Almost every backpacker you meet in Southeast Asia likes to say they want “local experiences” and “to hang out with locals” blah blah blahhhhh insert elephant pants here. It’s actually pretty difficult to really meet and hang out with local people in a non-artificial non-touristy setting when you’re backpacking.
Most experiences with locals are things like homestays and the like where you stay with locals(meaning you stay in a guesthouse attached to their home) and experience their cooking, but even that is packaged to make foreigners happy. The language barrier throws an additional curveball into really having local experiences, so you really have to make an effort if you want to get off-the-beaten path.
Hack – couchsurfing.com is a great way to stay with locals. It’s a website where you can either open your home to travelers or find someone willing to open their home to you. And it’s completely free, although the idea is that you’re doing it for the cultural exchange and not the savings. You create a profile, message back and forth, and find someone to stay with. It’s pretty cool; I’m planning on trying it in Delhi for sure, and maybe even once here in Vietnam before I leave.
My friend Steve is really good at doing just that. His lack of fear of social norms allows him to walk right up to people that speak 0 English and start a conversation. Because of this, he often gets to hang out with locals and see the real deal, camera in hand.
Steve was with me in Myanmar. One day while wandering around the streets of Bagan, he wandered into a monastery and made friends with a monk who wanted to practice his English. They became Facebook friends, and his monk friend invited all of us to come hang out the next day and have tea at the monastery.
You can do a “monk chat” in Chiang Mai, except it’s set up beforehand for you. It’s a way for tourists to get to talk to monks and a way for them to practice their English. It’s also easier than finding your own monk.
So of course, the next day Steve my co-teacher Calli & I awkwardly wandered into the monastery. Keep in mind that Myanmar has only been open to tourists since 2011, so us white people are still a novelty. The staring level was at 100.
We eventually found Steve’s monk friend, and ended up hanging around for a couple hours to have tea. The monk really wanted to practice his English, which was absolutely adorable. He had this little 1964 copy of “Learn to Speak English” that was all dog-eared and weather-beaten.
At first it was just him and us, but slowly a couple other monks crept in and joined us, clearly curious about the strange foreigners. It’s funny being in this position in a foreign country; because to us monks are the ones that seem exotic. But they were all beyond curious about what the hell we were doing there, and wanted to hear all about what we were doing and where we were from.
One older monk (who barely spoke English) even had me check over his English notes. They all thought that it was really important for them to learn English to keep up in this day and age. Their English was super basic, so they only were able to ask the basics like “where are you from” and “where are you traveling,” but one especially ambitious older monk showed me notecards in which he had translated some of his monk-teachings(better word?).
After chilling for a couple hours and drinking an absurd amount of tea(glad I can cross getting served tea by a Burmese monk off my bucket list), we had a small photoshoot and were on our way. It was funny – each of the monks wanted pictures with us to post on Facebook. They may be monks, but they all had their little smart phones out.
One even pushed another one out of the picture because he wanted a solo shot with us, which was absolutely hilarious. What do you learn when you travel? We’re all the same(same same but different for any Southeast Asia backpackers out there).
So there you have it. We spent a couple hours with monks, and learned that monks care about social media too.
And the adventure continues – our monk friend(dear lord I wish I could remember his name) set up Steve with his brother who is a monk in Varanasi, India; where we’re headed in a about a month. So hopefully we get to hang with him! Here are some other Myanmar monk pictures just for fun.