Throughout my trip in Myanmar, the colors of red and gold were a constant theme. The dark oxblood red of the monks’ robes accompanied my days from dusk ’til dawn. In the early mornings, the monks lined up in front of the monasteries, starting their way to collect the alms. In city places like Yangon, mostly bills of 50 to 500 kyats, in rural places, like in the monastery pictured below, the locals rather offered rice or curries. In every place I visited I did not cross a street without catching sight of the familiar dark red. The same applies to the color of gold. Even in the smallest village there was a little shrine boasting a golden statue of Buddha, along the road when on the bus, one spotted little temples or shrines with golden “htis” on every other hill, let alone all the bigger temples and Buddha statues around the country. In the evenings, when the novices had finished their tedious studies of Buddha’s scriptures, you caught them playing soccer or watching a movie.
These first images are from a brief visit to a monastery in Kalaw. A few monks were still studying in class and were chanting a few prayers which created a serene atmosphere enlighted by the warm evening sun.
From Kalaw, I started a two-day trek covering the distance to Inle Lake by foot. Within this trek, we spent a night at a small rural monastery, possibly my favorite experience from the whole trip. I will report on the trek, the agency and the logistics in a different post, I just wanted to share my experience and thoughts about the night at the monastery here.
This monastery was rather a poor place in the Shan mountains. Most novices were between seven and 14 years of age, coming from the little villages around the hills. Most families send in their boys for educational reasons, within the monastery, food and education is provided to the novices. A 21-year-old monk was looking after all the little boys, teaching them about the Buddhist scriptures and faith.
Since the monks had very little at this monastery, the boys got creative with their toys. Also, they rejoiced in a game of soccer, a universal sport.
We spent the night in the common room of the monastery, most probably the most horrible night of all my trip since a fellow trekker was snoring so badly that even with earplugs, I didn’t catch much sleep. However, being woken up by the sound of the tiny feet tipping over the wooden floors, was well worth the experience.
Furthermore, in the late evening, three French fellow trekkers and me sat on the veranda with the head monk talking about buddhist faith, the future of this monastery and also the future of buddhism in this fast changing country. He sat, enveloped in his deep dark robes, on the bench opposite me, his face half covered by his robes, half illuminated by the light of a candle. Needless to say, a photograph of this scene would have been a prime picture, but would have completely ruinated the atmosphere. So I sat, listening to his calm voice, looking at his face, with the flickers of light touching it, whenever the wind challenged the candle’s flame. I tried to engrave the picture into my mind. It was one of the most special moments throughout my travels.
The next morning, when the tiny feet of the boys started to pace the floor, I got up to watch them perform their early morning tasks. By 6:00 a.m. the first villagers came in with their offerings of rice, vegetables and curry, providing for the food of all the monks. They came in and sat with the head monk, having a cup of tea and then left again to go back to their fields, but not without offering their prayers to Buddha. I learned that there is a specific schedule which village is responsible for providing the food at what date.
A few of the novices were responsible for setting the dishes and distributing the food offered by the villagers, while the others were on duty with cleaning and other household tasks. I sat among them, with a cup of tea the head monk had offered me, and enjoyed the busy early morning atmosphere. All the other trekkers were still sleeping, the boys didn’t pay me any attention, only the head monk asked me a few questions in broken English. It felt so special and humbling to just be there, not disturbing but just watching them go about their every-day life. The light was a little difficult and I didn’t want to disturb them with my camera too much so the pictures are a little blurred but I included them anyway since I love them so much.
Villagers coming in with their hand-made bamboo baskets, offering the freshly cooked food (so they got up at about 4:00 a.m. on their day of duty) in the typical metal boxes that are also found in other parts of Asia (remember the Indian film ‘Lunch box’?).
When everything was set, one of the older boys rang a bell and the others stormed in for their early morning prayers. They sat and chanted – one of the older boys with a rough and broken voice, announcing the beginning of his adolescence.
They then sat down for their breakfast. Within the guidelines of Buddha for life at a monastery, monks only eat twice per day to allow for better studying and better concentration. So the monks only have a hearty breakfast at 6:00 a.m. and then lunch around 11:00 a.m. The afternoon is spent studying Buddha’s scriptures and no food or other terrestrial desires should interfere with the holy concentration achieved in meditation.
These early morning hours were definitely one of my favorite moments throughout the whole trip. They testified the essence of this country, the deep Buddhist faith, their humility and their openness towards us travelers in allowing us to be a part of it.