Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Village, A School, and an Unforgettable Experience

One of the best things about the tour agency I use is that they really try to help you understand and appreciate how the locals live.  I experienced it last year in Vietnam when I was able to enjoy dinner in the house of a local family that was just so welcoming and excited to converse with Westerners.  The local experience I just had in Burma, however, blew away my family dinner from last summer.  The tour company has teamed with an international NGO that supports a cluster of villages in deeply rural Burma and we were able to spend two days in the village.

As we approached the area in which we would be staying, I didn't know exactly what to think.  The roads were dirt, and in some places so badly eroded our bus had to go off-road.  There were rice paddies everywhere I looked and the occasional cow dotted the landscape.  This was the image of Burma I have always held in my mind.  As we turned a corner, our traditional bamboo huts appeared in the distance and my breath was already taken away.

They were situated right on a lake and there was absolutely nothing else around.  All that could be heard as we exited our bus was the whistling wind and the sound of water from the lake.  This location, which is actually about 2 km from the rest of the villages, was built by the NGO just for our tour company in an effort to bring money into the villages.  In fact, 10% of the price of my tour went to the villages.  The rooms were extremely basic, yet transformed me into the most relaxing state I have been in for a while.  

My bedroom for the night

Group gathering area on the water

Shower rooms

In addition to staying in these beautiful huts, we also had the privilege of exploring the nearby villages.  After a very bumpy tuk-tuk ride over some worrisome hills, we arrived at the first village and were welcomed by the locals who are partnered with the NGO.  

Their village has made so much progress over the past 5 or so years simply because of the money they are receiving from tourists.  So far they were able to build a beautiful school, build enough wells for all families in the village, and are now working on getting an ambulance because there is no medical clinic in the villages.  

The second village we went to greeted us with the most adorable group of kids.  They stuck by our side for the entire time we toured their village.  Naturally, I used the time to practice English with the two boys that grabbed my hands as soon as they saw me and wouldn't let go.  They definitely know their ABCs and numbers to 10!

The kids even helped me plant a lime tree outside the new school library.  The trees are purchased as part of my tour fees and donated to the village.  I'm kind of glad the kids were there to help.  My track record with plants is not good and I'm sure they don't want to have to deal with a dead lime tree.

Before departing this village the kids all broke out in song and it was too adorable.  They even sang English songs!  The kids definitely made this village a trip to remember!

We went to the last village on our second day visiting the area.  While this village brought us fascinating conversations (through translators) with the locals, it also brought a visit to the village school!  Of course, I didn't want to interrupt any instruction, but we, fortunately, arrived just after morning prayers and all of the students were scurrying to their classrooms.  I was able to chat with a few students as well as a few teachers. 


The school was actually quite large for it being a small rural village.  They had 12 total teachers for grades k-5.  The class sizes appeared to be in the 20-30 range, which really surprised me.  Much lower than the number in China.  The teachers make very little money, though, only about US$50 a month.  And that's after the salary increase instituted by Aung San Suu Kyi recently.  Burma is at a strange crossroads as it enters the 21st century.  Almost everyone I have talked to said that now that the military is no longer in control, education needs to be the top priority for the country to continue progressing.  That philosophy is coming from the top down as Suu Kyi is offering more funding to schools for teacher salary and curriculum.  One person I talked to a few days ago said that in this country, teachers are revered at the same level as monks.  I find that quite remarkable.  The country really is putting education first.

Primary Classroom

Lots of posters to help with English

As I watched the students scurry off to the classes and get started with their day, I was really inspired to see education happening in such a rural location of an impoverished country.  It was clear the teachers are working hard as well.  One of my favorite aspects of the school was the organization of student chores.  As with most Asian countries, the students are responsible for cleaning the school at the end of each day.  The way this school identifies the chore each child is responsible for is by using the flags in the picture below as a code.  Each child in the school is assigned a color for the year.  The location of their color in the order of their flags will indicate the chore they have for the day.

I think this part of the tour was especially meaningful for me since it gave me a glimpse into the life of Sunday and his family before they came to America.  I was able to imagine a young Sunday sitting in on the classes and running around the village with the other kids.  Also, this experience really solidified for me that living in poverty does not automatically mean you are unhappy.  The people I met in these villages had meaningful lives that they couldn't imagine living out anywhere else.  They live off the land in their basic accommodations and don't need material possessions to make their lives feel complete.  To me, that's an amazing and honorable way to live.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Temples, Temples, Everywhere!

After a somewhat terrifying flight on a plane that looked about 50 years old, my group landed at a tiny little airport just outside Bagan.  If you have not heard of the ancient city of Bagan, it dates back to the 9th century and contains over 3,000 temples and pagodas in a 40 sq mile area.  At one time, archeologists believe there were as many as 10,000 temples in that same area, however weather, earthquakes, and neglect led to many of the buildings being demolished.  The temples were built over several centuries by various kings as a way to show their wealth and power.  In its heyday, Bagan was the bustling capital of Burma where the royalty, as well as commoners, lived amongst the thousands of temples.

It seems many people compare Bagan to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which I was able to visit last summer.  While I understand the comparison, they are drastically different complexes.  First of all, Bagan is nearly void of tourists.  It is truly like traveling back in time as you roam around the thousands of temples because it feels like you are cut off from the world.  While I loved everything about Angkor Wat last summer, the number of tourists made it difficult to even get a good photo.  There was just simply no way to be transferred back in time while visiting Angkor Wat.  Additionally, the Angkor Wat area is made up of massive temple complexes which can be climbed and explored.  Bagan's temples are much smaller, although many are in better condition than the temples in Cambodia.  I understand the comparison between the two, however, I really believe they are two amazing sites and both need to be experienced as they are quite different.

For me, another striking difference between this ancient city and Angkor Wat is that Bagan is still very much in use by local Buddhists and monks.  Every temple we visited we were able to see prayers and offerings occurring.  This really made the experience stand out as well since it allowed me to envision what the temples must have looked like as they were used by locals hundreds of years ago.

As part of the tour I am on, we were able to explore the temples via bicycle, which seemed like such a natural way to traverse the sandy roads that weave around the temples.  It was quite exhilarating riding through the area.  We stopped every so often to explore and enter some of the temples.  The architecture is just stunning and truly advanced for the time period.  In fact, some of these temples feature arches that were designed long before they appeared in Greek architecture.

The temples were all constructed from bricks and the bigger ones were supported with sandstone, particularly at the corners.  This advanced technique is what has kept the larger temples intact even after some rather large earthquakes have hit the region.

Originally the temples had all been covered with plaster, although most has been destroyed at this point.  Some of the temples still contain areas covered with the plaster and they are working on restoring the remarkable artwork that adorned every inch of the walls at the beginning of the time the temples existed.  Over the years, the walls had been whitewashed, hiding the murals, but preserving them.  Burma has reached out to experts around the world to find the best way to remove the whitewash and restore the natural murals.  Some had already been completed and it was simply stunning.  It reminded me a lot of the murals on the walls of the Mogao Caves that I saw in the Gobi Desert two years ago.  There is such meticulous detail to ensure every detail of the story being told is shown.  Unfortunately, photography was not allowed in most of these areas in order to preserve the art, but the few areas that allowed photos I was sure to snap a few.

Old Bagan is a site to remember.  I will certainly be back at some point, though, to ride a hot air balloon over the ancient temples for stunning views.  This must do attraction is unfortunately not available during the rainy season, so we were unable to make it happen this time around.  I could have easily spent a week exploring all 3,000 temples, but the trip must go on.  Next stop: a community-based tourism project...I'll be spending the night in a hut!