Standing in front of Il Ni Malaa, the head monk of a monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar, I felt like I was in a movie. As our translator controlled the dips and flows of our conversation, we sipped tea and ate bananas and it began to sink in that my chance meeting with a monastery worker had led me to this most unique position.
About 24 hours earlier I had arrived in Myanmar very tired from a long layover in Bangkok. I found a $5 room in the downtown area, got myself together, and headed out to explore this mysterious country. What causes this mystery is the relative lack of tourism based on the government’s oppressive regime. The U.S. and other countries have imposed numerous economic sanctions on Myanmar, and this, along with the government’s tactics, has led to few ways for the Burmese people to interact and learn about the rest of the world. Besides not knowing anyone personally who has been here, I had not done much research on the country myself so I really had no idea what to expect.
I spent the first day walking around seeing the main sights and pagodas of the city, and the true spirit of the Burmese people came out immediately. As it got dark, I asked a boy of about 19 for directions to the area in which I was staying. He pointed in the correct direction and offered to walk me there. I resisted the offer as I knew it was pretty far but he insisted. We walked for about ten minutes and as he started to get a better sense of how far it was, he asked a cab driver who was standing idle to give us a lift. While I would have preferred to walk, he convinced me to get in the cab. In the cab we chatted and I had the cab driver tell me in broken English that I look like Wayne Rooney (I really can’t shake this association… it’s getting upsetting). As we approached my hotel, I went to hand the driver money but my companion adamantly refused to let me pay. After escorting me all the way back to my hotel, he was now paying for the cab and then had to walk another 20 minutes to his home. I was flabbergasted at his kindness. He explained to me that while he was traveling in Japan, so many people had gone out of their way to help him that he had to somehow pay the kindness back, and what better way than to help foreign travelers visiting his hometown of Yangon. I understood him completely, and I will always remember this experience and hope to be able to “pay it forward” to some traveler in my home country one day in the near future.
I started the following day by walking for an hour to see some famous Buddhist shrines. I hopped into my third and final one for the day and was approached by a kind looking older man who explained the history of the building and the belief system of his religion. As we continued to converse, he explained to me that he lived in a nearby monastery and would love to show me the grounds. While I was a little reluctant to follow him through narrow alleyways and unchartered territory, I accepted his offer. He gave me a quick tour of the area of the monastery, which houses 600 monks. We eventually entered the main building where I was greeted by a number of monks who smiled and talked to me in a language that I had no chance of deciphering. I drank some tea and chatted with them through my guide, who spoke English pretty well. They explained that they were building an addition to the monastery and showed me the blueprints as I took a look out the window to see many people hard at work on the construction. As I didn’t have plans for the following day, I offered to come help them build, which they happily agreed to.
I hopped on the public bus in the morning with my gameface on, ready to get down and dirty to build the new monastery. But when I arrived, I realized that my new friends did not have much intention of letting me help them. I was met by my guide from the previous day, who on the orders of the high monk Il Ni Malaa, immediately whisked me off to see another famous temple. This took a considerable amount of time, and as we got back to the monastery in the late afternoon, I knew my chances of helping out with the construction were pretty slim. As soon as I entered, I was notified that Il Ni Malaa wanted to speak with me. As I headed upstairs and walked towards him, I didn’t know whether to bow, kneel at his feet, or give him a handshake, so I think I did some weird little dance that was a mix of all three. I sat in front of him as his helpers, all young women in their late teens and early twenties brought me tea, golden bananas (which are slightly different than regular bananas), and peanuts. We spoke about my experiences in Myanmar, my family life, where he had traveled and the basic tenets of Buddhism. While we conversed, he mentioned that one of his helpers was single and thought I was handsome, and that maybe I could stay around Yangon for a few extra days to spend time with her. He said this while she was five feet away from me, which made the both of us blush. Never in my life did I think I would have a high monk trying to set me up with one of his Burmese helpers! While she was a very pretty girl, I didn’t really see a future for us, so I explained that I needed to head off to see the rest of Myanmar the following day. Il Ni Malaa implored me to stay at the monastery on my return to Yangon prior to my flight. He offered to make me a ring for me to protect me on my travels. When I return to Yangon I hope to receive it, but have absolutely no idea what to give in return. Luckily, I have some time to think about it.
My first two days in Myanmar were not what I expected… they were so much more. The sights have been great, but it’s the people that have made these first two days some of my most memorable out of all of my travels. I only hope to one day be able to pay back both my friend who escorted me home, and all of the monks and helpers at the monastery who treated me with so much love.
 For those who aren’t familiar with the country, Myanmar used to be called Burma, but in 1989 the government changed the name along with the names of many cities that were inspired by the British, as England ruled the country in the early 20th century.