Myanmar and I got off to a rough start. I was exhausted from long travels, missing friends, and Yangon was hotter than even this heat-seeker could stand. Though I genuinely enjoyed some experiences those first few days, if you had been in my guesthouse room at just the right moment, you could have heard me groaning as I said, “I hate this place!”
After some days to rest, I took a one-hour taxi ride to the Thanlyin township in Yangon, where I planned to volunteer at a meditation center called Thabarwa in exchange for free room and board. The center is led by Thabarwa Sayadaw U Ottamasara and offers free meditation courses in addition to free meals and a place to sleep for literally anyone who asks for it. As one woman said to me, “The government is not taking care of people, so [Thabarwa Sayadaw] is doing it.” I found out about the center on Workaway, a site that lists work exchange opportunities around the world. The ad said volunteers could help with things like caring for the sick and elderly residents. Volunteers also would be free to participate in the meditation classes. I knew from visiting family in nursing homes that often there are elderly people with very few or no visitors. I wanted to give the service, and I wanted to practice meditation to help my rather active mind. I knew I would be sleeping in a dorm, but in my also, shall we say, “optimistic” mind I imagined there would be very few of us in the dorm. In fact, maybe I would even have it to myself.
I arrived on a typically hot and humid afternoon, with the temperature hovering in the upper 90s. A nun and a fellow volunteer took me and another new arrival–a young woman from Jakarta, Indonesia–to one of the women’s dorm rooms. We got the last two of nine beds in the room. We put down our bags and went for a walk around the extensive and busy grounds. The nun gave us a tour, pointing out particular rooms for single mothers and several for the elderly, as well as a hospital under construction. She said more buildings are being added to accommodate the regular flow of new arrivals. We saw one woman who was over 100 years old and others in their 80s or 90s. We saw the gigantic pots that are used to cook meals for 5,000 people every day, the cartons upon cartons of eggs that would feed people for breakfast, multiple large standing rice cookers, even an animal sanctuary that housed ducks, rabbits and snakes. After our tour, we went to the roof of our dorm building to have a lesson in Buddhism from the nun, a very thin young American woman with large eyes, long lashes and the required shaved head. She had been in Myanmar for several years practicing Buddhism. I did my best to be attentive, though I was distracted by the the continuous need to wipe the sweat seeping from my pores.
That evening, I walked with a large group of volunteers to a street-side restaurant for dinner and ate a meal of fried noodles with chicken. It turned out the volunteering had been advertised not only on Workaway but also on Couchsurfing, a site that pairs people with a free place to stay in destinations around the world. Anyone was welcome to come, to volunteer if they wished, to practice meditation if they wished or simply to rest if they needed to rest. A fellow volunteer had crafted a list on a poster board with suggestions for volunteers to help with alms rounds, chop vegetables in the kitchen or teach English to the kids. At the group meditation that night, the heat had swollen my feet and ankles tight. I fought to stay awake. When I finally gave up and went to bed, the dorm room had no fans and little breeze.
I woke the next morning with my mind set on leaving. My so-called sleep had been sticky and restless, permeated with the sounds of dog fights and barking outside the window followed by the chatter and rustles of people throughout the center waking up for the 4 a.m. meditation. As I left the breakfast area, though, I passed local volunteers loading a truck to do alms rounds. Monks make alms rounds every day to collect offerings for themselves from the community. The alms rounds for the Thabarwa center are done to collect food not only for the monks but also for the center as a whole. When would I have the opportunity to experience this again? Without much thought, I climbed in the truck.
We arrived 15 minutes later at our collection location. The monks collect their alms barefoot, and I was required to take off my shoes as well. We zig-zagged up and down the concrete and dirt streets, collecting food and drink in silence–packaged sweets; watermelons; cooked meals of potatoes, fish or beans; and rice–lots of rice. The prepared food was combined in buckets. Many people would scoop a serving spoonful of cooked rice into each of the monks’ alms bowls, which the monks wore hanging from their necks on a wide strap. The monks walked in a single-file line, and the volunteers–three of us–walked beside them with bags in which we deposited the food and drink. An older man walked at the front of the line and collected money people donated. The monks did not make eye contact with anyone and did not say “thank you” or smile at the people who made the offers. The people making donations sometimes put their hands in a prayer position and bowed after they made their offers. Sometimes they just handed the donations to us and walked back to their homes or shops. It was important for the givers, as a means to build merit. And it was essential for the monks. This is how they get their daily nourishment. The leader of the group loaded bag after bag of food into my satchel. Every time I thought now he surely realized I could not hold anything more, he added something else–say, another bag of rice, a large papaya or two or some bottles of orange drink. Occasionally, some kids with a cart met up with us on a road, and we unloaded some of our goods, which they wheeled back to the truck. After a couple of hours, we returned to the truck and back to the center. The experience–in particular walking in silence and witnessing the way no special acknowledgement was required for the gifts–was a highlight of my time in Myanmar.
Later that day, I joined three volunteers to take two elderly women on a walk. We pushed them in wheelchairs to see the Buddhist monuments on the grounds, testing several of the used, rusty wheelchairs until we found two that seemed to be in decent condition. It took two of us to lift the women over ruts or holes in the road and extra effort to wheel them along the slight inclines of the paths. The women smiled, seemingly happy for a change of scenery. As we headed back toward their “room”–a shelter with a roof but no walls where I guessed 50 or so beds were clustered closely together, and the men and women were exposed to the heat all day, every day–we passed a man slumped on the road and two men who were trying to prop up his body. One of my fellow volunteers was an emergency room doctor, so I suggested she go over. She gave the man cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, but she was doing it only for the sake of his daughter, who was standing nearby. It was already clear to her that he had passed. His daughter and sister sobbed as he was brought to a nearby ambulance and lifted on to a bed. I never learned what happened.
At the meditation that night, I noticed even the American nun nodding in and out. Perhaps the heat was getting to her, too. The woman in the dorm bed next to me had gotten sick from the food at the center. Three of the volunteers who went to dinner at the restaurant the night before had gotten sick from that food. Although my original plan was to be there three weeks in total, it was only night two, and I was in a mental fight over whether to stay longer. One day at a time, I told myself. I saw many people there dealing with worse than me, and somehow they were managing. Other volunteers had been there longer than I had, though I also heard of some who had left immediately.
I woke the next morning with literally 50 bug bites blanketing my body, mostly on the side on which I had slept. Another volunteer talked of possibly leaving, and I did some quick research into my own options. If I was going to reschedule things, it seemed the best option was to leave right away. Without the free accommodation at the center, I would have to leave Myanmar sooner than I had originally planned, but I knew I did not want to stay at the center for three weeks. I packed quickly.
I shared a taxi to Yangon with one of the people who had gotten sick at the restaurant, a young British man at the start of his own long-term travels. He was still sick and had been sleeping first on a floor, then on a mattress which had bed bugs. I admired the work the monks, nuns and volunteers were doing at the center. I saw ways volunteers could be of real help. I knew the center was in the early stages of the volunteer program and still working out how to run it. Still, I was glad I decided to leave.
And, yet, it was not lost on me that many other people stayed–both people from Myanmar and other westerners. I had talked with a woman from Myanmar who lived there. She said the conditions were hard for them, too, but they got used to it. I imagine I would have gotten at least somewhat used to it, too, but that gap between wanting to flee as fast as I could and settling in seemed unbearable.
I later passed by many homes in Myanmar where people were living together in tiny spaces with little more than a blanket on a raised bamboo platform as a bed. A moto-taxi driver in Mandalay took me to his home one morning. He shared the home with two brothers and one sister. He pointed out his bed, also a wooden platform with no mattress. The home was open to the extreme heat every day with other buildings tightly surrounding it. He was not complaining or asking for sympathy–just sharing a part of his life with me.
I had more opportunities to watch how I react in challenging situations: a bout with food poisoning that left me in bed for two and a half days; another meditation center where no one spoke English and the bed was one of the raised wooden platforms with only a thin, hard layer of carpeting on it; a hotel room with walls covered in mold. I stuck with the moldy hotel room (okay, I was too sick to move). I left the second meditation center early, too, this time on day one. I could barely communicate with anyone and, despite the true kindness of my hosts, I felt too mentally exhausted and too isolated. I travel in part to stretch my comfort zone. I want to have a greater ability to withstand discomfort–both external and internal. When I give up so quickly, I cannot help but feel disappointed in myself. Still, there are times to push yourself and times when you can push yourself too far. On that day, staying at the second meditation center seemed like pushing myself too far.
I met some fellow travelers in Myanmar who said those of us from the west are spoiled. One Dutch woman said she thinks people in Myanmar are “tougher” than we are. Maybe westerners have gotten soft from our comforts. Maybe we are each just used to what we know.
Whatever the reasons, I know I could not have enjoyed Myanmar as much as I eventually did without allowing myself some retreats. My budget is for the one- or two-star guest houses, but I got a private room with my own bathroom and opted for air conditioning in the hottest places. Many days, I stayed in during the strongest heat of the day to avoid wearing myself out.
And maybe in part thanks to those bits of rest, Myanmar grew on me since those first sweaty days in Yangon where I muttered “I hate this place!” to myself in my room. One morning, I found myself on the back of a motorbike in Mandalay, passing street-side restaurants where people were sitting in the standard kid-sized chairs at low tables eating noodle soup and fried foods. I felt the life there, smiled from the inside and spontaneously thought, “I love this place.”
What changed my perspective? It was not the food–which I never truly loved–nor was it the landscapes. Though at times there were lovely scenes of farms, mountains and rivers, many of the colors were dulled because of the dry season. Was it the Buddhist monuments? In part. Seeing places like Shwedagon Pagoda and the temples of Bagan was special. It was the textures on the worn buildings; the dark, atmospheric streets of Mandalay at night; and the colors of the foods in the markets. It was the contrast of people bowed in prayer at Sule Pagoda while teenagers strutted outside on the Yangon sidewalks with punk rock haircuts. It was the contrast of the patterns and colors of the longyis worn by both men and women against the dusty air and roads. It was, of course, the people. Warm, gentle, always quick to smile back at you. A mix of ethnic groups I could keep learning about for a long time to come. The elderly men and women I saw with soft skin and the grooves of age etched in their faces. The children and adults who waved from trucks and homes as I passed by. The large group of Myanmar tourists who each wanted to have a photo with me and shake my hand. The woman who paid for my bus fare just because she seemed excited to see me. The moto-taxi driver who twice treated me to breakfast, refusing to take money from me. The men and women at the second meditation center who so kindly gave me food, sandals to wear (not realizing how big my feet are–I am not sure I could find any women’s shoes to fit my feet in Myanmar) and helped me to flag down a pickup truck to Pyin Oo Lwin when I decided to leave, never expecting anything in return or even getting angry with me for leaving after they had done so much for me. It was that Myanmar is so real, never trying to be something other than what it is.
It was special enough that I found a way to stick to my original plan to stay for six weeks in Myanmar. My last few days, I went back to where it all began: the 100-degree-plus-humidity city of Yangon. I booked my air conditioned room there in advance.
Some travel notes: I traveled in Myanmar in March and April, among its hottest months of the year. I did adjust to the heat more over time and found some ways to work with it. (Of course, the water festival in mid-April helped. I got so drenched that I sometimes found myself cool even on 100-degree days.) You can find cooler temperatures from November to mid-February. There are more tourists during this time, though, so you may need to book your accommodation in advance if you are particular about where you want to stay. Many of the guidebooks talked about needing to book accommodation in advance at any time of the year in Myanmar because the country’s tourism business had not yet caught up with the sudden influx of visitors when the country opened up to tourism. From what I saw, this is no longer true, and you can book as you go. Still, I did arrive at some places and find myself to be the last person to get a room that night, so if you want to wing it, you may need to be okay with checking around multiple places. A few words on getting cash: In the past, there was advice about being sure to carry perfectly crisp new U.S. bills with you to exchange money. If you want to exchange money, yes, you will still need to have perfect and new bills (no one seems to know why since the Myanmar bills are often dirty and worn). However, there were ATMs in every place I visited, so you could also use those to get your Myanmar currency. Finally, Myanmar is changing quickly. I heard stories of rents in Yangon that have skyrocketed to London levels because foreign businesses and NGOs were too willing to say yes to whatever price the landlord demanded. There are plenty of tourists already in Myanmar–even outside of high season–but if you want to have a taste of it before it changes even more, try to go sooner than later.