Nyuangshwe: A deeper look

I spent a total of five days in Nyaungshwe, the longest I stayed in any part of Myanmar. It was the best segment of my entire trip.

I didn’t realise the boat tour was so short.. that in one day I would have “seen” all of Inle Lake. The Lonely Planet guide book didn’t have much suggestions but I decided to do them all. One each day.

One afternoon, wandering around town, I decided to check out the monasteries. I walked in on one when the novices were chanting their prayers. Startled and awed, I stood for a while just watching. I have heard the Chinese transcription of the Buddhist scripture from its ancient Pali language, when they were read out in their entirety for my grandfather’s funeral. The Burmese transcription sounded similar enough without being the same. I must have stood still for a good ten minutes before I started to take pictures. By that time, some unfocused novices in the back and side were giving me furtive glances and snuck a wave here and there. I smiled in acknowledgement and snapped a few more shots. I crept down before chants were over, in fear of getting the inattentive novices in trouble, only to descend and find myself face-to-face with an amused attentive abbot.

The highlight was my guide hike up the hills. My guide was a no-show. Family emergency. By this point, I’ve lived in Asia long enough to roll with these punches. The agent scrambled to find a substitute guide. And what a substitute he was.

The new guide didn’t speak much. He however knew everyone, even up in the hilltribes. He was moonlighting, his regular day job was as a teacher. He wasn’t even a local, being a Mandalay native. But he knew everyone. Monks, elders, kids all waved to him. We were invited into houses for tea while the hosts gossiped with my guide, discussing land sales, children’s school plans, weather, health problems. He was kind enough to give me the gist of the conversations but, for the most part, I sat silently with a smile, sipped my tea, and people-watched.

No matter how basic their living, they had something to offer me. A biscuit? Some tea? Without fail, every time I complimented a host or hostess on the tea or food (all of which truly were delicious), they immediately shuffled around for a plastic bag to contain all they had of that item to give me. There is some truth in the statement: the less people have, the more generous they tend to be.

Children followed us like pied piper. I think they were following me more than him. I learnt on this entire trip that if I showed them playbacks of photos I took of them, they will fall into infectious giggling. As much as I want to capture the reactions, I often catch their infectious laughing and enjoy playing with then more than I want to photograph the moment.

By my last day, the market vendors all recognised me from my daily stroll through the stalls. The hat vendor scolds me for not wearing the straw hat I bought from her. The tea vendor waves a fistful of her freshest product for me to sniff. The vegetable lady’s toddler waddles up to hold my hand. The butcher humourously tries again to sell me a raw chicken drumstick.

In truth, I probably can’t live in a place like this for long. I am too spoilt, too modernised, too independent, and too potty-mouthed for a society like this. Yet, coming to a culture so ancient, a lifestyle so simple, and a country so isolated has made me appreciate the simple things in life, and given me an awareness of the ubiquitous nature of joy, curiosity, and kindness.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Path

No single picture can fully capture the grandeur of the largest Buddhist site, Borobudur, in Yogyakarta (pronounced “Joe-jakarta”). The temple, believed to be built sometimes in the 7-8th century A.D., is a nine-tiered temple. The bottom six have over three and a half miles of stone wall carvings, depicting karmic lessons of consequences and Buddha’s teachings.

Little is known about the original purpose and use of the building. But, today, many Buddhist make a pilgrimage and walk up the temple in a clockwise spiral route for meditation. Many believe each higher level represents a stage closer to nirvana.

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Yangon: Schwedagon Pagoda

Yangon’s highlight is Myanmar’s holiest Buddhist site- Schwedagon Pagoda. According to local folklore, it is over 2500 years old. Not a tile looked that old, though. The temple has been maintained, built up and along, all these years. The main pagoda is enormous, rising  and reflecting above the nearby buildings. The n itself has expanded to include many smaller pagodas and shrines.

I went after dark, hoping to capitalize in night lighting while avoiding the heat at the same time. I was richly rewarded. The temple ground were still bustling with activity.

I assumed the place would be strung up with tacky Christmas lighting or stadium lights. Not the least. Street-lamp style posts were strategically placed and the reflection of the gold did the rest of the work.

I cannot imagine how jam packed it is in the morning hours if this was considered light traffic. Monks lounged around, socializing with one another and laypeople. Locals gathered in their prayer groups. Elders gossiped, probably having started since dawn. Pilgrims strolled their rounds, half praying half take photos with their cellphones.

For the first time since arriving to Yangon, I finally felt like there’s a place for peace and sanctuary. Despite, or because of, all the people milling around, there still was a subdued tone. It wasn’t quiet, not the least. But the hum of activity was unrushed, unhurried. Despite appearances of the people acting more social than devout, the reverence was in the air.


Up ahead: Mandalay

Mandalay holds the old Myanmar glory of being the last royal capital. Today stands as one of the country’s major cities by its own right.

Yangon was (more on the past tense later) the center of the modern government and its governing interests and international presence. I feel that Bagan is the home of the Burmese soul and Mandalay is the home of the Burmese hearts. Mandalay enchanted me. A bustling city by its own right, Mandalay has a history feel without loosing its sense of growth and development. While Mandalay was the last royal capital, the area still conveys the old dignity in its character.

Most of its old palatial sites was destroyed. A few unexpected survivors dotted the city landscape. For reasons unknown, one of the buildings were moved out of the palace grounds to Mandalay Hill. Over time, it eventually became the  Shwenandaw Monastery until someone discovered the origin of the building and the government turned it into a historic site.

The woodwork is amazing. The building itself has been moved a couple of times and the modern carpentry has made its way into the reconstruction process. However, the intricate foundation on stilts and the detail in the carvings on every inch of the wall, interior and exterior, makes it a formidable feat of architecture and design. Most of the wood carving details have faded or softened over time. But some probably never were there to begin with because the wood was just the base. The building had in its heyday been completely gilded. As the guide was explaining that, I mentally sized up the building and the quantity of gold it would take. Gold is $1500 an ounce today, people.

Nikon D90, fisheye lens, f/9, 1/320

Nikon D90, f/5, 1/30s

Another impressive site is Kuthodaw Pagoda. It wasn’t so much the main pagoda as the environs that was striking. Pagodas often start looking alike to many laypeople. But in this temple, the entire Buddhist scriptures were written out on marble slabs, single spaced, double sided. Each slab stood up housed in individual stupas. It took 729 slabs to cover the entire texts. Which means 729 individual dedicated housing units for each two-sided page. Each slab is about 14 cm thick, 1.5m high and 1m wide. It is said if stacked together, it is over 103 meters high, making is the world’s biggest book.

Nikon D90, f/8, 1/1000

First stop: Bagan

Bagan is home to many many religious buildings. Old in origin but many have been restored, renovated and rebuilt. Mostly exposed brick. The kind of construction seen also in Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, Thailand, and many parts of Angkor sites in Cambodia. All the sites mentioned, many were made of brick. But then covered with stucco or its ancient equivalent then painted and gilded over. It’s hard to picture what they must have been like as so little of those layers survived. In some ways, that’s part of the charm. It’s up to the viewer’s own imagination to lead him or her down the path or history.

There are over 2000 such buildings and sites. Unlike Sukhothai in which other than a few major buildings is now more foundation remnants than structures, the Bagan landscape is completely dotted with stupa tops. The Burmese have been maintaining the sites on an ongoing basis.

However, unlike all the other destinations I related to, Bagan is not an UNESCO World Heritage Site. While I don’t place much stock on the status as I’ve been to some rather underwhelming designees, I would have thought Bagan hands down would have earned it. Alas, no. Primarily because the sites keep being built on, over. They are modified renovated instead of restored. UNESCO maintains a strict hands-off-unless-for-basic-preservation policy. It’s a difference in thinking. Many Burmese Buddhists believe that many of the pagodas are still religious sites to respect and deterioration is not acceptable. The school of thinking does not accept the sites as “ancient relics.” By refusing to adhere to the strict guidelines of preservation versus maintenance, Bagan would be disqualified.

They continue building. Some of the wealthier want to donate money or integrate their contribution into the historic landscape of Bagan and proceed to build a new structure to blend in or to completely take over an unclaimed ruin. So we see stupa tops of fresh pinkish brick scattered amongst the more aged ones.

I don’t know how I feel about that. A lot of the new structures emit the aura of a wannabe. Up close, some of them look downright fake and cheesy. Yet, from a bird’s eye view, the endless pointed tops, regardless of color and shade is breath-taking. In reality, some of the buildings are at the brink of collapse. Years of neglect, war, and weather have beaten up on some of the structures so badly humans are no longer allowed in it. Many have completely collapsed in the weather, monsoon, and earthquakes of the past 5 years alone. The new ones may look corny, but with this kind of environment, they will look old eventually and be the ones holding up the famed Bagan landscape in the future.

The old

... the semi-old...

... the new (far right)...

... and the view.

Monks and boys

In Southeast Asian nations, it is embedded in their culture that boys will be initiated as monks some point in their adolescence. Age varies by country. In a couple countries- Laos and Myanmar- boys as young as five have been seen in novices’ robes.

Buddhist monks have many tenets they go by. Not unlike monks of the Christian faiths, they abstain from many of life’s pleasures. Sex, indulgent food, gambling, etc. Their lifestyle is very basic, although how spartan depends on which interpretation their monstery prescribes.

All is good until you realize how young the boys are. They may be the best behaved little cute kids you’ll ever encounter, but not even the best lecturing can undo the fact that they are children with their wants. Which makes for great people watching for those of us who are familiar with the Buddhist restrictions.

Do not come in physical contact with women. Boys don’t care. When they run down the street or crowded temple, robe clothes flying around them, they squeeze between and bump into people, even women. When I show them pictures I’ve taken of them, they grab my arms to see or climb into my lap to shove out their friends crowded around.

Food is for basic sustenance, not enjoyment. The boys come around for alms collecting as part of their errands in the early morning. If they are not in a formal procession line, they tend to drift into stores that sell candy or cookies in hopes that someone will throw a bag in…

Material goods only cause distraction. When in a line, as they file past toy stores, they rubberneck, the space between the monks widening exponentially towards the end of the procession, where the younger boys are.

I watch many foreign tourist fawn over how cute the boys are. I agree. They are absolutely adorable. They add a cheery face to an otherwise austere religion. They break the invisible wall many of the men have built up in their fear of breaking any rules. As a woman, I do not approach the monks. Instead I let them initiate conversation. The elders do if they speak English and are curious, though that is a small demographic. The children just come right up, breaking the ice for their older brothers to start asking me questions.

It certainly is worth asking a local what the boys talk about, especially if the bystanders seem amused. One recent instance, the boys at the end of an alms procession line were squabbling. They were fighting over who gets to be last, because the giver was known for delicious food. They were hoping the last boy will get all the food left. The fact that the food is supposed to be consolidated and redistributed back at the monastery was moot to them.

I think joining the monastery for a minimum of a week is a fantastic tradition. The younger the boy, the less likely he will truly walk away with deep appreciation of Buddhism. But I can see Mama enjoying her free vacation. Heck, I just may do that to my children in the future. Pack up a couple sets of clean underwear and bundle them off the Buddhist camp.

In Memoriam

My grandfather passed away this spring and it had been the end of a very emotional roller coaster for my mother. We all flew back to Taiwan on short notice from our various ends of the earth to participate in the Buddhist funeral rites.

The rites consisted of laying the body for three weeks while people came to pay their respects. The incense was kept burning 24-7 for his soul, resulting in a 24-hour vigil over the alter and body to ensure the incense doesn’t die out, covered by shifts. For all the trouble, I am for once grateful that we have a large family to share the burden.

The day before the burial was a day of prayers. The local temple sent a monk to lead the family through the entire book of Buddhist chants. For many of us cousins raised and educated abroad, it was hard enough keeping up with reading the Chinese prayer book, but the Chinese was modified to reflect the ancient language of the original text.

The funeral itself, we hired a master of ceremonies to run the show. He did a masterful job, announcing in his booming but deferential voice, and discreetly guiding each and every one of us on where to stand, when to bow, what to do, all the while giving the audience the chance to pay their final respects. The burial was as family only event, although none of us were permitted to watch the coffin being lowered into the grave.

My grandfather was born a impoverished farmer, orphaned at a young age and then the father figure to a brood of siblings. He never finished third grade and grew up in an age of Japanese occupation. By the time I, his first grandchild, was born, the house has grown into a two level fixed edifice with plumbing and he was president and owner of a shoe manufacturing business. By the time he was forced to retire, he was the father of four daughters, two sons, all but one child married and blessing him with grandchildren. His company had grown to include two factories in China.

Ah-gong struggled with diabetes in his later years. Perhaps due to superstition, perhaps due to denial, he ignored the diagnosis until the family found out years later. By that point, his health has deteriorated and the family’s focus was to slow down that downward spiral. His passing was heartbreaking and the first loss of this immediate family in many years. Ultimately, though, when looking around during the funeral, he was a well-loved patriarch and he left behind a large family as successful as they are diverse in personalities. His legacy already shows.

As the calendar year slowly winds to the end, our family is looking forward to turning a new page, learning to support Mum through her grief, and looking forward to a new year of hopefully more happy memories to fill our family chronicles. J and I are both going home for Thanksgiving, the first homecoming with all of us present in over a year and a half. It’s time. To be thankful of who we have, memories to cherish, and bodies to hug.

Sending gifts to support his afterlife.