Make the right turn: notes on Myanmar and Buddhism

I can’t think of a more miserable feeling than catching a cold in a flipping hot country. It’s plus bloody 35*C outside and I am sneezing and say ‘tank you bedy buch’.

I arrived to a town called Sagaing, southwest of Mandalay. The Northern part of the town is a forest of pagodas, and if you manage to find a good viewpoint, you won’t want to leave until the sun sets down and the darkness of night covers the gilded cones among the dark green treetops.

I walked there most of the way, about 15km I think, passing through small villages and strolling along the railway. Horse carts, buffalo carts, motorbikes and pickups were whizzing by, it was mildly hot (or is it me just having got used to the temperature?), my nose was unable to smell anything. One awesome thing about Myanmar in February – it looks like it’s Autumn time. Some trees are bare, some of them drop (with a loud boom) huge yellow and orange leaves on the ground, and some of them are covered with these giant red flowers that keep falling on your head as you pass under the branches.

Beware of sidewalks. Sidewalks is a scary shit, I am really serious. Locals might warn you against walking in the narrow dark alleys at night, but let’s be clear: even if a crowd of kids try to mug you in the street, it is still not as creepy as falling down a fucking black hole between the bars of concrete. Even if there’re no crocodiles down there, certainly it’s because some even more scary shit ate them long time ago. The person – whoever it is – responsible for the roads in Myanmar must be a bedridden retard who never leaves the house to go for a walk or even for a drive.

Other than that, I must advise you two things on Myanmar walks: wash your feet and face as often as possible and follow the road.

The former is because all cities and towns in Myanmar are extremely dusty, so that layers of crap settle on your face, and whenever you enter a temple you must take off your shoes and bow to the Buddha.

The latter is because I believe that roads will lead you just exactly where you want to be.

The road in front of me forked. If I went straight, I would eventually arrive to the biggest pagoda frequented by most of the visitors. If I turned right, I would end up passing by smaller pagodas. That’s according to Google maps. Unfortunately, Google maps doesn’t give you tips about ‘adventures’.

I climbed a lot of steps to reach the Soon Oo Pon Nya Shin pagoda, not a single soul around me, just gigantic green snakes and golden Buddhas. A huge butterfly flew right into my face, and I am not sure which one of us was freaked out more. But as soon as I reached the top of the hill, a monk appeared out of nowhere and insisted that I’d follow him, have a rest and then he would guide me around the monastery. And then I stayed a little bit longer, and a little bit longer, and a little bit longer. Tilawka showed me photographs of all different foreigners that he caught here to spread his hospitality over them, and then guided me around the monastery, and then invited to sit on a small terrace and watch the sunset while he meditated, and then took me all the way down to eat dinner at his friends’ place. ‘Just send me the photographs, I will write you the address,’ he asked.

His friends had a small shop right at the footsteps of the pagoda. Ma Su is a girl of 31 who looks like 25 and she reminded me somehow of my former housemate Maider. Her daughter Bo Bu is a 3-year-old curly ball of happiness (thus say I, who is usually scared of children). They invited me to stay the night at their house, but then the neighbours came over, I played some stuff on the ukulele and the rumours spread quickly – a police officer came and made trouble. Locals are not allowed to host foreigners in Myanmar.

However, the admirable monk Tilawka is one of those who does not conform with the retarded laws, especially when it comes to hospitality. I don’t know, what exactly he told to the immigration dude, but in about half an hour I was comfortably transferred to a local nunnery. I had insisted that I would nicely sleep in my tent, but Tilawka laughed: ‘Like a gypsy, haha!’ and insisted that I’d sleep on a proper bed in the nunnery.

You must know also, that proper beds in Myanmar look (and feel) like hard wooden desks with one or two layers of carpets or bamboo mats over them. One month in Myanmar was a hardcore training for my back, since sleeping on the side appeared to be totally impossible, even with Alberto-the-bear as a pillow.

Ma Su invited me to visit her home village, about 50km from Mandalay, but the only way to get to it is to follow the road on the opposite bank of Ayerawaddy and then take a private boat to the village. I was obviously the first foreigner to ever step on that land, and in a day I was invited for dinner in 5 different neighbourhood houses. Did I mention that dinner is when they put 7-10 plate of different stuff in front of you, accompanied by a thermos of tea and sachets of instant coffee? And they expect you to shovel at least half of it inside yourself. And the mother of the house sits there and watches you (my grandma also does that so this fact doesn’t creep me out anymore). After having visited 3 houses for dinner I could not take it anymore and we had to reschedule the remaining 2 for breakfast the following day.

From that day on, my adventure through the Buddhist mind of Myanmar started. Tilawka insisted to take me visit his relatives in a remote village, and then go to the north of the country, as North as foreigners are allowed to go – Lashio. The thing about Myanmar, is that half of the population is comprised of Buddhist monks and nuns. The monks wear brown-and-yellow robes, accompanied by traditionally embroidered bags, sometimes with Chinese-produced tablets or phones inside. The nuns wear pink robes and lovely brown-and-yellow umbrellas. Their network is indeed massive, and as soon as you’re friends with one monk, you are more than welcome in all the monasteries around the country.

The 2-week trip around Buddhist sites and monasteries made me very disappointed in Buddhism. It turns out, that absolutely every philosophy, even as peaceful and meditative as Buddhism, turns into bullshit as soon as it acquires the status of religion.

Buddhist monastery is now a self-sustainable community where everyone works for the common food, drink and lodging. In fact, most of the food comes from the outside, that is, from the local population, private donors etc. Local women or men also can be hired by monks or nuns to help with the household, cooking and cleaning the place. So, as I understand, the monastic day consists mainly of meditating, eating, teaching young apprentices, walking around town and picking up foreigners. As for the young apprentices, most of them come from the poorest families in the remote countryside, where parents try to send as many kids to the monastery as possible, in order to feed less mouths at home. Obviously, being sent to become a monk or nun at the age of 4, child gets an education and secure future, but does not necessarily grow up with religious fervour or enlightened meditation techniques. Most of the monks end up just fooling around the rest of their days.

Buddhists have been dominant in Myanmar for a very long while, and living along with so many other minority nations and religions, sadly, didn’t make them tolerant. I suspect that when Myanmar was still a locked down country with very scarce foreign media and international news, the only thing that people could hear about global events were the most epic ones. Like, for example, 9/11 or other exciting bombings and wars. Committed, obviously, by Muslims. When for decades you keep hearing on the radio and TV that Muslims blow shit up in America and Europe, you start looking suspiciously at your Muslim neighbour next door.

Nowadays, if you ask anyone in Myanmar, especially monks, they will say that Islam must be brought down in their country. Because Muslim people are not nice and always sketchy. Lashio, in the north, for example, is full of mosques, and the head of the monastery where I stayed, prohibited me to walk in the town unaccompanied. Because, you never know what to expect from ‘those’.

Maybe you heard of the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar, officially the most discriminated minority in the world. When Myanmar got rid of the colonial power, the government refused to give the Rohingyas an official status of Burmese citizenship, saying that they were illegal immigrants during the British rule (which is not true anyway, but who cares about history). Situated at the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, these people are not allowed to move either into other regions of Myanmar or into Bangladesh. Even within their Rakhine state they are not allowed to go to the central town Sittwe, and moving between their own villages is heavily regulated by the local police. The local police is, obviously, not of Rohingya people, and thus the militaries and policemen allow themselves to do whatever they want to the Rohingya women, men and children.

The worst part of this story is that Buddhist monks of the region are the main source of provocation of the conflict. Every couple of months they start to burn down houses of Rohingya neighbourhoods, calling to their fellow Buddhist countrymen to protect their religion from the Muslims.

It is one of the regions where foreigners are not allowed – for obvious reasons. If we could really see what is happening there, the international face of Myanmar would get a huge bitchslap.

If anybody knows where and how can I apply for a volunteer position at Myanmar/Bangladesh border, please write to me asap.


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