Myanmar. Rich in culture and, understandably, becoming an emerging tourist destination. Its name inspires visions of beautiful lakes, scenic mountains and numerous pagodas and temples. Nestled within a peaceful 500-acre area of land approximately 200 miles south of this beautiful country’s capital, Yangon, is the Pa Auk Forest Monastery, intended for practice of Samatha and Vipassana meditation. The monastery is home to more than 1,000 monks and nuns, along with yogis traveling to seek a retreat and a taste of the monastic lifestyle, relying wholly on donations and voluntary support.
For five days and four nights I, along with 30 like-minded eye care professionals, members from the Singapore Lions Millennium club and other local volunteers, joined together for what would be the second annual eye screening at the monastery, administering check-ups for the monks, yogis and villagers.
Travel from Singapore to Yangon to Mawlamyine
We all assembled at Changi airport and, after dividing up and rearranging our luggage to properly allow room for our various ophthalmic and medical equipment, vision charts and eye drops, along with the many, many eye glasses, we boarded our flight. Three hours of smooth flying later, we arrived in Yangon. SIM cards purchased and currency exchanged, we met our travel agent and jumped on our bus for the eight-hour journey to the monastery.
We soon arrived at an underprivileged village school. In Singapore many of us collected money and items to donate to the children and young volunteer teachers. At the school we formed an assembly line to provide the students with new backpacks to fill with their new donated goodies. The local monk at the school thanked us and we were on our way; however, not long after, we were welcomed by the family of the principal monk who offered us homecooked mohinga. Mohinga is considered Myanmar’s national dish with a preparation time up to seven hours. This traditional breakfast is a lemongrass and fish soup and can be served over rice noodles.
With full bellies, we continued our journey and arrived at the Pa Auk Forest Monastery where we set up our stations for tomorrow’s long day of vision screenings. A quick check-in at NgweMoe Hotel and we were off to bed for some much-needed sleep.
Eye Checks for Male Monks
The 5:30am wake-up call came earlier than expected, but our lovely hotel hosts were ready to provide us with a local and western breakfast buffet. As a group, we shuttled on the bus and made our way to the monastery to begin our vision screenings for the male monks. In an orderly line, they were greeted by volunteers and a local Myanmar general practitioner at the first station who gathered general health information and blood pressure readings to add to their exam sheets. At the next station the monks took a base line acuity for distance vision, followed by near vision. The optometrists amongst us used this information to provide refractions using their loose trial lenses to determine a specific eyeglass prescription for each monk.
Our dispensing stations were kept busy while they assembled and handed out the specified near and distance glasses. Essilor Vision Foundation donated Ready2Clip glasses which allowed us to dispense on the spot by quickly popping in a specific lens. The last station provided eye drops, referrals and an option to order a more customized eyeglass, which was also sponsored by Essilor Vision Foundation. Any referrals were sent to a local doctor for those needing extensive care, follow ups, or surgeries, all of which were funded by the S$10,000 worth of donations. After a seafood lunch and discussion of the morning flow we continue working until dinner, before retiring to bed.
Eye Checks for Female Nuns, Yogis and Villagers
We woke up early, ready for another successful day of eye screenings. Greeted by lines of smiling patients, we slipped off our sandals and walked barefoot to our stations. Based on appearance, the nuns were easily distinguished from the usual shorter-term yogis. The nuns, like the monks, have shaved heads and wear a long robe of one color, whereas the yogis may wear a slightly different style robe and, typically, their hair remains. The local villagers in their everyday apparel continued to spoil us by graciously serving tea and fruit throughout the day, in spite of the generous lunch – we did not go hungry!
After seeing 900 patients over the two days, we concluded our mission. Fifty patients will be receiving highly customized lenses and 100 will be seeking additional care including follow ups, ocular disease evaluations and surgeries, none of which would happen without our wonderful volunteers and sponsors. Tired and, believe it or not, hungry we discussed and pondered over our experience at the monastery over our final dinner.
Breakfast Dana and Touring Yangon
Another early rise, our morning began at 4am for us to serve breakfast Dana to the monks. During their stay at the monastery, they only eat two meals a day; breakfast and lunch. With volunteers in their aprons and hair nets and monks in a single line with their alms bowls, early morning breakfast was served to them – both meal times are spiritual and formal processes. Following breakfast was a robe offering ceremony to the principal monk, whereby a donation of cloth was made, and finally we said our goodbyes. Our group loaded up in the bus for our drive back to Yangon where we had the choice of a visiting a sapel, a traditional Burmese spa, or shopping at the Bogyoke market where thanaka could be purchased. Thanaka is the yellow paste seen on many of the individuals of Myanmar. It is a traditional face cream made from ground bark applied to the face to give UV protection, moisturize and prevent acne.
Our next stop was the beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda. This 2,500 year old stupa stands close to 110 meters tall and is encrusted with 4,531 diamonds, the largest of which is 72 carats. Before heading to the Summit Parkview Hotel, we made one last stop for dinner and a cultural show at the Karaweik Palace. This golden floating palace sits on a barge of the beautiful Kandawgyi Lake.
Travel from Yangon to Singapore
The morning of day five was our last breakfast as a large group. Now as close friends, we took our wonderful memories of service and the rich culture of Myanmar and made our way to Yangon airport to catch our flight back to Singapore.
3:30am Wake Up
4-5:30am Morning Chanting and Group Sitting
7-9am Group Sitting Meditation
1-2:30pm Group Sitting Meditation
3:30-5pm Group Sitting Meditation
7:30-9pm Evening Chanting and Group Meditation