Published: May 2006
Kira Salak

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

I attended a shin-byu, the Theravada Buddhist equivalent of a Catholic confirmation or Jewish bar mitzvah. In a Buddhist temple, before a large crowd of family members, a monk shaved off the eyebrows and hair of two very young boys. The boys were then stripped naked and wrapped in the orange robes of a novice monk. Each was given an alms bowl with which to beg meals from the local community—their only permitted means of obtaining food. It was an exciting, but scary, moment for the boys, as they would be separated from their mothers and taken to the local monastery for a week to be taught Buddhist scriptures. But I was witnessing one of the most important events in Burmese life: the first introduction to the spiritual path.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

Shortly after I arrived in Myanmar, I visited the extraordinary Shwedagon Pagoda in the capital of Yangon. This is one of the largest and most impressive Buddhist temples in the world, its ancient stupa covered with many tons of pure gold. As I admired Shwedagon, a Buddhist monk sat beside me and began to ask me questions about my political beliefs regarding Myanmar and pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. It quickly became evident to me that this "monk" was undoubtedly a government spy or informer, and that I was being interrogated even as I tried to enjoy the country's spiritual beauty. This experience marked the first of many such unpleasant meetings with Myanmar's totalitarian regime.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

One evening, I parked my kayak on a small silt island and set up my tent to camp. Someone saw me across the channel, and pretty soon everyone in the village raced over in their teak boats to get a good look at me. Several shy girls sat nearby, studying me. They had never seen a Western woman before, so I asked them if there was anything they'd like to know about me. The girls conferred excitedly for several minutes; it was obviously an important opportunity they didn't want to squander. At last, one brave girl spoke up: "Are you a virgin?" she asked. I laughed and said "No comment," but that became the most popular question women asked me along the Irrawaddy. I never did figure out why.