Photo Essay: The Daily Life of Burmese Monks

Religion and religious practices are not something we often talk about on this blog. Max and I are both not religious, and despite our own beliefs (or lack thereof) we travel with an open mind, eager to learn about other cultures and traditions around the world. In some instances, religion is so deeply ingrained in the daily life of the society that not learning about it, would be a travel sin on its own. Our recent trip to Myanmar, or Burma as many still refer to it, was one of those instances.

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Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon. Myanmar
Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the most beautiful Buddhist temples in the world
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A large majority of the Burmese population (89%) are devout Buddhists, practicing the Theravāda branch of Buddhism. It is estimated that there are about 500,000 Buddhist monks in Myanmar, which is only 1% of the total population, a number that based on our observations seems to be largely understated.

Unlike other countries in SEA, where an opportunity to meet a monk is reserved only for temples and monasteries, monks in Myanmar seemed to be everywhere we went. Their life fascinated us, so we dedicated one of our afternoons in Yangon to visiting a Monastery where we got a chance to learn more about the Burmese Monks’ practices and traditions.

Buddhist Monastery in Yangon, Myanmar
Buddhist Monastery in Yangon, Myanmar

Uncovering the Truth About the Lives of Burmese Monks

We learned that every Buddhist man in Myanmar is expected to serve as a monk twice in his life: once as a novice monk, sometime between the age of 10 and 20, and then again as an ordained monk, anytime after they turn 20. Some serve as a monk for just a few weeks, while others remain dedicated to the monk lifestyle forever. It’s not uncommon for boys, particularly in smaller towns and poorer communities, to spend their childhood years serving as monks, as living in a monastery means free education, free food, and free accommodation. 

Novice Burmese monks at the monastery. Myanmar
Novice monks often spend their entire childhood living at the same monastery alongside other monks who act not only as their best friends but as their secondary family.
Burmese monk crossing the train tracks. Myanmar
Some monks never return to ordinary life and dedicate their lifetime to practicing Buddhism and studying the teaching of Buddha
Novice Burmese monk enjoying the company of a dog in a monastery in Myanmar
There are a lot of beautiful monasteries across Myanmar, many offer a wonderful environment for young monks to develop and thrive in society

While serving, Burmese monks live in a monastery, sharing living quarters with other novice and ordained monks. 

Typical Burmese monk living quarters of a monk in a monastery in Yangon. Myanmar
While modest, the living quarters at the monastery are provided to all monks free of charge.
Older Burmese monk inside his living quarters in a monastery in Yangon. Myanmar
Living quarters at the monastery are shared with monks of all ages
Burmese monk collecting offerings from the local people outside of the monastery in Myanmar.
Collecting offerings from the local people is known as the act of “dana” or giving, an important aspect of the Buddism teaching
Young monk taking a math lesson at a monastery in Yangon. Myanmar
Free education is one of the reasons why some young monks spend their entire childhood serving as monks

When they are not praying, studying, or collecting offerings, a monk’s life doesn’t seem very different from the ordinary. Young novices are allowed to play football, watch TV, and have fun outside, just like any other boy their age would.

Novice Burmese monk in Myanmar
Burmese novice monks are really just kids at heart
Novice monk hugs his baby sister in Myanmar.
When they are not performing their duties at the monastery, novice monks are free to visit their families and go in and out of the monastery as they please

Monks are frequently spotted on the streets, seamlessly blending in with the day to day life of cities large and small.

Novice Burmese monk walking down the street in village in Myanmar
Young monks can be spotted everywhere across the country, from the dirt roads of remote hill-tribe villages to the busy streets of Yangon
Burmese Monks of the streets of Yangon. Myanmar
While monks are often seen on the streets in Myanmar cities, the Burmese look up at them, often referring to them as the sons of the Buddha
Young Burmese monks making their way across Inle Lake, Myanmar
Monks use all the same methods of transportation to make their way around the country as all other Burmese
Burmese nun looking into the water. Myanmar
Burgundy is not the only colour worn by practicing Buddhists in Myanmar. The popularity of Buddhist nuns in Myanmar ( who can be identified by their pink coloured robes) is on the rise with many women aged from 9 to 94 choosing to join Nunery Schools across the country for a variety of reasons, ranging from poverty to domestic abuse

Many of the Burmese monks that we came across on our travels through Myanmar were happy to chat with us about their lives, answer our questions, and many were curious to learn more about our home country, Canada, and the rest of the world we’ve seen on our travels.

Burmese monks chatting with us about life in Canada. Myanmar
These monks were just as curious about our former lives in Canada as we were about their lives in Myanmar

Our interaction with the Burmese monks was one of the highlights of our time in Myanmar and one that we would certainly recommend to anyone visiting Myanmar. If you a looking for a place to start, head to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon where you are bound to find many young monks looking to practice their English skills with curious tourists.

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monks life

Have you ever had a chance to chat with a monk during your travels?

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