Saturday, September 20, 2014

Too much!

We will spend several years in Myanmar. Like many expats here we brought our belongings from home. We packed everything we might need from clothes to kitchen ware... and we bought some additional stock in case some products are not available here.

In Yangon we lived in a hotel from two big suitcases for two months and continued to do so for some days after we moved to the new house until our boxes arrived by ship. And it was so easy and convenient.  I am unpacking and arranging the stuff which arrived for one week now and I realised that half of them we will not need or are just the same things but in different forms, colours or materials. 

When we left Europe we decided that we would leave many things here when we will go back, for locals who might need some useful kitchen ware, etc. But we are already preparing some boxes with things we will give away. 

I am pleased to see how many things we will happily give away to people who actually need them!

Golden Rock under the rain

Last Sunday it took us 3 ½ hours by car to return from our two days’ excursion we organised with a friend to visit Golden Rock (or the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda) in Mon State. This place is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhist people. Another such significant place in Myanmar is Mount Popa, close to Bagan.   

It is seven hours drive both ways from Yangon (you can rent a car with a driver, take the bus or the train) and it is true, as we already heard, the Golden Rock is actually not that impressive.  It is a small pagoda situated on a granite round rock which is covered in gold leaves. The rock looks like it’s about to roll over the cliff’s edge. The legend says that a strand of hair from Buddha prevents the rock from falling down the Kyaiktiyo hill. There are many replicas of the rock and the pagoda on top of it around the area.

In the dry season I would hike the road up or down to the pagoda even if it takes approximately 5 hours. The scenery is beautiful and the site is at 1100 m altitude.

For us it was adventurous because of the rainy season. On Saturday, after leaving Yangon we opted for the shorter but slower national road (instead of taking the Naypyidaw highway) which took us through the city of Bago so we arrived late afternoon at our Golden Sunrise hotel in the village of Kinpun at the base of Mount Kyaiktiyo. 

Local people gathering construction material from the river (photographs taken on our way to Golden Rock)

After a short walk to the centre of the village we returned to the hotel’s restaurant where we spent some hours having a nice dinner over some drinks.  

Kinpun is a small village and it is quite poor. As the tourism is only incipient there is not much infrastructure. But everywhere, the villagers are building or renovating. For this reason it was really good that our hotel was situated outside the village and we enjoyed a quiet night and morning.

The main activity of the village is organising and driving trucks full with pilgrims and tourists up and down to Golden Rock. The pagoda is situated 45 minutes by truck from the village and one way ticket costs the same for locals and tourists: 2500 Kyats. The fee for locals is quite high as nobody seems to just walk up the hill, at least not in the rainy season. And they do not allow other cars to use the road. The road is good, in cement, but very often steep. The whole process of driving the people is very well organised: the trucks do not leave unless full with 45 people. This means on each row 6 persons.

Well, it seems on the way up they were not so strict and allowed us to sit only 5 instead of 6 people of our row which was quite comfortable given the narrow piece of wood which luckily has some padding on it.  On the way back we had to wait some good minutes for others to fill in the empty seats. Now, if you have to sit on a row with other Westerners it can get quite uncomfortable as we are not at all the “petite” size of the locals. And, of course, it rained. Not a lot and sometime we had a bit of sun but it was enough to cover ourselves in colourful rain coats. It was fun, the air was fresh and the hills green with clouds resting on some slopes. The truck stops twice for the people to be counted to make sure nobody was picked up on the road without paying.

Once up you only have a short walk to the entrance of the pagoda. The tourists have to pay an entrance fee of 6000 Kyats. There are some works in the compound of the pagoda and the first thing we observed climbing the stairs to the main platform were young locals, men and women carrying on their back and head construction materials like cement or bricks. They seemed in a rush probably being paid on the quantity they bring up. The heavy bags of cement were carried on the back and tide up on the men’s foreheads. You do feel very sad as you look at their small frame and you are wondering how it is possible to carry the heavy bags on steps and quite a slippery path to the pagoda.

The rain did not stop by the time we reached the Golden Rock and my camera was quite wet but I could not leave without a picture of the famous rock.
Even if it is the low season we could see many pilgrims and some tourists. We stopped to have a tea on the way down to the truck. At the entrance of the pagoda you have one hotel. You can even choose to stay up on the mountain and have your things carried up by porters. This activity seems also very well organised: already at the arrival of the trucks you have porters waiting to load different things for the people living there or for the market they have. They carry huge amounts and I was again struck by their strength.  And then you have the porters carrying up to the pagoda old or weak people on stretchers. 
The drive down the hill was more dangerous than going up. We did not have the seats in the first row which are the best so we were carried from left to right or pushed in the front row with every move of the truck. 

After lunch we left Kyaiktiyo village and started our trip back home. But we stopped several times before entering the highway to Yangon to buy green grapefruits (the area has grapefruits and rubber plantations), charcoal for the grill and we walked on a bamboo bridge and admired the very long bamboo load one local was tugging behind his boat. 

2 USD each bamboo chair

On the highway which has two lanes on each dirrection you have people walking, goats passing but in general it is a decent stretch of highway on which you can speed your car and forget the frustration of the slow driving in Yangon. 

It was a very welcome trip and it was beautiful to leave behind us the rice fields and watch the green hills appearing on the horizon. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Visiting a school in the Ywar Thit Gyi village

A few days ago I visited the school of the Ywar Thit Gyi village at the invitation of Ms Nobuko Shoda from MESO Myanmar. From Yangon it took us more than 2 hours to arrive in the village travelling both by car and boat. It seems that in the dry season the village can be reached by car, on a road which was now a very muddy path between two rice fields at the edge of the village.

I wrote about the Myanmar Education Support Organisation (MESO) and their MESO soap. MESO supports 16 children in the Ywar Thit Gyi school through monthly scholarships of 20,000 KS (around 20 USD). The money is spent on school uniforms, books and the national examination fee which must be paid by each student so that they can attend the exam at the end of the school year.

We left Yangon at 9h30, drove south and we crossed the over 3 km long bridge which connects Yangon to Thanlyn Township. The road took us through suburbs and villages where everything happens around the main road: small tea shops, restaurants, pagodas, shops, houses and the jungle were lining the street. On the sides, people watching while drinking tea, motorbikes, goats, chickens and dogs were completing the picture. At one moment I saw a man taking a shower in front of his house which was between a shop and a restaurant. He was pouring the water on his soapy hair with a pan! 

The boat was waiting for us at the jetty in the Kyauk Tan town (Thanlyn Township). From this jetty the tourists can take a small boat to bring them to the Kyaik Hmaw Wun Ye Lai Pagoda on an islet in the Kyaik Hmaw Wun Creek. The boat had plastic chairs on the deck and a very noisy and big engine. 

The life around and on the river is quite busy so we were not bored or annoyed by the loud sound of the engine. I took out my camera and I started shooting around. Many locals are fishing on the river so our "captain" had to zig-zag between the other boats and their fishing nets. I saw two children bathing with their father in the water. The moment we passed and the children saw my camera they went underwater and their head appeared together with a big smile just after we passed. Some people were working the fields on the river banks. From time to time bamboo houses popped up on the shores. Each house had its boat for fishing. 

At the village's jetty one of the school teachers with two students waited for us. Before reaching the school we walked the cement pathway and passed some of the village's houses. In the first courtyard we saw a family cleaning freshly caught fish. In the next one two baby goats were playing. The third one had a lovely family of chickens with the small chicks around their mother. 

The houses are built on pillars because of the rain and each one has several big clay pots for water, a few chicken in the small courtyard and some clothes hanging to dry outside. 

The structure of the village is very simple: some cement pathways line the shore of the river with a few perpendicular ones crossing them. The houses are built around this geometrical layout.

The school has currently 300 students which receive primary, secondary and high school education. The high school education was introduced only a few years ago and it was very welcomed for the area. There are some students from the nearby villages who are able now to continue the primary education by attending the high school in Ywar Thit Gyi. Some of them travel one hour each way to reach the school. There are 24 teachers who take care of the children's education. All students and teachers wear uniforms with some classes having 30, and some having 40 children, depending on the grade. The boys sit on one side of the room and the girls on the opposite side. The children bring their lunch box from home. 

Because we arrived at the end of the morning they generously invited us to have lunch. The teachers prepared chicken, fish and duck curries with rice and fruits for desert. Delicious!

We also listened to the 4th grade English class, and to my surprise only a few words were spoken in English, the rest in Myanmar. The teacher asked the class to spell out loud various words. So, for example apple was not pronounced as a whole word but in its spelled-out form: A-P-P-L-E. Ms Nobuko Shoda told me she had the same experience with a Yangon school where the children know very well the spelling and not so much the pronunciation. And this came to reinforce what a local lady told me: the people know how to write well but do not speak the English language very well. Definitely the teaching method could have something to do with this! But it reminded me of the similar teaching method (more mother tongue than the foreign language was spoken during the class) in my home country immediately after the change of the political regime in the early 1990s.

I left the school with the impression that the children were happy to be there and that the teachers were dedicated to their job. I saw a lot of respect shown by the students to their teachers. I also realised the sacrifices the parents make to send their children to school looking at the modest houses and living they have. And I value the help of MESO Myanmar which started to help students with scholarships in 2008. Although they help only a small number of students I believe their help is really appreciated by the families with poor incomes.