Having celebrated with my fellow La Salettes for their our 75th anniversary of ministry in Myanmar, we also took some time to experience and learn more about this marvelous country.
Yangon, a former capital of Burma, is in the southern region of this vast country and, with a population of over four million, is the country’s largest city and an important commercial center. Remarkably it is an incredibly safe city but the entire city closes down by 9pm.
On the edge of Yangon we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda by night – spectacular. There is no more stunning monument to religion in Southeast Asia. The sheer size (326 feet high) and the mystical aura of this gilded masterpiece stands out among thousands of pagodas throughout the country. What a great introduction to the famous pagodas!
Myanmar – A World Apart
For more than a century, Myanmar remained a world apart, isolated from other nations due to foreign and military rule. The United Nations recognizes “Myanmar” as the nation’s official name. Its title has been a political flashpoint since 1989, when the military ‘hunta’ renamed “Burma”, the name commonly used since the mid-19th century.
Myanmar is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia, bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. The official language is Burmese, which is spoken by virtually all Myanmar people. There are also many dialects spoken. English is considered their second language, which is spoken only by the educated population.
Multicultural Myanmar is more a salad bowl than a melting pot. The government recognizes 135 distinct ethnic groups that make up eight official major national ethnic races: Bamar, Shan, Mon, Kayin, Kayah, Chin, Kachin and Rakhaing. To travel here is to encounter men wearing skirt-like longyi, women smothered in thanakha (traditional make-up) and betel-chewing grannies with lips full of blood-red juice.
The unique thing about Myanmar culture is that it is free from racial or sexual discrimination. Everyone is entitled to equal rights. Myanmar women enjoy the same status as with their male counterparts.
Most of Myanmar enjoys a tropical climate. It has three seasons; rainy (or monsoon), cool and hot. The rainy season lasts from late May to October. The cool season runs from late October to mid-February and hot season lasts from late February to mid-May.
Myanmar has changed in many ways since British colonial times. It is a country of many incredible sites like the thousands of sacred stupas (Pagodas) scattered across the country. In order to use U.S. dollar bills, they must be 2006 or later and in absolute perfect condition: no folds, stamps, stains, writing marks or tears.
|2012 Burmese Festival of Lights|
Here they revere their holy men more than rock stars. Mobile phones may work but internet connection is incredibly slow.
More Than a Religion
Buddhism is practiced by almost 90% of Burma’s population and is, in fact, inseparable from the Burmese culture. Because the people are deeply pious, there is at least one pagoda or Buddha image in every town, city and even the remotest of villages. There are also monasteries or schools to train Buddhist monks.
There is a Buddhist ‘Lent’ on the Myanmar calendar which lasts for three months in the rainy season, approximately from July to October. During this time fasting is practiced, marriages and moving to a different residence are postponed.
Myanmar people are known for their desire for fun. As Myanmar culture is closely intertwined with Buddhism, most of Myanmar festivals center around some religious events. At the Festival of Lights, the Buddhist people from all over the country illuminate decorated lights in the evenings in reverence to the Buddha. The Water Festival marks the coming of a New Year on the lunar calendar. Almost everyone in the country regardless of age, gender or nationality and belief, participate by throwing water on each other using bowls, buckets or pipes.
I was told that there are many Buddhist denominations or schools or traditions which I’ve never heard off. The word “denomination” has a different meaning than when we use it for different denominations of Christianity. Christian denominations are organized around points of dogma and faith regarding the nature of God. They are a statement based on what we believe based upon the interpretations of the Bible and Judeo-Christian traditions.
|Theme for the Don Bosco
Center in Anisakan
The various denominations or schools or traditions in Buddhism grew out of cultural and ethnic traditions, but the essential teachings of the Buddha are unchanged and undisputed. Although Buddhism was born in India, during the end of the 12th century, and spread to other countries like Sri Langka, China, Tibet and Burma.
Our Visit to Mandalay
We arrived in Mandalay by plane after spending an overnight stay in Yangon. As Burma’s last royal capital, Mandalay has retained many fine monastic buildings. Mandalay is considered Myanmar’s cultural capital. There are numerous antique shops.
What a wonderful welcome they gave us! As we got off the bus into the shrine ground, each one was welcomed with a garland of fresh flowers placed around our necks. Then we celebrated Mass at the Shrine Chapel followed by lunch.
In Mandalay we travelled by bus to various attractions. The following day we passed by Don Bosco Spiritual Renewal Center in Anisakan situated almost on the top a hill. The Don Boscan priests invited us to celebrate Mass in their beautiful chapel after which they served us snacks. The hospitality of the Don Boscans I must say was just wonderful. They were great! I was impressed with the theme of their Spiritual Center, “Restore: Rebuild; Restart LIFE”, a very Salletine theme.
|Night view of the U Bien Bridge|
Then we stopped at a water fall (Pwe Gauk Fall). Close to the waterfall was a hanging bridge. Every one took the opportunity to walk on it.
Then it was the favorite time especially for the ladies in the group shopping time! What I needed was a good siesta in the bus.
Burma accounts for nearly one third of the world’s total teak production. The U Bien Bridge, which is 1.2 km (1,321 yards) long is the longest teak wood bridge in the world. We visited this famous bridge. It is situated across the Taungthaman Lake 6 miles south of Mandalay. The recent tourist boom has added more significance to the U Bien bridge, The tourists have become a major source of income to the local businesses.
We also spent some time looking at the National Royal Palace in Mandalay. Today, Mandalay Palace is a primary symbol of Mandalay, a historical monument and a major tourist destination.
The La Salette Ministries in Mayanmar
The only property the La Salettes own in Burma consists of an acre of land with a mid-sized house on it. This served as the Community House until the novices needed accomodations for their formation. So they had to convert this house into a novitiate formation house and 7 novices occupied it with Fr. David Kyaw Kyaw as their Director.
The priests stay in the parishes where they are assigned. We were invited to the Novitiate for a special ceremony, where Fr. Silvano Marissa inaugurated and blessed a mini-facsimile of the La Salette apparition that was recently built in front of the Novitiate House and we returned to have dinner.
|Mandalay National Royal Palace
as seen from the Watch Tower
We also had the opportunity to visit a couple of the rural parishes run by the La Salettes. They are Myauk Kine Parish and Myitnge quasi-Parish, both not too far from the Our Lady of Holy Rosary Shrine in Chanthagon. As we drove into the parish compounds, people gathered around us with great smiles and welcomed us. They were overjoyed by our presence as it was for the first time to have so many foreign visitors to these interior villages. The La Salette missionaries are very well loved, appreciated and respected by these simple village people.
Leaving This Marvellous Country
To begin our last two days in Mayanmar, we took a 25 minute plane ride to Bagan, which was going to be our last stop. It is the site of the first Burmese kingdom. Dating back to between the 11th and 13th centuries, the vast majority of the temples have been renovated, because Bagan remains an active religious site and place of pilgrimage.
There are lots of tour buses and crowds at the most popular sunset-viewing spots, people pedalling off on bikes for their own adventures, and other visitors float over the temple spires in hot air balloons – a beautiful sight!
More than 3,000 Buddhist temples are scattered across the plains of Bagan. We kept up a dizzying pace, visiting the pagodas in Bagan. Some of the major and popular ones are Dhamma Ya Zi Ka, Shwe Zigon Zedi, Ananda Paya and Htilominlo Guphaya.
Bagan is also famous for its exquisitely decorated lacquerware, watch artisans create it in workshops in New Bagan. On November 12th we flew back to Yangon and spent the night in a hotel before everyone dispersed on the next day to their respective destinations.
Some of the 3,000 stunning
pagodas in the plains of Bagan