To Myanmar And Back

Su and I were in Myanmar recently for eight days. We were on a study tour organized by the Alumni Association of HKU’s Centre of Buddhist Studies. For a change, we did not take with us any electronic communications equipment on the trip for we were briefed beforehand that they might not be too useful for our purposes in the country yet; and besides, we wanted to find out what it was like to be cut off from devices we had taken for granted for so long. Well, we survived. As we watched some fellow members of the tour trying very hard, but unsuccessfully, to contact their families or business associates in Hong Kong during the trip, we could not help reminding ourselves the blessings of living simply or simpler. Indeed, practicing mindfulness and simple living was ostensibly an object of the tour, or pilgrimage, as some fellow tour members would call it. In a sense, it was a pilgrimage, but then every person could have a different agenda on a same journey. To the extent that a pilgrimage is normally regarded as a journey to a holy place and for religious reasons, or a journey to a place connected with someone or something famous, this journey to Myanmar definitely fits the bill for most people on the tour.

We had about 40 members on the tour. I said about 40 because I was never sure of the exact number and I had yet to see the full list of members. Such is the respect for privacy of the organizers, that even now, a week after the visit; I cannot recall who exactly were on the bus. I certainly cannot recite all their names or name them on sight. We had a couple of sharing sessions during the trip. They were good, very good, and Su and I enjoyed them very much. We had three Buddhist monks with us, two of whom of Theravada Buddhism traditions while the third, Mahayana. Many on the tour were Buddhists, some keener than others; there were others who declared that they practised the Christian faith including Su and I; and there were a few who said they did not have a religion.

We enjoyed the trip; and let me share with you some of what we experienced before I forget. But first, let us look at some basic facts.

The country’s name was officially changed from Burma to Myanmar or the Republic of the Union of Myanmar in 1989 by its military government. The country has a long and colourful history and archaeological evidence suggested that Burma was inhabited by an early homo species, homo erectus, some 750,000 years ago, and by homo sapiens around 11,000 BC. Buddhism was introduced over 2000 years ago, reportedly around 3 BC, and today over 89% of the population of 58 million practise Theravada Buddhism. The Buddhist sanga and their monks in particular are highly venerated throughout the country, and Buddhist temples, pagoda and artifacts are everywhere. The country is bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, but one third of its total perimeter of 1,200 miles comprises coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Yangon is the biggest city and was the country’s capital city until the government officially moved it to Nay Pyi Daw in November 2005, about 200 miles north of Yangon, allegedly to escape the attention of the West. The new capital city is now the third largest city in the country, after Yangon and Mandalay, and is still building up.

Aung San Suu Kyi is a household name not only in the country, but also worldwide now, and the West has been invited by the Myanmar government to visit the country and witness the election next week. She has fans everywhere, including at least one member of our group; and when we drove past her residence on University Avenue in Yangon, I could feel that everyone on the bus was excited. There were supporters camped outside her residence and we could also spot a thinly veiled surveillance squad around.

It is a big country with plenty of natural resources. Its total area of 678,500 square kilometers makes it the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia and the 40th largest in the world. In order to cover the main attractions of the country, we took a few inland flights, from Yangon to Bagan, from Bagan to Mandalay, from Mandalay to Inle Lake, and from Inle Lake back to Yagon. Each flight lasted about 30 minutes, but it would have taken us a lot longer to cover the country, for typically it would have taken us up to 15 hours or more to travel between these cities on land. We were the only passengers on most of the flights which were operated very professionally, safe, fast and efficient, and user friendly.

Bagan is easily the oldest city in the country and houses numerous monuments which are dotted on a vast plain on the eastern bank of Ayeyarwady River. They are in varying states of preservation and disrepair; and one would need to go back in time when the city thrived as the heart of a great kingdom some 2000 years ago. There are clear evidence of Buddhism influence everywhere; and it is a must visit for any Theravada Buddhism student. The image of the Buddha in all the major positions can be found in the temples and pagoda, many in full splendour and radiant in gold, too much for the equipment carried by the average tourists or their intellect and experience. I recall my visit a few years back to La Loire which was flanked by numerous chateaux which the French government has tried hard to preserve and with some degree of success. In France, they try to make the chateaux visitor friendly by illustrating exhibits and artifacts in the principal European languages, including English; they have audio and visual aids; they provide guides; but they all charge a lot for the visits. In Bagan, or for that matter, throughout the country, no such facilities are readily available; and one is at the mercy of a guide retained by the group, unless one has had some previous knowledge or experience, and unless one knows some Pali or the local language. Speaking of guides, our group retained a Putonghua speaking guide who did a reasonably good job and who, we found out later accidentally, was an expert in Vipassana Meditation (normally translated in English as Insight Meditation). However, one of our members who is not Chinese requires an English speaking guide. Our tour leader was able to organize a guide in each city. At the last sharing session, this member shared with us her unique and most interesting experience through working with these four guides. They all had different and interesting background, all spoke very good English and were knowledgeable, which in a way reflected the changing social, economic and political landscape of the developing country in the last few decades.

From Bagan, we moved to Mandalay where we stayed for two nights. This is the second largest city in the country and was the last royal capital of the last Burmese Kingdom before the British took over in 1885. Since Burma gained independence from the British in 1948, however, Mandalay continued to be the main cultural, educational and economic hub, and until the early 1990s, most students had their university education in Mandalay. We understand that university students now attend classes in remote areas or near their own localities, which produces two effects. First, there would no longer be a large concentration of students in any one big city; and secondly, students have less motivation and energies for other activities after long travels each day between home and school.

As for our group, we visited more temples and pagodas, including one known as “the World’s Biggest Book” which houses 729 upright stone slabs on which are inscribed the entire Buddhist scriptures as edited and approved by the Fifth Buddhist Synod. We also participated in dana offering to monks in a temple as well as prayer and chanting sessions. Su said afterwards that she gained some insight into Buddhism and Buddhist practices through these sessions; and she enjoyed the experience.

From Mandalay, we moved to Inle Lake in the Shan State. To say that the experience was unique would be cliché and an understatement. Words simply cannot describe the place adequately; and it would not do justice by covering it in a paragraph or two. Let me simply say that it is a very beautiful lake with a surface area of some 45 square miles and at an altitude of nearly 3,000 feet, is one of the highest lakes in the world. We all had a great time; and Su said it might be worthwhile visiting Myanmar simply for the purpose of visiting the lake, for the scenery and experience. I would not go further, lest this letter becomes too long and unreadable.

We finally flew back to Yankon where we stayed for two nights, visiting more temples and pagodas, markets and shops, and covering any unfinished businesses. We had a brief dip in the hotel pool after breakfast, which was rather refreshing.

In brief, such was how we spent eight days in a country we had not thought of visiting for various reasons. We were grateful for the opportunity and we believe it was very much worth our time and efforts. We would recommend anyone to do the same and do so quickly before commercialism sweeps in. There are a lot more about the visit that I would like to share with you; but as I said earlier, the letter is already rather long. Maybe next time.

Talk to you soon, I hope.

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