I kept pinching myself. There I was, in a Buddhist nunnery in Myanmar early one morning with fellow traveler Karl. We were enjoying hot chocolate and sharing “heart-to-heart connections” with the most adorable group of young nuns. The magical hour spent there is probably the favorite memory of my entire trip to Myanmar. Genuine “people moments” like this are the greatest joys of travel!
You might ask, how did this sweet memory come about? Well, once upon a time (okay, kidding…). Seriously, I was in Myanmar (aka Burma) on a 2-week photography tour of this fascinating and colorful country. My Jim Cline photo tour – which included me and 5 other “students”– was being led by master photographer Karl Grobl (an American now living in Cambodia) and local Burmese guide MM.
Karl and MM have been leading this excellent tour for almost 10 years. We were visiting Myanmar’s most popular travel destinations – Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake. Near the end of the tour, we were spending two nights in Nyaungshwe, the principal town (albeit small) which serves as the Inle Lake gateway.
Burma’s Nyaungshwe – Monks Morning Alms Procession
In Nyaungshwe, Karl scheduled an early morning “photo shoot” for Thursday. We would be going out into the streets to photograph a parade of maroon-colored monks from the local monasteries, walking through town collecting their daily alms (primarily rice) in their large alms bowls (or begging bowls). The local people get up early each morning to cook fresh rice and food to give their beloved monks.
So, bright and early at 6:30am, we headed off from our hotel and walked to a bridge near “monk junction.” This unofficial term, coined by Karl, is the best location he’s found for photographing this procession. After waiting for a while, without any monk sightings, we walked to a nearby Buddhist nunnery to check that out.
Luckily, the young nuns were up and happy to pose for our cameras. Turns out, the nuns had already been up for hours (since 3 or 3:30am), which is what they do every morning to prepare their food. And the food is not just for themselves but for the monks too – meaning they also contribute to the monk’s alms bowls. We learned the nuns get their own alms only four times a month. Hmm, I guess women’s liberation hasn’t quite hit Myanmar’s Buddhist community yet!
In the meantime, MM (nicknamed the “monk whisperer”) was trying to figure out exactly where the monks were. Well, around 7:00am, he got the answer – the morning alms had been cancelled! This was very unusual. Apparently, during the night (around 3-4am), there had been a very heavy rainstorm including some power outages. So, “monk central” (my made-up name for whomever makes the final decisions at times like this) was afraid that local people would not be able to cook the food for that morning’s alms. So, I guess the monks would be “eating in” this morning.
Exploring the Nunnery – Meeting the Young Nuns
With this disappointing news, the members of my photo group dispersed to look for other more promising photo subjects around town. I was still enamored with the adorable young nuns, so I went exploring on my own to other parts of their “group home,” including snooping in the back – trying to get a sense of nunnery life.
I soon ended up in a large community room where around nine young nuns were studying or hanging out. As I always do, I gave them a big smile as I entered the room and did some quiet observation before asking their permission to take a few photos. The girls and young women probably ranged in age from 6 to 16, possibly up to 20. Very hard to tell – particularly with their shaved heads (and beautiful faces).
One nun pointed for me to sit down with them on their raised wooden platform. Then she asked if I’d like a drink. I said yes, thank you. Of course, here in small-town, old-world Myanmar, they spoke no English – so it was all done in the universal language of hand signs.
Another nun brought out a blue metal water pitcher. She tore open a packet and sprinkled brown powder into a glass before pouring in the hot water. It was hot chocolate! Almost immediately, Karl wandered into the room and he got a cup too. This was turning out to be very cool! We felt like visiting royalty enjoying the best of warm, Burmese hospitality, Buddhist nun style.
Making Special Memories at the Nunnery
So, Karl and I happily sat there with the nuns on the wooden platform for the next 45 minutes or so. We were clearly from two very different worlds, yet there was a deep and beautiful heartfelt connection with these lovely young Buddhist women. They showed us the books they were reading – the Burmese written language is very pretty – and we took more photos.
Karl then pulled out the best-ever entertainment tool – his trusty iPhone. With a raptly attentive audience, he showed the nuns some of his photos and videos from travels around Asia. It was like a fun geography lesson – they would occasionally call out a name of a place they recognized, like Bagan (in Burma) and Laos (they called it Lao). They also loved seeing photos of Karl’s two kids, smiling at the video of Karl teaching his son (now age 6) to ride a bike.
In the midst of all the merrymaking, “Mother Superior” (not sure what you officially call her in the Buddhist tradition, sorry!) appeared at the window. I thought, Uh Oh, are we going to get these sweet young nuns into trouble. She entered the room and, to my great relief, joined the other nuns on the platform – and proceeded to enjoy Karl’s iPhone photos as well.
Meanwhile, I was taking photos and videos of Karl and the nuns to document this very special, magical moment we were so enjoying. Karl and I would occasionally look at each other with big grins, mouthing words like “Wow” and “This is so amazing!”
Saying Our Goodbyes
However, having exhausted Karl’s phone entertainment and not wanting to disrupt the nun’s daily routine much longer, Karl and I began to wrap this party up. As we were saying our goodbyes, some of the nuns moved to the corner of the room to sit in front of a TV along with their “Mother Superior.”
Karl and I headed outside with several of the other nuns for some final photos. And this time, the photo-taking turned out to be reciprocal. I was amazed – and moved – when many of the nuns pulled out their own phones to take pictures of Karl and me. The photo (below) of the nuns in camera action is one of my favorites!
During this time, I noticed a pale green “bangle” dangling from one young nun’s phone. Out of my usual intrepid curiosity, I asked her about it. To my great surprise, she immediately took the bangle off – a small green plastic ballerina – and gave it to me as a gift. I was so incredibly touched! The bangle may not have much monetary value but in the value of the heart, it is priceless!
Today, this small green Burmese Ballerina proudly hangs at my work desk – as a daily and beautiful reminder of my special friends back at the nunnery in Myanmar. And yes, our magical morning with the young nuns provided a trip memory that will last a lifetime.
Bonus – Photos of the Monk’s Alms Procession
Here is a blog post written by “Ursula in BKK” who was on Karl’s Myanmar Photo Tour in September 2015. The article – Monks on the Move: Morning Alms Rounds, Nyaungshwe – has some nice photos and narrative so you can actually see what my tour group missed because of the rain.