Almsgiving ceremony and the monks of Mandalay
Mandalay was our first stop in Myanmar and the first thing we noticed was the large number of monks of all ages everywhere.
Even at the gate of Bangkok’s Don Muang airport waiting for our flight to Mandalay, we noticed numerous monks in their distinct red robes waiting to board.
Almsgiving in Mandalay
In Mandalay we stayed at the excellent Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse. Every morning, we noticed the charismatic mama of the guesthouse, Nan Mwe, offering food to a group of young monks knocking on the door.
We followed the monks and noticed they walk the streets (barefoot) with their small pots (“almsbowls”) stopping at every other house, knocking on the door and being offered food.
We learnt this is common practice all around Myanmar, called “almsgiving”.
Almsgiving is not begging or charity, but more about the respect given to a Buddhist monk (or nun) by everyday folk.
At one point we noticed people queuing on the pavements (with their food offerings to hand) waiting for the group of monks to walk past to accept their offerings.
(At this point we were desperate to insert an ‘OMG we just HAVE to try to become monks JUST to get loads of delicious Burmese curries every day for FREE!” joke, but thought best not to out of respect!)
Chatting with a monk on Mandalay Hill
Our favourite site in Mandalay was the mini trek up to Mandalay Hill (230 metres high) at sunset. A group of large monks gather at the bottom and walk up and chat with the tourists to practice their English.
We hiked up with a friendly young monk called Dhamma, who also taught us a bit more about the life of a monk and a bit about the monks of Mandalay.
Dhamma told us about his daily routine involving a lot of meditation, praying and following rituals such as the morning almsgiving. Meals are limited to breakfast and lunch and you usually walk barefoot everywhere and wear those beautiful red robes.
Myanmar is one of the world’s most religious Buddhist countries in terms of proportions of monks in the population and proportion of income spent on religion. Buddhism is practiced by 89% of Myanmar’s population and has around 500,000 monks (Myanmar’s population is 53.4 million). There are also 75,000 nuns.
Dhamma also explained that in Myanmar it is important for parents to ensure their sons are admitted to the Buddhist “Sangha” (the Buddhist monastic community) before they reach 20 for their “shinbyu” ceremony (similar to a “bar mitzvah” for Jewish teenage boys or “Communion” for young Catholic boy).
The ‘shinbyu’ ceremony happens after the boys complete their stay at a monastery where they learn the teachings of the Buddha. It is considered a really sacred and religious gift a parent can give to their son.
Monks became a common theme throughout our stay in Myanmar after Mandalay and we noticed them everywhere as we travelled on to Bagan, Kalaw, Inle Lake and Yangon.