By Jan-Philipp Sendker
A series of reflections on my most recent trip to Burma.
Yangon, in the fall 2013
I am back. Traveling to meet old friends, see places I haven’t been to, doing research for another novel. I spent some days in Yangon, walking the streets, sitting in tea houses, talking to strangers and friends. Here are some of my notes, thoughts, questions and observations, from the first few days.
It looks like Yangon is changing from a very laid back capitol to a typical Asian even-more-city. Even more cars. Even more traffic jams. Even more construction sites. Even more mobile phones.
Had dinner at a nice restaurant. At the table next to me was a group of eight young Burmese, all in their early twenties. They had dinner but nobody was talking. I watched them and it took me a little while to find out why not: Every body was playing with their smart phone. Awkward.
I am wondering if it is easier for a Buddhist to forgive since they believe in Karma and reincarnation. Wrongdoers will be punished in the next life. A question I will keep in mind.
It used to be very easy to meet friends in Yangon. I did not even have to announce my visit to the city. I just called or showed up and everybody always had time for a tea, a snack, dinner, a long chat. That has changed. Now everybody is busy. We have to plan a dinner days in advance. Their schedule is full. “We are all so busy, transforming ourselves,” a friend told me. “If you don’t change, you stay behind.“
And then there are place that remain the same. The magical Shwedagon Pagoda, for example. Crowded from sunset to sunrise, people praying, meditating, families eating and chatting, kids playing.
Nothing had changed. Or so I thought. I found an ATM machine right on the upper level. And another one. And another one. Why for Buddha’s sake do you need a cash teller right next to the worlds most famous pagoda?
Just around the corner I notice a “Free wifi zone.” People are surfing the internet on this holy site, I can’t believe it.
What does the Buddha say: Change is life’s law.
Traffic is heavy and most people got their drivers license rather recently. But the way they drive is similar to the way they conduct other business. They are patient and passive drivers. Rarely do I hear a horn. They don’t jump lanes. They don’t try to cut you off. When I wanted to cross the street, it did not take long for some one to stop and let me walk. In China, I could have waited a whole day…
I asked my driver how the country is changing and what effect it has on him and his family. He thought about it. “The police don’t stop us anymore to ask for money. That is a change.” We were sitting in a tea house, it was pouring outside and he paused to think. “I had to renew my license recently and did not have to pay a ‘token of appreciation’ to get it done. There was even a sign and a phone number in the office I could call to report bribery.”
“There is less corruption?” I asked, surprised.
He smiles. “On a small scale yes. But still the same people in power. Still the same when we talk about big projects.”