12 things I’m thankful for in Myanmar

Big bottles of purified water

One of the scourges of international travellers everywhere is the plastic water bottle. Many people here (foreigners and locals alike) get refillable 20L dispensers delivered. Once you have the dispenser, they’re cheap to refill (50c in Yangon, 30c in Mawlamyine), and they not only deliver to your house, they bring them right to your kitchen.

Well-connected colleagues

When it comes to development work in Myanmar, it’s a small world. If I need a connection, someone likely has it. Most of the Myanmar staff have worked at other NGOs, and international folk are connected to the INGO Forum. Down in Mawlamyine I can count the foreigners on my fingers and toes, and my colleagues are connected to different CSO networks. It’s a small world.


[A gathering of new expat friends]

My friendly neighbourhood restaurant

Yangon: If I’m tired and hungry, I come here because I know I’ll get a good bowl of mohinga (a noodle soup with a fish broth plus some oversized celery-looking vegetable and bonuses of your choice). I get a hard boiled egg and a fried bean curd patty cut up into it. Other options are fish chunks or cut up chicken sausage. As you can see I’m not eating totally vegan here, as is often the case when I travel.

Mawlamyine: There are a few ones I frequent when I go to the market Saturday morning or during the week for lunch. If I can convince my colleagues to go to Victoria (or Witoyiya) restaurant I’m especially happy, but it take a motorcycle ride to get there. Victoria has lots of veggie options, including baked beans (beans!!). Last week I treated two of my colleagues – 8 different dishes, plus rice, and drinks was under $3. Total.


[Not my neighbourhood restaurant, but an example of a group lunch spread]

Friendly people

Thanks to lovely colleagues and connections, I’ve been able to experiences little parts of Myanmar I would never get to as a tourist. The random massage place with the blind masseuse. The mountaintop festival. The homemade dinners. Wonderful.


[With Mi Kun and friends on Bilugyn Island]


Yangon: In the living room, in my bed room, ventilating the bathroom and kitchen, and beside my office desk. When there’s no other way to get cool and move air around.

Mawlamyine: Not enough fans, but I damn sure appreciate what I have.

Peanut cakes

I don’t know what else to call them. The cost 2/30c or 4/50c. The first time I bought them I talked myself up into thinking they were going to taste savoury so that I wouldn’t be disappointed if they were.

But they were just slightly sweet! Like peanut butter cookies in pancake form.
Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found peanut cakes in Malamyine. There isn’t the same level of street food culture. My eyes are on the lookout for other fried treats though.

Bad internet connections

Truly. I’m someone that can easily get sucked into the rabbit hole of the internet, or who can get in the habit of checking various feeds over and over in a cycle. Especially if I don’t have something concrete I have to do (or sometime especially when I do).

Here, I’ve detoxed. I have a very slow connection at work (<50kb/second) and only have data on my phone otherwise (though it’s faster than my work connection). Mobile data is cheap (about $2.50 for 500MB of data) but sometime there isn’t a data hot spot, or something on my phone auto syncs on something unexpected and I blast through my limit. Anyways, I’d rather spend my time and my volunteer stipend on other stuff.

However, this means I’ve been really bad about sharing what I’m up to, and especially bad about sharing photos.

One aside on the topic of internet connections. Imagine if you can a country 5 years ago, cut off, without internet for most except the richest few, and a state controlled media with rampant censorship. SIM cards cost $5000. Fast forward five years and SIM cards are less than $2, mobile is cheap, smartphones can be had for cheap too, and independent media no longer have to get government approval before they publish. All in five years. It’s crazy. From zero to smartphone nation.


[Free (and fast!) wifi upon Shwedagon, Yangon]

Google maps + iPhone

Tip: before you travel to an international destination, get on your phone and zoom all around where you plan to go. When you’re in the new country, even if you don’t use wifi or data (i.e. you have no connection whatsoever), GPS will pinpoint your location and help you find where you are/where you’re going.

Living near bus routes

It’s something I love about where I live in Vancouver too.

Yangon: Depending on how much I feel like walking, I can take the 48, 50, 51, 124, 132, 176, 188, 231, I think. And probably more that I don’t know about.

Mawlamyine: The little bus truck #5 gets me downtown. Here I can walk to work, and take a motorcycle taxi if needed. I carry my motorcycle helmet with me most places, because you never know when you’re going to end up on a motorcycle.


[The number 5 “Bus Kaa”]

Coca Cola

I drink it when I travel. It soothes my stomach. It makes greasy or spicy food go down easier. It’s an after work treat. It’s available everywhere when you need it.

Mawlamyine: I also found Snickers here! I associate Snickers with a soothed stomach, after my issues in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. I need to find more sources for Snickers though, my roommate and I bought the store out.


[Bought out the store. On the lookout for more.]

Medical insurance (thanks Cuso International!)

Being able to get my stomach problems and my torn elbows taken care of without financial worries makes the decision to take care of myself easier. (PS I’m all better now).

A full night’s sleep

My first month in Myanmar, I don’t think I ever got more than 3 hours uninterrupted sleep (I know I don’t have anything on new parents/breastfeeding mamas, but still). And then something broke after I got over my cold, and one Friday, I slept for 9 hours. And then again Saturday night. And then 7 on Sunday night. It’s like I was different person. I think it was a cooler few days that did it, because when it got warm again I slept poorly again.

In Mawlamyine things have been OK so far, even with the heat and the mosquito nets. I’m cautiously optimistic, especially as the weather is supposed to cool down a bit soon (from highs of 36 to highs of 30 or even under!)

What makes living away from home easier for you?