On the viewing deck at the foot of the 11th-century built Htilominlo Temple, I asked a young Burmese lady if she’s ever traveled to Yangon to see the Shwedagon Pagoda. She smiled, and just as I expected, she said no, and added that her family is very poor and don't have the money to travel to the holiest site in all of Burma. Then she continued with words that got stuck in my head for the rest of my stay - “I can not to travel the world, but I have the world by just stay here.” I smiled back at her, didn’t say a word. I got her point. Because that pretty much sums up the vibe I felt when I chatted with cab drivers we hired in Yangon. Or the group of elderly vendors who happily handed me back my 100 US dollar bill, several hours after I mistakenly used it to pay for 10 dollars’ worth of souvenirs. Or the guide who we contracted to show us around Inle Lake, and the monk who showed us how the diamond sitting atop the mighty Shwedagon sparkles in different hues as one views it from 100 meters below. They all mentioned to me in one way or another that they have very little. But the irony is that each one of them didn't invite pity, rather, they made me feel they are doing just fine. Contentment, I guess that’s the perfect word to describe it. You feel it in a local eatery in 80’s-trapped Yangon, you see it in the faces of monks in dry and dusty Bagan, and you sense it in the silent dance of the Inthas as they gather lake grass beneath the calm waters of Inle Lake.
Here is a people who’ve been under a brutal military junta for half a century, a country under harsh economic embargoes for years, a race under poverty even as I write this. Yet I saw something on the contrary to what I expected to see. I was looking for a bunch of military thugs roaming the streets of Yangon, guns in tow, ready to harass people. There wasn't a single one. Rather I saw monks with pots on hand and people handing them cooked rice and lotus flowers. I was expecting horrendous traffic choking narrow alleys, and garbage strewn uncollected on every corner. But I saw wide open, clean streets and drivers following traffic lights. Heck, I was even expecting those souvenir vendors would deny I even bought stuff from any of them, but then they offered me a chair, assured me till I calmed down, took out a fan to relieve me of the heat, and even painted my face with “thanaka” while we waited for the lady to whom I handed my money. The lady was having lunch, and she cut that short, asked her husband to get their motorcycle roaring back to the shops so I wouldn't have to wait too long. And I saw people of all ages in the countless temples we visited solemnly praying and offering to God. There is a lesson to be learned in having so very little, and yet being able to get up each morning to offer thanks to a god by which one’s faith resides.
As Burma continues to open up to the world, and as tourists arrive by the busloads, I wonder if the words spoken by that young lady I talked to will soon spawn a whole different meaning. Will too much money flowing in from the world suddenly turn Burmese contentment into a mad rush for cash, such that her world she so ideally described becomes a world just like everywhere else – materialistic, cut-throat, ungrateful, uncontent. Unfortunately, there are signs pointing in that direction. Temples are becoming tourist traps, market people jacking up prices several hundred percent, stall owners telling an uninitiated tourist that the “longyi” he chose was for a guy, only to realize later, after getting laughed at by the entire market place, that he was lied to and that the design was actually for a lady. That tourist by the way, was me.
Only six days in Burma, but so many stories to tell. And I think I have taken a few good photographs from this trip too. I’m sharing some of them here (complete set is on my Facebook account), in the hope that they speak to you and give you as much pleasure as I had while I was in the Golden Land. Enjoy.
I have not posted anything for a while. Hopefully, this will kickstart another round of posts. I have so much to write about, and I don't even know where to begin!