July 31, 2012


Filed under: Asia

It happened that someone asked me what I liked to do for my birthday, if I went away, enjoyed a dinner with friends, threw a party. I answered that I like to journey to a place I’ve never been before, to enrich and bless myself in new and enlightened ways. But where? A tough choice as the world becomes increasingly smaller and less divine with each passing day.
Fast forward to an early morning, waking up to sounds of tropical birds stirring in the distance. A warm, misty heat rising from the horizon, the sun creeping up over the tops of the pagodas, temples and stupas – over 2,000 of them – spread out on a lush, green plain of mature trees and flowering plants on the banks of the Ayeyawaddy River. This is Bagan, central Burma, and I feel peacefully alone in the energy of this 11th-century former capital, one of Asia’s most extraordinary places.

“Don’t go there” says the stay-at-home, advice-giving, know-it-all. I have heard it my whole life, and this destination is no exception. The country is rife with corruption; the military is a brutal, repressive regime. I know this but like most places that make the short list, I define what is safe, and ultimately what I must bear witness to and invariably experience for myself. Experiencing firsthand has to be the most fulfilling revelation of travel.

Dressed in light shorts, a T-shirt, and armed with a daypack and water, I make my way barefoot out to the oxcart that is waiting to bring me to a secret location. The driver is wonderfully wizened and smoking a cheroot – a local mini-cigar – which is smoky sweet and permeates the already aromatic morning air. Silhouetted by the rising sun are hundreds of saffron-robed monks of all ages and sizes, walking silently along the country paths, towards temples and each holding an alms bowl, in these parts made of laquerware, the famous cottage industry of Burma. They are practitioners, teachers, and at different times and places, supreme educators.

I arrive at an open area, the sun just barely creeping high enough to make out that what lies out in front of me is something extraordinary. I get out of the oxcart, feel the velvety, dewy grass under my feet and climb into a giant wicker basket the size of a small European car. Surrounding me are young monks who have gathered around, whose likeliness I have seen hundreds – thousands – of times in the paintings, frescoes and depictions of Buddha and his many incarnations throughout Burma. It’s a living museum of descendancy, and I feel as though I am being blessed a thousand times, over and over again.

The magnificent hot air balloon rises in utter silence save for the occasional punch of gas flame that propels it into the air. I am aloft, the air and breeze so perfect it feels like a gentle caress on my cheek. I must be an honorary phoenix that rises to start the day in peace, tranquility and exultation. The plain expands out before my eyes and I get a 360 of the most splendid array of spires rising to the heavens above. Utter awe. This is what it must feel like when you attain Nirvana, another state of bliss or peace, attained while passing into another kind of existence. There are no words. I look every which way and perfection invades me, humbles me, makes me want to keep this sensual moment forever, and remember that this is how I spent my birthday.

If the hot air balloon ride over the plains of Bagan was other worldly, then the rest of what I experienced in Burma exist in the heavens beyond that. Inle Lake is a strange place situated at 2,950 feet in the mountains of Shan State. It is a mere 14 miles long, 6 miles wide and only 12 feet deep. The Intha people have built their villages of bamboo and wooden dwellings on stilts on the lake. They sustain themselves by cultivating floating gardens of vegetables by joining beds of water hyacinth and flotsam which are anchored to the bottom with bamboo poles. The unpolluted lake is famous for its leg-rowing fishermen and magnificent temples including a monastery whose monks train cats to jump through hoops. It’s true, and surprisingly fun to watch, especially the monks. There is a weekly rotating market on the lake where authentic and untouched hill tribes descend to sell and buy wares. A walk among them is like a scene from a Fellini movie, but with a fine Asian touch.
Mandalay is situated in central Myanmar, on the eastern bank of the Ayeyawaddy River and about 415 miles due north of the capital Yangon, or colonial Rangoon. It is the second largest city in Myanmar and the last capital of the Myanmar Dynasty. The city remains the center of Buddhism and of Myanmar culture, and perpetuates traditional crafts such as gold leaf beating, marble stone and wood carving, silk and tapestry weaving.

Bama, Burma and now Myanmar, the name reflects the thousands of glittering, golden temples and the wealth of natural resources, from teak, oil, jade and rubies to some of the richest farmland in Asia. It’s a place that has been violated by the regime, isolated and ostracized by the international community and travelers alike, but a visit here is essential in understanding the spirit, soul and resilience of the people that are the backbone of this ancient and revered culture and land.

Leaving home and traveling abroad means a loss of innocence, uncertainty, and change. It is only when looking back that I see how I have grasped new found ideas and rekindled a sense of discovery. I celebrated another birthday not long ago and was instantly transported back to that birthday in Bagan, when I had a feeling of utter completeness and peace. How do I keep that feeling alive, how do I perpetuate the momentum of positive change? Keep having birthdays.

Next: Beyond birthdays: why do some many cultures prepare for life after death; what do they know that we don’t?

Richard Koegl
Written By : Richard Koegl

For almost three decades, Richard Koegl has journeyed extensively, back and forth to over 120 countries on all seven continents. His world is a daily immersion in cultural and educational realms which he passionately shares with fellow travelers and friends.

Richard Koegl has written 2 articles

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