I’ve developed a ritual. As soon as I arrive in Nyaungshwe, after I’ve unpacked my bags and settled into my room at the Nandawunn Hotel, the first thing I always do is hop on my bike (courtesy of Htein Linn at Golden Bowl Travel, just down the street), and make tracks to Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, an old teakwood monastery on the outskirts of town.
I time my arrival at Shwe Yan Pyay between 11:30 am and noon, knowing that the novice monks have their lunch break until 1:00, and have free time before resuming their studies to chat and take photos. When I arrive on the first day of each trip, I have photos to give them, shots I’d taken on the previous trip. Because there isn’t a photo shop in Nyaungshwe, I can’t make prints while I’m in town, so that means waiting six months or longer until I can return and give them the photos. This time I had shots of the balloon festival in Taunggyi that we attended in November last year. During past trips I had rented cars and taken three or four monks at a time on short trips in the area. About a year ago I sprung for a van and increased the monk quota to ten per trip. But for the balloon festival last year I went all out, taking every monk at the monastery. We had to split them up and do it over the course of two nights, but we did it.
When I arrived at Shwe Yan Pyay this time, it seemed rather quiet. I poked my head in the main hall and no one was around, so I wandered over to the other study hall and found exactly one monk, resting in a corner. He told me that most of the novice monks were taking exams in town (this was the annual “big exam” month) but a few others were in another nearby building I walked over there and found nine novices, along with two senior monks … all of them intently watching a football match on TV. No afternoon studies today! I passed out the photos and asked them about the exams. I was told that the exams had been going on for about two weeks already — some of the monks watching the football match had already finished — but there were a few more days left before it all concluded. I didn’t have much interest in hanging around and watching the game on TV, so I took my leave and walked back to my bike, thinking how strange it was to see so few monks at the monastery (a week later, things looked back to normal).
Later that same day, I pedaled over to Tat Ein village, the site of another monastery and also a primary school. I had taught English lessons there last year and had taken those kids — including another bunch of novice monks — to the same balloon festival in Taunggyi. Once again, I had oodles of photos to pass out, along with some small gifts for three of the novice monks that I had spent the most time with: Pyin Na Thiri, Kaw Wi Da, and Zar Na Ya. Not wanting to enter the school in the middle of a lesson (during previous visits, as soon as I walk in the classroom, bearing photos, total chaos ensues), I arrived around 3 pm, just before the day’s classes were about to end.
The bike ride to Hat Ein is not an easy one. The distance from Nyaungshwe isn’t so far (I’m guessing it’s less than 5 km), but the dirt road is pretty bumpy and some of the inclines are very steep, forcing you to dismount and walk at some points. By the time I arrived at the school I was sweating profusely, helped in part by the heavy backpack (filled with hundreds of photos and gifts for the teachers) that I was wearing. I was greeted with big smiles by the teachers and the students, some of whom had poked their heads out the window when I arrived. Looking around the room, however, I didn’t see any of the monks I knew. Where were they?
And then one of the teachers gave me the news; they were all gone. Transferred to another monastery in Shwe Nyaung (a larger town, about 20 km away, on the road to the airport) only a few weeks ago. Not only had the three I had known well been packed off, but another eight novice monks had gone with them; and I had brought photo packs for those eight monks also. Gone? Damn, I felt devastated. Here I was, really looking forward to seeing these little monks again, and that wasn’t going to happen. One of the teachers assured me that they could have the photos sent to the new monastery … although she didn’t know the name of it or where exactly it was located! When I talked to a senior monk the next day, he also promised that he would make sure that the monks got the photos, so I feel somewhat reassured that they would eventually get to see the shots, many of which they took themselves. See these links for the photos they took:
It felt strange, like there was a definite void with so many of the “old monks” gone from the village. It bothered me for all of twenty minutes, until classes were over and I trudged up the hill to visit with the remaining monks at the monastery and give them photos from the previous trip. The other monks there — some of whom I remembered from the previous trip and some of whom were new arrivals — were incredibly sweet and friendly, as if sensing my disappointment at not seeing all of the previous crew. My short visit turned into a mini-party, with the novices coming up to greet me, wanting to hold my hand or shake my hand, and pose for more photos.
I looked around at these smiling faces, all clad in brilliant red robes, some of them giggling and running around the monastery, and realized that the void that had been created by the departure of Pyin Na Thiri, Kaw Wi Da, and Zar Na Ya and friends would easily be filled by these other genial — and sometimes silly — young monks. What can you do but smile and go with the flow, however unpredictable it may be at times.