It's not quite 5 a.m. as I push through the doors of the hotel and into the pre-dawn darkness of Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon. I am reminded by the nativity scene on the lawn in front of the hotel that it is almost Christmas. Though Burma (the ruling military junta would prefer it be called Myanmar) is 90 percent Buddhist there are still signs of Christianity and, therefore, Christmas as part of the legacy left behind by the British occupation before Burma's independence in 1948.
Though it is winter in Burma, the daytime temps in Yangon will still push into the high 80's or 90's. At this hour, however, it is still relatively cool and I am surprised by the number of people out jogging, stretching, doing Tai Chi or, like me, headed to nearby Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most spectacular sites in the Buddhist world.
Over 12 acres in size, Shwedagon itself is a complex of temples and pavilions arranged around one central temple that is 322 feet in height and covered with gold. It is said that this central temple is covered with more gold than is in all of the vaults of the Bank of England. Images and statues of Buddhas and other religious figures number into the thousands. Nearly half of all visitors to Burma visit Shwedagon at least once during their stay in the country. To the Burmese, it is a place of great religious significance which most Burmese will hope to visit at least once in their lifetime.
As I wait for the sun to rise, Shwedagon is a calm, serene place. Monks, nuns and lay people alike recite prayers, light candles or just sit in reverence in front of whichever Buddha or religious figure holds the most significance to them. Shwegadon is one of the first places where recently released pro-democracy advocate and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi was seen in public for the first time in seven years.
As I walk around Yangon it seems to me that Burma may be to Asia what Cuba is to Latin America and for many of the same reasons. One of the most corrupt and oppressive governments on earth and the economic sanctions against it by the U.S. and most countries in the West has retarded Burma's economic growth.
Dilapidated buildings and vehicles are just some of the signs of British colonialism throughout Yangon and many other parts of Burma that create a feeling of melancholy in this otherwise lively city. Despite the brutality of its leaders, the Burmese people still exude a spirit that is largely rooted in their heritage as Buddhists.
Burma was first exposed to Buddhism in the 3rd century and its history is told even today by the incredible number of ancient and modern temples and monasteries found throughout this country comprised of over 60 cultural groups and sub-groups.
Nowhere in Burma is this history more evident than Bagan, which is home to more than 4,000 temples dating as far back as 1,000 years...all within an area just 25-square miles in size.
If you were to combine Tibet (monks and temples) with Hawaii (palm trees and papayas) and Moab (sandstone and red dirt) you would have a pretty good idea what Bagan is like.
Some temples and statues have been renovated. It is not, however, uncommon to come across statues and a few old wall frescoes that date back to the 11th, 12th or 13th centuries.
Some of the temples are massive and tower as much as 200 feet above the plains through which the Irrawadday River makes its way to the Andaman Sea. Many are much more modest. A variety of layouts and designs reflect different design influences that took place over approximately 300-400 years.
Around Bagan, horse carts and bicycle taxis transport locals and tourists alike. Most of the population resides in rudimentary structures made of thatched bamboo. Agriculture is the main livelihood.
Life is hard, yet the people exhibit a civility and modesty that is found in few other places.
Monks and nuns walk the streets and pathways in the early morning hours collecting alms. A newly opened meditation research center is testament to the spirituality and ethics that permeates daily life. Women and even some men wear a skin treatment made form the thanaka tree that is both decorative and a skin conditioner. Many men still wear longyi, a skirt-like garment.
Unfortunately, when speaking of Burma you cannot omit the element of fear and oppression that is also part of daily life. It may not be readily visible, yet it is there.
One business owner told me of a tour guide who was "taken away" for having been overheard speaking negatively about the ruling junta. His whereabouts is still unknown two years later.
Many say that encouragement by the government for people to openly participate in the democratic process is simply a way for the generals to more easily identify its foes.
The one institution that most Burmese put the most faith in is the monastic body of monks and nuns, of which there are over 500,000 residing in over 50,000 monasteries throughout the country.
It was monks that initiated the peaceful demonstrations in 2007 over a sudden doubling of gas prices by the government. The government responded with brutality by killing 31 and imprisoning nearly 3,000.
Paradoxically, Burma is also home to some of the most renown meditation schools in the world. At one time, the government even issued a special visa for meditation students.
As one author wrote about Tibet, the supreme irony for a culture in which compassion and kindness are valued above everything else is that it should be so easily dominated by brute force.
I hope that Burma finds a way to realize its true potential economically and spiritually. It is an incredible place to visit and one I hope to return to again.
For reference, the Lonely Planet guidebook on Myanmar gives a great overview of politics and religion in Burma. Also of interest is the NPR program "Speaking of Faith" from Nov. 1, 2007, called "Burma: Buddhism and Power." Documentary film, "Burma VJ" available from Netflix. More photos at www.bobwinsett.com