* NB. This post was written prior to recent events!
‘The Simple Life’ do you remember that programme with Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie? Well, I feel a little like that here. In comparison to those girls I’m rather enjoying this slower and more simple pace of life, even if with certain aspects of living, you have to get a little creative from time to time! I have been in northern Shan State for four days now and the experience here has been great! The UK government recommend not visiting this area (Northern Myanmar; Shan and Kachin States) for all but essential travel. However, I really haven’t found there to be any issue here for foreigners. We are a rare species in these parts and so people will often do a double-take when they see you in the street, but as time goes by, these areas of Myanmar are opening up to the outside world making things easier for foreign travel. There are no ATM machines in this area though, the closest are in Lashio, so make sure to have enough local currency with you.
The reasons behind the UK government advisories are due to the continued risk of armed conflict in these areas. These are primarily between the government forces and the local militia. I was really concerned after reading the information found on those UK government pages. They state that, “The situation in ethnic states (Kachin / Shan) where armed groups operate is volatile.” In the little sleepy village I’m residing in within Shan State, I haven’t yet seen one thing to make me think that this is true. In the nearby town of Kutkai, nothing has struck me as being unusual or dangerous either – except for perhaps trying to cross the road!
That’s not to say that extreme caution shouldn’t be taken within these areas, but I feel that you should take caution wherever you travel in the world. Especially in areas where there could be potential violence. It was hard for me to imagine what sort of place I had agreed to come to after reading what was on the UK government website but the reality feels so different where I am, but then again, as local people have told me, this is always subject to change.
The people here are extremely kind and the positioning of Myanmar at the top of the Global Generosity Index is well reflected across the board in everyday life. Everyone helps one another, supports their community and shows kindness to strangers. Foreigners here are seen as a ‘special guest’ of sorts and are very well looked after. This is a cultural quality I have found of the people of Myanmar, all over the country. I have felt welcomed into the community, enjoyed a drink before lunch with the wife of the General of the KP Militia Force whilst out with the teaching team and I was invited to a house warming celebration too; everyone has been exceptionally warm, kind and friendly. And as I have already said… I have only been here for four days!
More recently, it has come to my attention that the reason behind the ceasefire in this area and the relative safety of our village is entirely down to the hard work and dedication of the father of our director here at the school. He was the General of the Kachin People’s Militia Force (KPMF) and drove the Burmese army out of the village helping to regain peace and safety for all of the village inhabitants. His hard work has allowed for positive child-centred education programmes such as the one I am involved with, to take place. Not all towns and villages within these states are so lucky so if you’re thinking of travelling to this part of the world, ensure you are working with a reputable charitable organisation and have knowledge of the area you are visiting.
If you’re travelling independently, keep your whits about you and stay safe. The interest in these states where conflict is concerned isn’t in reference to foreigners, just in conflict between the different military organisations. I still have a lot to learn about the history of this area and the reasons behind such conflict in this region but these are the basics of what I have found.
The village in which I’m residing, is actually a lot smaller than it used to be! 10-15 years ago when the Burmese government were still in control of the region, the village was bustling town with a huge industry. That industry, was opium. Unlike other parts of Myanmar, the opium here was grown by local farmers. Fields and fields of poppies could be found and drugs such as opium, heroin and amphetamines were freely available and even sold openly at the local market! The trade was rumoured to have been actually supported by the government (another reason why the KPMF drove the Burmese army out of the area) although this hasn’t ever officially been stated. Drug factories were at regular intervals along the Chinese / Myanmar border. It was the biggest industry in the area. Due to this huge influx of drug related trade, a casino hotel was built right in the centre of town. Drug fuelled gambling was common place as was the fall out that came with it. Due to the new rulings in this area, the casino is a distant memory (although apparently from time to time, the odd passer-by will come to the windows of the old casino building waving notes in the air!) and now serves the community as a school and a teacher training academy! This is where I am based and it is all run through the service of the church and charities.
Sadly though, the effects of the drug industry here are still present, and most families have at least one person who is addicted to amphetamines, putting both a financial and emotional strain on the families here. But most people in the village live freely, in the happiness that comes with peace. They have freedom to study as they wish, make an honest living from crops and livestock as opposed to drugs, and can wander the streets openly without risk to their life. Is this wholeness of wellbeing not the main component of simple living? Appreciation for everything you have and accepting the things you don’t. This is the real meaning of quality of life.
So, I went a little off track; back to simple living – in a standard of living sense (not in terms of quality of life!). In Myanmar the water is not good to drink. As with many countries in this part of the world. The fact that at home we can simply turn the tap and instantly have drinking water is such a luxury! We honestly forget how lucky we are. Hot water is a distant memory, as are toilets with seats (we have a squat toilet here – although I do have my own private one!), but also, the toilets here don’t have a flush – so it’s back to a bucket and water to wash away the sewage. All clothes washing is done by hand, and there certainly isn’t such thing as a tumble drier! Then again, in the warmth of the daytime sunshine such things just aren’t required. All the cooking is undertaken outside, as is eating that food. The outside cooker is heated by a fire rather than from electricity or gas like many of our ovens at home. And what about central heating? Being in the foothills of the Himalayas, it gets pretty chilly at night! Well.. put on a jumper! I haven’t seen a fridge since I got here so I’m not entirely sure if one exists. From what I can gather, fresh produce is bought on the day it’s going to be used, so there isn’t much need for storing food for a long time. There isn’t a supermarket, at least not for a two hour drive (making the assumption that there is one in Lashio!).
Life is very different here to that of home. It’s 100% community and family orientated (rather than revolving entirely around a strict work / fitness / social schedule). Families spend lots of time with one another which is wonderful to see, quite often living under the same room for a considerable proportion of their lives. And life here is just, well, slower than at home. It’s beautiful.
There’s time even in the busiest of days to read a book, relax and unwind. At home, it often feels like we just rush from one appointment to another, from work to home, to the shops, to meet someone for coffee. Even our social activities can put a strain on our life. We overbook ourselves, and sometimes just need to learn to say ‘no, I’m sorry, I’m too busy this week.’ But instead we insist on cramming in as many things as we can into our weeks. And then wander why we feel tired, or get ill. Or why time just simply disappears. Hours turn into days, days into weeks and weeks into months, all at supersonic speeds. And before we know it we’ve aged 20 years, have somehow missed having the time to concentrate on ourselves. Learn about who we are.
Whilst I’m here in this beautiful country, I’m going to take a bit of time for me. I’m going to learn more about myself whilst doing what the main focus of travelling to this faraway land in the first place was; to teach young adults how to speak English, so that they can go out into the world equipped with all the skills they need to achieve what they desire.
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