My husband and I were peddling along a narrow path southwest of town. The track curved between rice paddies still drenched from the monsoon rains that were only beginning to subside. At the turnoff onto this smaller track, four women had sat on the ground as they peeled bamboo stalks into smooth sections. One lady had giggled shyly when I walked over to watch her work. The bright white flesh proved the fibres had been freshly carved and was sure to attract potential customers heading to or from town. These women remained along the main paved route. They did not venture onto this quiet road.
Rather, it was a tiered tin roof that almost floated above an intricately carved teak building that had caught our attention and beckoned us down this unnamed track. Other than a rice farmer's thatch lunch hut and a few shady trees, there was little else here. We rolled to a stop atop a small bridge and listened to sounds of hammering that came from the monastery grounds. Gravel crunched, a man peddled up behind us and stopped. We spoke the customary greeting, "Ming-guh-la-ba", meaning hello. The man then switched to English and asked, "Where are you from?". Before long we were invited not only to see the monastery, but to meet the man's teacher.
Two large wooden doors swung open. The interior was dark, brought to life by a wiry older monk who stepped into view after he had opened the door for us to enter. He was wrapped in the customary maroon robe, which left his right arm and shoulder exposed. His thin physique was deceptive as he easily padded barefoot up a set of side stairs to swing open a further set of heavy-looking teak doors. The gentleman who brought us here had discretely disappeared. Through the heavy doors lay a spacious room taking up the entire upper level of the monastery, intersected only by the occasional supportive pillar.
This little nondescript sanctuary caught me by surprise. At its far end, an arch of gold spanned the width of the room. Sunbeams cut through the darkness from the windows that ran along both sides of the room and their rays reflected the arch's recently polished and ornately carved golden expanse. The sun's harsh light somehow seemed gentler here. Beneath its brilliance sat a row of shrines, each roughly the size of a dressing bureau. In contrast to the bright gold overhead, these pieces were made from a darkened wood, carved to extraordinary detail. A statue of Buddha sat in the centre of every one. The monk encouraged us to walk around and look further. Behind the first collection of shrines was another similar line-up, but it faced out toward the rear windows. By their dark and almost weathered appearance, the collection looked quite old. Nearby, a neatly arranged pile of shallots and another of garlic sat on the floorboards - this room was more than just a place of worship.
We were later told that the monastery was built 127 years ago. This location had been the elderly monk's home for thirty years. He explained that he had become a monk at age twenty and, during the fifty-eight years since joining, he had only lived in two monasteries. A life full of experience curved along his face while his eyes were both gentle and lively when he spoke. He currently lived here with only one other monk, but they were an industrious duo. In front of the shrines, stacked sacks of rice and bags of packaged crackers lay beside cardboard boxes filled with more donated goods. These supplies were intended for an upcoming ceremony either lasting for or occurring in twenty-two days or perhaps it was on the 22nd of the month - the exact description was lost to our language differences.
The old monk soon scurried off and returned a few minutes later carrying a plate of bananas. He insisted that we sit and eat, referring to us as his brother and sister. He explained in clearly annunciated English that the bananas were "different" varieties, even asking us to spell the word "D-I-F-F-E-R-E-N-T" as if he had only recently mastered it in his vocabulary. He repeated the word carefully a couple of times, seemingly to lock it in his mind. Both types of bananas were grown on the monastery grounds.
As we soon learned, the monk's not-so-secret passion lay in photography. After he had happily posed for a few shots, he motioned us towards a table sitting off to the side. Envelopes, books and an assortment of stuff were stacked underneath. Within moments, he located a Blacks Photography envelope and handed it to me. I delicately slid the flap open. The photos inside were taken by another Canadian couple who had also visited this same monastery three years earlier. The images were beautiful.
The monk then said something that we could not quite understand. He repeated. We were puzzled. He then slowly spelled it out for us, at times squinting his eyes in deep concentration, "S-E-L-F-I-E". I could not help but grin after hearing such a modern term coming from an elderly monk from an isolated monastery. So, the three of us sat down on the floor as new friends and captured an unforgettable selfie.
More on Myanmar experiences and travel advice from around the globe to come in my second In My Pack travel book - expected late 2018.