“I’m pagoda’d out,” I confessed shamefully to my guide.
After nearly a week in beautiful Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) on a research trip for Myths and Mountains, my adventure travel company, I’d spent the last few days in a whirlwind kaleidoscope of golden temples, sacred stupas, and stunning pagodas, each more beautiful and more interesting than the last. But after traipsing through dozens of them, I wanted to focus more on the people and culture of Myanmar. On our way to Inle Lake, my guide asked me if I wanted to stop and visit a small monastery.
words + photos © Allie Almario
Since I was wearing shorts, I quickly changed into a longyi, the Burmese fabric which is wrapped tightly around the waists of both men and women. I had just purchased one for the equivalent of $2 in a small shop in Mandalay, and my guide there had a tailor bind it and shorten it for me for $1 in under an hour. Proper respectful attire? Check. Shoes off? Check. Now I can enter the monastery. Inside, the old wooden planks of the floor creaked underneath my feet. I found a dark corner where I could sit quietly without disturbing anyone, and got my camera ready. Noted wilderness photographer Galen Rowell once said something akin to “Look for the light, and you’ll find a photograph.” It’s advice I take with me wherever I go.
There were young sitting monks scattered around the darkened room, most around 10 or 11 years old. It was study time, so between rounds of their young angelic voices chanting Buddhist prayers, they were reading prayer books. An abbot sat in the corner, ostensibly to make sure everyone was studying as they should be. And most were. Except two very naughty boys sitting by the window, where natural light was streaming in. One of them had a lapful of kittens. Peering around the corner to make sure that the abbot wasn’t looking in his direction, this young monk had a giant grasshopper on a string, and instead of paying attention to his books, he was playing Kill The Grasshopper with the kittens. Not exactly a Buddhist tradition, I suspect.
Before I knew it, I’d spent an hour just observing the monks. I loved the reddish tones of their robes (look carefully, and you’ll see many of them are patched together from different fabrics handed down from older monks), the huge round windows, the dust motes floating lazily in the air, the sound of young voices chanting rhythmically in the dark, and the delicious feeling that I could have been sitting there in the same exact spot a hundred years ago, and not much would have been different in this scene.
Since I’ve been back from Myanmar, people at home have asked me if the political situation there had improved much from earlier reports. With recent word of Aung Sun Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, I do think so. There is still some censorship (you can’t access Hotmail or CNN on the internet, for example), and some strange rules (motorcycles and car honking are banned in Yangon), but when I spoke discreetly with some of the locals I met, they seemed hopeful that life in their beautiful country would improve day by day. I hope so. They deserve it.
About the photographer:
Allie Almario is vice president of Myths and Mountains (www.MythsAndMountains.com), an award-winning cultural adventure company specializing in Asia, Southeast Asia and South America. Her work has taken her to all 7 continents and nearly 70 countries. Her most recent trip took her around the world, from the US to London, Edinburgh, Bangkok, Myanmar and Singapore.