I was astounded, and even a little amused, as the thought of Leonardo DiCaprio jumping through a hoop for a glass of whiskey brought a smile to my lips. "Whiskey?" I asked.
When asked which cat was the highest jumper, the monk's Buddhist nature became apparent. "They are equal," he said. "All of them can jump over 1 meter [3 1/4 feet]," he said, adding that his golden rule when asking the cats to perform is to be kind. If he senses a cat doesn't want to jump, he just chooses another. But it doesn't happen often, especially because all the cats living at the monastery are direct descendants of the original jumping cat.
The legend of the first jumping cat of Nga Phe Kyung was born about 22 years ago when a young monk was meditating and a cat came to curl up in his crossed legs. The monk tried to remain focused on his breathing, but his concentration was broken.
He opened his eyes and tried to make the cat move. No sooner did he do that than the cat jumped high in the air. The monk was taken aback, because he had never seen a cat jump as high.
The same thing happened the next day, and so it came to be that each time the monk meditated the cat would come and jump. As time passed, the monk and the cat became friends, and the monk began to encourage the cat to jump as high as it could, at first over his hands, then over bamboo sticks and, finally, through hoops.
Sometimes the cats still come to sit with the monks when they are meditating, U Nan Da said.
During the height of the tourist season, more than 200 tourists may pass through the monastery in a day. What do the monks think about the monastery becoming such a tourist attraction?
"We think it is nice," U Nan Da said, smiling. "We are happy to welcome so many visitors from different parts and foreign countries. Whoever visits the monastery is welcome. This is the Buddha's way — our way."
The love of the monks and the people of Myanmar for cats may be linked to their Buddhist belief, which teaches people to be kind to all sentient beings. In this part of the world, Buddha's teachings are truly alive.
Besides, he explained, meditation and the monks' other spiritual practices take place in the early morning or late at night, when it is quiet and there are no tourists around.
Boatloads of tourists
Perhaps the monk's soft words of welcome were carried on the lake's gentle breeze, because the first tourist boat of the day arrived carrying residents of the well-known northern city of Mandalay.
I moved into the background to watch as the show began. Michael Jackson, a thin but very agile cat, made a spectacular jump, and the crowd went wild.
He was rewarded with a little food, but he was not quick enough, and the biggest of all the cats got there first. Michael challenged him, but he was no match for Arnold Schwarzenegger, who nonchalantly ignored him, swaggered onto center stage and, to the crowd's delight, jumped powerfully through a hoop.
The monks believe the cats must have created good karma in their past lives to have the good fortune of living among them. It was easy to see why when U Nan Da slipped the sulking Jackson his just reward — some Whiskas.
As the sun climbed and others arrived, our longboat slipped away, and I left the monastery with a new reverence for the creative works of Madonna, Arnold, Leonardo and company.
From LAX, Thai, EVA and Singapore have connecting service (with change of plane) to Yangon. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,530.
From Yangon to Heho, the closest airport to Inle Lake, Air Mandalay and Yangon Airways fly twice daily for about $130 round-trip. Heho is about 25 miles from Nyaungshwe, the tourist town on the northern end of Inle Lake. A taxi ride from Heho to Nyaungshwe costs $6-$10.
Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery sits on stilts in the middle of Inle Lake. Entrance is free, but donations are welcome. The best way to see the monastery is on a longboat tour (which can be arranged through most hotels or guesthouses in Nyaungshwe). Most daylong tours of the lake include a stop at the monastery, which is open to the public from sunrise to sunset. It has no phone or website.
TO LEARN MORE:
Embassy of Myanmar, (202) 332-9045, http://www.mewashingtondc.com .
— Terrence Moore