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

The Monk on the Cover

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While I was in Nyaungshwe last month, one of the items on my agenda was stopping by Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, the old teakwood monastery on the edge of town. I always go there when I visit Nyaungshwe, but this time I had a special task: to take the monks a copy of a new book, Myanmar Dream Journeys. This book pictures two novice monks (and the shadowy head of a third one) from Shwe Yan Pyay on the cover, one of whom, Pyinya Sawda, I know quite well.

 I stopped by the monastery around noon one day, shortly after the monks had finished their last meal for the day. After chatting with the always gracious saya daw, the head monk, I wandered over to the building where the novice monks stay and found Pyinya Sawda. Since he had not been able to go with us to Kakku (a grove of sacred Pa-O ruins in Shan State) last year, I brought him a small photo album with snapshots from the ruins, along with a copy of Myanmar Dream Journeys.

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After I returned from my trip many friends have asked me about the monk’s reaction. “Was he excited to see the book?” Well … I don’t know. It’s hard to gauge how the young man felt about having his photo — taken about three years ago — on the cover of this book. Like many of the older novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay, Pyinya Sawdais rather stoic and doesn’t show much emotion. He’s certainly not the carefree young novice that he was a few years back when I would see him running around the monastery and playing games of tag with the other monks. He’s now older and much more serious about his studies and his future as a monk. I think perhaps the advent of a new round of exams this summer is also weighing on his mind. So, I think he was pleased to get the book, but I don’t think “excited” would accurately describe his reaction.

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Before I handed the book over to Pyinya Sawda I had a chance to thumb through it. Myanmar Dream Journeys features the photographs of Christine Nilsson and those images are quite captivating. Nilsson traveled extensively around Myanmar and her photos reveal much of the natural beauty of the country’s scenery, and also of the people. The cover photo of Pyinya Sawda and the other monks, standing next to one of Shwe Yan Pyay’s distinctive oval windows, is also included inside the book, but unfortunately they don’t list the proper name of the monastery in the caption!

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The text inside also could have been much better. Actually, I think the book would have been much better with no text at all. The strength is the photos and they should have stuck to that. In the first half of the book, Nilsson writes about her travels and impressions of the country. But the second half of the book — where she tries to offer various “useful” travel tips, covering things like hotels, transport, tour companies, and restaurants — is where things really fall flat. Nearly all of her recommendations are geared to the “high end” market and are both predictable and uninspiring. Not to mention damn expensive. Anyone on a budget would not be able to do much of anything on her list. Then there is the section where various Burmese phrases are listed, all accompanied by rather bizarre attempts at transliteration. I defy anyone to try and use a single one of these phrases and expect to be understood by a local while traveling in Myanmar. It won’t happen. Totally useless! Those criticisms aside, the photos in the book are indeed lovely and make the book a worthwhile purchase on that merit alone.

I checked on Amazon.com this week and they still list the book as not available yet, with a publication date set for May 23, 2014. But copies have been available here in Bangkok for several months already. In fact, Asia Books has had the book listed in stock since October 2013.

 

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