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Six plane rides. Long drives. A choice of horse or ox carts. Countless boat rides. Yes, it was tiring but the Bagan temples, gold-domed pagodas, innumerable Buddhas, skirted men, tribal women, placid lake of Inle and insights into a monk’s life kept us going.

 

 

 

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In Myanmar, it is a natural consequence to be awed and stupa-fied. Listed below are my blog entries on these adventures.

 

 

TEMPLES, MONASTERIES, PAGODAS AND STUPAS

Bagan: A Plethora of Stupas

More Temples, Pagodas and Monasteries

Yangon’s Shwedagon : All That Gold!

Bagan Thande Hotel

 

 

Photo Credit: Maricel Buhain

Photo Credit: Maricel Buhain

 

 

LAKE INLE ADVENTURES

Sun-Baked In Inle Lake

Happy Birds of Lake Inle

Indein Village

The Long-Necked Women From The Padaung Tribe

Shwe Inn Tha Floating Hotel Resort

 

 

Padaung Women

Padaung Women

 

 

THE ROAD TO MANDALAY

U Bein Bridge & Temples of Mandalay

The Monks of Myanmar

 

 

THERE’s MORE TO LIFE, INDEED!

A Whiff Of Mirth In Myanmar

Eating Around Myanmar


I would have wanted to end the series with the country’s cuisine but realized I don’t have enough photos to interest you. There’s the Monhinga which I had most breakfasts — a soupy noodle dish steeped in catfish broth. Yum. And of course, there’s the Myanmar and Mandalay beer, along with the full-bodied Shiraz and Cab Sauvignon wines from Red Mountain Estate, in the area of Lake Inle. I also tried some fried stuff, too oily for my liking, but I tried it anyway and “paid for it” with a bum stomach. So, cuidate!

 

 

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That is not to say you should avoid street food altogether. We liked some cracklings or “kropeck” and some local fruits while we were there. But if you go to the local market, you’d find lotsa stuff, mostly fried, and OILY. Some looked liked fried pancakes, others were simply fried/floured vegetable strips. If you grow tired of Myanmar cuisine, you’d also find many Thai restos around. We were also happy with our pizza and pasta lunch in Golden Kite Restaurant in Lake Inle area. Take your pick!

 

 

This was served to the monks. I was waiting for an invite but didn't get lucky😄

This was served to the monks. I was waiting for an invite but didn’t get lucky😄

 

 

Not food but they chew on it! Betel nuts and leaves, anyone? Photo Credit: Chikie

Not food but they chew on it! Betel nuts and leaves, anyone? Photo Credit: Chikie

 

 

Because they share borders with Thailand, Laos, India and Bangladesh, Myanmar cuisine was influenced by these neighboring countries’ dishes. Except for the Monhinga noodle soup, I can’t think of a distinctly Burmese dish now. The curry dishes remind me of either India or Thailand. But maybe, I wasn’t my usual adventurous self while I was here because of my bum stomach.😔

 

 

Went nuts over this local fruit. Photo Credit: Chikie

Went nuts over this local fruit. Photo Credit: Chikie

 

 

This is monhinga soup, made of rice noodles, fish broth and lotsa herbs and spices.

This is mohinga soup, made of rice noodles, fish broth and lotsa herbs and spices.

 

 

When in doubt though, go for the Monhinga soup. And then some fruits. Our guide said they grow very good rice in Myanmar. Records show that for a time, the country was a top rice exporter. Can’t complain. Especially over their fried rice with all sorts of veggie strips thrown in.

 

 

Not sure what they're selling. Venue: 5 day "moving market" in Lake Inle

Not sure what they’re selling. Venue: 5 day “moving market” in Lake Inle

 

 

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Street food is a-plenty. And very, very cheap. That’s good news for the budget travelers. If you want to be picky and play safe, just try the international (and “milder” versions of the local dishes) buffet in many of Myanmar’s hotels and big restaurants.

While shopping in Lake Inle, the vendors were having this for snacks. Ogled it for a long time and merited an invite. Got lucky this time 😄

While shopping in Lake Inle, the vendors were having this for snacks. Ogled it for a long time and merited an invite. Got lucky this time 😄

 

 

 

 

It's like the equivalent of vegetable tempura or kakiage, but tons oilier!

It’s like the equivalent of vegetable tempura or kakiage, but tons oilier!

 

 

Overall, my best gastronomic memory of Myanmar is really their……. WINES. Best surprise! At US$20-$27 a bottle of shiraz or cab, give it a go. It would have been interesting to see the vineyards of Red Mountain Estate. But the wines…. I’m really pleasantly surprised.

 

 

Taro leaf-wrapped and floating in oil!

Taro leaf-wrapped and floating in oil!

 

 

It's custard apple from Myanmar. Not as good as their Thai counterpart.

It’s custard apple from Myanmar. Not as good as their Thai counterpart.

 

 

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Intha fisherman of Inle Lake

Intha fisherman of Inle Lake

 

 

In my book, men in skirts reveal a certain machismo. I’ve seen them in Bhutan and now in Myanmar. The longyis worn in Myanmar are longer, yet the Bhutanese gho seems more formal. Just the same, the culture of skirted men is a curiosity. More unsettling for the tourists or visitors than the locals wearing them in comfort. When asked what these men wear underneath, our guide disclosed that it’s a question every tourist invariably asks. We’re such a curious lot, aren’t we?

 

 

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Macho Men In Skirts

Macho Men In Skirts

 

 

We found some of them working in really physically-demanding jobs. It’s a miracle those skirts don’t drop as these men load bags and heavy sacks on their backs, or when they leg-paddle their boats in Lake Inle. As for their women, they do have lovely longyis in vibrant colors but fashion sense seems centered on their head gear or on their neck and leg adornments.

 

 

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Photo Credit: Joyce Valino

Photo Credit: Joyce Valino


 

I love the ladies’ headgears. Those worn by the women from the Indein village were particularly beautiful and elaborate. There’s something regal about their headdress and how comfortably they wear them. Then there’s the ladies famous for their neck rings. They’re from the Padaung tribe in the Shan region which includes the area covered by Inle Lake. Women here wear brass coils around their necks as early as age 5, making them look like their necks have been “stretched”. In reality, the neck coils push down the collar bone. There is an equivalent group of tribe women in some parts of Thailand near the Burmese border who refer to themselves as from the Kayan tribe and object to being called Padaung. It is believed they’re the same Kayans or Padaungs who fled to the Thai border in the late 80’s and early 90’s during the country’s military regime. Interestingly, these long-necked women originally hailed from Mongolia who were assimilated into the local upland tribes.

 

 

 

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Brass neck coils and brass/silver leg bracelets. For what?

Brass neck coils and brass/silver leg bracelets. For what?

 

 

There were also leg bracelets on these women. As for the neck coils, we wonder how long this tradition would last as younger, less traditional if not a tad modern, Padaungs refuse to fit brass rings around the necks of their children. Will this tradition grow extinct, only to be replaced by enterprising women interested in tourist dollars? Quite frankly, I’m not sure what to wish for. I do find it disconcerting to find women — and children — using these rings to push down their collar bones. It just isn’t right, no matter their reasons.


This riverside hotel in Old Bagan was opened in 1922 to welcome a royal guest, King Edward VIII in 1922. A 2-storey colonial structure now proudly bears a sign citing this royal welcome, but this main hotel building does not have the same riverfront view as the deluxe room we stayed in. I like low-rise hotels. A rarity these days. Here in Bagan Thande Hotel, they have bungalows with decks facing either the pool or the great Ayeyawaddy river. I found it such a luxury to have all this open space!

 

 

 

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Dinners under the huge and lovely acacia tree were delightful, especially after a hot shower to cleanse all the dusts so prevalent in the plains of Bagan. There is an international buffet and breakfast is available as early as 6am. A short stroll from the hotel is a waiting area where one can rent horse carriages for old Bagan and nearby village tours.

 

 

 

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We waited for sunset from our riverfront room’s deck and loved the fiery spectacle! The manicured lawn, the potted plants, the aromatic flowers, and though I’ve never seen it, the resident owl in this hotel complex bring on such an air of royalty and privilege that is so welcoming, almost personal. Really puts you on a jolly holiday mood.

 

 

 

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Who would have thought there’s this slice of paradise in this archaelogical zone? Dining under the stars is a highlight, but so is the hour spent at sundown.

 

 

 

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We went as far North as Mandalay. Known as the Golden City with its many pagodas and monasteries. It was the capital of Burma (now Myanmar) before it was colonized by the British in the 1880’s. Rudyard Kipling’s poem entitled Road to Mandalay may have romanticized this former capital of Myanmar. Rightly so, as it remains a religious center, the very heart of Buddhist Burma.

 

 

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Among Mandalay’s religious monuments is Kuthodaw Pagoda where the world’s largest book is enshrined. Inscribed on stone tablets are excerpts from the tipitaka or Buddhist scriptures. Each stone tablet is housed in each of the 729 white stupas surrounding a golden temple inspired by Bagan’s Shwezigon Pagoda. Star flower Trees planted between rows of white stupas provide ample shade and tons of charm for this pagoda complex. Kuthodaw glistens in its goldness both from the ground as well as when viewed high up in Mandalay Hill. Speaking of Mandalay Hill, one may choose to climb it by hiking up, or go easy by taking an elevator to take you up in Sutaungpyei Pagoda from where one gets a panoramic view of Mandalay.

 

 

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A monk’s life involves a lot of discipline and silence. Here in Mandalay lie many monasteries and monastic schools like Maha Ganayon Kyaung where visitors can witness the monks’ rituals like lining up for their midday meals or doing their late afternoon prayer ceremony. All that chanting, bowing and meditating comprise the prayer ceremony we had the fortune to witness.

 

 

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For a moment there, I thought I’ve had enough of temples and monasteries so early in my trip. But what fascinated me are Myanmar’s landmarks in teak wood. The country is the world’s top producer of teak wood and the Golden Palace Monastery or Shwenandaw Monastery is one fine example of Burmese architecture. As the last royal capital before the country was colonized by the British, Shenandaw happens to be King Mindon’s last royal palace. It’s just curious that the most sacred area within the monastery is exclusive to men.

 

 

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Last but not the least is one of Malanday’s iconic landmarks — this 1850-built bridge is touted as the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world to be found in the former capital of Amarapura. The bridge was built from wood reclaimed from the former ancient royal palace in Inwa or Ava. It doesn’t look much during the day, but its mosquito-infested location is perfect for sunset shots. With patience and a not so few mosquito bites, one can have a good snapshot of the teak bridge wrapped in the red orange warmth of a setting sun with monks, cyclists, basket-carrying women crossing the bridge, and likely tourists taking selfie shots. With a better cam, the silhouettes should make for a dramatic shot.

 

 

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It is only fitting I end this piece with a few lines from the poem penned by Kipling.

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!”
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin’ my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay . . .

 

 

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My best recollection of Myanmar would have to be the many stupas of Bagan and our stay in this wonderful floating hotel in Lake Inle. It sure pays to have (and spend) this “extra” especially after a tiring, dusty week in the land of gold. My advice? If you have the extra bucks, use it to spend at least a night here!

 

 

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First off, Lake Inle by itself is truly beautiful. Now, savor all that beauty by staying in this gem of a hotel. Huts on stilts, each with a porch or balcony. Our cottage’s balcony faces the entrance arch to the floating resort so it was fun watching those canoes sailing in and out, each batch of hotel guests seemingly “welcomed” by the resident seagulls who have each chosen a pole as their “sentry”.

 

 

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There’s a walkway towards the cottages, the spa, the dining area, and the swimming pool. Never had the chance to check the pool in this weather, but I’m hoping it’s heated considering the temp’s hovering around 7-10 Celsius. I can imagine it’s fun on summer nights. Yet I like the winter vibe in this lake area, and would in fact suggest a Myanmar visit during the cooler months of December and January. No worries — there’s a heater in the cottages. More than that, there’s a mosquito net too! The beds are not as comfortable but if you’re all curled up like a shrimp throughout the night, it hardly matters.

 

 

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Food was good. They served local cuisine along with continental dishes. Don’t miss the local noodle dish called Monhinga. It’s made with thin rice noodles steeped in fish broth, crushed lemon grass and shrimp paste. Very delicious! You can pair them with the local Myanmar or Mandalay beer or if you seriously need to keep warm, try the local wine.

 

 

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Now, this I’ve got to mention. Myanmar produces good wine! Red Mountain Estate imported grape plants from France and the cool weather and mountain soil on this side of Lake Inle must have conspired to produce this local wine at par with its western counterparts. Who would have thought? I was hesitant at first. The local wine is priced at half what a Bordeaux or Rioja would have cost you. But good enough that one of us mistook it for a rioja. So next time you’re in this area, enjoy a bottle of shiraz or cab sauvignon from Myanmar. Piode!

A Whiff of Mirth in Myanmar


 

“Frame your mind to mirth and merriment which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.” – William Shakespeare

 

 

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I traveled with a merry group and the holiday ain’t complete without remembering all the hearty laughs we’ve shared throughout the journey. It helps that many of us have been travel buddies of some sort, and just pulled in a few more friends and family members. A few I traveled with only 2 months earlier, just giving ourselves enough time to “miss each other”.

 

 

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“A cheerful heart is good medicine” , so says the good Book. And this travel group is having a party! Just watch them take turns taking group photos. Oh, my Lord! There’s got to be a law banning taking the same shots with the same group in the same place WITH 10 DIFFERENT CAMERAS. Yet all with good cheer, till our facial muscles athropied into a semi-permanent smile.

 

 

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Who says only the young can have fun? That only the fit and healthy have the energy? We defied all rules. We slipped, our bellies gave us problems, a couple of temper outbursts (both mine), sore throats and mild fevers, gout was freely discussed like it’s an everyday issue, and temporary memory loss became the order of the day. In no time, we were just simply looking out for each other. How good is that?

 

 

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Food and shopping occupied the minds of many. Plus many good shots here and there as souvenirs of the trip. Ancient history twisted our minds and tongues so that each pagoda came to be “Shwe” something. We stayed in good hotels but hardly found the time to really enjoy them because of our hectic schedules. Flying from place to place took its toll, and it’s a miracle we had energy left at day’s end to take pleasure at each sunset. Our joie de vivre never waned nor faded.

 

 

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A holiday can be a nightmare, or a total disaster. Flights can get cancelled or terribly delayed, hotel bookings undone, itineraries messed up, weather not cooperating, expectations unmet. One’s best bet is one’s travel group. Nothing is worse than putting up with an arrogant fool, a racist, an “aromatic” companion, a perennially tardy fellow in the group, an insensitive boor. The only thing that went unhinged is our IQ’s slipping with each passing, tiring day. No Matata —- the Tropang Mapurol survived the journey! 😄

 

 

 

 

The Simple Life In Indein Village




Life was meant to be lived, and curiosity must be kept alive. One must never, for whatever reason, turn his back on life.

——-Eleanor Roosevelt

 

 

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Out again on a wooden canoe towards one of the villages along Inle Lake. Just past noon after a lunch of pasta & pizza, we passed some Inle fishermen rowing their flat-bottomed boat standing by the stern with one leg wrapped around an oar. There’s more of them out in the open lake doing this tribal fishing technique but this group looked like they’re done fishing, their cone-shaped basket nets having served their purpose.

 

 

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I tried to suspend my thoughts on our way to Indein Village, not exactly knowing what to expect. Obviously this sidetrip to the southwestern bank of Inle is quite popular, seeing how many tourists there were in the jetty, ready for the half hour hike to Indein’s archeological site. The site is actually a cluster of 16th-18th century stupas and pagodas, many in utter disrepair if not largely ruined. Very atmospheric to find crumbling stupas and weather-beaten temples competing with Nature for space. The “jungle” threatens to take over this neglected archaeological site, as vegetation and banyan trees grow around many of the stupas, if not OUT of them. Many of the htis (top of stupas) are gone, and one can only imagine how this mass of hundred stupas must have looked then.

 

 

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Indein in Burmese translates to “shallow lake”. Shallow enough that the boatmen never ever reminded us to don our life vests. Instead, the vests were used as cushions for our tired backs for the 45-minute canoe ride. In a way, the “neglect” may have “saved” these ancient monuments. Compared with some of the heavy-handed “restoration” done on some Bagan temples, the complex of pagodas and stupas here in Indein charm you in the same breath as those found in Siem Reap. Immediately, Lara Croft came to mind, though a friend of mine thought it’s more like Avatar.

 

 

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Fisherfolks lead a very simple village life, perhaps completely oblivious to the value of the archaelogical finds here. Apart from the ruins, it was refreshing to see village folks doing their everyday business. Laundry and baths by the canals, where just across some enterprising village women sell fabrics, fruits and cracklings wok-fried in what looked like pebbles. The sprouting of al fresco beer gardens by the canals completely spoil the view, but what can I say? There’s also a vibrant market here but on the day we visited, the “5-day market” was elsewhere. As it was, the market moves from village to village. We caught the market elsewhere and I can only assume the same wares and producé are laid out for sale by the vendors.

 

 

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It was a good walk from and back to the jetty. The Indein ruins are worth the visit, plus this glimpse of village life by the lake. Frozen in time? I’m telling ‘ya……. It’s beginning to thaw. So pack your bags and go pronto!

 

 

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C’es si bon! Oui, it’s so good. Stupa-fied or not, it’s worth visiting a few. Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan reminded me so much of the first pagoda we visited in Yangon: the Shwedagon Pagoda. Yes, all that gold once more! (“Shwe” means gold) Built in 1084-1113 AD, Shwezigon by the eastern bank of the Ayyarwady River in Bagan actually predates the pagoda complex in Yangon. Way earlier! And it easily became the prototype of subsequent pagodas built all over Burma.

 

 

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Just as graceful and majestic is another temple popular with tourists: Shwe San Daw Pagoda. It’s where we climbed up for a better panoramic view of the other Bagan temples and where we waited for sunset. Too popular, I’d say, as throngs of both pilgrims, tourists and serious shutterbugs with their tripods seem to have all assembled in this 5-storeyed temple likewise built by King Anawrahta. A devout Buddhist, he is the founder of the first Burmese Kingdom. He built Shwe San Daw after his conquest of then Mon Capital, Thaton.

 

 

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No “Shwe” prefix this time. But That Byin Nyu Temple is one of the tallest, if not the tallest, temple within Old Bagan. This white monolith is just a few meters from our hotel and I would have wished to climb it for a sunrise view. But climbing the temple has been banned after an earthquake rendered the structure unsafe. Up close, one even finds portions whitewashed in a futile restoration attempt. Hopefully, the structure will stand for many more years to come as a testament to Myanmar’s glorious past.

 

 

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If there’s a tallest temple, there’s the largest temple. Dhammayangyi Temple’s imposing structure makes for a truly majestic sight from the outside and more so, from up above. I have to borrow a photo from a friend who went on a hot air balloon ride one foggy morning to prove this point. (Thank you, Maricel, for these fantastic shots!) Too bad we didn’t have a chance to check out this temple’s interior hallways with its high ceilings and narrow corridors. But a grim and morbid history is attached to this surreal edifice. The temple was built by a sadistic and likely psycopathic King Narathu who killed his family : a father, brother, and his queen. Story goes that this same tyrant required the temple brickwork to be so perfectly tight that no knife or pin could pass between any 2 bricks. Failing that, the slaves who worked on the imperfect brickwork were put to death. Legend further goes that all these tragedies and cruelties haunt the temple to this day.

 

 

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Also in the horizon are the Sulamani and Kubyaukkyi Temples. The others would have to remain unnamed for now as my memory aids are limited to the postcards I bought 😄. Amazing that these temples survive to this day in all its grandeur!

 

 

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And I saved the best for last. Thilominlo Temple and Ananda Phaya Temple. It is unfortunate that the Thilominlo Temple is crowded with too many stalls selling anything from shirts to bead necklaces to woodworks to paintings. The cluster of stalls out front was quite a nuisance and somehow impairs the holiness of the place. I walked around the temple courtyard twice, very much impressed with the ornate doors, reliefs and carvings. On the other hand, Ananda Temple is one of the best-preserved temples and one of the most beautiful and revered . Once inside, the 4 standing Buddhas, one for each cardinal direction, hold your attention. Made entirely of solid teak, I was fascinated seeing a Buddha in a pensive mood up close, then a smiling Buddha as you walk farther. The farther you go, the wider the grin. And I’m talking about the same Buddha statue! This temple truly lives up to the hype.

 

 

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Enough temples for now? I think I’ve reached my quota of stupas and temples by this time. And of Buddhas too 😄. Mingalaba!

 

 

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I’m GUILTY as charged. Got into a snapping frenzy when we visited the monks in Mandalay’s many monasteries and learning centers, and whenever, wherever, however we found them — in temples, in the market, along the streets, walking, resting, in prayer, dining, in study. We couldn’t stop! So can’t many others.

 

 

 

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And it’s never more true than when we caught them lining up towards their dining hall where a group must have donated their sumptuous 2nd and last meal of the day. Perhaps “extravagant” by monks’ standards. The usual 1 or 2-dish meals expanded to 5, but at the price of being watched and photographed while dining. Forgive me, for saying this. I am just as guilty. It took another fellow (thanks, Bob) to remind me that it didn’t seem right to photograph them while they are eating. More so to have photos taken with them in the background. Come to think of it, why in heaven’s name do we do that?

 

 

 

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Quite frankly, I would not have hesitated to join the monks at the slightest hint of an invitation. Shame on me. The silence was palpable. I hardly heard any plate or bowl being moved nor any tin cup being put down. At some point, I wondered if the monks chew their food. I didn’t hear a sound!

 

 

 

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Mandalay is said to be the monastic center of Myanmar. Many monasteries and monks’ learning centers are located there. And we visited the bigger ones where these monks can be observed while praying, studying and dining. Much like a tourist attraction. In one, I felt like we barged in while young monks are having their study periods. The headmaster in sight didn’t seem to mind. One young monk in particular was weirdly hamming it up, playing with his cat knowing our cams are all trained on him.

 

 

 

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Not all are big and well-funded. We visited a remote school a boat ride away from Old Bagan and found a small village supporting a few young monks. At the time we visited, we wondered what else these monks do outside of prayer and study times. Being dependent on these poor villagers’ support for food and other basic necessities, it would have been more pragmatic to also teach them farming, fishing and other means of livelihood. Much like some other monks elsewhere who farm even just for their own food requirements or tend vineyards, coffee plantations, etc. to earn enough to cover their needs.

 

 

 

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A wake up call. I’m done with my monks’ photography. Let this set be my last. Mi apologia. I leave you guys alone now.

 

 

 

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