Destination TBD

Back to All Travel Essays »

Ghosts & Revelations
A Spiritual Awakening in Burma

Burma is a land of ghosts and superstition… a place where myth entwines reality and drifts into waking dreams. Here, spirits roam the fields; they roost in the crooked boughs of trees; they hold dominion over entire mountains from the spires of gilded temples. They are unseen, but present in the offerings bound to the grills of jalopy trucks, that garnish the doorways of village homes, and stand in golden fields, like scarecrows, among harvested crops.

I wasn’t surprised by the superstitious nature of the Burmese or their fixation with the spirit world – having traveled in Asia for the better part of a year, I’d become used to belief in phantoms, the sight of spirit houses and the ritualistic feeding of guardians ­– piles of shiny oranges, cakes of rice, burning incense. I’d come to Asia with a Western mind, where magic and superstition are the stuff of fiction. I came as a skeptic, rather than a believer in faith, the afterlife, and the spirit world. But one restless night, everything changed when I was awoken by a thayé, a Burmese ghost, and learned the secrets of the afterlife.

The room was dimly lit – a low wattage bulb suspended from a Buddha altar cast a yellow light on the four of us lying below. We’d trekked 18 km that day, and were staying overnight in the rustic home of a Taung-yo village family. Earlier in the evening, our hosts laid out our beds – reed mats on the bare wood floor – all in a line against the wall. And now, having stumbled into bed after a long day of walking, our hosts came around again with more blankets before retiring to the kitchen to chat with our guide. As the bustle of movement moved into the other room, I closed my eyes and waited for sleep…

…but it didn’t come. I laid under the weight of my many blankets for what seemed like hours, fitful and sleepless. Then: a whisper of movement in the room. I opened my eyes. There, behind my slumbering travel companion, a young woman lay on her side facing me, her black eyes peered at me from behind my friend’s shoulder. I was confused by her presence. At first I thought of the family’s daughters, but both were too young and why would one of the girls leave the warmth of her bed in the middle of the frigid night to lie down among strange foreigners?

I didn't notice her clothes, aside from the fact that they seemed to have no color but faint beige, the color of an antique photograph, faded sepia. On her head she wore a turban of the same non-color and smeared across her cheeks, the same color again – thanaka –the paste so many Burmese women adorn. She was barefoot.

She lay there, behind my friend, so close that I expected Samantha to wake… And aside from a subtle movement of her fingers, she was completely motionless. As I ran my eyes again from her toes to her head, mystified, trying to understand her presence, my gaze –finally – settled on her face and I found her watching me with black eyes, expressionless but intense.

It was then, at the moment our eyes made contact, that my bewilderment turned into terror. From deep inside, like some arcane animal instinct, I knew the woman was a ghost – and for some reason she was interested in me. I flipped over to put my back to her fierce gaze. My heart beating, brain whirling, skin pricked with goose bumps – I was paralyzed with fear. Why me, why me, why me?

I lay there like that – stock-still, heart racing, petrified – hoping nothing more would come of her presence. Finally, I worked up the courage to take a glimpse, to see if she was still there. I sucked in my breath and clenched my fists and tensed by legs and turned my head. There was nothing there but empty space. She was gone, as quietly as she’d come. And finally, I fell asleep, and dreamt...

There's a spirit in the room – I know it. I had a Polaroid camera to prove it. Snapping photos in the pitch-black room, one resulted in an image. As the image developed in my hand, to my horror, the face of a demon emerged: a monster with burning eyes that must have been only inches from my lens – I screamed and ran from the place.

I ran into the arms of someone there to comfort me. I didn't know him. Never seen him before in my life. But he is there, waiting for me, to tell me about the spirits. He tells me not to worry about the demon. While it may be true that the demon wanted into my head, all I have to do is block him with my mind. He tells me that at times people are more 'open'... more receptive to spirits’ calls... He told me that we can let them in if we choose, and we can deny them if we wish.

And then this man, who I’ve come to consider my guardian angel, went on to explain the afterlife. This, in answer to my question, "Who are you, anyway?"

He explained that he was sent to explain things to me, to calm me after my ghost experience. Under normal circumstances he has a different job – he ushers the dead to the other side. He told me that each of us living persons have a spirit 'assigned' to us for this journey and that the ease with which we transition from life to death is all based on who our guide is. With a 'nice' guide, the voyage could be over in a snap. It could be blissful. Perhaps this is heaven. But with a 'nasty' guide, the voyage may be tormented and hideous and gruesome and painful. Perhaps this is hell. And finally, he divulged the answer to life’s ultimate mystery, fate after death. He said that for all of us, our destiny is to guide the souls of others to the afterlife. It would seem that in death, we are – simply (or merely or spectacularly, depending on your point of view) – facilitators of death.

Not long after these encounters, I discovered a passage in a book. It spoke of an old Burmese belief that when a man dies, his soul travels to the River of Death, where a boat awaits to ferry him across. But there are tales of another river, further on, which must be reached for the final passage to the otherworld. Every man must search for his own way across; for some it’s a swift and trouble-free journey, but for others, death is slow and painful. In the past, I would have relegated this story to fantasy, but on reading the words, I already knew it was true.


Back to All Travel Essays »

© 2005, Cheryn Flanagan