Buddhism is practiced by 90% of the population in Myanmar and has been practiced here for over 2000 years. Buddhists focus on the teachings of Gautama Buddha. He’s that serene, calm looking man sitting crossed legged found across most of Asia; the rotund, gold, bald one you’ve seen at your local Chinese restaurant is his future reincarnation. He was a monk who took to the practice of meditation to understand suffering, death, rebirth and karma. It is said he achieved Nirvana and enlightenment; thus beginning his teachings and Buddhism was born. The main ideas are to achieve personal spiritual development. This in turn helps to overcome suffering caused by endless cycle death and rebirth.
Monks and Monastic schools are all over Myanmar. You cannot walk down the street without seeing at least one of them, their shaved heads bouncing around in the back of a pick up truck with all the other locals. They wear maroon or orange coloured robes, with the nuns wearing pink. Monastic schools have a long history in Myanmar, but today they are primarily used to supplement the government education system by providing basic education to under-privileged or orphaned children, many from very remote areas of the country. Their fees are payed by donation and whatever their parents are able to afford.
We met a monk-in-training (named Jerry) on Mandalay hill (a lookout point) who invited us to his school. There are over 1200 monastic schools in Myanmar, teaching over 100,000 kids. His school houses 8000 of them. It’s a fairly large building and receives a large portion of it’s donations from companies in Germany and Australia. Still, it’s in pretty rough shape, with 15 kids per bedroom, small desks and broken windows. The kids look happy and have an amazing ability to tie their robes to create many different outfits. We will have more insight after the next few weeks after our own teaching experience at a different school.
All across the country people are happy and excited; it’s party time! Tazaungdaing festival (also known as the lights festival) is held on the full moon day in the eighth month of the Buddhist calendar. It marks the end of the rainy season and is celebrated across the country as a national holiday. People celebrate with robe weaving competitions, lighting candles and releasing hot air balloons. On a smaller scale, children and families line the streets asking for donations to prepare a feast and go to pagodas across the land to pray.
The actions taken to get donations vary from nothing to quite elaborate. There is simple shaking of a silver dish to dressing up in large paper-mâché outfits. Elephants, turtles, and odd looking fat people dance on the street trying to get people passing by in cars to throw money at them.
Many people do throw small bills (100 kyat- 5 cents Canadian) at them as they blow by on a motorbike. Others will draw a rope and make a barrier across the road, only relenting after a few moments of loud honking.
We arrived to Myanmar just in time for the party, though little did we know. We arranged for a driver to take us to many of the highlights of Mandalay and surrounding areas. The roads were lined with people and this made the journey both very entertaining, and very long. Our poor driver was tasked with navigating between elephants, darting children, wild dogs and hoards of people swarming to the pagodas.
Now in most places going anywhere touristy on a National Holiday would be a nightmare, but here it was a spectacle. There are definitely very few tourists here. Most fly in and go straight away to some temples on the river ( where we’ll go there in a few weeks), but few stick around Mandalay. This means that the vast majority of the people were locals who were practicing their own traditions.
They are decorated with beautiful skirts, and their smiling cheeks are smudged with thanakha, a tree bark paste that is both for beauty and sunblock. They were happy to see us as well, with many stares throughout the day and a few brave souls coming up and asking for selfies. What is not so beautiful about them is their teeth. They chew betel nut, which is somewhat similar to chewing tobacco that is mixed with some spices and rolled up in banana leaf. The issue with this is that it stains your teeth a dark reddish black that make it look like they could fall out at any second. I don’t have a photo of that yet; it’s a little awkward asking if you can take a photo of someone’s teeth. I’ll have to be sneaky about it… I’ll keep you posted.
Myanmar promises to be an extremely interesting adventure.