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In the Land of Golden Pagodas

Carolin Goethel talks about her experiences in Myanmar

“May you be free from enmity” was the blessing I received frequently from Ujotiparla, a Buddhist monk who attended my English classes at the Bagan Language Centre in Myanmar.  During class he had to be politely addressed as U Zin meaning ‘monk’.

When he invited me and my fellow German volunteer Sophie to his monastery for tea and lae pae ye -tea leaf salad- we talked a lot about cultural differences, in particular, Theravada Buddhism, the religion that is being practiced by 89% of the Burmese people. I came to learn that monks in Myanmar do not eat after 12pm and never buy food nor cook themselves. Instead, they collect food in their alms bowls during their morning walks through the village.

In Theravada Buddhism the concept of karma -the idea of a cycle of cause and effect- very much determines everyone’s behaviour. Feeding monks, as well as donating to temples and performing regular worship at the local paya, is a pious Buddhist’s way of accumulating merit. Such deeds, as well as abiding to the five moral rules, (prohibition of killing, stealing, adultery, lying and intoxicating substances), are believed to help Buddhists to be reborn into a better life.

Indeed, what immediately struck me on my visit, was the warm and genuinely welcoming Burmese attitude, leaving me feeling very safe throughout my entire stay in the country. The atmosphere, especially in Bagan, was extremely peaceful and friendly, and this, I am convinced of, can be attributed to the people’s sincere adherence to Buddhist principles. I never locked my bike, and one of the many incidents where the Burmese proved ready to lend a hand was when I got a puncture in the middle of nowhere. A sand painter drove me and my bike on his moped to the next repair centre and even lent me the money I was charged there.

One of my daily highlights was my route to work. Each morning I rode my bike to a school  where I was teaching English over a period of two months.  Somehow, I had chosen one of the most magical places in the world. Bagan is Myanmar’s greatest ancient architectural site where over 2500 red brick pagodas, golden- topped temples and other religious sites are spread out across a plain the size of Manhattan Island.  Every morning I would ride along a dirt road passing hundreds of these ancient pagodas, which had been constructed by several kings from the 11th to 13th century when Bagan served as the cultural and religious capital of the First Burmese Empire.  A couple of times I saw a line of about 30 novice monks, walking in height order  in their bright red robes, carrying their empty alms bowls in order to collect breakfast.

One of my most interesting experiences was my first meditation lesson, held by a toothless old monk who didn’t speak any English. One of my teaching colleagues had to accompany me and translated his 15-minute instruction into 5 sentences. It was only when I tried to sit in a comfortable position, eyes closed and concentrating entirely on my breathing – whilst also trying to keep an empty mind free from any thoughts – that my suspicions were confirmed; her translation must have missed some essential part of his instructions. Unfortunately, but maybe not unsurprisingly, a second meditation lesson never took place.

Myanmar is actually still considered a military dictatorship, and although it is not obvious at first sight I soon came to observe some bizarre rules and practices. One of them is the prohibition to have non-family members staying over at night. Although there is no direct control mechanism, neighbours, or other government loyalists, could always report such incidents. The majority of university degrees are taught via correspondence and the different faculties of one university are often located at opposite ends of the city; all of these regulations will surely serve the purpose of avoiding mass gatherings of people, especially of students, which could lead to the discussion of common ideology, criticising of the government and ultimately further protests.

I was delighted when I succeeded to get hold of some editions of the “New Light of Myanmar” -the government controlled, English speaking newspaper whose last page is always the ultimate propaganda revelation: an appeal for patriotism and loyalty to the ‘Democratic Republic’ and other demands such as ‘not to allow ourselves to be swayed by killer broadcasts designed to cause troubles’.

One should know that, because of its ongoing human right abuses, Myanmar is still placed under sanctions by the majority of Western countries. However, since the general elections of 2010 and the following government reforms of 2011 towards liberal democracy and reconciliation, Myanmar’s foreign relations seem to improve. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and allowed to meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who visited Myanmar recently announcing several initiatives, including the possibility of full diplomatic relations.

Nevertheless, it is possibly just because of its long Western isolation that Myanmar has kept a unique charm, and its people a particular authenticity, I have not encountered anywhere else. It is just a matter of time when I will be back.

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