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Shan state, Myanmar, Dec 2013,

After one week, we were happy to leave behind the temples-saturated landscape and take off to the uplands. The drive from Bagan was 8 hours long, and by the time we crossed into the mountain, darkness had already fallen so we couldn’t really admire the scenery. But it was easy to make out the imposing silhouettes under the stars, and that unmistakably cool crispy air of a higher altitude.

Initially we were to arrive in the state capital Taunggyi, but we could only make it to Kalaw, the first major town and a tourist hub for trekkers to the popular Inle lake. Foreign tourists in Myanmar can only stay at registered hotels but we didn’t have any reservations since it wasn’t planned. No worries! Ukkamsa spent 6 formative years in this town and he decided to smuggle us into his old monastery. The car pulled up in front of the guesthouse quarter, we got in and immediately drew the curtain to avoid privy eyes. Ukkamsa kept reminding us not to venture out; hotels nearby would complain to the police if they caught sight of us. We did not have any intention to be out and about. It was freezing. We were only too happy to get wrapped up in blankets and enjoy the hot tea that they had thoughtfully prepared prior to our arrival. (Were told later it was 2 degrees C that night).

Welcome to Shan state, Burma, MyanmarWelcome to Shan state

Kalaw monastery guesthouse, Burma, Myanmar


The next morning, we continued onto Taunggyi and got a permit to visit Kakku, which lies in a restricted access area. Myanmar has 135 officially recognized ethnicities and there have been many different conflicts between minorities and the state. The situation has calmed down a lot in Shan but it’s still not totally open. The permit required a small fee for a Pa’oh guide but he abandoned us as soon as he talked to Ukkamsa and saw that we already had a Pa’oh expert among ourselves. Read the rest of this entry »


Central Myanmar, Dec 2013

Our second day in Myanmar, Nancy and I placed a bet: How many days would it take us to get templed out? Myanmar is definitely the country to find out your temple tolerance level. Everywhere we went, every direction we looked, temples! Even our Burmese monk friend wondered why his country attracts people. In his own words, “there is nothing but temples here.” (For the record, Nancy said 5, I said 6; we were both wrong.)

U Bein Bridge, Mandalay, teak foot bridge, Myanmar, BurmaU Bein bridge, one of the handful of attractions that is not a temple. It’s the world’s longest teak bridge.

Sunset at U Bein bridge, Burma, Myanmar, MandalayThe sunset a U Bein bridge is said to be the most photographed in Myanmar. One of these people got mad at me for walking close to the bridge poles and bombing his photo. Weird.

traditional burmese food buffet, enormous, deliciousAnother non-temple attraction. Burmese buffet makes my belly happy.

Central Myanmar is the religious hub of the country and we hit all the three cities with the most numbers of temples, pagodas, stupas, monasteries: Sagaing, Mandalay, and Bagain. Mandalay, the last royal capital, has been the country’s center of Buddhist higher learning and teaching since the 19th century. 20kms south across the Irrawaddy river is quiet Sagaing, where 6000 nuns and monks settle live their religious journey. Continue onto the southwest for 4 hours by car and you’re in Bagan. The capital of the first unified Burmese kingdom dating 1000 years back saw over 10,000 Buddhist structures erected on her land over 2 centuries, more than 2000 of which still survive till this day. (Yes, all of those numbers are correct.) Although we constantly joked about it, we were pleasantly surprised at our eagerness to visit temples after temples. Not only was the architecture unique and the sculptures impressive, the history was fascinating. We learned about the evolution of stupa styles, the rise of the Burmese kingdom, the influence of the conquered but highly sophisticated Mon people… One thing that blew my mind was their foresight in preserving history. Every temple had a dedicatory stone inscription that details the date and story of construction. Some of them were written in several languages (Burmese, the now extinct Pyu, Mon, Chinese, Pali). Of course not all inscriptions survive time and looting, but the remaining still provide a wealth of information on language, culture, and history. The other thing that blew my mind? The omnipresence of temples. In Bagan, no matter where you are, you cannot find any visual space uninhabited by temples. There is simply no escape. And there, we finally clocked out, at 7 days!

Shwenanda monastery, teak temple, Mandalay, burma, myanmarBeautiful teak carving at the Shwenandaw monastery, built in traditional Burmese style Read the rest of this entry »

standing Buddha, Ananda temple, Bagan, Burma, MyanmarStanding Buddha, Ananda temple, Bagan: The temple has four massive standing Buddhas, each 9.5m, facing the 4 cardinal directions.

Buddha behind bars, Ananda temple, Bagan, Burma, MyanmarBuddha behind bars, Ananda temple, Bagan

Ananda temple, Bagan, Burma, Myanmar


sitting Buddha, Manuha temple, Bagan, Myanmar, BurmaSitting Buddha, Manuha temple, Bagan: built by Manuha, the captive Mon king, the colossal statues are housed in a tight vault, depicting king’s feeling of confinement living under his captors.

declining Buddha, Manuha temple, Bagan, Burma, MyanmarDeclining Buddha, Manuha temple, Bagan: Manuha praying to never return to the life of a captive.


Buddha statue, Sagaing Hill, Burma, MyanmarBuddha techno-style, Sagaing Hill

Bagan, Burma, Myanmar

Bagan, Burma, Myanmar

Mandalay, Burma, Myanmar

giant bell, Sagaing, Mandalay, Burma, MyanmarThe giant bell of Mingun. At 90 tons (or 55555 viss, Burmese old unit of measurement), it was the heaviest functioning bell in the world up till 2000.

My last days of 2013 were spent in the land of thousand pagodas, Myanmar. I flew in with little expectations and no itinerary, met up with my Hawai’i pal Nancy who flew in from New Zealand and we headed out immediately from Yangon to Sagaing in central Myanmar, 10 hours away right outside of Mandalay. We had made plans to meet up with Ukkamsa, a monk who did his masters in Hawaii the same time as we did, and thought we would spend a couple of days at his monastery to reorient and then take off by ourselves.

As in turned out, Ukkamsa stayed and traveled and guided us through most of our time in Myanmar. I could never have imagined such a perfect trip. We spent time sight seeing in Sagaing and Mandalay – the 2 major religious centers of the country, visited Bagan – the old kingdom capital littered with thousands of temples, crossed the mountain into Shan state, stayed at Ukkamsa’s mom’s in his native village, did some light hiking, took a boat around Inle lake, then went back to Yangon where we partied with tens of thousands at a downtown public concert.

Along the way, we talked about sustainability with student monks and nuns. We asked young people about their dating life, and what they do on dates. (Many go to temples rather than cinemas because it’s easier to get permission from parents.) We discussed the point of Buddhism and the concept of being areligious. It is a deeply spiritual land, and people are confused when I told them I was born Buddhist but am no longer one.

It was curious to see, and at times even unsettling to me how religious people are. Every Buddhist boy without exception becomes a novice at a local monastery. (The child can quit whenever he wants. If he stays until his 20 years old, he becomes a monk). Monks are spiritual leaders, and in many cases social services providers. They run free monastic schools, and sometimes even hospitals. The people are deeply reverent to their monks. They step out of their slippers when offering food to monks. They hold their hands together in front of their chest in prayer position when talking, or even just walking by. When Ukkamsa enters a home, everyone including his own mom comes out to shiko 3 times (prostration). He doesn’t ever have to do anything. Someone is always ready to go fetch his belongings, bring him food, pour him tea. It was too much cognitive dissonance because to me, he is a peer. I talk with him as an equal. We discuss and argue. We joke and tease.

Ukkamsa and I had seen each other many times at our dorm in, but we never actually talked. I was very withdrawn from the social scene there and was friends with few. As it turned out, we really clicked and I was so impressed with his personality, knowledge, and achievements that I regretted not trying harder to get to know people back  in Hawaii. Ukkamsa comes from a small village called Rough Water a few miles outside of Taunggyi, the capitol of Shan state. To this day, there is still no electricity lines there. Houses rely on small solar panels to run a couple of small lights at night. He was a novice at his village before he left for a monastery in Kalaw a few hours east of Taunggyi where he stayed for 6 years. At 20, he became a monk and asked his parents to send him to Mandalay, the center of Buddhist learning, to study for his 3 tests, all very difficult. Many take years to finish, some never finish. He studied hard and passed them in 3 years. He came back to Kalaw to teach for one year, and started to learn English, practicing mainly with tourists who walked into the monastery by chance while sightseeing the town. He then applied and got accepted to Sitagu, an international academy well-known and well-respected for its socially engaged Buddhism. From there, he went on to do a masters in philosophy in India, and later a masters in library studies in the US.

Ukkamsa is so easy going (I teased him with nicknames like the lazy monk, the sleepy monk, the monk in crocs) and yet he has big dreams. He wanted to become a monk so that he wouldn’t have to farm, and now he sees his monkhood as a kind of work. He is opening a big monastic school outside of Kalaw. He constantly connects with people about his project. “If I just wanted to attain nirvana, then I only needed to pray and meditate, I don’t need to do any of this,” he explained. While we were touring the playground of his friend’s school, admiring the little novices bursting in energy in their games of soccer and chinlone, he said: “If I had had this kind of opportunity when I was growing up, you wouldn’t even see me here now,” meaning he would have achieved even much much more. For a long time, I haven’t met anyone with such grounded ambition, someone who works hard for his goal but not overzealous. So Ukkamsa, when you run for president 10 or 20 years from now on, I’m coming back to work on your campaign and on the website