Two Confused Foreigners in a Buddhist Monastery

When Linnea at last got well enough to leave Nyaung Shwe, we left our comfartable room to look for a bus that would take us the monastery, a few hours south of Inle lake. We had no information on the location of the monastery except for one name; Phayar Taung. The owner of our guesthouse pointed us in the direction of a travel agency, which allegedly could arrange transport for us to Phayar Taung. When we arrive at the agency we find it closed and a friendly guy from a nearby store told us that the owner would only return at 3 pm, the time we had been told that the bus would leave. Fortunately he points out the brother of the owner sitting across the street. The brother then help us out and we end up taking what we quess is the local transport of choice for the Myanmar people, a pick-up truck with wooden boards in the back for sitting on.

Public transport

Before letting the humans board the truck, they fill it up with all kinds of goods; metal roof tiles, packaged foods, soft drinks, carton boxes etc. This seems to be the one transport system to nearby villages, acting as human, goods, and postal service. I think they managed to squeeze in 12-15 people in the back of that truck, apart form all the stuff. We had some of the goods in our knees and our bags were strapped to the roof. Our drive took us 4 hours to the south side of the lakes trough a very pretty landscape and cozy villages, but my butt started hurting after five minutes. We were kind of confused the entire ride because we never got a conformation that we were going to the monastery, we just assumed that they would take us all the way. Along the ride we stopped to drop of people and cargo at various places until it got very dark and we were the only people left on the truck.

The dry landscape

Finally we arrive at the monastery around 8 pm and we get help carrying our luggage while a bunch of children are having their dinner and watching us with great interest. We are taken to see the head monk – Phongyi – right away. We also meet Jolla, a young volunteer at the monastery, who translates for us since Phongyi does not speak much English. We are then shown to our rooms and they feed us dinner, which is an extremely tasty buffet with a surprising amount of different dishes set up for us. We then head off to sleep, but being in a buddist monastery we cannot stay in the same room 😦 August had his own little box with no windows but electricity, I had a bed in an empty dorm with windows but no electricity. These are our respective rooms:

My room
August room

The monastery of Phayar Taung

The pagoda at the center

The monastery as it is today was set up by Phongyi ( the head monk) in the early 90s to accommodate children that had been orphaned by Myanmars long running internal conflicts and ethnic violence. As the story goes Phongyi was given one child who lost his/her parents and from then on the numbers grew as the monk did not refuse anyone who was sent to the monastery. Today the children at the monastery include those whose parents cannot afford to feed or educate them and therefore send them to Phayar Taung. The monastery provides food and housing for about 1300 children and also gives them education up to grade 10 ( which is equal to upper secondary school in the British system). Especially promising students are also supported trough their university studies, and many of the people we became friends with had come back to volunteer during or after their time at university.

Early on as you could imagine, money became an issue for the monastery. How do you provide for a 1300 children when you run on donations? Fortunately, Phongyi is a very resourseful man, and managed to get by through donations from the nearby villages, by promising them education for their children. But there is also another interesting project at the monastery that provides steady income. A Pakistani man living in the U.K came in contact with the monastery and managed to set up a water purification plant at a nearby spring at the foot of the mountain, and today the monastery provides water for nearby villages and hotels. Their slogan “one bottle sold feeds one child, one meal” is amazing and today they have no problems feeding everyone and paying the teachers. The water plant is entierly run by volunteers, making the income from the water almost pure proit.

The same guy, Feroze Dada also donated the money to build one of the houses on the monastery grounds and wrote a book called “Children of the Revolution”, which is about the monastery and the Inle lake area. A Korean man also donated an entire hydro-eletric dam to provide power for the monastery. It´s amazing to hear stories of people doing so much to help other people!

Our time at the monastery: Teachings

We didn´t know on beforehand what exactly we would do at the monastery; Joling had said that they needed english and computer teachers, and that is exactly what we ended up doing. We had three classes of one hour each, almost every day. The english level of some of the volunteers and students at the monastery is quite impressive, and they learned it all there!! And I appologise on beforehand for not knowing how to spell the names of our friends. If you read this, please get back to me and tell my how to do it right!

Teaching english

Jolla had a group of kids aged 9-14, all on different levels in the learning process. This group was new to Jolla too, so we decided to teach them together. Problem was, I was hoping to first see Jolla’s teaching style before I would jump in, but Jolla just said “Go” and I had my first class. It’s not good trying to teach without having a plan. I did my best and worked with greeting phrases and basic conversation. Jolla had told me this was Conversation class as opposed to writing class I assumed, but can you really learn a language with those two apart? For me, that is not possible, so I made them write down what they didn’t know. Jolla would sit on the sidelines, next to August who would read or observe, and translate the assignments and words my acting or drawings couldn’t fully explain. Seriously, my drawings on the whiteboard saved my first two classes, because the kids enjoyed it, and we had a way of communicating beyond words. Jolla couldn’t always be there, though, so we did not have a class each and every day. But me and August, we sat there waiting every day, until it was a 100 percent clear that no kids would show. When I was a kid, learning english, we also learned about Brittish culture, so I thought I would teach them some children’s songs, like
“Row, row, row your boat, gently downt the stream….”
and “Twinkle twinkle, little star”..
.they really liked that 🙂 I also had a few classes on descriptive words, adjectives, mostly relating to describing people. I think they learned the most in that class. On the last class, they were singing the other songs they had learned from before, and one of them was “I have a dream” by ABBA. On the sheet it said it was by Westlife, but that is just not true. Again, Swedish influence runs deep.

Our classrom

Computer class

August was in charge of this class, because he is slightly better at general computer stuff than I am, but turns out that the level was so low that both of us seemed like real pros. First of all, there is no internet anywhere in the monastery, so we used our own data and a USB stick to provide our students with images and information necessary to conduct our classes. Our students were girls between 16 and 19. We started off with teaching them Excel; teaching them how to make tables and cool diagrams, showing them the power of illustrating statistics. Here, they are really fascinated by Japan, many kids want to go there to work, so our theme for our classes was “Depopulation in Japan”.

August’s teaching in action!

Second class was about Microsoft Word, how to make a paper look nice, with headings and a table of content and a nice cover sheet. The text was about Japan’s population crisis, but I really wish we could have had a text in burmese so they would understand more. Mostly I think they understood what we were saying, but sometimes they had no clue, but they did well in helping eachother. We also had one class in Power point. Power point is the easiest of the three, according to me, but they struggled with the english, but in the end I think they had fun. We had one class on Paint also, but neither me nor August is especially good with it, so I just showed them a poor example of what can be done with paint, in what way it could be useful to them:

I am so pro!! This beach is in Nice, France.

I gave them a bunch of pictures of August and various backgrounds because we didn’t have any data to collect photos from internet, so I used our vacation photos. Safe to say, it was a very fun class.

Food and Kitchen duty

Apart from planning our classes and teaching, we also helped out in the kitchen. We both really enjoyed it, but most of the kids were too scared to talk to us, doubting their own english, but when someone started, the others mostly followed. Kitchen duty was mostly peeling and cutting, beans, garlic, onions, eggplant and potatoes. We would work for one hour of two, sitting on low stools by a low table. Usually someone would play music or a movie. The people doing the kitchen duty was mostly volunteers, ex students of the monastery that had returned to volunteer, or monk and nun novices. They were divided up in teams with different shifts in the kitchen. The worst shift was from 1 am to 4 am, preparing breakfast.

Prepared food

Most of the food at the monastery is grown by the monastery itself. This way they save money. The monastery teaches farming to kids who wants or has to learn, making food production into a valuable learning process for the students, The Myanmar cuisine is mostly based upon rice and a meal consists of rice and many small dishes. Usually there is a lot of meat, but meat is expensive, thus the food at the monastery was mostly vegetarian. They sometimes served fish from the lake. But this suited us fine. Whenever it was our turn to eat, some student came to get us, they served us rice and green tea and soup and between three and seven dishes per meal. They served us, giving us teacher status, placing us with teachers or other guests, bringing the food to us, asking if we wanted more rice or tea. I loved the potatoes and always finished all of them. Once, we got a tomato sauce, satisfying some deep longing for European food within us. The food is fresh and healthy. We are so grateful for being so well fed. All three meals contain the same thing though, there is no distinction between breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We did however have one problem, there was not enough protein or fibers in the food. Sometimes we got beans and chick peas, but otherwise there was no protein, making us hungry shortly after we ate. We did find a place down in the village which served Shan traditional noodles with peanuts and spicy sauce, but we only ate there once, and there is no protein to be seen in those noodels either!

The lake

There are no showers at the monastery, the kids shower with a bucket in the sink outside the toilets. The girls are wearing a longy, the traditional skirt wrapped around them from the armpits, covering all the way to below the knees. I don’t have anything that could work like that sort of cover for me, and August wasn’t comfortable either with showering in the sink, so we just went down to the lake every afternoon to wash off the sweat and the dust and soothe our itchy mosquito bites. We knew that Inle lake is polluted, and this lake is connected to that lake by a small canal, but it felt clean, cleaner than Inle lake. Out of respect for the local culture, I swam in a t-shirt and shorts, but it was definitively worth it.

The lake

On the east side of the monastery there is a hotel which charge people a 100 000 per night (!!!). That’s like 70 euros. This place is so beautifully located, I guess it makes sense.
We made friends with a guy named Win and he showed us around the village, and took us to the market and the hotel. He said that during high season the hotel is full. Here is a picture of the hotel and Win.

The hotel

Trash management

Win is a “special worker” as he called it. He and his team of special workers were in charge of trash management. He studies Social enterprise at the University in Bagan, and of course, we had to tell him about Precious Plastic , which is a social enterprise working with trash! He offered us to come with him one morning to see how the trash in handled in this rural area. He tries to make people at the monastery sort their trash and we talked a lot about trash management in Sweden and in other places. So one morning he brought us to the dump:

When it’s full, they burn it. Win as well as his friend were very sad that this was the way it had to be done, but there is no other trash management. I think he really liked the idea of Precious Plastic, and we asked him to keep it in mind for a project after he finish his university studies.

The hot springs

Nearby the monastery, where they get the spring water, there is hot springs. It’s too hot to swim in them at this time, but it’s still pretty cool. There are gases releasing up from the bottom, and I assume these gases makes the pools hot. Jolla took us there one day, through sun flower fields and the Hot Spring Village.

Jolla, me and August at the hot springs.

Around Inle lake there are several hot springs, but I feel like they are somehow wasted because it’s so damn hot here anyway. But there is great potential for the monastery in these pools, the hot water can be very useful, as well as the natural gas!

Morning prayer and meditation

The head monk wanted me and August to participate in the morning meditation in the pagoda. It starts at 5 am, and lasts for an hour. The students and the monks are chanting prayers, the monk speaking and the children answering. They are in perfect synchronisation. Girls and boys are separate, they use different doors to enter the pagoda. After the chanting, there is a perfect scilence from the humans (the pagoda is home to maybe 100 small birds that keeps chattering when the humans fall into scilence) and the meditation begins. The prayers are about the wellbeing of all beings, After meditation the chanting continues for another 10 minutes before some bowing before the Buddha, and then the children disperse. It was nice to listen to the chanting, it’s very meditative in its own way, and the accoustics in the pagoda aren’t too bad either. After meditation we had one hour before breakfast, perfect for yoga!

August at the dock

Loads of free time and Thingyan

This time of the year, the children have their summer holiday. No regular classes were held at the monastery, all the classes were voluntary, and there were only 500 kids when we arrived. The summer holiday ensd on the 18th, after the Water festival (Thingyan). Thingyan is celebrated as the Buddhist New Year and it’s called the water festival because the whole country is in engaged in a water war for the duration of the festival. It’s mostly a family holiday though, you have to pay respect to your elders etc. So this year, the festival is held between 13-17th April, resulting in children returning home for the holiday and thus every day there were less and less people at the monastery. So we had a lot of free time in the end, when they didn’t need our help as much. So we mostly sat reading in the shade. The lifestyle was slow for us, but somehow everyone else seemed so busy!

We didn’t pay anything for our 10 day stay at Payar Taung monastery.

Nyaung Shwe part 2

Jolla and his sister and my strawberry lassi at Star Flower restaurant

In the last post I wrote about Nyaung Shwe and Inle lake. In order to get to Yangon, we had to go back to Nyaung Shwe. This time me and August got to ride in the front seat of the car, so it was quite a pleasant ride back. Jolla and his sister were going the same day to Nyaung Shwe to go to Mandalay for the holiday, Jolla got to sit on the roof of the truck, because it was too full. We arrived at 9:30 am and our bus left at 5:30 pm so we spent the day wandering around in the small town. There is not much at all to do in Nyaung Shwe. We went into almost every pagoda, we even went to the Cultural Museum, not so impressive, but we killed a good 45 min there. We went to two restaurants (Star flower Restaurant comes out on top of my recommendations in Nyaung Shwe, they had an AMAZING strawberry lassi <3) and found an art gallery, apart from that we just walked. But it was fun spending some time in a different setting with Jolla, and his sister was great too! The last hour we found two ladies creating a local speciallity, they are called snap something, and are fried dough with chilli and tomatoes and onion inside:

Street food

We did get on that bus to Yangon, and from there, it’s all gone down hill, but that story I save for the next post.

Me and August at the hot spring

Lots of Love ❤
Linnea & August

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