21 to 26 November 2012
Departed on SilkAir MI 518, 2.45 pm
Returned on SilkAir MI 509, 00.25 am
Requires visa to travel there.
Flight about 3 hours
Time difference: Myanmar is one-and-half hours behind Singapore
Hotel stayed in Yangon: Panda Hotel
Hotel stayed in Kyaiktiyo: Mountain Top Hotel, 3,600 feet above sea level
Temperature range 24 – 34 degree Celsius
Main religion: 89% Buddhism
Roads: Left hand drive
It is a controlled currency and can only be exchanged in Myanmar. Exchange rate: US$ 1 = 845 Kyat
We travelled in a group of 25 people led by Venerable Chuan Ren (Pannavudha) from Bodhi Meditation Centre.
Visit to Yangon is not complete without a visit to Shwedagon Pagoda. President Obama visited this magnificent pagoda on Monday 19 November bare-footed. We did the same on Wednesday, leaving behind our shoes and socks in the coach before walking the distance bare-footed from car park to pagoda. There were many Buddha statues including a huge Jade Buddha statue and a gigantic bell. One must get used to walking bare-footed on pagoda grounds.
We departed from hotel in the early morning and took the road for five hours to Kyaiktiyo in Mon State.
The destination was Kyaiktiyo Pagoda (also known as the Golden Rock Pagoda). This pagoda located on top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo at 3,615 feet above sea level. The pagoda was built in the year 574 BC during the lifetime of Shakyamuni Buddha. It sits on top a boulder, which is balanced on the edge of the sloping surface of a rock table. The end of rock table is a vertical cliff that drops to the valley below. This boulder/rock formation defies gravity and it was still in place for more than 2,500 years. Legend has it that this is made possible due to Hair relic of Shakyamuni Buddha enshrined in the pagoda.
The five-hour ride took us to base camp. We then took a truck up to mid-point to the top. It was a “roller-coaster” 45 minutes ride on the truck. We walked next hour up very steep mountain roads to reach the top of the mountain. It was a tiring walk in a hot afternoon sun, but the sight of the pagoda at the end gladdened us.
If you think the climb is difficult, imagine a porter carrying up our luggage to Mountain Top Hotel. He placed our luggage stacked high above his head in a cane basket on his back. There were many people willing to carry visitors up the mountain for a fee.
Only males can get close to the pagoda and touching it. Females are restricted from accessing and stayed behind the barricade. Many devotees come to this place to pay respect and make offerings.
Before breakfast, we made another trip to the pagoda to catch the sunrise. When we set off at 5am, the street is already teeming with hawkers and devotees. After breakfast, we set off for the base camp. This time the walk down was less strenuous.
A quick shopping stop at Aung San Bogyoke Market (belonging to father of Aung San Suu Kyi) was on our itinerary. Myanmar is a country endowed with natural resources. Agriculture, forestry, gemstones, fabric making are their major industries. Jades and gemstones are plentiful and can be cheap. However, the bargaining process can be tiresome.
We set off for a monastery in Syriam to perform Kathina Robes Offering to fifty resident monks. Kathina Robes Offering can only be carried out once a year within a month after the end of their rain retreat. Donation in the form of cash was offered too.
The volunteers at the monastery prepared lunch for us. We sat on the floor around the low round table laden with food. We got to taste authentic Myanmese food and many types of sweet desserts.
In the afternoon, we visited a pagoda situated on an island, called Kyaik Hmaw Won Yele Pagoda. Access to this pagoda ground is via a motorised boat. We left our shoes on this boat before stepping onto the monastery. Not long after, heavy rain came. By the time we got back onto the boat, we found our shoes and socks soaking wet due to the downpour. The later part of the journey was one of discomfort for those of us who did not have the foresight to bring extra slippers.
Next, we proceeded to a Tea House to experience how local people while their time away. We sat around long tables. Local snacks were placed in front of us. We only pay for what we consume. The Local drink their tea with lots of condensed milk and it was too sweet for our palate. Their avocado was huge, about double the size of those seen in Singapore.
Next stop was Shwe Oo Min Dhamma Sukha Forest Meditation Centre. The driver had a hard time locating this centre. He had to navigate narrow roads and through low overhanging power wires. At some places, the assistant to the driver had to use a specially-designed pole to hold up these wires so that the bus can get through. We sat for half-hour meditation.
We woke up early in the morning to set off at 7.00 am. We travelled two hours to reach Zayyar Siri Asoka Monastery in Bagone Ward, Bago, which also has a school and a free clinic. The school provides free education to young students from nearby villages. The clinic opens once a week (Sunday) and patients can see doctors for free.
We did our second Kathina Robes Offering to hundreds of monks (bhikkhu) and nuns (bhikkhunni).
After lunch, which is also prepared by volunteers of monastery, we proceeded to the school canteen to watch the three hundred students took their lunch. Before starting their meals, these students chanted Myanmese verses in appreciation of our visit, for close to fifteen minutes. It was a touching moment when every student chant in unison with hands clasp and in deep concentration. Their voices reverberated around the dining hall. The sincerity displayed by these students was palpable.
The next activity was the most significant for us on this trip – giving out stationery to these students. Our group of 25 members quickly went into action to organise ourselves to the task. Without any detailed planning and instructions, we knew what needed to be done with efficiency and effectiveness in the distribution process. The process evolved as the activities progressed and we got better in the work flow. Hundreds of students queued up and we gave out pencil cases, pencils, pens, rulers, erasers, exercise books, bags of candies. We were exhausted and sweaty but this did not affect us. We were simply happy to see that these students got their items. Some of them, we were told, could not afford to buy even one exercise book.
We visited their classrooms next. Classroom is just bare, with a black-board, writing benches and low benches for sitting. We met with the teachers too and they were cheerful. I left away feeling that students were well looked after in the monastery.
What we did not expect happened on the last day when we were already tired and sweaty – the air-conditioning system in the bus broke down. We endured the bus journey during the next leg of the journey. We controlled our irritability quite well when we reached Shwemawdaw Pagoda. The second place visited after that was Shwe Thalyaung. We viewed the reclining Buddha, which is 54.88 metres from head to feet and 16 metres tall.
Thankfully, a new bus was dispatched mid-way through the journey and we had air-conditioning again.
Meals for all five days were provided as part of the package. We get to sample local fares and food cooked according to our palate. On the last night, we had Thai food before we proceeded for the airport.
Impressions of the country
It appears that Myanmar has stood still in time while the rest of the world progresses. Infrastructure development has a long way to go. There lie opportunities for rapid economic growth. Tourism is picking up and more tour guides are needed and must be trained. Our tour guide said that it was her first tour she was leading. She clearly needed training to engage us meaningfully.
Their public buses were packed like sardines and were without air-conditioning. Male passengers were seen riding on roof-tops of mini-trucks. People’s expressions were without range of emotions. They were subdued. Those in restaurants and travel industry were very helpful. The people of Myanmar wore traditional longyi or sarong-like garment.
When we visited pagodas, we had to go in bare-footed. One must get used to it. If not, it can be miserable. We were warned not to drink water directly from the taps. We survived by having mineral water each day.
Standard and cost of living was low. Young boys begged for money. Mothers carrying child on their hips did likewise.
There were 25 of us on the trip, including two children. Some of us did not know each other until the trip. We could see that people were tolerant, patient, understanding and had a heart of accommodation. We had a common purpose on this trip and a Venerable leading us made the difference compared to other holiday trips.
There were several touching moments when we were offering Kathina robes to monks and nuns and stationery items to children in the monastery. Their appreciations were felt and loving-kindness was shown all round by participants. We ended this trip wanting a repeat for next year. We talked about what else we can do for these children, perhaps school uniforms for them because a change was clearly needed.