By James Michael Dorsey
A pilgrimage gone wrong.
At first sight, the temple on the mountain seemed a folk tale come to life.
On my journey through Burma, the gleaming temple on the rock that guards Mount Popa had become my challenge, my grail, my pilgrimage, and there it towered above me like a finger of God pointing towards heaven.
Taung Kalat, the sacred monastery, is the jewel atop 777 stairs of a sheer tower of calcified magma that rises 2400 feet, the dramatic remains of a prehistoric eruption; topped by a golden temple. From afar it brings to mind a giant termite mound. The summit monastery was attended to solely by the Buddhist hermit monk U Khandi for a number of years, and is still watched over by a palace guard of sacred monkeys. It is also the ethereal abode of the 37 most powerful of Burmese Nats, the spirits of local Buddhism. In a religion dominated society it is a major point of pilgrimage and if any karma by association was available, Taung Kalat was the place to find it.
The single mud-lined street at its base was the village epicenter, whose stalls offered cheap plastic trinkets that clashed with the religious fervor of pilgrims on hands and knees. Many have crossed the country in this glacially slow fashion, arriving in torn rags but with flaming souls. Many will not stand fully upright until reaching the temple of Taung Kalat.
I removed my shoes and socks and bought an offering of burning sage for what I looked forward to as a day of spiritual renewal, hopefully with a pinch of enlightenment thrown in. I entered the line of faithful and had just taken the first step when the stench hit me, and looking at the towering staircase above, realized I was about to climb through 2000 feet of monkey poop.
It was everywhere, on the steps, the bannisters, the walls; impossible to go around. Apparently sacred monkeys don’t give a damn about hygiene and while it might sound strange to use both ubiquitous and poop in the same sentence, it is appropriate here. Fortunately, I could also see a vast fleet of tiny women all robed in what might be hazmat suits and all scrubbing like naval swabbies. Either way I had come in search of peace and knowledge and was not about to be defeated by mere feces. As I ascended the first few stairs, I was totally unprepared for one of the scrubbing women to thrust out her hand and demand money; after all, I had paid an entry fee with the implied caveat that it included a poop removal surcharge. But after each step another blue rubber glove shot out at me, all of which I declined until I felt and heard simultaneously the dull thud of a ball of monkey poop striking my posterior.
I wheeled around to confront whichever of the tiny rubber clad maidens had attacked me for failure to pay up and that is when I saw the first monkey. He was big and mean and had a Donald Trump scowl. He was also holding a fist-full of feces that he rolled around in his hands like a pitcher rubbing up a new ball. Just as he let fly in my direction I noticed eight or nine hundred of his compatriots had surrounded me. It did not help that the idiot climbing behind me had opened a large bag of hard candy and was dumping it on the ground so he could take photos of the swarming monkeys. You could hear his scream across the valley as they stripped his camera, watch, and ring; like sharks with blood in the water. I tucked my camera under my shirt, put my head down, and began climbing fast as I could go and thought I might be away from ground zero when the second ball of poop hit me.
Those monkeys were the most efficient crew of pirates I have ever encountered, and that includes the Gypsies of Rome. One had to marvel how they came at you in waves, one distracting you while the others swarm and relieve you of any possession that is not part of your anatomy and then trying to take some that are. They grabbed at my shirt buttons when I had nothing else to offer but I managed to keep my camera under my shirt. They use those same nimble fingers to hurl their feces with major league accuracy.
With aching knees and filthy feet I emerged from the endless stairs into a brilliant blue sky 2400 feet above where I started. My feet looked like they were encased in cement but the view in all directions defied words. I began to circle the summit walkway only to notice a distinct lack of monkeys, but that is when I saw the first monks.
They came out of the sun, silhouettes, like bandits in an aerial dogfight. Once again I could say ubiquitous as it sounds better here than it did with poop, because they were everywhere. That is not unusual in a Buddhist country, but these monks were not acting very monkly. There was no meditation or contemplation going on.
These were not your cloistered, chanting, alms begging monks; they were techno monks! Photo monks!
Everywhere I looked there were monks taking photos with I-phones, I-pads, and some even with actual cameras! They took pictures of each other that looked exactly the same! Those not taking photos were texting on their smart phones. Nor were they observing any vows of silence. In fact they were the noisiest people in the temple. It looked and sounded like a Silicon Valley toga party. For a country just emerging from four centuries behind the rest of the world, these guys were making up for lost time. I assumed they would not act this way at their own monastery and so they were visitors, monks on vacation as it were. Apparently I had discovered the spring break of monks.
No sooner had I stepped out onto a balcony than I was besieged by saffron robed, shaved-headed photophiles all toting selfie sticks. Now at that time, the ruling military junta of Burma had just begun to open the national doors to people like me and westerners were indeed an exotic rarity in remote places like Taung Kalat, but I quickly transcended rarity status to become an instant celebrity as dozens of monks and their families descended on me like a plague of wide angle locusts.
The monks, like the monkeys, came at me in waves, and so, for over an hour after I reached the summit I posed for and smiled at various electronic devices, arms around tiny people wearing orange sheets and wondering how they tell each other apart; still unable to savor the beauty of the temple insterior and certainly not achieving any peace or tranquility. There was also a touch of degradation as I was at least a foot taller than anyone who stood next to me that day making me feel like the extended middle finger of a fist.
Once inside, the interior of the temple was a curious blend of beautiful traditional statuary and painting, juxtaposed with gaudy Christmas tree lights and Las Vegas neon bling so often found in remote shrines. Haloes circled various Buddha heads, changing colors in clockwise direction, and flashing strings of lights illuminated every door frame and window. Elaborately clothed mannequins stand in for the ethereal Nats, their images emerging from piled offerings of food and money. To one unfamiliar with Southeast Asia, such scenes can project a carnival like atmosphere, but in fact, it is all done with purpose and deep reason. Sometimes the gaudiest is also the most fervent.
But even in this, the holiest of holies, there was no respite. Everyone wanted their photo with me and the nonstop flashes were blinding. I was feeling overwhelmed until the blonde walked in. She was tall and elegant as only a Scandinavian could be and her sudden presence stopped the monks in their barefoot tracks. There was an audible group sigh as she tossed her mane-like tresses in the wind and stood posed like a silhouette on a truckers’ mud flap. In the blink of an eye I was replaced by a Nordic goddess. She floated through the temple like a gazelle, smiling at one and all as dozens of tiny shaved heads swiveled at her passing. She was working the room as though it was a Vegas lounge and not a Buddhist temple. Suddenly, as if a silent whistle had been sounded, a massed throng of monks engulfed the young woman, solidly pinning her against a large smiling Buddha which made me wonder if he’d been smiling prior to that. Certainly by now, the sacred nats must have been smiling too.
A line was quickly formed and selfies were flying fast and furious. I took the lull in battle to stage my retreat. In my final look back I saw that perfect smiling face towering over a sea of shaved heads looking like a lawn statue surrounded by garden gnomes. It was unforgettable.
I was ready for the monkeys during my descent. I had picked up a discarded pair of rubber gloves on the way down; hygiene be damned, I then scooped up as much dung as I could hold and began to mold the perfect poop ball. I would not go quietly into the night. But while I was molding the poop in my hands it occurred to me that I had come to this place in search of peace and perhaps a little enlightenment and there I was preparing to do hand to hand combat with a monkey. I needed to rethink the moment.
Trump was there with his drooping leer when I arrived, projectile in hand, ready for launch. I looked him in the eye and that is something I have always been told never to do with a monkey. I dropped the dung ball and slowly raised my empty hands in surrender and he seemed to get it. He lowered his dung ball, not out of deference to me, but because he was suddenly distracted by an empty yogurt container blowing by in the wind. To him, even that was more interesting than I was at the moment, so suddenly no one wanted to take my photo and no monkey wanted to blast me with his poop. I had achieved insignificance and isn’t that the goal of a good Buddhist? Until that moment, I had always thought my great moment of enlightenment would be a bit more epic but you take what you can get.
I had gone to Taung Kalat in search of the spiritual and it was certainly there, just buried under several tons of dung. Most of the locals who live near the mountain spend their lives in service to Buddha as either a monk or nun and their culture was already ancient when mine was being born. Many of them have climbed the stairs for years, sometimes on hands and knees and all have offered prayers and entreaties to the 37 sacred Nats housed on the summit. My presence happened to be a rare and different distraction but it was never meant to disrupt.
While the monkeys seemed comical to me, to the local population, they are sacred. They are their own selves on a lower evolutionary plane and believe that climbing the stairs with them adds to the karma necessary to come back as a person in another life. When the monkeys act out it is the Nats using them to admonish the people for their various shortcomings. There are holy men within the temple who smear themselves with the dung both as a protection and a reminder that they are but equals with their simian cousins. Such is Buddhism.
Enlightenment does not come in a day or a month, or even a lifetime for most of us, and it is certainly not attainable simply by visiting places or people. I come to these places not expecting to find answers but because everyone there seems to have a slightly better handle on that aspect of life than I do and I’m hoping for just a little bit of that to come my way.
If it comes coated with monkey dung that is just fine with me.
James Michael Dorsey is an award-winning author, explorer, photographer, and lecturer who has traveled extensively in 47 countries. He has spent the past two decades visiting vanishing cultures. He is a former contributing editor at Transitions Abroad and frequent contributor to United Airlines and Perceptive Travel. He has also written for Colliers, Lonely Planet, The Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, BBC Wildlife, World & I, Wend, and Natural History. He is a foreign correspondent for Camerapix International, and a travel consultant to Brown & Hudson of London. His latest book, Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails, is available on all major bookseller websites. His stories have appeared in 13 travel anthologies. He is a 13-time Solas Award winner from Travelers’ Tales and a contributor to their Best Travel Writing, Volumes 10 and 11. He is a fellow of the Explorers’ Club and former director of the Adventurers’ Club.