The secret is out. Virtually overnight, Myanmar is on everyone’s hit list. When Rudyard Kipling coined the phrase “this is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about”, he wasn’t kidding. From the moment we 13 lucky ladies landed in Yangon, the former capital city of Myanmar, we knew we were in for the trip of a lifetime. Upon meeting our extraordinary guides Myo and Joso (you know) as we affectionately came to call him, we were completely whisked into our own Burmese Days, radically different from George Orwell’s first novel of the same name published 80 years ago. Long isolated from the outside world, Myanmar has preserved its rich cultural and religious traditions as we were enchanted on a daily basis by the exotic temples, pagodas and monasteries and by the beautiful Burmese people who are quick to smile even showing off their betel-stained teeth. We observed hundreds of Buddhist monks clad in orange and men wearing sarong-style longyis and women adorning their faces with Thanaka paste to repel the sun and attract young men… while Alison, our court jester, decided to try the later…not sure how successfully.
Our Burmese Days were incredibly active. I’m pretty sure George Orwell didn’t take to the hiking and biking trails. The terrain was absolutely spectacular. Never have I biked through a valley with 2217 temples of architectural wonder so visually stunning and thousands of years old as we did in Bagan. And hike through villages filled with school children who were thrilled to see us as Marjorie proceeded to give them all her grown children’s coveted beanie babies…those smiling faces are unforgettable. Not only was the trip planned around the Taunggyi Hot Air Balloon festival, a spectacular 8 day religious fair that takes place every year in November around the full moon, but it was also planned around the country’s donation festival time. And so according to plan since an essential part of a STAT journey is a philanthropic element, the STAT girls hosted and funded a novitiational ceremony for 7 boys and 3 girls in collaboration with Arcadia travel (our guides). Invitations were sent out to the entire village for this special…let’s call it… a Buddhist B’nai Mitzvah. Entering the monkhood is a rite of passage and they study and prepare for this day as my boys did for their Bar Mitzvah. Big difference though if you know the story of Buddha, you know that he renounced his wealth giving up all worldly goods including his hair to live a simple yet deeply profound life. It was quite a sight to witness the shaving of these boys heads. All of us dressed in traditional Burmese garb (gifted to us by our guide Joso’s sweet wife Audrey) and placed in front of the procession carrying silver bowls with flowers and the novice’s new robes, we walked around the entire village causing much fanfare and excitement among the crowds. What a privileged day. It was even a privilege to support the sweet locals selling their wares especially our friend the “pants man” who proceeded to follow us everywhere even at sunrise as we drifted high above the clouds in our hot air Balloon over Bagan.
But my heart belongs to the oh so charming Inle Lake, located in the Shan State at 2950 feet above sea level and ringed with mountains and calm crystalline water which supports 64 villages on stilts. Our welcome here was extraordinary as it was all over the country but the experience of the unusual rowing style of the local boatman using one leg while balanced on their sampans was mesmerizing. And just being a passenger on the long out board motor boats through the unique “floating Gardens” was something I will never forget. The untouched beauty is beyond anything I’ve ever seen especially the colorful markets selling ethnic local agricultural produce and handicrafts.
Our 8 day Myanmar adventure was coming to an end as we boarded our flight back to Yangon to spend our last night at the beautiful Governors Mansion. It seemed like so long ago when our trip began at the most famous site of all, the Shwedagon Golden Pagoda, where we were all blessed on the day of our birth. It stands over 300 feet high, covered with 60 tons of gold leaf and topped with a weather vane crowned with 76 carat diamond and encrusted with 3154 gold bells and 79,569 diamonds and other precious stones. This place of worship and resting place accepts 5000 pilgrims a day and we were 13 of them.
Now one week later (still jet lagged) as I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family back home, I am thankful to all my STAT girls (Alison, Gina, Marjorie,Peggy,Natalie,Minnie, Jody,Sonia,Karen,Lisa,Teri, and Monica) for bringing your own special spirit to this magical land of Myanmar and to our guides Myo and Joso (you know) who went above and beyond to make this trip a most memorable one. I give you all an A.