Month 2 in Myanmar

Time is passing quickly, this post is a few weeks overdue! Here are some things that have filled my time.

My final week in Yangon

On my last Friday, I went out on the town, first for some roller coasters. People’s Park is the 3rd ride park I’ve been to that was developed by a socialist/communist dictatorship government (the first were in Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan). Maybe this is an experience I need to collect, like I collect haircuts and salons when I travel. I went with Erica, a new friend I met in my Myanmar language class. The rides look so simple and stupid, and then you get on and THEY ARE SO SCARY but also make you giggle too. After sunset we also enjoyed fantastic views of Shwedagon.


Leaving the house in Yangon
[Sunset at People’s Park]

Leaving the house in Yangon
[Shwedagon by night]

Later we joined Ivan, also from Myanmar class, at Seven Joint. A Jamaican bar, in Myanmar, with live music featuring the songs of Train, Pharell, and Bryan Adams. Let’s just say it was trippy.

I also went on a free walking tour of downtown Yangon, explored a few other areas of the city, and finally visited Shwedagon, possibly the main site to see in Yangon, and for good reason. Stunning. Peaceful. And free, fast wifi.

[Prettiest old building in downtown Yangon]

[Exploring neighbourhoods of Yangon]

[Waiting for the local train]




Moving to Mawlamyine

This was the town I expected to be living in all along, but it made sense for me to spend my first bit of time in Yangon. Mawlamyine is the 4th largest city in Myanmar, but really it’s just a big town. No high rises, few apartment buildings. Lots of homes over stores, old houses. Interesting colonial architecture tucked in narrow alleys. A river front. Pagodas. MOTORCYCLES (there are none in most of Yangon…they are illegal on the road) and therefore fewer cars, which I love. Only a few traffic lights (I think I’ve seen 2). So much quieter.

I live with a roommate (another Cuso volunteer from Edmonton, placed with a different organization) in a two bedroom, one story small house in a little village outside of town, near the university. Think dirt roads, dogs, goats, the odd cow, burning piles of leaves, small market, university students living together and singing karaoke.

[The house]

We’re slowly setting up house, figuring out our routines. Our water comes from a well on our lot, and all fixtures are gravity fed. We shower by pouring water from a small bucket over our heads. I usually treat myself and boil a bit of water to add to the large bucket, just to take a bit of the cold edge off. Lots of mosquitos, even with screens. About 8 different tile patterns used throughout the house on different floors and walls makes for visual interest. Very variable power supply (power goes off from 5 min to 36 hours at a time, the voltage changing dramatically over time) which makes for interesting fan air flow.

Still going to work

Still doing the same sort of work (though now I’m beginning to do more hands-on work –  training community researchers and collecting data through interviews and focus group discussions). However, my days look much different. Let’s compare the two.

Yangon: 30min-1hr commute in heavy traffic on a 6 lane roadway by bus. Office with about 15 staff on the 3rd floor of an office building. Neat little neighbourhood on the way. A few other foreigners at the office. A great restaurant where I can get yummy veggie dishes with rice if I didn’t bring a lunch.

Leaving the house in Yangon
[Waiting for the bus]

Leaving the house in Yangon
[My favourite corner on the walk to work]

Leaving the house in Yangon
[Shared lunch]

Leaving the house in Yangon
[View from the stairwell]

Mawlamyine: <5min walk to work on mostly dirt roads. Office with 3 staff and 1-2 local volunteers. Office in an old house with beautiful wood floors and roof beams. No other foreigners at the office. Lunch options are fewer, but still yummy.

In addition to computer based work, I’ve also spent a bit more time in Mawlamyine helping my colleagues practice English, learn research methods, and have had a few meetings that really highlight the difference between civil society in big city Yangon, and civil society in more rural Myanmar.

[Walking to work]

[Walking to work]

[Our new office space on moving day (old office had flood problems)]

Connecting with the expat community in Mawlamyine

There seem to be about 20 foreigners living here, and I’ve met almost all of them. We have a Viber group (Viber is kind of like WhatsApp or Skype, a messaging/call app) to arrange plans, and we usually get together every Friday. It’s a very mixed group, with people from the US, UK, France, Switzerland, Japan, and more that I’m forgetting. Other times people based in Yangon come down for a few days of work and I’ve met a few of them as well. They’ve been very helpful in helping me learn about Mawlamyine (i.e. where to buy flour, cooking sauces, pasta, and other hard-to-find goods).

Celebrating the full moon in October AKA the Festival of Lights

On this holiday, people light candles in the evening (and line them up on their door steps, windows, fences, etc) and during the day time they take day trips. Amanda’s host organization invited us for a day tour, and about 8 of us spent the day visiting some of their friends, going to a temple on the ocean, visiting the busiest beach I’ve ever been on in my lifetime, checking out the Death Railway cemetery (appoximately 4000 Allied POWs died during the Japanese-led construction of this railway in southeast Asia. I’ve been to the other end, in Kanchanaburi, Thailand), and getting rained off the road.

[A friend’s home]

[Kyaikkami pagoda]

[Kyaikkami pagoda]

[Kyaikkami pagoda]

[Kyaikkami pagoda]

[Kyaikkami pagoda]

[Setse beach]

[Thambuziyat cemetary]

Later in the evening I checked out one of the temples back in Mawlamyine and admired everything by candle light.

[Kyaikthanlan pagoda]

[Kyaikthanlan pagoda]


Watching the election process unfold here has been fascinating. I’ve written a post comparing the election here with the election in Canada, and I’ll share it soon so you can get more insight than what western media is sharing.

Have you every considered visiting Myanmar/Burma?

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?

Month 1 in Myanmar: 7 things I’ve been up to

(While based in Myanmar, I am posting both personal travel experiences like this one, as well as non-profit sector-specific posts about my work doing civil society mapping. If you get my blog via email and don’t want to see the personal travel posts or only want to see the travel posts, be sure to update which emails you receive via the link at the bottom of your email).

Here’s a highlight reel featuring 7 things that have filled my first month.

Going to work

I work at Local Resource Centre, generally M-F 9-5. To use North American terminology, LRC does training for local nonprofit organizations and does policy advocacy on behalf of the nonprofit sector to the Myanmar government.

At work. Power outage.
At work. Power outage.

My time here is focussed on figuring out what nonprofit organizations are up to in one of the southern states (Mon state) – who’s doing what, what their training needs are, what government policies help/hinder their work. If time allows I may do more states. In future posts I’ll share some of the practice behind my work (called civil society mapping). While I’m based in Yangon right now, I’ll be moving to Mawlamyine (the capital of Mon) in a few weeks.

Most of my days involve sitting at a desk and reading or writing. A few meetings here and there (e.g. the launch of the EU-funded international aid database, based on open data, very cool!, some UNDP meetings this week). It’ll get more interactive with local organizations once I’m moved.

There are about 15 people in my office, some of whom are often away facilitating training. Lunches = sharesies! I take the public bus to and from work most days – it costs 10-20c each way, and usually about 45 total including a bit of walking.

Sharesies at lunch! The aftermath.
Sharesies at lunch! The aftermath.

Two hospital visits

The first was after not feeling well for a week (I’ll spare you the finer details); the doctor diagnosed giardia, which spell check oddly wants to change to Guardia. The treatment for giardia has not been a treat, and I’m still waiting to see if it sorts my health out.

The second visit was after falling down a few stairs in my house. Slippers be slippery, plus it was the morning after taking my giardia medication and I wasn’t feeling great. Blood pressure at the hospital was 87/59. I took a gash out of my arm, and while I didn’t get stitches, I’ve got the special sticky tape to keep the rip together. I’m not supposed to get it wet for 5 days and I have no idea how I’m going to pull that off with the humidity, multiple showers a day, and the rainy season. That and not bend it. I have to get a colleague to put my hair in a ponytail. It’s a challenge.

And now I have a cold, so basically this last week has sucked a lot.


The weather is consistent here, I’ll give it that. Days are 31 (feels like 38 with humidity), nights get down to 25 outside. I dread the sun, when it gets both hot and humid. I love a dreary day here. I carry an umbrella at all times as is the custom—perfect for sun or rain.

Rain, but the temp was so moderate I walked home from work.
Rain, but the temp was so moderate I walked home from work.

I’m not a huge fan of air-conditioning, but we have been suggested to use it a little bit each day to keep the mould away. I usually put the aircon around 27 to cool down my body and my room before I go to bed.

Rainy season is almost over, then it will be hot and drier for a month or two, and then it’ll be —YAY— cold season, where it gets a bit hotter during the day, but cools down a lot at night. Can’t wait!!

Taking Myanmar classes

I’m taking language classes every Saturday and Sunday, and am totally enjoying it, especially learning to read the letters. So far I know about 8 consonants and 3 vowel tones that sound pretty much identical, which means I know about nothing.

Going to Super Win beer station

This is the Friday night haunt for Ken (my fellow Cuso International volunteer, and roomate) and me. Mugs of draft Myanmar beer are 700 Kyat (pronounced “jat”, about 70c) and you can get almost any type of vegetable/tofu/meat BBQed. Last Friday I invited folks+friends from my language class, including Ivan from Belarus and Erika from New York, and we had a good crowd of 8 in all, coming volunteers, teachers, and telecom consultants from a total of 5 countries.

Super Win!
Super Win!


This what I collect when I travel (other than art) – salon experiences! This cut is possibly my favourite cut ever—in Canada or otherwise—and it cost me 1000 Kyat (about $1). She cut it dry and then blow dried it with cold air. Not sure how that works, but I was pleased with the results. Pity it’s so sticky here and have my hair up all the time.


Digging into Myanmar life

So far I’ve been to a wedding, had lots of mohinga (a noodle soup staple), and done a lot of walking around, exploring markets and side streets and more. I’ve got to experience the horrid traffic, watch the smart phone connected young folk in their K-pop attire, and shower with a bucket of water and a cup (about 20 cups without washing my hair) when the water or power is out.

Baptist wedding ceremony. Beautiful Kayin dress made by grandmother.
Baptist wedding ceremony. Beautiful Kayin dress made by grandmother.

A few more photos from my first month:


Young people hanging out at Inya Lake.
Young people hanging out at Inya Lake.
Fried stuff at Inya Lake restaurant.
Downtown Yangon.
Downtown Yangon.
Pagoda across the river in Dala.
Colonial architecture repurposed.
Local ferries in Dala. Downtown Yangon across the river.
Dala fields.
Shwedagon pagoda.
The kitty that sometimes sleeps on our porch chair.
Insein Road (near my home) by night.
Insein Road by day.
Insein Road by day.

And finally, a bit on the dichotomy on wealth/poverty. These last two are directly across the street from one another.

IMG_1381 IMG_1383