Reading, Writing, Walking
Friday, April 25, 2008
Working in a multi-national company has been an exciting experience for me and the best part that I enjoyed most is traveling both domestically and internationally. I had a strange mixed feelings when I have to travel to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, to conduct a week-long Quality System audit to one of our affiliates. The feeling of excitement to have a chance to visit a country that I only have read in my history book, much more so I found to be such an exotic and mysterious place and the other feeling was that of pins and needles after hearing the news on the political volatility of the place, nevertheless, the compulsion for an opportunity to visit Myanmar and potentially explore its mystery is something I just couldn’t relinquish even if it only means a day.

Since the flight schedule is irregular and our return flight is on a Sunday, I had the liberty to spend a free Saturday after working for five days to visit significant places in Yangon in the company of a Filipino expatriate colleague assigned there and my Indonesian colleagues.

The moment the pilot of Singapore Airlines declared our touch down at Yangon Airport, I am already filled with curiosity of how Burmese people lived. As we go through the Customs, we have to fill up a form to declare our valuable possessions like electronic items such as computers and hand phones, cash and jewelry. Electronic devices do not work in Myanmar so there’s no point to pack your computers and the Customs will ask you to surrender your hand phone.I wonder how I could tell my family that I have arrived safe and that I am still alive. It is a good thing though back at work as we can focus on what we need to do without any interruption. One thing sure is that we seem to have turned our back to life’s modernity. This is one of my trips that I really have to travel light. After which, we have to go to a cashier which we will have to give USD 200 to be exchanged to their local currency, Myanmar Kyats equivalent,

The moment we are picked-up from the airport on the way to Traders Hotel in downtown Yangon, I was surprised by the site of an overwhelmingly huge golden pagoda which is known as the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the biggest Buddhist shrine in Burma. I was lost when I saw that the writings are all in Burmese characters including the street names and store names and I was immediately lost in translation. We arrived on a rainy, Sunday afternoon and that gives us a real good reason to stay in the hotel and rest in preparation for the audit the following day.I tried to open the television and we had very limited channels all in Burmese and no cable television considering we are already staying in a four-star hotel. It dawn on me that this seems like a “retreat” with plenty of quiet time. What a relief to meet English-speaking hotel staff !

It was an early Monday morning trip as the factory is an hour drive from Yangon. We had a sumptuous buffet continental breakfast, typically served in a hotel. As we drove down to the factory, I started to look out of the car’s window to see how a typical Burmese morning life is like. For a start, I am very much relieved by the ease of traffic in the downtown area. Something that’s real good for Monday morning! Well, What would you expect of a place that has very low population? My attention was caught by the mode of transportation that people use to go to work. I have been told that the bus that was being used was still from way back in World War II but instead of a six-wheeler bus, it has been converted to four wheels because of the high cost of importing tires.

What amazed me is that the disposition of the people was calm, simple and exudes a sense of inner peace. It made me wonder and felt very sympathetic as to how such kind of people be living in an environment of violence and chaos, I find it very ironic.

As we continue driving, I saw young monks walking in queue on the side street with their pots and went from one house to the other to collect food, supposedly their breakfast. I was deeply touched by the gesture of generosity by the Burmese people that despite their meager supply, they can find in their hearts the joy of giving and the gesture of thanksgiving for being such a blessing. I could not help but reflect and see in my heart that sometimes I even refuse to give and thought I did not have enough. It was such a humbling thought and sight.

We moved on and I saw another form of transportation which looks like a “jeepney” Surprisingly, I saw people hanging out from it. As transport is very scarce, they just take whatever that can convey them from one place to the other. I used to see this in the Philippines back in the 70’s and early 80’s when we go for our summer vacation in my mother’s hometown in Leyte, I haven’t seen it now. Much more so, I did not expect that it still does exist in another country. What an eye-opener !!

As we approach the factory, I have seen a very similar dwelling that I can find in some remote country sides in the Philippines. The simplicity of rural living which I have seen in a lot of other Asian countries I have visited. I gives me that sense of home as I see similar sights from home whether it is from the past or present. It made me realize, I have not been that far, this is still Asia.

We arrived in the factory and having been introduced to my Burmese colleagues, I haven’t seen such gesture of hospitality, warmth, sincerity and respect. They have been very excited to have visitors as they sparingly come because traveling to Myanmar is rather difficult especially with the travel bans imposed by our Corporate Security as and when needed. Then, it was a discovery that Burmese people cannot travel freely as I do. The government keeps their passports, if ever they carry one. When there is a need to travel, they will have to send a request a month in advance and will have to specifically state the duration and purpose of the travel. As soon as they come back, their passports are then surrendered to the government. I can’t explain the feeling I had upon hearing this, all I was able to say was Thank God, I felt blest to be a Filipino and be free to travel.

I noticed that the girls in the factory were pretty and simply adorned. They have a yellowish color that they put on their cheeks which arouse my curiosity to find out what it is. They call it “Thanaka.” It is something that they wear on their face including men which serves as a sunscreen and make-up for ladies. It is a mildly fragrant bark that is ground to powder, mixed with water, and then applied topically to the cheeks. It is suppose to soften the skin as well. All the while, I suppose “make-up” is rosy pink or red, something new that I learned.

We have been served with a sumptuous meal of a mixed Chinese, Indian and Thai cuisine. I loved the curry though a bit spicy. Myanmar has a variety of food but I find these three to be their strength which could possibly be due to the influences of the migrants from their neighboring countries. They are very simple dishes though ! Being a dominantly Buddhist country which accounts to about 90% of the population, beef dishes seem not to be so popular. I did not mind it as all as I am not much of a carnivore .

Night life seems very quiet and unexciting, even quieter than Surabaya, Indonesia where I am currently based. We were hosted to a dinner at one of the finest Chinese restaurant in Yangon and we have to finish dinner by 9:00 p.m. A bit too early for the normal dinner out that I know of. The streets are dark and so tranquil that gave me some goose bumps of an unexplained emotion. Perhaps, I have been all time in the hustle and bustle of a city life. This trip has indeed gave me a respite from the busy life I always have been. It was indeed an experience I am bold enough to accept.

Each working day has been the same. On the way back from the factory, I have noticed that by sundown, Burmese family and friends gather together to a side walk outdoor café which I call “Starbucks ala Myanmar” Burmese people are very family oriented. They do love to get together in their own little way and it does not have to be lavish. I remember what a friend of mine told me : “ Most of the things that we desire are expensive but the truth is the things that really satisfy us are free...laughter, family, friends and most of all God’s Love”

I am excited and anticipated the Saturday so I will have the chance to visit some places in Yangon. It was also timely that it is also Waisak Day which is Buddha’s birthday. It is a great festivity well celebrated by the Burmese and the Buddhist Burmese will all go to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda to pay homage to Buddha. I haven’t seen so much piety as much as the Burmese people. Maybe we think it is crazy, but who are we to judge when we can’t see the hearts and minds of people. The Burmese generously spend their hard-earned money in order to buy the gold leaf paper that they paste on the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. They believed in the merits of giving with joy and with your heart and freedom from materialism.

It was close to sundown when off we went to the Golden Pagoda and we have to take off our shoes as we enter the Pagoda as a sign of respect and walked barefooted around this huge Buddhist shrine. It is packed with people from sundown as walking barefooted at noon would be scorching to the feet. I have seen the locals to walk barefooted on the street as they enter the Pagoda. Amazingly, inside the Pagoda was very clean. Burmese people revere the place and ensure that it is kept undefiled. It was such a bliss to walk around the huge pagoda with all the different images of Buddha coming from different parts of the world as well and watching the Burmese together with their family and friends enjoying the simple pleasures of life. The weather was very complimentary with the festivity with its cool breeze and bright moonlight. It is more fascinating to visit it at night when all the lights are on and you can just marvel at the glitter of gold and diamonds that adorn the pagoda. Again, another paradox of wealth and poverty where you can afford to have such lavish expense on the pagoda with your people left wondering as to where their next meal will come from. It was even a shocking revelation to know that the lights around the pagoda were never put off not a single day even when the whole country is in darkness. I find it hard to comprehend. Yet, the people seems to be happy and take pride at the sight that their pagoda is always radiant. As I reflect, perhaps they are looking up to it with a hope of a bright future that will someday come to pass. I would intently share the same dream and vision for the Burmese.

The morning of Saturday was a visit to Na-gar Glass Factory which is just outskirt of Yangon. As a chemist, I am fascinated to see the manufacture of many things and glass happens to be one of my favorite things. The beauty of this is that it is all hand-made with only a gas-operated kiln to generate the heat for the glass curing stage to render it less breakable. They walked us through the process of glass making from melting the glass, molding it to give it its form, coloring or decorating it, then curing it and Voila!! you’ve got a masterpiece. As each glass is hand-made, no two glasses are the same, so goes with it the creativity and skill of the man who mold it to give it form. These glasses have found its way all over the world and Europe has been their biggest client for export. It is a family-owned business and the owner was with us when we visited his factory. I was marveled by the craftsmanship that I ended up buying a number of pieces , mostly wine decanters and glass balls.

After that, we had a sumptuous lunch at a Thai restaurant and off we go shopping at the Bogyoke market and the Gem Museum. Myanmar is noted for their gemstones dominantly jade, rubies and sapphires. The Gem Museum collections were incredibly stunning and relatively cheap however, we need to exercise prudence in purchasing more than normal to avoid any Customs intervention as you leave the country. I just bought a jade bracelet for my mother.

Bogyoke market was a real shopper’s haven with all the Burmese handicrafts, jade, textiles, lacquer ware, puppets, carvings. I was astounded by the variety and tempted to execute my shop-a-holic nature only to realize my suitcase is a bit undersized for all those stuff. I end up making a difficult decision to settle for the bare essentials, a special souvenir from Burma, a set of their national costume which I decided to wear on my visit to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda that evening.

As I recollect my experiences on the sights and sounds of Myanmar, the country is very rich in natural resources and the winning part is that it is very rich in culture and values. It was truly enriching to know how to enjoy the simple things in life despite the grandeur of materialism around you, the sincerity of the hearts of the people, the smiles on the outside yet you know there is something inside them that aches and the hope in their eyes that life can only be better.

As I empathize with the Burmese, I find myself realizing that true happiness is finding your deep-rooted purpose in life and achieve it. It is difficult to measure it as it lies in the heart that no person can see. I believed that if anyone even in their own little way, inspired, encouraged and liberated somebody to find their quest for meaning in life, that person has really made a difference in this world. The Burmese people had done that to me, I was enlightened by their genuine simplicity in life as well as the paradox of the calm amidst chaos, the generosity amidst scarcity, the gratitude amidst pain and a faith beyond doubt.

My Myanmar trip although short has indeed inspired me to celebrate life.
This is very well-written, Corazon. I particularly appreciate how you described the generosity of the Burmese. I can feel your empathy and appreciation of their culture.

Myanmar is a dream destination for me. With this piece, I imagine how life-changing it is going to be.

P.S. My dad's from Maasin, So. Leyte. My first few travels as a kid involved 3-day boat trips to Tacloban. Wala lang, share ko lang. =)
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