On a tranquil bend in the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar lies a pretty village called Yandabo which is famed as a pottery-making centre. The clay water vessels created here by family artisans are renowned the country over, and earn their makers far more than the national average income of US$1140 a year.
Like 43,000 other villages in Myanmar, however, Yandabo has no electricity. There are brand-new power poles and wires in place on the dusty main street but until the village can come up with 400,000 kyat (around $400) per household, they will remain in the dark, reliant on candles and batteries after the sun sets.
Such is the way in this troubled country. While the government provides limited infrastructure such as schools, roads and electricity, the people themselves have to pay for accessories: textbooks and pencils, for instance, or in this case the flick of a switch to connect to the grid.
But today is a different day for Yandabo. Our Scenic cruise ship is docked on their sandy shores and after touring the pottery-making facilities, 34 passengers from Scenic's 14-day Mystical Irrawaddy tour gather around the home of the school principal, Mr Thien. There we are treated to a glorious rendition of If You're Happy and You Know It by the village children before formal proceedings – the handing over of a regular donation from Scenic – take place.
This donation, a percentage of the tour price, goes towards a cause nominated by the village. For instance, in its first year cruising the Irrawaddy, Scenic helped build a communal washroom block. This time the aim is to bring much-needed light to the school, medical centre and homes of Yandabo.
Children celebrate with high-fives, smiles for our cameras and even a shy water blessing in honour of the new year water festival, Thingyan. "This gift is important for us," Thien tells us, himself grinning. "It means the villagers can save their money for other things, and the children don't have to rely on candles to study at night."
Giving back to communities who host the purpose-built cruise ship, Scenic Aura, as it plies 540 kilometres of the languid Irrawaddy River between Pyay and Mandalay is a source of pride for the organisation, a way of acknowledging they are guests in this exotic, complex country.
For the passengers, it provides the opportunity for meaningful contact with locals and an insight into their daily lives; being welcome visitors rather than just observers floating by in a luxurious river palace.
It also means rising at 4am one day to participate in an alms ritual, giving food and supplies to a community of monks. It's still dark when we arrive at Bamboo Monastery near the ancient city of Bagan, the pre-dawn silence shattered by tinny music blaring from a loud speaker in an open-sided, concrete-floored kitchen staffed by two nuns and a volunteer stirring a massive pot of kidney beans.
Scenic Aura's alms are not randomly selected. Staff ask the nuns what is required then shop locally for the items. Today's requests are toothbrushes and toothpaste, soy milk, packet noodles, cookies and tea bags, which will be added to the usual morning staples of rice and beans, provided by the dedicated nuns who rise at 2.30am to prepare the meal.
As we are given instructions on how to make our offerings, 70 crimson-clad, barefoot monks – ranging from wizened elders to sleepy seven-year-old novices – materialise in the dark, gliding silently into an orderly line snaking through the compound. Then, as the music stops, a gong is sounded and a blessing made. They make their way along the kitchen stations, accepting each offering in a black bowl with no acknowledgement or eye contact. My job is to hand out the toothbrushes, presented with two hands.
The process takes around 20 minutes then, as mysteriously as they appeared, the monks vanish into the dim light of dawn, returning to their respective monasteries for the morning meal.
There are around half a million monks and 75,000 nuns in Myanmar, the highest number of any ASEAN country. For many, a monastic life is the antidote to poverty because it provides shelter, food and schooling with opportunities for higher education that might otherwise be an impossible dream.
Since it was established in 2003, for instance, the Aung Myae Oo Mon Monastic School in Sagaing has grown from 31 students under the tutelage of six teachers to 2855 students studying language, computer studies and religion, overseen by 73 teachers. Relying totally on donations and goodwill from individuals and companies such as Scenic, the compound currently houses 300 novices, many of them orphans and desperately poor ethnic minority children from remote, war-stricken regions of Shan state, bordering China.
It's summer holidays during our visit to the school and the children are celebrating a break from books with games, laughter and idle chatter. In the shade of a spreading neem tree, four little boys with shaved heads play rock-paper-scissors, giggling as they bump hands. A group of older boys pose for our cameras with typical teenage nonchalance, throwing in peace signs and cheeky waves in the hope we will show them the resulting image.
As our group gathers in a semi-circle, head teacher and school founder Venerable Vilasa shakes off the demands of a clingy little rascal dressed in a white shirt and shorts – a "naughty boy who chooses not to wear monk's robes", according to my guide – to bring the children to attention. "To celebrate Myanmar new year," he announces, "we will start the proceedings with a blessing to our guests."
Stifling giggles, four teenage girls circle our group, dipping traditional thabyay sprigs into a bowl of icy water and dripping it down our necks, much to the young monks' amusement. Now it's our turn to be entertained, with the littlest novices lining up to proudly sing One Little Finger in English before belting out Myanmar's national anthem – a major achievement for many of the ethnic minority children, with Burmese not their mother tongue.
There is one universal language, however – dance and even little monks love hip-hop. When Vilasa turns up the volume on his ghetto blaster, which plays the Jamaicanesque strains of Panama by obscure Romanian pop-star Matteo, the boys shake off their robes, bopping, grooving and twerking.
As the song comes to an end, one little boy dares to grab my hands, begging to be swung around in circles. I dizzily comply, squealing as he twirls faster and faster, before flipping through the air with a gymnastic somersault.
I can't help but laugh at his spontaneous joy, a poignant reminder that children are children, wherever they live and whatever their circumstances.
Singapore Airlines flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Singapore with onward connections to Yangon. See singaporeairlines.com
Scenic's 14-day Mystical Irrawaddy cruise departs Mandalay en route to Yangon (or vice versa). Prices from $9695 a person twin share including flight ex Australia (for journeys of 14 days or more). See scenic.com.au
Julie Miller travelled as a guest of Scenic.