Myanmar: Stupas, Temples Everywhere

The farthest politically-incorrect limb does insufficient justice to painful Khmer cultural events {{{shoot me now}}. The weeklong annual rowing olympics in Phnom Penh– replete with the requisite influx of a squillion country folk– triggered a panic resolve for escape. So to Myanmar I followed fellow expat Andreas, where brilliant bursts of flora across the mountainous terrain do the departed monsoon rains proud. Within driving span of a quick nap (by us, not the driver’s) one passes from rainforests and evergreen highlands to dry tropical plains. This picturesque diversity perks a spirit stunted by the unyielding uniformity of an arid Cambodian landscape.

It was very cool on Inle Lake with its idyllic floating villages and farms, near-5000 feet above sea level on this end of the mighty Himalayas. Those of you who know me and my black fleece in winter will sadly note I FORGOT IT in Phnom Penh!! Boy, was I lost!! All the same, sans safety-fleece, the locale has a profound impact on the senses– a yet-unspoiled beauty studded with floating island farms and stilt homes makes for pure visual amazement while it’s a feast conferred to the uncompromising palate by the organic tomatoes and spicy mountain cuisine. And with hardly a foreigner in sight!!– which naturally begs for a punch-buggy game adaptation– But if none else is accomplished on my jaunts this side of the earth’s molten core I can have said my life is complete when we arrived in the steep mountainside city of Taunggyi, crossroads trading center for the multitude ethnic groups from nearby cities and countries. Of course said challenge ought properly be shared with someone similarly spawned of “first-world” sensibilities for optimal effect, and Andreas (un?)happily was game! Grim Reaper, come on down!!! Thousands descend upon these central highlands on the November full moon for the annual Tazaungdaing Lighting Festival, winding up for a grand showdown the night we were there. –And what is a festival without the rides?– Yes, rides! We beelined straight for them! {{To which juvenile itinerary Andreas is duly amused I am sure!}}} As far as theme parks go, scale was not impressive. But getting knocked by a flying metal duck carrying small children because you wandered unimpeded into the ride’s trajectory is. I think warning signs on the rusty support columns must read Made for Third World Utilization. {{Insurance? What’s that?}}

Nevertheless it was a MANUALLY OPERATED ferris wheel that commanded our intrepid attention. Given a hearty initial shove to budge this three-storey contraption, some eight men or so then scampered up to designated spokes and collectively leveraged their weight to build momentum for the wheel’s spin. Once the rotation was in full swing they jumped off! Only the best primal scream will do, as is quite improper on its more evolved yet uninspiring western counterparts! And nary an incident, thank you very much!

The Festival was a 6-day event, culmination of months of preparation by each monastery in the region. Handmade paper propped by bamboo frames in the likeness of pagodas and animals are outfitted with a hot-air device to buoy the object to the heavens. Hundreds of these day balloons are unleashed throughout the festival, and their enormous size makes them visible for miles across the sky. BUT!! it is on the last evening, under a fully waxed mammoth moon, that the enchantment begins… Assembly crews, one after another, rapidly construct larger and more elaborate creations in an offering of lights to the realm of the celestial beings. It is a launching competition of grand proportions, amid wild cheers and merrymaking by thousands of spectators on the mountainsides as each towering contraption takes flight. Some balloons take up a platform of firecrackers, setting off a series of pyrotechnic displays, each higher than the last, raining shimmering sparks down on the revelers. THIS, against the stunning backdrop of the Khe-Le mountains, with a brilliant symphony of constellations illuminating the horizon in this exquisite Shan State, and a crisp chill wind dancing in the night. It is a remarkable event on a dramatic stage.

The Bagan Zone– the sheer quantity of golden structures dotting the plains by the meandering Iyerwaddy River is another extraordinary feat in homage to the gods, testament to the religious enthusiasm crowning the height of the Bagan era until conquest by Kublai Kahn and the Mongols in 1287. It is lesser known because of restrictions on tourism, but equal in significance to the Angkor and Borobudur archaeologic zones of Southeast Asia. Recent designation as World Heritage Site heralds a blitz of changes on the horizon.

Throughout the 7th through 12th centuries it is believed that over 13,000 stupas and temples were built in this cultural center, but frequent earthquakes have reduced that number. Consequent rebuilding and looting of the frescoes and statuaries has also eroded the original character of these structures. Hindu and Mahayana Buddhism prevailed in the underlying visual elements until the 11th century, when a transition to Theravada Buddhist belief took hold of the religious mindscape. Gilded stupa and temple spires, in all shapes and sizes, stretch through the canopy, high to the skies, as far as the eye can see. The setting begets a spiritual encounter, an easy communion with the earth, easier achieved here because of the imposed isolation from the world. And *gasp*– few package commando tourists yet!

For all the repression they live under, the people of Myanmar exude a simple gentleness and peace. Facial structures here bear distinct departures from the typical sino-asian features of their eastern neighbors, yet I’m similarly mistaken for being local. Happily at least I wasn’t accused of being Andreas’ translator like I so irksomely am in presence of foreigners in Cambodia and Thailand. There are contemporary establishments next to more traditional huts. Asking for the bathroom at a restaurant one evening elicited the instructions: Go right at the bitter nut tree, left at the papaya tree. Botanical competency eludes me as it is in broad daylight, so I sighed unquestioningly when I got to a sturdy little bush. Which would be the wrong assumption cuz I passed a fancy hut sporting the universal sign for “toilet” on the way back.

The Union of Burma in 1989 became the Union of Myanmar in effort to drop the vestige of colonialism the former name carried. It has known centuries of repression prior to the current military regime’s takeover in 1962. An active pro-democracy movement is brutally repressed, most popularly embodied in Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s peaceful resistance and resultant house arrest since 1989. Political philosophies are challenged in decision to visit Myanmar; it is grossly inappropriate to be unaware where tourist dollars go, given the human rights abuses rampant under this military junta’s rule. As a result visitors are allowed only through designated areas deemed unprovoking by the government. Aung San Suu Kyi advocates a boycott of visiting the country until democratically elected leaders are allowed to assume office, as the needed foreign currencies directly support the regime. Other activists argue the critical communication link that tourism presents and the potential pressure for change it can bring. But with the emergent economic powerhouse next door in China, eagerly exploiting its abundant natural resources and supporting the regime, change sadly may not soon come for this amazing country with its beautiful, willful people.

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