Not being keen on trying to navigate my way around Yangon on my own, I had arranged in advance to have a driver pick me up at my hotel and ferry me around to the places I most wanted to see. This turned out to be a fantastic idea, because Burmese traffic is absolutely terrifying. Our first stop is Chauktatgyi Paya, home of one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the country. Leaving my sandals (and driver) in the car, I enter a building that is little more than a metal roofed shack over the enormous golden statue. This is not a tourist destination, so all of the signs are in Burmese and all heads turn to stare at me when I enter. (Soon I will get used to this.) Hundreds of Burmese are kneeling on mats in front of the Buddha, and when a bell chimes 8:00, they all begin to bow and chant in unison.
“Hello!” comes a cheerful voice from my left. “Hello, you speak English?” This is July, a young Burmese former monk, looking very western in Levi jeans and a shaggy haircut. Anxious to practice his English, July spends a lot of time at the Paya and other religious sites, looking for the rare American visitor to interact with. He tells me he was a monk in the monastery behind Chauktatgyi for seven years, but left because he wanted to be part of the modern world, dress in western clothes, and, maybe, one day visit the United States. He knows all about California, Brooklyn, and Miami, and is very impressed that I live in Florida, near Mickey Mouse.
When he left the monastery, July could not find a job (there aren’t many jobs to be had) or afford to live on his own. Returning to his parents was out of the question- they were so ashamed of his having left the monastic life that they would not allow him to return home. I asked him how old he had been when he joined the monastery. “Fourteen,” he tells me. I am shocked that his parents sent their fourteen year old son off to live with strangers and wouldn’t take him back when he wanted to come home, and tell him so. He shrugs, clearly unbothered. “I knew they would probably not take me back, but I had to try. It is such an honor for a family to have a son become a monk, I shamed them by leaving. But I had to try to be myself.”
July had returned to the monastery and asked if he might continue to live there until he could find a way to support himself. The monks agreed, but said he must keep to their schedule: rise at 4:00 a.m., pray for one hour, eat at 5:00, no food after 12:00 noon, in bed at sunset. He had been keeping to this arrangement for two years. He takes me on an impromptu tour of the monastic complex behind the paya. There are many different monasteries jumbled together- the different races of Burmese people all have their own buildings within the complex and they do not mix. He shows me two monasteries that sit empty. “The monks who lived here were part of the group who supported The Lady.” (Aung San Suu Kyi, democratically elected political leader who had been under house arrest for 20 years.)
“200 of them disappeared and now their monastery is closed.” He asks me if I know about The Lady, and I tell him yes- I have read her books and am familiar with Burma’s political upheaval. He is happy that I refer to the country as Burma, not Myanmar, and that I am better informed than most English-speaking tourists he has met. July tells me that apart from practicing his English, he also likes to talk to American tourists to spread the word about what is happening in his country. “I wish more Americans would come here. You are the only people who can help us. We cannot help ourselves.” This is a theme I will encounter throughout my trip.
Back inside the Paya, a line has formed of women and girls passing buckets of water from a well. These are dumped on the floor in front of the giant Buddha and more women push the water around the dirty floor with long-handled mops. July says they do this all day, every day, as a way to obtain merit for their next life.