In the confines of a monastery

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Asia » Burma » Mandalay Region » Sagaing
February 1st 2012
Published: February 19th 2012
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As I sit in the confines of a tiny monastery, my feet playing in the sun whilst the rest of me resides safely from the harmful rays in the shade of a wooden veranda I make loosely connected conversation with an amiable nun dressed in dashing baby pink. Both armed with different editions of the LP phrase book we delve in to each other’s lives. I learn that she is 45 but looks early thirties, she has been a nun since the age of four and has five brothers and sisters; the abbot of her monastery is her older brother and Maunghtay (Monty) the man who has been our guide and saviour is a younger brother. Within these shady walls there are four novice monks (under 20), three adult monks and one Abbot (head monk), whilst she is the only nun. Here I am, and I shall be staying with them for two days.

In return I tell her about myself, I am a teacher, I have many students, I have travelled for seven months, I have a boyfriend of four years, a mother who is a TV celebrity, a father who works with his passion; trains, two brothers and three sisters. I managed to explain my older brother is a fantastic head chef and my little sister is a student but was unable to explain ‘barrister’, ‘marketing’, or ‘graphic/web design’ and found myself looking ridiculous when I tried to act out a court scene.

All is quiet in my living quarters. After prayer Kalina embraced ‘quiet’ time and went to sleep whilst I sat restlessly not knowing what to do with myself in this sanctuary with little to do. I pulled out the phrase book and started making notes and practicing phrases I thought I might need. In the immediate silence the sounds of the surrounding area drift in to my room. I hear the laments of the young nuns in the monastery next door repeating their chants in nasal unison, the sound both ugly and beautiful. The birds sing to each other broken by the sudden over powering beats from a passing vehicle in the distance. All goes quiet again before a small bird lands deafeningly on the branches of a tree only metres away; a sound I would otherwise be unaware of if it weren’t for the immediate stillness.

When ‘sleeping time’ is over we are invited by the nun to eat; the other monks have eaten so they keep their distance except one little monk, seven years old who eyes us from a safe distance with interest. He peaks his tiny head over the windowsill and as soon as I catch him he ducks beneath from view. When he thinks it is safe he peeks from around the door, his freshly shaven head reflecting the sun; startled when I turn to see him. The older male monks speak to us softly in broken, badly pronounced English, I don’t understand what they are saying to me but through human interaction, gestures and smiles, we recognise the others thoughts and intentions.

The silence is broken by the sound of two nearing motorbikes, Monty and friend, our guides for the day and a welcome break from the tedium of doing absolutely nothing. Only after a few hours I am already finding the stillness alien and frustration seeps in whilst I try not to think of home, my broken camera, work, and whatever else my mind throws at me. Monty is excited as he rarely gets to speak with tourists these days. He tells me how years before the boycott on Burma he would meet tourists several times a week on his trishaw and was able to earn enough money to buy a motorbike, which he loves. But nowadays he meets tourists once a fortnight or so and this makes him sad because he loves the tourists and finding out about their country and political situations, their work, their children, their family and of course it is a welcome exchange of language and a chance to further his English.

Monty is eager to show us the beauty of Sagaing and its people. He tells me he doesn't understand why all the tourists flock to Sagaing hill to take photos of the sun when it's the people in the valley below who are the real prize. He explains that he has been in touch with friends and he wants to show us parts of Sagaing no other tourists get to see and as a consequence, the people we meet rarely see foreigners. He believes whole heartedly that my being here should be shared with as many of his friends as possible. We fly out of the monastery waving to the nun swathed in pink and head towards a guitar factory. It isn’t much of a factory more like a few men making guitars under a wooden covering singing together and laughing as they shape the wood in moulds, paint and later add the rest. Here size clearly does not matter; it appears they are some of the biggest exporters of guitars in Burma. We sit uncomfortably in the house of the owner who has coerced a young man in to playing the guitar for us, he tries to tune it but it won’t go...not a good selling point. Embarrassed he stands and turns towards the display guitars behind him, retrieving a Gibson before pursuing the dainty notes as he strums successfully. Onwards a few hundred metres and we arrive at a silk weaving factory where longyi’s are made (long skirts) these are designed specifically for women and are intended for ‘Sunday best’ such as a wedding and cost up to $400. The girls look young but apparently they have trained for years to do this particular speciality; wedding longyi’s. They show us the elaborate designs of beautifully intricate patterns, some of which take up to forty-six days!! They eye our cameras slung around our blody and ask us to take photos, seemingly we are a welcome break from the otherwise repetitive tedium that lasts their long days. The girls clamber in to shot with wide grins and bright eyes. Before we go Monty shows us a tree outside and explains that this tree (Sandalwood tree) is where the bark is used to make the yellow lotion, Thanaka, applied to the faces of women and some men creating the war paint decorations we see everywhere. The women fall over themselves as they scream in delight at Monty; Kalina and I stand perplexed at this sudden commotion. Monty tells us they want to put the lotion on us, so we allow them. They bring out a lump of sandalwood, and mix water with the bark for the tree continually mixing it with some pressure until it turns a bright yellow, this is then applied to my entire face with a brush. I could feel the wetness thickly soaking in to my pores, a welcoming feeling of freshness in contrast to the harsh heat. The mix is then beaten with more bark until it becomes a stronger yellow and thicker in texture. This is then applied to the cheeks, when dry, creates the vivid colours we see on so many other women. They shape mine on my cheek bone in squares which dries quickly in the sun before cracking to create a mosaic or pixilation. Monty tells me how stunning it looks and it is regarded as a thing of beauty among men.

Monty guides us deeper in to the villages of Sagaing, turns off a road on to a dirt track. My fear of motorbikes has not subsided and the dirt track does nothing for my rise in anxiety and probably blood pressure. The houses here are dilapidated wooden structures on stilts similar to those dotted around the rest of South East Asia, regardless of their tiredness they are still beautiful. It is the lack of wealth and access to certain materials which prevent the people of Burma from building with bricks, but the simplicity of their teak structures are overwhelmingly humble and only force me to question the importance I place on possessions. Clay pots line the outside of these buildings which are houses as well as factories. As I admire the incredible shapes at my feet Monty greets a lady who can’t be more than 50 and she holds his hand warmly in greeting, clearly they are friends. He tells us this lady makes clay pots and she proceeds to show us how it is done which jolts me back fourteen years or so to pottery class with Mrs Vincent who taught me one of my favourite words; aesthetically pleasing. She bashes the clay in order to release any trapped air as this would be fatal in the kilning process, before throwing it on to wheel so similar to those from class and manually spins the wheel with her foot as she moulds the clay in to a wonderful pot with her hands. I stand stunned, open mouthed, amazed by her sheer ambidexterity. Once satisfied with the shape she puts it with a dozen others to dry before she grabs a larger pot under a hessian sheet which has already dried and begins to bash it with a flat piece of wood until it becomes a smooth rounded piece. This then goes in to a pile ready for the kiln. Before we head off to see the kiln she shows us how she carries the pots; four on her head and two in each of her hands, so in all eight large pots (you have to see it to believe it). Again I find myself thrown by all I have witnessed; how they live, the simplicity, the lack of extras yet the skills they equip themselves which are essential to their lives and to the lives of others. But these people work hard, life is hard, I can see it in the lines around their eyes and their bent backs but throughout this amicable lady laughs with her next door neighbour who has come to help with baby in tow. The kiln itself looks like a bonfire as women in head scarfs pile dry grass high on to the heat. I can’t see flames, only steam emanates from beneath the burning pile and I can see pots at the bottom. The field is lined with hundreds of pots, half are cooked, the other half ready to be cooked. Even from this distance the heat from the kiln blasts my face and I force my feet backwards to escape the suffocating warmth.

As dusk settles over us we head back to the monastery where the nun warmly greets us. We chat for a while on her veranda with Monty who acts as interpreter and we talk about politics and philosophy and life. It is deep and meaningful and I am fascinated with the ease in which he speaks about the trials Burma and its people have experienced. He tells us how the Chinese have been allowed to take land from locals in order to build hotels and restaurants; the government have encouraged them to come in their droves and this has made life very difficult for the people. He explains how the owner of the hotel we stayed in for our first night, which is the only hotel in the area called Happy Hotel (it’s in the guide book too) threatens him because he intercepts tourists and helps them to stay at the monastery where we have found ourselves. He tries to justify his part because he knows he is the only man in town who speaks very good English (apart from some of the monks) and tourists who stay in Sagaing need a helping hand and he wants to show them how beautiful his town is. They all come here wanting one thing; to experience life in a monastery or a nunnery so he helps them. This of course means Happy Hotel loses out on their over-priced accommodation. I tell him I didn’t like staying there anyway; they watch when you when you eat breakfast and there is a general feeling of awkwardness as we pass through the reception, most unwelcoming. Our conversation continues and it is most enlightening.

Sadly, Monty is not immune to the lure of westernisation and the ideals of 'freedom' it connotes. He believes money will improve everyone’s life here in Burma and of course, more tourists mean more money. The beauty of Burma right now is the lack of tourists, especially off the tourist trail. The people have not grown weary of ridiculous western expectations, drunken immaturity or inappropriate dress, if indeed they have experienced this at all. Its underdevelopment on the tourist map serves it well and safeguards it from young westerners trampling over delicate social systems which are near and dear to the people. I talk of the people, not the government. The worst part of my travels have been other travellers who have little or no respect for culture and here only to have a good time which always involves alcohol and the hope of sharing a bed that night. I almost posted a scathing blog in Vietnam about this particular subject but feared it might cause too much offence. However, the kind of people who grace this blog site don’t seem to be that type of traveller. I don’t even look at these people as travellers, just dirty backpackers who should not leave their borders until they are mature enough to respect fragile systems in another country. Whatever my beliefs are on the tender subject of politics here, tourism should be the last thing they rely upon; it should be a bonus, an added extra like in Malaysia. Sadly tourism pays the bills and puts food on the table in countries like Thailand and Vietnam, where reliance upon the foreigner means the locals are wealthy in the peak seasons and suffer from poverty in the slumps. Many whore themselves out to meet absurd western standards and appeal to western ideals; to the extent that a home stay is no longer a real ‘home stay’ in the heart of a locals house but an intentionally marketed trip complete with western toilet and hot showers. This of course has made these countries widely accessible to all age groups thereby bringing in the money but bring polar consequences; dejection, irritation and a general dislike or even hatred of foreigners and their disrespectful tendencies. You only have to visit Bangkok’s Koah San Road or the Full Moon party in Thailand to see what ruin has become of these places. Maybe I am being too brash here, but it saddens me to see the volatile foreigner here in what should be ‘paradise’. Who are we to spread our drunken customs and force our way through the lives of these people altering precious existences? Maybe a more elusive thought; could this be a modern day example of ‘survival of the fittest’ or ‘evolution’?

That evening Kalina and I eat alone again in the kitchen; everyone else fasts after 12pm. The food is good and we are hungry so we scoff it down. Although we discuss if it is OK to eat it all and decide that it is not so we leave some and this comes back to us for breakfast the next day. We join the nun and the young girl who is a cook who looks fifteen but turns out she is twenty five and we sit in silence. I feel awkward as Kalina busies herself with her diary, the nun and the cook chat, clearly about me as they look at me between conversations and I sit in silence. I pretend like I am cool with the quiet and the whole not talking thing but inside I feel embarrassed and shy. One of the monks, the one who has tried to speak to us many a time invites us to pray with him. I gratefully jump up, all too pleased for an escape and follow him with Kalina at my heel; we climb the steep steps up to the top of a little hill where they have a towering Pagoda; we kneel and we pray. We follow the monk to the bell and he hands me the mallet and I proceed to bang it five times, then Kalina does and then the Monk. He signals us to follow him around the structure and we do, admiring the view of the surrounding area and the lit up pagodas miles away dotting along the scene like fairy lights. The Monk suddenly stops and turns to me; he starts talking in Burmese and I don’t understand. I smile, embarrassed that I don’t identify with his language and he tries again repeating the same things. “Bah” “Bah” “Bah”. “Bah?” I say. He shakes his head and points at the Bell. “Oh Bell!” He tells me the word for it and I say it back to him, he nods his head and smiles. This continues but bell was the only thing I was able to understand. I stand awkwardly and feel rotten to the core with discomfort as he repeats words at me; Kalina stands and watches trying not to laugh.

As the Monk speaks at me repetitively I remember a time when I was nine or ten and my mother shipped me off to France on a school trip which lasted three days and two nights. I spoke very little French back then, although I could order a Baguette and Pain aux raisin or ask for ice-cream like a pro but little else. We arrived at the school and I met Cecile, my pen friend whose family would be my surrogate for the next few days. When we arrived at her house Cecile excitedly hurried me off to her attic room and proceeded to jump on the bed. I joined her, it was such fun. We jumped higher and higher trying to catch a glimpse of the marvellous view from her window until suddenly the bed broke and we fell through the entire wooden structure with a loud thump. As we lay in a heap shocked, her father and brother ran up the stairs, pulled us off the bed and I stood in between Cecile and her brother, her father facing me. He was shouting and I wanted to cry. He was shouting at Cecile, her brother and I thought me but I didn’t understand. This was the first time I had met the father and I remember being shocked by his eyes which seemed to have a life of their own as they rolled around in their sockets. Horrified, I couldn’t decipher if he was looking at me, Cecil or the brother. From that moment I tried to spend as little time with the family as possible and took to hiding in the down stairs toilet for long stretches of time. When I did ingratiate the family with my presence they tried to feed me raw meat, weird little toast which wasn’t real toast and strange cereals. I was hoping breakfast would be full of croissants and pastries. One other event happened here, but I shan’t be telling; it’s far too embarrassing to admit. I look back now and laugh, I am old enough to find the funny side but for years after I was left traumatised and sometimes I still do find it hard to stay at other’s houses only because I don’t like the discomfort that comes with it. I like doing my own thing, getting up when I want, wearing what I feel like that day and showering and toileting in my own comfortable abode. So staying at the monastery, with the language barriers and the unknown expectations complete with Monk making me repeat words I had no clue as to what they meant transported me back to my awkward ten year old self.

As I write this I am writing from notes and essays I made on my journey. There is little or no internet connection in Burma and what little there is, is slow and tedious. There was no chance of me updating from within those borders so I write this now from Bangkok. Although I restrict myself and set my own ridiculous limitations I thoroughly enjoyed Sagaing and can say with ease this was my favourite part of Burma. No tourists, just real spiritual life. I faced a personal crisis in the monastery but enjoyed it. I loved chatting with the nun through a phrase book and learning about her and her family. I laugh at the incident on top of the Pagoda with the very eager monk and am grateful for his time; he didn’t have to pray with us or try to teach us Burmese. If you decide to go to Sagaing, give it a little time, it is beautiful. There are over nine thousand nuns and six thousand monks living in monasteries which line the route to Sagaing hill. Most are willing to accept a tourist for a few days or more with a donation; some will even embrace you in to their spiritual lives. Here you taste real life, real people, real religion and it is wonderful. If you would like to know Monty’s contact details then please email me and I am more than willing to pass them on. He will also be able to set up a monastery stay for you if you wish rather than staying at the over-priced, uncharismatic Happy Hotel. He will take you out for day trips which are not unreasonably priced and will shower you with fascinating conversation and learning experiences. I feel like a tour guide writing this but feel passionate that I should share with other travellers this incredible experience.

Additional photos below
Photos: 49, Displayed: 37


19th February 2012

thanks for sharing what I think is the most interesting and well written travelblog I have ever read, wonderful photos - thnak you so much!
19th February 2012

In the confines of a monastery
Thank you Jessica for a wonderful glimpse during your stay at the monastry. Great photos which capture the amazing beautiful pepople. I completely agree with your comments about the impact some tourists have . At least there travelers like you that have a positive interaction with the locals. Best wishes Anabela
19th February 2012

In the confines of a monastery
Thank you Jessica for a wonderful glimpse during your stay at the monastry. Great photos which capture the amazing beautiful pepople. I completely agree with your comments about the impact some tourists have . At least there travelers like you that have a positive interaction with the locals. Best wishes Anabela
20th February 2012

Evocative photos
I enjoyed your photographs. Many capture the everyday scenes I remember while traveling through Burma. I love photo 36.....people in Burma make what I would consider acrobatic balancing acts look mundane...and that was something I saw everyday there.
31st May 2012

Monastery stay - Sagaing
Hi Jess, I am not one to usually read strangers blogs but I came across yours when researching Monastery stay in Sagaing and have spent the last hour reading your insightful adventures and marvelling at your incredible photos. We are travelling to Myanmar in November and your blogs have truly moved me -you write with such passion and warmth. I would love the contact details for Monty so we too can experience life in Sagaing without having to stay at the Hapy Hotel. Many thanks Vicki Australia
2nd June 2012

Thank you
Hi, I will get his details for you. I am currently moving house so everything is packed but will send them to you when I get a moment. You will love it there, Myanmar is just incredible

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