Traveling for the soul – 5 spiritual sites that will change you forever
Spiritual sites around the world that will change you forever.
“Welcome back to Myanmar. You finally made it back home” – a smiley young beautiful girl from the deep tribal mountains of the Shan state tells me, after I ordered my noodle soup for breakfast. – “You don’t want some Cornflakes, a toast maybe? We can provide that.” she continued, probably thinking she misheard me.
“No, I don’t eat western food, I eat Asian only, even at home. I really want that traditional noodle soup everyone eats around here. Give me the same thing you had for breakfast, just no meat on it, please, I’m a Buddhist”. Her eyes lid up with ecstasy and for a few moments I thought she was about to hug me. I think she repressed her instinct on the last minute. “You’re not a Christian m’am?” “Nope, I’m a Buddhist. Always wanted to become a monk, for some reason it hasn’t happened.”
“I didn’t know there were white people like you. You eat like us, you pray like us, you’re dressing like us. You even sit with your legs crossed like us. Welcome back to Myanmar! You finally made it back home.” she smiles, gesturing with the grace and elegance only a young Shan girl seems to have. – “We have a believe that Burmese people will always come back in the next reincarnation, even if temporarily. So welcome back. I’m so excited.”
“Thank you, I’m so happy to be back, you have no idea how” – I replied, with an emotion that overwhelmed me for the next few weeks. That girl never left my thoughts.
As I always say, we see the world according to our perspectives and our experiences – both positive and negative – everything is a projection based on our believes and aspirations. Myanmar expressed some of the things I hold most dear to me, in ways I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Spirituality guides life. Family is the core of a community, and by family I don’t mean blood related family members only, but a more broad sense of family, including the closest friends and neighbors.
When visiting the most remote rural villages in the middle of nowhere by the river banks of deep Myanmar, I found entire communities sharing values I always dreamed but are extinct in the world I live in.
The houses have no doors. There is no theft or violence. Neighbors live side by side, sharing the crops, the lands and the work. Children grow up in extended families with role models from every age. Work is mostly done communally and gender roles play a big part of the community etiquette. Groups of woman chat in a circle while preparing the vegetables and fish for dinner. Children and babies play around, involving that entire scene with laughter and happiness. An innocent and sweet laughter I haven’t heard in years.
Most men are out, working. Monks rolled in saffron colored robes, study the Dharma and recite their mantras at the near by monastery. Those mantras are blown by the wind, entering my ears and moving every cell of my body, reminding me, that one day, I too wanted to be a Buddhist monk.
As we walk around the many lost villages in deep rural Myanmar, we were greeted with laughter and smiles, by the children who, driven by curiosity, came over to see these “strange white folks”. I could see myself living here, happily.
The sights and sounds of the smallest villages stole my heart. My imagination went a thousand miles an hour, fantasizing to return. My fellow travel buddies on the other hand expressed pity for such “poor people who haven’t even got electricity or running water.” – “Really?” – I asked them a couple of times… – “I had never seen so much beauty before, so much simplicity, so much sense of community and happiness…” I said – “But they have no health insurance, no amenities.” – one traveler added. – “We have a better system” – I’ve heard in disbelief….
According to Myanmar tradition and values, the whole community is responsible for the well being of each other. Widows are taken care of by their neighbors and adopted as their granny. When someone gets sick or a child is really bright, the whole community saves money to pay for the medical expenses of the sick and the studies of the kids. When comparing this system to the American one, the wealthiest nation on the planet and where people can die for not having health insurance, you wonder which one is more fair.
As the world’s last frontier, Myanmar will involve you in a spirituality of the everyday life. For the Buddhists who seek solitude and a more pure form of Buddhism. Myanmar and its thousands stupas and temples, will make you feel at home.
It’s midnight and I’m trying to get out of the International airport of Istanbul. I know no one. My pick up service never showed up and my bags were sent directly to Thailand ( my next destination ) by mistake with the directions and address to my hostel. I have nothing on me, but my debit card, my documents, my hijab and a toothbrush I got at the airplane.
What else does a girl need, right? Well, the address of my hostel would have been a great thing to have. Teaming up with 3 random Brazilian travelers, we make our way to the center of Istanbul, where I planed to ask around for my hostel knowing nothing but the street name. And this is how my love relationship with Istanbul began, back in 2013.
There was something about this city, I can’t deny it. I visited it twice, both on my way and after returning from Thailand. I immediately mingled with the dozens, if not hundreds of beautifully taken care cats that call Istanbul home. Cat gazing became one of my favorite activities, in the midst of those hot spring days.
It was during one of those incredibly hot afternoons that I heard the Azaan at Sultanahmed for the first time. The many mosques around the area seemed to talk to each other, in a sweet melody that rocked me like a baby. I had heard the Azaan on a daily basis in India, when I rented a room that was literally wall by wall with a mosque. It always gave me the chills, but in Istanbul i was left in tears of emotion… an emotion that touched my soul. so deep I can’t put it into words. And every day, I’d follow the Azaan into the blue mosque, as hypnotized by a force that was bigger than me.
One of those days I entered and sat by the cold marble pillar and closed my eyes. Hundreds of tourists and tourist guides walked around, whispering, talking, taking photos like little wind storms entering and exiting the mosque. I’ve heard it all. But I’ve heard it from afar. I felt as if I was in a bubble, unshakable, unbreakable… The guard approached tourists once in a while, asking visitors to stand up, to stop doing this or that. Although I felt and heard the fuss around me, my mind was as still as a rock. It was as if I was inside a dark room, in absolute stillness. Next time I opened my eyes it was pitch black outside. I was the only tourist left. And only a few men prayed over the beautiful red carpet of the blue mosque. I had been totally awake and aware, but didn’t notice time passing by so fast. “How did this happened?” – I asked myself….
The most misunderstood religion in the world, accused of fundamentalism and mistreatment of women is probably the only religion in the world whose first follower and convert was a woman – Kadijah the profet’s wife ( mother of all believers) who supported, comforted and encouraged him for the immense task he had ahead – bringing the word of God to humanity.
Istanbul is as laid back as it can be and despite the last unfortunate incidents, there’s absolutely no reason to avoid one of the most magical cities in the world.
People flock to India on a daily basis, searching for gurus… searching for enlightenment… searching for a spiritual change. And as you might heard, you’ll either love it or hate it. I’m not the kind that loved it.
Add 40C, insane traffic jams, car/bus/rickshaw/truck fumes, cows, sheep, dogs, millions of people, urine, feces and trash everywhere, street children, flies, people trying to sell you stuff and then add extra chili to your food, to make sure your head explodes and your temper shortens.
I did go through an absolute spiritual revolution in India. It challenged my deepest believes, it challenged my patience in levels I never thought possible. It challenged me in every single process from buying a train ticket, sending a package at the post office, interacting with people, dealing with scams, dealing with death, dealing with injustices, dealing with breathing a thick polluted air impregnated with dust and fumes….
It slapped me in the face with reality, every single day. The reality of a privileged life I live as a white European, who can travel freely around the world without visa restrictions when so many can barely feed themselves or their children. It showed me of how individualistic we are in the west, how family and community became less important than a high status career or the eternal personal fulfillment.
I don’t know if mantras and meditation would have given me so much back as the intense 6 months traveling around the Indian subcontinent incessantly did. I’ve lived with monks, I’ve stayed in monasteries, I’ve enjoyed the sunsets in Goa and the Himalayas in Darjeeling, I’ve studied ayurveda with a lineage of doctors in Kerala, and swam at the most beautiful place on earth – the Andaman….
India gave me so much, always with its unpleasant twist and filled with layers of stress that almost turned my hair grey, but always with a lesson I needed in order to see and comprehend the world through different eyes. I can’t say I loved it, but I’d suggest everyone to visit, at least once.
Chiang Mai, the capital of healthy living, Thai massage, vegetarian foods, arts and culture. The place where I’ve lived at an old traditional hospital studying massage, surrounded by people from all over the world.
The smells of lemon grass and coconut curries impregnate the streets within the moat. You’re greeted with a long “sawadeekaaaaaaaa” and huge honest smiles. Everyone seems to be happy here. Nothing ever seems to be wrong or out of place in Chiang Mai.
Huge Buddhist temples adorn almost every street in Chiang Mai, the golden ornamented roofs pierce the blue skies over the city of wonders, a haven for any Buddhist to seeks stillness and pleasure combined. There’s basically a Buddhist temple for each day of the year. A city that is so big, as to be considered the 2nd in the whole country and that is so small, to the point you can move around easily on foot or by bike.
Chiang Mai is where I finally surrendered and let go of attachments…. even if temporary. I wanted nothing, I desired nothing, I almost lost my sense of identity there. An experience I had never felt anywhere else. Pure bliss, pure happiness, pure contentement. Smiles seem to be brighter here. People seem to be happier and this overall sense of tranquility is contagious.
Chiang Mai is also a great place for Buddhist students and people who always wished they could have a chat with a monk. This might be my home in the near future, as I can easily say, it’s the only place in the world where people seem to struggle when leaving and a place they’ll always return.