Sleepless In Shan State, Myanmar

We arrive at the monastery in the early evening, as the shadows lengthen and the heat of the day is about to disappear. I am so tired now that my knees are starting to wobble. The temperature is plummeting.

We’re hiking through the bucolic countryside of Shan State, from Kalaw to the shores of Inle lake, and tonight we are sleeping on a monastery floor. This is a teaching monastery where a few dozen kids (a.k.a. novice monks) live and get educated by the older monks.

Here’s what I learn about sleeping in a monastery in the hills.

  • Monastery buildings are built from wood – floor, walls, roof, and are raised up on stilts. Theres a lot of draughty gaps between boards, and it will get down to 6 ° tonight.
  • the monks hang sheets from the rafters to create separate sleeping spaces within the one large room, but we are all just metres from each other and every sound carries.
  • my bed roll is the thickness of a couple of sheets, with a sleeping bag and another sheet on top. It will feel like I am sleeping on a wooden floor (because I am)
  • tourism dollars have contributed to the building of a collection of quite new huts housing the squat toilets, down a path under the trees. It’s still a challenge , in the dark, to balance my light source while using them.
  • there is cold water available for a shower (of the tip the bucket over my head variety) but I choose to stay dirty and dry – I am going to be sleeping in today’s clothes and continuing the trek in them tomorrow so getting wet and cold for cleanliness seems superfluous.
  • lying on my bed roll and peeking under the sheet curtain to watch baby monks in their class is fun.
  • the monks evening prayer session is more singsong style than chanting.
  • young monks sing with enthusiasm and gusto, but not necessarily in tune. Get used to it, prayers go for a long time.
  • the easiest way to sit on the floor for dinner, when my hiking muscles are too tight to sit cross legged for long, and I need my arms free for eating, is to sit back-to-back with a friend, an easy way to prop each other up. I still need to make sure my feet are not pointing at Buddha.
  • a dinner of vege soup, rice and a fresh apple is a welcome diversion from evening prayers.
  • it will be lights (candles) out and everyone into bed before 8pm.
  • I will stay warm and cosy in my layers of clothing inside my sleeping bag, my angry birds hat from Kalaw market will also keep my head and ears warm overnight.
  • Floorboards are not a mattress. I am in deep discomfort all night (yes, I am a soft westerner who is used to a mattress, any mattress, please!). Moving is painful so I position myself as best I can on my left side, and then try unsuccessfully to doze off. After about an hour, the pressure points are burning so I gingerly roll over and repeat on my right side. I am so uncomfortable that getting up at 3am and heading out into the cold and dark to find the toilets seems like a substantial improvement.
  • I have never been happier to hear the monks’ prayers start up at 5am, out of tune or not – I can get up now! I discover that most of my fellow hikers also didn’t sleep, but everyone kept quiet as they didn’t want to wake anyone else – so we were all lying there awake all night!

After morning prayers, we hear the baby monks trying to recite the english alphabet as part of their lessons. We spontaneously start singing the alphabet back to them (while still wearing our silly market hats), and they burst out laughing at us, and then join us in a sing-a-long. All of a sudden sleeping on the floor is forgotten, we are having fun, making a small connection with our hosts, and it is all worth it after all.



The golden monastery perching on a pillar of rock

On any approach, Taung Kalat in Myanmar looks stunning. A monastery glowing with white and gold stupas, perched hundreds of metres above the ground on an astonishing column of sheer rock, is hard to miss.

The rock is an ancient volcanic plug, originally created by the huge volcano it sits next to, Mt Popa. There are reputedly 777 steps from the base of Taung Kalat to the monastery (which is still a working monastery) – the steps are mainly restored and in good condition, with a roof to protect from the sun, although at one point we go from steps to rusty vertical ladders bolted to the cliff face. The climb did not seem as strenuous as it sounds, probably due to the number of view stops on the switchback stairs on the way up, as well as shrines to the 37 Nats to visit, and stalls to buy offerings (and tourist tat). Nats are spirits or demi-gods dating from before the introduction of buddhism, but in Myanmar the two appear to happily co-exist, with shrines to Nats housed within buddhist temples and monasteries. The Nats all seem to have intriguing back stories – most became Nats after a gruesome and bloody death, and there’s usually a royal connection to the story as well, with the royals frequently being the dispenser of the gruesome and bloody death. The Nats, and worshipping on the top of Taung Kalat, have been part of Burmese life from before 1100AD.

I liked the description of one of the Nats, U Min Kyawzwa, who had died a bloody death, and was known for drinking, cock fighting and being a good horse rider – I could always spot him at the shrines because his image always carried a rooster (and usually alcohol as well) This lady sold flowers to leave on the shrine while asking for the protection of a Nat.

The steps to the top are also infested with Macaque monkeys, who are well skilled in grabbing things from tourists. The stalls at the bottom sell food to feed them with, but I am firmly in the club that sees them as potential rabies carriers, not cute little animals, so I’m definitely not going to invite them in for a feed. At certain points on the stairs, there are locals armed with slingshots, shooting stones at any that look like they are about to pounce on tourists.  I wanted to feel sorry for them but I was actually quite grateful to the slingshot men.

Staying overnight at the Mt Popa resort was a perfect way to see Taung Kalat silhouetted against the sunset at night, and turning slowly from gold to bright white in the sunrise the next morning. I’ve seen some bad reviews for this place but I liked my little teak bungalow with it’s big balcony, part way up the side of Mt Popa, and with views for miles over the valleys. The pool is not much use in December though as the water is ice cold, and although the days are sunny and warm, the nights are pleasantly chilly at this higher altitude – no need for aircon at this time of the year.