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Posts tagged ‘Shwe Yan Pyay’

Monastery Makeover


When I stopped by Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, the old teakwood monastery in Shan State’s Nyaungshwe, back in March, they were doing a bit of fix-up work; painting, cleaning, dusting, and generally sprucing up the place. It was the equivalent of a monastery makeover!



Located on the road to Nyaungshwe and the famous Inle Lake, this monastery receives a lot of visits from foreign tourists. It’s common to see tour buses and vans parked by the side of the road, in front of the main building each morning, and these ever-growing throngs of camera-toting visitors no doubt contribute to the deterioration of the old wooden monastery. Taking your shoes off isn’t enough to defend the teakwood floors against lumbering, obese tourists.



The main teakwood building, the vihara, which houses the monastery’s large Buddha figure, is the one that was receiving the most attention during the renovation, since this is where most of the tourists take their photos, usually of red-robed novice monks standing next to the distinctive huge oval windows.




But instead of the old vihara where they are usually found, the novice monks were holding their lessons in an adjacent, less picturesque building. There were no doubt plenty of disappointed photographers during this renovation period. Nevertheless, a tour around the rest of the monastery, including the shrine-packed “White Building” that’s located next to the main vihara, provides for plenty of other interesting photo ops.













Monk Cover Star!

The strangest things happen when you’re just killing time.

Thursday was one of those rare days when I was able to sneak away from my shop before closing, allowing me time to run some errands and buy a few things before meeting my friends Keith and Sunay for dinner. We had reservations for 6:30 at Cabbages and Condoms (and yes, that’s the name of the restaurant, a fairly famous one here in Bangkok; one that definitely caters to tourists, but the food and service are always excellent), so was strolling down Sukhumvit Road, perusing the cornucopia of crap for sale and killing time until dinner.


Even though I own a bookshop, I still can’t resist popping into other book establishments, so I decided to wander through the long-running Asia Books branch near the Asoke intersection. On one wall, they had a display of large-sized photography books, one of which brought a big smile to my face. The cover photo of this book, Myanmar Dream Journeys, showed Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, the old teakwood monastery in Nyaungshwe, with two novice monks standing next to one of the distinct oval windows. But that wasn’t the big surprise: “I know that monk!” I almost blurted out loud, noticing the novice monk on the left side of the window.


And indeed I did. I’ve known that monk, Pyinya Sawda, for several years. If my memory is right, Pyinya Sawda has been at Shwe Yan Pyay for about four or five years. I’ve taken him and other monks on field trips in the area whenever I’m town. Pyinya Sawda was among the group I took to visit the Pindaya Caves a few years ago and was also in the group that I took to the huge balloon festival in Taunggyi. He’s a really nice kid and always makes a point to talk to me whenever I visit the monastery or when we go on trips. Many of the novice monks there are shy, especially in the presence of a foreigner, but not this kid! He really does have an engaging personality and as the photographer of this book no doubt realized, he’s quite photogenic too.



Last year I had talked to Pyinya Sawda about going to Kakku, the old Pa-O ruins in a remote area of Shan State, with a few of the other monks from the monastery. Plans changed, however, and he ended up not being able to go, a dilemma I wrote about in this post last year:



In honor of Pyinya Sawda (that’s his “monk name,” his real name is Myo Swe) making the cover of this new book, I combed through my photo archives and found a bunch of shots that I’d taken of him over the years. Some of my favorites are the ones where he was playing a game with the other novice monks, running and jumping on these old concrete ledges outside the monastery. In some of the photos Pyinya Sawda looks like he’s taking flight! The other shots of him trying to handle a leaking hose are also pretty funny.





I just contacted Ma Pu Sue, another friend in Nyaungshwe, and asked her to drop by the monastery and make sure that Pyinya Sawda is still there. These monks move around so much, that there is never any guarantee that I’m going to see them whenever I return. But if he’s still at Shwe Yan Pyay, I’ll be taking him a copy of this book when I visit next month.



Myanmar Dream Journeys has recently been published by John Beaufoy Publishing. It was written by Christine Nilsson, who also took the photographs.



Out of Focus and Off the Road


One more tale from the trip I took with the monks to Kakku, along with some very blurry photos. As I detailed in a post last month, I encountered a problem with my camera lens the day before I was scheduled to take the monks to Kakku. I ended up borrowing a small digital camera from my friend Ma Pu Sue in Nyaungshwe, so a photo-less journey was averted. However, I failed to account for another possible glitch; using up the camera battery. Which is exactly what happened. But fortunately the battery didn’t run out until we had finished traipsing around the stupa grove and taking the majority of the photos.  


I did remember to bring my faulty camera with me, thinking I could still coax the lens into operating, and it did, except that the focus was not quite what it should have been. Nevertheless, I took a few more shots of the monks posing in front of a pond, including a cute photo of one of the young novice monks holding a cat. Ah, if only that one had been in focus!



On the trip back to Nyaungshwe out on a country road in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, our van had a flat tire. That’s one phrase I had already learned in Burmese: bein paut de! Our Pa-O guide, Nang Khan Moon, suggested that we walk around the small village on the other side of the road, which just so happened to be a Pa-O village, while the driver fixed the flat. The one monk who had been sick was still not feeling well enough to accompany us, so he stayed behind while the rest of us took a stroll down the dirt lanes of the neighborhood.



I realize it’s difficult to tell from these hazy photos, but the village was quite attractive, and very clean and tidy. Immaculate is not strong a word. But there wasn’t a soul around. Nang Khan Moon explained that the villagers were all working at fields in the area and would return later in the afternoon. We passed attractive little thatched homes, most of which had firewood stacked neatly outside. I saw banana trees, papaya trees, tomato plants, and even some coffee plants growing at one house.



About 20 minutes into our walk, raindrops began to fall, so we picked up the pace and made it to the shelter of a nearby automotive parts shop before the rain got stronger. While we were at the stop, the two youngest monks purchased padlocks. This confused me. For one, where did they get the money to use for this purchase? And secondly, what do they need padlocks for at the monastery? Is there a theft problem of some sort there? I’ll have to ask some local friends about that next time I’m in town. In any case, the young monks appeared to be quite smitten with their new locks. Hey, whatever makes you happy!



A few minutes later, the van pulled up, a new tire now securely in place, and off we continued on towards Taunggyi. After stopping at one of the big hilltop pagodas in town, where I took yet more blurry photos, we piled back in the van (except for the sick monk, who was feeling so weak that he still wasn’t joining our walks) and headed back to Nyaungshwe. Yet another trip that hadn’t gone quite as planned, but as I told Nang Khan Moon, the flat tire was one of those “happy accidents” that gave me a chance to see something I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.




The Road to Smiles



I’m back in Shan State this week. I arrived in Nyaungshwe yesterday after five days in Mandalay. It’s been a bit rainy at times, but at least I’m not having to endure multiple showers each day like we’ve been getting in Bangkok.


Every visit to Myanmar yields its share of surprises and changes, and this trip has been no different. The biggest change, even from six months ago when I last visited, is the plethora of cell phones in use. Actually, the condition has gone from a negligible percentage of the populace owning a phone to a whole lot of people owning one. Or at least playing with a mobile device of some sort. Because of recent changes in technology, this means that the current consumers in Myanmar, after doing without for so many years, have skipped several generations of phones. Thus, they aren’t content with having a simple cell phone at this point, they want the latest iThing on the market. The devices, and also the price of SIM cards, has dropped dramatically this year, however the income of most locals has not risen sufficiently to be able to buy all the new gadgets on the market.


I made my usual first-day treks to Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe, where I had a nice chat with the always kind Saya Daw and made plans with one of the monks, Pyin Yaw So Daw, to take him and a few other novices to Kakku and Taunggyi later in the week. In the afternoon I cycled east of town to the village of Tat Ein. I was surprised to see no school in session, but this isn’t the first time they’ve had breaks in the middle of the week.. Some of the kids were hanging out near the classroom and playing games,and when they saw that I had arrived and was bearing scads of photos from our field trip earlier in the year, a crown soon formed.


The kids told me that two of the teachers had left the school, replaced recently by two new ones. The head monk, U Sandimarr, was nursing a fever, but he still insisted on greeting me, and made time for a short chat. After that I hiked up the hill to the monastery, where I found the group of novice monks had grown from about 30 to 50! Unfortunately. the young monk who acted as my photography assistant last time, Sandartika, has moved on to a different monastery. Once again, this is a fairly common practice, so I wasn’t shocked, just disappointed I couldn’t give him the  photo album I had made for him. But I managed to appoint a new photographer from amongst the throng and you’ll see the results of his photos sometime next month.




Rains Retreat


Tomorrow marks Khao Phansa, another Buddhist holiday in Thailand. As with most Buddhist events, this day is also observed under different names in other Southeast Asian countries. Khao Phansa marks the start of the annual “Rains Retreat”, a period when Buddhist monks are — supposedly — confined to their monasteries and cannot venture out into public. This period has also been dubbed “Buddhist Lent” due to the fact that monks must abstain from habits such as eating meat and smoking (yes, it may shock many Westerners, but some monks in this region can often be seen smoking cigarettes and chewing betel nut). I would assume that karaoke is a no-no also.


In Thailand the shocking behavior of one famous monk has been in the news all month. Actually, the offending fellow has now been defrocked and is no longer a monk. He was visiting France when the scandal broke and now is supposedly in the USA. I believe his passport has been revoked and there is also a warrant out for his arrest. Why is this man wanted? Something to do with embezzling money from donations to his monastery, not paying taxes on his fleet of luxury automobiles (yes, he had about a dozen, with more on order!), and fathering a child with a 14-year-old girl. Anything else I missed? Sounds like a great guy. Then there is the radical monk in Myanmar who has urged Buddhists to boycott Muslim-owned businesses, and has been blamed for stirring up locals and causing some of the violence that’s plagued the country this year. Needless to say, this monk’s comments have created a storm of controversy, enough to put him on the cover of Time magazine.



But I’d prefer to leave those assholes out of the equation and concentrate on the good aspects of Buddhism, as exemplified by some of the monks I know in Myanmar’s Shan State. In today’s post there are some photos of the novice monks (and a few of their teachers) from the monasteries at Shwe Yan Pyay and Tat Ein. If observing Khao Phansa means having to refrain from playing football or watching matches on TV, these youngsters are going to have a tough couple of months ahead of them.







Shan Shopping Channel

The largest town near Inle Lake in Shan State is Nyaungshwe. This is where most of the hotels and guesthouses in the area are located, although more lakeside resorts have been opening in recent years. The appeal of those resorts escapes me. Yes, they’re all quite comfortable and attractive, and with their lakeside location, the scenery looking out your window may be lovely. But with all that tranquility you sacrifice atmosphere. The location is so far from town and so isolated, that visitors never get to truly experience the unique vibe of daily Shan State life. Nyaungshwe is a sleepy little town, but it’s quite scenic in its own right, and offers a variety of charming experiences for the visitor.  Walk around town and discover the quaint wooden bridges, monasteries, canals, stupa ruins, kids flying kites, and so much more. It’s damn cool.


One of those simple charms is the local outdoor market. It’s not an extremely large market, but it’s always bustling with activity — a heady mix of vendors and shoppers — and bursting with color. I never get tired of roaming the aisles and snapping photos. As long as keep my distance from the aromatic fresh fish section, it makes for a refreshing stroll. I just have to be careful and remember to watch out where I’m walking. Inevitably, I have to swerve and duck whenever I approach the many low-hanging ropes and wires; don’t want any messy decapitations.


I go to the market to buy fruit each morning when I’m in town. The fruit is not for me — although I’ve been known to nibble on a mango now and then — but to take to the monks at Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung later in the morning. I patronize the same fruit seller every time, a lovely young woman who always presents me “presents” in the form of extra pieces of fruit. Depending on the season, it might be mangoes, oranges, apples, watermelon, pineapples, dragon fruit, or avocadoes.


There are no supermarkets or grocery stores in Nyaungshwe, only this single market. Even in the larger nearby town of Taunggyi — a one-hour drive up the road and over the mountain — the only shopping option is an outdoor market. These people living in Shan State don’t have the luxury of owning fridges, so they can’t store and hoard food products for later consumption. Even if they could afford an appliance, unless they also owned a generator, they are at the mercy of the frequent power cuts — the power outages in the area can last several hours per day, or all day — and refrigerated food would likely spoil. Thus, whatever you buy today, you eat today. And frankly, I think that’s a healthier approach to eating anyway.


Missing Monks

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.




Invasion of the Ugly Tourists

It’s started. A wave of obnoxious, pushy, and rude tourists is descending upon Myanmar this year. I suppose it was inevitable, considering all the favorable publicity that Myanmar is getting lately, but it still saddens me to see this beautiful country infested by ugly tourists.


Of course we can lay the blame solely upon Aung San Suu Kyi. Ever since “The Lady” came to the belated realization that tourism was not such an evil thing for her country after all, and she finally gave her conditional approval for foreigners to visit, Myanmar is now a “hip” destination and western tourists are arriving in droves. As a result of this tourism wave, hotel rooms are now becoming scarce (Thinking about visiting during the year-end high season? It may already be too late to book rooms in some towns), and the ones that are accepting bookings have jacked up their room rates astronomically. Hello, commerce!


I’m not bothered so much by an increased number of tourists — the more people who discover this amazing country, the better — but it’s the quality of the new arrivals that concerns me. Many of these newcomers appear to be the sort of pushy types who feel like they are entitled to deluxe treatment; being pampered and fussed over, and having their every wish and whim accommodated. But quickly and cheaply, of course. They are types who interact as little as possible with local people, worrying more about the cable TV options in their hotel room than the fact that the woman who cleans their room can’t afford to eat lunch. Won’t some of these dweebs be shocked when they discover their hotel doesn’t have wi-fi, they can’t get a latte with skim milk, and they can’t use credit cards! And that’s only the tip of the discomfort iceberg. Power cuts, bad roads, their cash (bank notes) being rejected for having imperfections. A visit to Myanmar is fraught with inconveniences. That said, it’s still the most interesting and enjoyable destination in Asia, and anyone with an open mind and patience will be rewarded with incredible experiences.


During my recent trip, I witnessed an example of this “new wave” of tourists in the presence of one extremely annoying asshole. I was visiting Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe late one morning, during the monks’ lunchtime break. I had brought my usual donation of fruit (this time 30 mangoes) and was strolling around the monastery taking some photos. At one point I was standing near the side of the building taking a shot of a monk who was next to a window. A rather garishly dressed, and quite obese, western tourist, standing about 50 feet away, hollered at me: “You know you are in my picture! Will you move?!” In his picture? I looked over and he appeared to be taking photos of a group monks standing near the middle of the building, far from where I was situated. Was wide-ass using a wide angle lens, or what was the problem? Rather than saying anything, I glared at the fat fucker and retreated into the shadows. I took some more photos, both inside and outside the beautiful monastery, and on my way back to where my bike was parked I saw — and heard — Mr. Flabby attempting to line up a group of novice monks for a photo. Of course he couldn’t make the necessary arrangements himself, so he was ordering his guide to tell the monks where to stand, and how to pose, impatiently shouting and waving instructions with his piggy fingers. I was tempted to shout my own blunt message to that obnoxious twit, but I decided to make a graceful exit instead, not wanting to see the monks — most of whom I know from previous trips, and have taken on trips — to see me losing my temper. Here’s a photo (below) that I took of the monks a few days later — without any loudmouth tourists around.


I fear that more obnoxious pricks like this fool will soon be stomping around monasteries and temples all over the country, trampling on both the people and their sacred customs. How will the courteous and kind locals deal with these creeps? It’s going to be a very “interesting” year for the Myanmar tourism industry, and a real challenge for them to handle this heavy influx of sometimes “difficult” visitors.  


Monastery Photo Flood

When I visited the novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung in Nyaungshwe last month, I not only brought them photos I had taken on my previous trip in June (during which I took groups of them to both the Pindaya Caves and to Taunggyi), but newspapers from Bangkok, specifically the sections with photos showing the ongoing flooding in Thailand. I’ve learned enough Burmese over the years that I felt capable of describing what had happened in Thailand, but using the old “a picture is worth a thousand words” axiom, I figured the photos would do a much better job of conveying how catastrophic the flooding in the Bangkok area had been than if I had tried to explain.


I brought about two weeks’ worth of full-page photo spreads from the Bangkok Post, and the monks seemed fascinated as they perused them. They were also quite eager to look at the photos of themselves from earlier in the year. And this, of course, led to some brand new photo sessions both inside and outside the monastery; posing in front of Buddha images, standing in front of the building’s distinctive windows, and more.


The monastery was also crawling with tour groups this time around, more tourists than I’ve ever seen in town. But the young monks happily took time during their early afternoon break (after lunch and before studies resumed at 1 pm) to pose for more photos. I think it may be time to get them their own camera so that they can start taking photos of all the tourists!



Tourist Tsunami

While I was in Myanmar this month I was astonished to see that they were having a flood too. But unlike in Thailand, where rising waters were creating havoc, Myanmar was dealing with a huge wave of tourist arrivals. I’ve been visiting the country two or three times a year the past seven years and I’ve never seen as many tourists as I witnessed over the past three weeks. Frankly, it was astonishing.


And there is one big reason for this increase in tourism: The Lady. Yes, now that she has dropped her opposition to tourists visiting her country, it’s no longer deemed a politically incorrect thing to do. Sigh. Of course, that whole tourism boycott thing was ridiculous and misguided from the start. During the previous two decades, if you dared to tell those diehard “Free Burma” blowhards that tourism was actually helping many people in the country, you would be ridiculed and branded as an “apologist” for the junta. But now that The Lady says that tourism is okay, well nobody is squawking about boycotts any longer. And since Myanmar (or Burma, as many still insist on calling it) is now an acceptable destination in the eyes of the PC watchdogs, tourists are beginning to arrive in droves.


My hotels in Mandalay and Nyaungshwe were both fully booked while I was there. And even in Bagan, where I am often the only guest at the hotel, there were other tourists staying there, and plenty of them to be found on the streets; cycling, walking, or riding in horse carts. Hotel and restaurant staff, drivers, tour guides, and souvenir vendors were all glowing with big smiles. Finally, after many bleak years, business was looking up. Hope. They now have hope.


One day in Nyaungshwe I dropped by Shwe Yan Pyay monastery to give the novice monks copies of photos I’d taken of them at the balloon festival in Taunggyi the week before (more on that event in a later post). Predictably, the monks were excited to get the photos and huddled together in a corner of the room, divvying up the bounty. A group of French tourists was also at the monastery at the same time, and they circled the monks, frantically taking photos of the scene. Cute, but a little scary too. They won’t be “my monks” for much longer, now that the rest of the world has started to discover their lovely quaint wooden monastery, and this beautiful, engaging country.

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