musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Mandalay Monks

While I was in Mandalay I was having a late lunch one day at the Minthiha teashop with my friend Soe Moe when the subject turned to my plans for the rest of the afternoon. Soe Moe, who is a tour guide and an adventurous traveler himself (“Last month I asked my wife if I could go somewhere for a week, and she let me. I just wanted to travel!”), had recommended that I take a bike ride along the river late in the afternoon. “Lots of activity and interesting things to see,” he added.

So that was my plan. It was about four o’clock when I left my hotel. I was riding down 35th Street, going west towards the river, when I decided to get off that congested main road and hit some quieter side streets. Mandalay is often dismissed as an ugly, dusty, chaotic, congested city with far too much and traffic and non-descript buildings. A dizzying mix of cars, buses, bikes, motorcycles, ox carts, bicycles, trishaws, and pedestrians, all jostling for position on the road. But when you hit the side streets, a whole different scene emerges: attractive little neighborhoods, shady lanes, lovely old monasteries, children flying kites, groups of young men playing chinlon, quaint little teashops. I love exploring this colorful side of Mandalay.

When I take my bike rides, I will often ramble around with no clear idea of where I’m going. Which is ideal: get lost and let adventure find you. And this time was no exception. I was riding down one funky little street (it turned out to be a northern extension of 90th Street, but I didn’t realize that at the time) when I noticed a couple of big old white stupas on the left hand side. After I had pedaled a few yards further, I made a U-turn (carefully checking to make sure no other vehicles were approaching; I’ve come close to being clipped a few times for not being so observant) and went back for a closer look at the pagoda. It turned out to be an active monastery, as evidenced by the dozen or so novice monks who were playing football in the dirt road.


I hopped off my bike (I always wear a longyi when cycling, so the hopping part isn’t as easy as it sounds; I’ve suffered more than my share of embarrassing longyi wardrobe malfunctions) and asked the young monks if it would be okay for me to snap a few pictures. A couple of them shrieked and ran away, while several others just stood around and grinned. I took a few shots and then let the monks look at the results. Instant laughter. Between my ability to speak their language and seeing these silly pictures I was now their friend. And suddenly, the shy ones now wanted their photo taken too! I spent the next ten minutes snapping more pictures before deciding to wind things up and continue my cycling adventure further on down the road. I still had two more days left in Mandalay, so I promised the monks that I would return before I left town and give them some prints. Like so many young children that I’ve met in Myanmar — including novice monks like these — many of them have never had a photo of themselves to keep.


Two days later I was back. This time, of course, I was recognized and immediately greeted upon arrival. After I had passed out the photos (a tricky act in itself; some of the youngsters wanted to grab the prints right out of my hands!), that led to the inevitable “second round” of photo taking. And this time, you can be assured, a LOT more novice monks wanted their photo taken. I was told that there were 108 monks at this monastery (the name of which was written for me in Burmese, but have yet to get it translated) and it seemed to me as if each and every single one of them was lined up, wanting to pose for the camera. Some struck a serious pose, some flashed peace signs, and others just acted goofy. Hey, they may be monks but they’re still just playful kids.


I spent over 45 minutes at the monastery this time, taking well over a hundred shots. At one point I was mercifully led away from the throng by one older novice monk and invited to meet his aunt and uncle who lived next door! Alas, that was my last day in Mandalay before leaving for Shan State, so I didn’t have time to make prints of the second round to give everyone. But when I return again later this year, I’ll be bearing a bunch of photos, expecting to be mobbed by this rowdy but delightful bunch of novice monks. Another unexpected but memorable moment in Mandalay.

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