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.

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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.

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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’.

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A very sociable form of transport – the truck

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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.

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Sunrise Thandaung at sunrise

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Mountain Viewmother and baby village

Isn’t she beautiful!

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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

 

Yangon – No More War

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No more war – Yangon

I know, I know I am late with my blog. It didn’t seem appropriate to write about my 8 days in Bangkok waiting for my Myanmar visa and work permit as that mainly consisted of shopping, sightseeing, swimming pools and bike trips – not a great deal to do with poverty reduction. But I left with a visa for 1 year and no need to renew every 70 days which is what most VSO volunteers have to do (good news and bad as the 70 day renewal necessitates to trip to Bangkok with the activities already listed).

My other excuse for a tardy blog is that since arriving I been involved in 3 intensive training sessions in addition to my VSO induction, opening bank account (did you know that I am a MMR millionaire) ‘getting to know everyone socials’ and apartment hunting but more on that later.

So here I am in Myanmar/Burma – either is acceptable here but within the world of NGOs Myanmar is usually used. Interestingly Yangon/Rangoon does not seem to be  an option as apart from the British Embassy it seems that everyone uses Yangon – I have been told that it is because it means ‘No more war’ and it is difficult to argue against that.

So what of Yangon………..

In the countryside people live in dilapidated low rise towns and villages made of mud bricks and bamboo. Bullocks plough the paddy fields, horse carts outnumber cars. In Yangon the former capital but still the most significant city and trading centre with a population of 5 million people (and 133,000 stray dogs), high rises tower over ancient monuments in a city seeing sweeping change. The change brings great contrast. Three years ago a SIM for a mobile phone cost $1000 today it costs $1.5. Public transport is largely limited to a fleet of ancient crammed buses where you can travel the length of the city for 12p, no bikes or motorcycles are allowed so a burgeoning affluent middle class resort to large SUVs which totally clog up the road system making commuting a nightmare – or travel at frightening speed, stopping for no one. Crossing the road is extremely hazardous with 6 lanes of cars and buses that stop for no one – when the traffic is moving it is like crossing the M1. You can have a hot meal for 50p or buy Clarins skincare for double the price you would pay in UK. Yet about 90% of men still wear the longhi – the full length wrap rather than western clothes and many women can still be seen using the white make up/protective covering and most dress traditionally. People are friendly and helpful – especially to western women trying to use the bus system (a very rare sight) and the city feels generally safe with the exception of the traffic, stray dogs that are benign during the day but rule the streets after 10pm, open sewers (especially in the monsoon floods), very uneven pavements and the odd earthquake (last nights was 5.2 which made the chandelier jangle for a while and my neighbours evacuate) oh and a few tropical diseases and poisonous snakes.

‘Downtown’ (the perfect example of British influence being surpassed by American) is a maze of old buildings left over from when Burma was part of the British Indian Raj – being isolated for 50 years has ensured that they have remained intact if somewhat dilapidated, a recent ruling has protected them from demolition in the hope that they can be preserved. Whilst mid and upper town are full of cranes and growing high rise apartment blocks.

The most significant building has to be the Shwedagon Pagoda a gigantic golden stupa rising on the northern fringes of the city – it is so magnificent, significant to the Buddhist community, a potent symbol of national identity and the centre point of the Thingyan or water festival in April that it will have a blog of its own.

 

 

 

Its time to get packing

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So here we go again. The aim is to turn 2017 into a year of doing what I can to help a country that is near to my heart and to have a few adventures along the way.  Not there yet but have started on the journey in all senses – life in UK wound up or put on hold, farewells said and bags packed.

The last statements sounds easy but is one of the worse elements to moving overseas for a while.  Last time I had to account for temperature range of -45C to +48C in Tajikistan – a packing challenge at any time.  With moving to Myanmar you would think it much more straightforward but the list had to cover:

  • Work wear Yangon – quite smart (but no black as that is only the colour of mourning)  able to cope with travelling on the bus to work in 48C with 85% humidity and then (if you are lucky and the electricity is on) air conditioning in the office.
  • Work wear in the country – business like, more conservative and able to cope with having to use a motorbike … and the monsoon.
  • Out of office wear – as with all clothing for – knees and shoulders to be covered at all times so as not to offend local sensibilities – why is it that everything I own is about 4 cms too short.
  • Smart going out wear – invites to weddings are common
  • At home wear – no air conditioning, actually probably ‘no air’ so something to relax and keep you as cool as possible and can break the ‘sensibility’ rules if you remain indoors
  • Trekking wear –
    • dry season – low level (don’t forget the shorts below the knees and shoulders covered rule)
    • wet season – very wet – don’t forget the walking poles
    • Altitude – cold, need thermal underwear, hat, gloves and warm coat.
  • Underwear – cotton only and lots of it as the elastic rots in the monsoon
  • Shoes – suitable for the heat, monsoon and all the occasions above
  • Hats – for once not the formal but the sun and wet variety (+umbrella for the same)
  • Water proofs/rain coat
  • Motor cycle helmet – there has to be a post coming up on that alone
  • Toiletries – we take so much for granted here when it comes to availability of goods.  Try working out how much you need of your favourite shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, toothpaste, dental floss, face wipes, face creams, body lotion, make up, medication .. let alone all the other more specialist items we have in our repertoire.  Its not that the basics are unavailable in the city but simple things like only being able to obtain face cream with whitener can ruin the desired affect.  Any way believe me a years worth weighs about 8kgs alone.
  • Equipment – electronic
    • laptop for work
    • Ipad for entertainment
    • 2 Telephones – one for international use, one for local use
    • camera
    • Electric toothbrush (this is my ‘desert island’ luxury)
    • Leads, chargers and remote power packs for the above
  • Equipment – misc
    • Mosquito net
    • Sleeping bag liner
  • Bags
    • Brief case for work
    • Back pack for travelling up country
    • Handbag – well I have to have one
    • Waterproof sports bags for clothes/computer/phone during the monsoon (and the water festival – more on that later)
  • Cotton Sheets – bought them but they had to be left behind just a step too far
  • First Aid kit – comprehensive kit to cover as many eventualities as possible, including supply of anti malarials
  • Paper work – for visas, work permits, hotel, flights

And by the way your weight allowance is 30 kgs – So when I say I am packed – don’t underestimate the task or the achievement!

Having observed the ‘no black’ rule not only for the mourning connotation but also knowing from Tajikistan the devastating affect dust can have on black clothing, I am in Bangkok to obtain my Myanmar work permit and visa.

Thailand is in the middle of a years mourning for its late King who died last year.  It is most impressive, buildings are adorned with black drapes and messages of love and appreciation for the work he did for his county and his love of his people.  The general population seem to feel a direct connection to their King – and as a result many are wearing full mourning or at the very least dark, sombre colours. As a sign of respect it seems only polite to do the same – if only I had brought some black clothes.

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All the shops and local market are predominately selling black or white clothing.

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But of course, Thailand will always be colourful in its natural state so to finish on a brighter note here are some of the sights from the last week.  An early morning bike ride booked for tomorrow then I should pick up my visa/work permit and pack yet again for the final leg of the journey and the beginning of my work in Myanmar.

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Yes honestly I found this chap in central Bangkok!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Myanmar Diary

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December 2014 saw my last full blog as I returned to Stamford and Rutland from 6 months sabbatical visiting Mongolia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Laos. I have hinted at more action in 2017.  Having made the decision to leave the day job after 25 years to take up consultancy and meander around the world for a while I had 2017 firmly planned.  But that did not account for a lone email asking me to consider a full time post in Myanmar as an Organisational Development Adviser for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO).  The role, location and timing were almost perfect so how could I resist.

There will be plenty of stories to tell about the country, the role, the context and I suspect motor bike riding! But I will not get ahead of myself, once in country I will post weekly blogs but for now will keep you up to date on a few preparations/departure stories and save the interesting stuff until later.

I will leave you with a few photos from my previous visit in 2013.