragged cliffs.  They seem to pop out of nowhere, are relatively narrow, and some of them contain quite substantial cavities.

I don’t know if I am jumping to conclusions here, but after seeing four caves (and one yesterday with Masa), I have to believe that there isn’t a cave in Myanmar which has not completely been ruined by the human obsession to “honor” nature.  If you are lucky, as in the case of Kaw Goon Cave, you can enjoy some rock carvings and decorations which date back as far as the 7th Century!  But that is rare.

The more typical picture is this:  the cave is framed by a huge gate with flanking guardian figures indicating a holy precinct.  Since you are now walking on holy ground you have to take your shoes off and walk barefoot — rain, mud, or marble. The caves are lit inside by the inevitable neon tubes.  Filling just about every niche and all available spaces along the edge of the cave, dozens of brightly painted, big-eyed plaster Buddha figures are sitting and standing.  The smell of incense fills the air and if possible, the main Buddha’s halos are equipped with flashing, multi-colored neon-light strips reminding you of the most tacky Xmas display you have ever seen your neighbor put on.  Kitsch does not even cover this any more.  This is beyond tasteless but it’s everywhere.  There is no natural beauty left in these places!

It is one thing to dot the landscapes with golden pagodas.  That actually harmonizes with nature and creates a certain magic effect.  But to take over caves like this suffocates them.

Bickering aside, the art at Kaw Goon Cave was stunning.  Thousands of small votive images had been carved as reliefs into the ceiling of the cave, and been highlighted with a deep ochre-red, a color which seems to come from a natural pigment, as it is the color of the monks’ robes as well.  My art-historical sensibilities would love to have seen just that, the 7th Century carvings.  But they invariably came with the 20th century additions of neon glitz.  So be it.

We had almost reached our next destination: a rock formation in the middle of a lake topped with a most adorable little rock pagoda — when I realized that I no longer had any shoes…

As it goes, you need to leave shoes at the entrance of any cave or holy site.  Our driver wanted to be particularly kind to us and had pulled the car as close to the entrance as possible.  From walking around on marble floors and pounded ground, I did not even realize that I was missing my shoes when I got into the car.  The driver was not happy…

My Keens!  He kept calling them “slippers” as if they were just any $5 item which I should let go.  I have to be more careful.  I definitely cannot afford to lose my walking, hiking, water-mountain all purpose everyday travel shoes.   Get with it, ET!

Throughout the day we had passed various fields and sites where once again hundreds of figures were lining the walk to a sacred site, or in some cases just sitting around in fields of hundreds at a time for no apparent reason.  Who commissions these figures?  Are they believed to bring good karma, increase one’s merit?   And I continue to ask the question I raised yesterday: is more better?  Where does this concept come from?

We had a full and long day and upon returning to the guesthouse it turned out that among all the French people one meets around here, three Germans had arrived.  Andre and Kim are a couple, and Nils is a lone traveler.  It was great fun to have a German-speaking, beer drinking evening at the porch of the guesthouse for a warm and breezy summer night.  Too bad the guesthouse has a curfew!  At one point the call for the night came and we all had to turn in.  And once inside, there are no longer any common areas that are suitable for socializing.  But it was time to call it quits anyhow and so I will.

Good night.

2015
05.28

About “my own” Golden Rock and the Biggest Buddha in the world.  Two excursions from Mawlamyine with Masa-San.  Is more better?  Does size matter?

The practice of Buddhism has gone haywire!  I no longer have doubts about it.  My first shattering of the practices of the high ideals of the Buddhism that I had grown up with in school came last year in Japan at Koyasan at Kobo Daishi’s birthday parade when the huge floats rolled through town and the birthday of an ancient Buddhist saint turned into a commercialized food-fest circus.

But today was no better.

Masa-San from Japan and I teamed up for a day trip exploring sites north and south of Mawlamyine.  He was part of the island group yesterday and is traveling by himself as well.  First we headed North to Nwa la bo, Mawlamyine’s own Golden Rock.  Yes, I got to “do” a golden rock after all!  This one, geologically speaking hardly lacks anything behind the big one at Mt. Kyaiktyo , the one everyone talks about.  It may be smaller, but not only two but three rocks are piled up into a precarious looking formation.  So who beats whom?  Size or number?

Our timing was bad.  We arrived at the foothill of the rock 5 minutes after one of those open-bed bench-filled trucks had left.  The next one would not leave until at least 25 people were assembled.  At the rate of two tourists at a time, that could take… Numbers were all that mattered here.  But luck had it that about 10 minutes into the wait an entire bus load of Myanmar girls arrived.  An employee outing organized by a bank, as we soon found out.  Exactly one man was part of the crew.  The ride up was every bit as steep and challenging as the one at Mt. Kyaiktyo.  But there was no rain!  Instead of hovering miserably under thin raincoats, head bent down — this crowd went up giggling and screaming as we were thrown from left to right, up and down in the hair-raising 30 minute ascent.

Half way up there was a lot of honking and howling as a jeep (how on earth had that been allowed on this piste, which was restricted to these heavy-duty trucks?) had gotten stuck and instead of moving up, was slowly rolling down backwards!  Stones had been secured beneath its back wheels and several people were pushing it on its way.  A stray dog, which the attendants of our truck had rescued off the path and put into our empty luggage compartment near the bottom of the hill, took the opportunity to escape.  The dog had been shaking and scared the whole time.  As I was sitting in the last row, I had been talking to him, trying to calm him down but to no avail.

The scenery was breathtaking — mountains ahead of us, glistening wet rice fields below, and the ocean in the far distance.  The actual temple mount is relatively small.  Hiking trails go off into various directions.  Smaller shrines and a few pagodas dot the area.  But within 1/2 hour most everything can be explored.  The main activity is to buy a piece or two of gold leaf and to affix it at the rock; the men at the top, the women at the bottom.  Now that beats being barred from affixing gold at all at the big one if you are a woman!  I got to say a prayer and leave my mark of gold on this rock.  Yeah!

People spend their time posing for pictures and saying a few prayers at the various shrines.  But most rewarding is it to just take in the stunning views of the area.  Before long the call for boarding the truck sounds and down it goes in an even crazier and jumpier ride than going up.  Insanity!  But after Mt. Kyaiktyo I felt thoroughly vindicated.

This excursion could be a full-day trip if one would climb the mountain.  But the cheat with the truck allows for another 1/2 day activity.

One of the notorious sites South of Mawlamyine is the world’s largest reclining Buddha.  The term “reclining” is somewhat misleading.  The “reclining” Buddha is the iconography of the dying or dead Buddha who, since he had reached enlightenment, passed on to Parinirvana, leaving the cycle of birth and rebirth (samsara) for good.  It is one of the standard depictions of the historical Buddha featured everywhere.  To mark the four cardinal points of a pagoda, its depiction is often is combined with the Buddha reaching enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, recognizable by the bhumisparsa mudra, a hand gesture in which the Buddha is touching the earth and calling her to witness, with the Buddha preaching (dharmachakra mudra) and the Buddha meditating (dhyana mudra).  

Alone and in combination, these Buddha figures are found everywhere: at pagodas and shrines, of course, but also at street corners, on mountain tops, at intersections and in caves.  Win Sein Taw Ya  is the place where for some reason a monk vowed to build this Buddha. Each year, a festival is still held in his honor.

If a 180 meters or 560 feet image would not be enough to make anyone’s jaw drop, it looks like a second, equally large figure is currently under construction right across from it!  Visitors can enter the Buddha via a staircase in front of it or a bridge crossing the hill featuring a public pool with a water slide right beneath.

Now images you might see online or in photos will do justice to this giant hugging the mountain top as it always will look pretty.  But it isn’t pretty.

For me it was not so much the exterior of this Buddha that left me speechless, but the inside of it.  It felt like a combination of war-bunker, warehouse, Disneyland, maze and horror movie.  It is creepy!

Depending on where you were inside the Buddha there were 3-5 levels of corridors, niches, and rooms filled with groups of life-sized plaster figures depicting historical scenes, stories from the life of the Buddha, or illustrations of Buddhist scriptures.  A favorite topic seemed to be to illustrate the various sufferings and demons one would encounter in hell.  From dragons to mean kings, from voluptuous temptresses to heavenly musicians, from farm idyll to torture scenes, these concrete halls were filled with hundreds of statues in varying degrees of dustiness and completion.  Some were fully painted, others merely outlined in rough white clay.  Some were already vandalized before completion.

Some of the concrete walls were covered with crude murals to provide backdrops of the dioramas, others were barren.  Some halls benefited from openings in the gigantic sculpture that allowed in some natural lighting; others had make do with the dusty neon tubes that provided limited but harsh illumination.

And if you ventured far, deep and high enough you would find yourself at the back of the Buddha giant near his feet on an unfinished outdoor platform covered with bent and rusty steel beams that seem to have meant to provide reinforcement for further concrete walls.  And at about that point you could see the half poured concrete face of the next giant in the making again and you cannot help but wonder why the second giant is under way when the first was still in need of so much TLC.

From the inside of the Buddha’s face you could scan the surroundings, taking in all the souvenir stalls, pagodas, various huge figures and most astonishing — the 500 over-life sized monks with begging bowls which single file lead up to this monument.

What is the point of this all this?!  I can’t figure it out.  But I have the distinct feeling it has very little to do with the teachings of the historical Buddha.

2015
05.27

OGRE ISLAND

About villages on Ogre Island with special crafts and trades. About making rubber, carving teak wood, weaving textiles and producing slate tablets for school children. About an invitation to celebrate a dead man’s life. An excursion to Ogre Island off the coast of Mawlamyine.

I will never again treat a rubber band as if it were a throw-away nothing! In the West, most likely it is a throw-away nothing, machine made from some synthetic material. Or is it? I just had never put a thought to the fact that even rubber bands need to be produced. And in Myanmar, they are produced by multiple-steps of manual labor lasting days.

Myanmar is rich in rubber trees. I have seen my first plantation of such trees today in Mon country, near Mawlamyine. Rubber is harvested just like maple syrup or resin by cutting thin lines into the bark of the tree and catching the sap the tree produces.

Natural rubber comes in a milky white color and solidifies when exposed to heat or to a couple of days of direct sun. When it still is in its liquid state it can be dyed in a variety of colors by adding pigments. That is a pure marketing tool as it does nothing to the quality or function of the product. When the liquid has the right color, a set of wooden poles is dipped into the soup and set out to dry. During the hot season the drying process is less than a day, now it could be 2-3 days. Once the rubber hardens, the rubber “skin” that has formed around the wooden poles is pulled off and hung up in a shed, awaiting its turn at the next rubber producing station: the cutting machine.

A motor runs a slicing machine cutting the rubber tubes into the familiar thin rubber bands. A person is manning the machine, watching via a mirror that is positioned at the machine’s output if the bands are cut at the expected level of quality. If thicker strips or ragged strips emerge, the blade needs sharpening. And with proper care, hundreds of thousands of thin little bands are dropping down into a bucket. Ultimately the bands are sold in big bags to wholesale vendors. And if I understood our guide correctly, for a 2×1 foot bag filled with rubber bands, the villager may fetch a mere $1.50. Unbelievable!

Ogre Island is just a 15 minute ferry ride from Mawlamyine. It is full of small villages separated by rice fields, and mountain ranges. The rice fields are sparsely populated by farmers who live in small bamboo huts. All the houses on the island and many houses even in the bigger cities on the mainland are raised on stilts. During the rainy season the clay-filled soil creates puddles of water everywhere. Drainage is slow. Other areas turn into barely passable mud fields. In the morning we walked a pretty dry and sturdy road which in the afternoon, after only two 15 minute heavy rain showers was barely recognizable as the same!

Every village on the island has its area of specialization producing something. Mr. Anthony from the Breeze Guesthouse was leading a group of us — 8 foreign visitors from as far as Spain, Australia, Britain, the US — on a day’s excursion exposing us to the various crafts and the islanders.

We crossed the island on a tuk-tuk, a motor bike powered mini-truck, which comfortably held 10 of us on two benches and which is reported to hold upwards of 25 locals if need be… The farmers were out with their oxen plowing the rice fields. Soon rice planting season will start. The weather held up, for once!

Textiles are another important source of income for some islanders. Most of us have seen old wooden looms at some museum or another. Here these amazing machines are rattling along day in day out, operated by women who produce the most amazing looking fabrics by hand. The workshop we visited had four of those looms. They were located at the rear of the house which was raised on stilts, beneath the main floor. Upstairs, a few more women were working, spinning yarn onto spools. Each week the color scheme of the workshop changes. This week seemed to be the turquoise and white week.

One of the upper floor rooms was converted into a shop where we could purchase the fabrics fresh off the loom, so to speak, and of course, I did. Fabrics are one of the easiest things to bring home and are also one of the most distinct handicrafts different countries produce.

I have been looking at people wearing the typical Myanmar longyi (sarong, also lungi, longi), more carefully now. Men and women use it alike. It’s a shawl-like piece of cloth you can wrap around your waist. But you can also pull it up into mid-sized pants if you want, or turn it into shorts with a pouch as I saw at some point where a young man collected truck fares into his “pouch” only to unwrap it into its full-sized glory when he was all done. These garments are airy and practical, and many of them are locally made. And, let’s not forget: they are very beautiful. Women not only sport the skirt part of this outfit but often have tailored, matching tops to go with. Now that is outright classy and it makes for a colorful picture on every street. If I had enough time or if I run into a tailor who can make one of these fast, I think I just have to have one.

As fascinating as the rubber-band production is the making of small slate tablets for school children. The slate is mined in the mountains right behind the villages. First it is cut into thin slices. Then it is smoothed and rounded into equal sized tablets, coated with black paint, and finally framed in wood. A small pen completes the set which will be sold for about $1.50 in just a few weeks when school season starts. It will be sold to the lucky ones who will go to school rather than work at home with their parents…

As we visited a home in which these tablets were produced it was rather funny to see how we Westerners hovered over these ancient tablets while at the same time the rather wealthy owner of the house photographed all of us with a digital tablet! Reversed roles, and a great reminder why we call these notepads “tablets” in the first place.

The day ended with a visit to a village outlet of teak wood carvings. Burma used to be the world’s leading exporter of teak. Still, in many areas teak wood is used for furniture making and exquisite small craft items such as pipes, cups, pens, slingshots and more. We were served tea and delicious small rice pads and marveled at the many objects for sale. Of course, I bought a few to bring home. I always like to buy things from the people who produce them rather than from retail stores.

An unexpected stop on the tour was a visit to a Buddhist Dhamma School. There, the family of a recently deceased man had put on a huge feast for the entire village. We were invited. At the temple hall many small round tables had been filled with multiple dishes. Women were handing out plates of rice for every guest. We sampled a variety of meat and vegetable dishes and a honey-coconut sweet at the end. It always amazes me to see the boundless generosity in particularly poor countries. People literally are willing to share the last thing they own.

Very grateful for this experience, I declare this the first truly wonderful travel day. Shiny pagodas are awe inspiring and I will surely see and travel to many more of them. But to see the daily life of people, to experience their hospitality and generosity is truly moving and humbling. And it is what makes traveling worthwhile to me.

2015
05.26

About the Golden Rock during daylight, about monks, child labor, an angry Vietnamese monk, a fall, and another rainy day.

It was 4 AM when I woke up because the pitter-patter on the metal roof had stopped.

Most houses around here, even this fancy-shmancy Mountain View Hotel at Mount Kyaiktiyo, even some mansions and certainly all the shacks around here seem to have metal roofs. I wonder why? Just because it is cheap? A much more appealing material are the bamboo roofs I have seen in the villages. But they seem to be an even more blatant statement of poverty and are not typically found in the cities.

What metal roofs do — they unmistakably indicate the degree of rain, from the almost pleasant pitter-patter indicating a mild drizzle to the deafening drum indicating storm conditions. That’s when you can’t hear your own voice any more and have to start shouting, as one of the receptionists had to do when I checked in. But now it was quiet and I was awake. Why not get up?

I had my work cut out for me as clothes and bags which seemed dry last night in comparison to their earlier soaked state actually still were quite damp. So I put in another hair dryer blowing session and then fell asleep again. It was still quiet. But what was I doing?! Why was I in bed? Who knew how long this dry spell would last?

Thank goodness, I rushed out the door. I had exactly one hour before the downpour started again. I caught the end of the begging round young and old monks were doing along the central path of town. I was surprised to find them collecting money instead of just food. In fact, most of the big round begging bowls were empty, but the lid of the bowls doubled up as a small plate and bills were stacked up on almost every monk’s plate. I donated some, too. It seemed to be the thing to do.

Alongside the single files of monks, two, three, or four at a time, there was another quite disturbing group of single-file people: young and old people, some of them children — barely 10 or 12 years old; men and women, boys and girls carrying loads of bricks on their heads, on boards, or in huge baskets. They had to tread the central path too, portions of which were lined with a green cloth for safer travel, but others were pure marble as slippery as anywhere. Most of these workers were balancing 12-15 bricks; some young ones could only manage 9-12 and some very ambitious ones more than 16. Just imagine that weight! And just imagine what one single wrong step would do.

I maneuvered as carefully as I could over some of the marbled areas and was just about to reach the safe green line when it happened: I fell. I was fine, but my big camera flung over my left shoulder hit the marble loud and hard! My heart sank. If that camera was gone… The lens cover did not come off. I panicked. But the internal functions seemed still to work. In the end, all that was lost was a bent lens cover; this time…

Some of the young porters were even running. I marveled at their courage and their sure-footedness. I bet they get paid by the number of bricks. And I bet it’s pennies.

I remember a documentary which mentioned that Burma/Myanmar ranks first in the work with child labor. Literally hundreds of children are rounded up in villages and taken to the cities were they perform menial tasks as well as hard labor 10-12 hours a day for a dollar a day as wages. And their parents are unable to “buy them back”. They can’t afford to feed another mouth and have to let them go. Forget schooling!

Once you open your mind you realize all the children around you who work. At the restaurants it seems almost natural to see 10-year-olds serving tables. Their parents own the restaurant. That’s what they do, that’s what everyone else does. Young kids line the intersections in the city or roam the ferries, selling cigarettes, chewing gum, newspapers. That certainly seems more humane than carrying heavy bricks on wet marble floors, but it is still as wrong as anything. Kids are literally everywhere; not in school, but working. You see them on the boats, in construction, and on rice fields, in retail stores and craft production — truly medieval conditions.

Just as I was pondering the wrongs of this world, I spotted a very exasperated older monk. His robes were different from the dark red ones of the Myanmar monks. They were a light yellow. He filmed the monks and held forth to really nobody but anyone who would stop and listen. As I came closer I could make out some of the words — he spoke a broken English: he vehemently complained about the monks collecting money, repeatedly claiming that they violated the 10th precept. “They smoke” he complained! “They have cell phones and behave like monkeys. If I were in charge around here, I would clean up with all of that! But nobody can touch them!” He was visibly angry.

In between the monks the potters filed through and I realized then that he worked in tandem with a nun whom he instructed to hand out some small monetary donations to the youngest of the porters. “I wrote a book”, he continued, addressing now me. “Look it up: Hearts for Peace!” He pointed to his heart putting his hand there to illustrate his words. “I wrote two books and you will see what I mean. I was wounded in the Vietnam war”, he continued, lifting his robe to expose a substantial scar at the right side of his stomach. “You can read all about it at heartforpeace.com”. I promised him to look it up;  I just hope I got that right.

He had a point. I had wondered about the cell phones already and yes, I had seen monks smoking. I found it odd, but I thought it was a cultural thing. But really, monks should not smoke. It is an intoxicating substance and that, I found out at my hotel tonight is violating the 5th precept! And since my new hotel owner is a devoutly practicing Buddhist, he will not drink or sell any alcohol. But he showed great tolerance when I asked him where I could buy any of that refreshing Myanmar beer nearby. But I have to admit that now I feel bad to contaminate his wonderful hotel by drinking.

By 8 AM the storm was back and it roared until 11 AM. At the first audible lull I packed my bags and rolled out to face another treacherous, rainy ride down the hill, with 45 minutes squeezed onto the truck again. This time I ended up in the second row with a young boy next to me who threw up for almost the entire ride. Mercifully, the rain was light all the way down. And my bags were all wrapped inside and out with plastic covers; the damage from the ride was negligible. Barely off the platform stepping off the truck, two young men had convinced me to give me a lift on their motorbikes to my next stop: the bus station to Mawlamyine.

And that’s where I will be for a while and you will hear from me should I have adequate internet conditions.

Good night.

2015
05.25

Pictures

Pictures are in for “Stormy Night”.  Sorry, for the delay.  Bandwidth issues…  ET

2015
05.25

STORMY NIGHT

About the fiasco visit of the most important pilgrimage site in Myanmar. About rain, about meeting old friends again. About the philosophy of travel.

It was a dark and stormy night… It really was! When the rain had finally died down around 6:30 PM it left only the wind howling across the mountain top. It was completely dark even at this early hour and the wind created a misty haze gathering drops from all the roof tops and floors that had soaked up the rain for the last few hours. The sounds of a generator mingled with the clapping of tin roofs and the roaring of the storm in various cavities.

The Mountain was deserted leave a few shadowy figures which emerged here and there carrying loads from one end of the sacred path to the other. Most all of the souvenir stalls and restaurants had closed. There seemed but one bright spot left, a terraced open court restaurant with two neon lights illuminating a gaudily painted concrete cubicle. Groups of three were sitting at every table. Three old men on the left, three young students over there, three raincoat hooded smokers in the corner and a family to the right. How all those colors mingled: the purple, pink, blue and yellow of the room with the pink, yellow, green and blue of the transparent rain coats with the red plastic dishes on the wooden tables. It was an eerie scene.

I was sitting by myself between the old men and the students waiting for my rice dish, reflecting on the day. The mountain I had traveled to counts among the most special pilgrimage sites in all of Myanmar. Every Myanmar, at least every Buddhist one, dreams of one day being here, in the vicinity of the precariously balanced Golden Rock topped by a paya (pagoda). This bolder seems to defy gravity, but for hundreds if not thousands of years it has proven stable. It is an amazing site to see.

Early in the morning I had taken a taxi out to the far-flung bus terminal in Yangon, north even of the airport. A four-hour bus ride through the countryside and a few towns had brought me to Kinpun, the town at the foothill of this pilgrimage site.

The right thing to do for serious pilgrims is to hike up the mountain, a 7-8 hour ordeal which during the right season will put you in the company of many other adventure seekers who will take the long hike to enjoy the mountainous scenery and the gorgeous views into the valleys. The path through the wood is lined with souvenir booths, refreshment stands, and small shrines. But now is the rainy season. I had been warned more than once not to hike up there alone. Not during this season when the stalls would stay empty and when a lone traveler could easily become prey; good advice which I happily heeded. I am in no mood of trekking up a slippery, muddy slope.

The more typical thing to do though for the majority of visitors even during the high season, is to board an open truck outfitted with about 6 rows of benches which can hold up to 40 people. Dozens of trucks run up and down the mountain constantly during high-season. Now you might have to wait for an hour or so until one of the trucks fills to the brim and is ready to go. They literally won’t leave until the last seat is filled. I got lucky. When I arrived only 3-4 spots were still open and within about 10 minutes we took off.

Lucky I was in regards of the timing. But then, it all depends on the definition of lucky… Just then, the steady drizzle of the day muscled its strength and developed into a downpour. I was squeezed against the railing and started to pray that it might hold as six people were leaning into it at every curve. I had a seat at the front row. I think that was lucky too under the circumstances, as the back of the truck’s cockpit sheltered us a bit more than the rest of the people in the rows behind. Notwithstanding, the downpour came from the front and blew water right into my face and down the inside of my specially purchased rain gear. A little kid on the lap of the man next to me did not have any rain gear at all! I urged him to crouch down on the floor so I could over him with my long coat. He eventually did. Every time the truck went down a slope though, loads of water rushed down towards us in the front row, through my sandals and into my backpack (which I realized only later).

We made two stops up the road, parking under an awning to allow the opposing traffic to pass — the road to the top is a single path, serpentine lane. When I tried to take a picture of my fellow travelers in their colorful rain gear purchased wisely on the spot just before the trip, my camera fogged up and not much can be made out. I don’t even have good pictures of all this misery, but I intend to make up for this on the way down should the weather be a bit kinder. Cold and soaked to the core, we arrived at the mountain top greeted by people eager to carry any of our luggage in huge hand-woven backpack-baskets or on their bare heads to one of the nearby pilgrims’ stations.

As a foreigner I am barred from using the many shelters for the pilgrims run by the monastery. I am forced to board at one of three completely overpriced hotels certified for foreign visitors or I have to go down before 6 PM if I want cheap shelter. I guess that situation is better than it was just a few years ago, when foreigners were barred altogether from visiting this site. When I tried to consult my guidebook for descriptions of the hotels it turned out to be soaking wet as well. My guidebook! My lifeline to information ruined so early into the trip. That was bad news! I had it! Wet and cold and frustrated, I entered the first hotel full-well knowing that it would be the most expensive one. I bargained the price down a bit but deep down I really did not care anymore. My guidebook needed to be rescued. I needed a hot shower. Anything else no longer mattered.

The next two hours I spent hair-drying my guidebook, my business cards, my computer, my pants, my backpack, my chewing gum, some money, and my quilted pouches (thank goodness for those — at least they protected whatever was in them; medication, external drives, batteries). I found out that you can comb a book if you want to avoid spreading each page individually! I used lamps to dry anything I could drape over them and after two hours of work, I was almost in good shape again and had learned many more lessons on how to pack monsoon-proof! If this weather keeps going, I don’t know what’s going to happen on this trip…

But I could not be here, on top of the sacred mountain, and not at least have a look, even in the middle of this dark night, wind roaring. And so I went into the misty, mystic night hiking up for just 5 minutes from my hotel to the little golden boulder which precedes the big one; there just was no point in climbing up the slippery slope to the big one just now. There were no lights, no sunset, no view; all was dark, all was dead.

This is not quite how I had pictured the encounter with this special place. The image I had in mind was colored much by what my friend Kim Matthi experienced just a couple of weeks ago (and wrote eloquently about in his blog Following Budo— check it out!). A hot, sunny day with thousands of pilgrims, a frantic and energetic atmosphere, dressed-up people and the sounds of chants or bells, perhaps. Instead I got this!

At the restaurant, I was the only one sitting alone waiting for my rice and trying to decide whether this was all hilarious or depressing. And then I spotted my two old friends from the first night, Kelly and Ryan. What a pleasant surprise! After a big Myanmar beer and lots of pleasant conversation I decided it was hilarious. I can look at all the sunny pictures in the world online. But I am actually here. I have seen and touched the little rock and tomorrow, rain or storm, I will see the big one and know I will not soon forget this gloomy, dark and stormy night on Mount Kyaiktiyo.

Good night.

2015
05.24

 

About the three big ones: Pagodas in Yangon. A few words about Buddhism in theory and in practice.  About prayers riding ships and ET riding the public bus.  

If you ever had to walk barefoot on wet marble you would know that it is one of the most slippery surfaces you can imagine. Well, all three+ pagodas I have visited so far had marbled floors and it is the rainy season… It certainly does one thing for you: it increases your awareness. And since the cirumambulation of pagodas is all about focus and mindfulness I guess that is a good thing. But I do not appreciate that I have to put my neck and camera in jeopardy each time I visit a pagoda. No matter how much mind you put to it, slippage was unavoidable and it’s just a matter of time before that will become a fall…

The pagoda of pagodas is the Shwedagon. I started with the big one the first day. Pagodas or Paya as they are known around here, are a quintessential Buddhist type of architecture. Unlike Buddhist temples which have interior spaces for meditation, images, and worship, pagodas are walled-in solid structures with a superstructure which differs in shape from country to country. They have four entrances aligned with the cardinal points.  Around the central large pagoda one often can find some smaller pagodas, substructures, and shrines clustered around them. Pagodas developed from simple tomb mounds in India, where they are referred to as stupas.

When the Buddha died he was entombed, and as expected, people started to go on pilgrimages to his tomb. Over time his bodily remains were divided first into 8 parts in reference to the 8-fold path and later, so the story goes, under emperor Ashoka, who popularized Buddhism into the far corners of Asia, the 8 parts were divided into the legendary 32,000 parts. And this is where relic worship in Buddhism takes off.  Any stupa/pagoda/paya which can claim one of the original parts of the Buddha’s body is considered far superior and more powerful than a pagoda that would merely contain symbolic relics or relics of disciples.

Buddhism developed into two main branches, Hinayana (small vehicle typically requiring monastic life) and more respectfully referred to as Therevada (the way of the elders) and Mahayana (large vehicle when enlightenment moves within reach for laity as well). Especially in Therevada Buddhism, which is practiced in Myanmar, the historical Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, his ways, and his remains are central to the religion. In Mahayana Buddhism the pantheon increases and the historical Buddha is joined and sidelined by other Buddhas such as the Medicine Buddha, directional Buddhas, and a multitude of enlightened beings referred to as Bodhisattvas.

Yangon, among many smaller pagodas, can boast three of the most important ones in Myanmar: the Shwedagon, the largest of them claiming to contain 8 sacred hairs of the Buddha, Sule paya, the oldest one containing another hair of the Buddha, and the most unusual Botataung paya which enshrines yet another hair of the Buddha! All these hairs are as real to the believers as any shards of the true cross of Christ, any Holy Grail or the head of St. John the Baptist would be to Christians.

Situated on a hill, the Shwedagon peaks over the densely built up downtown area. Its surroundings are filled with shops, workshops, and stalls selling or producing anything remotely related to or useful for religious pilgrims, from artifacts to monks’ robes, from incense to gift baskets donated to the monastery, from street food to tourist items. No surprise there is no shortage of guides and kids harassing the approaching visitor. But I have to say, except for the pesky children who literally stole my shoes at one point insisting that they would carry them for me for a fee, the adults would politely retreat when I declined their services.

In my Buddhist education I was taught that you always enter a stupa from the East and then circumambulate clockwise with the monument to your right. You circle it as often as you want in meditation with the purpose of working through whatever issues you might have to ultimately purify yourself and advance towards enlightenment. That is the school-book version.

The reality in Myanmar is that all four gates are open and entered by people. Particularly the Sule paya, which stands at the center of town in the middle of a huge traffic roundabout, is entered from all sides. People stroll casually around the pagodas, all of which are surrounded by smaller shrines, image halls, altars, mini-pagodas, pillars, dedication stones, bells, and a few other curiosities including shrines dedicated to the local Nat. A few visitors even go in the wrong direction but nobody seems to care.  Visitors, worshippers, and monks, take pictures, sit and chat, sleep, and check their cell phones — a lot! In fact, I wish I could have captured this on camera, but at one point I was surrounded by young and old, monks and laity all of whom were busy with their phones. What has become of us?!

Another feature at Sule paya can not be found in any textbook on Buddhist architecture: a little golden ship is connected to a shrine that has been affixed at the outside of the pagoda about halfway up.  You buy little laminated prayer squares, say your prayer, put them into the ship and  then crank a handle to make the ship travel up to the shrine.  I guess the idea is that whoever hears your prayer will hear you better up there than down here.  But who should that be?  There is no god in Theravada Buddhism.  Again, there are no words to describe what people do to satisfy their superstitions.  But guess what?  I bought some prayer squares and yanked them up there myself.  Just for the sport of it.

Technicalities aside, these pagodas are breathtaking! The Shwedagon alone is reported as containing more gold than the bank of England. After seeing it, I am inclined to believe it. If it is true it is even more astonishing when taking into consideration that England is among the wealthiest nations in the world, whereas Myanmar is considered among the poorest in Asia.

Buddhism is about letting go. I have to learn a lot about “being Buddhist” on this trip. First I realized that one of my cameras has a permanent scratch on its lens… The humidity makes the lens fog up creating additional hazy spots across many of my images no matter how hard I try, and finally, there are the clouds and the rain. If I will get a single sunny shot is anyone’s guess. There certainly is no shortage of fantastic images of all and everything famous in Myanmar online, so why even bother, you might say? I will obviously have to focus on more personal images on this trip rather than going for a photo contest. And I have to appreciate that I am here, rather than worry about which photos to take home to share and I will. Still, this is a biggie for me to have to let go. I will work on it…

Botataung paya is a surprise for the mere fact that it is the only pagoda I know that has an interior space. A star-shaped zig-zag corridor fully gilded from top to bottom winds its way through the interior of the stupa, starting and finishing at a shrine that opens up to the ceiling of the center of the structure where supposedly the hair is entombed. It is here that I ran into one of the most interesting people yet. I will call him San. But I will talk about him and other people I met some other day.

With San’s help I managed to find the right city bus to take me back to my guesthouse, and so I experienced a hair-raising local bus ride of the sort I might not rush into repeating. The bus merely slows down to load people and hardly ever comes to a full stop. That means you have to run alongside the bus and jump when it slows down (mainly for traffic, rather than for you). And once you are squeezed into the narrow aisles you have to start worrying about how to get off again. But I managed with extra special attention by the bus attendant and happily arrived at the save haven of the guesthouse. A wonderful meal and a good big Myanmar beer rounded out the evening. What this beer lacks in alcoholic content, it makes up for in size. For a hot climate that is ideal.

As always, interesting people gathered around the table sharing stories of the day. That seems to be one of the hallmarks of the guesthouse. Tonight the guests of honor were a newly-wed mixed couple from the Philippines and Myanmar.

I am still a little jet-lagged which means that in the middle of the night I feel rather awake, but I will call it a day anyhow.

Good night.

2015
05.23

About my accommodations and a few things of daily life I observed during my first walk on the first day in Yangon: sex in the park, the perils and the blessings of rain, money, and an artist’s co-op.

The daylight filtered into my room by 6 AM — I can’t exactly say the sun was rising, as it wasn’t. And so I was awake even before the pitter-patter of rain on the roof would have woken me up shortly thereafter. That was 4 hours of sleep after 36 sleepless hours in transit, but I reasoned that it was just as well to get up and into the local rhythm than to linger restlessly.

If this guesthouse wasn’t located at millionaire’s lane! In fact, it must have once been a rich person’s mansion. Picture a short tree-lined dead-end road with a huge iron gate on one end flanked on one side by multi-storied apartment houses and on the other by about 6 or 7 mansions, some a bit run down, others undergoing ostentatious make-overs. This was definitely an up-scale neighborhood.

The modern looking whitewashed Thanlwin Guesthouse is a two-story residence with about 12 rooms, two shared bathrooms, and a courtyard with flowers and grass over which a rectangular thatched hut had been built, sheltering a long picnic-style table, a small bar and a vending machine. Detached, in the back, there is a kitchen which produces one wonderful home-made local breakfast noodle dish after another. Too bad that after half the meal I had to excuse myself… obviously my stomach was in no mood for food yet. I don’t think this has ever before happened to me this soon after getting to a new country. Not a good way to start the day. But nobody seemed surprised.

After some rest and re-hydration I decided to walk towards downtown. Walking would allow me to take in little details here and there which by taxi would escape me. The first annoying detail is that pedestrians seem to be third-class citizens here. The sidewalks are narrow, badly in need of repair and at times even missing. Traffic lights only take cars into consideration. At most intersections I could not even find a crosswalk but I had to outmaneuver heavy traffic. I guess I am expected to take a taxi, or more likely the bus.

I realized that I was very close to Inya Lake, North of downtown Yangon and famous for the home of political leader, activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence. I headed up a footpath which would get me out of traffic. Map in hand, I climbed up a grassy bank only to find myself literally within 2 feet of another type of “traffic”. Two people on a small, roofed park bench right in front of me were happily and heavily making out. Whoops. Better turn the corner on this scene! The park seemed to be favored by lots of young couples who more innocently than the first one were cuddling up and holding hands. Umbrellas seemed to be the preferred method of providing privacy and as of yesterday, they are in order for everyone: The monsoon season has started.

Throughout the day there were three more major showers coming down on us, coupled with gusty winds. A bit early as Thomas, the guest house owner told me, but it’s coming and soon there will be solid rainy days — two months in a row. We shall see what that means for traveling…

For the artists at Studio Square, one of the very few, if not the only modern art gallery in Yangon, the rain was a welcome relief. “We don’t have air conditioning at our houses” the manager explained. The rains cool things down. We need it. Our land needs it. How could I stay in the way of that? A comfortable 30° Celsius certainly feels better than the 40+ degrees of only last week!

Studio Square is run as a co-op by 5 (male) artists who all happened to be around when I arrived. None of their work blew me away even though I would have bought a small piece by Min Zaw, who combines traditional Buddhist wall mural fragments with abstract backgrounds. But all of their work seemed a bit too much “cookie-cutter” for my taste. The same faces, the same motifs over and over, in some cases hardly varied. But they seem to have a market as their 3×4-feet works on canvas sell for around $2000!

Hein Thit combines Myanmar Manga Comics with outlines of the female nude. When in the catalog he described that the encounter of a book on female genitalia changed his life forever and that ever since he has “approached the internal rather than the external beauty of women” — I was too afraid to ask what he meant by that…

All of these artists are graduates from the Fine Arts Academy of Myanmar. They are up-and-coming and some of them have been “discovered” and have moved on to bigger and better already. I wish them the best of luck. Too bad that they did not sell any works on paper, or any small-scale prints at a more affordable price level. I do like to bring back at least one work of art by a contemporary artist from every country I go to, preferably a female artist. They don’t have one in their co-op, but they do exhibit works of female artists. Ok, that is a start.

As good as the rain is for the locals, it created a bit of a dilemma for me. When I reached the bank to exchange money — money which I had carefully selected back in the US for their absolute pristine and unfolded condition — it turned out that my money pouch, a rectangular quilt, had gotten wet and had leaked a nice purple stain into my $100, $50 and a few single dollar notes. The 5, 10 and 20 dollar bills in between were nicely protected. The bank refused to exchange any bill that was discolored in the slightest! Thank goodness, I had only taken one “set” of bills to be exchanged. I obviously have to prepare better for these rainy conditions. Lesson learned. You should have seen some of the local bills I got from the bank though! Stains were the least of it. Crumbled, worn, dirty. But this is not about fairness, right? It is about rules and who can make them.

This wasn’t the end of my day, but it will be the end of the blog. I reached the Shwedagon Pagoda and will write about it in conjunction with the Sule Pagoda, which I will visit tomorrow.

I managed to eat some rice tonight. I think I am winning this one!

Good night!