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Posts tagged ‘Shwe Yan Pyay’

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.  

 

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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.

Games Monks Play

It was late afternoon in Nyaungshwe, and no rainstorms had yet descended on the scenic Shan State town. Time to explore. I’d already cycled down to an isolated group of funky old temple ruins near the lake — grass and weeds growing out of control between the lovely ancient structures, giving it an endearingly neglected vibe — that I always like to visit. It was too early to return to my hotel, so I decided to drop by Shwe Yan Pyay monastery and see what the novice monks there were doing. Normally at this time of the day — but not always — they have finished their studies.

When I arrived at the monastery, I heard them before I saw them: squeals of delight and shrieks of happiness ringing through the air. To the left of the vihara, or main sanctuary, there was a group of novice monks running around and playing a game of tag. What they were running around, and jumping on and off of, was some sort of concrete cistern that had no water inside.

I stood around for a minute looking at the scene before me, mesmerized by the way these young monks swiftly ran around and jumped and practically flew through the air, landing on the edges of the concrete monstrosity effortlessly. They were a sure-footed crew and obviously had played this game before. During the 15 minutes that I watched, not a single one fell or tripped or bumped their head on anything. Nevertheless, I felt like an anxious parent while I watched, afraid that one of them would tumble, gash their knee, or hurt themselves somehow. But I didn’t shout out any warnings or try to stop them from playing their game. I didn’t feel it was my responsibility to stop them, plus they all appeared to be having a fantastic time.

At one point I remembered that I had my camera with me, and that maybe I should document this little game with some photos. So I did. And here they are. Ladies and gentlemen; the flying monks of Shwe Yan Pyay!

Monks on the Road: Taunggyi

The day I left with the group of novice monks from Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung to go to Pindaya, I noticed some sad faces on the monks we’d left behind at the monastery. It was obvious that all of them wanted to go on the trip, but of course I couldn’t take everyone — the van could only hold so many bodies, small monks or not. They understood that, but I’m sure that didn’t lessen the disappointment. But luckily I had a way to make it up to some of the ones who couldn’t go to Pindaya.

 

I had plans to go to Taunggyi the following day, to visit May Hnin Kyaw at the Kan Baw Za Library, and had already arranged to rent a car for the trip. With only me and the driver, I figured that there was plenty of room in the back seat for a few monks too. So, when the van dropped everyone off at the monastery after the trip to Pindaya, I walked over to a group of disappointed novices who had not been able to go with us that day, and invited them to go with me to Taunggyi. “Can you go tomorrow?” I asked one of them? With a big smile he answered in the affirmative: Thwa ya ba de!

And with that, monk trip number two was all set, this time with four novices in tow. I also brought car sickness medication, just in case, but this bunch had no problems with the long and winding road. The drive to Taunggyi takes about an hour and some of that route is indeed uphill. After all, Taunggyi means “big hill” in Burmese. Years ago, it was a popular “hill station” retreat for the colonialist Brits, pink-skinned wimps who couldn’t stand the heat of the lower elevations. Nowadays, it’s one of the bigger centers of commerce in Shan State. As we approached Taunggyi, storm clouds were brewing, so I told the driver to take us to the big park in town first. Of all our destinations this day, this was the one that we absolutely needed to see without getting soaked. The park is on the outskirts of town and also has a small zoo; some monkeys, deer, rabbits, turtles, birds, and a lethargic bear. Nothing earth-shaking, but it’s a pleasant diversion for the locals.

Like the group I had taken to Pindaya, these four monks are also of Pa-O heritage. The Pa-O have a very distinctive dialect, an almost musical sound I call “the Pa-O patter,” that I find delightful to listen to. They even have a way of rolling their “R”s that is very cool. I’d love to find out if they have recorded some of their native folk songs; no doubt those would sound great too. After walking around the park, and across the wooden suspension bridge, we headed back to the car, making it just in time before the skies opened up. Next stop: the Shan National Museum.

 

I had phoned May Hnin Kyaw the day before and had arranged to meet her at the museum. It was there, she told me, that her group was holding its annual “Lovely World” exhibition, and today was the opening ceremony. Besides hosting a library and reading club, her group also is active in health education, computer training, language teaching, organic farming, and other environmental programs. They call themselves a “non-profit, non-political humanitarian organization based on voluntary services and committed to promoting peace, cooperation, and development.” A friend of mine who visited the area last year and met this group was so impressed with their projects that she sent money for me to donate to them. Along with that donation, I brought them some books from my shop in Bangkok. Actually, their library (which recently moved to a bigger location in downtown Taunggyi) is already well stocked with both English and Burmese books, as well as magazines and other periodicals. Their exhibition at the museum was quite impressive and was well attended despite the rainy weather. The monks seemed to find the exhibits interesting too, but I think they got the biggest kick about seeing the regular exhibits in the museum, particularly the ones that depicted Pa-O tribal costumes and artifacts. Each one asked me to take a photo of them standing in front of one the Pa-O exhibits.

 

Every time I’ve come to Taunggyi with a group of monks, they have wanted to visit Sulamuni Paya, one of the biggest and most revered pagodas in the area, and this group was no exception. We made a circuit around both the interior — the monks stopping at each of the four giant Buddha images to pray — and the exterior. Luckily, the rain had stopped so we were able to do our outdoor strolling without resorting to umbrellas. It rained a little on the way back to town, but that certainly didn’t dampen our spirits. Another nice outing with a polite and appreciative group of young monks.

 

Monks on the Road: Pindaya Caves

For as long as I’ve been coming to Nyaungshwe — “the gateway to beautiful Inle Lake” — I’ve always paid daily trips to Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, the lovely old teakwood monastery nestled on the outskirts of town. The monastery has these very distinctive huge oval windows, and it’s not unusual to find some of the novice monks peeking out from behind the windows or posing in front of them for photo-snapping tourists. I’ve taken more than my share of photos here too, and I’ve even let the monks borrow my camera and let them take shots themselves. Let them loose for a few minutes and before you know it there are an extra hundred shots on the memory card. The cast of monks changes slightly each year, but every time I return there are always a few dozen familiar faces. They’re nice kids and I look forward to seeing them each year, chatting with them in Burmese (obviously not my native language, but not theirs either; most of them come from Pa-O tribes), and taking more photos in and around the monastery.

In recent years I’ve take some of them on days trips in the area, either to Taunggyi or to see the ruins in Kakku. The first few trips I took only two or three monks at a time, then last year the number crept to five. For my trip this year, the destination was the Pindaya Caves and the total climbed to eight novice monks. Needless to say, a bigger van was required this time. Of the five that I took to Kakku last year, not a single one could go this time. One monk had transferred to another monastery, while the remaining four had exams coming up the following week and needed to study. Or at least they were told by the Saya Daw (abbot) that they had better stay and study. And even though I know these guys wanted to go to Pindaya (we had talked about it last year) they were certainly not about to doubt the advice of the Saya Daw. So I ended up with a group of younger monks that I had never travelled with before. I knew a couple of them from previous trips, but not well enough that we’d ever had lengthy conversations. So, rather than picking out who to take, I basically let them arrange who would go. And of course it ended up being a nice bunch of youngsters.

 

The van picked me up at my hotel and we got to the monastery before 8:00 that morning, after the monks had eaten breakfast and gone on their alms rounds. The first order of business was meeting with the Saya Daw and getting his blessing for the trip. I’d already asked him the day before, so this was more of a formality. He’s a really nice man and I enjoy talking with him. He’s always asking me questions about Ayoddaya (the name many people in this region use for Thailand) and my travel plans. And he always gives his consent for the monks to travel with me. This time was no exception. But you could tell the younger monks were a bit nervous and intimidated by the process of asking for permission. As they sat respectfully in front of him, the Saya Daw would call out their names, ask some questions, write something in his notebook, and then grunt his approval. After all eight monks had gone through this ritual, we were ready to roll. But first … car sickness medicine!

 

On more than one occasion I’ve had monks lose their breakfast in the car, so I was prepared with pills that I’d bought at the pharmacy the day before, and a dozen plastic barf bags. I had rehearsed my “vomit speech” earlier. I told the monks that the road to Pindaya would wind up and down through some very steep hills. Sometimes, I added, people get car sick or feel dizzy and will vomit. So … you may want to take these little pills right now if you think you might be susceptible to such a condition. I handed them each a bottle of water and passed out the pills. NOW we were ready to roll on down the highway.

 

The trip to Pindaya took about two and a half hours. And yes, three of the monks did get sick. They weren’t the smaller ones, as I would have expected, but the oldest ones in the bunch. But hey, when you aren’t accustomed to travelling in vehicles like this, it doesn’t really matter how old you are. Sick is sick. We stopped a few times along the way for photos — the elevated railway bridge between Heho and Shwe Nyaung junction is always a picturesque spot — and passed the scenic town of Aungban before arriving in quaint little Pindaya. Buddhist monks can’t eat after noon, so they usually have their final meal of the day around 11:00 each morning. It was only about 10:30 when we arrived in Pindaya, but rather than heading over to the caves straight away, we decided on an early lunch. The van driver picked a clean looking little restaurant on the main road and it turned out to be a great spot; very good food and friendly service. The women running the place asked me all sorts of questions and fussed over the monks.

 

With our bellies full, it was time to explore the Pindaya Caves, famous around Myanmar, not for bats or stalagmites, but for its thousands of golden Buddha images. The latest count has over 8,000 of the glittering images tucked inside the caves. The caves are set inside limestone cliffs, perched high over a lake. Outside the scenery is quite lovely and inside it’s simply majestic. I’ve heard the term “gaudy” used to describe the interior of the caves, but I don’t think that’s a fair criticism. Just about anywhere your gaze falls you will see glittering Buddha images of various sizes. The sea of images make for an amazing visual tapestry, and my crew of young monks seemed absolutely dazzled by it all. In addition to the panorama of Buddhas, the monks seemed to enjoy one additional aspect to the cave visit: their first elevator ride! Many years ago, the only way to get to the caves was to make a steep climb up the hill on foot. But now with a glass elevator installed, you can not only get to the top without tiring out, but you can enjoy the nice view too. And the monks were able to do just that. Seeing the look of wonder on their faces was absolutely magical. And the best part: nobody got sick!

 

Of course the monks wanted their photos taken, both inside and outside the caves, and I was more than happy to oblige. At one point, while we were on the way out — about to take photos in front of the “giant spider” that guards the caves — a couple of Spanish tourists stopped us and asked to have their photos taken with the monks. And of course the monks were quite happy to accommodate that request. Next time I’ll have to come prepared: Monks on tour! Get your souvenir t-shirts now!

On the way back to Nyaungshwe we stopped at some sort of sacred temple, one where a highly revered monk’s body is kept under glass. I always find those sort of displays a bit unsettling so I ducked outside and took shots of some of the monks frolicking on the well manicured lawn. Zonked out by the day’s strenuous activities, most of them napped on the way back. And not a single one got car sick this time. As we approached the foot of the green Shan State hills we were greeted by a rainbow on the horizon. A perfect way to end this day.

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