Road to Mandalay

In the spring of 2003, Jean and I took a tour in Asia.  It included Singapore, Bangkok, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia and Sri Lanka.

After a couple of short overnight stops, our flight took us to Mandalay in Burma.  On our flights there was echoing in our ears the voice of Nelson Eddy singing “On the Road to Mandalay” from an operatic movie.  The lyrics were from a Rudyard Kipling poem and spoke of “where the flying fishes play.”

A few years previously, while in Thailand, a few miles from the Burmese border, we had been warned that Americans were not allowed to cross the border.  Thai nationals could go only five miles across the border because the military had taken over the government.   The military was  still in change but tourists were now welcome.

We did not know anyone who had been to Burma.  It was best known to us by the “Burma Shave” signs which were along the roadsides everywhere we drove in our younger days.  During WWII, in the news we often heard of the Burma Road.  It was the primary supply line into India from the then British Colony, Burma.  The Japanese occupied the colony and closed the road..  To remedy this, US General Claire Chennault and the heroic “Flying Tigers” flew supplies over the Hump (Eastern Himalayan Mountains) to Allied troops in India.

As we were bussed from the airport to the hotel, in the distance, we noticed many patches of burnt orange.  Jean expressed surprise that there were so many supporters of the Texas Longhorns so far away from Austin.  She was disappointed when we got closer to the orange color and found that was the color of the flowing robes of shaven headed Buddhist monks .

That first afternoon, we had leisure time so I took a tour of the hotel and its large campus as well as the surrounding area.  About an hour and a half later I returned to our room and was startled by Jean’s yelling “Help me”.  I found her stuck in the small Burmese bath tub.  She had struggled for a long time but could not free herself.  I grabbed her under her arms and tugged and pulled until I freed her from her captivity.  Needless to say, she and I took showers only on the rest of our trip.

Buddhist monksIncluded in our next day’s activities was a visit to a Buddhist monastery.  There we  viewed a long line of monks each with a bowl in their hands waiting to enter the dining hall for breakfast.  We were told that after breakfast the monks take their bowls and infiltrate the whole area spreading friendship and begging for their food for the rest of the day.

We were given a talk about Buddhism.  We learned that it is not a religion but a philosophy of intellectual awakening of wisdom and love.  Buddha was a mortal who expressed this awakening philosophy and millions of people still honor him and follow his beliefs.

We were also told that statues of his likeness are used to symbolize human perfection.  His followers gather around the many stupas, pagodas and temples to show respect to someone they admire.  These actions appear to us non-believers to be worship.

The clerics do not promise a life hereafter.  It is  believed that a person’s  degree of awakening determines who or what he will be in their next life.  The rebirth continues until they reach Nirvana, a life of perfection.  A few years earlier in Bangkok, our guide expressed her opinion that Nirvana was to be reborn as an American tourist.  That certainly would not be my concept of perfection.

Jimmy photo 4Soon thereafter, we were taken to a  nearby small building which housed several women who were Buddhist nuns.  On the street they were seen in flowing pale pink tunics over bright orange robes carrying trays of items on their head.  I did not understand what their duties were.

 

monks on bridgeWe went to a historic fragile looking bridge  which was 4,000 feet long and crossed the Taungthaman Lake.  It was about twenty feet above the water level and appeared to me to be supported by very tall uneven length railroad ties.  We learned that the bridge was made of teak and was the oldest such bridge in the world. We walked on it for a short distance and found it to be very sturdy.  We were told that the traffic is very heavy in the mornings and evenings with monks going and coming from their daily tasks.  We were so enthralled by the bridge that we bought a simple water color painting of it with a couple of monks crossing it with their begging bowls in hand.  We had it framed and it now has a place of honor above the mantle of our living room fireplace.

Traveling through the countryside, we saw a tremendous number of Buddhist stupas, pagoda and temples.  Practically all of them were isolated and void of people.  Our bus stopped at a dome shaped stupa where there were many people gathered.  The area surrounding structure is considered holy so we were required to walk barefooted over the terrifically hot ground and pavement so that the holiness could penetrate our bodies.We removed our sandals and followed the believers clockwise around the pagoda where we viewed carved activities of Buddha and other devout persons.

We had been asked to remove our sandals and shoes so that the holiness of the ground and pavement surrounding the pagoda we were visiting could penetrate our bodies. After viewing the carvings, we hot footed it back to the shade where we had left our sandals. I put on my sandals and was returning to the bus when Jean yelled to me that her sandals must have been taken by someone. She thought that she had found them, but a native lady gave her a dirty look and claimed them as her own. The thought of going barefooted the rest of the day was bringing tears to her eyes, but she was saved by our bus driver who came to her and reminded her that she had left her sandals on the bus. Not much was heard out of her the rest of the day.

One day as we were traveling through a fairly populated area, our guide asked if we would like to observe a wedding. We stopped at an auditorium that held seating for a few hundred people. We arrived in the balcony just as the ceremony was concluding.

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We were seen by the wedding party and invited to join the reception and buffet. We were greeted by the beautiful and charming bride and groom. I restrained myself and did not ask to kiss the bride. We mingled with the guests and enjoyed strange but wonderful food. This was an example of the friendliness of all the Burmese people we met.

We arrived in Rangoon (Yangon) to find a typical large Asian city. Again, we found much to remind us of the country’s Buddhist tradition. We were taken to a large building which house the huge world known reclining Buddha. It must have been a block long. It was interesting but not particularly wonderful to me.

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We were then taken to the center of the city to the most beautiful sight I saw in all of Burma. It was the gorgeous gilded giant 2600 year old Shwedagon Pagoda with a large dome and spiral 368 feet high. We were told the inside the pagoda were eight hairs from the body of Buddha. Closely surrounding it were many smaller gilded stupas. Strolling on the large plaza were crowds of people.

Jimmy photoIt was a strange sight to watch the enormous plaza being swept. There must have been four or five lines of twenty or more people sweeping with crudely made brooms. The lines were closely behind the one in front of them. Apparently, it was an act of honor rather than one of sanitation.

We were sad when we were taken to view the home of Aung San Suu Kiji where she had been under home arrest for fifteen years. After the election of the backers of a democratic government, the military took over and Aung San Suu Kiji was placed under arrest. Just recently, I read that the Democrats have returned to rule and this remarkable Nobel prize winning lady plans to run for president in 2015.

We were fortunate to spend a couple of nights in the renowned Strand Hotel. It is a modernized British Victorian hotel, and it was run to be treated as a guest of that period.

This visit to Burma ended with one of the most romantic experiences I could ever imagine. Our group was rowed across a beautiful lake at eventide to a private home on a peninsula from which we could hear the music of a band. There we were met by a few prominent people including the U.S. Charge D’affaires. Since the U.S. did not recognize the Burmese government, and there was no ambassador, this lady was the head person for our country. That was a wonderful evening of wining, dining, and dancing.

We left Burma with admiration for the people and the clerics and monks in their crusade for awakening. How much more joyful and abundant I believe their lives could be if their efforts were for God and Jesus. There is a spark of Christianity in the area. I saw a few Christian churches in Rangoon, including a Methodist one.

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JIM PERSHALL

February 2014