Here's part two of Ewen Bell's blog about Burma. Read Part 1 here to get the whole story.
My monk walked me around some of the shrines away from the central stupa, where poses of the Buddha are as varied as Burma's ethnic groups. Palms facing up, out or away inform the well trained monk as to the stage of enlightenment represented by the figure. Symbols are hidden within every element of the temples, from the stepped roof top of pagodas, the lotus leaves embossed into stupas and parasols that adorn each spire.
Everything we see points to the different stages of enlightenment and lessons learned along the way.
Each element is a work of art that demands unique artistic skills. Monks study for years to perfect their craft, making their work's expression a task of meditation. These skills demand a peaceful mind and help to create one. Uttama jokes to me, "Who ever heard of an angry monk painting the image of Buddha?"
There are surprisingly few tourists at this site but I know that will change in the years to come. For decades the main opposition party in Burma has advised people not to visit the country, as most hotels and tour packages put money directly into the pockets of the Junta's generals that control the country's politics. Recently Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition party's blanket boycott of tourism has changed in the hope of increasing international awareness of life inside Burma.
They now ask that travellers skip the big tour groups and travel as do the locals, using guest houses instead of hotels and public buses instead of private coaches.
Uttama agreed, "If you travel in small groups and spend your money on local restaurants then you can do good things here. Tour groups never eat outside the hotels and step directly from the temple to the bus, they help nobody except the government."
My own experience had echoed his concerns. The moment I stepped off the plane from Ho Chi Minh City it was clear that the isolation strategy simply isn't working. I had left a clean modern airport in Vietnam and arrived at a clean modern airport in Burma, both equally well equipped with western signage and technological smarts and both equally popular with western travellers.
Making a difference
Many of my friends had backpacked through the country in recent years and pointed out how the small amount of currency they bring can make a big difference to locals when spent outside of government owned businesses. Residents require a licence to handle foreign currency in Burma, so you cannot entirely escape the Junta when spending your dollars. The fact is the Junta is doing just fine whether you visit or not, but the locals stand to benefit significantly from travellers who get off the packaged path.
Once you've exchanged your currency for local kyat it's clear you won't need much of it. My monk took me to a strip of local restaurants for dinner which cost us the equivalent of 15 cents for the bus ride, $1.50 for fried rice and 75 cents for a cup of tea. It cost me more to pay the entrance ticket to Shwe Dagon Pagoda in fact, and most of that money will go to the government instead of the temple.
Maintaining temples and the traditional teachings is a burden that falls to the generosity of local residents. Monks like Uttama are important to the people of Burma, for they represent the wisdom of their country and the voice of a nation. These devoted souls spend their days beneath the spiritual umbrella of temples as well as the open streets of the city, bridging the traditional culture of the last few thousands years to the modern reality of life in Burma.
Buddhism is embraced by everyone in the country, and it embraces everyone in turn. Now the people of Burma are asking travellers to embrace their country too.
Why not take a trip to Burma, and meet the fascinating people for yourself. Take a look through all our trips to South East Asia and find the one for you.