Today I decided not to go on the first trip of the day. I know – a bit pathetic – but I really fancied lying on a sun lounger, reading a book. And I also spent some time thinking about my next book and wrote some notes.
The countryside was a bit more interesting today. I know Burma is a beautiful country, but the trip up the river has mainly been through flat plains up to now, and although everything that’s happening on the bank is interesting, I was expecting more hills rising up on either side of the river. Today, we got them!
One issue facing Myanmar is deforestation – the teak has been exported for years, but the government has stopped it because of the impact on the environment. But the hills in the picture above tell a different story. There is oil in these hills, and each of these tents is pitched by a man or a family who is going to drill his little patch in the hope that he strikes ‘liquid gold’ (as Jed Clampett called it in the Beverly Hill Billies – now that’s taking us back a bit). Imagine that life, though – living up there, drilling with some basic equipment, just hoping you’ll be the lucky one.
This afternoon we went to see yet another pagoda – another stupa. People pray outside and then meditate. It is normal for people to go once a week to a pagoda to pray to Buddha, and I suppose it seems strange to us (or me, at least) because we are used to being indoors – not outside all the time. There is no need for them to go inside – it’s warm and dry outside for most of the year, and there are always shelters around for the rainy season.
I find it quite hard to come to terms with some things here. The pagodas are all covered with gold leaf, which is replaced about every ten years. That must be SO expensive. And yet the people are so very poor. We had a debate over dinner tonight about whether this was right or wrong, and the feeling was that these people believe in Buddha and his teachings – material things are not relevant in their lives. I can’t help but wonder how long that will continue for, as the young people see what their peers in other societies have. Thanks to the Chinese producing a solar panel for about $30, most of the small villages now have a television in at least one house, and increasingly mobile phones are in use. The next few years will be interesting.
The other thing I find quite hard to understand is the fact that taking your shoes and socks off is essential in order to enter a temple – which can include the area immediately around a stupa. Shoulders and knees must also be covered. I get all that. But then once INSIDE the temple grounds, even in the corridors leading up to the main temple areas, there are stalls selling everything from clothes to machettes.
Tomorrow we go to Bagan, where there used to be 10,000 pagodas. Now there are only just over 2,000! We’re not going to see them all, but it sounds like an extraordinary place – so I’ll get back to you about that tomorrow night.