UPDATE: Burma Leg of 2013 Asia Site Visits

Our site visit team moved on to Burma last week and are safe and sound exploring potential new projects throughout the country. Following are their updates from their first six days of a 10 day journey. This blog will be updated throughout the rest of the week when they have internet access. 1/23/13


1/15 The Asia Pod Travel Group arrives safely in Rangon. The Panda Hotel greeted us with warm smiles in a very 1950’s setting. Not fancy but clean and comfortable. Before going to dinner we spent a couple of hours at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. It is an overwhelmingly beautiful and very peaceful place.

1/16 Today we met Kaung Nyunt who showed us the projects of EDU NET.  We traveled by van to various neighborhoods just outside the main city of Yangon. We first visited a monastery school and took lots of pictures of the adorable children.  In Myanmar the public schools are not free so only the rich can afford to go to them. The monastery schools provide education for the poor. The monastery schools accept girls for instruction but only boys can live at the school.

We then visited EDU NET’s library for children. Children’s books are
very expensive to get published here and there are not very many in
the language of Myanmar because there is no market for them. EDU NET
works with the monastery schools to supplement their curriculum. After the library we ate lunch at a very tasty Indian restaurant. We had the entire upstairs to ourselves. Then we headed out to the town area of Thanlyin. It was quite a journey on rough roads crowded with people. There we saw another amazing Temple complex that was in the middle of the Yangon River. We took a boat over to the Temple and made offerings to the fish in the water. As we headed back to the city, we stopped at another monastery school that is assisted by EDU NET. More beautiful children and pictures. We also saw the making of the black bowls for monks. An early night since we leave at 6:45 am tomorrow morning to continue our exciting adventures and learning in Myanmar.

1/17-18, We spent 2 days touring Bagan, an  ancient city with 1200 Pagodas.  We visited a number of Pagodas, a local market, a small village and did a short boat trip on the Irrawaddy.

1/19  After a 10 hour drive we arrived at Inle Lake (also spelled Innlay).  We traveled byboat another hour to our hotel arriving after dark.

1/20 I know why Inle Lake is on the front of the Lonely Planet guide book. It is beautiful! The floating market was closed today but we did take a boat to the local market where we negotiated prices and ate peanut brittle made with molasses and some type of fried dough. No one can say they’ve been to Inle unless they visit the Pong Daw Oo Pagoda (per our guide- Treasure) so of course, we did.  We were  disappointed to see signs inside saying “women not allowed” on the alter. So the women sat below while the men pressed gold flakes on large gold balls.

The highlight of the day was our visit to a local school and monastery in A Htet Yovar Thit (Upper New Village #3). Our hosts were Saya Dar Kaw Viv Dar, the lead monk, and  Khim Myo Hling (Imthu), the President of the Kont Soung Youth Group. The youth group was formed in February 2012 with 35 members and now has over 100. Their purpose is to develop education in the village, promote a clean environment including managing increasing amounts of plastic garbage, develop clean water system ( they have requested assistance from UNDP), health promotion, and keeping local cultures and traditions. They also did fund raising to purchase two computers and provide computer training for youth interested in developing these skills. The leader, Imthu, graduated from University and returned with ideas on how to help her community.  She received a scholarship for 3 month training in Mandalay and Yangon on leadership, environment and teachers training. She speaks her ethnic language, Burmese and a little English. She has been a successful negotiator. The youth group is organized as a community based organization (CBO). When asked if they discuss politics they said no.  When asked if they vote they said yes. It is required for everyone over 18.

The monk, Saya Dar Kaw Viv Dar, is the community leader. The community (200 househlds) has a school for grades 0-5 with 70 students and 4 teachers. During the summer (which begins in February), they run a summer program for youth that includes education on the environment. Many years ago the community got permission from local government to build a road but the government would not let them finish. Last month they negotiated with government to continue building the road. When finished it will go all the way to Nyung Shwe where students attend secondary school. When asked if he had concerns about the increasing numbers of tourists having a negative impact on the community the monk said no. He believes meeting people from other parts of the world is an opportunity to learn. He would like volunteers from other countries to come stay in their community to help them learn English. This is not currently allowed by the government.

Update: Internet has been challenging. Here’s our journal from the last 2 days. 1/23

1/21 Our flight from Inle was delayed 2 hours so we arrived in Lashio in the late afternoon. Lashio is in the northeast region of Shan state. This mountainous region is mostly agricultural but also where the Burma road begins. China is also building a railroad and a gas pipeline. Many ethnic minorities have resettled in and around Lashio from the Shan hills and Kachin state due to the conflicts. Ours hosts are Annie and Brave Heart from the Meikswe Myanmar Foundation. After checking in to our hotel we visited a the local hot springs. This popular Lashio spot is where locals go to bathe and do their laundry. The temperature was inviting but the color of the water less appealing. Women all wore longyi ( long wrap skirts) and our western swimsuits seemed a bit out of place.  So we just observed and then went to a local restaurant for typical Lashio cuisine.

1/22 This morning we drove to a Lisu Sanlaung village 15 miles from Hsibaw. The Lisu are a Christian minority. Ten Lisu families were re-located from Hsibaw by the government in 1981. In 1990 there were 70 families. During the fighting between the Shan Army and the Burmese Military villagers were being used for forced labor. Many families fled. There are now only 29 households. The community is part of a larger network of Baptist communities and are very marginalized. They used to grow rice but there is not sufficient water so they now only grow corn. Children have not integrated into the government schools because they do not know Burmese. Meikswe Myanmar Foundation (MMF) has helped the village organize into a community based organization and did a community needs assessment. Priorities include creating livelihoods, savings groups, health promotion and primary education. They received funds for buying seeds and buffaloes. They would like to hire a pre-school teacher so children can learn Burmese and attend school. Currently only 10 children go to school and 50% of the youth have left the village.

In the afternoon we visited two sites, the Bawjyo Pagoda and the palace of the last Shan Prince in Hswibaw. The Bawjo Pagoda is the most famous Pagoda in Shan state. The original Pagoda, built in the 2nd century, had 4 Buddha statues floating on water. If any of you have heard of Inga Sargent or read her book, Twighlight Over Burma, My Life as a Shan Princess, you will appreciate our visit to the Hswibaw palace. At the time of Burmas independence from Britain, ethnic minorities negotiated a place in government. In Shan state each district was represented by a prince. In Hswibaw the prince met a young Austrian woman while studying mine engineering in Colorado. They returned to Hswibaw and the palace. In 1962, during the military takeover, all Shan princes were arrested and taken to Insien prison in Rangoon. The prince of Hswibaw was never seen again. The nephew of the prince and his wife have lived in and cared for the palace since that time. We were fortunate to find the aunt at home and she invited us in and shared the family history. Her husband was also arrested in 2005 for talking to tourists and spent 4 years in prison. The aunt has only recently reopened the palace to guests and was very open to discussing Burma’s recent past.

Our last visits of the day were to Metta Mon PHLA Women Residency and Metta May May orphanage. Metta Mon is a residency for pregnant women with HIV Aids that come from far away to receive ARV treatments. In order to receive ARV the women need to stay in Lashio for 3 months. Metta Mon provides shelter, medication management and counseling. One woman came with her 6 year old child who was also HIV positive. The home is staffed by 2 nurses  and 2 caregivers. There are 8 residents.

Metta May May is an orphanage for HIV positive children. It was started in 2007 by a nurse, Naw Bway Khu (Snow), the founder of Meikswe Myanmar Foundation. The first child is still at the orphanage. The children receive healthcare and attend the public schools. There are 9 children at Metta May May.

Update: Internet access continues to be challenging. Here’s update from the rewarding last two days, with just one left to go……

1/23 Another full day of meeting warm generous people started with a visit to a Lahu  village  about 30 minutes outside of Lashio. The Lahu are an ethnic minority living in the mountains in Northern Shan state. This Lahu community resettled outside Lashio after their village was burned in the conflict between the Shan army and Burmese military. We were greeted by men and women dressed in traditional costumes performing  Lahu music and dance. The community has been working with Meikswe Myanmar Foundation to organize as a civil society organization. They have started a women’s savings group and Meikswe has provided seed, buffalo, pigs and composting worms for their economic development programs. All children go to a primary school in the community but then leave the village to find work often crossing the border into China.

After leaving the village we traveled to the office of Meikswe Myanmar, the organization that supports the villages, monastic schools, nunnery, and HIV orphans and pregnant women’s project that we have visited. They have 20 staff (including volunteers) in Lashio and 7 staff in other areas of Myanmar. Their main activities are health, education and community development. They will start a strategic planning process in February.

In the afternoon we visited a Siektahukha Monastic school and the Zeyathiri nunnery.  There are 53 girls in the nunnery, all from the Palaung ethic communities in Northern Shan state. Girls sometimes travel long distances to reach the nunnery sleeping in forests along the way. At the nunnery they receive a Buddhist education and learn Burmese and English so they can attend the local government school. Currently 16 children are attending government schools. Meikswe Myanmar sends volunteer teachers 3 days a week to teach primary school classes. The nunnery is fund raising to build a dormitory for the girls. They currently sleep in bamboo huts with 20 girls in a room.

1/24  Travel day back to Rangoon. Trip is winding down. One more entry to come.

1/25 We are back in Yangon and this is the final day of our site visit. We spent the morning with BoBo Aung, the EarthRights International (ERI)  Alumni Coordinator and three alumni. This is an exciting time for talented, young leaders in Myanmar. The alumni we met are working with youth organizations on issues including education in Monastic schools, the environment and land rights. One of the organizations, Gaihahita ( meaning “working for the benefit of Eco system and our home) runs a Green Canteen. They serve only organic foods grown by local farmers and sell commodities and handicrafts from youth organizations. This is where we had our last (as the site visit team) and best lunch in Myanmar. Foods ranged from sautéed vegetables, herbed rice, papaya salad, tomatoes with 1000 year eggs and avocado smoothies. We also met two young men that design environmental cartoons for tee shirts, media and children’s books. A good way to end our trip!

The site visit team in Ahtet Yovar Village earlier in the week. Most are headed back home tomorrow and a few will stay on in Asia for personal adventures!

Why is the country called Burma and Myanmar? In 1989, the military government officially changed the English translations of many names dating back to Burma’s colonial period, including that of the country itself: “Burma” became “Myanmar”. The renaming remains a contested issue. Many political and ethnic opposition groups and countries continue to use “Burma” because they do not recognize the legitimacy of the ruling military government or its authority to rename the country. In English, the country is popularly known by either of its short names “Burma” or “Myanmar”. Both these names are derived from the name of the majority Burmese Bamar ethnic group. Myanmar is considered to be the literary form of the name of the group, while Burma is derived from “Bamar”, the colloquial form of the group’s name. Source: Wikipedia