A tiered tin roof that almost floated above an intricately carved teak building 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 the sounds of hammering that came from the monastery grounds. Gravel crunched as a man peddled up behind us and stopped. We exchanged the customary greeting, “Ming guh la ba.” The man then switched to English and asked, “Where are you from?” Before long he invited us not only to see the monastery but also to meet his teacher.
Two large wooden doors of the teak building swung open. The interior was dark, brought to life by a wiry old monk who stepped into view after he had opened the door for us to enter. He was wrapped in the monks’ customary maroon robe, which left his right arm and shoulder exposed. His thin physique was deceptive as he stealthily padded barefoot up a set of side stairs and swung 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 from the windows that ran along both sides of the room cut through the darkness. Rays reflected across the arch’s polished and ornately carved 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 and carved with extraordinary detail. A statue of Buddha sat in the centre of each one. The monk encouraged us to look around. Behind the first collection of shrines another similar line-up stood, but it faced out towards the rear windows. By their dark and almost weathered appearance, the collection looked quite old. I noticed a neatly arranged pile of shallots and another of garlic nestled on the floorboards beneath a corner window—this room was more than just a place of worship.
We were later told that the monastery had been built 127 years before and it had been the elderly monk’s home for thirty years. A life full of experience curved along his face, his eyes imparting both gentleness and liveliness when he spoke. He explained that he had become a monk at age twenty and, during the fifty-eight years since, he had lived in only two monasteries. He lived in this monastery with one other monk, but they were an industrious duo. In front of the shrines, sacks of rice and bags of packaged crackers were stacked 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 twenty-second day of the month—the exact description was lost to our language differences.
The old monk 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 it out—D-I-F-F-E-R-E-N-T—implying he had only recently added it to 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 an envelope from Blacks Photography, a Canadian chain, and handed it to me. I delicately slid the flap open. The photos inside had been taken by another Canadian couple, who had visited this 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 in this little, 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 travel book - expected late 2018.
Find more undiscovered destinations in Dust in My Pack, available now at most online book retailers.