To say Buddhism is ‘big in Myanmar’ is like saying pasta is popular in Italy.
With over 90% of the population subscribing to this religion, it’s no wonder there are Buddhist shrines everywhere you turn, and that the monastic lifestyle is such a significant part of the culture – so significant, in fact, that every boy is obliged to spend some time in his youth as a novice monk.
Not surprisingly, the pomp and circumstance surrounding this ‘Shin Pyu” (ordination) ceremony of these novices is steeped in traditional rituals and symbols and is an extremely important and proud day for every Myanmar family.
Ordinations in Myanmar are a BIG deal for the whole family
So never in a million years would I have imagined Henk and I being a part of something this personal – until we found ourselves invited by our guide, Zaw Zaw, to his son’s ordination! Needless to say, we were thrilled to accept.
First a little background: life as a novice monk is not exactly summer camp. The boys sleep in dormitories, wake up at the crack of dawn, study a lot and follow strict rules that encourage discipline and obedience. They are allowed only two meals, breakfast and lunch, and the only food they eat is what is donated to them by the community. Which is why every monk, novice or otherwise, has an alms bowl which he uses to go out and collect food every morning, every day.
The community is generous, of course, as this is part of Buddhist culture, and in some large monastic centres, it is quite an honour for families to provide these donations, and the mealtime occasion when they offer this food becomes a huge deal.
It’s not all sacrifice, though, and the young novices aren’t required to give up all the fun of being a kid. Which is why you’ll still see novice monks playing football, or joking around with each other, waving and smiling to visitors, even learning to ride a bike (that is waaay to big for him!)
Still, not all little boys, especially the younger ones, are super-excited about the idea of going to ‘monastery camp’, even if it may only be for a week (the minimum amount of time required). When we met Zaw Zaw, our guide in Bagan, he told us that March was a good time to visit Myanmar since the kids were out of school, and many families chose this time for their boys to become novices; in fact, his son was having his ordination ceremony on one of the 5 days we were in the area, and Zaw Zaw was really excited to invite Henk and I. On the day of the ordination, you’ve never seen a happier or prouder set of parents.
Their son, on the other hand, was not looking so happy. Whether it was apprehension about having his head shaved or the idea of being away from home for the first time, no amount of royal regalia could put a smile on his face! He had been lobbying his parents for weeks that his stay at the monastery would be ‘just for one week, right?’ and even the pageantry of the big day didn’t seem to cheer him up.
From our perspective, that pageantry was a feast for the eyes (and later our stomachs).
Since the ordination of each boy is meant to be a re-enactment of the initiation of Prince Rahula (Buddha’s son), each novice is dressed like a prince himself, and depending on the wealth of the family, rides an elaborately decorated oxcart, horse, or even an elephant (which even for the wealthiest in Myanmar would cost a king’s ransom of about $10,000!)
Parents and close relatives lead the procession, dressed in their finest and carrying the eight items every novice monk will require, including the alms bowl, robe, sash, and a few toiletry items. Other family and friends carry golden umbrellas, goblets, flowers and food trays, meant to emulate the royal trappings of the prince’s household. The entire group proceeds either to the monastery or another venue where there will be music, food for all the guests, and where the boys will have their heads shaved by a senior monk, change into their maroon robes and officially become novice monks.
Henk and I were happy to be on the sidelines of the procession, but no sooner had we come within 50 feet of the ceremony tent than we were invited by several of the hosts to sit down and ‘eat, eat, eat!’ with the rest of the guests. Of course, we were honoured to be included, and were more than happy to oblige their generosity, and couldn’t thank our hosts enough as we were brought dish after dish of food.
Leaving Bagan later that day full of food and the warmth of the welcome we had received, Henk and I couldn’t stop talking about how lucky we had been for having met Zaw Zaw at a time when his family was celebrating such an important occasion. We kept asking ourselves “What were the chances of that happening?! And how much more authentic an experience could a traveller hope to have?”
Well, apparently lightning struck us twice, because a little later, after spending a week touring with Toe Toe our guide, and Po Po, our driver in Shan State, Po Po invited us to join another celebration, this time as guests of his wife’s family who were celebrating a nephew’s ordination! Tucking into another delicious meal courtesy of Po Po’s family, Henk and I could only chalk it up to good karma!
Coming back to Canada after three weeks as a first-time visitor to Myanmar, we couldn’t help but feel that our trip had exceeded our expectations in many ways, but especially because of the generosity and warmth of its people. But finding ourselves guests at two ordination ceremonies – that was truly extraordinary.
Guest Author Jane Canapini is the ‘Chief Experience Officer’ at GrownupTravels.com, a website offering inspiration and information for travellers 45+. She believes in the kind of travel where you bring home stories, not souvenirs, and she makes it her mission to find those experiences and share them with you.