To visit Burma is to travel back to the time of the Buddha, some 2,500 years ago. With thousands of stupas, tens of thousands of sitting, standing and reclining statues of the Buddha, and over a half million Buddhist monks, Burma is truly an inspired place. For all of its military check-points, political intrigues, and internal skirmishes, Burma is still ruled by the Buddha. No matter where you go, no matter who you talk to, the Burmese people are focused on the way of the Buddha. Here, the conversation is on self-realization, meditation, reincarnation and the four-fold path. They know that the Buddha has and always will take care of them and that through their faith and devotion they and their country can and will prevail.
Yangon, is a city of contrasts. Here members of the military’s ruling elite drive around in brand new $50,000 SUVs with ominous blackened windows, while the local people, who are forbidden to ride motorcycles for fear of assignation attempts, either walk, or cram into make-shift busses with wooden benches. These buses are packed so tight that the passengers need to sit according to their destination, or else everyone needs to climb off to let one person off the bus. While the city boasts some very fancy hotels, just outside the opulent lobbies, the local people either cook their meals on the side of the street in metal drums, or dine on the sidewalk at restaurants that operate from portable generators that thicken the humid night air with acrid diesel smoke.
Although the local currency is the kyat, the unofficial currency is the dollar. Since the country’s rate of inflation is so severe, the Burmese invest their money in gold or dollars, even though it is illegal for local Burmese to own dollars. Due to inflation, the exchange rate has gone from 250 kyat per dollar in the year 2000 to over 1,200 kyat per dollar. When visitors arrive in Burma, the government makes available an official exchange rate. Of approximately 600 kyat per dollar. However, in every marketplace in Burma, you can find unofficial money exchangers who will provide you the actual market rate, which is usually at least double the rate of the official exchange.
Like a never setting sun, Shwedagon Pagoda rises high above Yangon casting its omnipresent golden glow upon all who enter its enchanted orbit. Somerset Maugham captured its essence by likening it to a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul. As one of Burma’s most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites, Shwedagon provides inspiration, hope, salvation and blessings to all who visit its sacred sanctuary. According to legend, this Pagoda is home to sacred relics of three earlier incarnations of the Buddha and eight sacred hairs of the 4th Buddha, Gautama Buddha (Siddhartha) who attained enlightenment some 2,500 years ago. Since the Buddha’s lifetime, Shwedagon has been gilded with approximately 60 tons of pure gold and adorned with thousands of diamonds and precious gems by devout Buddhists. As such, it is considered one of the wonders of the world.
Like all Buddhist sanctuaries in Burma, everyone enters barefoot, shoes and socks are strictly prohibited. Upon ascending the stairs to the main pavilion, you find yourself in a vast outdoor sanctuary at the base of the Pagoda. Here are hundreds of shrines, and thousands of images of the Buddha. The marble is cool, at times even cold against your bare feet and very slippery in the rain. Men, women and children in colorful longi, some with turbans of red, orange, blue and gold, sit on the marble with prayer beads in hand, next to incense braziers glowing orange-red, sending clouds of sweet smoke throughout the temples. Others prostate themselves, forehead pressed to the cold stone floor, seeking the Buddha’s blessing.
As you circumvent the Pagoda you will find people making offerings at their birth-day shrines. Burmese consider one’s birth-day an auspicious day, one which affects many decisions in a person’s life. For example, one’s birth-day dictates the first letter of their name and also where they pray at Shwedagon.
Each day of the week corresponds to a planet which rides the heavens on its own special animal, some mythical. As you walk around the Pagoda, you will come across these shrines and animal statues. Here, you will observe people praying, making offerings of flowers and fruit to their planetary shrine and anointing their sacred birth animal with life-giving, purifying, sacred water. Each time you visit Shwedagon, the experience is different. It is as if you are ever experiencing the temple for the first time, experiencing another aspect of this enchanted place. If you are fortunate you will experience the temple during the sunset, sunrise and under the light of the moon and stars.
It was not so long ago that Golden Rock was more fiction than fact to the outside world. Foreigners were not allowed to visit here. It like many parts of the country was strictly off-limits. Today, you can now reach this once forbidden place by bus or car from Yangon. While the journey takes only about five hours, it is a journey of a lifetime for many of the thousands of devout Buddhist pilgrims who travel to this sacred site each day. From Yangon, the journey to Golden Rock requires a five hour ride through numerous military check-points, along a bone-jarring rutted road. As you travel to Golden Rock you will begin to experience the true essence of Burma, the villages, countryside and village people of Burma. Here water buffalo and oxen compete with lorries and other vehicles on a road that takes you past villages selling herbal concoctions with scorpions, rubber plantations, and water buffalos and fishermen swimming and wading in slow running winding rivers.
As you enter the final ascent to the mountain peak upon which Golden Rock perches, you are required to climb aboard a huge beast of a truck and pack aboard with nearly a hundred other visitors, most of whom are on a sacred pilgrimage to this most holy of Buddhist shrines. Sitting in the open air, on wooden benches, you hang on with all of your might as you charge up impossibly steep terrain, rounding hairpin curves and catching glimpses of a flashing golden orb high above the lush mountain greenery. Just when you think you have arrived, you depart the mighty truck to be asked by porters if you would like to be carried up the final ascent to Golden Rock and the lodging.
Many people, particularly the elderly and out of shape foreigners climb aboard the carriers, and with four porters to each person, are carted away to the top of the mountain.
While the final ascent is very steep and quite strenuous, it is not to be missed, since along the way all manner of shops line both sides of the trail to Golden Rock. Here you will find an assortment of herbal products, including illegally poached elephant’s teeth, or all other type of animal’s hooves, horns, and skins.
Once you enter Golden Rock proper, like all sacred places you are required to take off your shoes and socks and go barefoot, along with everyone else. Depending on the time of the day, and year, the going can be either very hot, or very cold, since you are now on top of the mountain. Golden Rock is just that a huge Golden Rock that is impossibly perched at the very edge of a cliff. It is as if the rock is held in place by the will of the Buddha. Here like other sacred Buddhist shrines, ancient relics of the Buddha reside. As such, over the last 2,500 years millions of devout Buddhists have adorned Golden Rock with tons of gold leaf. The temple itself is a place of mystery and enchantment. You can sense the sacred nature of the place. All around you, night and day, Buddhists from around the world transcend space and time as they enter trance like stages of devotion to the Buddha.
To enter Bagan is to enter a mystical paradise. Here you are surrounded by thousands of temples, on the shore of the Ayeyarwady River, amid the lush greenery of a river valley. Bagan is truly an enchanted, eternal city. It is like a fable of a land and a time of long ago. Here, with no one else around you can stand face to face with a 50-foot-long reclining Buddha and reflect upon the nature all that is. If so inclined, at sunrise and sunset, you can ascend any number of temples to witness the sun alight on the red bricks of temples throughout the valley turning each temple into an eternal flame. To walk the red dirt paths of Bagan, amid the towering temples and pagodas, to attend a full-moon ceremony at Ananda Temple with thousands of Buddhist pilgrims, to witness the friendship and compassion of the people of Bagan, to experience the Buddha first-hand in a timeless land far from home filled with friendship, is to experience the very best that life has to offer.
Inle Lake appears like a deep blue sapphire placed in reverence at the base of emerald green mountains. Here, the sky, lake and mountains combine to form a pastel blue landscape. The lake is the doorway to the vanishing mountain tribes of Laos, Burma and Thailand. While travel into the mountain villages and beyond is restricted by the Burmese government, here, in the markets and villages, you will see a numerous array of Burmese mountain tribes people in their colorful turbans and robes of red, orange gold and green.
Inle Lake is home to the Inthas, the native lake dwellers, who have constructed entire villages on stilts over the surface of the lake and floating island farms created from mud and reeds dredged from the lakebed. Life here is completely aquatic. The lake represents life itself. Everything is used and recycled. The water, the fish, the lake grass, the mud, everything goes into the building of shelters, and the making of bricks and other materials. The villager’s existence is completely tied to the lake upon which they live, and upon which they grow their food, and from which they obtain their drinking water and bathe. The mode of transportation, whether it is to school for the children, to the marketplace, or to the temples is by way of dugout canoes. In fact, the only way to explore the place is by boat. To experience the floating markets, gardens and villages of Inle Lake is a Burmese blessing that you will carry with you forever.
She Who Shall Not Be Named
The name of Aung San Suu Kyi is not spoken by the local Burmese people. Rather, she is referred to in guarded and soft spoken terms as She Who Shall Not Be Named. To utter the name of Aung San Suu Kyi aloud and to be overheard by those who support the ruling dictatorship can result in any and all forms of evil, to oneself, to one’s children and spouse. Even on a sunny, bustling market day, amid the bright colors of red, gold and green longis, to enter into a conversation about She Who Shall Not Be Named transports you to the cold, grey landscape of fear and suppression. Although Aung San Suu Kyi is dearly loved by the Burmese people, they can only hide their love, hide their feelings and tell the few foreigners they meet to please tell the world how much they love her, their country and their freedom.
Story and Accompanying Photos by Joe Prickitt