Plan, Do, Review

 

 

 

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Plan, Do, Review – this series of blogs have been to chronicle my time and experiences whilst on a VSO placement in Myanmar. Those of you who have been the faithful following seem to have found interest in the slices of Myanmar life I have shared or if nothing else enjoyed marking my grammar and spelling out of 10. If you had shared some of the technical difficulties encountered you would appreciate the miracle of getting anything posted, let alone to ISS standards.

Plan – not much planning went into this trip as I responded to a job offer that landed in my inbox at a very busy time. Before I knew it I was on a ‘plane, living and working in Yangon.

Do – my objectives were to help strengthen intermediatory support organisations who in turn supported smaller NGOs to develop and increase their capacity in the sphere of civil society and media. This should have an empowering affect within the emerging democracy of Myanmar.

Review – my time working here has now come to an end (although I will continue to work with my organisations remotely) so I can review what has been achieved. I have designed a two tier management cycle, which if fully implemented will ensure a robust and resilient organisation that can not only survive but grow to take on new challenges – of which there are many

To build quality and recognition for the civil society sector, I have drafted an accreditation system which is currently being developed by the organisations that will ‘own’ and administer it in the future.

One to one mentoring of individuals on strategic planning,leadership, governance, monitoring and evaluation proved to be a great way of understanding local challenges and as an aside, seeing 10 of the 14 Myanmar states.

Plan – if we follow the basic Plan, Do, Review model I should now move onto ‘Plan’ again. As we have already proved some of the best things happen when you remain flexible and when I get back to UK I am sure that opportunities will present themselves. If not, I have a few ideas up my sleeve ……

In the meantime I am not home yet, I write this in Cambodia and will be moving on to New Zealand at the end of the week (just imagine it – wine and CHEESE)

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Pagoda in the Fog

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At the beginning of my stay here in Yangon I said that I would devote a blog just to the Shwedagon Pagoda – but there are other sites that also carry the essence of Myanmar so here is an expanded view and first-hand account of a fateful visit.

 

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Shwedagon Pagoda as the sun sets

 

The Shwedagon Pagoda

Dominating Yangon’s skyline, the Swadagon Pagoda is Myanmar’s most sacred religious site; ‘shwe’ means gold in Burmese and ‘Dagon’ is the historical area in which the pagoda is situated. The structure contains the relics of four Buddhas (those who have reached enlightenment, or Nirvana) and, regardless of one’s personal beliefs, it is an amazing monument. Said to be more than 2500 years old, over the years it has been destroyed by earthquakes and had its treasures pillaged many times, only to be rebuilt; the structure has existed in its current form since 1769.

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Shwedagon Pagoda

 

Standing on Singuttara Hill to the north of downtown Yangon, the Shwedagon Pagoda is the largest in Myanmar, standing 99 metres tall – it is also plated with 21,841 solid gold bars and has a tip encrusted with thousands of diamonds, rubies and sapphires. Shimmering magnificently as it does in the bright sunlight or at dusk as the sun sets and the thousands of lights illuminate the dome, its sheer size makes it a stunning sight. Rudyard Kipling described it as ‘a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun’.

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Sule Pagoda

 

The Sule Pagoda

At the very heart of downtown Yangon, this ancient shrine – said to be older than the Shwedagon Pagoda – is incongruously situated in the middle of a large roundabout. All mileage is taken from this point (as Trafalgar Square in London) so that the fact that I live at ‘6 mile’ and work at ‘8 mile’ gives a very quick clear indication of location and a great help when you live on the Pyay Road – a road 400 miles long.   For all its utilitarian uses, it is nevertheless a stunning structure.  It also holds great historical significance; it is said to contain a hair of the Buddha, and was a focal point for the 1988 uprising.

 

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Sule Pagoda

 

 

The Golden Rock

Mount Kyaiktiyo famous for the huge golden rock perched at its summit, is one of the two most sacred religious sites in Myanmar.  Pilgrims come here from far and wide to worship and add gold leaf to the rock, which seems to defy gravity by delicately balancing on the edge of the 1100 metre high mountain.

 

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The Golden Rock

 

For many visitors, the rock (standing 7.6 metres tall) and the gilded pagoda which sits on top of it (itself 7.3 metres tall), which are said to cover a hair of the Buddha, are the main draw, but another reason to make the journey are the panoramic 360 degree views of the surrounding Mon State mountains from the summit which can get very crowded during the peak season from November to March.

The journey up Mount Kyaiktiyo involves taking a crowded open-top truck which rushes alarmingly through the spectacular jungle scenery like a roller coaster.

The full religious experience when you get to the summit includes placing small squares of gold leaf on the rock – provided your are male as only men are allowed to approach and touch the rock.

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The Golden Rock

 

It is possible to trek down from the summit, the walk is mostly covered by the jungle canopy and gives the chance to see breath-taking views and stupas along the way. The path is apparently ‘straightforward and is well paved’.

 

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Wonderful views of Mon state from the top of The Golden Rock

 

I mention all this because last Sunday I arranged to visit the Golden Rock for the day, the plan was to get up at 4am, drive to the site, use the lorry to go to the top, view rock, have a quick lunch and then trek down through the jungle – which should take about 4 hours. It didn’t quite go according to plan – we arrived safely enough, transferred to the lorry packed in like sardines which turned out most fortuitous as it was the only thing that kept the people from falling out of the ‘roller coaster’ as it ascending the twisting mountain road at speed.  By the time we got to the top it was raining – and thick mist.  We could hardly find our way to the rock let alone see the wonderful 360 degree views.  On the bright side there was no one there but equally nowhere was open to eat.

Eventually we found a tiny hole in the wall place where we sheltered and they cooked the most delicious vegetables and rice for us.  We ate surrounded by monks and police which seemed to sum up Myanmar quite well.  Having been advised by a policeman not to take the path down, we sought a second and then a third opinion – and then our driver phoned us and said that the path was very dangerous.  We decided that perhaps this wasn’t the best plan we have had.  A hilarious ride down in the lorry followed where it was so wet it was like being doused by buckets of water – at least it was warm. We drove home stopping on the way to buy a bamboo chair with a woven back and seat for £1.60, arriving after dark and as exhausted as if we had trekked down a mountain.

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The very wet ride down the mountain

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A tiny restaurant with wonderful views – apparently

 

 

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Pagoda in the Fog

 

 

From Pinner to Poona

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Yangon (Rangoon) railway station 2017

Ten years ago my father lay on his death bed, we talked of may things during those hot summer weeks but mainly of family – the eccentric aunts, the talented craftsmen, the perfectionists.  I asked him to write down the details to share with future generations.  Sometime later he said that he had completed the task and preceded to hand me his war memoirs called ‘From Pinner to Poona’.

My father was 14 when WWII broke out but when he was 18 in 1943 he joined the Royal West Kent Regiment and served in Burma from 1944 to 1947.  Know subsequently as the ‘forgotten war’ it proved a turning point of WW II.

 

In 1944 the Japanese Imperil Army occupied Burma and in March of that year they would launch their last great offensive in Southeast Asia, from their bases northwest of Mandalay to Assam via the little hill towns of Imphal and Kohima.

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For the Japanese and the British, these battles in early 1944 in the little principality of Manipur, three thousand feet up, were the turning point in the Burma campaign. Both sides knew it and gave it everything they had.

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The British brought up massive reinforcements and now assembled half a million soldiers with tens of thousands of additional labourers, fifty thousand vehicles, and every spare elephant in India, all along the wet and thickly jungled front.  Against this the Japanese threw two hundred thousand men. When the fighting began Lieutenant General Sir William Slim and his Fourteenth Army ensured that Imphal held out for three months against a ferocious Japanese onslaught, while Chindit forces hacked away at supply lines and Allied planes provided support from the air.  The Japanese were stopped, both at Imphal and at Kohima, when the attack was over more than 80,000 Japanese and 17,000 Allied troops lay dead.  What was left of Japanese forces fell back to the Chindwin River hundreds of miles to the east and then beyond, with the Chindits fast on their heels.

The tide had turned, and the Allies under Slim prepared for what had long been thought impossible, an overland re-conquest of Burma.

The British Fourteenth Army crossed first the Chindwin in November 1944 and then the Irrawaddy in January 1945, in the longest opposed river crossing anywhere in the world, meeting intense Japanese resistance every step of the way.  The front line in Burma was longer than either the eastern or western fronts in Europe.  In March, Meiktila, the heart of the Japanese operation, was captured after five days of fierce and close combat in the furnace like spring heat.  The rains were now only weeks away and the British were now racing to Rangoon.

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My fathers account is full of vivid detail of day to day life – both the fighting, survival and peacetime ….

  • Swopping clothes for food
  • Not having water to drink
  • Being quarantined for diphtheria
  • Accidently being hit by a friends hand grenade
  • Hand to hand fighting
  • His promotion and move to the Intelligence Corp
  • R & R in India after the end of the war
  • Becoming friends with a Burmese judge and his daughters

As we got nearer to our destination, I suppose it was to be expected that the likelihood of our making the journey back was spoken of occasionally. Tom and I were both single and unattached. Vic and Fred were both married but only Fred had children. I remember Fred saying that he was definitely making the return journey – because he had to”

But mainly it is about the people he encountered and in particular his friends.

  • Four friends on board ship not knowing their destination – but slowly working it out
  • Those who he admired and
  • Those who supported him

The platoon having lost its officers and sergeant was being run by Corporal Harry Varney who treated us new boys very kindly and did his best to help us settle in.

 

We were told that a divisional shoot would take place in preparation for an attack on Meiktila. It started at dusk, lasting about half an hour and came directly over our position with thousands of shells from our artillery.  I was very glad to be on the right side of it. Shortly afterward a strong group of motorised infantry with tanks pushed through the Japanese roadblock and went on to attack Meilktila.  The Japanese realising they could do little to stop them, simply let them through and closed back on the road afterwards.  The following day we were ordered to follow on towards Meiktila but of course by that time the roadblock had been restored and we started taking casualties, including our ship board friend Fred Doughty who was shot and killed.  Corporal Harry Varney, our CO medical Officer and some others were blown up and killed when the jeep they were travelling in hit a mine.  Harry who had lost both his legs in the blast died in the Civil Aid Post.

 

Of those close to him 2 died – Harry Varney and Fred Doughty, and one was injured -Vic Middlemass at the battle for Meiktila.

My father and I were due to come to Myanmar in November 2007 but sadly he died in the August of that year.  I couldn’t go without him as it was too poignant, so I waited 6 years.

 “the wells were polluted with dead bodies – for the first time we knew what it was to be really thirsty”

 

“we were constantly thirsty – our water came from the local lake and although polluted, was drinkable with maximum chlorination and provided you held your nose”

 

When I first visited Myanmar in 2013 I set out to visit as many of the places mentioned in the memoirs and to visit the Taukkyan war memorial in Yangon to commemorate Harry and Fred on my father’s behalf.

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To my surprise I did not find a memorial entry for Harry but a proper grave, his body having been relocated in the 1950s after the cemetery was built by the Commomwealth War Graves Commission.

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It was the most amazing connection to be walking the streets of Yangon, standing on railway platforms and seeing the buildings that would have been so familiar to my father – it felt as if this is where he was right at that very moment.  Eventually I visited Maymyo (Pyn U Lwn) the beautiful hill station still with its strong military presence due to its proximity to China – and the barracks still standing that my father thought of as such luxury having been either in the jungle or under canvas for years.

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Mandalay, travelling the ‘road to Mandalay’ that he drove along many times, and on the flight to Mandalay flying over the distinctive road system that marks Meiktila knowing that was where Fred died and remained in an unmarked grave.

 

So when I found myself living in Myanmar in 2017 I felt it was an opportunity to finish the quest and see if I could find the area where Fred was shot and died.  With my fathers memoirs and some military history research I was able to pin point a location some 5 miles northwest of Meiktila.  A mile south of the former aerodrome at Thabutkon where a river crosses the road by a ford.

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The community based organisation ‘Peace and Justice’ (how aptly named) is located in Meiktila and was to receive a capacity building visit, this was my opportunity.  Time was short but last week I was able to drive to the identified spot – exactly as it had been described, not much had changed in this part of Myanmar – and build a mini cairn and lay my homemade poppy. I felt that I had found Fred and that the chapter was now closed.

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We were told that we were to take a leading role in the attack on Rangoon, it was about this time we heard that the Germans had surrendered and the European war was over – this led some of us to think it would be hard luck to die now”

 

We flew back from Mandalay on that trip, it took just over the hour, when my father and his friends completed the same journey it took them 17 months of intense fighting.

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We never did get the family history but somehow it doesn’t seem important.

 

Tipping Point

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Tipping Point

 

In the same way as the passing of the shortest day in UK (21 December) is a huge psychological boost to the majority of people who hate the cold and the dark and look forward to the ever increasing light levels that this tipping point brings in the year, in Myanmar we are just reaching our own tipping point – almost half way through monsoon and believe me we are counting the weeks.

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Monk in the rain

Myanmar has a typical tropical monsoon climate with three seasons: the hot period, the monsoon and the cool and dry winter. The hot season starts somewhere in March and last until May; the rainy season starts around the end of May and ends in October; and the cool, dry season stretches from November to March.

The monsoon is the term for the wind that carries heavy rains to southern Asia and to the rains themselves. The monsoon arrives abruptly with the seasonal reversal of winds blowing from the cooler ocean to the much warmer land mass. Here in Yangon in 2017 an early cyclone with heavy rains hit over the April Thingyan holiday period and the light ‘Mango rains’ started in mid May with the monsoon starting later in the month.

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Not all of Myanmar shares the same weather experience. Yangon is located in the southern lowlands region with its cloudy, rainy, hot, humid summers, May to October.  It has less cloud, scant rainfall, mild temperatures and lower humidity during winter – November to April.

Mandalay is in the dry zone which still receives the monsoon rains but about one third of the Yangon precipitation.   The climate varies in the highlands depending on elevation; there is a subtropical temperate climate at around 2,500 m, a temperate at 3,000 m, cool, alpine at 3,500 m and above the alpine zone, cold, harsh tundra and Arctic climate. The higher elevations are subject to heavy snowfall.

The day to day reality of the monsoon in Yangon can be hard work.  To start with the light levels are low; it is mostly grey with heavy cloud cover turning to black as heavy storms blow in with violent intensity.  The rain is not predictable, it can rain heavily all day or just part of the day but once it starts it is almost always intense and incredibly noisy.

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The streets and plastic filled drains cannot cope with the volume of water and it is common for quite serious flooding to occur and prolonged power cuts – but life goes on. People bale out their homes, light their candles or use battery powered lights and fans, the buses get through, eventually. When on the streets you have to be prepared to get very wet feet and everyone wears sandals, flip flops or if you are a very posh security guard – wellington boots.  Washing gets done but never seems to dry even in doors.  I left my apartment for 17 days and came back to clothes and bedding that had absorbed so much humidity they were wet and very mouldy.  I have got through 2 umbrellas already.

But on the bright side, the dusty trees have been washed, it is very green out of town, the rice paddy is planted and it has cooled to the point where I do not need air conditioning during the day (only at night). If it is dry first thing in the morning it is now comfortable enough to walk the 3 miles to work.

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Paddy being planted

On Monday I am going on a field trip to a small organisation involved in child protection issues. It is located in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state in the far north near the Chinese boarder. Here it will be cooler with the chance of more predictable rain.  Our host told me as I rode on the back of his motor bike last time I visited, that as a child it always rained on the journey to school, stopped whilst he was at school and started to rain again just as it was time to leave – and this is exactly what we experienced during our last visit.

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Flooding is common

The end of the monsoon is much less clearly defined than the start; the rains taper off during the last months. Thus, the monsoon starts quite suddenly (within a few days) and ends gradually; it starts with a bang and ends with a whimper.  In the meantime we will slog it out waiting for the down hill tipping point and in the meantime just dripping.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Taxi!’

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Bago – queuing monks, sleeping dogs and palaces.

Life is changing fast here in Yangon.  Having extolled the virtues or otherwise of the bus service, most of which consists of 50 year old stock designed to operate on the left although Myanmar now drives on the right, with drivers and crew clearly operating on piece rates as you are given only seconds to get on and off and buses literally racing each other to the next stop in order to bag the most passengers, it is with some surprising regret that I have to announce that hundreds of new, air conditioned buses have been spotted parked up ready to hit the streets and begin to replace the old characters of the road.

The only other means of transport open to most people here is the taxi – and there are thousands of them. As a westerner they almost follow you around just waiting to fill your travel needs – although they are disappointed with me as I still travel mostly by bus. But I do want to tell the story of the average Myanmar taxi driver because frankly they restore your faith in human nature and must be some of the nicest taxi drivers in the world.

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My taxi driver unloading plants for my garden this evening – yet another charming man. Not only didn’t mind taxi being taken over by triffids but offered me a bottle of water and just accepted what I gave him as a fare

When you hail a taxi in the street, the first thing is to ascertain your destination – sometimes easier said than done as my Myanmar pronunciation is appalling being tone deaf, but drivers seem to have undying patience to work out where you want to go. I have on more than one occasion had a taxi driver indicate that if I knew how to get to where I wanted to go to he would take me there if I navigated- so I am thinking of taking ‘the knowledge’ test for Yangon as I can usually get home. An Australian colleague tried to improve my pronunciation of my street Kan St and we came up with something like ‘ga st’ I proudly tried this out the following day only to meet with a complete blank – eventually after a group consultation with about 6 taxi drivers they said “oh you mean Kan St’ so since then I have stuck to a less subtle pronunciation. I used to say ‘Kan St opposite the lake’ until I discovered that Kan means lake. If all else fails I always carry a map.

The next step is to fix a price. So part of ‘the knowledge’ is to know how much a journey is worth. Generally it is a bit of a light hearted game or banter and quite formulaic with plenty of smiles resulting in a reduction of about 20%. I have had drivers set off having fixed a price for a journey they don’t even know the length of because I am navigating and have told them what I will pay. They have also refuse extra fare when I have shared a taxi and multiple drops were required.
I have had drivers offer me bananas, water, drive with the car full of plants so they could hardly see out, overloaded with 5 passengers. If you leave anything in the taxi – valuable or otherwise – they will look after it and go out of their way to get it back to you.

About the only negative experience has been when a driver said he needed to stop for fuel and I was taken to a taxi only garage with a very long queue. Petrol was being poured in by a garden hose via the boot and each car was taking about 20 minutes so I had to leave him to it as I really didn’t have the time to wait for hours.

The ultimate taxi experience came on Sunday with a day trip to Bago. Three of us were driven out of town and around Bago, the former capital full of golden pagoda, places and on this day, floods. Wonderful to visit out of season – then driven home to our door.

So a very positive experience of taxis but of course, this is really a reflection on the Myanmar people as a whole as the are so calm, caring, kind, open, friendly and honest. Something surely even the rapid changes here can’t alter.

It’s not all work but …

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VSO

VSO is an international NGO fighting poverty through volunteering. Theoretically volunteers live and work side by side with some of the poorest people to improve lives.

VSO Myanmar

Myanmar is a country of significant and rapid change.  The county’s transition to democracy after years of military rule has heightened expectations of political transformation and quality of life.

However, Myanmar remains one of the world’s least developed nations despite being a fertile country, rich in natural resources.  The 2014 census found that 29% of people in rural areas – where 71% of the population resides – live below the poverty threshold, in urban areas the poverty incidence is estimated at 15%. The county is ranked 148 out of 188 on the Human Development Index.

VSO has a three-pronged strategy to support the transition to a more equitable, open and accountable society by:

  • Improving education services
  • Improving healthcare provision
  • Promoting civil society and social accountability – especially in terms of engaging women’s voices.

My role is within the civil society programme – working to help develop the capacity of a number of small community based organisations and medium sized NGOs as well as Intermediate Support Organisations. Civil society organisations play a vital role in holding government to account, demanding better services, and representing the interests of different stakeholders. In Myanmar the space for civil society to operate has been strictly limited in recent decades but this is changing.  I hope to contribute to creating a vibrant and diverse civil society – connecting communities and building social inclusion.

FHI360

VSO recruited me but my post is part of a much wider civil society strengthening initiative by FHI360, resourced through USAID and I now work within FHI360. FHI360 is an American human development organisation that operates in more than 60 countries.  The name FHI360 reflects the integrated approach to human development challenges believing that everything is connected, health, education, nutrition, environment, economic development, civil society, gender, youth, research and technology.

Reality

In reality it seems like a strange double life. As you can see the FHI360 offices are modern and well equipped employing a great team of mainly local staff but with a smattering of other nationalities as well.  There are currently 4 VSO volunteers working within the technical team and our status is slightly strange.  VSO gets paid to provide the volunteers, the volunteers receive a living allowance from VSO, we work within FHI360 but are not technically part of FHI360 as we are not employed by them.  So whilst others have their company cars and live in nice houses, the VSO team travel by bus and live on the other side of the tracks in tiny apartments.

When working in the field the conditions are very different as illustrated by a visit to Myitkyina last week. Myitkyina is in the far north of Myanmar in Kachin state some 1480 kms from Yangon so the easiest way to get there is to fly via Mandalay.  The climate is much more pleasant than Yangon, it is cooler and on two of the days was overcast so that it felt like a really good summers day in UK.  The town has a population of 200,000 but you wouldn’t know it as all the buildings are low rise and there is so much green that buildings just disappear.

Unlike Yangon where they are banned, local transport is predominately motor bike – at last an opportunity to use the helmet I brought all the way from UK!  The training took place in a typical wooden single roomed stilted building and we relied on low tech training aids and mostly worked on the floor.  The evaluation has encouraged us to return to help the local team finalise some detailed planning.

On our half day off Addy our interpreter/Mr Fixit borrowed motor bikes and we had a brilliant day out wondering around the local countryside including the confluence of the Mali and N’mai rivers that flow to make the Ayeyarwady – so its not all work.

Thingyan – Happy New Year

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It’s raining! So I have rushed outside to my balcony to watch the shower and receive a little relief from the steaming temperature and high humidly. It isn’t actually monsoon time yet but you can tell it is coming by the sale of robust umbrellas, clearing of open drains and my neighbour starting work at 6am to replace his lead-too roof. I fear this light shower is nothing to what is coming.

 

So on to the matter in hand – Happy New Year, Thingyan or the Water Festival welcomes Myanmar’s New Year falling in mid April, right in the middle of the dry and hot season, this three day festival is celebrated in a most raucous manner – by throwing buckets of cold (and often dirty) water at anyone daring to take to the streets – foreigners are well and truly included. In Yangon and other cities throughout Myanmar temporary stages are erected with water barrels, and even high pressure hoses ready to douse all passers by.

 

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State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is doused with water on the last day of the festival.

 

 

The festival these days is mainly a time of fun but on a spiritual level, Myanmar people believe that during this three day period the king of the nat (spirit beings), Thagyamin visits the human world to tally his annual record of the good and misdeeds humans have performed.  Flowers and sacred leaves are placed in front of their homes to welcome the nat.  Thagyamin’s departure on the morning of the third day marks the beginning of the new year, when properly brought up young people wash the hair of their elder kin, Buddha images are washed and monks are offered particularly appetising alms food.

 

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Cameron Highlands

 

Apart from the severe heat and wetting the realty is that the festival is like the worst of all British Bank holidays. Half hour journeys to the airport taking 5 hours because of the traffic and every plane and bus ticket booked for months in advance as people take advantage of the 5 days off to visit family. For those that stay put ALL shops shut for 5 days and in Yangon where there are literally hundreds of restaurants – about 5 stayed open for the festival.  This really didn’t seem like a good time to introduce husband to the joys of Myanmar – so like many others we skipped out and met up in Kuala Lumpur then headed to the cool air of the Cameron Highlands – as so many Brits have done in times gone by and finished with a spell on the coast where it might have been as hot as in Yangon but where we at least with a beautiful swimming pool at our disposal – had control as to when we went for a dousing.

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Swimming pool

The Glass Factory – A mini post

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Nagar Glass Factory is a short stroll through the back lanes of my ‘village’ in Yangon. Started in 1952, it was destroyed in 2008 when cyclone Nargis devistated its production facilities.

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It still has an enormous stock of glassware scattered in heaps throughout the jungly grounds. It is an extraordinary place to dig and explore.

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I have found a few pieces which are now being cleaned and polished ready for collection next weekend.

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The number 36 bus

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A very smart version of the 36 Bus

Obviously my blogs are going to be like the number 36 bus seen above – several arrive at the same time. It would be good to think that the content of the blog will be as jammed as the bus is every morning and night, literally packed with people like a sardine tin, all hanging on for dear life as we charge along the roads at break neck speed and even more aggressive breaking – although I am not sure anyone could fall over in the bus as it is so full but there could be a nasty crush. One slight down side is that if you get caught in the middle of the crowd you have no idea whether you have reached your destination as you can only see the heads, chests and arms of the maze of people all around you and you literally have about 10 seconds to get off – still for a flat fare of 12p what do you expect.

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The bus routes – unfortunately they don’t have any resemblance to reality

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Yangon Railway Station

Last weekend was a three day break so the VSO team went ‘up country’ to get away from the heat, pollution and concrete.  We all 7 from Yangon met at the railway station to take a train to Thandaung in Kayin State – half way between Yangon and Mandalay. The station is amazing as it clearly has not been touched since the days of the British Raj – I thought of my father who used this station on many occasions and am sure he would recognise its sounds, smells and sights which I am sure have hardly changed. 

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Waiting for the train – Yangon Railway

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We caught the 1500hrs to Mandalay and treated ourselves to a slightly elevated carriage status, lovely big comfy chairs with leg room for the tallest person but still no glass in the windows – quite wonderful to watch the town and its smells slip away and slide gently and quickly into the flat, fertile land beyond. 

 

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Leaving Yangon

Railways and the life lived in the land immediately next to the track are always fascinating – probably best of all were the little smartly kept stations (once again the originals I am sure) and the station master at each station standing on the platform edge with his green flag – not for passengers but to give the all clear to the approaching train as it ‘sped’ through at 30 miles an hour.

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As the sun went down we opened warm smuggled gin, tonic (very difficult to find) and limes into plastic cups and life seemed perfect.

 G & T

On arrival at Taungoo at the base of the hill resort it was dark, we set off to walk to the guest house only to discover it was going to be a bit of a hike – so ended up taking motor bikes and side cars – another first for me.  We lost one person to food poisoning but otherwise we all went to bed very content.

 guest house

The Guest House

The next morning I was up early to take sunrise shots and eventually we all piled onto the floor at the back of a truck for the 4 hour journey to take us up to 4150 ft and the peaceful hill resort of Thandaung. A great journey up the hill as the road twisted higher and higher and the view of the pristine jungle grew wider and wider in waves of blue and purple mists – we did what only Brits would do in such a situation and sang ‘We’re all going on a summer holiday’.

 truck

A very sociable form of transport – the truck

bikes from back of truck

View from the back of the truck

The area around  has been out of bounds to foreigners until recently so our motley crew (swelled by two extra volunteers from Mandalay) drew some interest with the locals who insisted on showing us round their villages and humble homes, a truly authentic experience.  We on the other hand stayed in a Victorian hill station bungalow, light and airy and full of 1912 charm.

 sun rise 2

Sunrise Thandaung at sunrise

mountain view

Mountain Viewmother and baby village

Isn’t she beautiful!

old man

92 years old Cameleon

Great to see some wild life other than stray dogs – a chameleon that soon turned brown

Plenty of walking, talking to locals and doing our civic duty by calling out the fire brigade to yet another forest fire (there were 3 in the 2 days we were there) and being seen off by the military when we asked if we could see their fort station.  All low key but a complete change to our lives in the cities – where we returned this time by express bus and for once we were all allocated seating – except for those that joined along the way who sat on plastic stools in the aisles which was till definitely a step up from the number 36 bus ………………

 another 36 bus