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xEurasia Odyssey

General Observations and Impressions of Myanmar

MYANMAR | Monday, 10 February 2014 | Views [2118]

Miscellaneous Observations  and Impressions of Myanmar:

 Sai and David:

 While I was wandering around Sule Pagoda in Yangon, a young man approached and asked whether I was Buddhist given the mala beads around my neck. His English was quite good, and we had a fascinating conversation about the effects of meditation and the different kinds. We differed in opinion on where “the mind” is housed, but it was fun to have this kind of discussion with someone here.  Sai, the young man, has just completed a seven year monastic Vipassana study, so he was clearly interested in learning a Westerner’s thoughts about what mediation is and what it can do.  I was equally curious to know what his story was.  He said that he came from the Rakhine province in the NE where his village is up in the mountains at about 14000 ft. (4000 m.).  There was a huge landslide in about 2006 that killed his mother, brother, sister, and niece.  His father then went a bit crazy and became dysfunctional.  Sai was sent to an orphanage in Mandalay, where he was “adopted” by his teacher.  After finishing high school he insisted on moving to the then capital, Yangon, to get the best university education available.  His adopted father agreed to pay for the university fees but couldn’t afford to cover Sai’s living costs.  After a fairly disastrous first few months of trying to study in a dorm where everyone else wanted to party, he managed to be accepted into the monastery, where he still lives. He is planning on being ordained as a full monk on Feb. 12th and invited me to the week-long ceremony, which unfortunately, I will miss.  He learned English this past year in order to be better able to teach his students.  After finishing his Bachelor’s he started teaching in an orphanage here in the city.  He teaches Pali, Sanskrit and now English – learning while he teaches it - to his four classes of over 130 young students each. He also started, and this coming semester will complete, his Master’s degree on Contemporary Myanmar Poets.  The topic threw me for a loop as I thought that the military regime would have squashed all the poets.  He agreed they had in the past, but during the past couple of years things are opening up and what was hidden before is starting to come to light.  He is also a poet and was only allowed to have his works published under someone else’s name as if it were known that he was a student-poet he would probably have been jailed.  The 1990 protests started with university students, so the regime shut many of them down and decimated the others.  Students are immediately suspect and instead of racial profiling, it seems there is educational profiling going on. This certainly explains the problems I saw on the three campuses I briefly visited.

 During our brief time together, Sai cleared up a few of the questions I had about the layout of Myanmar pagoda complexes and the planetary deities and vehicles. I was happy to have met Sai and wish him well in his endeavors.

 Sai’s personal story was  similar to that of another student I met at the Myanmar Theology Institute, but as David was studying English and Theology, I doubt they would have ever met.  The orphanages each grew up in were run by different faiths. But both young men had lost their family through natural disasters while they were pre-teens, were dedicated to getting a graduate degree, to improving their lives, and to sharing their knowledge with other orphans by building schools in their respective home communities.  Both spoke decent English and, according to what they told me, had learned on their own via the computer – not through the state-run distance learning program.  If these fellows are any indication of young adults in this country, the future could be quite bright IF they are allowed to continue their studies, work without censorship and provide leadership for their communities.  Their dedication and passion were inspiring.

 Educational System:

 The educational system is set up differently than ours.  Mandatory schooling is only for 10 years, from ages 5-15.  Then if a student wishes to pursue higher education, they sit for an exam.  The score on the exam dictates what field of study they are  allowed to pursue and which university they can attend.  This isn’t a system of free choice, but rather one goes where one is told to.  The university fees are quite cheap, I was told about $8 a semester, but the problem is the living expenses as they must attend the university away from their home.  The state-run programs are currently based on an old fashioned distance education/correspondence model, where the student receive the materials, does the assignments and sends them in for correction, then comes to the university for a month, two weeks of which is dedicated to taking exams.  There is no real faculty-student dialogue, nor any student-student interaction. After the 1990 protests, the undergraduate programs were all moved outside of the cities to the suburbs/surrounding rural areas.  This was a way to disperse the young intellectuals, making it that much more difficult for them to organize a revolt.  The graduate programs were allowed to stay in some of the cities, which means that there is also no undergraduate-graduate student interaction. As you can imagine, learning a spoken language this way is almost impossible. The distance model could work well IF it were based on electronic communication, but as the internet is as slow as a sloth in the cities and almost completely non-functional in the rural areas, it will be quite awhile before any real reform in this area takes place. Those who can afford to send their children to private schools do so, where there is what we would consider a more normal in-class semester system. I do want to make note of the fact that as I am writing this there is the first ever general convention of Myanmar higher education institutions taking place in Yangon.  They are trying to work together to set a course for the future and I hope that their efforts succeed.

 World Bank US$ 2B. investment

 Just this week the World Bank announced it is giving US $ 2Billion towards improving the very poor health care system and access to electricity.  According to their statistics over 70% of the rural populations in Myanmar have no electrical power. (no wonder the internet doesn’t function!) This certainly fits with what I saw and I was in areas where there is the most foreign traffic, hence the more technologically advanced areas.  Yet immediately behind the nice tourist café is the bamboo or toddy palm shack where the staff live. This investment, if it goes to the projects intended, will provide much needed services for the very kind people of this country.

 Language Training:

 I want to come back to the issue of language training as this affects not only university students, but the broader tourist and business economy. As I was travelling without a personal guide, I sort of latched onto European tour groups when their guide was speaking. This led to conversations with other tourists as well as with the guides themselves.  I found that many of the Western tourists had the same language issue with their guides; they couldn’t understand what was ostensibly English. This is a frustrating situation not just for the tourist, but perhaps even more so for the guide, who believes they are doing a good job and want to help. After all, they are guides because they want to share their culture with others, and when they aren’t understood it is hurtful. When I eavesdropped on Italian and German tour guides, their pronunciation, esp. the Italian one, was much better, but there are fewer of them than those who are registered as English guides. This limitation is bound to affect areas of international commerce as well, and is one that could be fairly easily addressed by opening the universities up to native speakers.  Fulbright is just now starting a program in Myanmar, and this is a wonderful first step.


 I was fortunate to have the opportunity to lecture at Myanmar Institute of Theology.

 It is a small school affiliated with the Baptist Church. It has only about 1,000 students and is comprised of just two major sections, the Theology School, which is the current primary focus of the institution, and a Liberal Arts program that is offered late afternoon and evening.  The enrollment in each section is approximately the same, although the Liberal Arts section is growing more rapidly than the Theology side.  They are hoping to change their name to Myanmar Christian University next year and open a new campus just for Liberal Arts as their current building is maxed out and they want to grow the program.  Their interpretation of the term is somewhat broader than our traditional understanding in that they use it to include Business as well as Psychology.  All of their classes are taught in English. They also have a research center for Peace Studies, the Judson Center, which publishes a journal, “Engagement” with some very interesting articles on the region and on broader issues of religious tolerance, intolerance and conflict. It would be interesting to see how the MIT Judson Center and NAU Springer Institute could collaborate as both are doing good work in the field.

 Cities, towns, and villages:

 MIT is in Yangon, which is the largest city and the economic hub of the country even though it is no longer the capital.  In 2007 the small city of Naypyidaw was made the capital and the government officials were uprooted to the middle of the country. The Yangon I saw is not a pleasant city. Traffic is so horrible that on the way back from the National Museum the cabdriver took me on an extended detour around the periphery just to get from point a to point b in a somewhat reasonable timeframe. The price for the cab was fixed ahead of time, so if there were a more convenient way to go, it would have been to his advantage to take it.  As it was, the detour provided me the opportunity to see parts of the city that I otherwise wouldn’t have.  Yangon has small pockets of nice residences and modern facilities, but almost everywhere else the buildings are dilapidated, moldy and falling apart.  Many people live in shacks rather than houses, and everything from welding work to cooking is conducted on the side of the street, often in the dirt. The city doesn’t have the complete squalor and pervasive disease of Calcutta and I didn’t notice any cows, goats or oxen loose in the streets, but poverty is everywhere in the midst of new cars that clog the streets bringing traffic to a standstill.  There is nothing left of the mystic of “Rangoon” in contemporary Yangon.  The temples and the parks are beautiful, but they are surrounded by a brutal reality.  It will take people like Sai and David, his Christian counterpart, to rebuild, renovate and renew this metropolis.

 Mandalay is less busy and congested than Yangon, and has a slightly better feel to it. For the most part the buildings are relatively new given the extensive bombing which flatten the city during WWII left large swaths of the area to be rebuilt. As with Yangon, the nicer sections are just around the corner from the shacks. It still doesn’t appear to be a city to spend too much time in.

 The smaller towns and villages lack infrastructure. Power goes off and on, most of the time the internet doesn’t work, there may be one paved road in the center and the others behind it are dirt.  Water comes from wells, when there is some, and is brought in in containers on flatbed trucks or stuffed floor to ceiling in cars.  This problem is compounded in the Inle Lake region where the people live in stilted houses in the middle of the lake. While this looks idyllic on the surface, it is an environmental nightmare when one peeks a little closer. The boat traffic on the lake is large fueled with diesel and some of the smaller vessels with gas.  The fuel goes into the lake, as well as into the engines, and creates black clouds of smoke behind each of the boats. The stilted houses are one – two room edifices without any refuse facility.  When I asked where the human waste goes, I was told that there used to be septic tanks, but the water level changed and now it goes straight into the water.  When I asked where the people got their water, I was informed that they get it from a well under the lake that pumps into a large holding tank.  One of the pictures that I hope will come through in the gallery, shows a woman in a flat-bottom non-motorized boat syphoning water from this tank into containers. Additionally, there are chemicals used in the crafts industries that line the villages that gets dumped into the lake. At least one house I saw keeps a pig in a cage just below their house as an investment and of course the pig has to relieve himself as well, so that too goes straight into the water. The lake is also used for washing – both clothes and bodies. Children swim in the lake and adults work in it, fishing with nets not just from a boat but also while standing in it, as well as dregging stand and stones from the bottom to use on the (beautiful to look at) floating gardens, which are sprayed with insecticide. This chemical cocktail is what the people have to use for drinking water.

 On the other hand, the air is less hazy and polluted than in the cities, except for the, literally, black haze that hangs over Nyaungshwe.

 Fishing, Gardening and Crafts:

 Inle Lake is famous for its fishermen, floating gardens, unique crafts, monasteries and ancient sites.  In spite of the environmental nightmare it is a fascinatingly beautiful place.  The fishermen use a unique way of steering by wrapping one leg around the oar/rudder and paddling with it while balancing on the other leg which keeps their hands free to use the conical shaped nets. It is quite an amazing sight to watch. Not everyone fishes this way, others do use a fishing rod, and still others lengthy nets that they cast into the waters and then coil up.  The Lake provides  seaweed to be used as fertilizer for the floating gardens and a different, longer and flatter boat is used for poling it up from below the water’s surface.  The boats seem to almost sink under the weight of the plants. Yet a different kind of boat, one with a deeper bottom, is used for collecting sand that is dregged up by the tin coffee-can- like bucket. The sand and the seaweed are used as a base for the floating gardens that provide vegetables and flowers for the locals as well as for export.  Inle Lake tomatoes, for example are prized for their flavor. The gardens are created in rows a little over a meter wide and are held in place by poles, which are stuck into the shallow waters. The lake varies in depth between the rainy and dry seasons.  During monsoons it can be as deep as 4-6m, whereas it is half that in the dry season, which is what I experienced. As there isn’t a lot of space to work with, some plants have to change their growing patterns; here zucchinis grow on what look like grapevines, rather than on the ground.


 There is a normal tourist circuit that the tour boats make of the crafts industries that includes a cheroot cigar workshop, a smithy that specializes in knives, a silversmiths shop, and a lotus & silk weaving workshop.  I stopped at the lotus workshop as this was a new concept for me.  Lotuses grow all along the banks of the lake and according to the story one day a woman wanted to honor a local monk by making him a special robe. She tried various things, but nothing was quite right.  As she was fiddling with a lotus stalk, she realized that the fibers inside could be bound together to create a silk like thread.  Each individual lotus fiber is only a couple of feet long at most, so a number of them need to be rubbed together before the fiber can be spun onto bobbins and made into thread.  This is an extremely lengthy and time-consuming task.  The dyes for the lotus woven cloth come from the use of three different kinds of wood, brown from a Chifu ? tree, red-brown from the mango, and grey-blue from a special tree that grows in the Inle waters.  The natural lotus fiber color is a light beige. The final product is a bit scratchy and rough compared with silk, but is as durable if not more so.  Silk and cotton garments are also woven here, esp. the local longji, which is what is worn by most Myanma. Longji is really the name of the men’s article, but I heard it used for both men and women.  It is a long piece of cloth a bit over a meter wide and at least two meters long that is wrapped around the body at the waist.  The main difference between the men and the women is in the design on the cloth as well as the way it is tied.  Men knot the longji in the front, while women tuck it in on the side as a wraparound. This skirt is used by businessmen and women in the cities as well as by the rural farmers and fishermen.  


 Each region of the country has its own unique set of crafts. In Mandalay I saw how they pounded gold to make the gold leaf squares that are placed layerwise on the Buddhas in the hopes of having one’s wishes fulfilled. I also saw how the stone masons carve and polish Buddha statues. The production of Buddha images is big business here and there are whole streets lined with stone carvers. I did find it interesting to see that the Buddha’s head was uncarved and covered until the body was complete. In the Bagan region, the toddy palm tree provides much of the people’s needs, including a fermentation of the sap that at one stage forms a candy-like paste and at another a pretty good schnaps. The coconuts from the tree are used for food and devotional purposes and the seed husks for animal feed. The fan-like palms are used as thatch for the roofs and twine for binding. The stalk of the tree is used as a log for building.  The cottage I am in is built from vertical untreated toddy palm trees, and the reception desk is lined with polished toddy palm stalk logs. Nothing goes to waste; the entire tree is used. This area is also noted for its lacquerware.


 Craftspeople, from stonemasons to painters to silver and goldsmiths, have been the backbone of the trade industry for a long time.  Some of these people in the past had artistic skills that it is not easy to replicate today.  For example, in one temple the renovations on the building were complete, but the new umbrella had not yet been consolidated into one piece and put on top.  At first I thought they would be fixing up the old one, which was placed in an outside corner of the complex on a small step.  Up close one could see that it has a number of finely made animal figures on it.  But the guide I overheard taking to a Viennese couple said that there was no intention of repairing and polishing the old one, but instead they were building a new one.  Around the corner and under an awning we saw the very large pieces of glittering bronze that will soon be combined and by hand pulleyed to the top of the spire. I was told that no mechanized machinery is allowed to be used on the temple. The new umbrella is not as intricate nor does it have the animals the old one has.  When I asked why, they guide said that a) there was a lack of craftsmanship and b) they were too time-consuming to make, hence too costly.  As the construction is funded by donors, cost is definitely a factor and overruns simply cannot be allowed.


 Current Muslim-Buddhist Conflict:


While I avoided asking about the government and the political situation today as I felt that might be taken amiss, I did ask about the recent killings of Muslims by Buddhist monks as reported in the Western press.  Regardless of who I asked, whether it was a student in Yangon, a restaurant owner in Bagan, a guide in Inle, or a hotel receptionist in Mandalay, I got the same answer.  The story was wrong.  They all insisted that the problem stemmed from people illegally coming over the border from Bangladesh and wanting land and citizenship. In the attempt to keep order and to keep them from squatting in the area a policemen went in and was shot.  The police then retaliated, not Buddhist monks.  I have no idea what the true situation is or was, but did find it fascinating that for the people I spoke with they all had the same sentiment:  it wasn’t a religious issue, it was a land issue.


Addendum: on the plane to Vietnam I read an article in the newspaper that claimed the UN delegation that first reported the story had it all wrong.  While at least one person did die and the Doctors Without Borders staff had treated a number of people from the conflict, the situation was not the massacre as originally portrayed.


 Legacy of Ancient Rulers:


I was also curious about the public perception of some of their historical figures, especially King Anawrahti and Kyansittha.  I learned that my perceptions from reading the stories differed from theirs in that for the people of Bagan, at least, Anawrahti was a great and wise king.  He was the one who brought the 55 village chieftains together.  Before him the country had no moral backbone and was full of barbarians; he had to be brutal to change the way people behaved.  He too had been a barbarian until one day a Nepali monk was passing through. Intrigued he asked the monk what he was doing and what he believed. After the monk shared his story, Anawrahti asked how he could share it with his people.  The monk told him to get the texts, the Pitaka, from a nearby kingdom.  Unfortunately, that king was unwilling to part with the texts.  As Anawrahti was a great warrior, but made sure the king would give him what he wanted, so he captured King Manuha and had his family moved to Bagan where he was allowed to built his own temple complex.  The texts were housed in a specially built library for all to access. As Anawrahta needed to solidify the relationship with his newly acquired territory, he sent his Commander, Kyansittha, to bring the king’s daughter to the palace to be his queen. Kyansittha dutiful went to retrieve the bride, but on the way back fell in love with her.  He did not fall into Tristan’s trap, however, and maintained his loyalty to his liege. When the Commander and the bride arrived in the city some of Kyansittha’s rivals (there were four commanders each with different strengths) falsely accused him before Arawrahti.  Furious, the King ordered his commander bound to a wall and had an archer shoot him. As the arrows knew Kyansittha was innocent of wrongdoing, rather than piercing his breast they cut the robes he was bound with. Arawrahti realized his mistake and, after a brief period with Saw Lu in charge, eventually Kyansittha became his successor.  There is also a legend about his love life. According to the story his wife built a temple, the Abeyadana, which is named after her, to commemorate the spot where she would wait for him during his time of exile after Anawrahti’s passing and his rival’s ascension to the throne. It is a beautiful building with murals from the Mahayana, Hindu and Theravadan Buddhist traditions complete with Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, Padmapani, Vajrasattva, Avolokitesvara, Manjushri, devis, and the Jataka tales.  It is a fascinating glimpse into the amalgam of religious images of the region during the early12th C.


So the stories of these ancient warrior rulers combine duty, loyalty, love and faith; all of which seem to be traits that are admired and striven for by the people of this fascinating country of contrasts today.
















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