Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyagebanner


A Typical Cultural Tour in Myanmar

By Wren Chan

            On one of the days spent in Myanmar there was a Semester at Sea trip to learn about meditation from a meditation center and take part in the distribution of food to the monks nearby.  It was necessary to see this aspect of Myanmar due to the fact that Buddhism was a major influence in Myanmar, where most males become a monk at some early point in their lives as a rite of passage.  However the experience from the trip would leave us confused and uncomfortable about the things we saw.

            Like typical tourists we were allowed to take pictures and observe others meditate in a separate building before we engaged in the meditation practice ourselves.  Although one would expect this particular part of the trip to be purely about meditation it seems that the tour guide and the person in charge were promoting some aspects of Buddhism to us by showing us around the living quarters of a person who apparently was a teacher of meditation before dying and in the believers’ point of view achieving nirvana.  The tour then continued with a visit to his mausoleum, which was richly decorated compared to the primitive infrastructures and buildings that we encountered around the complex.  This contrast seems to represent Myanmar in which the people are so devout that they give whatever they have to the construction and maintenance of extravagant religious buildings.  This represented the old belief that holds that the bigger the monument one builds the more religious one is, hence explaining the construction of the various Buddhist pagodas and buildings that lure tourists to Myanmar.  Despite the attention drawn on the authoritarian government by the international community over the democracy and human rights issues as discussed by Maura Stephens in The Heart of Burma, it remains a failure of the international community as the monuments still serve as tourist magnets.  Having leaned about this opposition to the government of Myanmar made me wonder how much of the cost of the trip would go to the government, since most of the trips cost a significant amount for a poor country.

            After the tour of the mausoleum we proceeded to the monastery where according to our guide, there was food prepared already funded with the money donated by a portion of the trip cost.  We would distribute the food to around 1,000 monks and nuns.  Most of the monks and nuns were young boys and girls confirming in flesh what we heard about people sending their kids, mostly the boysm to a monastery before they continue further with their secular education.  The pace of the distribution was relatively fast since we worked like an assembly line, several people distributing rice, several some side dishes and several more some fruits.  This was aided by the monks and nuns lining up in two lines and walking past us.  It seems to me that the action of donating the food became shallow since we were never able to interact with the monks during this time.  In essence we became like a utensil, a vehicle for bringing food to the monk’s mouth.  The monks and nuns most likely having received their food in this way before gave a faint smile, bowed and moved on.  The monks were lined up by seniority and received their food before the nuns.  Our tour guide explained that it is believed in their Buddhist faith that women aren’t as potentially capable of attaining nirvana as men hence the distinction. 

In what may have taken 30 minutes we had distributed food to all the monks and nuns.  As if they eat any way different from the way we do, we were invited to watch them eat, which further made this segment of the tour appear as if we are tourists observing monuments on a tour or kids observing animals in a zoo.  Upon reasoning you would understand that the lack of interaction may be due to the fear of the government observation and the object-oriented aspect of our visit may be motivated by the government’s need to have tourists see things and spend money, and lower the risk of interaction between Burmese and foreigners.  Though the experience was generally bad due to the limitations of the tour and the lack of interaction, the responses however minimal such as the faint smiles and the bows, felt genuine.

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