There is little doubt that Myanmar, the former British colony once known as Burma, is rapidly changing. Left behind by its Southeast Asian neighbours after over two decades of military rule, Myanmar is now opening up to the world, yet the deep spirituality that remains the centre of daily life is still intact. One can’t help but feel that the longer you stay, the closer you can get to enlightenment.
Words & Photography: Abby Yao
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Children holding postcards and their own drawings flocked around me in the marketplace of Nyaung U, close to the ancient city of Bagan. For a moment I doubted that they meant to ask for sweets. But as they put their hands to their mouths, I wondered no more. Their sun-kissed faces appeared eager for attention. I wish I had more than just candy.
It was a busy Friday morning. Motorcycles zipped past carts unloading sacks of rice as women trade floral garlands. Beside betel leaves arranged in swirling layers, dried nuts fill shallow baskets. Some corners are deathly quiet, save for the whir of a sewing machine; others are disorienting, like the wet sections where everything is fresh and ice is non-existent. Navigating the market is both peaceful and stressful.
As I made my way through the maze of stalls, a woman placed a round cake of thanaka in my hand. The guide had cautioned earlier against accepting “gifts”, as something is expected in return. I felt compelled to burrow into my bag for kyat, the local currency. In its own unexpected ways, karma’s cause-and-effect dynamics govern life in this predominantly Buddhist country.
I kept the solidified thanaka paste made from water and tree bark, wondering if I should wear it the next day. Seen as a beauty mark offering protection from the sun, thanaka is commonly applied on the faces of women and children in various patterns. It seems especially beneficial in the dry, dusty central plain of Bagan dotted by temples and stupas – some a thousand years old.
These structures are the only remnants of old Bagan, as brick and stone were reserved for religious buildings, while others were constructed with wood and similarly impermanent materials. Each pagoda has a number and no new ones can be built. However, the previous military regime’s inaccurate renovations have reportedly kept Bagan from attaining UNESCO World Heritage status.
The best way to explore Bagan is on a bicycle – taking the dirt paths between the main roads. There is no traffic light and no traffic police to stop you, with only horse carriages and ox carts putting traffic’s pace to a slow lull. A stupa (or a few) will be in your peripheral vision at any given time. The only sign of modernity is the electric wire running through the grassy fields. At night, the pitch-black plain is punctuated only by fluorescent lamps and the illumination of the largest pagodas. It was as if, time had never touched Bagan throughout the years.
Rich in gemstones and gold, Myanmar has never exploited its own resources until now, as investors are getting their hands on the plentiful jade and ruby. But for the most part, life is still difficult for its population of 60 million.
At the crossroads
The thatched roof houses of Minanthu do not betray the village’s centuries-old history. A lone woman carrying several litres of water on her shoulders made her way into the cluster of huts ringed by cacti and aloe vera. I managed to take her photograph, but I felt as if I was intruding into her routine. There has been very little rain this year and even the sacred reservoir is practically dry, so some villagers have to walk miles for water.
In the heat of midday, the siesta is the logical form of (in)activity, alongside smoking stogies and listening to a monk preaching on the radio. Cheroot and betel nut are as well-loved as the nat, guardian spirits to whom water and flowers are offered for protection.
Often, Myanmar is described as straddling Indian and Chinese cultures because of its location. The traditional dress, worn by men and women, and seen even in the city marries the two civilisations – Chinese collar and closures for tops and for bottoms, the sarong-like longyi influenced by Indian and Malay dress.
The Burmese alphabet also traces its roots from the Brahmi script, and there are Sanskrit, Chinese and Hindu loan words. The cuisine is likewise a mix of Indian, Chinese and Thai influences, but the spices are very mild and heat is kept to a minimum. Fruits such as watermelon, honeydew and papaya are the typical accompaniment to every meal.
“Twelfth century,” declared the tour guide after he brushed off the dirt from a clay bead he found half-buried on the ground, washed up by the previous night’s rain. It will be the fourth in his bead collection, he said. I was instantly an archaeology student learning by the roadside ruins. In under a minute, he had put together shards of pottery and identified them as relics from the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, distinguished by their colour and patterns.
Bagan was a prosperous kingdom until the Mongols attacked in 1287, led by Kublai Khan. Over the years, the 13,000 structures have been reduced to the current 2,200 temples and pagodas—still a remarkable number by any worldwide standard.
In the late afternoon, Shwesandaw Pagoda in the middle of the plain felt like the centre of the spiritual universe. There were only 50 steps to the top level, but the steps can be up to a foot high and the idea of coming down can be unnerving to someone with a mild fear of heights (i.e. me).
While the clouds kept the sun from unleashing a dramatic dusk, the view was straight out of a surreal film, with stupas and temples as far as the eye can see from my high viewpoint. I clung to the metal bannisters of the pagoda, questioning the wisdom of travelling in a flowy dress while carrying an oversized bag. As I trembled on my way down, a Burmese boy stood steady on top of a plinth next to the step. He didn’t know it, but I was absorbing his confidence.
Back on the ground, a glib young vendor showed off his world currency collection beside a tiny nondescript brick pagoda. His wares were already sold out and his happiness to talk to everyone was contagious.
There were more temples to explore the following day, among them the pyramid-like Dhammayangyi Temple - the largest most notorious one with a bloody history and mysterious walled-up niches; and Ananda Temple, said to be the finest North Indian style temple that features all 10 traditional arts, in addition to the four 9 metre high Buddhas with large diamonds on their foreheads.
After a few stops, I got used to walking barefoot to the calming tinkle of chimes and the silence of hallowed halls. The ground was so dry that it never gets muddy despite the unusual drizzle. For all its structures pointing skywards, Myanmar’s lifeblood is still here below, on the ground. On their sandals and flip-flops, scores of people offer their labour to earn an honest living. If you want to engage them, you only need to approach. They will almost automatically ask you where you’re hailing from.
The old and the new
Until 2006, the rainy city of Yangon, or Rangoon, was the country’s capital. Today, packed public transportations and billboards are as common as pedestrians in longyi criss-crossing the streets and children selling jasmine garlands to motorists. The mood of optimism is pervasive. No longer is it dangerous to utter the words “democracy” and “Aung San Suu Kyi”.
Even at the country’s most important landmark Shwedagon Pagoda, with its four Buddha relics, there is a flurry of activity even at night. Despite the chanting and the constant movement of the worshippers, you will still find quiet corners for reflection. Believed to be first built 2600 years ago, the pagoda has seen additions over the years and now rises 98 metres, capped by a 76-carat diamond.
But there is more to Yangon than a fast-changing metropolis. Sprawling lakes, gardens and colonial buildings are still intact. No restaurant can be half as impressive as Karaweik Hall, a golden barge at the edge of Kandawgyi Lake. Along the shore, young sweethearts sit together in the semi-darkness as lads sit by the jetty, singing and playing the guitar.
A last-minute stop at Bogyoke Aung San Market reveals plentiful choices for jewellery and clothing. The neat grid layout gives way to outdoor teahouses where men congregate on low chairs amidst busy chatters. It is a long way from Bagan, famous for its lacquerware, which are still meticulously handcrafted using traditional methods of production, and craftsmen take as long as five years to earn a degree in lacquerware making. Tourists often end up with cheap lacquered cardboard instead of the long-wearing bamboo, wood or horsehair.
I often thought about the young woman selling souvenirs by the roadside in Bagan who attempted to engage me in a trade. “Lipstick? Mascara?” she asked, holding out her wares. She was hoping to barter her lacquerware souvenirs with makeup. I was astonished by the suggestion. Perhaps it wasn’t just karma at work here but also supply and demand.
In a matter of days, I had just gone a thousand years and back. I know I will be back someday, though maybe in another lifetime. Until then, the memory of thousands of pagodas bathed in the warm sunshine will forever be imprinted on my mind.
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