A Guest in the Land of Monks

Evening Prayers, Myanmar, 2016

Travelers like to think were immune to culture shock. We like to think we can handle any speed bump, hurdle, social oddity, extreme climate, condition, or coincidence with aplomb. Stumbling is for the uninitiated, the tourists, the novices. Austerity is supposed to be our milieu, language barriers our amusement, and bargaining our artistic medium. Perhaps I was over confident when I wrote that piece about privilege.

It was true enough in Thailand, a country so developed for tourism it might as well be in the EU. It’s beaches are gorgeous, the hotels clean and cheap, the women beautiful, and the food prepared in (relatively) sanitary kitchens. It was almost too good to be true.

The ticketing agent almost didn’t know what to do when I was checking in for a connecting flight to Yangon, Myanmar. People who had been waiting behind me in line were breezing through ticketing and heading out to their respective gates, while my agent furiously typed away at her keyboard, calling in backup from behind the carousel. They checked, rechecked, scanned, and rescanned my passport and visa to make sure all was in order, then finally printed out my boarding pass and sent me on my way. On my layover in Bangkok a customs agent was waiting for me when I deplaned with my name ornately scrawled on a white board.

“Mr. Stephen?


“Follow me please, sir.

Shit. Now what?

I’ve already been set back a week to get my paperwork in order, whats it going to be this time? Im lead through the airport passed checkpoints, behind construction cordons, through the bowels of this massive complex; it felt like the beginning of Get Smart when Agent 86 is passing through CONTROL. At one point Im surrounded by an entourage of customs and security personnel, none of whom look at or speak to me, and my mind is running wild with possible scenarios – none of which turn out well for the foreigner.

Eventually we end up at a private security check point. I'm the only one there, nobody else could even find this place if they wanted to. I show them my papers, they look me hard up and down, glance at my bags, and wave me through one last glass door. Here my escort waves me off and wishes me good luck. At this point I find my gate – an empty space without a single other soul waiting for their airplane. I ask the agent “am I the only one here?” to which he responds the only foreigner, sir.

School Children Under Tree Canopy, Myanmar, 2016

Myanmar and Thai citizens were gated in a communal area, while I was kept to myself and informed of delays and changes via an airport ensign. This isn’t exactly Tibet, I didn't have to lie or bribe any officials to get my visa, I don't expect to have my belongings searched at the border, and plenty of travelers bring their families here. However, the borders have only officially been open since 2011, and just years before they were ruled by a hated dictator upon whom murder attempts were made several times. Outsiders, Americans in particular, are widely scrutinized and more or less tolerated only because we bring with us the promise of tourism dollars. In the north circulating US dollars is strictly taboo and the currency can even be confiscated if seen by officials.

This has been a stressful and inauspicious start to the journey.

Arriving in Yangon I was taken aback by the filth, stench, noise, and mire of the streets. Spitting is part of the culture here as everyone sucks incessantly on beetle nut, a habit akin to chewing tobacco, but which produces blood red stains on the users’ teeth and anywhere they spit. If theyre not spitting, theyre blowing their nose or urinating in the open streets which run muddy with God knows what. Open air markets attract hoards of flies and rodents, and the stink of rot fills the air. Anything on wheels beeps constantly to tell other vehicles theyre passing, theyre unhappy about being passed, or simply that they exist.

I have seen such beautiful imagery from this country, I tell myself this is a singularity, this is not Myanmar, I must move on and find my adventure.

This is difficult to do as the color of my skin puts a target on my back, attracting vendors and hagglers on every block who all want to sell me their knick knacks, hire me a taxi, or book me a bus trip. Raising my camera to my face is almost futile for the crowd of beggars that surround me. This cannot be Myanmar, this cannot be all there is. I book a trip to Bagan immediately.

Sunset Bagan, Myanmar, 2016

In Bagan I find more of the same, but with some beautiful ruins in the background. Everyone has an angle, everyone is selling something. People are very friendly and offer you tips on where to find the best spots from which to photograph the ruins, then quickly usher you into their hut to hock their wares. Even at the hotel they hike up prices for services, often double, when they see a foreigner. Finding cultural portraits proves impossible as everyone is putting on a show for the tourists, natural behavior in this region has been forever altered.

It was on a “busfrom Bagan to Inle when I met Iain, a digital media instructor from Perth, Western Australia. Here we were on the same miserable 10 hour ride, being broken by the same hard wooden seats and bumpy mountain pass, smelling the same sick child's vomit, listening to the same old man hock lugies into his plastic bag, and eating the same bug infested meal at the roadside stop – but while I was doleful and ready to get the hell out of Myanmar ASAP, Iain was smiling ear to ear.

Iain was the traveler and I the tourist.

While I was thinking, “how dare this man make me listen to him spit into a bag,” Iain was thinking I wonder what that beetle nut is like.” While I was getting frustrated with all of the erroneous stops we were making to drop off supplies at random villages, Iain was excited to see where we would stop next. And when I disgustedly ate around the unknown chunks of meat in my soup, Iain focused on how fresh the vegetables were.

Bringing Goods to Market, Myanmar, 2016

Bringing Goods to Market, Myanmar, 2016

I knew my attitude was getting the best of me, but I didn’t know how to redirect my perceptions until I met Iain, and Im so grateful I did. Soon after this experience I watched the movie Whisky, Tango, Foxtrot and one pair of scenes in particular jumped out at me. A newly embedded journalist in Kabul, Afghanistan sees a boy bent over a crate of broken eggs, crying despondently. The journalist reaches into her pocket, pulls out some cash, and pushes it at the boy anxiously. She later sees the same boy, still crying, and receiving more cash from a new set of travelers. She screams obscenities out her taxi window at the boy who had swindled her and who smirks and curses her back. Later, her friend sees the same boy and also hands him money. She warns the man that the boy is scamming him, which he acknowledges and says its still a child begging in the street.

My first genuine experience in this country was at a temple right outside of my hotel in Inle. I was drawn in by music, chanting, and the chiming of a loud gong. Upon approach I start to notice this isn’t like the dozens of other pagodas Ive seen in this country, this one is teeming with monks. Young monks. Young monks by the dozens. I make a lap outside the temple, shooting through doorways and windows, acutely aware of how voyeuristic Im being. A master notices me and just as I think I am about the be shooed away, he invites me inside. I sit quietly for a time, and when he tells me I can, I begin shooting.

I had inadvertently stumbled upon the annual novice monk examinations for the entire Shan State (the largest province in Myanmar). An 8 day oral examination where young monks from the entire region must come to recite long passages flawlessly to move on in their monkhood. The boys practice from dawn till well after dusk, reciting passages while they rock back and forth in deep concentration. Every ten minutes they get up and cycle outside to take a drink of juice or water, then run back to their stations to begin again. It is at these cycles when the music plays and the gong rings out.

I find an old master who speaks English well and explains the entire process to me. He is exceptionally kind and reminds me of a dear friend back home. He invites me to spend a month with the monks to truly experience what is going on, but without sounding evangelical as Christians often do. It was a sincere invitation to share in this experience.

Now I feel as though I am a traveler.

This is not in any tour package. There are no other foreigners here. No one is trying to sell me anything. This is the cultural experience I have been craving since landing in Myanmar. For the first time I am excited about this land and what is yet to come. On a lark I recall the name of a small town a fellow traveler recommended back in Yangon, Hsipaw (See-poe) and make arrangements for the 13 hour journey through the winding Shan Mountains. You wont find this place on any tourist maps, it's a sleepy river town without English menus, and I couldn't have been happier there.

Again, following a suggestion from fellow sojourners I invest my last travel day in Myanmar on a journey about which I know absolutely nothing. Just that I need to show up at the rail station and get a one way ticket to some town that sounds like Pinot (wound up being Pyin Oo Lwin), then find other travelers with whom to share a taxi to Mandalay. A first class ticket cost a whopping $2.50 US for a 9 hour ride and let me tell you it was the most amazing $2.50 I've ever spent!

The apex came when we passed the valley of the Shan Mountains across a rail trestle several hundred feet high. Below were numerous waterfalls and on the banks were the water buffalo of migrant farmers spending their Sunday afternoon grazing their cattle in the picturesque countryside.

It hasn't been an easy relationship, Myanmar, you made it difficult to love you at times. Sitting here in Mandalay in my comfortable, if rustic, hotel I await my departure to Bangkok with mixed emotions. There are certainly locations I don't need to visit again, but that list pales in comparison to the list of new places I have yet to discover in this amazing country!

Until next time, Cè zù tin ba deh!