Our time in the country known both as Myanmar and Burma has been short and we have not made it far outside of its capital city of Yangon. We flew from Veintiane, Loas.. via Bankok.. to Yangon because foreigners must fly in due to restrictions on entering the country at a “land border”. Our passports are almost out of pages now which is becoming a major concern for us and we may have make arrangements to visit an embassy soon. Since we have been in Myanmar, it given us deeper insight and understanding into the problems that exist in this region of the world, as well as the cultural differences between these countries. Although Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos are all predominantly Buddhist countries, we have seen an astonishing variety of customs, architecture, and daily practice. Where we used to see tiered towered pagodas, we now see moundlike or dome shaped structures also known as stupas… all places that hold shrines and relics for the purpose of worship and meditation. Buddhism in Burma is practiced by 89% of the country’s population, and it is the most religious Buddhist country in terms of the proportion of monks in the population and proportion of income spent on religion. Despite being under renovation during our visit, it was hard not to be impressed by the Shwedagon Pagoda coated in 60 tons of pure gold and decorated with jewels and surrounded by ornate structures and different hundreds of Buddhas of all shapes and sizes, and even postures (our favorite was the reclining Buddha)
The monks that we see with their robes everywhere we go continue to intrigue us. Apparently anyone can be a monk for as long as they want. Most locals we’ve met were a monk for at least a certain period of time for certain reasons but the freedom to stop being a monk is up to you. Some stay as a monk for weeks, months, years, and even lifetimes. Another thing has intrigued us about Buddhism is that it is one of the worlds few non-theistic religions – meaning there is no belief in a God. While most of the worlds religions seem to claim that their belief or holy book alone understand god while other religions do not. Buddhist’s believe that “the Buddha” was just a man named Siddhartha Gautama, learned and meditated and who gained enlightenment, and became a great teacher known as “the Buddha”. The Buddha taught that each human has the capacity to purify the mind, develop love and compassion, and achieve greater self understanding.. through meditation. It seemed strange at first to learn about a religion was promoting independent spiritual approach as opposed to religions based on faith and fear that we have been so accustomed seeing in other places. It is easy to understand why there is so little crime here in Burma. The strong belief in Karma is also considered an essential aspect to one’s way of life and daily practice. Karma is known as a genuine understanding of one’s intentions, actions, and the results it causes, and that every action of body, speech, or mind is considered to be karmic action. Developing a genuine understanding of karma is considered to be an essential aspect of the Buddhist “path” and way of life. Seeing how these beliefs have become so integrated into daily life helps explain why people here are so friendly, and also has inspired us to start thinking about meditation, and trying to achieve our own self understanding a little more.
We have also felt that we are further off the beaten tourist path out here in Burma. Hitting the night markets and taking a local train around the city gave us a glimpse into everyday life here in Yangon, and a good way to meet some locals. Just until recently, the borders of Myanmar were closed to outside visitors, business, and NGOs. The restrictions are a mostly the result of sanctions and embargos put on Myanmar. It was only in 2008, in response to growing civil unrest, the military leadership drafted a new constitution, which led to democratic reforms and a significant opening of relationships with outside countries. The military regime overwhelmingly won the first election, which most observers believe was rigged, and remains firmly in power today. Debate remains whether the country is making significant strides towards true “liberal democracy” or whether the military is further institutionalizing itself into Burmese politics “Quasi-military rule” and “disciplined democracy” are terms used to describe the political situation today, and the government is bureaucratic and corrupt, making it difficult for business or NGOs to operate here. This is a shame because of the 53 million people living in Myanmar, the majority of them are rural farmers in extreme poverty.
So we now must shift our focus towards our own upcoming challenges so despite how much we would love to stay and explore more of this country, its time for us to say goodbye to Burma and as Elliott heads off to the Philippines, we head back to Tamarisk which has been parked in Phuket, awaiting our return for almost 6 weeks now. The next leg of our voyage is not only the longest but without a doubt the most challenging. The options of which way to go from here become limited, and none of them are easy. Heading east toward the Red Sea and back to the Mediterranean would be the most ideal, except for the obvious threat of pirate attacks through the Gulf of Aden near Somalia. Heading south toward South Africa is not favorable this time of year because of opposing seasonal winds and bad weather, and sailing back to east would also be heading directly against the trade winds. Its a dilemma that many sailors face once they arrive here. Many yachties who have made it this far are either storing their boats, selling their boats, or putting them on cargo ships to be shipped back to the Mediterranean. We are not taking this decision lightly and our list of provisions and preparations is as long as it’s ever been so we will be working hard over the next few weeks, getting ready to face whatever challenges we may face on the next passage.