Thursday, 3 November 2011

Opening of the Bagan Medical Clinic

Sunday, 30th October 2011

I didn't sleep too badly but that was probably due to the mild sedative the Doctor had prescribed. I was up early in order to take breakfast as soon as the restaurant opened at 6.0 a.m. At 6.45 a.m. Sammi the hotel manager and I took the motor boat to the shore. A few minutes walk from the landing stage brought us to the Clinic. Having heard a motor boat engine somewhere near the ship before Sammi and I left, I was not surprised to see the Doctor and the Logistics Manager already at the Clinic, making final preparations for the ceremony.

The Clinic, just before the Opening Ceremony.

A large number of local school children were marshalled at one side of the Clinic and a crowd of villagers waited patiently. The Head Monk of the local monastery, whose support was vital in bringing the project to fruition, was provided with a chair facing the Clinic to watch the proceedings. After a few introductory words from the Doctor, one of the Guests guest from the boat and the writer were invited to cut the opening tape.

The Burmese version of cutting the opening tape involves a tape, five girls in traditional longyi and a collection of helium-filled balloons. Two of the girls hold the ends of the tape and the third holds the middle, where the balloons have been attached. The other two girls each hold a tray with a pair of scissors for the tape cutters. When each half of the tape is cut, the balloons are allowed to float up into the air in another interpretation of 'Balloons over Bagan'.

The writer was invited to add a few words for the benefit of those guests from the boat who were attending the opening ceremony and then the Doctor presented the commemorative pennant (inscribed in English and Burmese) to the writer. Afterwards, this pennant will remain on display in the Clinic. Next, it was time for the presentation of stationery to the schoolchildren. The children lined up in front of the Clinic where tables had been set up bearing exercise books, pencils and ballpoint pens. Helpers prepared each pack, normally comprising two exercise books and two pencils (with erasers) so that the Doctor and the writer could rapidly hand them out to the lines of children. The children invariably lowered their heads on receiving the gift, some would say 'Mingele bar', a minority would say 'Thank you' in English. Burmese children are dark haired with dark eyes and often very fine facial bone structure. It's always very moving to see this long procession of innocent, beautiful children when presentations of this kind are made.

A young boy, face covered with Thanaka for sun protection, appears somewhat over-awed.

We were now entertained by a concert performed by young people to celebrate the opening of the Clinic. First, three young boy dancers in matching, colourful traditional costumes performed a dance to (rather loud) music from the sound system. Next, eight girls carrying decorated silver-coloured bowls and dressed in matching white longyi printed with a floral design performed a traditional water dance.

Eight girls perform a traditional dance.

The third act was a modernised form of a traditional light-hearted dance where a man with a parasol flirts with a girl. In this case, boys played both parts. Six children then performed a very amusing dance with three girls carrying clay water pots dressed in longyi representing village life and three boys in baggy trousers, sports shirts, baseball caps and sunglasses representing city life. The comic effect of the contrast between the boys and girls was irresistible.

Village life meets City life!

Then, the lead dancer from the first act performed another traditional dance. Finally, a young man dressed in a special costume, male on the right side, female on the left side and incorporating a dummy female head on the left side, performed a dance where the male and female sides of his appearance are alternately presented with appropriate steps and gestures.

In general, the crowd, although clearly impressed by the entertainment, remained largely impassive. Smiling is allowed but open-mouthed laughing in public is considered rude. In meetings with Burmese, they will frequently cover an open mouth with their hand in a show of modesty. Manners are still important in Burmese society - Burmese walking in front of you will often bend low in a sign of respect.

This was the end of the opening ceremony, so the children and the watching crowd slowly melted away. However, a large number of people remained, gently jostling at the Clinic window to ensure registration for an appointment with a doctor, before patiently settling down in the area around the Clinic to wait their turn.

Patients registering for treatment at the Clinic window.

Before starting his consulations, the Doctor gave me a conducted tour. There's a small waiting room, two consultation rooms with examination couches and a general purpose room which serves as dispensary, patient reception and staff room. There's a separate toilet block connected to a septic tank and electricity and water are provided by the monastery, Two doctors currently share the duties and there are a number of volunteers acting as auxiliaries. The auxiliaries are unqualified but already trained to a high standard by Dr. Hla Tun. All the staff carry specially-made badges with a large red cross for instant recognition. In addition, a young monk was in attendance as a commanding presence showing the head Monk's approval of the project. I afterwards learned that the young monk actually sleeps on the premises!

The rear of the clinic is only a few yards from the river bank and there was a pleasant cooling breeze from the river. A number of banana trees have already been planted between the clinic and the river - as these mature, they will provide shade and further natural cooling.

I was invited to watch a number of Dr. Hla Tun's consultations and was impressed, not only by the Doctor's quiet efficiency but by the distances travelled by the patients (up to 30 km) and the fact that most conditions could be significantly improved by the use of standard drugs. Patients are asked to contribute 1000 kyat for a consultation (around one U.S. Dollar) but in the case of poverty, this charge is waived.

Dr. Hla Tun during a consultation.

More pictures of the Opening Ceremony, the Concert and the Clinic getting back to treating patients are here.

Until this trip, I was not aware that 'Road to Mandalay' had provided a school building at the local school at Bagan and so the Doctor suggested I take a look at the buildings (there's no school on Sunday) whilst he continued seeing patients. The Captain allocated a member of the ship's 'shore party' to accompany me and, although a car was offered, we decided to walk. My young Burmese friend from the "Bagan Cycling Club" (see earlier posts here and here) also came with us. Sadly, there was insufficient time for a cycling meeting on this trip. I was shown around the school buildings by what I took to be Headmistress. The 'Road to Mandalay' building had recently been repainted with funds from the Charity. Actually constructing a new building, of course, is the easy part. It's normally necessary to plan for an ongoing maintenance budget and support for stationery costs and teachers' salaries.

More pictures of the school are here.

I returned to the Clinic which still had a serious number of patients waiting to see a Doctor. Since the ship was due to sail for Mandalay at ten o'clock, Doctor Hla Tun reluctantly left the balance of the patients for the two doctors and the Doctor and I took the waiting motor boat back to the ship. I noticed as the motor boat approached the ship's gangway that the anchor had already been raised and, from the wash at the stern of the ship, the Captain was using power to hold station until we had boarded.

After all the excitement of the Clinic opening, I was glad to resume the easier pace of life on the ship. The Captain kindly invited me to join him on the bridge and we talked at length on numerous topics. Passengers are welcome on the bridge wings and the Captain spent some time chatting with various passengers and answering their questions about the river and Myanmar. Great interest was caused as we passed under the new bridge over the river which is nearing completion. The bridge has innumerable steel spans supported on concrete piers and I believe the total length will be over 2 miles. This is part of a series of major projects under way to improve the transport infrastructure and develop communications with adjacent countries.

This massive road and rail bridge is nearing completion.

Being concerned as to my comfort, the Hotel Manager kindly offered an upgrade to the Governor's Suite, situated just ahead of the central reception area, so there was a flurry of activity whilst I collected my scattered belongings which were whisked by the helpful stewards to the new location. In the evening, after a cocktail party on the top deck, I enjoyed dinner in the restaurant with the Doctor, giving me a chance to learn more about the diverse Social Contribution provided by the ship with the help of donations from the ship's guests.

At 9.30 p.m., there was the 'Surprise on the River' where hundreds of tiny rafts each carrying a candle and provided with shades to give different colours are launched upstream. The current then carries the rafts downstream until the ship is surrounded by a mass of moving lights. Even for 'Returners' like me who have previously seen the effect, it's a wonderful show. Afterwards, I was quite ready for bed and slept soundly in my new quarters.