It is a different world…
Temples and monasteries are an integral part of life in Myanmar. They accommodate about half a million males, who are either vocational monks or novices, and around 50,000 nuns. That is: roughly one percent of the population actually lives in one of the many monasteries or nunneries, completely dependent on the laity for all their material needs.
Theravada Buddhist monastic life has a strict daily routine revolving around prayers and religious study, but it is the silent alms-rounds (e.g. Sangkhlaburi, Chiang Rai, and Luang Prabang) and the mealtimes (e.g. Lining up for Lunch) that fascinate outsiders and which provide such rich photographic opportunities.
Being a “tourist attraction” is a dilemma for monastic institutions: while having visitors contributes to their financial well-being, and promotes cultural understanding, it can be disruptive. ‘Boundaries’ are different between cultures, and many tourists seem to be unaware (or to deliberately ignore) local expectations of behaviour within sacred grounds.
Mahagandayon Monastery in Amarapura, outside Mandalay is on just about every Burmese travel-agent’s itinerary. Founded around 1914, it is one of the largest teaching monasteries in Myanmar, and home to up to 2000 monks at any given time.
The common areas of Mahagandayon Monastery are quite open, but visitors are clearly instructed which parts are out-of-bounds to them: an injunction that more than one tourist, unfortunately, ignores. Daily, tourists descend mid-morning to watch the resident monks line up silently and systematically for their lunch – their last meal of the day.
Because visitors cannot be relied upon not to disturb the monks during their silent mealtime, they are no longer allowed inside the dining hall. So I, my nine photo-group companions, our leader Karl Grobl, and our guide Mr MM, remained outside, in the rainy streets and alleys of the monastery while the the monks ate in peace.
Once they finished eating, they filed out and commenced cleaning up.
We left the monks and the Mahagandayon Monastery to get our own lunch in Sagaing, southwest of Mandalay. Above the Ayeyarwady River, the Sagaing Hills are dotted with monasteries and nunneries; we stopped at one nunnery, where the women were busy preparing food for the next day: for themselves and for the neighbouring monks.
It is a different world.
Structured. Ordered. With a time and place for everything.
But, there is always acceptance and a welcome for outsiders, and there is always time for a smile and a laugh.
It’s a pretty good world, really, and I hope future visitors show it the respect it deserves, lest we not be invited back.