Their faces are scrubbed and make-up free, hair clipped to the scalp and barely an inch of flesh is on show. And I have never seen more exquisitely beautiful women in my lifetime.
I am at the Tha Kya Di Thar nunnery in Mandalay, Myanmar, and teenage nuns, resplendent in pristine pink cotton robes and tangerine sashes, are bowing beneath a flower festooned statue of Buddah.
Touching their foreheads to the ground, they rise and resume chanting. I feel tears well and my skin prickle with goose bumps. I am honoured and humbled to be witnessing what is normally off limits to the public, something so serene and spiritual it is for Buddha’s eyes only.
Should I have made my way to Myanmar on my own, my experience of nuns would be limited to fleeting glances in ornate pagodas – if I was lucky. But today, not only am I a guest in the nunnery, I will be serving the nuns lunch then joining them to eat it.
And so, after prayers, I ladle sweet iced coffee into the outstretched cups of the 170 nuns teaching and studying in the nunnery then join them to sit cross legged on the floor of the eating hall for a veritable feast I am party responsible for providing.
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It is yet another unforgettable experience on what is a truly remarkable journey through the culture rich country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), nestled between Thailand and Bangladesh.
Until recently, Myanmar was a country few visited, thanks to world wide sanctions against its military regime which saw the jailing of activist Aung San Syu, massacre of monks and near on genocide of its Rohingya Muslim ethnic minority.
But that was the past and in recent years, Myanmar has begun its transformation back to a country best known for its gentle Buddhist population, cultural and natural wonders and bustling former British colonial cities.
However, Myanmar has remained very much the same as when it the military took power in 1962 (it unofficially ended in 2011), meaning it has not caught up in terms of roads, transport and tourism. A vast country which deserves to be explored in all its diversity, it is not easy to get around which is why I was delighted to join Trafalgar on its inaugural guided holiday through this incredible country.
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Starting in the ancient city of Mandalay (no, we saw no flying fish despite what Rudyard Kipling wrote is his classic The Road to Mandalay), we discovered a bustling city best negotiated by pushbike. Known as the cultural heart of Myanmar, it is a place where puppet shows are still popular, and elaborately carved and jewelled puppets are available for a song.
Outside the city, Mandalay is rich in history, from the longest bridge in the world, the 1.2km teak Li Paing bridge, to the Shwenadaw monastery, dating back to 1859 when the intricately carved temple was part of 114 buildings making up a palace for then King Mindon.
But perhaps Mandalay’s most famous attraction is the Word heritage listed Kuthodaw pagoda, which houses the world’s largest book. Each page of Buddhist script is a stone tablet 3.5feet wide, 5.03feet tall and 5.1 inches thick, housed separately in white domed pagoda surrounding a main temple, like a carved marshmallow army on alert.
Heading southeast from Mandalay is the Lake Inle, a lush lake oasis where longtail boats deliver us to our hotel perched on stilts through tomato gardens growing in rows in the lake creating canals between.
It is these canals which become watery streets for the boats to navigate, pulling up at in small towns such as Shwe Inn Dein, where literally hundreds of pagodas are clustered behind its waterfront restaurants and markets. It is the ideal way to travel to the magnificent and most sacred temple of the region, the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda, which houses five Buddhas which are traditionally covered in gilt by male worshippers. Today, they are so laden with gold they are round like balls yet still so sacred they are paraded on large boats fashioned like gold birds around the lake in an annual religious festival.
As with the nunnery, which was part of #trafalgarcares program which contributes to the nuns’ education, our group visits Inle Heritage, a training ground for local people who want to work in hospitality, cooking school and café, where we picked fresh herbs and veges from its gardens then prepared a feast for lunch. Our visit also contributed to Inle Heritage’s conservation program.
From Inle were were off to Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), the former colonial capital. Elegant buildings from the days of British power remain, some sprouting rich vegetation from cracks between decaying bricks (the city is slowly restoring many to their original charm). The Strand hotel, where Kilping and George Orwell were known to enjoy a gin and tonic, remains in tact and its bar is a must stop oasis from the heat.
But apart from its teahouses, markets and bustling port, the real star of Yangon is Shwedagon Pagoda. The 2,500 year old temple, which enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics, stands close to 110 meters and is covered with hundreds of gold plates and 4531 diamonds; the largest of which is a 72 carat diamond.
Although dawn is a spectacular from the pagoda, the faithful prefer praying at dusk, lighting oil lamps in prayer at one of the hundreds of smaller pavilions sprouted around the magnificent main temple.
As remarkable as the temples are, it is the people that I remember best from my travels through Myanmar. From the serene nuns to ever smiling locals, their generosity and spirit is contagious. You just have to smile back.
And smile I did as I visited the Aung Myay Thuka monastic school in Yangon. Walking past classrooms full of the cherubic faces of happy students intent on welcoming us westerners if not with words then large grins, I was reminded of what really counts in life.
These kids may not have material objects but what they do have is kindness, respect and innocence. And so, as we handed them books and pens as a thank you for allowing us to visit (again, part of the #trafalgarcares initiative), each pupil gently tilted their heads in thanks, their faces lit with love.
It was then I realised I too was lit from within in their presence. The students had taught me something special I will never forget – pure humanity.
Bounce back via Bangkok
A great way to finish off the Myanmar experience is with a three-day stopover in Bangkok. We took in the fruit and flower market, Pak Klong Talad, where we bought orchids in ever shade imaginable for a couple of dollars. Local tuk tuks took us to Wat Pho, Bangkok’s oldest temple which features exquisite tile work and the largest reclining Buddha in Thailand – a must see. A must do is an included traditional Thai massage – not for whimps but possibly the best you’ll ever have.
A morning tai chi practice in Lumpini Park with hundreds of locals is another highlight, along with a visit the Grand Palace, the famous floating fruit and vegetable market and, of course, traditional Thai food and lots of it. We spent our free time dodging vertigo on the rooftop of the Banyan Tree Hotel. The lychee martinis are a revelation but do sip them slowly as they are not cheap.
Trafalgar’s 11 day Secrets of Myanmar holidays start from 4658. Visit https://www.trafalgar.com/aus/tours/secrets-of-myanmar/summer-2016 T for more details.