finding Myanmar II

What is faith?

She did not believe in a god as such, but equally she had never wanted to believe that the here and now, this life on this earth, is all there is.  She did not think that praying to a greater power was the way to heal, find happiness or seek whatever we are looking for, but she did believe that we all have the power within ourselves to find our path.

Nevertheless, she had always been fascinated by those whose lives are rich because of their faith, who find answers where she had never looked, who believed that a greater power would hold their hand and guide their way.  She did not understand, did not judge, but in many ways envied their total belief that that they would find their way, because they believed.  It is love and it is hope … however and wherever we find it.

Buddhism had touched her life when she had dipped in and out of yoga and meditation practices over the years, and she was curious to see a country where faith was not a lifestyle choice but a life’s journey.  On her travels, she had always found extraordinary, whatever the faith, the desire to demonstrate ones commitment to ones faith by donation, often, it seemed to her, by the most poor to the most rich …. even more extraordinary, here in Myanmar, one of the poorest countries in the world,  to see gleaming gold pagodas peeping out of the vegetation at every turn, as their plane came in to land.

It would be churlish and disrespectful to say that it’s all in the size of your pagoda … or indeed your buddha!  But there are a lot of them, and some of them are huge!

A large shed, north of Kandawgyi Lake in Yangon, houses the impressive Reclining Buddha – 66 meters long!  White face staring benevolently down, a vision of gold robe, red lips and finger nails, and feet so large that a platform has been erected at its feet to read the 108 characters painted on the soles.

IMG_4764.jpgBut this had nothing on the Shewedagon Pagoda.

For a buddhist, especially a buddhist in Myanmar, this 98m high gilded stupa which dominates Yangon’s skyline, is regarded as the most sacred buddhist pagoda in all of Myanmar.

Monks, swathed in their distinctive saffron robes, going about their day, gliding silently amongst those who had come to pay their respects and those, like her, who had come to see this most sacred of shrines as the sun came down.

IMG_4790.jpgBarefoot, she walked around the stupa, gold, resplendent, towering above her.  It was one of those moments when being a tourist feels invasive, out of place.  So important to respect the privilege it was to be there. Everywhere, the offering of prayers and flowers, and the lighting of candles around the vast perimeter of the padoga.  Flames flickered in the sultry evening breeze, the sun slowly fell in the evening sky, its glow falling onto the gold stupa …. a hush descended on the gathering crowds, a moment to be still, to think, to pray .. .

It was spell-binding.  It was faith …. and it was beautiful.

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finding Myanmar I

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Lao Tzu)

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How to begin to describe the trip of a lifetime?

Everything about it would be a challenge …. the place, the people, the food, the language, the climate … but that was the point.  Life for her was, these days, all about finding out about herself by being brave enough to do extraordinary things that she never dreamed she would be able to do, and pushing the outer limits of her comfort zone. Travelling in Europe, often little more than a 2 hour flight from home, had once felt so adventurous, but now she knew that she would probably find enough that was reassuringly familiar … a comfortable safety net wrapped around her travel plans.

So how far to push that comfort zone, how far to step out of Europe?  Well, South East Asia would do it!

Not one to follow the crowd, Thailand, beautiful though it looked, did not appeal.  It’s poorer neighbour, Myanmar, did. A nation whose people would still be curious about seeing Westerners wandering its streets – how amazing in this day and age, where everything seems so accessible, to have the privilege to visit a country still tentatively learning the huge impact that tourism would have on the very essence of its being.

As is often the way when we plan a trip abroad, it seems that suddenly that very place is appearing everywhere in the news. Is it that many of us are so absorbed in the mundanities of our everyday lives, that we are aware but somehow not aware of events in the world around us until they threaten to impact on our own.  How ridiculous that she had read everything from “The Glass Palace”, chonicling Myanmar’s chequered history since the reign and enforced exile of King Thibaw, to the diaries of Aung San Suu Kyi, yet, until she turned on the news a few weeks before their departure and watched in horror the footage from the Rakhine state, she had not registered the ethnic cleansing that had been happening there for years.  Not something you find in the tourist brochures, that’s for sure.

So the decision had to be made – to go or not to go.  Advice was sought, both official from government sources, and unofficial from friends of friends who had travelled there before, or who lived in South East Asia themselves. Safety was always a concern, though in troubled times, security can be far better and in a way, one feels safer for it.  What played on her mind was the political situation and if she still felt comfortable visiting a country in such turmoil.  It was not an easy decision, but in the end, it came down to the hope that, by going anyway, her visit might in some small way make a meaningful impact on the lives of the some of the people she would meet along the way.

And so, as temperatures in the UK started winter’s downward spiral , she and a friend headed to the airport with suitcases packed with sun hats, mosquito repellent and summer shorts. She’d never been on a flight so long that she somehow mislaid Sunday afternoon, on a plane so large that she had to go upstairs to find her seat ….

The adventure was about to begin ….