When he first saw the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon (now Yangon), Rudyard Kipling imagined the golden pagoda saying to him, “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.”
It’s hard to decide how to write this travel update. We have many friends that have been to Burma, and they’ve told us this country is special. But now, having been here for just a few days, we understand what they were saying. Burma is the kindest, friendliest, most gentle and beautiful place we’ve ever been to. No joke.
In Burma, genuine kindness seeps from every corner. Soft smiles are given frequently and freely everywhere. This country exudes a friendliness we’ve never experienced before. So we like it here. One of the sweetest surprises is how much appreciation is shown by Burmese when you wear a longyi. Yes, this means Scott walks around town every day in a longyi (a.k.a. a skirt). Karen loves wearing skirts, so she’s very happy here, especially. People point to your longyi and give you the thumbs up, they wave and smile, and a few times people have stopped us to say, “Very nice!” People on buses hang their thumbs up out of the windows when they go by. Once, when we entered a store and went up the escalator, a woman coming down the opposite way smiled and said, “So nice! You look so cute!” Young and old, men and women, everyone seems to love seeing a foreigner dressing the local way. A driver explained to us that people are very pleased and feel respected by it. “Also,” he said, “They think it looks so good.”
We’re fortunate we were able to come to Burma now. With so much world-wide attention, this place is already changing quickly. Just three years ago a foreign tourist was a rare site, even in Yangon. Now, large tour groups are swarming the country. A local Burmese meditator who is also a travel agent told us that this year over a million people visited Bagan and Inle Lake (the two places most frequented by tourists in Burma). They come in big tour groups, and they occupy all the local hotels. A word of advice to anyone planning to visit Burma: book your hotel early, very early, like three months before you come; especially if you have a particular place that you like.
Thanks to a recommendation by our friends Gillian and Ron, we’ve been staying at the Classique Inn, a stylish and comfortable guest house. Great location, lovely staff, great breakfast, and lots of help.
But it has been the generous help of a fellow meditator named Ollie and the warm welcome of the volunteers at Dhamm Joti, the Vipassana centre in Yangon, that has made our first few days in Burma very special.
We first met Ollie in 2010 at Dhamma Padhana in the UK. He is one of the volunteer centre managers there. We met him again just before we sat our most recent long course. He told us he was returning to Burma around the same time we’d be there. He’s been here twice before, but this time he was accompanied by his sister and mother on their first visit. Lucky for us, we were able to tag along with him and his family.
One of our first stops was Dhamma Joti to obtain letters that state we are Vipassana meditators associated with the centre. These letters help us gain entry to places not ordinarily accessible by the average tourist, such as monasteries in Upper Burma, or free entry to some sites, such as Shwedagon Pagoda, which would normally be five dollars USD per person, per visit.
Shwedagon is the most incredible religious structure we’ve ever seen (and we’ve seen quite a few). Soaring 100 m high, the pagoda’s gold enshrouded spire dominates the Yangon skyline. It’s also a bit of a historical mystery, with the earliest historical references dating to sometime between the 6th and 11th centuries AD, although it is commonly believed to be more than 2000 years old. Ollie had guided us around Shwedagon our first time there, and showed us some great places to sit early in the morning.
So, each morning we leave our guest house at 4:00 am, walk to the Golden City Hotel near Dhamma Joti to meet our friend Diane and sometimes others, and we walk to Shwedagon Pagoda to meditate there from 5:00 am to 6:00 am.
Our photos will explain some of the other places we’ve visited, but we really want to tell you about the Hninzigone Home for the Aged. On Ollie’s last journey to Burma, he went to visit a respected elderly Vipassana teacher named U Thein Aung. Ollie wanted to visit him again and invited us to come along. U Thein Aung lives at Hninzigone, an incredible non-profit home for the elderly. It provides residences and full medical care for 310 elderly men and women aged 70 and older, free of charge. U Thein Aung later explained, “there is room for 100 grandpas and 150 grandmas in the residences, and 60 grandmas and grandpas (aged 80 and older) in the hospital).” To qualify for a home at Hninzigone, the residents must have no other means of support and no family to care for them.
On the day of our visit, the home was having its annual festival to raise money for the care and maintenance of the facility. We were greeted at the entrance by the sweetest woman, asked by U Thein Aung to show us around. When we asked her name, she told us it was way too long for us to pronounce. So, she said we could call her Apwa Yi (grandma Yi).
Grandma Yi gave us an energetic tour of the residence and the various facilities, introducing us to a variety of the residents, all of whom were both surprised and delighted to see six foreigners wandering around in their home. The best thing of all (for us) was the huge meditation hall where well over a hundred residents sit in meditation three times a day.
When our tour ended, we were escorted to the room of U Thein Aung. He had prepared a sitting room for all of us where we could chat in private. He then told us much about the early days of lay meditation in Burma. He had learned meditation from the revered meditation teacher, Sayagyi U Ba Khin, the same teacher who taught our principal teacher, S.N. Goenka. U Thein Aung’s first course was in 1959 when he was just 21. Later, after the passing of Sayagyi U Ba Khin, U Thein Aung became a teacher under S.N. Goenka. Our hour-long chat was fascinating and lovely. It was very easy to see that U Thein Aung had been practicing meditation for his whole life. Despite being quite ill, and in considerable pain due to nerve weakness in his joints, he was light and calm and happy. He just radiated loving kindness. It was quite inspiring to be with him. He is revered by local Burmese. While we were with him, a couple came into the foyer and approached respectfully. He paused the story he was telling us and simply said, “they just come for a bit.” Then he motioned kindly to them and spoke softly in Burmese. They didn’t say much. Instead they just took off their shoes, kneeled down and bowed in front of him three times to pay respect to U Thein Aung. He just smiled at them, then they said goodbye and left. He then resumed his story where he left off.
We didn’t want to keep him too long, although all of us could have stayed for longer, so we reluctantly thanked him and said goodbye. Before we left, he told us to visit one of the food stalls set up outside for the festival. He had arranged for some traditional Shan food for us. When we went outside and found the stall being run by a woman named Nang Si Phong, she greeted us enthusiastically.
We looked up at the second-story window into U Thein Aung’s room where we saw him watching with a big smile on his face and a friendly wave to us. The food was delicious.
Our time so far here has been just like this. Our photos (see below) will tell you more of the details. We have one more day here in Yangon before we board a bus to take a long journey north to Upper Burma. We’ll update if and when we can.