Following on from a previous posting about January in Thailand I must tell you about our trip to Burma also in January.
After the big Ajahn Chah Memorial event at Wat Pah Pong and having shown some of our followers around a few forest temples, Ajahn Manapo and I went South and had a few days rest by the sea. Then in the evening of January 27th we were driven back to Bangkok and early the following morning were on a plane making the relatively short hop over to Yangon (Rangoon). There we had a little wait in the old colonial style terminal, now Domestic only in a rapidly expanding airport complex. When I first went to Burma in 1987 and was stranded unable to leave, I spent nearly a day in that building which then was the entire airport terminal but not anymore! Next we were loaded onto an old prop driven plane of doubtful vintage for the final leg of our journey to Bagan. This is where I’d wanted to go and very fortunately and very kindly someone had made it possible.
Our little party consisted of Ajahn Manapo, Ant who was once one of the leading lights at Warwick Uni’s Buddhist Society and is now Dr Ant and teaching at Naresuan University in Thailand, and Ken, a very generous Thai man who was once a student in London and Warwick and who generally looks after me when I’m in Bangkok.
Once we’d safely landed, located the car and driver sent to meet us, been driven to the hotel, checked in, tidied up and had a cup of tea, we set off out to explore. We only had that afternoon and the next day and before us lay 16 square miles of historic devotion that included some 2000 pagodas and temples built in the 11th to 13th centuries when Bagan was the capital of the Myanmar dynasties. We spent practically all the daylight hours at our disposal padding round these ancient, dusty and decaying monuments. Most contained huge and wonderful images of the Buddha and in at least one that we visited, the last four Buddhas. Nearly all were in desperate need of conservation but without an army of experts and a colossal budget there’s obviously not much more can be done than the occasional crude attempts we saw to keep them safe and accessible. Our last evening was spent in the temple pictured below, where we watched the sun gradually dipping behind the distant mountains, while on the river below a fisherman messed about in his boat and further upstream a large riverboat lay at its moorings.
Then the next morning we flew back to Yangon. We were met by a young man who had helped look after me last year when I was honoured with the Aggamaha Saddhamma Jotikadhaja title. He took us to his family home for the meal and from there to our hotel where we were given a room with a wonderful view of the Shwe Dagon, the colossal and amazing pagoda that dominates the city.
That same afternoon we went first to a smaller pagoda near the river where we were to meet a young woman who used to be one of my students at Warwick and from there with her as our guide we first took a look at the river, the mighty Irrawaddy River or Ayeyarwady River, the same river that we had seen at Bagan and that flows from north to south through Myanmar, before making our way to the great Shwe Dagon. Although you hardly realise it, as clustered around it are numerous smaller pagodas and ornate building, it’s built on the crest of a small hill that you ascend through a long walkway sheltering successive sets of stairs and escalators that gradually take you up and up. There as in all the pagodas we’d visited you go barefoot. At the top, surrounding the main colossal structure and bounded by temples and pagodas, is a space where you may walk, sit and meditate, tell your beads, stop and chat or look about you, or just be; all the while enveloped in an extraordinary atmosphere of respect and devotion. It’s intoxicating. We spent hours there and early next morning went back for more.
The next day after an early morning at the Shwe dagon, it was back to the hotel for our meal, then a short time with cold drinks by a lake followed by a brief tour of the building that housed the last great Buddhist Council before boarding our flight back to Bangkok. There, in Thailand, I had a couple of days left to visit a friend’s monastery before the long flight back to London and winter!