Tokyo, Burma and Sri Lanka
Based in Bangkok, it's easy to travel throughout Asia--cheap too with low airfares on Air Asia and other discount airlines. It's fascinating to see so many cultures so close to each other. Despite what many Westerners think, Asia is not one culture, but many.
I've traveled to Japan twice before, but always avoided Tokyo, as being overcrowded and expensive. Now that my Zen friend Marcus is living there, I decided to visit him. He's an expert on temples, so we spent our time together visiting unusual Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. I also saw a great Kabuki performance, visited the nightlife areas, and saw some park areas. I enjoyed Tokyo much more than I thought I would, and with a friend to steer me to the right hotel and restaurants, it was not that expensive. (Still not cheap). People in Tokyo are exceedingly polite, everything is clean and efficient, everyone waits their turn at the train stations.... It's all too perfect for me, a bit too cold. I was glad I live in the turbulent, sometimes chaotic, sometimes messy, warm and friendly city of Bangkok.
This was my first trip to Burma, along with my San Francisco friends Mike and Nic. We were there for only a week but had a great experience. Having been warned by others about how third-world Burma still was, and how the food would make us ill at first, we were pleasantly surprised by the huge city of Yangon, which mostly looks better than Bangkok. THe Shwedegon temple was the highlight--a massive complex, equalled for beauty and majesty in my experience only by Bangkok's Emerald Buddha Temple. The famous Bagan area is even more amazing--comparable only to Cambodia's Angkor Wat. To think that these hundreds of temples have survived for nearly a thousand years! But the best part, as foretold by friends, was the people. The people we were able to spend time with were unfailingly warm, gracious, helpful, kind. The highlight for me was spending a day with a 70-year-old native of Bagan, formerly an English teacher, now a guide. He knew every place and person in the area, so instead of seeing tourist sites, I asked to visit scenes of ordinary life. We went to two farming villages, where the people were again very friendly. We watched them harvest sesame seeds, black eye peas and corn. We also visited a third-grade class in a local school. The kids sang songs for us and did a little dance. I returned the favor by singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," and then taught them how to do the Hokey Pokey. They were delighted, as was I.
The people of Burma are now very excited and hopeful, now that they have democracy for the first time in so many years. But we were told that outside of the tourist areas of Bagan and Yangon, there is still massive poverty, and many political problems still need to be worked out. It will not be easy.
The purpose of the Sri Lanka trip was to attend the INEB Conference (International Network of Engaged Buddhism), which I've recently started volunteering for. There were people there from all over the world, people who see Buddhism as a vehicle for helping others, and do this through education, environmental activism, fighting for human rights, fighting poverty, and peacemaking. We visited minority villages, met with political leaders, and tried to understand the political and social problems facing Sri Lankans after their long civil war. The most disturbing part was hearing some "militant Buddhist" political figures defending the unfair treatment of minorities, a situation that also exists in Burma.
I'm off to Bali in another couple of weeks, to escape from the heat for a while, and to escape from the madness of the Songkran (New Year's) "water-throwing festival," where everyone gets completely drenched every time they go outside. I'll be there in time for the Bali Spirit Festival.
More to come soon....