Palaik Monastic School on the Road to Mandalay

While on the road to historic Mandalay I stopped by a monastic school in Palaik village. These public monastic schools run on donations from the local community and provide education to the poorest families who cannot afford to send their kids to school. Myanmar has over 1,000 Buddhist monastic schools which educates over 100,000 students at any given time.

As I arrived at the school, the class was going through some lessons on the board. The school room was a single barn-like structure with a dirt floor and rickety wooden tables that the children barely fit in.

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On my travels through Myanmar I’ve been learning more about Buddhism, specifically the Four Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path (“The Path”). To put it very crudely: life is suffering and one can end suffering through an enlightened liberated state that can be reached by following The Path. What better place than a monastic school to follow The Path? Some of the tenants include:

Right View:

  • See the cause of suffering
  • Try to learn and see the big picture before acting

Right Mindfulness:

  • Be present and experience deeply
  • Have understanding and insight into the world around you
  • Relieve the suffering of others

Right Action

  • Be generous with time, energy, and resources
  • Help bring justice to the world

To that end, donating school supplies, spending time with the local children from the poorest families in Myanmar to learn from them, and sharing their stories and images here so others can learn and help as well seemed like a good place to start.

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The children were quite bored in class and the presence of a bearded man with a camera bearing school supplies got them all excited!

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This one girl was absolutely beautiful and tragic at the same time. There was a sadness about her that I can’t put into words, as if she was happy on the outside but deep down was on the verge of crying.

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This student was rocking his finest Spider Man shirt.

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Throwin’ the horns, this girl is so metal! This was actually a fairly common hand sign thrown by both the Burmese children AND the Indonesian children I met on my travels!

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This monk wasn’t scratching his head thoughtfully, many young monks seem to have major issues with dry scalp. I thought they were putting white dots in their head when I photographed some in detention in Yangon but when I looked closer here in Mandalay it looked like severe patchy dandruff. I could not find any articles about this online or many Burmese to discuss this with. It could still be some sort of head paint. If you know the story behind this, please let me know in the comments!

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A girl turns around to talk to a friend.

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This girl again, looking a bit more somber.

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My favorite little metal head joking around in front of the class.

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The little monk kept trying to get in the photos.

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Success – the monk got in front of everyone else.

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This girl again struggles for a smile but comes across with something far more complex and deep.

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Happy kid, not so happy teeth. I’m told that many parents in Myanmar let their children’s baby teeth rot out of their mouths because they are temporary anyways. I’ve heard this is also the case in China and other Asian countries.

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Naughty monk! This is what happens when you get in the way of his photo – a whack to the head.

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I had a chance to show some of the student’s photos to the (very stylish) monk master before heading out of the classroom to play with and photograph more kids.

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Lunch time! A close up on the spoon that the children were all using. Lunch seemed to consist largely of rice with some beans and vegetables.

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Smile for the camera!

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One child was at school in what appeared to be pajamas and had very little food to eat.

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Once the older girls saw my camera they were all eager to get a portrait.

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Another girl hopped in front of the camera and gave me an intense stare instead of a smile.

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The kids kept wanting to see their photos and at one point I got so overwhelmed by kids trying to climb up on me that I had to sit down to avoid falling over. They crowded further and further in until I couldn’t even see the camera screen myself…

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At that point I decided to stand up and show the children how to use the camera to browse photos. Here you can see the students looking at a photo of a monk.

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Good thing I had a second camera on hand… I wasn’t getting THAT camera back for at least 20 minutes.

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Some of the monks-in-training were playing football (soccer for us Americans) and one of the teams had an older monk in yellow who kept scoring goals in invisible goal posts that I couldn’t quite figure out. While I was showing photos to the students, one of the kids ran up and gave me the ball. Confused, he gestured that I should kick it to the other side. Perfect… I KNEW my 6 years as a defensive sweeper in my younger years would finally pay off! The monk in yellow got a terrified look on his face as I kicked the ball straight over the field and past the other goalie and the kids all cheered. I had inadvertently scored a goal from the opposing goal line! A bunch of the kids then ran up and rubbed the buddha belly on my shirt (and the buddha belly under my shirt)

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The kids then excitedly brought me into the game. While I may not be in prime shape and my fancy footwork was rusty, my legs were almost as long as their entire bodies which gave me surprising defensive capabilities against the ridiculously fast monks. To make things more fair I mostly stuck to defense and didn’t try to score any more goals, but once the other team realized they weren’t scoring any more they called in the pro. This red-robed monk seemed to be the oldest around and he was a fantastic football player. He definitely evened the odds but even the two older monks had trouble scoring against the big white bearded giant in their way. Below you can see one of the monks trying to get past me while the goalie watches excitedly behind me.

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After decided that I was skewing the daily football match too much and I saw that the students were mostly done looking through photos, I picked up my camera and got a photo of this student sharing corn with his friend. He had some painful facial scars below his eye and nose which are hard to see in this photo.

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Sadly, nobody was playing with this girl.

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A cute girl looks at me while her friend watches on from behind.

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After a few hours with the children they piled on me to look at more photos.

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As much as I wanted to stay longer and get to know them better, it was time to go and the kids ran after me and waves goodbye.

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Even as I was leaving the school grounds, a few of the girls called out to me and I turned around, smiled, waved, and took one parting photo.

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If you are traveling through Myanmar or anywhere else in Southeast Asia, it wouldn’t hurt to find a store and buy a big stack of books and pencils. Even on a backpackers budget they should be affordable and a little bit can go a really long way here. I made many friends here and I hope to one day come back. I just hope they don’t forget the bearded white guy with the buddha belly and the cameras 🙂