For the past several years I’ve been taking groups of children — including novice monks — from Tat Ein village, near Nyaungshwe in Myanmar’s Shan State, on field trips to places and festivals in the area. They are a well-behaved, appreciative bunch of kids and I always enjoy these outings.
When I was in the village late last year, one of the teachers told me that the novice monks wanted to visit Bagan next time. Would I be able to take them, she asked? Bagan is one of the most famous destinations in Myanmar, home to an estimated three-thousand ancient Buddhist temples. The only problem is that Bagan is a bit far away from Nyaungshwe, about 7-8 hours by car, so an excursion there would have to be a multi-day trip.
Well, we ended up doing it; a three-day trip, there and back. I rented two trucks, which was enough for about fifty passengers. We had thirty-plus monks — both novice monks and a few senior monks, one of the teachers from the village, a couple of high school girls, one of the village elders, two drivers, and a one befuddled foreigner. The perfect group!
Before reaching Bagan, we stopped at Mt. Popa, an extinct volcano that is now a major tourist attraction and Buddhist pilgrimage sight. Mt. Popa is home to dozens of nat shrines (a nat is considered a spirit of sorts, and believed by some to possess powers) along with some sacred Buddhist shrines. Visitors can walk up a covered stairway to the top of the mountain (more of a big hill, actually) and enjoy some fantastic views, all while trying to maneuver the obstacle course of frisky monkeys that dart up and down the stairs and from the rafters overhead. Literally, there are monkeys everywhere, most of them looking for food, packets of which are conveniently being sold by vendors everywhere you turn. Some of the more bold monkeys will literally reach into your pocket if they see something edible or colorful!
If it’s not the monkey food vendors, it’s the flower vendors that will get you. All devout Buddhists will feel the need to buy some flowers for one of the shrines, so those vendors end up doing a brisk business too. The those monkeys must also work up a thirst running up and down those stairs, I noticed more than one of them sipping a soft drink!
Well, the monks had a great time interacting with the monkeys and seeing the sights. Miraculously, I saw more than a handful of the youngsters produce smart phones from under their robes and snap a few photos. Where did those phones come from?!