Burma, Myanmar, it was neither the highest nor the lowest on my bucket list but I’m definitely happy to be here. Twofold happy. First of all, being here means that Aung San Suu Kyi is a free person today. I remember visiting- a much younger man – a Burmese refugee camp near the ‘Three Pagoda’s pass’. The rainy season had started, which had forced both the army and the Karen led rebels into a compulsory ceasefire. Not only because the waterlogged forest had become impenetrable, but it had also become malaria infested. Plasmodium falciparum is unforgiving. I have seen Burmese refugees, students mostly, lying on infusions in the camp hospital, pale and sickly, battling it out, praying and hoping that the drugs would reach the parasites before these killers reached the brain.
It was the year that ‘The Lady’ had received her Nobel Price, and I had vowed not to set foot in this country, until she’d be free and the government had come to its senses. Today, Ne Win is dead and Daw San Suu Kyi is a member of the Burmese government. Though still the military junta is holding the reins firmly and the generals have all but opened their fists, improvements are undeniable and visiting the country has as much to do with satisfying my own curiosity as it has to do with paying respect to this diminutive woman who has taught the world a enormous lesson in dignity and resilience.
The second reason I’m happy to be here now is because I agree with Vera that ‘NOW’ is the time, while tourism is still in its burgeoning phase. The Burmese are not yet ‘tourist-hardened’. Until that happens, and I fear the day, it is still possible to find a genuine smile to encounter your own and to get your outstretched hand cupped by both of theirs.
Mass tourism is much like the Ouroboros, the mythical snake that eats its own tale.
We visited only Yangon and Bagan and we spent nine days in only these two places. Like Ko Pyay, our new Birmese friend, acknowledged: “trying ‘to see more’ within this given time can also mean ‘to miss most’…”
Bagan; imagine a vast prairy stretching out, lush and green at the banks of the great Irrawaddy basin to increasingly drier ground progressing deeper inside the Shan state. Finally, left is only the wind whipping up the hot dust that sands the the plains and burns the skin a deeper brown.
‘Humbling’, is what comes to mind, when you meet the chestnut eyes that light up bright, and the cheeks chalked golden that release warm smiles and the lips full and round that form a ‘welcome’ sound that is wrapped in this gem of a word, something like a ruby rolling off he tongue: ‘Mingdalaba’.
Bagan: Turn back one thousand years and imagine kings and warlords feuding over the land, fighting for supremacy and building ever larger temples and pagodas to show their power and their allegiance to each time a different version of Buddhism.
In the end, when Kublai Khan’s hordes swept the plains, he left behind him only ghosts and stones.
And other warlords came and went. The people of Bagan were born and then they died and turned to red and ochre sand. A hundred times destroyed and a hundred times restored, the ghosts multiplied and so did the pagodas, and within them their Buddha images rested, in eternal meditation.
I look over this crusty land as I capture the light inside my camera. ‘Termites build termite hills but people build cathedrals.’
In so many ways, these mighty constructions bear proud witness of the Creator in all of us.
Don’t Ye know Ye all art Gods?!