Changing the Narrative on Lashio

We knew it wouldn't be easy, starting a tour company off the beaten path...in Lashio.  The vision was always to create opportunities for people and communities where there was little opportunity, so going to a place where no one else was doing anything in tourism development was what we were aiming for, but its hard!  A place not known for good tourism experiences, we knew we had to change the narrative on Lashio, change the perception.  

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When we first connected with the Ministry of Hotels & Tourism in Lashio, they were excited about us coming and had a vision for getting people to go see pagodas in Lashio, and as worthwhile as some of this can be, we saw so much potential in the diverse & isolated communities outside of the city.  People from Lashio scoffed at the idea that we came to Lashio to start tourism, even their narrative was one of a naysayer.  But we've won over even people from Lashio, as now even locals stop me on the street wanting to do tours with MAO, because we've found places and created experiences even Lashio locals never thought possible.  

With Hsipaw just down the road, our challenge has been to get perhaps 3-5% of people who would stop in Hsipaw to continue on up the road to Lashio, and in actuality we are happy to send people on to Hsipaw.  Hsipaw has some great trekking, and we aren't trying to compete with Hsipaw, but rather create unique experiences that would make both stops worthwhile, electing to help develop tourism throughout Northern Shan State, and not pitting Lashio against Hsipaw or Kyaukme or Naunghkio.  So many great opportunities for authentic adventures in Northern Shan!!!

When we first came to Lashio, water festival had shut the town down, and we were left uninspired.  Reading wikitravel, we found the perception of Lashio was one of a big dirty market town with nothing to do.  It is a big town, one of the biggest in Shan State.  It has an amazing market where all of the diverse communities converge for buying and selling.  It is certainly not such a dirty town in comparison to many places in Myanmar. 

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And beyond all this, there are amazing untouched adventures just over the hills of the city.  In my opinion, the best waterfall experience that can be had in all of Myanmar is just outside of Lashio, a feat we've come to achieve by going dozens of times and learning all there is to learn.  But beyond this, MAO has even put some waterfalls on the map that now Lashio's locals know about because we put them on the map.  All of this comes from endless exploration.  North Face, the popular brand, has the slogan "Never Stop Exploring", and we've embraced this mindset.  There is always more to explore, and we are determined to find it, pushing every boundary, leaving no rock unturned.  We've found so many things, and so many places, experiences that few have even encountered with us yet.  For many who have come with us on an adventure, now two years later, there is so much more to do that we didn't even know about two years ago.  

For example, Lashio is famous for hotsprings, but in my opinion, the best hotsprings are not inside the city, but the untouched ones outside of the city, with at least 4 places with amazing hot springs we've only taken a handful of people to, two of which we've never showed to anyone yet.     

 Hidden hotspring river

Hidden hotspring river

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.