Myanmar, A Land Of Pagodas (And Smiles)

word traveler

I’m sitting on a plane flying from Yangon to Bangkok. My journey throughout Asia is almost over---in seventy-two hours I will be in Milan again, less money in my pockets, but certainly richer and more conscious than I was when I left Italy a month ago, unaware of all the things I was going to see and learn in the days ahead. I’m writing this piece on a ripped piece of paper. On the back, a list of do’s and don’ts in  Myanmar---some basic rules our guide gave us and that we were supposed to follow in order to behave respectfully in the country.  I’m wondering---did we do something wrong? Were we good and considerate guests? While I’m trying to retrace all the things that happened in the last 10 days in Myanmar, many images and stories come vividly to my mind.

“Accept or give things with your right hand. However, when you offer something to a monk, a nun or an elderly person, use both hands.”

I’ve always been curious about the way monks and nuns live. There are many different kinds of Buddhist monks. In Myanmar, all men are required to become monks at least twice in their lifetime---once when they are young and once when they are adults. So, while some children decide they want to be monks forever and stay in the monastery for good, some others opt for shorter terms, which can last from a few hours to a couple of weeks. Myanmar is a land of temples and pagodas. There are thousands of monasteries all over the country where men can retire and learn the basic principles of Buddhism. During this period of learning they leave everything behind and every morning wander from house to house in search for food. Once they return, they sort through the offerings. Some of the food is eaten straight away for breakfast. The rest is saved for the last meal of the day, which is normally at noon.

“Try to speak Burmese, the local language. Simple “hellos” and “thank yous” are  always greatly appreciated.”

Myanmar is also the land of smiles. Just by saying “mingalaba” (hello) or “chei-zu” (thank you) we got the biggest smiles we have ever seen. Despite a land rich in natural resources, from precious stones to natural gas, families in Myanmar are poor, and the average salary is between $60-100 a month. But no matter how much people make, they are always happy to offer you a cup of ginger tea, and fried peanuts and chickpeas with sesame seeds . . . so yummy!

“Remove your shoes before entering a private house and be ready to share and learn.”

One day, on our way from Bagan to Mount Popa, we stopped at a private property where a family of nine have been making candies and liquor out of palm trees for generations. Myanmar people are the best at using whatever resource nature has to offer. They cut the palm leaves, collect the drops in coconut shells, and boil the liquid until it becomes a paste. Before the paste dries, they make small balls of candies, which harden under the sunlight. The candies were delicious . . . I had so many of them that I think I got myself cavities! My husband and I really enjoyed the day, watching people work at their own pace, while sharing their family tales with complete strangers like us.  There was Kyi, who was intertwining bamboo and making hats and small purses. And then there was Htay, her husband, chewing tobacco leaves while boiling palm sugar and making liquor out of it. Grandma was all for the grandchildren, who were home from school for a holiday. They were running around, laughing out loud and screaming words unknown to us. But, even though we had no clue about what they were saying, we were sure of one thing---those were words of happiness, a universal language as sparkling as palm tree drops, which resonates whenever one has the capacity of hearing it.

Excerpt from Mandalay, by Rudyard Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,

There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:

"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"

    Come you back to Mandalay,

    Where the old Flotilla lay:

    Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?

    On the road to Mandalay,

    Where the flyin'-fishes play,

    An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!