By the time I arrived in Bagan, the Dutch boys and I had become good friends.  One of them had been travelling for 7 months, the other, just 1.  They were friends from way back it seemed.  Lesser-Skaarsgard asked me what it was like to travel alone as a woman.

I was surprised by how naturally, and immediately I responded.  “Easy!”  I hadn’t felt threatened once, except for a moment in Koh Samui when a man started to follow me back to my hotel.  He was a Westerner.

I wonder whether it’s the Buddhist influence in South-East Asia, that makes it feel safe.  I want to learn more about Buddhism, as everything I think or say is based on uneducated interpretations of things that I’ve seen and heard.  But ultimately, there’s something
very reassuring about spending time in a Buddhist community.  There’s an inherent respect for others, for elders, for monks and nuns, for mothers, for women….Not necessarily in the gender-equality sense.  There was definitely a shared frustration among the female travelers I met, but that’s another issue, for another time.  The monks are humble, yet command such great respect, and you get this feeling of acceptance, of a willingness to help.  And the children….how wonderful it is to come across a group of children, and not have to avert your eyes and cross the road.  Heaven forbid you make eye-contact, and spark an elaborately confrontational, “You lookin’ at me!” monologue…The kids I fear in the UK, are a bit like Ubud’s terrorists of the Monkey Forest.  Heart-rate picks up as you walk quickly and quietly along the path, praying to something you didn’t know you believed in for protection…silent steps, everything that means anything to you, clutched firmly, discreetly out of view…out of view of those unperturbed eyes – just watching you, toying with you.  Will they, or will they not…bully you?  Somebody launches a sling-shot at one of them causing trouble, tree-branches shake, hoots blast out from way up high, “For God’s sake – don’t ANGER them!” you growl, head-down, muscles clenched, pace picked up even faster…

Its only when you’re out the forest that you relax and laugh to yourself…they’re just monkeys, what’s the worst they can do?  (looking behind you one last time, flinching at the unexplained rustle of a lonely leaf next to you…)

I did my yoga when I got to the hotel.  Short primary.  Headstand was terrible, and I missed out two seated postures, but my Bhujapadasana was alright!  I like the Dutch guys, would be happy to venture out with them, but I think some sort of drama struck, so have left them to it.

I didn’t see any temples on that first night.  The sun was already going down, and I wanted to rest up for an early start the next day.

Woke up at 4.  Meditation until 5, yoga until 6.  Having breakfast now.  The children across the street are playing.  It’s good to see them play!  They work hard, have to grow up fast.  We take our youth for granted.

I rented a rusty one-geared bike (was getting used to them by that stage) and ventured out onto the dusty, sand-covered roads.  I had a map, but got lost time and time again…one time – straight out into the desert, where I seemed to ride over undulation, after undulation of sand, spying the tip of a stupa to my left, certain that the map had pointed me in this direction.  It was only when the water in my backpack had run dry, and the sun was climbing to its peak in the cloudless sky, that I questioned how many hours I might have left to live…  An elderly couple appeared out of nowhere, astride an ox and cart.  They were surprised to see me, way out there, and grinned and grinned, mumbling words I didn’t understand.

I dismounted from my bike, and they looked a little nervous as I approached them, creased and crackling map unraveling in front of my face,  loosening the blue string of my straw hat, knotted tightly beneath my chin.

“Here!  Here!”  I pointed at the map.  To the shape of a pagoda on a timid yellow line to the South of New Bagan.  They both peered down at the map, politely.  Proud, toothless grins, “No pagoda here!” they say, and point their arms behind them, in the direction from which I came.

“Go back?” I questioned.

“Yes yes!” they say in unison.

“Thank you, thank you, Jay zu tin ba de!”  I bow my head…

“Where from?”  They point at me, nodding their heads.

“England.”  I say, and then the floodgates open.

A torrent of excited banter from the man, whilst his wife sits quietly, nodding her head. “Rooney….football….England.  Good.  Manchester United.  Man City…”

I keep nodding and smiling, “yes, yes.  Rooney good!”  Trying to share this excitement that he appears to feel for the funny little chap back home.   We finally parted ways, and I sighed to myself, and brushed the dust from my face, swirled the final drop of boiling water, trying desperately to dampen the insides of my mouth, before tentatively perching on the scalding black seat of my now, flat-tired, one-geared, rusty bike.

I thought of all my cyclist-enthusiast friends back home, and what fun they would all have out here…lifted my feet up, let out a half-having-fun, half nervous squeal, as I wooshed down the side of a sand mountain, and then got wedged into the up-side of another….

Its 3.41 pm.

50 degrees.

Fuck!!!  5o DEGREES!  The breeze is like a bloody hair-dryer.  I daren’t move for fear of generating more heat.  Movement =  energy.

No wonder all the locals go into hiding at lunch time.  I was cycling around and it was like the twilight zone.  T-shirts covering faces, roads empty, could practically hear the hay bale dancing down the street.

Had a mango for lunch, and a bowl of peanuts.

All the boys have their guitars out.  There’s no other way to describe it, but they wail.  Absolutely wail.  Its terrible, but wonderful at the same time.  So much feeling goes into it.  Earnest, passionate feeling.  You have to smile.

There’s a crowd of them forming.

They’re starting to take their shirts off…I can’t help but look.

******

Bagan is a beautiful, holy place.  There’s something like 2,000 stupas and pagodas stretched across this arid, desert land, with bursts of pink Bougainvillea and orange Poinciana.  You rent a bike, try not to get lost, and just amble up to whatever temple takes your fancy.  Each of them has a story, some violent, some romantic.  Some are ruins, with bars up on the windows, and all you can see of the frescos, is under dark shadows.  People pray, monks, and tourists climb the outer steps, so they can look out for miles, sit in silence and absorb this strange spiritual energy.  You become quiet inside, and can imagine retreating from the world, and spending months at a time, meditating in the hallway, under the cool, white gaze of a buddha.

It seems to me, that we lack this serenity in Western society.  How important and wonderful it is to find silence every now and again.  A silence that is regarded in such a way, that many people can share it in the same moment.  One of the greatest things I’ve taken from this trip is understanding what silence is, and how enriching life feels when you allow yourself to sink into it.

I suppose it’s quite a difficult thing to comprehend.  That silence, that nothing, that stillness can be so energizing.   Always relying on external stimulation, it feels strange to slowly come into contact with a movement, a vibration, an energy all of your own.  We talked of such things in the intensive in Koh P, and there were times when I crossed over from intellectualising, to experiencing, what it all means…never intensely, but enough to carry it with me.

I see colours.

And that beam of white light is still there.  Solid…but not.  Can’t describe it.  It just feels stable…unflinching.

Like a light saber, more than a fire.  What is that?

And the colours.  I see yellow still – in my right hand and hips.

Orange in my groin.

Blues and purples in my head.

Red in my left shoulder.

Green down the rest of my left arm, with red fingertips.

Light blue in my stomach.

Black at the base of my spine.

Dark colours in my legs, green on the soles of my feet…

My whole experience in Burma, was in this perpetual state of always being aware of this energy inside.  I couldn’t always make contact with it, but I knew it was there, and I honestly believe that I could do that, because I was surrounded by so many people, whether they
be monks, or nuns, or ordinary Buddhists, who are experiencing their own energies, their own truths everyday.

I still wonder whether it was the right thing for me to go to Burma. Did I betray my Burmese friends and colleagues?  Have my actions supported the junta, or has my presence, along with the rest of us westerners, wedged that door open just a little wider…

Its hard, nay, impossible to tell what impact we’ve had on the people we made contact with. Whether it be through conversation, through tender, or through laughter…it doesn’t matter, I think what struck me most about the people I met, and what resonated most, when I sat back and became a wallflower, was their light, their energy.

On the one hand I fear for them.  This time of transition that lay ahead, however genuine or otherwise, is monumental.  Repatriation of civilians, (there are over 300,000 EDP’s in Thailand alone),  international businesses chomping at the bit, hordes of tourists (possibly conscientious) looking to add another untouched country to their list.

On the other hand, I am in awe.  How can we – tourism, commercialism, consumerism – ever break their spirit.  A spirit that has withstood so much, for so long.  It seems to me, that they transcend what we know and understand as reality.  Afterall, what does the outside world really matter, when we can look inside ourselves and truly experience, “this is my body, and this is real.”

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