Mingling in Myanmar

by Amber Miller

There are so many things to say about our trip to Myanmar. It’s so difficult to even know where to begin that most of the time I don’t even say anything other than “It changed my life forever”.

For those of you who don’t know the backstory: Myanmar, once known as Burma, is located between India and Thailand and has a population of more than 50 million people. It’s been the second most closed off country next to North Korea for years due to a strict military government in rule. In 2010 the country finally switched over to a “more democratic” way of government, anda flow of tourists began to trickle in.

Because of the fact that so few tourists have gone to Myanmar, the people there are still in somewhat of their natural state. For many, life has gone on largely unchanged for over 2500 years. Hence, why we decided to go there at the exact time that we did.

The thing we didn’t realize before going though, is that because of Myanmar’s long self isolation to the world, the people there are now both very welcoming and also extremely curious of the outsiders who come to their land. Take a trip outside of the major cities and its easy to be the only non Burmese person in any given place. One of the days of our trip we actually visited a village where no outside person had ever set foot. Get that? No outside person had ever set foot. The story of that experience on that day is a whole different blog post of its own, but let me just say that this is something I didn’t even realize was possible in our world today.

Anyway, there are 2 things that I’d like to tell you about here that I think will explain more than enough.

UKI

Many people have asked me about the story of Uki, my now sponsor child from Myanmar.

Uki is 6 years old and is currently in her first year of schooling. She comes from a very poor family living in an extremely poor village outside of Ngapali, Myanmar. When I say poor, I mean that they have no electricity, no roads, and very few toilets in their village. The few families that do have toilets are just the Asian style toilets dug into the ground. Uki’s father is very ill and can no longer walk. Her mother works all day each day to be able to feed Uki along with her older brother and sister.

Like many of the children in her village, Uki attends English school 6 evenings a week after already spending the daytime at her regular school. The children do this because they are so eager to further their education and have big dreams of a brighter future. Many of them show up to the English school hours before their classes even begin. Does this make you think a little about kids here in America? What we were like growing up?

This English school she attends in Lintha Village was started by a woman named Sue originally from the UK, known by the locals as Mama Sue. The rumor is that after a trip to Myanmar in the late 1990’s that Sue sold everything she owned and moved to Myanmar to take care of the locals in Ngapali who’s hearts she fell in love with. She was first touched by the plight of a boy who’s mother couldn’t afford to feed him or send him to school. Sue decided to sponsor that boys education… and now fast forward to today where Sue has built an English school that is now a safe haven for almost 400 children.

If all my life consisted of doing is what this woman has done, I would be extremely happy for the rest of my days.

 Children in front of the schoolhouse before class begins

Children in front of the schoolhouse before class begins

Through Mama Sue’s English school is where first I met Uki, and where I met countless other children who shared their stories with me. The children there dream of someday becoming doctors and architects. Although many of them have never even been into town (just a bigger village) that is only 6 kilometers away. Many have never been inside a car. Let alone have they ever seen an elevator or escalator… Most of them have never even heard of California before.

By meeting Sue and through contact with her I will now be able to sponsor Uki’s education and medical expenses until she’s an adult. Words can’t describe how proud this act of kindness makes me every day along with the tremendous affect this opportunity has already had on my life.

In Myanmar public school is not free and many children are forced to drop out due to their families financial status. They will get a job at a young age or start working for their family just to help them survive.

Healthcare as well is a severe concern for the school. Several children a month are brought to Sue’s door with a condition called encephalitis- an infection that causes swelling of the brain which causes the body to become paralyzed. They know when the children have it because they are no longer able to walk. Encephalitis is very common in this area, and just one example of why health care is so vitally important.

 Uki sitting in the front of her class

Uki sitting in the front of her class

Many children at the school already have sponsors- which are just a number of other tourists who have stumbled upon this very special place. And many children are on a waiting list, just hoping for a better future. If you are ever in Myanmar, please I cannot recommend this experience enough. Sue has a tremendous task at hand and she cannot do it alone.

HAPPINESS

Everywhere we went in Myanmar. Every city, every village, every. single. day. Everyone was smiling.

How is it that people who have so little can be so happy? Why is everyone in Myanmar SO happy all the time?

I once posed this question to a local friend there who explained:

Because of the fact that the people of Myanmar have had so little for so long, they have been forced to figure out something that the rest of us spend our entire lives trying to do.

What is it that they understand?? That Happiness is on you.

It doesn’t matter what you have: material things, relationships, health… It’s still going to be a decision that only you can make every day. Fortunately in Myanmar this has become a collective mindset. A way of life. Just the same way that we as Americans are born to be naturally proud of our country. The people of Myanmar are born with a Collective Happiness. They smile all day every day. They laugh with their family, and friends, and neighbors. They spend their lives outdoors in nature being grateful.

The unfortunate thing though is that this collective happiness is also what has allowed the people of Myanmar to be treated so poorly by their government for so long. They allowed it to be okay, because inside, they were still happy. And unfortunately, they just didn’t know any better.

They have no idea what its like to live in a country where you’re free to do what you like. To be what you’d like. To say whatever you’d like. You know, like the country where we live. America… Where so many of us still struggle to find happiness in every day. And why is that??

For me, being in Myanmar has shown me first hand what it is like to be like these beautiful people- absolutely unequivocally happy no matter what you have.

  My friend May. Made a promise to this girl that next time I come to Myanmar I will hire her to come with me as a translator. May hopes to be a tour guide when she grows up and probably had the best english of anyone that I met there.

My friend May. Made a promise to this girl that next time I come to Myanmar I will hire her to come with me as a translator. May hopes to be a tour guide when she grows up and probably had the best english of anyone that I met there.

The lessons I’ve learned from this trip will carry with me for the rest of my life. I can’t wait to go back in a few years and visit Uki and see how she’s grown.

If you are traveling and you want your travels to be able to change your world, please spend your time away from the resorts. Spend it with the people of that place. Not looking at them from your tour bus. But talking with them. Laughing with them. Doing kind things for them. I guarantee you you’ll be repaid in more ways than you’d ever expected.