Category Archives: Travel

Buddha on the Chindwin

One of a series of posts from the Chindwin River in Burma (Myanmar).

Those statues of a fat, laughing Chinese Buddha are no part of Theravada Buddhism in Burma.

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This tattooed monk lived at a hilltop monastery by the River in the Burmese (tribe) village of Ye Khar Tun.

 

Summarizing Buddhist beliefs and practices is like trying to summarize Christianity – recognizing that Christianity includes Mormons, Catholics, Amish, Presbyterians and Pentecostals.  You can’t assume that any specific beliefs and practices are widely or universally shared.   So the stories I got from our Yangon-based guide often differed from what we saw in the rural towns, and from what I learned as I tried to bone up on it.

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My favorite monk of the trip. He used pink smartphone to take pictures of us Americans.

Burmese people generally follow Theravada Buddhistm – as distinct from the various branches of Mahayana Buddhism that dominate in China, Korea, Tibet and Japan.  Theravada Buddhists emphasize the older, original teachings of the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, an actual human person who lived in India and died 2500 years ago. At least in theory, true Theravada Buddhists don’t think Buddha is (or was) a god; they don’t think he’s alive or that he (or anyone else) is immortal; they don’t think he (or anybody else) is up there answering prayers. They don’t believe in the Dalai Lama (that’s peculiar to Tibet, mostly); they don’t believe in that fat, laughing Buddha (that’s a more-recent Chinese invention). They believe in being good, doing good, and thinking good thoughts.  Nirvana isn’t a heaven; it’s a state of mind without suffering.*  In theory, they meditate over the philosophical teachings of the human they call Buddha, but in practice it sure looks like they’re praying to something that’s at least partly supernatural.

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This lady is a yogi. It’s a little bit like a nun or monk, but as she explained it to us, yogis are more focused on helping people (especially the sick) and less involved in philosphical meditations.

Though the Theravadas reject deities and supernatural aspects of Buddhism, most Burmese people believe — to some extent — in an elaborate mix of “spirits” or “nats.”  These nats can be like demons or trolls, like guardian angels, or like patron saints. The nat concept seems to be partly a separate animist religion, partly an element of Burmese Buddhism, and partly a very powerful set of superstitions. Most towns had some sort of shrines to a various nats – often right next to (or even on the grounds of) a Buddhist temple or pagoda.

 

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This shrine — on the site of a Buddhist stupa — is actually devoted to one of the spirits (“nats”) the Burmese people believe in: that statue is NOT Buddha.  The nats are sometimes akin to patron saints (of a town, for example); others are like little ‘gods’ of the seas or mountains.

Some of the nats are river spirits. Our boat (like most of the similar boats we saw on the river) had a couple of big bowls on top of the captain’s wheelhouse, each containing offerings (bananas, coconuts, flowers and water) to the river spirits, and a handful of flowers right on the bow. Despite the prevalence of domesticated pigs in the region, we never ate pork on the boat – because apparently the river spirits don’t allow it. The river spirits kept us from sinking, I guess. But they failed to keep us from getting stuck three times on sandbars.

 

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Stupas like this are all over the place, and in virtually every village — large or small.

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Whatever the specifics of the beliefs, Buddhist buildings, statues, monks, and customs are an enormous part of life in most Burmese towns. It seems there are stupas everywhere. When we arrived in a town, we would almost always be quickly shown (with pride) the local monks or monastery. Multiple villages we visited encouraged us to stay for ceremonies at their temples. We ran across events going on at the monasteries. Even though the monks were always quiet and understated, they were clearly respected leaders in the communities.

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In the grid above:  The huge group of kids that seem to be dancing is in a pagoda building on a weekend (non-school day).  We were told they were learning citizenship and patriotism and manners.  I swear they stood there chanting and gesturing to the same song for at least 30 minutes, and we were told they were there for four hours every week.  That group of five women had just left some sort of meditation class (led by a monk); they were apparently supposed to maintain their meditative state of mind (and keep their hands like that), so they were surprisingly tolerant of the group of photographers that swarmed them as they dispersed. That blue/yellow/red/white/pink thing is the flag of Theravada Buddhism.  Finally, as I took that last image in the grid, our guide was explaining that local Buddhists had — despite their modest means — generously donated those standing fans to cool the place off.  My joke, “Wow, they must be big ‘fans’ of Buddha!” got zero laughs and just one pair of eyes rolling. 

 

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I wanted my picture with this guy.

 

* For God’s sake (pun-ish literality intended), don’t listen to me on matters of religion.  These are just my impressions from a few weeks in a Buddhist culture and from a  tiny bit of brushing up I did so I could better understand what I saw.

Chinlon on the Chindwin

#7 of several posts from Burma and the Chindwin River.  

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About the only “sport” we saw being played along the Chindwin was Chinlon.  It can be played two ways, each using a woven bamboo ball about 7 inches in diameter.  The simpler form is a lot like hacky-sack — a single team stands in a circle and tries to keep the ball in the air, passing it around in sometimes elaborate ways.

The other form is sort of a hybrid of volleyball and soccer.  The basic play and court look like volleyball with a shorter net and that smallish bamboo ball.  Like soccer, you can’t use your hands: just your feet and your head.  But like volleyball, the ball can’t hit the ground:  it comes over the net from the opposing team at as fast as they’re able to deliver it.  It looks very difficult.

Also impressive:  Notice the guys in the picture just below — playing a very acrobatic game wearing those long skirt-like “longyis” that are the traditional attire of both men and women in Burma.

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In Bine village, the chinlon court sat right next to a pair of 500-year-old stupas.  You can see a group in the background playing the one-team hacky-sack version of the game.

 

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Making a Living on the Chindwin River

#6 in a series of posts from Burma (Myanmar).  The first Chindwin River post was here. 

Check out the Recent Posts (at right) for more –>

Even the northern Chindwin is just a few days’ boat trip down to Monywa — a good-sized commercial center — so there was quite a bit of commerce up and down the river.  Here’s how people fed themselves and made their livings.

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A foggy morning at a huge riverside bamboo camp — set up on a sandbar in the non-rainy season.  

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Bamboo loaded for a trip downriver. The rafts themselves are made of bamboo. Because they only go downstream, a few guide poles or a tiny handheld motor is all that’s needed to guide the raft in the channel.

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It took a while to convince this lady to take a break from harvesting sunflowers so she could pose for a few pictures.  They’re grown for the seeds; the flowers themselves seem to be discarded immediately.  

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This guy (and his sister, I think) were prospecting for gold. They shovel sandy gravel from the Chindwin’s sandbars into a simple sluice box that (hopefully) separates out any tiny grains of gold.  I wanted a picture of the gold they were finding, but it was so small I wasn’t even sure I could see it.  They said they’d sold about $35 worth the prior day.

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Those are small pieces of teakwood, apparently pre-inspected (“OK”) for use in carvings. Export of teak has been recently and significantly restricted in an effort to preserve the species in Burma’s forests. Generally, it’s OK to export furniture and carvings made from teak, but exporting big, raw timber is prohibited.

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That crazy looking thing isn’t there to scare away evil spirits — it’s a scarecrow! The fellow set it up to keep birds from swooping in while he was husking rice.

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Of course, they lived on the river and there was also a lot of fishing, though (unlike at Inle Lake) I never got the feeling very many people fished as a full-time occupation.

Warmly Welcome on the Chindwin River, Myanmar (Burma)

#5 of series of posts from Burma that started here. Check the list of Recent Posts in the right margin.–>

Every stop on the Chindwin had its own unique charm — especially the aptly-named village of Warmly Welcome.

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This guy lived in that haystack.  We ran across him (and his haystack) just outside a village called Warmly Welcome.  He smiled for a picture, pointed us toward town, and sent us on our way.

 

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Many villages we visited promptly brought out (or took us to) their oldest resident. In Warmly Welcome, that was this lady. She was sweeter than this image might lead you to assume.

Late one afternoon, we saw a path leading through a gap in the rocky cliffs lining the eastern bank of the Chindwin. White paint on the rocks spelled out the Burmese words for “Warmly Welcome” in three-foot-high letters. We couldn’t pass up an invitation like that.  After anchoring the boat and climbing through the gap, we soon saw farmland and a small village in the valley a mile or so beyond. A short hike through the rice fields (dry this time of year) got us to the edge of town. It turned out that Warmly Welcome wasn’t (just) a greeting; that was the actual name of the town. By the time we got there, half the town (“25 houses,” we were told) had come out to see the foreigners. They told us we were the only outsiders who had ever visited,** and the only non-Burmese people they’d ever seen in person.

 

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The path over the cliff to the village of Warmly Welcome. That’s Toey, one of our “boat boys,” leading the way.

 

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A young-ish monk at the village of Warmly Welcome. He was bashful at first, but actually spoke some English. We were at least 30 minutes from the river, so we had to hurry to get back over the cliff to the river before dark.

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By the time we made it through the valley to the edge of town, a big group had formed to check out the foreigners.

We really were warmly welcomed in Warmly Welcome. And they surely seemed happy in their little valley enclave. They invited us to stay for dinner, but we had wandered a long way from our boat and the sun had already set, so we had to get moving. Truth is, we were warmly welcomed in (almost***) every village we stumbled into, even though we were total strangers who showed up on their shores literally at random.   Warmly Welcome was my favorite stop, but it’s just one of 20 or so villages we visited. Lots more to come from the Chindwin.

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Footnotes?!?:

* An “aptonym” (or “aptronym”) is a proper name that is also a real English word that is (maybe amusingly) especially appropriate — especially “apt”.  Think of  lightning-fast runner Usain Bolt, the virtuous Dudley Do-Right, or Thomas Crapper (inventor of the toilet).  I’m adding the hospitable village of Warmly Welcome to that list.

** The British controlled the region for 124 years, and the Japanese took control for a few years during World War II.  So I’d guess that surely they’d seen outsiders at some point in the last century or so.  And they’ve seen DVDs and other media, so they knew what we looked like.

*** Why do I say “almost”?  One stop was an attempt to see an elephant camp.  We’d heard that they used elephants to carry heavy loads (from mining or timber, I think).  When we stopped and asked where to find them, we got the run-around — and we surely never got to see any elephants.  The local authority watched us closely to ensure that we’d all got back on the boat and headed on down the river.  It’s unclear what was going on there.  My guess was that they feared we were PETA-type animal rights activists there to protest or do something to protect the elephants.  Just a guess.  But even those guys were polite — they were just entirely unhelpful.

Scenes from the Chindwin River, Burma (Myanmar)

#4 of series of posts from Burma that started here

The core and focus of my trip to Burma was a 400-mile trip down the remote Chindwin River. Most of it was very isolated, with tiny villages peaking through the trees on the river banks.  Two or three times a day, we would choose a spot, tie up the boat, and head ashore.  We spent lots of time on land, but here are scenes from (and of) the river itself.

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That’s our boat on the left, anchored in the middle of the Chindwin. It was the dry season, so the river was shallow and full of sandbars.

 

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No, this was not the boat I was on! But this is what a lot of the boats we met on the river looked like. This was sunrise on the Chindwin.

 

Our boat was an old rice barge — probably 70 ft long by 15 feet wide — temporarily re-outfitted for us as it chugged up-river for a week or so (from Mandalay) to pick us up.  Onboard:  8 Americans; 7 Burmese (guide, boatmen, cooks). 11 days. 2 toilets. 0 hot showers. Lots of chairs on top; 8 bunks below (each about 3 inches shorter than I am tall, but the crew slept on the floor so I’m not complaining!). We got stuck (briefly) on sandbars 3 times.  2 cans of Diet Coke (total, for 11 days!).  Plenty of rice; plenty of Burmese “curries;” plenty bottled water.  Plenty to see.  I took 13,000 pictures.

These are shots of our boat — the Zinyaw (“Seagull”).  The last image is of my bunk; the open side was usually covered by that green tarp:

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The area is remote and undeveloped.  There are no dams on the river, and we traveled almost 400 miles before we finally saw one bridge.  We started our boat trip in Homalin (the town you see in a few pictures where there are dozens of boats).  We went upriver for a couple of days, then came back past Homalin and all the way down to Monywa.  Only two flights a week go into Homalin.  Other than our group, there was just one other pair of “white” people arriving in Homalin that day.

 

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As scenic and serene as it was, the river itself wasn’t really what we were there to see.  The river is lined with people who were, without exception, welcoming and gracious to us, even though we were literally wandering around making randomly chosen stops.  We were treated as honored guests, invited into homes, schools, businesses and monasteries to see how these unspoiled folks live, learn, work, and worship.  Neither my pictures nor my words can really communicate that experience — but I’ll try.  Lots more to come from the Chindwin.