Myanmar

It’s me again! This is probably going to be one of the last posts for the time being. I am still in Bangkok waiting for my visa from the Indian embassy. On the 17th of January I will fly to Delhi and then make my way to the “Yoga Capital” Rishikesh which is about 300 km north. There I will immerse myself in yoga in all its aspects and varieties for over 30 days. The day will begin at 6 in the morning and will end at 8 in the evening and everything in between is going to be filled with postures, anatomy, meditation, philosophy and more. Until then I will have to kill some more time though.

I came back from Myanmar on the 31st of December after I spent the full 28 days in the country that were granted on my visa. And I can consider myself very lucky that I was able to stay with friends who are living in Myanmar now. Not only did they have a guestroom for me, but they also took their time to show me around Yangon (e.g. taking me to a Tote Hosen concert) and to put a cherry on top they also shared their stash of German sweets, cheese and home baked bread with me which made me incredibly happy! It was one of those breaks I really needed and I am thankful that they provided me with a hideout and made me feel like home.

With the perfect home base in Yangon I explored parts of the “The Golden Land” which was a part of the British Empire until 1947 (for that reason some elderly local people speak almost perfect Oxford English). The easiest way to comprehend why it is called the land of gold is to go to Myanmar’s most important religious site which is also one of the top tourist attractions in the country: the Shwedagon Pagoda. It is a stupa wherein eight hairs of Buddha himself are said to be enshrined. For Buddhists this is reason enough to worship the stupa by donating gold leaves, diamonds, and other precious gems. By now it is covered in a layer of gold that weighs up to 27 metric tons and is adorned with over 5000 diamonds, over 2000 rubies and is crowned by a 76 carat single diamond. This wealth is a harsh contrast to the poverty I saw in the streets of the big cities and in rural areas.

Nevertheless the economy is picking up very fast and a lot of money comes into the country through global companies and investors that are trying to secure their share in a market that is just opening up due to to change in the political system of Myanmar. Change is coming fast and after years of suppression by the military regime the people are hungry for it. It is a two edged sword though. On the one hand the economical development will bring money and jobs into the country and things like the health care system (which is hardly existent at the moment) and infrastructure will improve. On the other hand the country will be westernized by companies like Starbucks, McDonald’s and the likes. Consumerism will take over and a great deal of the people’s cultural identity will be watered down. It might become a switch from one extreme to the other. I was surprised by how many people got a brand new smartphone on their waist taking into account the low wages they earn. Apparently loans are easy to come by at the moment and are taking rather carelessly by the people of Myanmar which, by the way, are hands down the friendliest people I have met anywhere in Asia.

Travelling the country and visiting my friends were not the only reasons for me to come to Myanmar. Before I arrived I booked a course in a meditation retreat in Yangon which I started a week after I came into the country. Ten full days in a meditation center without speaking or any other way of communication. No distractions whatsoever: no books, no laptops, no phones, no paper, no pens. Only meditation for eleven hours every day starting at 4:30 in the morning. Needless to say that this was a very intense experience and it tested me in patience, discipline and willpower. But it also taught me a lot about how my mind works. The meditation technique it self is not spiritual or religious even though it is a Buddhist practice. For the first three days I had to focus only on my breath and the sensations I perceived. Day by day I had to narrow down the focus on a smaller area below my nostrils to sharpen the awareness of my mind and to strengthen the focus. It was quite amazing to see how difficult it is to keep my mind focused on a simple thing like that. I also was amazed by how my mind and my body seemed to team up against me and tried to divert my attention with all kinds of garbage: itches, memories, future plans, fear, joy, sorrow and pain were thrown at me but I tried to keep my focus which was not always easy. On the fourth day I was instructed to start scanning my whole body part by part for any kind of sensation. The main sensation everybody feels at first is quite obvious: pain! Sitting cross legged for such a long time everyday there was a lot of pain. My knees, my hip joints, my back, my shoulders everything was just in so much pain. But pain is just a sensation too and what I was taught was to observe any sensation objectively and treat it with equanimity while realizing the fact that it is an impermanent phenomenon. And what can I say, even the worst pain vanishes after a while and sitting became easier and easier. After the seventh day I was able to sit over one hour without moving any part of my body at all. The sensations I perceived got more and more subtle and my focus got stronger while my mind became calmer and clearer. Definitely a life upgrade which I will keep practicing. Unfortunately after leaving the meditation center the whole effect wore off quite a lot but I still have the feeling of being more aware in general plus I can sit very straight for a long time now.

After the retreat I set out to explore more of the country. I went to the temple filled plains of Bagan where I spent a couple of days riding my e-bike through the vast area that is covered with over 4000 temples with some of them being over a 1000 years old. The temples were impressive in number, size and architecture but what really got me was the mystic atmosphere that was palpable especially during dusk and dawn. After Bagan I went up further north to the city of Mandalay where traffic seemed to be equally mad or even worse than in Yangon. Still I found Mandalay to be the more interesting city. There is a lot going on out in the streets and it is obvious that there is less of a rush regarding the coming changes. While in Yangon new tall buildings are being raised on every second corner, Mandalay takes it a bit slower which makes it more rewarding to explore.

With Myanmar being the last country I really traveled I am now looking forward to my stay in India where I will be in the same place for over a month practicing and learning and I can’t help but think that this is a perfect way to end one and a half years of travelling. Hopefully coming home fresh, relaxed and energized.

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