There is nothing small about this place. Not-so-discreatly hidden in an otherwise quite strip of jungle in southern Myanmar, the Ko Yin Lay temple and monastery looks out over a forested landscape. Historically these forests have been home to wildlife such as elephants, leopards, & tigers, and gazing upon this landscape makes it easy to imagine the Jungle Book like assortment of megafauna roaming freely.
Much of the forest of southern Myanmar has been lost to palm oil and rubber plantations, but as you look down over the shoulder of an 9 story tall Buddha, all you can see is an ocean of green past the gates of this gilded compound.
Ko Yin Lay is not your typical Buddhist monastery. What the complex lacks in history (the monastery is barely 2 decades old), it makes up for by being a curiosity of opulence and misplaced grandeur. Four enormous sitting Buddha’s guard the cardinal directions of a towering building, in which each floor is a similar scene of Buddhas caked in gold.
An oversized reclining Buddha is under construction by workers balancing atop precarious bamboo scaffolding – a job which can only be described as a high stakes game of Jenga.
Ko Yin Lay is not exactly off the beaten path…but it’s not exactly on it yet either. Just 10km north of the town of Ye, in the southern reaches on Mon State – Ko Yin Lay is still a good jump to the south of the well-traveled ‘Golden Triangle’. While there is much to explore in town, Ko Yin Lay is the only widely talked about tourist destination in Ye. Just out of reach of the more modern tourist busses, Ye hosts a modest but steadily growing number of travellers.
Known locally as ‘banana mountain’, Ko Yin Lay is run by a relatively young head monk (in his mid 40’s), whose rule over the complex lies somewhere between that of a revered religious leader and that of a spoiled king. The daily activities of the complex, are run by an exceptionally hard-working group of nuns and monks, who cook all meals for residents and guests alike, teach school to a not-so-small herd of children living on the monastery grounds, and organise daily religious activities. On the daily to-do list of one nun, whose deeply creased wrinkles tell stories of her 80 plus years on the planet, is the task of hand rolling 50 cigarettes a day for the head monk.
As we explore the monastery grounds, our interest gravitates to the areas where the work of daily life occurs. After wandering into a kitchen with Sam (the fantastic local guide and translator whom we hired for the day), we begin to talk with two nuns preparing a meal. As we discuss (with Sam’s help) the beautiful vegetarian lunch the women are preparing, a large tortoise slowly makes his appearance from underneath a shelf. “A pet?” we ask. The nuns roll their eyes and smile at the tortoise who is now meandering around the floor. We are told the nuns have more ‘pets’ than they have time for.
There are a wide variety of views on vegetarianism among different schools of Buddhist thought. Some practitioners are strictly vegetarian, some include fish in their diet, and others will partake in eating a wide variety of meat so long as it was not killed on behalf of the eater. In southern Myanmar, Buddhist monks and nuns are known to be more strictly vegetarian, and attached to that is the perception that monasteries and temples provide a safe haven for animals. The nuns at Ko Yin Lay explain to us that people from the surrounding towns and villages, frequently visit the monastery to drop off injured wildlife as well as no longer wanted domestic animals.
We ask to see the other animals that reside here, and are taken on a tour of the complexes somewhat hidden menagerie. The nuns and monks do not turn any animal away, although that decision seems to add significant burden to their already full daily work load. There is a lack of monetary resources dedicated to these animals (the head monk would rather spend the donations expanding his kingdom) and the nuns and monks must make do with what they have.
Despite what can look like less-than-ideal animal living conditions to western eyes, the nuns and monks put a great deal of energy into the care of these animals. There are birds, deer, monkeys, and a number of other animals of whom the nuns must care for. Much of the time, the animals are fed the excess from the meals the nuns prepare for human visitors…which for the most part works well enough.
“Do you want to see their new tigers?” Sam asks us. “Umm…yes please.” We are quick to answer. In this part of the world, any wild cat tends to be referred to as a tiger, so we are very curious about what sort of ‘tigers’ these might be…
As we peek through the door of a small homemade cage, we can see three pairs of groggy blue eyes staring back out at us. The scruffy kittens are tiny and speckled, with distinct black vertical striping on their foreheads. These are leopard cat kittens.
Leopard cats are small jungle cats, which are widely distributed in the forests of southern and eastern Asia. The size of a domestic cat, these leopard cats are the wild ancestors of the domestic Bengal cat. They are threatened in the wild by habitat loss and hunting (for fur), and although the leopard cat is considered by the IUCN to be a species of least concern, some regional populations are listed as critically endangered. Leopard cats can still be found throughout the forests in much of Myanmar, but are mostly nocturnal and rarely seen in the wild.
‘’The mother cat was shot and a man brought the kittens here a couple days ago. Now they don’t want to eat. She is very worried.’’ Sam translates for one of the nuns who looks on with sincere concern in her eyes.
Food scraps are scattered throughout the handmade cage, but the somewhat lethargic kittens don’t seem to be very interested in it. Therein lies the challenge…even good little Buddhist cats want some meat every now and then. It seems a diet of boiled vegetables, plantains, and rice isn’t gonna cut it. And just like that, we’ve extended our stay in Ye…
Early the next day, we find ourselves searching the backroads of town for supplies. Small stalls line many of the streets of Ye, offering goods ranging from auto-parts to kids toys. It takes a few stops, but with Sams help we find most of what we need and some improvised solutions. After buying up all of the infant nasal aspirators in town (yep…we are those kind of tourists), we head out of town on a dusty road to Ko Yin Lay.
After greeting the nuns, we make a plan with Sam, the nuns, and a monk who clearly has a soft spot for the kitties. Our first goal is to get the kittens to eat. We mix up some infant formula purchased in town, along with some raw eggs (this is an acceptable protein source since no animals were killed to collect the eggs), and a little vegetable oil to try to ensure we don’t end up with uncomfortable constipated little kittens. The infant nasal aspirators make for appropriate sized bottles for tiny mouths.
The next step is a bath, in lieu of their mothers grooming. Benign looking little kittens as they may be, those claws are sharper than they look and attached to wild little paws, so we purchased bike gloves in the market for this first grooming. After the first few feeding/grooming sessions, the kittens seem to understand the program and have kindly tucked their fearsome little claws away.
By midday we are told that we must visit the head monk to ask permission to be here and help with the ‘his tigers’ (which he has apparently never seen). The old nun pauses from rolling cigarettes, to assure us that this is only a formality. She says that she wants us to help them figure out what to do with these kittens and with a wry smile she tells Sam that she is the real boss here. With that we head off across the compound with Sam to see the head monk.
We find the head monk sitting on a dark wooden chair with a heavy patina on the arms, at the back of a dusty room which has been jam packed with ornaments of various varieties. At his feet rests an enormous pile of money (Myanmar kyat), various gold leaf covered trinkets, flowers, a largely empty bottle of what looks to be rum, and roughly a dozen kneeling people fanning themselves in the nearly 100 degree heat. The others are also here seeking the head monks permission or blessing. We are told that we must crawl into the room on our hands and knees so that our heads stay below that of the head monk. Our priorities lie with the kittens and nuns working with them, so we dutifully oblige. Sam does all of the talking and we understand very little other than the fact that our interest in the kittens is comically entertaining to the others waiting in the room.
After crawling backwards out of the room, Sam informs us that the head monk will have too ‘think about it’. Upon returning to the kittens and relaying his response, the old nun scoffs. “She says she is the boss and she will handle the monk. Back to work!” Sam says with a laugh. Everyone in the room is giggling as the old nun returns to rolling cigarettes with a feisty and slightly humored look on her face. It’s obvious she has earned the respect of the other nuns and monks and she delights in it.
The process of feeding/grooming is repeated at regular intervals for the next few days. Kids living at the monastery are very interested to help, which somewhat relieves the workload on the nuns who have far more on their plates than caring for the kittens. One particular monk, who is deeply caring and fantastic with animals, begins spending more and more time with the kittens. It is clear he is the one that will be taking charge of their care, and they will be in as good of hands as little orphaned leopard cate kittens in southern Myanmar possibly could be.
One of the kittens is far weaker than the others. This little runt would have naturally had a reduced chance of surviving in the wild with mom, and is at an even bigger disadvantage now. The monk who has become the ‘kitty whisperer’, shows extra care and attention to the little runt, tucking her in with a softly chanted prayer after every grooming. Sadly, three weeks after we leave, this little kitty doesn’t survive (the other two do), but she does manage to bring out the best in the people around her – something that will surely be a benefit to the other animals here in the future.
After working with the nuns, monk, and Sam to come up with a long-term plan for feeding the kittens (yay for eggs!), and eventually releasing them back into the forest far from human development, we finally decided to move on from Ye with mixed emotions. Our time with the leopard cat kittens has been unexpectedly sweet. We have bonded with the little critters and their care takers making good-byes bitter sweet, but it is time to move on and leave these animals in the hands of those trying so hard to give them as good a life as they possibly can…