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

The day I left with the group of novice monks from Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung to go to Pindaya, I noticed some sad faces on the monks we’d left behind at the monastery. It was obvious that all of them wanted to go on the trip, but of course I couldn’t take everyone — the van could only hold so many bodies, small monks or not. They understood that, but I’m sure that didn’t lessen the disappointment. But luckily I had a way to make it up to some of the ones who couldn’t go to Pindaya.


I had plans to go to Taunggyi the following day, to visit May Hnin Kyaw at the Kan Baw Za Library, and had already arranged to rent a car for the trip. With only me and the driver, I figured that there was plenty of room in the back seat for a few monks too. So, when the van dropped everyone off at the monastery after the trip to Pindaya, I walked over to a group of disappointed novices who had not been able to go with us that day, and invited them to go with me to Taunggyi. “Can you go tomorrow?” I asked one of them? With a big smile he answered in the affirmative: Thwa ya ba de!

And with that, monk trip number two was all set, this time with four novices in tow. I also brought car sickness medication, just in case, but this bunch had no problems with the long and winding road. The drive to Taunggyi takes about an hour and some of that route is indeed uphill. After all, Taunggyi means “big hill” in Burmese. Years ago, it was a popular “hill station” retreat for the colonialist Brits, pink-skinned wimps who couldn’t stand the heat of the lower elevations. Nowadays, it’s one of the bigger centers of commerce in Shan State. As we approached Taunggyi, storm clouds were brewing, so I told the driver to take us to the big park in town first. Of all our destinations this day, this was the one that we absolutely needed to see without getting soaked. The park is on the outskirts of town and also has a small zoo; some monkeys, deer, rabbits, turtles, birds, and a lethargic bear. Nothing earth-shaking, but it’s a pleasant diversion for the locals.

Like the group I had taken to Pindaya, these four monks are also of Pa-O heritage. The Pa-O have a very distinctive dialect, an almost musical sound I call “the Pa-O patter,” that I find delightful to listen to. They even have a way of rolling their “R”s that is very cool. I’d love to find out if they have recorded some of their native folk songs; no doubt those would sound great too. After walking around the park, and across the wooden suspension bridge, we headed back to the car, making it just in time before the skies opened up. Next stop: the Shan National Museum.


I had phoned May Hnin Kyaw the day before and had arranged to meet her at the museum. It was there, she told me, that her group was holding its annual “Lovely World” exhibition, and today was the opening ceremony. Besides hosting a library and reading club, her group also is active in health education, computer training, language teaching, organic farming, and other environmental programs. They call themselves a “non-profit, non-political humanitarian organization based on voluntary services and committed to promoting peace, cooperation, and development.” A friend of mine who visited the area last year and met this group was so impressed with their projects that she sent money for me to donate to them. Along with that donation, I brought them some books from my shop in Bangkok. Actually, their library (which recently moved to a bigger location in downtown Taunggyi) is already well stocked with both English and Burmese books, as well as magazines and other periodicals. Their exhibition at the museum was quite impressive and was well attended despite the rainy weather. The monks seemed to find the exhibits interesting too, but I think they got the biggest kick about seeing the regular exhibits in the museum, particularly the ones that depicted Pa-O tribal costumes and artifacts. Each one asked me to take a photo of them standing in front of one the Pa-O exhibits.


Every time I’ve come to Taunggyi with a group of monks, they have wanted to visit Sulamuni Paya, one of the biggest and most revered pagodas in the area, and this group was no exception. We made a circuit around both the interior — the monks stopping at each of the four giant Buddha images to pray — and the exterior. Luckily, the rain had stopped so we were able to do our outdoor strolling without resorting to umbrellas. It rained a little on the way back to town, but that certainly didn’t dampen our spirits. Another nice outing with a polite and appreciative group of young monks.


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