Monday, February 21, 2011


I'm feeling full-to-bursting, as we used to say after a huge meal when I was growing up. But at the moment it's not my gut that's full but my head and my mind's eye and perhaps my heart too. I'm just back from Burma. It's a pleasure to be back in the ease of Chiang Mai, but I feel a pang too. I'm missing the complexities and textures of my days in Burma.

I think iit's a good sign when I'm not ready to leave a place. That means I've dug in and found a comfort zone, taken local patterns into myself and in some small way become immersed and part of it all. What a luxury to be able to do that, in even a small way, in another country and culture. I've made friends in Burma, in Rangoon in particular, and learned my way around the city, especially many of the markets and small restaurants. It's hard to remember how little I knew and how intimidating Rangoon felt to me two and a half years ago.

Of course, on the other hand, as I've said before, the more I learn about Burma and the food cultures and other aspects of culture and daily life there, the more I realise I don't know. And that's healthy too, if sometimes unsettling!

On one front I've made some very slow progress: I've been slowly working on my literacy in Burmese. Because I'm an on again-off again kind of student of language, on this last trip I found myself sometimes sitting down for several hours practicing Burmese letters, and other times not being able to make myself open my notebook. But always there was a pleasure in trying to decipher, syllable by syllable, the street signs and menus and other writing I came across each day. The letters in the Burmese alphabet are beautiful, rounded and curving with the occasional squared off line, just fascinating to the eye.

The advantage of this nibbling away at the alphabet is that now I understand why Burmese is transcribed into English in the way it is. For example, the word for the currency is written "kyat" in our (Roman) aphabet and is pronounced "chat", approximately. It doesn't seem to make sense, until you learn that the combination of the Burmese letters that are pronounced "k" and "y", when written together in Burmese, becomes the sound "ch" (roughly). Aha! It's just like the English combo's "ch" and "sh". There's no rule that says that an h sound after an s should produce the English "she"; it's just a convention.

And all this leads me to think about our conventions and assumptions about ourselves and others. We assume before we know other languages that "sh" is always pronounced as we pronounce it in English. We don't understand why "ky" should mean "ch". SImilarly we don't understand why we shoud take our shoes off in the house or at the temple, when we are in say Thailand or Burma or India. From the other side, people from those countries are horrified at the idea that we DON'T take our shoes off. How dirty! they think (and I agree... but that's another topic, street dirt in the house...).

We also assume things about other people, all the time.. and often we don't get to find out how wrong we are. Today I had the pleasure of meeting a remarkable person (he would not characterize himself this way I'm sure) who is not "categorizable." I met him at the Irawaddy, the newspaper of Burmese people in exile, where he works as a writer and editor. He was imprisoned as a very young man, a student, for eight years. I can't imagine what it's like to be in prison, let alone to lose eight years of your life, at a young age. Yet here he is, doing productive work, not wearing bitterness on his sleeve but instead conducting himself with grace and humour and dignity. He has not lost his self-respect.

While I was in Dawei, a town in southern Burma that is sleepy now but about to have a deep-sea port developed nearby, I had another encounter with a remarkable person. In fact, I could say that I met a number of interesting people who are all connected to this amazing man, a monk who is a "muscular buddhist", you might say. What I mean is that rather than study and meditate only, he also believes that he should engage with trying to alleviate suffering. So on the one hand he gives public talks on the dharma almost every evening, and on the other he works to build schools and hos[pitals in underserved areas of Burma. He's also managed to connect to gifted doctors living in other countries; they donate weeks of their time and of their students' time, to working at the hospitals, treating patients and training local staff.

It's a brilliant strategy, for he is doing good not by being a political or elected person, but just by taking direct action, acting as a force for good in the country.

The organization is called Sitagu, and the monk, as a teacher and leader, is known as the Sitagu Sayadaw. Do go have a look at a website about it all, at

Full-to-bursting is how I started this blogpost, and writing about just a fraction of the thoughts this trip has given me makes me feel even fuller. More later. For now, as I head north for a couple of days with a friend to try to visit the part of Shan State immediately north of Mae Sai, in particular the old trading town and Shan principality of Chiang Tung (often written Kengtung in Burmese contexts), I'll go on trying to digest this richness... And I will remind myself again of how lucky I am to be able to engage with this part of the world, with all its complexities.

AND ON A FOOD NOTE: I went to Dawei for many reasons, one of them to taste Dawei mohinga, a uite different take on the dish. There the soup is much thicker than in Rangoon, more chile hot, with large pieces of lovely fresh fish in it, and some galangal too. One of the people with Sayadaw was a man from Rangoon who gave me the names and locations of several mohinga restaurants/stalls in Rangoon, as well as of a place called Osaka that makes a brilliant noodle dish called Shwe Taung Khao Swe. Delish! Now to figure it out for the Burma book!

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