“Something something something,” called a voice, disturbing me from my already broken sleep. The old man was giving all the men in my hall a wake-up call in Burmese. It was 3.30am: time for us to get up, pack, and hit the road. The woven mat I was lying on was not as comfortable as the beds I was used to, but getting up still seemed like a less appealing prospect than finding a position where my bones didn’t press too hard into the floor and then resuming sleep. However, I crawled out from under my giant roast-chicken net and attempted to brush my teeth, splashing water onto my face and dribbling toothpaste everywhere. I stumbled outside to find monks, nuns and laypeople packing gear into a small bus. Caroline was nowhere to be found, so I ventured down to the little house where she was staying. I passed stray dogs, makeshift cottages, brick buildings, wooden shacks, over drains, around animal crap, and towards the ever-increasing volume of high-pitched Indian music blaring from somebody’s house. 3.30am. Certainly not the time you would normally expect loud Indian music on a Tuesday.
The previous day we’d touched down in Myanmar at Yangon airport, walked for half an hour to a hectic bus stop in a small but busy town, then caught two public buses to the ThaBarWa mediation centre in Thanlyin an hour south of Yangon city. We’d found the centre through couchsurfing, and it seemed like an interesting place to stay. We weren’t wrong. Upon arriving we’d been ushered around in a state of bewilderment, given a meditation class, fed at the house of a monk who loved to cook (even though monks are not supposed to cook), and shown our sleeping areas. Caroline stayed in a little house inhabited by three or four other females (nuns and laypeople), and I slept in a hall with a few other males. We were asked if we wanted to join a road trip that was leaving early the next morning, so of course we replied that we did.
So here I was, at 3.30am, fumbling in the dark and blurry eyed.
I opened the gate, crept up to the house and “Pssst”ed through Caroline’s window. She was semi-awake, and as bewildered as I was. While I waited outside the window half asleep, she packed, finally joining me. We groggily made our way to the bus and boarded it with no idea how long we’d be gone for or exactly where we were going. Asking what would be required of us we were simply told, “You’ll just look around.”
Looking at things is something that we’re particularly good at. When people ask us why we are traveling, our go-to answer has become, “To look around,” and so this seemed like a fairly manageable situation.
As the bus approached the area of Myaungmya, the flood levels rose on either side of the road then finally flowed onto it; the sandbags couldn’t contain the torrents of brown water. The flooding on the road became deeper as the bus crawled onwards, past semi-submerged houses, people in wooden boats, and emergency services. Our party of mostly nuns handed out pamphlets, CDs and cash to people at the side of the road and asked about their situation.
“There’s still two months of rain to come, will you move to another village?”
“No, we’re just moving closer to the road, to slightly higher ground.”
Some people were selling fried bananas to passing traffic. Some people were holding out metal buckets to collect cash. Some people were simply going about their normal business. Two guys at a flooded (yet functioning) general store stood waist-deep in the water and bought cigarettes.
The bus made a few short toilet and food breaks along the way and we finally reached our destination ten hours after leaving Yangon; Ngwesaung, a little beachside town. The rain was pouring heavily and the nuns were eager to jump off with their umbrellas and run out along the sand to dip their toes in the dangerous, surging surf. Local Burmese men were filling cement bags with sand, presumably to use in the surrounding flooded areas, but they took a quick break to run into the waves yelling and falling over, still clutching their shovels while the sea splashed over them. We obligingly took photos.
Drenched, our party made its way to a small guesthouse and managed to fill every room. The remaining men shared a common space on the upper level, but Caroline and I were lucky enough to get our own private room – surprising considering the usual gender separation one might reasonably expect from Buddhist nuns.
BANG BANG BANG. “Are you coming for breakfast?” called somebody through our door, waking us. It was about 6.30am, and everybody was leaving right now. With no time to think, we boarded the bus and drove a very short distance to the house of the sister of a local nun who was looking after our group. A typical Burmese feast was spread before us: steamed rice with several meat, vegetable and seafood dishes, soup, fresh salad, and green tea.
“Do you want to go to Snake Island?” we were asked. Whatever or wherever ‘Snake Island’ was, we wanted in, and typically the bus was leaving right now. We bumped and jumped down dirt roads, through a pretty farming village teeming with coconut trees and over precarious paths running alongside paddy fields. Eventually, we stopped at a little wooden hut for snacks. Hot Burmese food is excellent, but the snacks leave a lot to be desired: strange little mouth-drying cakes filled with questionable sweet goop, with names like ‘Fresh Pie’ and ‘Slai O’lai’ were on offer, and refusing this onslaught of dry, sugary treats would be terribly impolite. What was far more enjoyable was the surplus of coconuts available, being hacked apart and drained into glasses, with spoons being handed out to scrape the flesh. It was an all-you-can-eat free coconut buffet.
We were told that Snake Island wasn’t actually an island, but rather the name of the area we currently were in. However, after a half hour walk along the beach we reached a rocky outcrop offshore with Buddhist statues and small pagodas built atop them. It was very island-like. To get to the structures everybody waded out over sharp rocks in knee-deep seawater, and when we reached this little group of islands we found that there were indeed snakes upon them. Whether the snakes had been placed there for auspicious reasons or whether they had always inhabited the solitary rocks was unclear, but they didn’t seem like the swimming kind. The monks crossed the channel fully robed, and the laypeople left on t-shirts and sometimes even long pants as they pushed through the waves.
We were starting to learn about the reason for our little road trip, which was nice because up until now we’d been almost constantly confused (very happy, but very confused) by everything that was happening. The first reason the Dhamma Bus was traveling was to search for several suitable tracts of land on which to build another three ThaBarWa Dhamma centres. The second reason we were traveling was to follow Sayadaw Ottamasara, a highly revered monk and founder of the centre where we were staying (much more about Sayadaw and the ThaBarWa centre in this post). Sayadaw was giving Dhamma talks to local communities, and these communities we visited contained donors who paid for everything – from meals to accommodation to petrol. Devout Buddhists are constantly striving to do good deeds so they might earn merits, which makes them incredibly generous. Caroline and I had barely touched our wallets since exiting the plane at Yangon airport.
I’ll end part one here with a little side note. It took me a while to figure out that people were actually saying ‘Dhamma talk’ in a Burmese accent. I thought they were saying ‘tomato’, which only added to my perpetual confusion. “Will you be going to the tomato?” etc.