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

Posts tagged ‘Shwe Yan Pyay monastery’

Nyaung Shwe … without that Famous Lake!


Shan State’s Nyaung Shwe is a small town, one of those burgs that boast a sole traffic light, a lot of good old boys hanging out at the local tea shop, and lots of farm animals running around, dodging the increasing number of motorcycles and trucks on the streets. But Nyaung Shwe is the accommodation town of choice for anyone who wants to visit nearby Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist attractions.




I love visiting Nyaung Shwe but I can’t remember that last time I saw Inle Lake. See it once, and basically that’s enough. Sure, Inle is a tranquil body of water — or at least it’s the neighboring villages and one-leg-rowing fisherman that what make it so interesting — but there are plenty of other things to do if you are staying in Nyaung Shwe. Plus, it’s just a damn lovely town, surrounded by shimmering green rice fields and craggy green hills.




If it’s waterways you want, you are better off taking a canoe trip down the town’s network of canals. The scenic canoe ride is much more relaxing and slower-paced than taking a big noisy boat on the big lake. Nyaung Shwe is also a delightful town to explore on foot or by bicycle. There are plenty of crumbling old temple and stupa ruins strewn around town, plus lots of giggling, friendly children flying kites and playing other outdoor games. Yes, they aren’t all addicted to online games just yet!




In addition to a very colorful morning market, Nyaung Shwe is also home to a staggering number of Buddhist monasteries and some of these places make for very memorable — and very photogenic — visits, especially the old teakwood Shway Yan Pyay, located on the main road into town, near the Inle Lake ticket booth. Early each morning you can also marvel to the sight of long lines of monks making their alms rounds, a sea of red robes penetrating the morning mist.




Taking half-day, full-day, or multi-day treks to nearby villages and towns such as Kalaw can also be a nice diversion from the lake trips. Nyaung Shwe is such a peaceful and laidback place that many tourists extend their stay just to relax or explore the area. Another option that has become popular in recent years is taking a cooking class. I’ll have another post in the near future about the cooking class I observed recently at Bamboo Delight, but they are only one of several classes in town, not only teaching tourists how to make tasty Burmese and Shan dishes, but also Indian food too.




Inle Lake? Sure, it’s a “must see” if you are in Myanmar, but take time to discover the other wonders of Nyaung Shwe too!





Full Moon Pagoda


One of the reasons that I went to Myanmar in late February — earlier than I originally planned — was to be in Shan State for the full moon day of March 4, which is the period known as Tabaung in Myanmar. Tabaung is a very special full moon and when I was in the country last March (the full moon fell later in March that year) I was invited to the pagoda festival that day, and night, in Tat Ein village in Shan State. What an amazing experience that was! I wrote about it last year in this post:


I was looking forward to another fascinating full moon pagoda festival, but when I arrived at Tat Ein two days before the full moon I was informed that they weren’t having a festival at the monastery in the village this year. Oh no! Luckily, however, there was a backup plan, or rather another festival in the area on the full moon day, at Baw Ri Tha monastery. When I was paying a visit to Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung — the big old wooden monastery on the main road leading to Nyaungshwe — the day before, the U-Zin (one of the senior monks and teachers) invited me to go with some of the monks to the festival at Baw Ri Tha. I didn’t need to asked twice and eagerly accepted the invitation.


I showed up at Shwe Yan Pyay at the designated time and waited around for the novice monks to finish their studies an early lunch. They all boarded a shaky-looking vehicle and took off, leaving me to ride on a local villager’s motorcycle. When we arrived at the festival I tried to give the guy some money for taking me, but he wouldn’t take it, telling me something along the lines of, “It’s my pleasure.”



The U-Zin met me near the front of the monastery and gave me a tour of the grounds. A football game was taking place on a field next to the monastery, as well as a frenzied game of chinlon, while various food vendors had set up shop around the area, dishing out treats for the crowd, ranging from ice cream to fried lumps of something.



While this monastery was much bigger than the one at Tat Ein, there didn’t seem to be as much activity; no musicians for one thing. The U-Zin took me around to several spot before announcing: “This is boring.” Well, while it might not have been an action-packed event, I certainly wasn’t bored. If nothing else, it was fun just to people watch. At one point the U-Zin announced that he had to head back to Shwe Yan Pyay and teach a class (not all of the novice monks attended this festival), so he left me with the remaining crew and bid goodbye.




The rest of the monks led me into some sort of reception hall, where groups of monks from other monasteries in the area were lined up and waiting for the donation ceremony to begin. It was interesting to watch the monks fastidiously fold, twist, and tie their robes, taking pains to make sure they were attired appropriately for this important event. Once the long line started snaking through the grounds of the monastery, I dashed off to take photos. Once I spied my crew from Shwe Yan Pyay turning a corner, I put away my camera and pulled out a roll of money from my shoulder bag and put a 1000 kyat note in each monk’s bag.






The rest of the locals were also giving donations, mostly portions of uncooked rice, but also other snacks and some money too. Periodically, some of the helpers from the village collected all the rice from the monk’s alms bowls and poured them into large sacks to take back to the monastery. No, it wasn’t as lively as the festival last year in Tat Ein, but it was nevertheless another fascinating look at the generous side of Myanmar and its kind people.









The Monk on the Cover


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.


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.



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!


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 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.


Monks Among the Ruins


Back to Kakku again? Yes, indeed. This was my fourth trip to the isolated grove of ancient Pa-O stupas in Shan State’s Kakku, but it wasn’t my decision to go there. I left the choice up to the novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung in Nyaungshwe, specifically one of the monks, Pyin Yo Sawdaw, who told me that the sacred site of Kakku was his destination of choice.


Over the years I have taken groups of monks from Shwe Yan Pyay on field trips to places on interest in the area such as Taunggyi, Kakku, and the Pindaya Caves. Two years ago I ended up taking the entire monastery to the annual balloon festival in Taunggyi. But since that trip I’ve returned to Nyaungshwe twice, but haven’t taken the monks anywhere, opting to take the kids from the village of Tat Ein on trips instead. So, I was feeling a bit guilty lately, thinking I’d been neglecting the Shwe Yan Pyay monks, so I decided to give them first dibs on a trip this time. Pyin Yo Sawdaw is a really nice kid, and without a doubt the friendliest monk at the monastery. I’ve known him for several years and he always makes a point to talk to me when I visit the monastery. At this point he’s also the only one I know by name, all of the other long-timers that I knew have “graduated” to other monasteries in the region.


Prior to my arrival in town, I asked my friend Htein Linn to drop by the monastery and tell Pyin Yo Sawdaw the date when I would be coming to town, so that he could make any necessary preparations for the trip, such as getting permission from the Saya Daw, the abbot at the monastery. When I arrived in Nyaungshwe I dropped by Shwe Yan Pyay the first day and talked to Pyin Yo Sawdaw, and we agreed to go on Saturday that week. I told him that I’d rent a van, which meant that we could take about six monks. I also had a nice chat with the Saya Daw while I was there and he gave his blessing for the trip. It looked like we were good to go.



Or maybe not. When I arrived at the monastery on Saturday morning and rounded up the monks, Pyin Yo Sawdaw was not with the others. A few minutes later he showed up, but told me that he had to stay at the monastery and study. Normally, this kid is all smiles, but on this day he looked quite dejected. I’m still not sure what the problem was, but there wasn’t anything I could do to force the issue, so I gathered the other six monks and we boarded the van for the first leg of the trip, the 45-minute drive to Taunggyi.



Any foreign visitor to Kakku must first stop at the Golden Island Cottages office in Taunggyi (they are the administrators of the site, enabling that the Pa-O villagers in that area get a share of the proceeds) and pay the entrance fee and the guide fee. Our guide this time was Nang Khan Moon, a personable young Pa-O woman who had recently graduated from high school and was preparing for her first year at university.  She was working as a guide during her break.



The problem, though, was where to put her in the van! Due to Buddhist protocol, women are not supposed to touch monks, and even sitting next to them is frowned upon. Giving her the front seat was one option, but usually that perk is also reserved for monks. Then again, we were dealing with novice monks, so it seemed as if we could bend the rules a bit, and so we did. Nang Khan Moon sat in the front seat for part of the journey, but after one of the monks got car sick (and we talking puking-his-guts-out type of sick), we moved him to the front seat next to the driver, and Nang Khan Moon sat between me and another novice monk. No one seemed to mind that arrangement, so that ended up not being a problem at all.



The monk that got sick was one of the older ones, and one who had travelled with me two years previously during a trip to Taunggyi. He had no problems on that trip, so I don’t know what caused him to get sick this time, but he was the only one in the group who lost his breakfast. It was bad enough that when we stopped for lunch in Taunggyi (in keeping with that always tricky Buddhist protocol, we had to eat well before noon) he didn’t eat a thing, and when we arrived at Kakku he stayed behind with the driver and didn’t walk around the site with the rest of us.



I felt sorry for that kid, but I also was still feeling bad that Pyin Yo Sawdaw couldn’t have joined us, so I bought him a Kakku souvenir photo book, along with some postcards from one of the important pagodas in Taunggyi that we visited on the way back (more details about that leg of the trip on a future post). The trip hadn’t exactly gone as planned, but these six monks — well, at least five of them — seemed to have enjoyed the outing very much. One of them, in a gesture that was out of character for these normally very sedate monks — none of whom speak much, if any, English — profusely thanked me afterwards. That alone made the whole outing worthwhile.




Monks & Politics

I popped into a branch of Asia Books last week to hunt down a copy of the new Neil Young biography that one of my customers said they had seen. I was ecstatic to find that book (and more about that in a later post), but I was also shocked to see another book in stock: Burma’s Plea by Dimitra Stasinopoulou.


The book was displayed behind the counter, but it was one of those huge coffee table-sized photo books so it was very easy to notice. My mouth must have dropped open when I saw the cover photo: a huge shot of one of the novice monks from Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, a monastery that I visit frequently in Shan State’s Nyaungshwe. Perhaps “frequently” is an understatement. I usually drop by Shwe Yan Pyay on a daily basis when I’m in Nyaungshwe, taking donations of fresh fruit and snapping photos, sometimes chatting with the Abbot (Saya Daw), the novice monks, or senior monks. I’ve been going there for the better part of decade and in recent years have taken groups of the monks on trips to places in the area such as Kakku, Pindaya, and Taunggyi. They’re a nice, polite bunch of kids and the Saya Daw and his assistant monks do a fine job of educating and taking care of them.


So anyway, I see this huge book and the cover photo was clearly taken at Shwe Yan Pyay, and even the novice monk looks familiar; I’m just flabbergasted by the whole thing. But what I found most unsettling was the book title, Burma’s Plea, along with a big quote plastered on the cover: “Please use your freedom to promote ours.”


That’s more than a little creepy. I can understand and even empathize with the desire to promote “freedom” and other human rights issues in the country I know as Myanmar (I’ll leave the name debate alone for now; that’s something I’ve written about in the past), but I find it troubling that they are using the photo of a young novice monk to highlight their human rights agenda, no matter how righteous it may be. What does this young monk have to do with promoting freedom? You can rest assured that novice monks like this kid have scant knowledge of politics or human rights issues. Yes, many older monks in Myanmar are known to voice their political opinions and some have marched in various protests in recent years (witness the famous, but misnamed, “Saffron Revolution” in 2007), but novice monks from Shan State have not been among the participants. This book, published in 2011, looks like a gorgeous one (see the “YouTube” link below), containing 407 pages of photographs that highlight various parts of the country. While the photos may be captivating they don’t seem to focus on “freedom.” In any case, the author and/or publisher really should not have used a photo of a novice monk on the cover to make a political statement.


And what’s with that horrible book title? Burma’s Plea? It almost puts the locals on the same pitiful level as beggars: Help us because we can’t help ourselves! I have a problem with Westerners sticking their noses where they don’t belong, particularly when it comes to domestic political issues in other countries. I look at any sort of intervention or “assistance,” no matter how dire the situation may appear, to be the wrong course of action. To title a book “Burma’s Plea” makes it sound like “those poor pitiful people” can’t fight for their rights without the benevolent assistance of Westerners. I think that most people in Myanmar have enough pride that they don’t want to be seen as helpless in the eyes of the rest of world. That’s not to say that they don’t appreciate — or need — development work and humanitarian assistance, but whatever political problems the country may have, let them work it out amongst themselves without know-it-all Westerners trying to butt in and dictate the “proper” way to make changes or do things.


I’m also still not clear where the proceeds from the sale of this book are going. On the website of The Border Consortium (an organization that has an office in Bangkok) it states that:

“This private edition is available in Thailand from TBBC’s Bangkok office for 1,500 baht each. Dimitra has generously agreed that proceeds of books sold by TBBC in Thailand will be used for TBBC activities.”

And those “activities”, judging from what they say on their website, include a lot of worthwhile projects. But a news report on the website, states that “funds from the sale by the TBBC will be donated to Burma Campaign UK.” Now that gets a little trickier. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of Burma Campaign UK. They are one of those organizations that used to strongly discourage (condemn might be a better word) tourists from visiting Myanmar, deeming it not only politically incorrect but tantamount to enriching the coffers of the military junta. But in 2010, after Aung San Suu Kyi (along with her NLD party) changed her tune and decided that tourism ain’t such an evil thing after all, the folks at Burma Campaign UK, in parrot-like fashion, followed her lead and no longer opposed the idea of tourists visiting the country. Except for package tourists: they were still evil and were helping the generals get richer. At least that’s the opinion of Burma Campaign UK. Their heart may be in the right place, but I think that the strident, no-compromising stance of groups like Burma Campaign UK has done more harm than good over the past 20 years.


During one of my trips to Mandalay I saw a shocking reminder of just how negative and counter-productive that these “campaigns” can be. I was visiting the Moustache Brothers (the famous dance and comedy troupe who are very politically active, two the “brothers” having spent time in prison) at their house one afternoon. In between serving me tea, Lu Zaw (the “funny one”) played a DVD that had a public service announcement produced by Burma Campaign UK. It was in such bad taste, and catered to such pathetic stereotypes, that I was appalled. I don’t even think Lu Zaw — who has always encouraged tourists to visit his country and see the situation for themselves — was properly aware of just how insulting and one-sided that this video message was. It certainly wasn’t going to help his business or encourage anyone to visit Myanmar.

You have to wonder what organizations like this do with all the donations that they receive (consider their overhead, for starters: they have to pay healthy salaries for their director and staff members, rent an office, etc.) and how much of the money really goes to helping the people in Myanmar/Burma? On their website, they state their goal as:

“We play a leading role in raising awareness about the situation in Burma, and pressuring the international community to take action in support of the people of Burma.

Okay, those appear to be admirable goals on the surface, but what does “pressuring the international community to take action” involve exactly? More boycotts and sanctions? A lot of good that did! In other words; not at all. Meanwhile, all those “misguided tourists,” ones who defied calls for a boycott, visited the country over the past two decades, met many local people, and were able to put money directly into those people’s pockets, something that groups like Burma Campaign UK could never do.


Morning Alms in Nyaungshwe

While I was in Nyaungshwe earlier this month, I got up early one morning and cycled over to the Shwe Yan Pyay monastery to take pictures of the novice monks as they made their alms rounds. The monks line up every morning at about 6:45, preparing for the walk around the neighborhood, where villagers dish out offerings of rice and other food. There are about thirty novice monks at the monastery, but not all of them make the walk every morning. Some of them stay behind, from what I can ascertain, to clean the grounds or study. Nobody sleeps in!


These young monks are a very polite and respectful bunch, but that doesn’t preclude them from having fun and acting a little goofy while they are waiting for the alms walk to commence. Prior to lining up, I noticed one novice kicking around a small rock (no doubt thinking he was the next coming of Lionel Messi; most of these guys are big football fans), while another one poked his friend in the ribs with a stick. Two others diligently inspected a younger monk’s head to make sure that no unwanted insects had taken up residence there. Once a senior monk appeared (hmm, maybe THEY get to sleep in), they were all ready to make the march through the village on the other side of the road.


I tagged behind for the first half-mile, and then jogged ahead to take some photos as the villagers made their offerings. Even at eight in the morning the sun rays were intense. “It’s hot, isn’t it?” one of the less shy little monks commented as we trotted down the dirt road. “It’s VERY hot,” I agreed, wiping sweat from my brow. Quite a change from when I was last there in December and the weather was chilly.


By the time we returned to the monastery about forty minutes later, the “perfect line” of monks had broken into a disorderly mess. It was obvious that some of the smaller ones couldn’t keep up with the others. Plus, that’s a pretty long walk in your bare feet, even if you do get to kick some rocks around.


Shan State Novice Monks


Another week with too much murder, misery, and mayhem in the news. To counteract all that negativity, here are a few happy photos of the congenial novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, an old teakwood monastery on the outskirts of Nyaungshwe in Myanmar’s Shan State. Nyaungshwe is the gateway to nearby Inle Lake, a picturesque body of water framed by craggy green mountains, and home of the famous leg-rowing fisherman.

Many of these novice monks come from Pa-O villages in the area. They spend most of the morning and afternoon studying, but once in a while — as you can see in these photos — they cut loose and revert to being silly young boys.


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