Education to Prevent Exploitation

Imagining a new future for the youth in communities is what got us dreaming of what is now Myanmar Adventure Outfitters.  After living on the border of Thailand and Shan State for 3 years and seeing a mass exodus of Myanmar's youth, we envisioned creating new opportunities.  In rural communities two common threads resound: lack of jobs, and lack of education to qualify one for good jobs.  What this results in is looking to neighboring countries like Thailand and China as a places with greater earning potential, and so the illegal risky move to neighboring countries entices, places where they have no rights, no legal status, and are more often than not exploited in a variety of ways; sometimes low wages, sometimes unpaid wages, sometimes forced labour, sometimes slavey, and sometimes sexual slavery and prostitution.  

One of the villages that we spend a lot of time in, and our favorite village to take clients to, in this village we've gotten to know a 14 year old spunky adventure girl who can climb any tree, jump off waterfalls, and is a sparkplug of energy and joy.  Not too long ago we went to the village and she wasn't around anymore.  So we asked what happened to her, and because of lack of employment opportunities and the fact that she could not finish primary school in the village, she was sent to the China border to work in a karaoke bar.  Fearful of the worst, we began to pray for her safety, and soon after, because of conflict in the town she was in, she was sent home for her safety.

Our 14 year old friend who now gets to do Grade 7.

Our 14 year old friend who now gets to do Grade 7.

So we began the dialogue with the community about the source of challenges like this, and what it comes down to for them is lack of education opportunities.  Their village has primary and middle school, but don't have the last year of middle school (7th year) because of a lack of space at school.  The teacher is willing, but the space does not allow, so they cannot finish in their village what is required for them to go to high school in Lashio, and so some families send their kids away for work.  Discovering a possible solution together with the village and their teacher, we decided to partner our MAO profits, donations from people who helped invest in startup of MAO, and their finances as a community.  We began to work towards a basic addition to their school to enable education to continue in their home environment, however the Ministry of Education offered to add to their school from government funding if they could prove the need.  So, our shift changed to how to upfit the existing small and unavailable space to become another classroom and prove this need.  So, we shifted the funds towards setting up with desks, chairs, and a whiteboard.  

Now we are a few weeks into the school year, and 9 students are in 7th grade.  A huge victory for us in that it prevents the move of people that inspired business in the first place.  It is a huge value to the community, and we are glad to collaborate with them for positive impact.   

 

Participation in Local Culture

We have formed a deep bond with a Shan community over the last 6 months of going in and out with travelers.  The relationship began 9 months ago, visiting their village for the first time, and from day 1, they have been warm and open to tourism and the potential opportunities that inevitably come. But its a real tribute to them, as being open to new things and very foreign-to-them people is really new.  For those who grew up in the west, we've grown up often in places where the world has come to them, places with large populations of immigrants that have formed the fabric of society, but in rural Northern Shan State, new cultures and new ways are all really new, and harder to embrace different cultures and ways of life, so being embraced by this community is exciting for us.  

We are particularly forming a bond with the village leader and his family.  His wife cooks amazing Shan food, and we joke with them about how Shan food is far better than Burmese food, as even many Myanmar nationals also love Shan food.  We always tell her she should open her own restaurant in Lashio, as every time we go there it is something different and always so tasty.  

Shan village leader and his wife at the front steps to their home.

Recently when we've been there to visit, their home is the place where the youth come to practice their traditional dances for Shan New Year celebrations coming up in mid-December and for the recent Tazundaing celebrations (which we'll get to more later.)  The kids in the village know when the foreign travelers have arrived, and are all eager to play games that we bring with us, like Uno (a card game we've taught them to play).  We often spend time together with the kids and their parents learning about their way of life, their culture, and having fun with them.  

For us, it is really fun and a warm environment, and I think they enjoy us as well.  And we do our best to fit into local culture and dress.  However, it is also a new income stream for their family, as we make donations for their hospitality and pay for their amazing Shan food.  And we are happy to have created new opportunities in their community, and are always on the lookout for new income streams for them, as that is our purpose and desire for impact in Northern Shan rural communities.

Recently they invited us to participate with them in their recent festival, where their village played host to 5 other Shan villages that made their way to their village in the evening to celebrate in dance and music and feasting.  It was a wild and raucous event, and lots to learn about their culture and religious understanding.  It is also an event where young men will meet young women and kindle a relationship that is started through an expression of desire to marry.  

Not every night is a festival night like this, but it is great to be invited into a tight knit community to share in their celebrations.  To us it communicates a depth of relationship and trust that we don't take lightly, and it inspires us to keep on investing in this community.

Adventures of Rainy Season

Right now we are in the middle of rainy or monsoon season, which means we can have fun, but it will certainly involve getting muddy and dirty.  Its God's decision, not mine, and we are left to figure out how to have a safe adventure despite environmental changes.  This means that every adventure can look drastically different depending on weather changes.  Some of our pictures are taken in hot season, when the paths are dry and the river is clean and not filled with dirt eroded from the hillsides resulting in a brown slurry that is the rivers in rainy season.  Some things we cannot do, and some things we can do with greater effort, and some things involve getting wet anyways, so why not embrace the rain!!

If you're willing to get dirty and embrace the mud, we can have a lot of fun.  Scroll through the carousel below of fun in rainy season so far.  Some days are sunny, and some are rainy and muddy, so there is lots of adventure to be had still.

Photos are by the amazingly talented Dewi Natalia from Bali.  Check out her work at: www.forasiacheersphotos.format.com.

Exploring Local Waterfalls

A blog post 6 months ago, we highlighted a waterfall in a small village, a 45 minute ride from Lashio.  In the past week, we've been back there twice, and there are many falls and little nooks and crannies to explore around and in and behind waterfalls.  I shot a short 360 degree view video from one vantage point in the falls.

Come and explore Dark Horse falls with us on a trip to Northern Shan State soon.  We can engage with the area and the community around the falls through Mountain biking, motorcycling, hiking, river tubing, and connecting with the village people.

Investing in a Community Ravaged by Fire

Namhsan, a small ridge top city in the green tea producing highlands of Northern Shan State was ravaged by a fire a week ago that destroyed 209 homes and businesses.  It started in a tea processing factory at 1 PM, and the ridge top winds blew the fire faster than the fire department could contain it.  A small community’s business center was 12 hours later decimated.  Fortunately no one was hurt or injured, but the wreckage will take many months, if not years, to rebuild.  The local aide response has been resounding, which we are so happy to be part of a community in Northern Shan State that helps in the face of disaster.  

Downtown Core of Namhsan

Downtown Core of Namhsan

For Myanmar Adventure Outfitters, as newcomers to the area, Namhsan is not even a location we had been to, but the area around there is appealing for adventure travellers, so we spent a day to help out and explore.   Our vision is to “Explore & Invest in communities along the Burma Road from Lashio to China”, and although Namhsan is not in this specific area, it is a community in our greater Northern Shan State area.  

Our MAO truck, a carrier of relief to Namhsan

Our MAO truck, a carrier of relief to Namhsan

We sorted through our things personally and contributed several bags of our own clothes and toys (from our kids) and delivered other clothes contributed by a Lashio-based church, and joined others in purchasing large bags of rice to deliver to 3 families whose homes had been destroyed in the fire.  Our effort is small, but the overall effort is very big, and we are honoured to be use our new truck to reach this community and be able to bless three families sorely affected by this tragedy.  

Secondarily, the windy trip to Namhsan from Lashio provided some inspiration regarding adventures we want to explore more.  The headwaters of the Dohtawaddy River emerge from a narrow steep valley below the 7000 ft high mountains above, which provide a network of trails to and from the river and beautiful opportunities to explore this turquoise canyon river.  So, we will seek the necessary permissions and need to explore further in these isolated communities about the feasibility and how we can be impactful in these areas.  

Bridge in the Dohtawaddy gorge

Bridge in the Dohtawaddy gorge

At the end of the day, we feel satisfied to live out our vision of exploring and investing, and look forward to future explorations in this area.  

Moving Forward...Slowly!

Photo courtesy Chris Sinclair

Photo courtesy Chris Sinclair

Our heart is to create impact in our community through adventuring in the communities along the Burma Road and bringing new opportunities to the people in these isolated areas.  I just returned from Thailand, where I could speak Burmese with so many people, evidence of the mass exodus of Myanmar's people looking for job opportunities abroad.  Hopefully in their risk of seeking employment in another country, like Thailand, China, India, Malaysia or Singapore, they find good work, where they get paid justly and are not mistreated, but that is the exception and not the rule.  Our vision is to create jobs in rural Northern Shan State, where education and employment is limited, resulting in great risk for a job abroad, leaving family members behind, and potentially risking their safety for a chance at a better life.  Trafficking, forced labor and prostitution, unpaid wages, human slavery, forced marriages to Chinese men...these are all common potential outcomes for people from Shan State living abroad.    

Myanmar Adventure Outfitters will make impact, but getting there is a slow process in starting up, and jumping through all the hoops.  Merely the legal process has taken us nearly 6 months to start the business and we are not done yet. We are on location now, and can start to develop the business, what we will offer, and make connections in communities outside of Lashio where we will take travellers. But to do this right, to really honour the people, it takes time to build relationships where they are valued the way that they deserve, and not just used for our benefit.  Everything seems to happen slower in Myanmar. Even wire transfers, which has taken now 3 weeks to transfer, and has still not arrived. We are ready to start moving forward, purchasing equipment, developing our service, but are at the mercy of a slow system.

To those who are following us, we hope to represent more than just the beauty of our area through our Instagram and Facebook feeds, and in the next couple months we hope to start offering travellers a small sampling of the service we will develop as relationships form, and through this to make economic and social impact in the region.  

Exploring Dark Horse Falls

We had friends visiting from Yangon who wanted to get off the beaten track a little bit, and so we took this as the perfect opportunity to get out of Lashio and show them one of the treasures around Lashio.  There was a new road that we wanted to try, and so my family along with 2 other young families jumped on 3 small motorbikes and headed down the highway.  After a faulty fuel gauge on our Chinese motorbike left us stranded roadside for 10 minutes, we were on our way shortly after leaving Lashio on the highway.  The first turn off the highway took us down a windy and hilly road with Palaung villagers tilling and weeding amongst their corn fields, doing their diligence of maintaining their crops.  The road was smooth and the view of mountains in the background and manicured fields made for a beautiful trip.  

As the trip lasted longer and longer, the road became a lot more bumpy and muddy.  This road again winded up and down between jungles and fields, passing water buffalo along the way.  There were some other waterfalls we saw that will have to wait to another adventure, and going through a military base which required special permission for our company.   Ten minutes past the military base, we came to the rickety old bridge that crossed over to a village.  The village has a couple places to get Shan noodles and a tiny market, but other than that, it is a quiet and peaceful town, with people washing their laundry in the fresh spring coming down the hill, and holding down the fort at home with the kids while the rest of the family is working the corn fields and rice paddies along the hillsides.  

Our group is quite the picture to the locals.  Rarely do they see foreigners, and being three foreign families with young kids, which they love, but who all look very different from their own kids...we are quite the sight!  Knowing our way around the village, this time we made our way straight to the waterfalls, and told our friends at the Shan noodle shop that we would be back in a couple hours to eat.  So, we marched down a little overgrown jungle trail which dives down the hillside into the river valley. Winding down for a few minutes, we end up at the bottom of the Dark Horse Falls.  The water is a little dirty from the rains we’ve started to get during the late start to rainy season, but not so mirky that a swim isn’t tempting.  I decided to jump in and go for a swim, and soon my friends jumped in too, while our wives watched the kids wade on the banks and dig in the mud.  I swam over to the falls, and as I got closer, the water was shallow enough to stand up and walk behind the waterfalls, behind the veil, so that my friends could no longer see me.  A pounding wall of water separating our view of each other.  But this enticed them even more, and soon all of us were sharing in the adrenaline of swimming behind the falls and trying to stand beneath the weight of the pounding water dumping from 20 feet above.  

The incomplete view of dark horse Falls from above.  

The incomplete view of dark horse Falls from above.  

This only gave us fuel to explore more.  Two of us found a place next to that fall which was a challenging wet climb up to the next falls, and upon weighing the risk, we went for it reluctantly, but with anticipation.  Our other friend skirted this climb and found his way to other falls.  But as we climbed up to the next level of the falls, we found that the next 100 feet of the falls was a slight uphill with rocks that our feet stuck to, even though the water rushed over our ankles and plunged 20 feet to the pool we’d just been swimming in.  The rock on this level was almost like a sloped plateau, separating two plunging waterfalls.  But this plateau was unique.  Its as if the water has carved out curling waves into the limestone slab, which the rushing water curls over side to side down the slope before it cascades over the edge into the pool below.  We walked up this slope to the base of the next falls, and discovered our wives way below, pointing to their watches, giving us the sign that it was time to go.  We had explored, but there was still so much to explore, but it would have to wait to another time. 

So, back down to our wives and kids, clothes back on, everyone cleaned up, and the short hike back to the village, as the smiles of many villagers give us joy as we head back to our motorbikes and the Shan noodle shop.  I offered to pay for Shan noodles and water for all 12 people, which sounds generous, but cost me less than $7 USD.  For our friends, it was their last day in Lashio, and they had a bus to catch.  For us, we are working on establishing a residence there once our business license is approved, and we will have many chances to learn and explore again and again.  So, knowing the road and driven to catch the bus, this time we cruised back, cutting our time nearly in half from the journey earlier in the day.  

heading back up to  village

heading back up to  village

This time we explored Dark Horse Falls, but there is so much more we are convinced.  Next time, I will need to go out in the morning, and spend most of the day there to really learn all the possibilities and learn more from the people in the village.  Living with this in their back yard, I am sure they can share many stories or more ideas about local places to see.