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Journey to Southeast Asia

  

The flight in to Bangkok was as expected - long and grueling: the reason I hadn't returned in more than 13 years, although I have wanted to since I had left. I have always loved Southeast Asia and it was good to be back in Thailand, where I had lived and worked as a physician from 1987-2001.

On my first day, I am on a boat making its way up the Bangpakong River, in the province of Chon Buri, about three hours east of Bangkok. The river winds past quaint villages, Buddhist Temples, and pleasant tropical scenery. There are anglers plying the waters in flimsy rowboats and rickety homes that come right up to the water with piers and ladders and lovely coconut trees and gardens in the back. The boat ride begins at Wat Sothorn, an exquisite temple with a highly revered Buddhist statue to which many Thai come to pray. The easily recognizable Thai architecture, with the flaming gold lintels, the red ceramic tiles ablaze in the sun, and spiraling filigree chedis are as inspiring as ever. Along the way, I stop at a riverside restaurant and dine on spicy Thai salad, fresh river shrimp, and tea.

I came to Asia ostensibly to pick up my mother in law and escort her back to visit her daughter (my wife, Ying) and three grandchildren (Arielle, Noah, and Adina). We are also expecting a fourth child and timed her visit to coincide with that event. She speaks not a word of English but we can get by on my fledgling Thai. While here, I plan to enjoy myself. I will visit Cambodia and Burma (later) and enjoy Thailand for a few days. When the time comes to apply for my mother-in-law's visa, I realize that in a post 9/11 world it will not be easy. Whereas more than a million illegals enter our nation each year with relative ease, the obstacles for doing it lawfully can be formidable. We arrive at five AM. There are already more than a hundred people lined up. By seven, when the doors officially open, the line stretches down the block. I can think of no better testimonial of the greatness of our nation, by the way, than this… We are fortunate. My 72-year-old mother-in-law does not fit the profile of a terrorist and receives a visa.

I am now ready for the next phase of my journey. I fly into Siam Reap, in Cambodia, a mere hour by turboprop from Bangkok. It is heavenly, a prelude, perhaps, to celestial sights I would be enjoying at Angkor Wat: the magnificent temple ruins built between the 9th and 13th centuries at the height of the Khmer Empire. At the airport I meet a "motodriver," a Cambodian lad named Le-an, who, it turns out, arranges to be my guide. He fits himself, my backpack, and me onto his little scooter and whisks me off to my hotel.

Our first destination is Bayon, built by Angkor's greatest builder, Jayavarman VII. I ascend the black stone steps leading into the temple complex. There are portals, alcoves, arches, and more than 1200 meters of bas-reliefs. The most arresting feature is on the third level, on which arise the gigantic, coldly smiling faces of Avalokitesvara (a Hindu-Buddhist goddess of compassion). The mood is somber and meditative. A quick glance up from the ruins reminds me of where I am: the jungle. The tall trees roar with hot breezes, chattering birds, and the scratching of crickets. We venture, appropriately, to the next site - the Jungle Temple, or Ta Prohm. It is a seventeenth century Buddhist temple, left as it was found by the first French explorers who came upon it more than a century ago. At every corner and passage is the tangled web of stone and branch, the entire complex overtaken by vegetation. Groping cords of root and vine splinter and uproot the intricate carvings, whole monuments lifted from their moorings by the tangle of limbs. The trees seem literally to have sprung from the center of the earth, surrounding and pouring over the hapless stones. Yet, despite the onslaught, the ruins persist, disheveled but intact: it is a vision of civilization and nature locked in mortal conflict, each struggling for dominance, yet joined in synergistic unity. I am lost in its glory and splendor.

Angkor Wat presents itself from afar: with its soaring towers and extraordinary bas-reliefs, it is considered one of the most inspired and spectacular monuments ever conceived. Suryavarman II (1112-1152), to honor the Hindu God, Vishnu, with whom he as God-king was identified, built it. There are three levels, each surrounded by intricately interlinked galleries. The central tower, rising 55 meters, gives the whole ensemble its sublime unity. There are arched corridors, courtyards with ornate carvings, detailed circular pillars, and portals with heavenly maidens (apsuras). It is fantasy come to life.

After two days, I am busy again with airports. At the end of my efforts, I am gazing out the window of my hotel on the eleventh floor in Rangoon, Burma (now known as Yangon, Myanmar), entranced by the magnificent view of the Shwedagon Pagoda. It is a vast, golden spire, bathed in warm light resting atop the highest hill in Yangon. It is more a vision, belonging to another realm, not really of the earth. It throbs and shimmers like a radiant star, illuminating the velvety night sky for miles. The most sacred site in all of Burma (Myanmar), it houses eight strands of hair from the Buddha himself. King Okkalapa (more than 2500 years ago) enshrined them in a chedi (or stupa), a bell shaped spire or "pagoda", which abound in Myanmar, hence the name, Land of Pagodas.

The next day, I venture downtown. It is surprisingly bustling, with tall buildings, fashionable shops, and restaurants. This I feel is the potential of Myanmar, a flourishing, vibrant nation with a thriving economy yet true to its culture and traditions. At its epicenter is the Sule Pagoda: a gold plated bell shaped chedi, multi-tiered with gold leaf filigree, flaming and intense for the glory of the Buddha and his teaching. I notice a woman offering small sparrows to release from their cages for a small donation. I do so, acquiring merit for freeing the creature. A guide has me apply gold leaf on one particular Buddha image, a rite I remember from Thailand. He informs me that to place the leaf on the Buddha's eye delivers clear vision, and on the ear eliminates noise and creates peace. I place several leafs on both.

Later in the week, I fly up to Mandalay. In the morning, I am up at 430AM and on a ferry, traveling down the Ayeyarwaddy River, the longest river in Myanmar. We are heading to, thirteen hours later, the deserted city of Bagan (formerly Pagan). The river presents exciting slices of Burmese life: the unending gold tipped pagodas perched on hilltops, the fishing boats trawling the waters, the ramshackle villages lining up along water's edge. When we arrive, I instantly recognize why Bagan is considered a wonder of Asia. Sitting on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River at sunset, it is magic. It is an ancient city preserved at the height of its glory after Kublai Khan sacked it more than seven centuries ago, in 1287. More than 3000 pagodas are scattered amidst the dust and trails of the old capital. I go first to the Mingalazedi Pagoda, built in 1277, one of the very last of the late Bagan period before the kingdom's decline. At the top level, I enjoy a dramatic panorama of the old city with its multitude of stupas emerging from the copper earth like luminous, mythic figures. It is, perhaps, the greatest thing I have ever seen.

In a few days, I am boarding a plane with my mother in law for the return trip back to the US. It has been a splendid journey.

Comments

  • Nancy Ector

    November 5, 2012

    Enjoyed this article so very much. We sponsored a Burmese refugee family twelve years ago and are very much in love with them. They arrived with two sweet children and have given birth to another here in the US eleven years ago.
    They often express a desire to show us their homeland. Your article has given us a mental picture of many amazing sights of their land.
    Thank you

  • Nancy Ector

    November 5, 2012

    Enjoyed this article so very much. We sponsored a Burmese refugee family twelve years ago and are very much in love with them. They arrived with two sweet children and have given birth to another here in the US eleven years ago.
    They often express a desire to show us their homeland. Your article has given us a mental picture of many amazing sights of their land.
    Thank you

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