After a long journey from Hong Kong (cleverly or not-so-cleverly planned through an overnight in Bangkok airport), I arrived in Yangon early in the morning.
My first shock was the currency exchange. 1 euro is about 1,430 khat and apparently bills only go up to 5,000. However I only found this out later because in my case, they only gave me 1,000 notes. So first moment was me uncomfrotably getting a giant stack of 1,000 khat notes and figuring where I can discretely put the pile!
Next was my hunt for the bus into town. I walked out of the airport and passed the taxis going along a road which was supposed to take me to a 20-cent bus. I ended up walking into some village with people spitting what looked like blood all over the place (this is actually a kind of red chewing tobacco) and when people were directing me up and down the same street I finally caved and took a taxi.
An hour or so later with stops for the taxi driver to ask motorbike taxis for directions to this strange mysterious place I was going, I finally made it to Thabarwa.
I filled out some foreigner form with lots of details I don’t think anyone looks at and they sent me off to another building to find my room. So many questions…. does no one speak English? Who am I supposed to talk to about being here? I can’t remember the name of the contact person… is there wifi? Should I panic yet? When I tried to ask for someone to speak English, the kind lady of the house showed me the squat toilet haha. Ooo this is going to be interesting.
Eventually a nice English speaking nun came to my rescue! She gave me a tour of the center, where the two dining halls were, how to get food (which later became “stand here and look hungry and confused and someone will help you”), and we walked through the basic hospital areas with elderly patients, an ICU area, Saturday acupuncture clinic, and she introduced me to another English speaking nun who teaches the local kids on weekends. Ahhh.. communication, I missed you!
After lunch, I tried some meditation in the foreigner’s and found a couple other foreigners being taught by an Italian nun. I got there in time for the lying down meditation and I am pretty sure I just fell asleep haha. In the afternoon I went back to the “school” to chat with Seyeley and practice English with the kids. It was short-lived since I was suffering from jetlag and Seyeley had lost her voice so instead she took me to the nun school to introduce me to her teacher who apparently started becoming a monk at the age of 8 and met some of the other nuns who were so delighted to speak a little English. They invited me back for breakfast the next day. I tried and failed with some more meditation in the evening but at least got to chat a bit more with the other foreigners staying there.
The next day turned into a crazy one! They dressed me up and braided my hair “Myanmar style” to prep me for a day out in Yangon!
Two of the nuns took me under their wings for the day and we went into the city to get some things they needed from the market and then went to Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon together. Shwedagon Pagoda has relics from 4 Buddhas inside (8 strands of hair from Gautama Buddha, the staff of Kakusanda Buddha, the water filter of Kawnagamana Buddha,and netherrobe of Kassapa Buddha) making it top of the top for important pagodas.
Too late to get the bus back, we shared a taxi and then hopped on motorbike taxis (I forgot how much I love motorbikes).
The next day, I ended up going for alms round back to Yangon! We hopped in a minibus with the monks and some laypeople. What an experience!!!!
First you have to take off your shoes while going around for alms and you walk alongside the line of monks to take the larger or bulky items that people give in baskets. I had a basket for dry items and then there were more trays and buckets for wet food donations. Other trays were just for the monks to empty their bowls of rice when needed. There were more people doing runs between us and a cart with bigger bins to empty our buckets.
Soooooo many people!!!! I cannot describe it well enough but there was a man in front with a megaphone basically announcing the arrival of the Thabarwa monks and then people were literally lined up and waiting in the street with their donations from money to bowls of rice to pots of stew or bags of instant coffee.
We walked up and down these narrow streets through more residential ones to streets lined with shops and even one crowded one with a full-on street market! Even people that didn’t have time to come down threw a crumpled up note down to give. Never in my life have I experienced something like this. I was on sensory overload. Absolutely amazing.
Now I understand how they can manage to support the center with over 2500 people living there. Several trucks go out every morning and we had more than enough to feed hundreds of people with just our group.
New foreigners had arrived so I tried some more meditation with them (mostly still fidgeting and giving up) and in the afternoon we went to one of the good will villages connected to the center for homeless families to live and collected trash from the streets with some local kids. Super cute kids that tried to teach me some Burmese but in the other hand, the rubbish situation was pretty horrible. A lot of the houses are raised off the ground and we passed one that had a toddler taking a nap on the bamboo floor while under the house there was a pool of plastic garbage. In general, the rubbish system here is just a dumping area in a corner, and there is still a lot of litter around in other places. Since they have more huilding projects to go, one of the other foreigners suggested compacting the trash to make bricks, but I think the likelihook of that system developing is slim.
There is a lot going on at Thabarwa and a lot of projects could be done but having longterm volunteers is tricky, and the rest of the longterm yogis have other activities they are involved in already. Same story with these kinds of places… always in need of more money and more people!
My last days at Thabarwa in Thanlyin were some meditation attempts including standing meditation for an hour (first time I made it through the whole time!), chats with our monk teacher about Buddhism and Myanmar life, and another alms round in a nearby town.
We celebrated New Year’s Eve with a giant watermelon and some Chinese and Russian sweets. Early style at 10pm and then I was in bed before midnight! Crazy crazy.
On the 1st, we left for north to go to the Shwe Chaung Center near Pyin Oo Lwin! More on that next.