“Rudyard Kipling’s words in ‘Letters From the East’ still resonate: ‘This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.’ ”
A rooster crows. Tropical birds whoop from towering palms. I wipe the sleepiness from my eyes, awaiting a taxi that will take me to the airport. I’m headed for Upper Burma. Mingalarbar, as the local greeting goes; it’s almost morning.
Across the dark waters of Lake Inya, I seea bell-shaped golden image through a veil of fog. Shwedagon Pagoda, Burma’s most sacred site, seems to be the only light burning in Rangoon,a long-isolated city of 4 million that is just emerging from decades of military rule.
Aung San Suu Kyi lives on this lakefront, too. But the Lady, as the Burmese Nobel laureate and democracy activist is known here, isn’t at her family’s walled residential compound this morning. Instead, she’s on her first trip to the United States, five months after being electedto her country’s parliament in April.
I hear the taxi rattling up the rutted lane and heave my backpack onto my shoulder. I’m used to taking Rangoon taxis. Because although most travelers stayed away from Burma (officially, Myanmar) since the Lady called for a tourism boycott in 1996, I came anyway — four times over 13 years.
I found that, in an age of globalization in which it seems every major Asian capital has become a faceless forest of skyscrapers, Rudyard Kipling’s words in “Letters From the East” still resonate: “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.”
I’ve grown to admire this complex and isolated country at the strategic crossroads of India, China and Thailand for its saturation of culture and historical treasures. I’ve learned to respect the Burmese I’ve met, from artists to taxi drivers to a childhood friend of the Lady, for their genuine warmth and stubborn sense of self in the face of adversity.
So I’m not surprised when my taxi driver strikes up a conversation. Mr. Tun, a scholarly man with owlish glasses, speaks English — like many in this former British colony, whose university was once among the finest in Southeast Asia. He asks me about my time in Rangoon.
I tell him I can barely believe the changes since my last trip, two years earlier. How this time around I’d joked with the immigration agent at the airport, instead of cowering. How I’d seen security guards watching Suu Kyi shaking hands with Burmese exiles in the United States on a big-screen television when I arrived.
As we veer onto the tree-fringed airport avenue, Mr. Tun turns to me. “Now people are open and free,” he says, smiling broadly. “There’s no shadow behind us.”
It’s an understatement to say that shadows still lurk, especially in the conflict-ridden border areas. But to a tourist, Burma is, like the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, once again open for business. According to the Asian Development Bank, tourism has the potential to become the country’s biggest source of revenue, providing income for 50,000 people.
So though I’d ignored its boycott call in the past, I was relieved when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy issued new guidelines in 2011 promoting “responsible tourism.”
The guidelines stated that “the NLD would welcome visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country.” I understood that these guidelines would help tourist dollars trickle down to local communities, among the most underserved in Asia.
Walking onto the tarmac among a small herd of picture-snapping fellow passengers, I had a purpose. On this trip, I planned to atone for the travel “sins” of my past. Acquiring fresh insight? Check. Promoting the welfare of the common people? Check. Steering my cash away from corrupt cronies by living as locally as possible? Check and check. NLD’s responsible-tourism challenge? Accepted.
As the propellers on the jet bound for Burma’s historic heartland began to whirl, I vowed to travel like the Lady.
The Irrawaddy River came into focus first, its monsoon-muddied waters carving a broad and meandering channel through low sandstone hills. Then, as we approached our destination, hundreds of castlelike structures came into relief, clinging to the riverbank or scattered among flat scrubland leached dry by the sun and millennia of human habitation.
My hefty seatmate, part of a boisterous Chinese tour group, leaned over my lap to take a video from the plane’s window. I could hardly blame him. This was Bagan — Burma’s Rome, if you will — a 16-square-mile historic site where the first Burmese king and his merit-seeking courtiers began transforming their newly adopted Theravada Buddhist faith into spectacular brick and mortar in the 11th century.
At the airport, I queued up with the other tourists to pay a $10 “Archeological Zone Entrance Fee,” admitting me to the scores of sites in Bagan’s Archeological Zone. To my knowledge, this was the last time on my trip that any of my cash would go into “official” pockets.
A Burmese-born friend, Khin Omar Win, had offered me a bedroom at the headquarters of the hot-air balloon business she runs in Bagan. When I arrived, her manager, Htlay Lin, lent me a bicycle. I would travel with a light footprint this time, not in an air-conditioned taxi.
Scooters, ox carts, jitneys and horse-drawn buggies waltzed around me when I hit the dusty main road. I stopped at a cafe, where locals slurped their morning noodles. Checking my e-mail (“There’s WiFi everywhere now,” Lin said), I pulled up a Voice of America interview with Suu Kyi on the pace of reforms in Burma.
One phrase caught my eye: “You see,” the Lady said, “it’s not just speed that’s important. It’s sequencing as well. … There is so much to be done.”
Somehow those words felt so personal as I sat there far from my hectic home. Across the flat, rutted field rose a site familiar from past trips: the Shwezigon Pagoda, a gold-clad, man-made mound reaching toward the heavens; it’s like a Frank Gehry building in a working-class neighborhood. Founded by Burma’s first king, Anawrahta, in 1076, the stupa enshrines relics of the Buddha.
“It’s not just speed that’s important.” Keeping the Lady’s words in mind, I crossed the road, locked my bike under a tamarind tree, left my flip-flops next to those of other worshipers and padded up the block-long entrance corridor where ladies with chalky swirls of thanaka — a ubiquitous protective skin cream — on their cheeks were setting up souvenir stands. Only a few people lounged under the lavishly carved and gilded open-air pavilions fanning out over the tiled courtyard, nearly the size of a football field.
Instead of rushing from place to place as I’d done on previous visits, I decided to sit still in the shade of an arcade, near a solitary pink-robed nun with a shaved head. I closed my eyes, listening to hti bells tinkling from atop golden spires on the dozens of shrines that hug the stupa’s base. Murmured prayers flowed from the nun’s lips in an endless stream.
Drawn into the spirituality I’d always sensed in Burma, I waited.
Suddenly, three Burmese girls fell prostrate before the stupa. Then they turned to the nun and repeated a sequence of gestures, which included much kneeling and folding. Religious duties accomplished, they rose, re-tied their longyis — the long sarong worn by most people here — and headed to the next prayer spot, chattering noisily.
I knew the Shwezigon was an important worship site. I also knew that many Burmese Buddhists, like Roman Catholics, value religious ritual and pilgrimage as a spiritual and social event. But little did I know that, in my quest to acquire fresh cultural insight, I’d soon be following in those girls’ steps.
“Corporate social responsibility is part of Buddhist culture. Abroad, it’s a newish term. Here, it’s always been a way of life.” This is what my host, Khin Omar Win, had told me about how tourism can “promote the welfare of the common people.”
The Burma-born and British-raised Win founded her business, Balloons Over Bagan, with her Australian husband in 1999. She says they give $20,000 to charity each year. “Most locally run, small-scale properties in tourist zones do the same, as do many tour operators,” she said. “Some outfits even offer opportunities for their guests to get involved.”
I asked Lin, the manager, whether he’d accompany me to the charity health clinic supported by his company.
“There’s no government-funded health care here,” Lin said as we rumbled and bounced toward the village market square, where the two-year-old clinic is located. We were perched on a narrow wooden bench in one of the company’s restored 1940s-era Chevrolet buses, used to ferry clients to hot-air balloon rides. “When I got married,” he continued, “my family gave 50,000 kyat to this clinic. And now I give 1,000 kyat per month from my salary.”
That’s a noble sum when you consider that the average monthly salary for public employees in Burma, according to the State Department, is 15,000 kyat, or about $17.
Ten minutes later, inspired by Lin’s generosity, I handed a crisp $100 bill to the clinic nurse. And for the first time in this largely cash-only country I was certain of where the entire amount was going. Htin Agwin, a 30-year-old doctor, told me that he and his volunteer staff of six serve 45 to 50 patients a day, five days a week, free of charge. “The most common problems,” he said, “are hypertension and malnutrition.” Looking at the list of common ailments he’d treated recently, I also noticed “snake bite.”
With 20 patients still waiting on the steps outside at 5 p.m., I decided not to take up more of the doctor’s time. To quote the Lady, as far as “promoting the welfare of the common people” is concerned, “there is so much to be done.” Through considered giving, a tourist can do something, at least.
At sunset, the Irrawaddy runs high and fast, broad and silver. Slow-putting ferries sink low, carrying passengers to their homes on the opposite bank. I felt the day’s heat melting away as our small dinghy pulled off the muddy shallows and into the current.
An enormous cloud, fuchsia and coral, massed above the far ridge. It seemed to be stuck on a stupa spire, atop the highest peak. Ko Min Lwin, the boat owner I’d hired to take me on the sunset cruise, told me that I was looking at the Mount Taunggyi temple.
I knew Mount Taunggyi is a Burmese Mount Olympus, where ancient ancestors fought off mythical demons and where Anawrahta, looking across the Irrawaddy, decided to found his Buddhist kingdom on the plains of Bagan. But Ko Min Lwin had an even better story to recount.
“Taunggyi helped bring me good fortune with my boat business,” he said. When I asked him how, he told me, “If you make the same prayer and give the same donation at the four pagodas built by King Anawrahta, your prayer will come true.”
“What are those pagodas?” I quickly asked.
“Taunggyi, Lawkananda, Shwezigon and Tuyin Taung,” he said, cutting the motor so we could enjoy the view. “When I bought my first boat 12 years ago, I gave 500 kyat to each temple. Last year, I gave 6,000.”
He fired up the outboard motor to return to shore, telling me that he often ferries pilgrims to the Taunggyi side. “Most people do Taunggyi in the early morning, before it gets too hot,” he said.
The sun had set as we putted by the Shwezigon, its golden reflection hovering above the smooth indigo water. Like everyone everywhere, I had a wish or two worth praying for.
The next morning, I bolted awake. I’d hoped to sleep in, but my watch read 5:30 a.m. I knew why I was up, though. The Lady would certainly consider a pilgrimage as both “acquiring cultural and social insight” and “promoting the common good.”
Throwing on my clothes, I grabbed my bike and stumbled across the dirt courtyard, where the night guard slept next to the company buses. When I pedaled past the crossroad leading to the jetty at 6 a.m., Ko Min Lwin was already there, waiting for his first customer. He agreed to take me to the mountaintop.
Fifteen minutes later, we approached the river’s opposite bank. A rickety wooden jetty extended from a mangrove. Branches and ropy vines dipped into the murky shallows. We stopped for a noodle breakfast at a shanty where Ko Min Lwin arranged to rent one of the patrons’ beat-up Yamahas.
Spinning up a dirt road, we began the ascent, me clutching the motorcycle seat’s back rail and Ko Min Lwin driving on the left — one of Burma’s British colonial legacies. After 10 jarring minutes lacing up through hamlets built of gray brick into the bluffy terrain, past thatched-roof huts and women carrying bundles of branches on their heads, we hit smooth pavement as the road cleared. We’d reached the top.
We climbed up the tunnel of stairs through the temple complex to the stupa platform, hearing low harmonious intonations, like a Buddhist Gregorian chant. There was a room next to me full of people praying. Soon I’d be praying, too. But first I must donate.
I’d decided to give 1,000 kyat to each temple. Buddhist finances seem well organized, with a donation desk and official receipts bearing a blurry full-color stupa image and elaborate, scrolling Burmese script. Ko Min Lwin helped me translate the receipt.
“You can earmark your donation for gold-leaf restoration, electricity or general maintenance,” he told me.
I chose gold leaf.
As we climbed the final steps to the stupa, he asked, “What day are you?”
In Burmese cosmology, the day of week on which you were born is important because it determines which of the seven small shrines around the stupa will receive your prayers.
“I’m Tuesday,” I replied. Really, I had no idea. I just hoped the Great-Above wouldn’t mind.
Kneeling at the Tuesday shrine, sending up my prayer, I also hoped the G.A. would forgive my clumsy genuflection sequencing: folded hands to forehead and to heart, palms on floor, forehead to floor, up and repeat. Although my knees were creaky, my intention was sincere.
My knees limbered up as I neared the end of the pilgrimage. Lawkananda and Shwezigon — the middle two on my four-pagoda itinerary — were in town, so I checked them off easily. But I needed a car and guide to take me to Tuyin Taung, atop a small mountain a few miles from Bagan. Not exactly a tourist hot spot.
At the base of the vertiginous stairs leading to the temple, three ladies crowded around me, pressing wilted bouquets of red roses into my hands. By now I knew it’s good form to offer flowers at your day shrine, so I asked my guide how much I should pay.
“Five hundred kyat,” he said. That’s about 50 cents, or, I later learned, the minimum day-laborer wage in Burma.
Humbly, I handed a crumpled 500-kyat note to the nearest lady. Laughing almost ecstatically, she hugged me tightly. Somehow, I felt I knew this woman. Was it all the praying side by side with other Burmese supplicants? At the very least, this pilgrimage had lifted a curtain on cultural differences.
We took each other’s hands and looked into each other’s eyes. She had a broad, copper-skinned face, with a sparkling half-moon smile. Her hair was wrapped in a pale orange towel. My guide translated an introduction, and I learned her name: Pu Suu.
The evening breeze swept across the lofty stupa platform as I stuffed my roses into a vase next to the Tuesday shrine. Only a few others milled about, including a girl on a day pilgrimage who wanted to take a photo of me with her family. Then we all hit the temple gong three times, sending merit from our donations across the plain below. I never would have experienced this quiet connection rushing along the well-trodden pagoda tourist trail.
At the bottom of the steps, Pu Suu awaited me, in her dusty plaid top and faded longyi. She had a gift: a packet of fennel seeds, a local snack. My guide, an erudite Burmese man, told me not to eat them. But I popped a few in my mouth anyway. It was the first time in all my years of travel in Asia that a vendor had given something back to me.
“Je zu beh, Pu Suu,” I said, thanking her. She broke into laughter when she heard my botched Burmese. On an impulse, I whipped out my phone, put it on self-portrait mode and drew her close, snapping our two delighted faces.
Pu Suu and her friends followed us to the car. “See you next time,” I called through the window, and my guide translated her last words: “Thank you for your help.”
You give and you receive. The Lady would approve, I’m certain. Mingalarbar, Myanmar. May our prayers come true.
Ceil Miller Bouchet last wrote about Bordeaux in the Magazine.
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