A Philosophy of Radical Aliveness

A Philosophy of Radical Aliveness

"Yesterday is already a dream, and tomorrow is only a vision; but today well lived, makes every yesterday a dream of happiness and every tomorrow a vision of hope."

John Kerestes


Monday, March 18, 2013


Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon
We decided to postpone a trip to Laos and Cambodia to see Myanmar after an article in the San Francisco paper said that now was the time to go before the country was changed by tourism. The country's direction has changed in just the last two years, opening up a part of the world which has been isolated for years, locked up by a military regime. Aung San Suu Kyi has become the popular hero of her country, after her release from twenty years of house arrest as a political prisoner. Last year she accepted the Nobel Prize for Peace, and received personal visits from Hillary Clinton, and President Obama. Her likeness is everywhere and people now feel free to be critical of the military and hopeful for change. We did not see the presence of the military.

Tourists are already coming like a plague of locusts - one million in the last year. Ten times the years during the military suppression. And they are anticipating three million by the end of next year. Our itinerary was adjusted to avoid the crowds after visiting a monastery, home of a thousand monks, only to be confronted with 2-3 thousand tourists lining the walkways 5-6 deep to watch the monks make the walk to their 11am meal with their black rice bowls.

We got the impression there is a tourist itinerary that everyone follows with little variation: Rangon, Bagan, Mandalay, and Lake Inle. The local tour operators believe what tourists want to see is the stupas, monasteries, temples and pagodas. The Burmese people are deeply Buddhist, and these are the places they would visit while traveling. We literally saw thousands of stupas (monuments to the lives of deceased relatives), Buddhas (in caves, on mountain tops, and in every village). In every one of these places one had to enter without shoes, with your arms covered and no short pants or hemlines. The no shoes part proved difficult for our tender American feet. We were scheduled to climb Mt. Popa (an hour's walk up stairs barefoot). We decided it wasn't going to be possible for us without causing us to not be able to walk at all afterwards.

Fisherman on Lake Inlet

The photographs you see most often from Myanmar are of these places, and of monks, and also the fishermen of Lake Inle who have unusual fishing nets and a unique way of paddling with their feet. Assuredly, I took these photos as they were quite seductive, as was the scenic sunsets and sunrises from the tops of pagodas in Bagan. But I focused most on the people. There must be several thousand photos taken from the platform built for that purpose, looking from the feet of the giant reclining Buddha. But every time I took a picture of a person I knew it was a one-of-a-kind image.

Actually, the best travel experiences we had were off the official itinerary: visiting the boat driver's home and family; ethnic markets that sold fish, bamboo, betel-nut and wholesale jade before it is cut and polished. We also visited workers on the farms, a peanut oil factory where peanuts are ground powered by oxen and in another place by water wheel. The inglorious "sand production" center, where people shoveled sand into trucks to be later used for cement, was a place full of very animated and lively folks who were anxious to interact with us. Then there was the stone carvers who were trashing their lungs on marble dust without the benefit of respirators.

Sand Production workers shoveling sand atop a truck. Workers include these boys, men and women.
Most of Myanmar is agriculturally based, and we saw the cultivation of rice, corn, garlic, wheat, tomatoes, gourds, flowers, and others that don't come immediately to mind. We also visited a number of craftsmen: blacksmiths, a paper umbrella maker (whose craft was handed down for many generations), silk and lotus weavers (a large, multistory building full of them), boat builders, and teak wood carvers.

Although not industrialized in our high tech, first world way, they have adopted cell phones (although a SIM card costs $250), Angry Birds, and email. We had an Internet connection in every hotel, however by government policy it ran slowly; and most of the time I was unable to send email. We also encountered college kids who purposely congregated at one temple to practice their language skills on foreign visitors. The country is poised for great change within the next few years.

We also saw it through the influence of Western fashions among the young people. The traditional dress for men is the "longye" which is a loop of cloth which extends from the waist to the ankles, and is tied at the waist. I wore one some of the time, but never could get the knot right! But younger people are moving towards jeans, and tee-shirts with English printed on them. We also had a few encounters with the long-necked women with rings: the Padrang. Originally they were the slaves of another tribe, who put the rings on for servitude. They later became fashion, and the women added rings every year until they were married. We met one woman who had about two dozen rings - and seeing some not on the wearer it turned out they were quite heavy. Anyway, we were told most of the young people now have little interest in the custom. We did meet a 15 y.o. with about 8-10 rings. Now, however, they are displayed for the tourists, outside of their own village, isolated by their own unique dialect.

The infrastructure of the country will need to be upgraded. Three out of four households don't have electricity. The oxen and water buffalo remain the plow and cart in the countryside. The most common mechanization was what they called the "Chinese Buffalo," which is an oil belching, loud, imported tractor-truck.

Chinese Buffalo used as a farmer's bus
Some of the greatest inefficiencies are from the government itself - for tourists the laborious process of getting in and out of the country. Traffic in Yangon is already down to L.A. style gridlock, and it's too dangerous to allow people to use motorbikes. It is common to see perhaps 15 people in a "light truck," hanging onto the back and sides and sitting on benches - a half dozen on each side.

On the famously long teak bridge we saw two different cages of young owls panting in the hot sun. People could buy an owl with the purpose of setting it free, and thereby increasing their karma through the execution of a good deed. Our guide said, however, that the one time he did that the crows killed the owl before it could get away. And what does it say about the karma of those who trapped the owls in the first place? Can we view this as a metaphor for the people of Myanmar, and their future fate?

To see 50 more photos of our trip with commentary go to our Myanmar Blog:

Sunset over Bagan Pagodas