Burma (Myanmar): Teapots and Toilet Paper
People sometimes say that Burma today is like the rest of South East Asia was 100 years ago. It’s true that Burma is slow-paced, and horse-carts haven’t been entirely supplanted by motorbikes. Colonial architecture, though dilapidated, hasn’t been destroyed by bombs or ‘progress.’ But to me, Burma is more like a Dr. Seuss book than a history book, if the good doctor had been writing in, say, the Soviet bloc in 1955. The incongruities that make me love SEA are especially jarring here: the satellite dishes jutting from the thatch roof, the water buffalo grazing in the temple ruins, the khaki soldiers and the orange-robed monks.
Our month in Burma took us to Rangoon, Inle Lake, Mandalay, Bagan, and Pyay, each of which had its fair share of amazing sights and amazing people. But twenty years from now, I fear that what I’ll remember most vividly about Burma is the toilet paper. It’s everywhere – well, everywhere except the toilets. There are as many teashops per block as there are bars per block in New York, and each shop has a plastic dispenser of TP on every table; they use it as napkins. It’s usually mauve, and always has a slight elasticity, like crepe paper. Combined with the communal lighters that hang on strings from the ceiling, and the ubiquitous shrines, it’s quite festive, really.
The tea itself – we must’ve had a hundred cups apiece – comes in tiny cups and is served with a generous dollop of sweetened condensed milk. It costs between five and ten cents a cup and always comes with a free chaser of Chinese tea. Sitting in teashops is a great way to feel like Gulliver among the Lilliputions; the tables are quite low to the ground and you’re given foot-high plastic or wooden stools to perch on. Cup by cup, Burmese life goes by: water buffalo, horse cart, pretty nuns in pink, a pig, a little Toyota truck crammed with 35 P’o women, each with betel-stained teeth and a towel turban on her head, a trishaw (like a tricycle with a sidecar), a soldier, a feral dog, a gang of roughhousing novice monks. Lift your eyes above street level, and you’ll see the red and white government billboards: “Give all necessary attention to the foreign visitor”; “Drug trafficking is a serious offense which can get the death penalty”; “Don’t put your child by the fire”; “Resist those relying on external influences, acting as stooges, holding negative views.” And above all that, in every direction, the golden spires of Burmese pagodas, turning the whole sky into an exclamation.
Rangoon (Yangon): Monk Life
Hope you like orange: Burma is riddled with monks. Most Buddhists males in Burma bring honor to their families by entering the monkhood twice – once as a novice, when they’re anywhere from six to twenty, and again in adulthood. Novices often stay in the monkhood for only a short while – a month or less – but many boys decide to stay in the ‘monk life.’ Perhaps because there are a couple of good English language schools in Rangoon, or because the Burmese – unlike some Thai – haven’t had more than their fill of tourists, the monks in Rangoon seem especially eager to befriend western tourists and to practice their English. We were invited to several monasteries during our stay in the capital. Especially among the rowdy young novices, a monastery can feel as much like a boarding school dorm as a religious institution. As anxious as they are for news of the outside world, the monks we met also took pains to try and teach us something of the rigors of monk life:
Monk: For example, we can’t eat anything after 12 pm.
Tourist: But it’s 3 pm and that monk over there is eating a banana.
M: (boxing the novice about the head) Oh, um, bananas don’t count as food. Besides, he’s a bit ill and he can eat the banana for his health. But you know, we’re not allowed to play music.
T: (pointing to a monk lolling on his bed) But he’s listening to music on the radio right now.
M: Yes, because that monk is waiting for the BBC news to come on. Also, that rule is more important for novices than for monks.
T: So will the little novices here get in trouble for listening to music?
M: No, because they didn’t turn on the radio, so it’s okay.
T: Oh. Well, let me ask you something else. Are you allowed to eat meat? Because I know that not taking life is one of your vows…
M: Yes, we can eat the chicken and the pig. We just can’t kill it, and we can’t eat it if we know that someone killed it for us.
T: But when you eat a chicken, you know someone killed it, right?
M: Of course. But as long as we don’t know that they did it for us, it’s okay.
Okay, so the rules for monk life sometime seem a little flexible. That’s not to say that most monks aren’t in the life out of a sincere desire to live out Buddhist precepts. We did meet one older monk, though, who had more worldly reasons for donning his robes. A former photojournalist, he entered the monkhood after seeing several of his colleagues sent by the government to the insane hospital. He’s certainly safer as a monk, and relatively happy, though he does dream of winning the lottery and buying a digital camera with a telephoto zoom lens.
Inle: The Lake Effect
Inle Lake, in the mountainous Shan state, has got to be one of the prettiest spots in the world. The lake itself is vast – 22 km long, was it? – and placed between two sets of mountains. There are several villages (and several tourist traps) on the lake, and many locals spend their days on the water, either rowing passengers (they have a distinctive method of rowing with one leg), fishing, or tending the rows upon rows of tomato plants which grow in raised beds on the lake. The lake is reached by way of canal from Naungshwe, the closest village. Naungshwe has an Old West feel, maybe because of the throngs of water buffalo in the dusty streets. We had a wonderful time there, more due to the people we met than the sights we saw (though the 900 year old teak monastery outside of town is well worth the bike ride).
There was the family that played badminton with E, and taught us to make the crunchy, Frisbee-sized rice cracker that’s everywhere in the Shan state. They’d cleverly hollowed an oven out of the earth floor, over which water was set to boil. A rice flour pancake was quickly steamed and flicked onto a rattan mat – or dipped in sugar and eaten as a crepe at this stage – to dry in the sun for two hours, after which it would be fried and stacked up to sell later in one of the area’s rotating five-day markets.
It was great hanging out with the effusive Win brothers, who run Starflower, one of the town’s many pasta shops. Apparently there’s an Italian Johnny Appleseed loose in Burma, giving Italian basil, recipes, and pasta machines to all the locals. I saw more tagliatelle with Bolognese sauce there than I ever thought possible.
For more local fare, we headed over to the Four Sisters, the best spot in town for Shan food. One of the sisters taught me to make a delicious melon leaf salad in her outdoor, coal-powered kitchen. I told her that in lots of ways life in Naungshwe today was probably like life had been in the farm town where my dad was raised. I told her that my great-grandfather went from delivering his milk in a horse-drawn carriage to seeing the moon landing on TV, that it was strange to see how much life had changed in so short a time. She said she knew just what I meant, that there were people who lived on the lake who’d never been to Naungshwe, never seen a motorbike or a television.
We also ate (can you sense a theme here?) traditional food at the novice ordination ceremony we attended. We were privileged to be invited by Mee Nge, a bright sixteen-year old who lives on the canal. She set us up with Shan tea and a tea-leaf salad and mixed nuts snack while we marvelled at the little novices, who were dressed up for the ceremony like fairy princesses, complete with makeup and glittering gowns.
Best of all, we met Cor Visser, a Dutch fellow who took us to visit the orphanage at Mine Thauk, 10 km by bike or a short boat ride from Naungshwe. We hope that people interested in Burma will consider visiting – and helping – the orphanage. It’s a very pretty trip regardless, and you certainly won’t be pressured to give, but we found it gratifying to be able to do even a little to help the kids and to know that our contribution ended up where it belonged instead of in others’ pockets. Currently 93 boys are cared for in a beautiful new building, and plans are underway to renovate another building to serve as a girls’ orphanage.
The kids were very excited the day we were there because they were able to have fish for dinner – usually they can just afford vegetable curry twice a day. The boys who have family ties in their villages get wooden pallets to sleep on, but the other kids just sleep on thin mats on the floor, and when we were there they didn’t have money for medicine for the kids with colds. They are able to go to school and to be tutored: even though teachers in Burma make just six dollars a month, two local teachers come to the orphanage after work to volunteer their time. We bought all the pens and markers we could find at the market, but it looked awfully thin spread among so many boys. But each boy got two marbles, and for our entire visit all you could hear were those marbles clicking together.