The Long Road To Mandalay (via Hong Kong) Part 4
Tues 27th Sep 2016
Flight to Myanmar was thankfully uneventful after the excitement at Hong Kong Airport, other than witnessing the most spectacular lightning storm further north over Cambodia – which we fortunately kept well away from.
Although the drive from the airport to the hotel in Yangon (formerly called Rangoon) was at night we could see that it was quite different from the highly developed metropolis that we had experienced in Hong Kong, with areas of trees, greenery, and ‘normal’ scale buildings.
Wednesday 28th Sept 2016
The following morning looked out of the hotel window to see a quite different city scape, still busy with some modern developments but also with dilapidated buildings, overgrown areas and a general run down appearance.
We had a welcome meeting at the British Embassy, which was hosted by the British Council. Tristan gave us a really helpful run through of the turbulent history that the country had experienced in the last 70 years. It had just come out of some 50 odd years of military rule, appointing its first democratic government since the 2nd World War. During this time it had largely been cut off from the rest of the world and in fact Western countries had imposed trade embargoes which had had further hampered Myanmar’s development. This was now changing and western countries were becoming more actively involved in the country.
Myanmar sits in a pivotal location, between China and India, both of whom have had long associations with the country. The Chinese in particular have been investing huge sums of money in the country, including funding large scale infrastructure and transport projects – whilst encouraging growth within Myanmar this of course also meets Chinese needs and will allow them to open up the western inland area of China, which has thus far lagged well behind the economic development of their eastern coast. India has also looked to develop in underdeveloped east by investing in Myanmar and it will be fascinating to watch how these two rising giant powers vie for supremacy in the area.
We also got a really informative insight into the local economic and political landscape and how this offers advantages, but also barriers to the development of social enterprise. The British Council has been supporting the development of social enterprises by running a specific development programme in Myanmar and other Asian countries.
We then visited a number of social enterprises in Yangon.
Flame Tree Sewing and Helping Hands operate on the same site. Flame Tree Sewing trains disadvantaged women in embroidery and sewing, making beautifully ornate cushion covers, bags, purses, children’s clothing and jewellery. The women are trained centrally, but can then be given a machine so that they can work at home and look after their families for much of the time, coming together with others regularly to check quality etc. Helping Hands (top image) restores old teak furniture. Skilled craftsmen work alongside children who were previously living on the streets to train them to work with the wood, restoring furniture and making new kitchen equipment such as bread-boards, spoons and salad servers. The children are also given a basic education.
We had lunch at LinkAge, which is a small restaurant on the first floor. LinkAge trains street children to be waiters and chefs and the children sleep on a mezzanine floor within the restaurant. The food was really tasty and the enthusiasm and friendliness of the young staff was just a delight. As we entered the building I looked just above my head to see the fuse box, which was an absolute jumble of wires – this seemed to be a common feature of Yangon, with elements that looked modern and of decent quality, mixed with the most rudimentary and basic amenities and services.
In the afternoon, we took a heritage walk around some of the sights of Yangon with the Yangon Heritage Trust. Yangon still boasts some of the best examples of colonial architecture in the world, but most are in urgent need of major renovation. The fear is that much of that heritage may be lost with the drive to modernise and upgrade the city.
There were very real signs of poverty, e.g. small wooden shacks selling single cigarettes or street food, which also served as people’s homes. There was also examples of real ingenuity, where people overcame the lack of affordable office space and were running their offices from the back of a car – using old typewriters rather than lap tops.
In the evening, we visited the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, which is one the country’s most important Buddhist sites. Buddhism plays a huge part in daily life, with over 85% of the country being active followers. At one time the main ornate pagoda structure, was said to incorporate more gold leaf and plate than was housed in the vaults of the Bank of England.
I stopped and gave a small offering to one of the monks and he asked if I wanted to take a ‘selfie’ with him. He worked in a rural health centre and raised funds for the centre by giving organisational lectures and workshops. He was obviously skilled in promoting his work and offered me a coloured flyer detailing his services, including associated costs – social enterprise with a spiritual slant.
We rounded off a really full day with a visit to another restaurant, Shwe Sa Bwe, restaurant. They take young people from rural areas and train them to be chefs and waiters in the expanding 5* tourism market. There is a significant skills shortage in these industries and huge opportunities for young people. Once again we received high quality food and very friendly service.
Till the next blog!
See part five, The Finale HERE!
Important: Opinions expressed by bloggers are their own and don’t represent those of the Dundee Social Enterprise Network organisation,