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

The Loneliest Monk

It may be the equivalent of an urban myth, but as the story goes, during the 1992 US presidential campaign, an MTV News reporter asked the Democratic candidate, a dude named Bill Clinton, about his favorite musicians. The ex-governor, sometimes sax player, and future president replied that he was a big fan of Thelonious Monk. This answer apparently stumped the young woman doing the interview, who reportedly then asked: “Well, Mr. Clinton, who is the loneliest monk?”

 

True or not, you gotta love the story. Of course we can laugh at the idea of a befuddled journalist having no idea who Thelonious Monk was, but then again, about 99.9% of the general public nowadays would have no idea that Thelonious Monk is a jazz legend. He’s not the sort of artist whose music can easily be downloaded as singles, so the current digital generation will no doubt remain clueless. But I digress. When I was in Bagan two months ago, I was reminded of the reporter’s “monk” confusion when I met someone who could indeed qualify as the Loneliest Monk: he is the only monk in residence at his monastery.

 

I’d been out riding my bike around the pagoda ruins of the Bagan area, confining myself to the area between Myinkaba and New Bagan. I was taking new trails and seeing new ruins and having a thoroughly wonderful time all by myself. On the off-the-beaten paths, there was nary a tourist in sight. At one point I came across the funky looking ruins pictured in this post. I wandered around the area for about ten minutes, offering a “Mingalaba” to some workers doing repair work to one of the buildings before I finally met this monk. He introduced himself (and I can’t for the life of me remember his name!) and took the time to show me an interesting old pagoda in one of the nearby fields. I followed him inside the small structure and then up a dark and narrow stairway until we emerged at the top, whereupon we were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the surrounding area: lush green fields intersected by old pagodas, big and small. And still, not a tourist around. It was one of those magical, unplanned moments that can be the highlight of a trip. And it was.

 

Afterwards, we walked back to his monastery, which is indeed under renovation. The monk offered me tea; no surprise in this country where the hospitality is incredible. I felt like a donation was deserved, so I asked him if it would be okay for me to give some money to his monastery. He nodded yes, brought over an empty glass and set it down on a table. I put some bank notes in the glass and the donation was complete. The loneliest monk said a prayer and I took my leave. Off in search of more magical moments.

 

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