Myanmar RAKlife Trip - Part 1 (December 2014)

Myanmar (me - an - mar), was the second most reclusive country in the world until 2010. (It  trailed only to North Korea.) Since 2010, the country has shifted to a sort of democracy - as much as one can at least during the transition from having such a brutal government. Naturally, there are still many of those in power that won't allow a true democracy. Thankfully though, the citizens are no longer subjected to jailing, beatings and murder as they were so often during the military reign.

Minthu, our local Myanmar tour guide in Bagan, tells the story: In 2007 gasoline pricing was as low as 200 Kyats (about $.20) per gallon. This low pricing was critical as the average Burmese income was $300 a YEAR. Putting this country in the top 20 poorest nations of the world. The then strict Burmese government watched as for the rest of the world oil pricing skyrocketed and made the decision to stop their subsidies for oil, natural gas and many other commodities. This drove prices in Myanmar up anywhere from 50 to 500 percent. Gas prices in some regions grew to over 2,000 Kyats per gallon, without consideration to citizen incomes.

These increases halted locals’ ability to travel to work and drove many businesses to the point of closure. It also directly impacted the hundreds of monasteries and orphanages in the country that implicitly rely on the donations given from local villages.

The helpless Burmese citizens protested but the military immediately quelled their protests with arrests and brutal beatings. Following this, many of the most well respected Bhuddist monks from across the nation took up to protesting for the people instead. In a shocking event, the Burmese military again came out to brutally shut down the protests by the monks, and in doing so many people were murdered. (No official count was determined but it’s been said that over 200 of the peaceful monks were slaughtered. One devastating event included the military firing bullets into a school, killing both children and their parents as well.) Following these brutal events, coupled with increased pressure from around the world, the strict military government was finally outed and new democratically elected officials took their place.

Our guide, Minthu, teared up as he recalled the tragic deaths of these Bhuddist monks. As you see, the citizens of Myanmar hold their monks to the highest esteem, praying at village temples and offering alms daily even though they have so little to give.

After learning of this tragic history, we decided that an important RAK for us would be to help a monastic orphanage in Bagan. At the orphanage that we found, most of the children came from conflict areas along the border of China or Thailand and have escaped from being forced into becoming child soldiers. Their parents have given the children an opportunity to make a better life for themselves in exchange for most likely never seeing them again.

We spent the greater part of a day there serving these young orphans by helping them prepare lunch, observing their prayers before the meal and cleaning up after. The discipline of these young children was impressive. Without speaking, each child performed their preparation role seamlessly. The head monk explained to us that pre-lunch prayers consisted of 15 minutes straight of unison chanting until they’ve given enough thanks to warrant eating the meal. After lunch, the monks and nuns were surprised whenever we insisted to wash the dishes. After Amber and I were shown the proper method, we cleaned over 100 dishes while the nuns watched over us smiling graciously. - Some of the greatest joys of random acts of kindness come from the humility of serving others by doing some of the most basic tasks.

The best part of this experience was giving the monastery some supplies that we bought them. Minthu explained that all supplies the monastery receives are donated. So to each child we handed out a package of writing books, pens, pencils and toothbrushes. The young orphan monks were silently grateful for such basic supplies, gracing us with smiles and little bows of the head. And I can’t even put into words the controlled excitement when we brought out 3 soccer balls at the end. Over my travels I have realized the impact soccer has on the world and was ecstatic to see that even those living a monastic lifestyle love playing this game.  The headmaster explained that the children have an hour of “free” time from 4 to 5pm everyday and that these balls would certainly go to great use for a very long time.

The following day, on our first day of having no tour guide, we rented electric motor scooters and explored Bagan with no destination in mind.  We first found ourselves at the end of a road that led to a small village along the river. It was Sunday, so the locals were out and about. Women were cooking, men gambling on a local card game, and kids of all ages playing around like only kids can do.

Acts of kindness don’t always require money or gifts - sometimes the most important kindness one can provide is the gift of time spent. So for about an hour we played various Myanmar children’s games with the little ones of this village. It was a special time for us as children all over the world are the same - they just want attention and to be loved.  None of them spoke English so communication was limited to hand signals and gestures, but that was all we needed on that day. We got dirty, jumped from heights only a child could be fearless about, jumped rope and even played airplane (they definitely loved me running around holding them overhead!).  But most importantly, we all laughed together. There is very little in this world more satisfying than hearing a child truly laugh, and being able to provide that for these little ones along with Amber, Jim and Heather was a great gift to our hearts.

We finished the day by stopping by random pagoda. Outside this pagoda, named Pya-tha-da, were a few Myanmar families who had set up shop there. They were hard at work preparing different types of local cuisine. (We had some of the best soup I’ve ever experienced, made by 3 sisters…for only $.50 a bowl!)  As we relaxed and drank tea, the local ice cream man came through. Now this was not an ice cream truck like we grew up with in America, but simply a man on a bicycle with a frozen 5 gallon container strapped on the back along with a bag of cones and a bell. Seemingly the universal sound for frozen treats! Anyway, anyone that knows me knows my greatest weakness in life is ice cream.

What better RAK than treating the locals to my favorite desert? So I slowly got the message out that to anyone who wanted ice cream- I was paying. Children and adults alike came out of the woodwork with joy on their faces. One of the littlest of the children there knew no English and stared at me like I was a big monster, so I knelt down and challenged him to an ice cream eating contest. All his time spent giggling and laughing at me allowed me to come through with the win!

On our final day in Bagan we headed back to Pya-tha-da to do an interview with the father of one of the families we had met. This is part of a new RAKlife idea to create a documentary of the people we help around the world. I asked the man, Tun Tun, if I could sit with him and ask a few questions. What I thought was going to be a quick 10 minute interview while drinking tea turned into him inviting us to sit down to a full traditional Myanmar meal (rice with about a million options to mix with laid out on the table…SO good) with his family.  We all sat around the table together and Tun Tun, his wife, and his father graciously answered my numerous questions about their history, family and thoughts about various Myanmar topics. Once again, on this day, we were awed by the incredible hospitality of the Myanmar people.

The Bhuddist belief in karma has shown through every local Bagan person we met during our 5 day stay here. While RAKlife was able to perform several acts of kindness to those we came across, we were met with just as much kindness from the Myanmar people in return.  It was so amazing to see such happy people willing to share what little they had with a group of Western “tourists.”  While I am sad to leave such a spiritual and special place, I am excited to see what acts of kindness we can help with for the second half of our trip.  We will be visiting another monastery on a lake, trekking to some hill tribes, and if time allows, venturing down to a remote beach town. Looking forward to sharing our story with you all!