Myanmar Time Travel
Asia is a place that for me, can never be “done”. No matter how many places I’ve been, there’s always something new, something exciting, something I haven’t experienced, food I haven’t tried, and cultural rites I haven’t witnessed. Especially in lesser known places, like Myanmar.
Mainstream destinations are popular for good reason, but there’s something to be said for waking up in Myanmar knowing that the day will hold surprises, sometimes hiding in plain sight.
These dispatches were written during a month while Glen and I were in Myanmar volunteering for the American Red Cross, testing and training a disaster emergency communications network. Driving through the countryside, working with different ethnic groups… it was the real Myanmar. I hope you find it as fascinating as we did.
Lucky White Elephants
I slid my shoes and socks under a bench among dozens of others at the Pagoda in Nya Pyi Taw, then saw a sign that long skirts were required for women. My long black pants were modest, but still pants. When I reached for my shoes to leave, a Myanmar woman motioned me into a small room, tied a long skirt around my waist and ushered me back to where Glen waited. Unaccustomed to walking barefoot, my tender feet felt every pebble of gravel until Glen and I reached the cool marble steps of the pagoda terrace, overlooking, well … everything.
Uppatasanti Pagoda towered above the sprawling hotels, abandoned construction sites and wide empty boulevards of Nay Pyi Taw, the military-built city that replaced Yangon as Myanmar’s capital in 2005.
Taking in the sweeping views, Glen pointed in the distance toward our own sparsely occupied hotel, then noticed an enclosure just below where we stood, “Are those elephants under that pavilion?” Guarded by a high steel fence and an assault rifle-wielding police officer, four perfectly pink elephants with white hairs and pale eyes munched on bamboo.
Foreigners are magnets for people wanting to practice English and pagodas are no exception. A young Buddhist monk noted our surprise and related the religious importance of the animals. “Buddha appeared as a white elephant. Very sacred. And lucky.”
The reverence toward what, in Asia, are called white elephants (they look pink) made me wonder. I thought back to a Christmas party with a White Elephant theme where everyone gift wrapped an unwanted possession to be redistributed with friends’ unwanted items. How could a White Elephant be sacred in Asia and mean something without value in the West?
Back at our hotel, I turned to the Google Meister for answers: Siamese (Thailand) kings were in the habit of bestowing lesser white elephants, that were mottled or deformed, to anyone who plotted against the king at court. As holy animals, white elephants could not work to offset the enormous cost of being fed. Unable to get rid of such a royal gift, the plotters would inevitably go bankrupt from the cost of upkeep. Aside from honoring Buddha, the term White Elephant was applied to a possession which had value but cost more to maintain than the value it gave.
I hope Glen and I give good value here in Myanmar training large numbers of Red Cross volunteer trainers and operators!!
If there were a prize for the world’s most unusual capital city, Nay Pyi Taw might be a strong contender. The new capital, with expansive fourteen-lane highways, a Vegas-style hotel zone and the only shopping mall I saw in Myanmar, was our first training assignment outside of Yangon. The capital is 200 miles north of Yangon, but our driver made great time on the clear, expansive highways. We expected a bustling capital, but what we found were vast highways so empty I felt surprised when I saw street sweepers with brooms and the odd buffalo wandering outside the sprawling hotels and government buildings. It was clear that hotels were overbuilt and under occupied. Entire buildings of our hotel were shut down and the rest sparsely used.
There wasn’t anyone to ask about the situation, but my guidebook claimed that the city was built quietly—the Myanmar people were taken by surprise by its even existence as well as the shift of the capital from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw in 2005. Our guidebook stated said that the nation’s then leader was following the advice of an astrologer to prevent “overthrow of the government from the sea.” If true, fear of attack from the sea may help explain why the government did not allow outside assistance after Tropical Cyclone Nargis, when 146,000 people died from the storm, flooding and then starvation in the aftermath.
All the buildings in Nay Pyi Taw are shiny
new, and the Myanmar Red Cross building even has hostel style accommodation for visiting Red Cross volunteers. We expanded our hands-on practical exercises based on that first class and were thrilled with the interest of the students in HF/VHF radio skills and procedures as well as their warmth and interest toward America and the functions of the American Red Cross. Next stop, Mawlamyine, in the southern Delta region.
A Myanmar woman set up shop on the steps to the temple, a cage of restless, rustling birds besides her. It seemed a strange place to sell pets I thought, removing my shoes and socks to gain entrance to Shwedagon Pagoda, a temple adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf, thousands of gems, a 74-carat diamond and somewhere in the maze of brilliance, strands of Buddha’s hair. Glancing at the birds, I could not imagine anyone buying a pet before visiting a temple considered sacred by Myanmar Buddhists. Then the woman extended her closed hand toward me, and said what sounded like some number of kyats, Myanmar money.
At first, I thought for that fee she was offering to safeguard my shoes, until I saw one of the tiny birds in her hand. It looked like a sparrow but with flecks of yellow on its tiny head. All became clear when a man walked up and handed the Myanmar equivalent of 50 cents to the seller in exchange for the release of one of the birds. The woman stuffed the money in a basket, flung the bird up and it flapped off away from the city.
When I found someone to ask, the answer confirmed what seemed obvious. Birds are sold near Buddhist temples as part of a life release ceremony where a caged bird is freed into a public place as a way of generating positive karma for the person responsible for its release.
“The act enhances one’s karma and brings hope for the next life,” informed a Buddhist monk wearing an orange robe who greeted me in English within the temple grounds. He was taken aback when his simple greeting in English was met with my questions—I seized the opportunity for an insider’s view of the sparrow’s ransom. “The bird’s thanks come back to us as merit and the life of the rescuer is longer.” I didn’t understand how being released after captivity generated karma for the bird, but the monk kept glancing away nervously and was physically leaning toward the Pagoda. He did not seem to want to give me a class on karma.
I asked Glen, “Should I have paid to release all those birds? Not for karma, but for the birds’ freedom?” We discussed it and I settled on the answer that a mass purchase would have encouraged bird sellers to capture more.
I wasn’t sure if I should post this dispatch, not wanting to upset my many birding friends, nor be that person who judges things as good or bad in new situations. I realize it is a contradiction that while I respect the beliefs of others, my views on capturing wild birds for karma ransom would have required more than just one monk for translation. Because never mind the crowded cage conditions, those birds are trapped with nets which kill some number in the process. Birds that would otherwise pollinate fields, control insects, hatch and raise baby birds that would continue the life cycle of nature. And I believe that is what constitutes merit for a bird.
The next time I see birds for sale at a temple, I am going to buy and free all the birds. Because really, the birds need to be free more than they need the karma.
Myanmar Time Travel
Closed to the outside world for decades, Myanmar is how you might imagine southeast Asia before the mass tourism as in countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. What kept Myanmar different was massive government restrictions. Cars were not imported until 2012 and cell phones not widely available until after the 2015 election.
But now the people are catching up fast, because when Glen and I traveled to Myanmar in March 2019 for a month as volunteers with the American Red Cross, my iPhone with a local sim card worked just fine. The Wi-Fi in our office and in hotels was speedy enough for all our devices to connect (well, most of the time). And there were so many taxis that traffic was constant — we needed an hour to get to the airport, which we were told used to be a 20-minute ride away.
Our work in Myanmar involved traveling to remote areas to conduct training, and when one of our classes was cancelled due to travel restriction for that area, Glen and I knew how to fill those unscheduled days. We hired a car with driver and headed to Bagan, the ancient city that’s known for over 2,000 ancient temples, built from the ninth century forward.
High numbers like that of something so rare seemed hard to believe, but my skepticism faded as our car drove around Bagan looking for the last-minute hotel we booked online. Pagodas dot the countryside in and around Bagan—there were three on the grounds of our hotel on the Ayeyarwady River. The temples varied in size, shape and design—some grand and intricate, some crumbling, others glinting with gold.
When we checked into our hotel, a sign at the desk said, “E-bikes for rent”. At home Glen and I love to ride bikes in the forest and an e-bike seemed the perfect way to navigate among the grass and dirt roads among the countless pagodas. The next morning, we were met by a local guide with some English who walked us out to the…. “There must be a mistake, we want to ride e-bikes. These are motor scooters.”
“These are electric bikes,” said the guide. “They are fully charged and should last all day.” With no helmets and lacking good judgement (medical care is not as robust as the Wi-Fi), we nevertheless climbed on and drove through unmarked dirt paths, fields, and shrubby groves among ancient temples, shrines, parking the bikes to explore passages within. After a while the lack of throngs at those world heritage attractions seemed more amazing than the temples themselves.
Other than paying $25 fee upon entering the Bagan Archaeological Zone, the entire area was open to roam—there weren’t many signs, and very few paved roads. Led by our guide, we were free to explore the interiors of temples at will, then get on our bikes and scoot to the next one. Our guide said that at one point the surrounding area had over 10,000 temples, stupas, pagodas, and various religious structures scattered throughout the hot, dry region. Its long history, earthquakes, and neglect has taken its toll and only around 2,200 structures remain today, though we saw evidence of preservation efforts.
Caked with dust and dirt we arrived back at our hotel without incident, in time to shower and watch the sunset over countless fields of pagodas. I suspect that sooner than later that ancient city may experience mass tourism, but for now there is unaccountable freedom to experience an ancient region like nowhere else in the world.
Another Reason for Trees
We landed at the airport in Yangon and one of the first things I noticed was Myanmar women with a tan colored paste daubed on their cheeks. Called thanaka, it is a natural cosmetic paste made by finely grinding a variety of sandalwood tree with water on a traditional stone slab. Out and about in Myanmar, I’ve seen thanaka on the faces mainly of women and children (usually girls but sometimes young boys, too), and am told it is a 2,000-year tradition.
Though the reason is partly for beauty, it is said to provide sunburn protection and other medicinal qualities. On a drive from one Red Cross training site to the next we passed farming villages where women in fields worked with thanaka applied thickly to every inch of their face for sun and mosquito protection. Myanmar women DO have beautiful skin, and their darker skin carries the look well. I understand the ground powder is available at outdoor markets and will seek it out when we return to Yangon.
If you hear of The Body Shop planting sandalwood trees you will know it’s gone mainstream!
Pyai looked longingly at the heaping plate of giant fried prawns brought crispy hot to the table. We had driven all day from Yangon to the Ayeyarwady Delta coastal region to train Myanmar Red Cross volunteers on a disaster communications network. “I miss prawns the most,” said Pyai, our interpreter. The coastal area is famous for fresh and abundant seafood and motioning toward the six-inch prawns I offered, “Have some, take some … this is too much food for Glen and me.”
“I am supposed to be a vegetarian. My husband is a strict vegetarian and does not even eat eggs or milk. This is very hard for my daughter because she is only four years old, so I buy her cheese. Sometimes I really miss chicken and beef, but mostly I think about prawns.” Omnivore that I am, I handled this delicate situation the best I could. “What happens on the road, stays on the road. Your choice, but we will never eat all these prawns, basil chicken or even spring rolls for that matter,” and passed her a pair of wooden chopsticks from the napkin canister on the table.
Pyai speared prawns and chicken onto her plate and after the first mouthful said, “It is even better than I remembered. You are welcome also to my rice and vegetables,” and turned all her attention to the food at hand.
Soon, Pyai was as particular as Glen and me, with rapid-fire instructions to the waiters for no MSG, rice noodles instead of wheat, and cuts of chicken that we could recognize. Our rail-thin interpreter ate platefuls with gusto, taking leftovers back to her room as a bedtime snack. I don’t know if the extra protein jump-started her hunger, but it was amazing to see how much she could eat. On the road a typical breakfast started with a large bowl of rice noodles and eggs or chicken and a chaser plate of fruit and sticky rice. Lunch and dinner in Myanmar are also serious multi-course meals served in small dishes with a bowl of rice at the center.
Traveling the countryside has broadened our cultural discovery of Myanmar: impromptu stops at roadside food stalls (“it’s organic”), lottery ticket kiosks (our driver had a dream he would win) and home-made sticky rice dessert factory (with gummy samples) where goods are baked and sold onsite. I don’t know where Myanmar people put all the food they eat, but a healthy appetite is a good thing and we are lucky to be able to experience what I believe is authentic Myanmar.
I’m A Lion, What Are You?
“It looks like those people are baptizing baby Buddha,” I told Glen. I don’t know a lot about Buddhism but was pretty sure that baptism wasn’t part of the religion. I pulled out my map of the grounds of Shwedagon Pagoda, adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf, thousands of gems, a 74-carat diamond and somewhere in the maze of brilliance, strands of Buddha’s hair. The map informed that we were standing in front of something called a “Planetary Post”, which did nothing to explain why some worshippers were pouring cups of water over the head of a miniaturized Buddha and others knelt on the ground, bowed in prayer. The map showed eight planetary posts around the pagoda base and ever curious, Glen and I walked from one to the next trying to puzzle it out.
Armed with a Myanmar telephone simcard, I stood and conferred with the Google Meister for the surprising answer; Myanmar Buddhists are strong believers of the influence of astrology, especially a person’s birth day, as in Monday, Tuesday… Each day is represented by an animal that possesses qualities passed to people born on their day. I was born on a Tuesday … do you know what day you were born?
Monday people are Tigers
Tuesday, Lions (Go Lions!!!)
Wednesdays are tricky. If you were born in the morning you are an Elephant with a tusk, in the afternoon you are an elephant without a tusk. (Glen is a Wednesday morning elephant!)
Thursday is Rat (my Thursday friends may want to double check their day of the week)
Friday is a Guinea Pig (they are adorable)
Saturday is a dragon (Game of Thrones fans will like that)
Sunday is a stunning, mythical bird called a Garuda
Crowded with worshippers, planetary posts are more than a parlor game to Myanmar Buddhists. Myanmar people try to do important things on their day; names are given according to their day, the name of their business is chosen according to their day, and they get married to a person whose day is friendly to their day. So, when someone goes to a pagoda to pay homage to Buddha, they also keep on friendly terms with their day by offering water, flower, incense and candle light at their planetary post.
I hope my Myanmar Lion does not hurt my Chinese Zodiac Rooster!!
Toughen Your Feet for This One!
No nets, no opposing team, no score keeping… cane ball probably won’t catch on in the west. If it is possible to have a noncompetitive sport, that sport would be cane ball. In Myanmar it is called chinlone, and a Red Cross colleague in Yangon calls it Ninja Volleyball.
The game consists of one team of six players who pass a woven rattan ball around in a circle using their heads, knees and feet. One player stands in the middle of the circle to perform solo, supported by those in the outer circle. Play stops once the ball has touched the ground before starting again as a new round.
I’ve only seen it played barefoot in hard dirt and a colleague explained that the players use six main points of contact with the ball: the top of the toes; the sole of the foot; the instep and outstep of the foot; the heel; and the knee. There are also rules about how the nonplaying body parts must be positioned, but it sounded complicated.
I picked up a cane ball at a market to get the heft, and it is so hard that players’ feet must be very tough. The players were intensely focused—no multitasking or texting possible. It is gripping to watch because any moment you expect someone will drop the ball. Cane ball. You heard it here first!
I Miss It — Don’t Miss It
I wanted to grab Glen’s hand to cross the street, thinking a driver might hesitate to take out two pedestrians at one time. But I pulled back my hand not wanting to offend—our Red Cross security handbook stressed, “No public displays of affection.”
“Keep a steady pace with me,” Glen said, “and give the driver time to avoid hitting you, like with the cyclo drivers in Vietnam and Thailand.” That’s when I realized we had not seen even one motorcycle in Yangon. The ban on private car ownership was lifted in 2011 and used cars from Japan with right hand steering wheels clogged the right-hand drive — like in America— streets. It was the endless stream of cars we had been dodging. Suddenly it felt strange to be in a large Asian city and not terrorized by motorcycles.
Our colleagues at the Red Cross delegation could not tell us why, just that motorcycles had been banned from Yangon. Perhaps a college age Myanmar woman I met at a restaurant might be willing to take a guess, but she shrugged, “My sister told me the ruling general’s daughter died in a motorcycle accident.” Her boyfriend said, “No, that was just a rumor. I think it is because before the military rule ended in 2015, a biker threatened a general with a finger-gun and escaped too easy on his motorcycle.”
In other words, the people who really know why aren’t saying! Not that I want to negotiate more traffic on these streets, but it is curious.
Everything a Buddhist monk owns or consumes is supposed to be donated, and every morning monks leave the monastery on an “alms round” to collect their meal of the day. They carry a big bowl and collect alms – mostly cooked food – from people in their community. Monks are not supposed to eat any food after 12:00, so that is the only meal they will consume all day. However, the monks seem to have plenty of food in their bowls, as donors receive “merit” that eventually helps him or her achieve release from the cycle of rebirth. A state that some call Nirvana.
Glen and I have seen small numbers (1-12) monks walking in line collecting alms in the morning but returning from our training work today in late afternoon, close to 1,000 monks passed in line receiving food and small monetary donations from people along the road. It was a special parade sponsored by the government which happens only once a month. Lucky timing!