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

Posts tagged ‘monastery’

Thanaka Party!

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It was one of those unplanned moments that turned out to be a highlight of my trip to Myanmar. I was walking down the hill from the monastery at Tat Ein village, a group of novice monks in my wake, ready to say my goodbyes to everyone. At the bottom of the hill, however, there was a party of sorts going on; a group of village girls enthusiastically dabbing one another with thanaka paste.

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If you haven’t heard of thanaka before, you have most likely seen it, especially if you’ve been to Myanmar or seen photos of the people who live in the country. Thanaka is everywhere! Thanaka is a pale yellow paste, or powder, that’s made from the ground bark of a locally-grown tree. The paste is dabbed on the skin — usually the face — of the person, and sometimes in very creative patterns. You will see it on children of all ages, and women of almost any age. Thanaka serves as both a sunscreen and a cosmetic. Many women value thanaka for its skin healing properties, plus many local men think that not only does thanaka look attractive on a lady, but it smells great too! Thanaka as an aphrodisiac? Why not!

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At Tat Ein, the girls were obviously having a great time going wild with the thanaka. Wanting to join the festivities, I suggested that they apply some to my face too, an idea that they eagerly accepted! Within minutes I had thanaka smeared all over my face. But I wasn’t the only one: a couple of the monks in my contingent got caught in the crossfire and had thanaka smeared on their faces too. But you know what? Judging by their delighted reaction, I don’t think they minded one bit at all!

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Another magical day in Myanmar … all thanks to a bit of thanaka!

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Wishing You a Monk-ful New Year!

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Okay, you may not feel as excited about the coming New Year as my novice monk friends at the Tat Ein Monastery in Shan State, but it’s that time of year so all we can do is hope for a good one.

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Despite the many negative aspects of this past year, and the continuing spiral of cruelty and violence that infects many parts of the world today, I’d like to think we all still share some of the optimism and spirit that these young monks exhibit each day.

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Wishing everyone most memorable, safe, and enjoyable 2015!

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Curse of the Monk Photographer!

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Today I hand over the camera to the novice monks from Tat Ein monastery in Shan State. I didn’t take a single one of these shots: these photos are all monks shooting monks!

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Normally, I designate one monk as the assistant photographer whenever I arrive. But I think it’s become a curse of sorts; when I return to the village to visit a few months later, that monk photographer has left the monastery. It’s happened every time! Granted, these kids move around to different monasteries quite often, or some ditch the robe, grow their hair out, and resume normal village life with their family. But still, it’s a little bizarre that not a single one has turned up again.

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This time around I didn’t even bother to learn anyone’s name or select a photographer apprentice hoping that might break the curse. I just handed over the camera and let them go wild! And as you can see, they did!

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Actually, one of the novice monks, the boy pictured above, seemed to appoint himself the head photographer and took the bulk of the photos you see today. Wonder if he’ll be around the next time I visit, or become yet another victim of the camera curse?

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End of the Month Monks

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It’s the end of the month already, and because it’s October many people have Halloween on their minds. Not me. I never liked that creepy holiday — or festival or whatever you want to call it — ranking it down there with Christmas as annual events that I go out of my way to avoid and ignore. Witches and goblins and haunted houses? Count me out. Come to think of it, Christians and Ghosts are about the same thing, aren’t they? They both are equally frightening and perplexing phenomena that seem to fascinate a certain percentage of the confused populace. Boo!

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But I digress. Instead of trick or treating, I thought it much more interesting to post photos of some of my favorite people; the novice monks from Tat Ein monastery in Shan State.

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I’m still in the process of reviewing and editing the mammoth bunch of photos that I took during my recent trip to Myanmar — many of them at the monastery — but whenever I see images of those happy-go-lucky young monks it puts a big smile on my face. Really, these kids crack me up every time. I hope you enjoy these photos too; a nice way to end a scary month!
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Sharp-Dressed Monk

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At the monastery in Shan State’s Tat Ein village there is one novice monk who always stands out from the crowd, at least from my photographic viewpoint. I don’t know this boy’s name, but he’s been at the monastery for several years already, and he’s one of my favorites to capture on film. Oops, I guess we can’t say “film” any longer. In any case, he’s a pleasure to photograph every time I visit the monastery. He’s also a student at the primary school in the village.

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This novice monk certainly isn’t the tallest in the bunch, nor the oldest, or the most talkative. But when photo time comes around, he will almost always painstakingly wrap his robe with care, getting those folds just right, and sometimes adding an extra layer of garment or a towel of some sort. I mean, this kid really makes an effort to look the part of the studious, diligent young monk. While the other young monks will act goofy or ham it up, or even let their robes slip, this novice usually shows a more serious side and is meticulous about how he looks. Cue the ZZ Top song and change the lyrics to: “Sharp-Dressed Monk!”

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Happy Muddy Trails

I’m back in Shan State this week, making my base in Nyaungshwe, the lovely little town that serves as the “Gateway to Inle Lake,” one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist attractions. Despite Inle’s popularity, and the building of more hotels in the area, Nyaungshwe has managed to retain most of its laid-back, rural charm. The scenery remains beautiful and the people remain friendly and polite. The vibe is definitely blissful; just don’t mind the increasing presence of noisy motorcycles!

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It rained most of the day yesterday. but that didn’t stop me from making the short trip out of town to Tat Ein village. I rented a bike from Mar Mar Aye at Golden Bowl Travel — also a nice place to pick up secondhand books. While I was waiting for a fairly hard rainstorm to run its course, Mar Mar Aye served me hot tea and a bowl of fresh fruit. You can’t beat these folks for their hospitality. Another tourist came in from out of the rain, a young man from Sweden. He told me that he and his girlfriend were in the middle of a 3-month trip around Asia and Europe. They are heading to Yangon today and later taking the Trans-Siberian express to Moscow,and then on to Spain before returning to Sweden. He bought a copy of Emma Larkin’s “Finding George Orwell in Burma,” one of many books about Burma/Myanamar that are in stock at Golden Bowl.

 

After the rain let up, I donned a raincoat and braved the steady drizzle for the ride out to Tat Ein. It was actually quite nice and pleasant, the rain helping to alleviate the usual afternoon heat. If I’m going to get wet, better a bit of rain than a lot of sweat. Nevertheless, the dirt road leading to the village was more than a bit muddy after all the rain, so I took more care than normal. I timed my arrival for about 3 pm, when classes normally end at the primary school in the village. I was bringing bags of medicine to replenish the first-aid box at the school, plus I had several hundred photos to give to the teachers, students, and monks. With all that in hand, I didn’t want to arrive in the middle class and create a disruption. While peddling down the main road in Nyaungshwe, before getting to the dirt road that leads to the village, I passed groups of students returning from classes at the local high school. Waves and smiles and kept peddling.

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When I reached the classroom at the village, classes were still in session so I waited outside with my backpack full of goodies, leaving my muddy shoes at the bottom of the steps. Even though they were in the middle of class, that didn’t prevent a handful of young novice monks from stepping away from their desks to greet me, all of them eager to see the photos that I had brought. “Please wait,” I told them in Burmese. “I’ll hand out the photos after class at the monastery.” One of the teachers also came out to say hello, but told me that the class would not end until 4:30! Some sort of new “Rainy Season” schedule apparently.

 

I had over an hour to kill, so I wandered around the area, noticing some new construction, especially around the dining rooms. I walked up the hill to the monastery, only to find it temporarily deserted. I expected to find at least a few of the older novices and senior monks there, but at this hour there wasn’t anyone around, not even the usual stray dog. I sat down and rested for a spell, then went over to a cistern and used some of the water to clean my mud-cakes sandals. Man, that stuff was thick!

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Shortly after 4:00 I walked back down to the school and waited for the classes to end, which they did at about 4:15. I gave the bags of medicine to one of the teachers, giving her instructions about a couple of items. Then it was time to distribute the photos! I gave the one of the girls and older students to one boy who said he would hand them out, then I followed the novice monks up the hill to the monastery and tried to maintain order (imagine 20 pairs of hands all trying to reach in to a bag!) while passing out the photos. As you can imagine they were very pleased with the photos, and as you can also surmise, this led to another not-so-short session of photos. But seeing that sea of red-robed smiles made it all worth the effort.

Donation Ceremony

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As part of the pagoda festival at Tat Ein village in Shan State, there was a special ceremony where donations were offered to other monasteries in the area. Monks, novice monks, and even nuns, from monasteries in various villages in this part of Shan State were invited to attend.

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Locals from Tat Ein village dished out donations of rice and money, and also presented the monks and nuns with gifts such as robes and other foodstuff and cooking oil. Some of the Pa-O villagers played music and danced, giving the event a very festive flair. The morning bled into afternoon; more donations, more ceremonies, more dancing, children running around and playing. I was enthralled by the whole spectacle, not wanting it to end.

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Eventually, though, things did wind down and villagers starting packing up, taking home donations of bags of rice and other goodies. Most of them jammed into the back of pickup trucks for the long ride back to their village, hoping to arrive before sundown. A long day, but a fun one.

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Faces of the Festival

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Here are some photos from the village festival that I attended in Myanmar’s Shan State back in March. This pagoda festival — on the full moon day — was held on the grounds of the monastery in Tat Ein village, just a few miles down the road from Nyaungshwe.

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I’ll be posting a longer roundup of this festival in the week or so, but for now here are some of my favorite photos of the people in attendance that day. The young and old, parents and children, monks and donors. It was quite a spectacle!

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Composed Monks Posing

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Back at Tat Ein Monastery in Shan State, the novice monks keep thinking up new ways to pose for photos. In all of the photos you see in this post, the monks themselves, sometimes resulting in fits of giggling. “Grab that umbrella!” … “Let’s do the reclining Buddha pose!” … “Come and kneel in front of the Buddha figure!” … “Hey, let’s read a book!” They even posed me in some of the shots.

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Usually one monk would get an inspired thought and the rest of his buddies would follow suit, either copying the pose or using a variation of the original. Sometimes they’d pose individually or sometimes in duos, but I couldn’t stop clicking until I’d fulfilled all requests.

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There’s never a dull moment with this crew, but believe it or not, sometimes they actually have to study!

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Monastery Language Lessons

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While I was visiting Tat Ein village in Shan State last month, an u-zin (a senior monk, or teacher for the novice monks) at the monastery by the name of Nandawun That asked me to help him with his English lessons. He’s such a nice guy that I was only happy to oblige. I usually spent the better part of an hour each day helping him with his pronunciation or explaining various words and phrases to him.

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I was very impressed with the number of vocabulary words that he has committed to memory in less than two months of study. He has been studying in nearby Nyaungshwe with a Burmese teacher and he seems to have digested a lot of material in this short period of time. But I was a bit taken back by some of the words that his teacher had given him; “shit”, “feces” and “excrement” being a few of the more graphic examples. Well, I guess monks need to know a wide gamut of words and phrases, even the crappy ones!  Some of the sentences in his lessons were either awkwardly phrased or didn’t make much sense at all, so I tried to smooth those out for him too.

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Nandawun That has really embraced his English language studies and shows signs of being a quick learner. When not studying or keeping tabs on the sometimes mischievous young novice monks in residence at the monastery, he enjoys meditation and watching “Rambo” movies. I kid you not. He told me that he loves watching action films, especially those with car chases and blazing guns; Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and all that sort of crap. Contrast that with his Buddhism studies and meditation and it doesn’t quite add up. But hey, such is life, right?

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Some of the novice monks at Tat Ein took turns taking photos of us during some of our language lessons. During one session, the novices got the idea of putting themselves in the frame too. I can just hear them giggling and discussing their plan: “Hey, let’s pose us in the background too!” … “Yeah, great idea, dude!” Okay, it’s doubtful that they used the word “dude” or any remotely similar Burmese or Shan words, but I do think they got a kick of out carrying out their silly photo shoot.

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And these photos are just a small sample of what they took. Whenever I let the monks borrow my camera the results were always fun and sometimes pretty darn creative. I’ll make a separate post in the near future of photos that I took of the novice monks, along with ones that they took by themselves. These kids don’t lack for imagination!

 

 

 

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