03/24/2013

Monks and novices in Myanmar - the Buddhism way of life

Myanmar is one of the most devout Buddhist countries in the world. About 89% of the people in Myanmar are Buddhist. People in Myanmar practice the Theravada Buddhism, which is more austere and ascetic, but also harder to practice than the Mahayana Buddhism, the other main branch of the Buddhism. Theravada Buddhism is also followed in Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Laos and Thailand. No one really knows, but experts estimates that in Myanmar live about half a million monks. It's customary for a male in Myanmar to enter a monastery twice in his life. Once as a samanera, a novice monk, between the age of 10 and 20, and again as a hpongyi, a fully ordained monk, sometime at the age of 20. Some might remain a monk for just a few days, while others stay for life.

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Monks hold the highest status in the society of Myanmar. The overwhelming majority of the monks and novives in Myanmar wear maroon-colored robes. Monks receive two meals per day, breakfast and lunch and they are not allowed to eat after 12:00 noon. Early in the morning the monks and novices go out carrying a bowl to get offerings like rice, curry or other food. Usually a monk has his own family where he goes every day. It is not begging, since the family invited the monk to come to their house. It is a ritual that expresses a profound bond between the monks and the ordinary Buddhist and gives the locals the chance of doing the deed of dhana and to acquire merit.

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01/27/2013

Suri people under pressure: The Malaysian Plantation in Koka, Ethiopia

There are serious changes in the south-western part of Ethiopia, which hosts some of Africa's most fascinating and colorful ethnic groups. Things are changing very fast and not everything is for the better for the people there, like for example the Suri people around Kibish, Tulgit and Koka. The Ethiopian Agriculture and Rural Development State Minister Aberra Deressa once claimed: " ... at the end of the day we [do] not really appreciate pastoralists remaining in the forest like this ... pastoralism is not sustainable ... we must bring commercial farming, mechanized agriculture, to create job opportunities to change the environment." In 2011 the Ethiopian government started a 5 years development plan for the region around the Omo River. It covers among others state-run sugar plantations and factories in South Omo, the Gibe III dam, a resettlement program and the Malaysian plantation in Koka.

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In October 2012 I visited the Koka plantation which is operated by the Malaysian company Lim Siow Jin Estate. The plantation was founded almost 2 years ago. Right now around 140 people are working on the farm, among them also a few Suri people. The manager of the plantation explained me the master plan of the 55-year leasing contract between the Malaysian owner and the Ethiopian government, which is quite impressive. The plantation has a size of about 31.000 ha, which is half the size of Singapore. The plantation grows palm oil, sesame and rubber trees. For 2013 an airport is planned, and in the near future a number of factories. The plantation is far away from the harbor (Djibouti), so transportation will be a problem. Since the target of the plantation is the world market, the plantation is planning to process the raw material in new factories directly on the farm, and the transport will be managed by airplane. At the end of the leasing time over 40.000 people should work on the plantation and in the nearby factories.

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01/16/2013

A few travel tips for Myanmar (Burma)

Many travelers like Myanmar because of the wonderful and amazing people. And I think they are absolutely right. Especially in areas away from the popular tourist destinations. And it is still very simple to explore the authentic way of life in Myanmar. Visit a big market in the outskirts of Yangon for example, or stay a couple of nights in Sagaing, take enough time to visit the monasteries there and get in touch with the monks and the Buddhism way of life. In a monastery in Sagaing I asked the monks if they receive a lot of visitors, they answered that I am the second tourist since a couple of years!

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Here a few practical tips if you like to visit Myanmar any time soon. The travel guides like for example the Lonely Planet from 2011 are already partly outdated. Things are changing too quickly in Myanmar right now.

Changing money: Don't listen to the travel guides like Lonely Planet! You get by far the best rates at the airport. You should change money directly when you arrive in Yangon. Or you go to Bogyoke Aung San Market, leave all the black market moneychangers behind and go to a small bank at the far end of the market to change money with a very good rate. They also accept smaller banknotes for the same rate, which the black market moneychangers don't do.

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