heiko rudolph

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impressions of Myanmar 2005

Think not that dreams appear to the dreamer only at night:
the dream of this world of pain appears to us even by day

(Yoru bakari Miru mono nari to Omou-nayo!
Hiru saë yumé no Ukiyo nari-kéri.)
     OLD JAPANESE POEM.- Tx  by Lafcadio Hearn 1899

Atmosphere: What makes a beautiful dream different, what makes it beautiful ? Is it the events that take place in the dream ? It's more than that, - its an indefinable quality that permeates everything that happens in the dream. It soaks all through the dream.

Travelling in Myanmar was like that for me. The people there are no worse or better than here, but the atmosphere in that place is of ancient antiquity. Ancient ways of knowing and thinking, of feeling and being. Travelling in Myanmar, I smelt the past, felt the old ways soak through my skin, the influence of old kingdoms that rose and fell there over thousands of years. Tantalizingly just out of reach. I can't tell you what it is, as in a dream that quality is intangible but FEELS real.

There is an old and ancient knowledge buried in Myanmar.

What draws me to Myanmar is the ‘different-ness' of it. It is truly a hidden “island”, where the modern ways are only slowly slowly seeping in. No MacDonalds & such, no internet, no mobile phones, no rampant commercialism, well….not yet. The week has 8 days there. Numerology is important, 35 and 75 Kyat (money) notes were common a few years ago. The whole country switched from driving on the left to driving on the right overnight, because the top man said so. He said so because his fortune teller told him to take the country to the right.... so goes the story anyway.

(NB: actually there are mobile phones but SIM cards cost USD$4000, yes that's four thousand, phones cost the same as here, income average is ~USD$30/month)

Going to Europe or North America is different from Australia, of course, yet compared to Myanmar, its only a different room in the same house. Myanmar is a different city, - ‘different' in that indefinable way.... which will not stop me from trying to tell you about it, trying to convey something of that ‘otherness' that ‘uniqueness'.

Looking back Myanmar has always brought out strong passions and feelings in me. My first chance of visiting Myanmar was just after high school. I passed it by. Then age 40, confused at heart, I bit the bullet and followed a strange urge to go there ‘come what may'. When I left for Myanmar I hoped not to return to Australia for a long time, to live in Asia perhaps all of my life.

I'd travelled and worked in Asia and Japan, but on my first day in Myanmar, I just wanted to hide in the hotel room, take a taxi to the airport and fly back to Bangkok. I was shocked at myself. What had come over me ? Where was the experienced traveller I thought I was ? Gone! It was a classic case of culture shock. I was amazed at myself, after travelling for years in Asia, here I was a dithering wreck hiding in the bed.

Once I got a grip on culture shock, I was hooked. The place was so amazingly different. It was hard to believe it was real, that such unique otherness still existed in this modern world.

There was Bagan the dry desert land with more temples in one place than anywhere in the world with an atmosphere that is almost eerie.

It was in Bagan (and later Mrauk-U) that I felt and saw in actual real life, children playing, people walking, evening cooking smells, scenes of such domestic peace and beauty, my 'perfect' idea of a peaceful, happy life, like a memory of real happiness come alive for just an instant. There was no hurry, no pulling, no discontent, no yammering and so on... etc... it was people just being and doing their thing,... alive and swimming in ancient energies.... rare special moments...

400 years ago, Mrauk U was a glorious powerful capital rivalling London and Amsterdam with a navy of thousands of ships. Now November 2005, this city is an ‘old grandmother', basking in the sun, bringing up lots and lots children, in a quiet backwater village broken up by canals and waterways every 30 meters. Curious, laughing, smiling children are everywhere. I am a white foreigner, of the same ‘type' as those colonial masters that dominated the country for hundreds of years. Yet I can walk safely anywhere, explore the alleys, the back roads, and people smile at me, children shout greetings, and then go back to their games. No one begs. They are busy, they have their own lives. They are not like children in the modern world. There is no anger and rebellion of the type I know from my own country, no such ‘lost-ness' that I can see and I think I'm good at spotting it by now.

At 6:30pm when its totally dark the electricity for the whole town comes on. At 9:30pm the lights flicker three times. It's the signal. Five minutes later all lights everywhere go out. Only torches and candles and car batteries running love voltage neons provide bare minimum lighting. Walking along the road, I whistle and sing loudly, bicycles, cars, ox carts pop up in the pale light out my torch beam as I walk 1km back to my hotel room.

I sit in the evening sun, on a bridge over the many many waterways of Mrauk U, writing in my diary. A man comes from his house, brings me a torch as the light fails, so I can keep writing. “Would I like to join them for dinner ?”,

I feel afraid for the people here, they do not know the world I come from, they do not know what is waiting out there beyond their borders. I want to protect them.... - how ? what can ‘i' do ? perhaps that's just arrogance....

After a few days there I sleep deeper and feel healthier than I can ever remember.

There are festivals and fairs in Myanmar all the time. In the evening everyone in town streams to a field by a waterway. Nothing else to do, I follow. Slapstick comedy, acts on a stage, singing, dancing, more singing. I surprise myself by enjoying it. Food stalls, games of chance and skill. I can't see any other foreigners here, yet I can just mingle and be part of the scene. I get surprised looks for a moment then people just continue. I've never felt a part of a group of people like this before. Looking around I see how one lady prepares the Betlenut leaves with lime and spices. The people here have something special, they ARE in it, they swim in it. I feel as though I've gone back to the world of then ancients that Chiron talked about in the 1998 Gathering. This was real, I was in the midst of it – I was dreaming a waking dream....life is a dream after all.

It seems corny to say I felt ‘love' for everyone around me, for their lifestyle, for them as they are – again that feeling of wanting to protect them, knowing what the modern world will do to this place when it gets in. Sooner or later it will come and take from them something precious they don't even know they have and give them something else they thought they wanted, but which will turn out to be empty and pointless in the end. It seems to be the way we humans learn...

I stand in the darkness, only cooking fires and small battery powered globes to light up the teeming fairground. I watch the surprise on the faces of people when they suddenly realize that here is a foreigner in their midst. We smile at each other and they move on. I have the sense that they are even pleased to see a foreigner who wants to come to their fair. I don't want to talk to anyone, its enough to just be here, observe, feel part of it all. Strange how its possible to be totally private in the midst of a sea of people in a fair filled with sound and the smells of cooking fires. In Australia, I love sitting in busy Cafés writing or drawing, left alone but in the middle of it all.

There is not space to tell you about the family I got to know at the fair ground, and then met them again in town the next day. No time to talk of the time in the local restaurant when a group of University students on an excursion invites me to join them. A tiny lady student in fine silks with exquisite poise and confidence approaches me in perfect English and helps me order from the many choices on the menu. She loves showing off her English to her friends and explains the dishes to me.

The next day I happen to walk past a shop selling brass images of Shiva, the Buddha etc.. . Tourists from small minivans pile out and into the shop. A leather faced hawker offers me ‘special discounts' for his brass figures. A pickup truck (a ‘Ute' with benches and a roof in the back) full of local people is waiting next to the minivan. He offers his wares to the people waiting in the truck. They pass the figures around looking at them. One of the them is a young monk, he looks at the figure of Shiva and shyly longingly runs his thumb over her chest in an absent minded dreamy way. The woman next to him saw it and she elbows him in the side and tells him to behave himself. Everyone chuckles. He quickly passes the brass statue on. No big deal. No one's bought anything.

The tourists pile back into their van. I keep going. The pickup chugs past me. I pretend not to see the tourists in the van, its part of the unwritten rules of the road, tourists must ignore each other, each pretending that they are here alone, the first and only ones to discover this exotic location. Anyway I look down on package tours and they probably look down on grubby backpackers doing it dirt cheap.

“Mandaly”, you have often appeared in my travels. The former Royal Capital Mandalay is where the Mahamuni Buddha lives, one of the great sacred images of Burma. Literally covered in inches of pure gold leaf, his picture can be seen dangling from many rear view mirrors and sitting on family altars. I felt a question was asked of me there, and I made a promise.

Two years later I was back again and didn't do what I'd been asked to. Energy lashes can be very painful, very real.

I'd visited Mandalay at other times and each time I'd refused to go into the Royal Palace. Finally in 2005 it dawned on me that I was supposed to visit that Palace (talk about ‘thick' and slow in ‘getting it'). Once I entered I knew I had lived there before. I found out much that still gives me lots to think about.

Then there is Mount Poppa, the steep rock peak rising straight out of the ground, a temple on top (of course). It was a picture of Mt Poppa that made me first really decide to travel to Myanmar. This is where the guardian spirits of the whole country live. The center of an amazing tradition of medium ship. In this country: every village has a spirit medium. Centuries of customs are built around it. The statues of the guardian spirits there seemed more alive than any I'd ever seen. I made sure I was on my best behaviour around them.

Then there is Moulmain (Mwalamine) that city of those old songs, city by the sea. The name alone was enough to draw me there – a name of myth and legends – back in 1999, I suddenly realized that it was really possible to hop on a plane and go there....! The train that takes you the 250km from Yangon to Moulmain has to go at a jogger's pace. The tracks are so uneven that the carriages bounce from side to side, lifting you off your hard wooden seat and slamming you down on the next bounce while you are still in mid air. Any faster and it would all just jump off the tracks totally. When I finally arrived, 12 hours later and after crossing a broad river by ferry, its as though time had stood still and I almost expected the British East India company to still operate there. Cars came by every minute or so. Old decaying colonial buildings by the sea. At 6am precisely, everyone in the whole hotel clears their throats thoroughly and deeply. Without prompting the owner lends me an old English inspirational book of 1944. It had some simple advice in it that is still with me. Did I have to go to Moulmain for that ? did I really look that much in need of inspiration ?

The great Shwe-Dagon Pagoda of Yangon is huge, impressive, it has something special about it. Pictures of the Shwe-Dagon, Bagan and Mount Poppa were what first called me to Myanmar.

The old old city of Pyay, at the crossroads of river and highways - I'd passed it by many times believing other's stories that there was ‘nothing much to see there'. “Yea sure !“; don't believe other's stories! History, ancient kingdoms and the feeling that of all the cities in Myanmar this one most spoke to me. This one was a dream within a dream. There is nothing I can pinpoint, but there was a lot to feel. I could live there for two years. I'd like to. I've offered it to the ethers.

I felt safe in that country, safer than in any modern Western country. Nearly everyone I met spoke English. Of course you need to keep your wits about you. The Burmese are a sophisticated people, who had common laws, female/male initiated divorce and equal sharing of property for women when the British Colonists did not even allow their women to vote or own property.

In no other place in the world (including Europe, Australia, USA) have I seen such a natural balance between men and women in daily life. Gender seems not to be an issue.

Everyone comes & goes to the teahouses and sits and drinks tea on small stools.

Every little hill has a Buddhist stupa on it, monks in dark orange and nuns in pink walk everywhere.

You ONLY hear Burmese language music, Western pop music is translated, even if the melody is from The Beatles or Madonna, the words are Burmese.

Most important but hardest to talk about are the people I met on my first visit in 1999. Some have become friends I've visited every time since, they make the visits special.

Sitting in Yangon on the roof garden of my hotel (USD$8/night), the one and only FM radio station in this city of 9million plays music of 90 to 70 years ago before closing down at 10:30pm. One night the music took me back to that time of the British Raj, - going to fancy balls in Rangoon, officers and ladies. So much has happened since then. What will others look back on in 80 years time ? when I too am long gone and just a memory evoked by the warm evening breeze.

I should point out: satellite dishes abound everywhere. Radio is old technology. No one bothers. Its all propaganda anyway, only Short wave BBC and Voice of America carry any news that Burmese take more seriously.

There is so much more... and not enough space to write it all down.

Politics: Mention “Burma” and likely images of the beautiful ‘princess' Aug San Suu Kyi unjustly imprisoned by a beastly military government spring to mind. In the English speaking world this image is promoted as a clear cut case in which we can safely judge who is ‘wrong' and who is ‘right'. It is the country who's government everyone loves to hate. Feel the need to vent some self righteous indignation and want to ‘do your bit' for justice in the world ? Then just thunder against the ‘evil dictatorship of Burma'. No need to look deeper, everyone will agree with you and nod sagely. Myanmar (Burma) is the ‘bad boy', the whipping boy of SE Asia against whom we can all let out our rightful indignation.

....Truth and further truth...

Most tourists I met were Europeans, where the political correctness regarding Myanmar is not as strong as in the English speaking world.

Myanmar showed me that once the ancient world did exist. Even Myanmar only holds a pale shadow of those times, but it still has much that is lost to the rest of the world. I hope not too many people rush to visit, and that those who do, do so respectfully. It too is changing fast.

Only in Yangon was I bothered by beggars, where many tourists are there can the beggars be found. The Burmese are proud that no one starves in the streets in Burma.

Those who are interested to see actual photos of Myanmar in 2005 go to:

http://heikorudolph.com/ and click on the link: “ Myanmar Nov2005 pictures

Stories and pictures of travels Myanamar can be found on the link: Stories of Myanmar 2005 just below.

Travel tips : travel in Myanmar can be slow & tough unless you fly a lot (and that too is slow-ish). Major roads can be just dirt tracks, a day or two on a bus or a boat is nothing unusual. If you go: take your time, take your own food, don't hurry, go slowly. Don't expect Western comforts, timetables, or customs. Read the Lonely Planet guidebook, or something similar. If you still have questions: email: heiko.rudolph@rmit.edu.au

This is one man's impression, it's not politically correct, its not scientifically correct, its not even trying to be !

Based on Heiko's travels in Myanmar (Burma) from 13Nov to 10Dec 2005.

NB: Myanmar is the old name for Burma. When the British Empire invaded (colonized) the country for economic reasons they changed the name to ‘Burma'. ‘Yangon' is the old name for what the British called ‘Rangoon'.

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© 2003 heiko rudolph


'dance me to the children that are asking to be born....'    Leonard Cohen