Yangon: A Question of Faith

It’s true I often relate some of my travel stories to faith and religion. That’s partly because I spent a large part of 2016 on a Buddhist trail over Asia rediscovering the faith of my childhood.

I was brought up the Buddhist way, but as a young adult, I theorized it away as a mere philosophy and abandoned it as a religion. Years later I found myself embracing it again as my faith. And it was in Yangon that my exalted expectations of fellow Buddhists were somewhat tested.

Myanmar had closed its doors to the world for so long, that its capital city Yangon (or formerly Rangoon) was virtually a no-go zone for tourists until 2012. I knew little about Yangon, and the news hardly painted a rosy picture. But when a friend who had worked in Yangon as an expat was making a trip there, I decided to tag along for a couple of days. I was not prepared for the trip, taking mainly the word of my friend that the Burmese were one of the friendliest and most helpful people he knew. Indeed, his friends were an exemplary and curious bunch.

Bogyoke Market
Traders at Bogyoke Market

The first evening I arrived, I headed down to the infamous Bogyoke Aung San Market in central Yangon. I walked around the narrow cobbled stone streets of this bustling bazaar weaving past antique shops, textile stores and jewellery shops, amidst food and vegetable stands. Named after Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, who had fought for Burma’s independence, this market is housed inside a pretty example of Burma’s colonial heritage.

However, most surprising for me is to discover within its square mile a variety of places of worships.

Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda

Theravada Buddhism is the primary religion of Burma, practised by close to 90% of its 50-odd million population. With the early acceptance of Buddhism more than 2,000 years ago, Buddhism is an ingrained part of Burmese culture and daily life. This I was told, as I had planned my trip around visits to the gold-gilded pride of Myanmar – the Shwedagon Pagoda and the riverside Botataung Pagoda, both of which are said to enshrine ancient relics of Buddha’s hair.

Bogyoke 2
Holy Trinity Cathedral

I stumbled firstly upon the Anglican Cathedral of Holy Trinity adjacent to Bogyoke Market. It showed its British colonial origins with its red brick and many white spires. Once built for the British regiment during British rule, the church remains in use till today with a resident vicar. Coming on to Bogyoke Aung San Road, I spotted a bright golden yellow dome with a round moon on its apex, signaling to me a mosque. The cream-coloured Chulia Muslim Dargah Mosque built in 1886 was situated on the busy main street with its entrance hidden by stalls and shop fronts. Walking the vicinity I found many mosques, pagodas, churches and Hindu temples including the colourful Sri Kali Hindu Temple and the white-burgundy minarets of Bengali Sunne Jameh Mosque.

A lot had been said about the bullying going on by the Buddhists here in Burma against other religions such as Islam and Christianity.

Yet I found within this confined area a rich tapestry of religions and apparent tolerance. It might even give you an impression that such diversity is celebrated with generations of immigrant culture here blending so seamlessly. I wondered how rooted is such co-existence, or is this just on the surface.

Yangon 1
Downtown Yangon

The next day I decided to visit Dala to experience the sharp contrasts of living on the fringe of urban Yangon. A USD4 per tourist ticket, 20-minute ferry ride from Pansadon jetty opposite the famous Strand Hotel takes you to a very different landscape. At the pier, I was approached by a local Dala lady in traditional attire, asking if I needed a guide. Although I had been warned to be wary of “freelance guides” or touts, I did not want to turn her away. I was in need of her service and after some negotiations, we agreed on USD15 in total for the hire of 2 trishaws to take us around Dala for 2 hours including her fee.

Yangon 2
On The Ferry To Dala

There was nothing much to the river crossing, other than me obsessing about taking a photo of the knick-knacks man on the ferry. I am not sure what it was about him, but I must have thought there was something to his genuine non-smile smile.

On arrival on the other side of Yangon River and after letting the rush of locals, chickens and cargo off the ferry, we stepped on to the dry, dusty red earth of rural Dala. Life in Dala were a stark difference from Yangon, with most living in huts and humble conditions.

Dala 3
Fisherman’s Village, Dala

On our trishaws, we visited the fisherman’s village and the Shwe Sayan Pagoda, before stopping to buy some bottled water from a local tuck-shop.   We had not agreed on an itinerary and I should have been cautious of what happened next. My guide suggested that we visit “Cyclone Village” where victims of the disastrous Cyclone Nargis of 2008 took refuge in bamboo shacks by a stream as their only source of water. From what I saw as friendly kids greeted me there, the living conditions were indeed harsh without piping for clean water or any form of electricity. There was mention about lack of aid, insufficient food and zero education, all of which pulled at my heart strings. I knew I was done in when the guide asked if I wanted to get some rice for them, and later I found myself paying USD30 for a sack of rice grains I bought at a rice shop. They would deliver it to the village, they assured me, “no more time to go back to deliver it”. I did not want to argue.

Dala 1
Bamboo Village, Dala

Throughout my ride back to the Dala jetty, I questioned if the rice would actually reach the villagers who needed them. I asked the guide if she was a Buddhist. She said that she was, “most of the folks who lived in Dala were too, including those of the Bamboo Village“. I probed further if she felt herself a devout Buddhist, and she answered affirmatively explaining that “she prayed at the temples frequently”. At the jetty, I paid her the USD15 as promised, and reminded her to make sure that the rice reached the villagers and wished her well. I crossed my fingers.

Dala 2
Child flying a kite in Bamboo Village

Back at the hotel, I traced the red flags I should have seen and read online about the “rice scams” and the “Dala tour scams” where some tourists have had negative experiences with thug-like behavior from touts and trishaw-pullers who cheated them of their last dollars. I have no doubt that these accounts are true, and I consoled myself that I was safe, I was sound, I did see Dala and I had paid what I had agreed on no more no less, and I was content with yet another eye-opening experience as a solo traveler.

Most of all, I consoled myself that I had done my part with the rice for the children I met at Bamboo Village, and that karma would deal with those who chose to cheat them of their food.

Shwedagon 1
Used clay lamps offered at Buddhist temples and stupas

Reflecting Yangon, it bugs me that – if persons of the same faith can hurt each other, what chance is there for persons with differing faiths? What value is our spiritual selves if we continue to succumb to our worldliness and survival instincts? Our tendency to justify and rationalize every action good or bad belittles what should come most naturally to mankind, that is, to do good. And are we all just paying lip service to all our Gods and their teachings whoever and whatever they may be? Perhaps Yangon held some answers to my questions, but I had not stayed long enough to find out – or maybe I just did not want to know.