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Yangon, Thabarwa Center, and Bagan: Our Look into Ancient and Current Burmese Culture

Our trip to Myanmar began with a slumber party in the Bangkok airport. We had a seven hour layover from 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM. We decided to take full advantage of the floor outside the food court in Bangkok’s DMK international airport. After our sleep, or lack there of, we borded our flight to Yangon, Myanmar. After landing at the airport, we experienced first hand the horrendous traffic of Yangon. We had become accustomed to gridlocked vehicles in Asia however, this was not like most of the traffic we had previously witnessed. Absent of hoards of scooters the streets were full of buses and cars. The sheer quantities of cars on the four lane highway caused our almost twelve mile ride to take well over an hour. Another point of confusion for me occurred when I first entered our cab. The driver was sitting on the right side of the car but driving on the right side of the road. As we passed busses you also noticed that the buses passenger doors were on the left hand side. This left the departing passengers open targets for the Burmese drivers. We arrived in our hostel and immediately hit the streets of Yangon. The skinny rectangular blocks of the city left most roads to appear as alleyways. Perfect for food vendors, the allies were full of food carts, fruit stands, and betel stands. Betel (also known as Paan) is comprised of slices of areca nut, a lime paste, and sometimes tobacco. This is wrapped in three inch betel leaf. The three inch nugget is then chewed for its stimulant and psychoactive effects. To be honest, I tried it and felt nothing but gross. The main reason for this is the red spit that developed as you chew. Spitting out a dark blood colored saliva is anything but appetizing. Add this to the red stain it leaves on your teeth and gums and it’s nothing I need to try again. The popularity of the chew became obvious the second we saw the sidewalk. Dark red spit stained cover the sidewalks and was even in corners on the inside of buildings. This habit is obviously addictive and is ingrained in Burmese culture. Our two nights in Yangon were spent wandering around enjoying the cheap local food the city offered. Burmese noodles and pork, covered in a sweet gravy like sauce, cost 900 kt or $.75. Commonly served with a broth soup, we paired these Shan Noodles with a steamed pork bun and Myanmar beer. This ran the total price of the meal to be under $3.00. The beer was the most expensive portion of the collation, costing $2.00 for a 32oz bottle. When we first stepped into the restaurant serving the Shan noodles, we heard something that would appall most Westerners. Smooching sounds could be heard throughout the restaurant. To get the waiters attention, diners would smooch or kiss at the servers. Male or female, it didn’t matter, Smooching was the customary way to get a servers attention. Getting used to something that would get you slapped and banned from a restaurant in the United States was different. However, it’s not disrespectful over here, it’s just how things are done, so we adapted. Refreshed to be out of the tourist heavy streets of Thailand, we absorbed the culture of Myanmar’s largest city. The country has only been open to tourists since 2011, which is evident in the stoke we saw in every local. Almost all locals greeted us with a smile, hello, and even a “welcome to our country”. I never got the feeling like they were trying to rip us off or deceive us in any way. Even if they were trying to get a few extra cents from me, I have noticed my stinginess fading. I am beginning to realize that a few extra cents to many of the people over here is a much bigger gain for them than a loss to me. We took a three hour train ride around Yangon and the second we left the city, my monetary realization was further confirmed. I have never been to a country or area with so little in my life. Walking through shanty towns in Peru, built of only scraps of tin, appeared to be in better condition than some of the houses we saw. The majority of residents outside the city were small cubes made only of thatched bamboo and raised over mud flats. Trash was piled everywhere and the flies were so aggressive, we were getting annoyed with them inside the open windowed train. Seeing these conditions was one thing, but it did not come close to preparing me for what I was about to wittiness at Thabarwa Rehabilitation Center.

Just outside of Yangon in Thanlyin, Thabarwa (pronounced dar-bar-wha) Center is a monastery and rehabilitation clinic that houses around two thousand five hundred residents. After an hour in traffic, we pulled up to the center. The road we drove down split the center in two and was the main connecting trail for getting around Thabarwa. We pulled up to what looked like an office and tried to talk to the nun (female monk) inside. Her English was understandable, and from her dorm room sized office she handed all four of us a blanket, sheet, pillow, and mosquito net. Pointing us down the road we walked to our dorm room. Lucky, we had met someone in out hostel who explained the general layout and procedures at Thabarwa. We found our building one hundred yards from the office, and wandered to the third floor. Half of the floor was a classroom and the other half was our sleeping quarters. Two restrooms provided a partial barrier between classroom and us. When we arrived, nine volunteers were scattered throughout the twenty by forty foot room. There were five beds, two of which had a three inch sleeping pad. Everyone else was on the tile floor or wooden beds which actually wasn’t that uncomfortable to sleep on. When we arrived the water had been out in the volunteers cabin due to a faulty water pump. The fourth floor was an open air meditation floor that also had two bathrooms and a hundred gallon cement water tank. This water became our main source of water for the next few days. Drinking water was readily available outside our building. Trips to the fourth floor were made to restock the water supply in the restrooms. All the female volunteers were housed on the second floor and shared the floor and shared it with a group of Burmese women, who were long term to permanent volunteers at the center. The gourd floor of our building head more female Burmese volunteers.

The rehabilitation center housed a wide variety of patients. They never turned anyone away and housing, food, and care and the facility was free. At 4:00 PM every day the volunteers participated in a wheelchair walk. Here, each volunteer would grab a wheelchair and wander through the halls of the main patient area and attempt to break the language barrier and offer a wheelchair ride. The patients in this area had a variety of different ailments. Some suffered from mental disabilities while others suffered from physical ones. There were mentally disabled teens as well as elderly patients whose old age has physically restricted their movement. The patients were housed in an open aired, thatched bamboo, building about the size of a basketball court. There were easily over one hundred patients who called this building their home. They each live on a wooden twin bed with a three inch thick foam pad. Escaping the flies inside the building was impossible and any open wound was immediately plagued by them. As we offered rides to the residents volunteers began to appear. Those who not physically able to stand were lifted into the wheelchair while others were assisted by the staff. We then took them for an hour and a half to two hour ride to various Buddha statues and stupas inside and outside the compound. Here they were able to worship, and it was obvious this was the highlight of their day. This was the most patient interaction I got while at the compound. Some other medically trained volunteers, doctors, and nurses had interactions with the patients, much more involved than mine. Another volunteer opportunity we could participate in was washing rice. Twice a day, this would take around two hours as rice was the primary meal the residents were given. As volunteers, we weren’t really given much more direction past these volunteer options. We did help keep the volunteer living quarters clean, scrubbing floors and the bathrooms. I was able to put my computer skills to use when I helped a resident fix her broken computer. Her arrow keys, enter, and shift keys were sticky. This made fixing the computer difficult. After a few hours, I was able to get her computer cleaned up and running a little better than it was when I started. Since Thabarwa was a Buddhist meditation center at its core, most volunteers meditated multiple times a day. It took one thirty meditation session to realize that meditation was not for me. I would have much rather been helping out at the center, or at least doing yoga, rather than immobile mental meditation.

The other activity we were able to assist with was the alms collection. This is a daily ritual done by the monks where they walk around the city and collect donations from the city’s inhabitants. Our method of transportation into the city was a covered truck bed lined with benches. We squeezed thirty of us in the back of the truck bed and headed off to Yangon.  The hour and a half truck ride brought us to the center of Yangon were we began the alms run. The fifteen monks lined up and embarked on their walk through the city. Our job was to walk alongside the monks and help collect and carry the alms they received. Alex was given the task of carrying the money which, placed him alongside the lead monk. All of us were barefoot, as was common practice with all volunteers and monks. Stepping over garbage, dead rats, and other mystery objects in the street, we walked the blocks running goods between the people giving the alms and the collection carts. The quantity of food, money, and items the monks received were staggering. The quantity was so large the process involved some logistics. At least one monk needed to touch the alms before anyone else could handle them. The monk would then pass it off to a Burmese volunteer who would give the item to us. There were also times when we collected the alms from the monks themselves. After collection, we would transfer the gifts to carts at the end of the streets. There were volunteers organizing all the alms in the carts and passing them off to a truck. Alms were sorted further and placed in larger cases for transport back to Thabarwa. The alms consisted of just about everything you could imagine. Most of it was rice and various sorts of curries. Coffee, tea, bottled water, and soda were also popular. Fruits were also given, mangoes and bananas being the most popular. The alms run lasted about two hours and we easily weaved three miles through the city. The generosity of the Burmese people was staggering. People would come out of run down apartment buildings, built in the 1930’s, and give anything they could. From a few dollars to home cooked meals, all the trucks we showed up with were overflowing with goods. There were even a few mattresses donated. All the alms were shared with all the residents at Thabarwa and was the center’s main method of feeding their residents.

Many of the volunteers we met and worked with were very kind, fascinating people. There was a bit of awkwardness between some long term volunteers and short term volunteers. I got the feeling that the long term volunteers felt frustrated with the short term volunteers because we were not giving as much time to the center and they felt we should. I have heard this tension is pretty common at many places travelers volunteer at. Regardless, we made the best of it and tried to help out as much as we could. After talking to two of the long term volunteers I learned to center offered free acupuncture. The two volunteers that received the acupuncture explained their experience to me at the dinner the center served us. My jaw dropped further and further the deeper and deeper they went into their story. Keep in mind this center houses patients with AIDS, Tuberculosis, and a variety of other diseases. The volunteers explained how the man, that said he was a doctor, grabbed needles out of a tray and slid them into their skin to relieve pressure points. When they were done, he placed the needles into an old two liter bottle. The new acupuncture patients could not one hundred percent confirm the needles were sterile. Maybe I’m not as adventurous as them, but in my opinion acupuncture, AIDS clinics, and third world countries are a combination with dangerous results. I hope these volunteers are still healthy but I still question their thought process that brought them to believe this place was where they were going to try acupuncture for the first time.

Thabarwa had left a permanent impression on me. There was never a time I was comfortable there.The same culture shock I felt in Bali overcame me once again my first day at Thabarwa. I came to realize that dealing with sick and elderly people is a weakness of mine. I have always been uncomfortable entering retirement homes back in Seattle, but this was a whole different story. Seeing the conditions these people were living in was overwhelming to say the least. Feeling selfish as we were only helped out for a few days made leaving difficult for me. This was also mixed with a bit of relief, as the stresses of dealing with the real life situations in the clinic began to wear down on me, even though it had only been a few days. I greatly applaud the volunteers who stayed there for multiple weeks as they were much stronger than I was. Our days at Thabarwa were unforgettable, and I couldn’t have imagined a better way to begin our trip in Myanmar. Having the opportunity to see how many people in Myanmar lived and their extraordinary generosity, helped give me insight into the culture of this country.

We finished our time at Thabarwa with another alms run outside Yangon and the generosity was at the same level we had witnessed before. I personally hauled at least two hundred pounds of rice back and forth from the donators to our collection truck. After this alms run, we headed back to Yangon for our night bus to Bagan. Taylor decided to stay at Thabarwa for the rest week, so we bid him farewell with hopes of meeting back up with him in the North. Bagan was a nine hour bus ride north. It is known for its staggering number of pagodas and temples scattered throughout the town. This ancient capital city used to be home to over ten thousand Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries. Currently, there are around two thousand two hundred still standing in the eight by five mile area. Arriving at 5:00 AM, we decided to start our day early and rent scooters to take around the pagodas. Since tourists can’t rent gas powered scooters in Myanmar we rented electric scooters. After being in Asia for almost four months, I have to be honest and say I’m pretty sick of looking at temples. After you see your hundredth temple they all start to blend together. The temples and pagodas in Bagan were a completely different story. The freedom and access we had to the temples, was unlike anything I have experienced before. Since we were the only ones at the temples we had free rein to explore. Many temples had steep and narrow staircases that gave you free access to the tops of the structures. We met a local who brought us to one temple and before we knew it he had climbed his way to the top. I was a little hesitant, and still feel a little guilty for climbing on a thirteenth century structure, but it was a once and a lifetime experience. Watching our new found local guide scramble to the top gave me the motivation to follow suit. Unleashing my inner Indiana Jones, I scrambled to the top and took in the panoramic view of the thousands of pagodas and temples that surrounded me. Our electric scooters weren’t the all terrain vehicles our Honda Wins were, so getting stuck in the sandy fields between pagodas was a constant pattern. After weaving through pagoda after pagoda for a few hours, the beet red color of my skin reminded me I didn’t put any sunscreen. The temperature was hovering around one hundred degrees and we were exhausted. We retreated back to the hotel to get some food, escape the heat, and rest up from our long day of exploring and travel. We awoke for sunset over the temples of Bagan. Sunset and sunrise are the tourist highlights of the ancient town. We climbed up to one of the tallest temples in the area and enjoyed the sunset with about fifty other tourists. Compare this to the five thousand people at Angkor Wat sunrise or sunset and fifty sounds pretty peaceful. We woke for sunrise The next morning, traveling to the same temple to see the sun from the opposite side of the horizon. Although the colors weren’t as prominent as the sunset, silence, and tranquility of the sunrise made for a peaceful atmosphere.

As clouds began to engulf the sky, Alex, Jordan, and I set out to trek up Mount Popa. A stratovolcano at 4,980 feet, this mountain has served as a popular pilgrimage site with various temples and relics scattered throughout the mountain. The hike was around four hours and brought you to the crater rim. The crescent rim looked down on volcanic plug that stood at 2156 feet. Due to the present shape of the crater, the plug could be seen from miles away as this region of Myanmar is mostly flat plains. The plug was similar looking to the limestone karsts we have grown accustom to in Southeast Asia. Atop the plug stood a giant temple that could be accessed by 777 steps. When we got to the trailhead it was obvious the summit was going to be socked in by clouds. An hour and a half into the hike our guess was confirmed. We were met with thirty plus knot winds, rain, and fifteen foot visibility. Jordan’s infamous flamingo hat became our first and only casualty on the hike. The wind swept if off his head and it was swallowed by the volcano’s crater. Cold, wet, and blinded by fog we decided to turn around. It was apparent we could achieve the same view by throwing a white bedsheets over our faces. We wandered back to a resort at the base of the mountain and attempted to contact our taxi driver to get a ride home. Although the fog blanketed the mountains, the adventure was still fun and it was nice to get outside and get some physical exercise in.

AJ

AJ

Software developer, kiteboarding instructor, and world traveler. Always having the best day ever and on the constant pursuit of the endless summer.

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