My mind was freshened by the cool January air as our longboat skimmed across the calm waters of the vast Inle Lake in the Shan state of northeastern Myanmar. The memory of the previous night's 16-hour bus journey from the capital city of Yangon was soothed away by my tranquil surroundings. High-forested hills, floating gardens, villages on stilts, wild lotus flowers and the fishing canoes of the native Intha people flowed silently by.
FOR THE RECORD:
Myanmar monastery —An article in Sunday's Travel section about the "jumping cats" monastery in Myanmar said Nyaungshwe was the closest town with an airport to Inle Lake. The airport closest to Inle Lake is in Heho; Nyaungshwe is the tourist town at the north end of the lake.
The Intha are known for the strange way they propel their small wooden fishing boats. The fisherman stands at the stern, balanced on one leg, and rows with the other leg by wrapping it around the oar, leaving both hands free to work the net.
Although this method of fishing is unusual and something to see, it's starting to be overshadowed by some unlikely local residents — Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Tina Turner, among others.
Our driver cut the longboat's engine, and we glided gracefully toward Nga Phe Kyaung, the abode of these local celebrities. Nga Phe Kyaung, an 18th century Buddhist monastery built from teakwood on stilts over the lake, is known more affectionately among its visitors as "the jumping cat monastery." For more than 20 years, the monks here have trained their cats to jump through hoops.
U Nan Da, a young Buddhist monk, met our boat. He led us inside the temple, where Chinese green tea, roasted barley and bananas are served to those who visit.
As I sat on the teakwood floor sipping tea, a feeling of peace prevailed. Beams of light streamed through the open windows, and the eyes of 64 golden Buddhas seemed to watch me from every angle. I sensed another pair of eyes, those of a curious cat, but when I turned to look, it had disappeared.
"That's James Bond," the monk said.
I laughed, but he assured me he wasn't joking.
"He is a very secretive cat," he said. "He likes to watch, but if we try to catch him he always escapes. So we call him James Bond."
It didn't take long before the cats' curious nature overcame them, and they began to appear. They were very friendly. One was bold enough to climb up into my lap and fall asleep purring; the rest played and basked in the sunlight.
I counted 10, but U Nan Da said 15 cats lived at the monastery, including Demi Moore, the cat curled up in my lap.
The famous names are just for fun, he said. He pointed to a beautiful white and gray cat with piercing green eyes. "He is very pretty, so we call him Leonardo DiCaprio, from the 'Titanic,' no?"
The monk placed a bigger ginger cat in front of him. He raised a hoop above his head and without hesitation the cat jumped more than 3 1/4 feet into the air, through the hoop and landed gracefully.
"This one is a natural jumper, so we call him Michael Jordan," U Nan Da said, laughing along with some novice monks at my obvious enjoyment of the spectacle. It was refreshing to find a sense of humor among the monks and such open laughter in a place of solemnity.
Training dayThe cats' training starts when they are about 3 months old, the monk said. They learn fast, and it takes just one week for them to complete their training.
On the first day a monk gently provokes the kitten into jumping over his outstretched arms by touching and lifting its chin. Each day the monk lifts his arm higher and higher for the kitten to jump over, until finally it jumps through the hoop.
After each jump the kitten is rewarded with a little food. "We have many different kinds of food for the cats, and sometimes we give them whiskey also," U Nan Da said.
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.
"Oh no, I'm sorry. Not whiskey. Whiskas!" he said, giggling, and explained that tour operators sometimes brought packets of Whiskas cat food as an offering when they visited the monastery.
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 touristsPerhaps 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 MooreCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times