Out of the morning mist they appear: serious, silent, with a purposeful stride, their bare feet thump the road, completely indifferent to the foreigner with the camera. “Mingalaba!” I try the traditional Burmese greeting, unsure if it will be acknowledged here amongst the Shan. A young Novice flashes me the briefest of smiles and a nod, traditional politeness overcoming Buddhist detachment.
At a crossroads the long, snaking line dissolves and they are gone all too quickly. I sit down at the roadside and watch them dart off in a hundred different directions. Myanmar has gifted me another precious little nugget on a trip filled with very special moments.
The monks are following a tradition going back hundreds of years. Monks collect alms every morning, Buddhist nuns only collect on two days per week. At each house, shop or market stall, a handful of rice, a few banknotes, a bar of soap is dropped into the clay alms pot and a blessing is offered in return. These donations sustain the religious community, while the the person making the offering gains merit and makes another small step to enlightenment.
Earlier in my trip, I spent some time touring the monasteries of Mandalay, the spiritual hub of the country. From the age of ten, boys are expected to shave their heads, don the maroon robe and spend some time living as a monk. The youngest spend a couple of weeks at a time in the monastery, while older teenagers may spend a few months away from their families.
Very few make the transition to full-time monks – the spartan lifestyle is a difficult path: Rising before dawn, two simple meals per day, long periods of meditation and even longer spent studying Buddhist texts. I asked an old monk why young men give up the monastic life – “Pretty girls”! he answered with a smile. Myanmar is a country with no shortage of very pretty girls.
Like many other aspects of life in Burma, these traditions are under threat from the tsunami of mass tourism rapidly engulfing a society which had remained firmly off the travel circuit for decades. The exotic colours of the robes attract tourist cameras like wasps to a honeypot and any little novices spotted at a temple are quickly besieged with foreigners waving iPhones. In many cases no communication is exchanged – the tourist barely makes eye contact, preferring to view the encounter through the screen on their cellphone – as soon as the picture is taken, the visitor moves on to the next photo op. The younger monks are deployed at most temples to collect donations from visitors, so at popular tourist stops, the situation is rapidly deteriorating into a system where children are being put to work, collecting money for posed photos. At one temple in Bagan, I found a three year old boy being dressed up like a monk by his mother, already trained to turn away from a camera unless a “donation” had been collected in his little alms bowl. One can only hope that the monasteries and temples will find other ways to fund their communities.
Note: Burma or Myanmar? I have chosen to use Myanmar as it is supposed to be the more inclusive name for the country, encompassing the many different ethnic groups as opposed to Burma which refers only to the dominant Bama group. However, while in the country, I found that everyone used both names interchangeably and neither was seen as “more correct”.