musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Friday, June 1, 2012

From Myanmar (Burma): Buddhas and Bikes

Yangon is a city. Not a big one, but one nonetheless. 24 hour (mostly) electricity. Paved roads. Sounds of traffic. Hustle. Bustle. The transformation happening in the economic capital is exciting and tangible; nonetheless, after 2 days we couldn't wait to see life outside the lights.

Our first opportunity came about an hour outside of Yangon courtesy of a (highly recommended) mountain bike outing (thanks for everything Jeff!) that took us through lovely forests, rubber cultivating communities, and farmland as far as the eye could see, ultimately culminating in a little pagoda (Buddhist temple) on top of a hill. The pagoda is maintained by a single monk who also saw a need for rural children to receive an education. Jeff and other friendly donors are helping him build a school and hire a local teacher with the hopes of one day getting included into the government education system. Development at its rawest, bare-bones best.

But it wasn't until propeller powered puddle jumper took us to Bagan, an ancient city to the northwest of Yangon, that we got a true sense of what Buddhism means, and has meant for centuries, in Myanmar. After Yangon, the bustling and growing non-capital city, Bagan was quite literally a step into the past. Even the ride from the airport (punctuated by much unnecessary honking by our taksi driver who refused to understand why we wouldn't want to take him to the airport the next morning) was like a tour through a crazy fairytale land.

I'm not really sure what the history of Bagan is. I could research it, but that would probably take away from nap time. So here's how I would describe the history:

A Buddhist wiseman arrived in Bagan from Tibet having just reached nirvana sometime around, oh say, the 9th century. He built a couple really cool-looking pagodas. After he passed on to the next life and over the years, Bagan became a Buddhist Mecca of sorts, with pious king after pious king adding to the lore and the lure of the place via construction of new fangled pagoda complexes. Each one-upping the last, proving to the world that their Buddha, and the pagoda over his head, was the best, the biggest, the most beautiful.

That's not the history. Probably not even close. But as we rode our rickety, barely functioning relic-of-a-bygone-era bicycles over the hills and through the woods, I couldn't help but picture such events. Magnificence far from modern-day civilization that might've been the center of previous civilizations. This place is the man-made Cappadocia of Myanmar, a place where piety meets architecture in a wonderful way. After the first couple stops that involved removing both my boots and my socks (easier said than done when you're 6'2", not flexible and there's no place to sit), I stopped even going inside, choosing instead to admire the structures from the outside... left to wonder what led to that design to be used by that king in that place on that date. I sat there pondering what truly was the historical and religious significance of this enchanting (and exceedingly warm this time of year) place.

I guess I'll have to do some research to find out...!