As part of a pre-arranged tour from Mandalay we visited the Maha Ganayon Kyaung Monastery, which is one Myanmar’s most important monastic education centers. It was advertised to us that we were able to watch the monks have lunch at around 10.15. Watching monks each lunch?!? If this sounds a bit weird – let us tell you – it was a lot, lot weirder than we had anticipated. When we arrived it was immediately obvious something bizzare was going on. We encountered the scene below of tourists lining up to take photos:
This was definitely a first sign that things would get very, very bizzare. Especially because so far we had not really seen any Western tourists in the town of Mandalay at all. Well, then the monks came. It was a very neat (and obviously already many times performed) ceremony of walking towards the lunch area in orderly lines. It would have been a serene sight, had it not been for all the tourists snapping away on their cameras…! Hundreds and hundres of tourists were there, competing for who would lean forward the most, to take the better shot. We must admit that we also took some pictures (you get kind of caught up in the frenzy of it all). Still, we at least tried to keep a bit in the background and not get up in the monks faces. A group of Korean tourists were handing out sweets to the monks, especially the younger ones. When we asked why?, the lady next to us said: “To pay our respects”. In Korea they have no monks so they do not do this, just in Myanmar. Then she shoved some sweets into my hands and ushered me to do the same. The whole experience had just gotten more bizarre. The well-meaning Korean tourists continued to hand out their sweets to the stoney faced monks walking by. Monks generally can not refuse donations in Myanmar. After the monks had all reached the mess-hall some local kids and adults showed up begging for the rest of the sweets and some money. So this strange tourist practice has some unwanted side effects.
Overall, the weird feeling remained after the monks had gone to eat. One fellow blogger wrote about this: “It borders on the repulsive.” Well, we do agree… Unfortunately were were on an organized tour, so we had to rush on soon afterwards. It would have been really nice to stay longer and experience the place after all the tourists left. It seems to be a peaceful refuge the rest of the day.
Overall, our experience so far in Myanmar has been that the tourists who come, on balance, are a good thing for the country. They bring in a lot of money and (since the crowds are not massive) most areas are not really (yet?) affected in a negative way. However, it also seems that the mass tourism is contained to very few highlight areas and this monastery (at 10.15 in the morning) is a typical example for this. Below some more impressions…