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

Posts tagged ‘novice monks’

Monhinga Meal for the Monks

Yeah, it’s been a while. A long, long lonely time, as the song says. What can I tell you? Too much work, a bit of travel, yet more work, a couple of health issues, and a continuing spiral of work. I’m damn exhausted. The last time I posted anything on this blog was back in January and since that time it seems as if I have had no time to do all the things that I want to do, or at least the things that I used to do, which includes this blog.

At this point I’m not sure how much effort I’m going to put back into this thing, but I hate the thought of just letting it wither and die, so I’ll try and post a few things in the near future in the attempt to sustain it. Today’s post harkens back to November of last year when I was in Nyaung Shwe, the picturesque town in Myanmar’s Shan State. My friend Ma Pu Sue, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class with her husband Lesly in Nyaung Shwe, and I join forces each year in late November (our birthdays are a day apart) and offer a donation to monks from the nearby monastery at Tat Ein village.

Instead of making tracks to the monastery itself and offering physical donations such as school supplies or shoes (which we’ve done in the past), we invite the monks to Sue and Lesly’s home for a hearty breakfast of monhinga, the savory noodle dish that could be dubbed Myanmar’s most iconic culinary treat. You can find variations of monhinga all over the country, but Lesly’s special recipe is one of the best I’ve ever tasted. And I’m not just saying that because he’s a friend of mine; the guy can cook up some mighty fine food!

Actually, the novice monks from the monastery usually walk by Sue’s home each morning during their regular alms rounds. But getting the chance to sit down and rest, enjoy a bowl — or three — of this delicious monhinga, is undoubtedly a treat for the youngsters. Ye Man Oo, my friend from Mandalay, was also on hand to help serve the food to the monks. I just tried to stay out of the way while everyone else cooked and served — and ate — and simply enjoy the event, only actively participating at the very end when it came time to offer each monk a small cash donation.

Organizing this little donation breakfast every year is very gratifying, something I look forward to doing, but if you travel around Myanmar you will see similar donation meals and ceremonies nearly every day of the year. I’ve never met more generous people. I read an article recently that said that a higher percentage of people in Myanmar make donations to monasteries than in any country in Asia. I believe it.

Kite Season in Shan State


It’s that time of the year again in Myanmar’s Shan State. The weather turns cooler, the winds shift, and all young men’s attention turns to … kite flying!



Yes, wander around any town or village in Shan State at this time of year and you will no doubt see kites flying everywhere. The kites are especially visible in the afternoon after school is out, or during the mornings on those class-free days. And the kite flyers are by no means all young boys; many men and more than a few young ladies can be seen flying kites too.




After watching the novice monks at Tat Ein villages monastery rescue a kite that had been stuck in a tree one afternoon, and then enthusiastically set it soaring in the sky again, my friend Ye Man Oo and I decided to buy the monks a bunch of new kites that they could fly during their afternoon breaks.




After buying the kites at a shop near Nyaung Shwe’s morning market, we cycled to the monastery and presented the bounty to the monks. Let’s just say that they were very excited to get the kites! Up, up, and away!





Words of Monks: Love is the Message


In the wake of the horrific Donald Trump victory this past week (and if you are not horrified by the specter of this lunkhead becoming president  … then just please crawl away and join the other psychopaths who are celebrating) I truly needed some mood therapy, something positive to uplift my spirits.


And I can think of no better pick-me-up than memories of those delightful novice monks at the Tat Ein monastery in Myanmar’s Shan State. I know, I post a lot of stories and photos about these monks, but they truly are a joy to be around, full of kindness and happiness. When I was at the monastery two months ago, one of the monks I know, Tun Phyu, was giddy with excitement, wanting to show me something at the monastery. We walked outside and there on the ground, written in English using blades of grass and leaves, were the words: I LOVE YOU



In addition to that proclamation, which they had written twice, Tun Phyu and his buddies had written “Mingalaba” (in Burmese, not English), the standard Myanmar greeting, which roughly translates as “Blessings.” I was delighted to see these messages and voiced a hearty “gaun ba de!” (very good!) to the group of monks who had gathered to watch my reaction.



In these dark days of Trumpovich and his nasty followers, I take heart that other people in this world — most people in this world — are not so consumed by hate and bigotry and the desire to get rich quick — all hallmarks of the Trump platform — that they forget about the feelings of others, including the less fortunate. In the words of those legendary music philosophers, MSFB: Love is the Message!






The return of the Machete Monks!


It was another glorious sunny day in the Shan State hills as I rode my bike over to Tat Ein village to take a new football and some badminton sets for the kids. But I wasn’t prepared for what greeted me upon arrival: a bunch of machete-armed monks!




Not to be alarmed, it was just a group of novice monks who were cutting, chopping, and sawing logs to make stacks of firewood, kindling used by many of the villagers for cooking. Like they do most of the time, these boys turned the chore into a fun activity, laughing and grinning while they worked. And of course they all wanted their photo taken too! Hey, don’t point that blade at me!





The group of aspiring lumberjacks wasn’t entirely comprised of novice monks, however. There was one adult male and two women, including a betelnut-chewing granny, who appeared to be the foreman of sorts, chastising any monk that wasn’t cutting the wood properly. And of course, the entire spectacle was attended/supervised by several giggling village children and the other novice monks too. Fun for the entire family!










Marionettes at the Temple


Touring the ancient temples in Bagan with the novice monks from Tat Ein village was a very memorable experience, both for the sights themselves and the monks’ reaction to it all. None of these youngsters have ever been to Bagan before so they were quite excited to see these historic places. But of all the temples we visited and things we saw I think the little grove of Burmese style marionettes and puppets was what interested the novice monks the most.




These marionettes were hanging from tree branches just outside one of the large temples in Old Bagan. Don’t ask me to tell you which temple it was because I wasn’t paying enough attention at the time to remember. Hey, blame it on the heat! At first I thought maybe some enterprising vendor was selling the marionettes, but no, they were just out there for decoration.





In any case, there were hundreds of these cute, colorful marionettes hanging from the tree branches, and the monks were utterly fascinated by it all. The monks were either taking photos of the marionettes with their cell phone cameras or asking me to take some shots of them posing with a marionette of their choice.














Beating the Heat in Bagan


The road trip with the monks from Tat Ein village was lots of fun, but we had to contend with extremely hot weather once we were in the Bagan area. Temperatures surpassed forty degrees Celsius each day, hitting 43-44 at times (that’s about 110 degrees Fahrenheit!), which was not very conducive to traipsing around in the great outdoors. Many times we would reach a sacred site that required taking off our shoes, and if the entrance had a stone or concrete surface, it was so blisteringly hot that we had to practically race to get inside.




My longtime friend in Bagan, Nine Nine, tagged along with us and proved to be a great help in recommending “cooler” destinations to see during the more scorching times of the day. Thus, we spent a lot of time wandering around indoors, looking at murals and wall paintings, or interior Buddha images. At one temple, they provided huge electric fans that blew a cooling mist over you, something that the novice monks found fascinating and comforting.




We brought along two huge water dispensers for each truck, but they were mounted on the outside of each vehicle and by midday the water was almost too hot to drink, so I ended up buying more bottled water for the crew several times each day. I certainly didn’t want any of them to faint from heatstroke, and luckily nothing like that happened. But the oppressive heat certainly did slow those rambunctious youngsters down a bit!




Mount Popa summit: Monks & Monkeys Meet!


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?!










Afterwards in the Park


Part two of the balloon festival outing with the kids from Tat Ein village was going to the Eastern Amusement Park in Taunggyi. This park has lovely gardens, a small zoo (some monkeys, a few bears, rabbits, deer, and various types of birds and waterfowl), plus plenty of playground rides and games for the kids. They’ve even added a swimming pool in the past year.




I’ve taken these kids on a variety of trips over the past few years; to events like the balloon festival, to old temple ruins and new pagodas, plus a couple of caves. But I think it’s safe to say that the highlight of each and every trip is going to this park in Taunggyi. When we were at the fairgrounds earlier in the day, waiting for the balloons to be launched, one of the novice monks, Htun Phyu, asked me if we could go to the park afterwards. “Of course we can,” was my immediate reply, as if there was any doubt in the matter.




There is an entrance fee to the park, but the park management very graciously waived the fee for the novice monks and the teachers, so I only had to pay for the male and female students, plus myself. The kids had a great time on the rides, and running down the swinging bridge, while begging me to take photos the entire time. Happy to oblige!





















Morning Monhinga for the Monks!


The birthday of my friend Ma Pu Sue is on November 27, only one day before my own. That being the case, if I happen to be in Nyaungshwe during that time of the month, we will get together with her friends and family to celebrate. This past November, however, she had clients at her Bamboo Delight Cooking Class every day while I was in town, including a group of over twenty one morning. The Tazaungdaing full moon period also fell during this time, which always coincides with the popular balloon festival in nearby Taunggyi, an event that I was planning to attend one day — along with 90 children, novice monks, and teachers from Tat Ein village.



Needless to say, we had a lot going on, plus I was scheduled to leave Nyaungshwe on the day of Sue’s birthday, so if we were going to do anything to celebrate, we needed to do it a day early. Sue suggested that instead of a birthday dinner we should make a donation to the monastery at Tat Ein. But not just a regular monetary donation; her idea was to offer the novice monks a feast of home-cooked monhinga for breakfast one morning.



So that’s exactly what we did. If you aren’t familiar with monhinga, it’s basically Myanmar’s national dish. It’s most commonly eaten in the morning, but can also be enjoyed anytime of the day or night. Rice or vermicelli noodles serve as the foundation for the monhinga soup, usually comprised of a fish broth with sliced banana stems, onions, lemongrass, garlic, and maybe a bit of pepper and some sliced egg. Variations of monhinga can be found around Myanmar, but crunchy gourd fritters and a sprinkling of coriander are also usually added, along with a squeeze or two of lime. Over the years, I’ve grown from moderately liking it to becoming a seriously big fan of this tasty dish. I honestly think that Sue’s version is the best that I’ve ever tasted. This is seriously addictive stuff!



Sue, her husband Lesly (who, it must be said, is the “genius” behind this monhinga recipe), and two assistants got up early to prepare the monhinga feast on the appointed day. All that I could do was stand around and try not to get in their way as we waited for the monks to arrive on their morning alms rounds. Sue and Lesly had tables set up around their yard, enough to accommodate the 40 monks who were expected. Sue also brought out a white board with greetings written in Burmese, explaining our “donation event.”



At about 7:30 that morning the line of red robes finally appeared, walking slowly down the dusty road. The whole crew was in attendance; Soe Nyaunt, Aung Thaung, Htun Phyu, Saing Aung, and rest of the novice monks I know from the Tat Ein monastery. The all sat down, hands politely on laps, and patiently waited for the food to be served. I think my assessment that this version monhinga is extremely tasty was supported by the monk’s reaction: most of them had second and even third helpings!




When the meal was over, I stationed myself by the gate and following Sue’s advice, as the monks walked past me I handed each one an extra “gift” of 1000 kyat, money which they were to spend later that day at the balloon festival (more on that trip in a later post). Not a traditional way to celebrate a birthday, but definitely a memorable and gratifying one.





Field of Monks


Okay, these photos weren’t taken at a real field, at least not a plush expanse of fertile green land with crops growing and weeds sprouting. Instead, this was the dusty playground outside the primary school in Shan State’s Tat Ein village. In retrospect — with apologies to Paul Simon — maybe I should have titled the post: “Me and Htun Pyu Down by the School Yard.”





Classes were already finished for the day, and the novice monks were making the most of their free time, flying kites and running around when I cycled up the hill late in the afternoon. But I didn’t show up empty-handed. I brought them a shiny new football, which only ramped up their energy level and enthusiasm even more. And as usual, once I took the camera out of my bag, the endless request for photos began. Here are the happy results!
















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