Fri 11 Feb 2011 - Mon 7 Mar 2011
“Why do you like to travel?” the monk asked, innocently enough. His question was a loaded one as the reality for most Burmese people is that they will never set foot outside Myanmar’s borders. The passport application process requires a lot of money and time for something that may not be granted. One estimate we heard was $2000 and 2 years of waiting.
“Well, travel is a great way to learn new things, to experience things we can’t back home. When we travel we can see historical sights, learn about cultures, food and religion, and explore natural wonders. We also get to meet so many wonderful people.”
Monks have played a key role in recent Burmese history. In 2007 they banded together to protest the outrageous rise in gas prices crippling society in Myanmar. When the government reacted with beating and killing around 30 monks, the country was aghast. This was beyond low. Since then, the number of monks in Myanmar has decreased, as they were “encouraged” to return to the homes, but it is my prediction that their strength has not waned. Perhaps the change that is needed in Myanmar is in the hands of these spiritual leaders. We were fortunate to meet many monks during our travels.
While on a day trip to the Pindaya Caves on the outskirts of Kalaw our driver pointed out one particular house by the side of the road, which was decorated and had many people around it. We stopped to check it out. It was the celebration for a 7 year old boy who was about to become a novice – the first step in monk-hood. Just as the Buddha was a prince before giving it all up to attain enlightenment, families also celebrate by treating their young sons as princes for the day. The boy, nervous and silent, was dressed in an elaborate traditional costume fit for a prince. The people of the village stopped by to congratulate the family, offer a small donation, and partake in the feast. We too were invited to sit and eat with the family. We saw that their house was bare, but they offered us tea, sweets and food with such generosity. When the young boy emerged wearing his second outfit, a mere hour from the walk to his new monastery, the mother and father sat beside their only son and asked us to take their picture. They also asked if there was any way we could print the picture for them, as they didn’t own a camera, none of their neighbours owned a camera, and they wouldn’t have a lasting memento of this monumental day. Humbled by this opportunity, we set out to find a place to print the picture in Kalaw, and left three copies with our friendly driver to deliver to the family the next day.
Later, after completing two days of a three day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, our group settled our belongings in our shelter for the night: an active monastery for young novices. We would be sleeping on the floor of their large prayer hall. While the group washed up and admired the sunset, I sat beside another traveller and watched an equally entertaining sight. The young boys, some orphans who will remain monks out of necessity rather than choice, were asked to clean the floor of the prayer hall. They did so as only young boys can; by pulling each other around the room on their monk robes, shrieking with joy. It reminded me that regardless of country, religion or clothing, kids are kids all over the world.
While climbing Mandalay Hill, we met a friendly monk who was looking for foreigners to help him practice his English skills. We chatted about superficial things, including music. He was a fan of Westlife, and some other singers I didn’t recognize. Then he mentioned Lady Gaga – he had seen her on the internet. “Do you like her?” I asked.
“I like her songs, but I don’t like her. I think she is stupid. She does stupid things,” he replied.
“True,” I said, “but she does those things to get attention. The attention is good for her because the more people talk about her, the more music she will sell. She is a good business-woman.” Then I stepped back from myself to think about the conversation I was having with a Buddhist monk, and I laughed.
Later on Mandalay Hill, a group of three monks was eying us with curiosity. While there was a massive group of foreigners at the top of the hill for sunset views, only Toby and I appeared to be under the age of 65. I smiled at them and they came over. “Excuse me, may I practice my English with you?” Our chat lasted for about an hour, with the most fluent speaker taking the lead, while the nervous monk asked rehearsed questions like, “How many seasons are there in Canada?” It felt like a game of 20 questions. At one point, the nervous monk asked me to tell him a funny story so that he could practice his listening skills. I did my best to recall a humourous anecdote, and he chuckled at all the right places. Another monk asked me to tell him the story of Christianity. I laughed and asked how much time they had! After the glorious sunset, we were the last people at the top so we walked down together, still chatting and laughing together in the growing darkness. They were sponges, eager for some “general knowledge” as they put it, and ready with a new, unrelated question once the last one was answered.
The next day we took a ferry to Mingun, across the Arrewaddy River from Mandalay. A monk approached us and we chatted about the typical subjects, including our ages and nationality. He introduced us to his family, including 80-year old grandma, but left them to wander around the sights with us. On the top of the ruined Mingun Paya, a local boy was showing us around. He climbed a steep section of brick and held out his hand for me to climb. Barefoot (as is customary at all Buddhist sites), I tentatively took a few steps, but chickened out and told Toby I would wait for him at the lower level. Our monk friend walked to the edge above me, crouched into a squat and said the two words I needed to get my butt up there: “Try harder.”
Later, at a paya which I won't name, we met a monk with a deep question; “Tell me, what is the difference between an optimist and a pessimist?” We stuttered through a literal answer, while we walked into a dark area at the back of the temple. With alert eyes constantly darting around, he started to talk. He told us about the government’s biased rules (they can cut down and sell teak trees but the locals go to jail if they do), the lack of support for poor people (they die from drinking unclean water, but no one cares), the lack of opportunities for educated people (they drive trishaws while family members of government officials get all the jobs), the relocation of villages for logging, the lack of funding for monasteries, the refusal of outside aid, and closest to his heart, the jailing of two of his teacher monks. He told us that he participated in the 2007 protests, but now feels powerless to ignite change for fear of punishment. “We have big problems,” he stated over and over. It was our turn to be like sponges, soaking up his information, digesting the realities of life in Myanmar, and promising to share the word with the outside world.
This was not the first time we heard these stories. Any trip requires some pre-departure research, but we researched Myanmar more than any other country we’ve been to so far. Using our Lonely Planet and some Free Burma websites, we debated about whether it was ethical to visit a country that has such a corrupt, often brutal government. The list of human rights offenses is shameful. Deciding that we could minimize our financial contribution to the government, and could raise awareness by experiencing it first hand, we decided to go.
Our second last stop in Myanmar was accidental due to a missed ferry. We stayed the night in the small town of Pakokku, at a guesthouse with the friendliest neighbourhood imaginable. We were two of six tourists in the entire town, and the locals treated us as celebrity guests. But even celebrity guests have to follow the rules: don’t go to the monastery. As the monks here are credited with starting the 2007 protests, any foreigner on the premises means trouble for the monks, the guesthouse owner, and the foreigner. Plain-clothes police officers monitor the area constantly.
Leaving Myanmar was harder than I thought it would be. As I continue to travel and turn my eyes toward other countries of the world, the people of Myanmar continue to suffer in isolation. Poverty is unavoidable, corruption is rampant, and freedom is withheld. As the next generation of Burmese people go online, create dialogue, examine foreign ideas, “try harder” and remain optimistic, it is my hope that democracy is over the next horizon.