Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Visit to Mon State, Myanmar (Part 1)

Saturday, 18th April 2015

After resting as much as possible during the day, we loaded all our kit into Dr. Hla Tun’s car. The Doctor drove together with the American medical student, Emily, the Doctor’s daughter and two sons and the writer. After a while, I realised that we had not started the journey proper but that we were transiting across Yangon to where we would meet friends of the Doctor who had arranged a vehicle and driver to take us to Mon state. It was some sort of smart-looking Japanese SUV (you should know by now, I’m not very good at cars - I eventually found out it was a Toyota Alphard) and we transferred everything to the new vehicle and set off.

Loading the car which took us to Mon State.

We were driver and assistant, Emily and the writer behind and the Doctor, daughter and one son on the rear seat. The other son was to drive Dr. Hla Tun’s car back to the family home.

Once we'd made our way out of Yangon, we joined a fairly fast dual carriageway. I presume this was the highway to Mandalay. Then, we made a right turn onto a narrower but reasonable road. I assumed we were in the vicinity of Bago and we’d turned to the south on the road to Mawlamyine. The driver was pushing fairly hard which was fine until we hit one of the discontinuities in the road surface, which occurred frequently when passing over the many concrete culverts. This lifted all the passengers up before slamming them down again quite hard, producing cries of astonishment not unlike those produced by a roller coaster ride.

Since the British were involved in the rule of Burma when road transport became mechanised, it was logical to adopt right-hand drive vehicles travelling on the left side of the road. However, following meetings between General Ne Win of Myanmar and President Nixon of the United States, the General decided that Myanmar should emulate the United States by also driving on the right. Unfortunately, all the motor vehicles remained right-hand drive, producing quite a serious situation, particularly when one vehicle overtakes another. As the vehicle moves to the left to overtake a slower vehicle, the driver remains in ignorance of the conditions ahead. This means that the driver’s assistant becomes important in being able to advise the driver of the situation. A stream of Overnight Buses were heading south to Mawlamyine and beyond and, as we approached each bus, I noticed that the bus driver illuminated the flashing left turn indicator to signal either “I am ready to be passed on my left side” or “I am about to pull to the left as you start to overtake, giving you the FRIGHT OF YOUR LIFE” (With acknowledgement to the cartoonist Fougasse and writer Donald McCullough who I think first used this formulation in their book You Have Been Warned – A Complete Guide to the Road).

Around halfway to Mawlamyine, we came to the series of roadside cafes which the Overnight Buses use to break the journey. On this occasion, when we stopped at perhaps the most popular of the cafes, there was no bus parked and the eating area was empty, apart from staff.

An unusually-quiet cafe on the way to Mawlamyine.

A number of flat-screen television screens were showing SKYNET, inevitably showing a British Premier Division football match featuring Manchester United. One or two snacks were bought from the shop situated near the entrance to the seating area and then we carried on south.

The journey was punctuated by brief halts to pay the road toll at various Toll Stations. We made good time and, having passed over the long road and rail bridge across the River Thanlwin, pulled up at a traffic island on the approach to Mawlamyine where, after a brief wait, a motorcycle appeared and conducted us to the ‘CARE’ Drop In Centre. The driver of the motorcycle unlocked the gates, allowing our car to park in the small yard. By the time we had extricated our personal luggage from the car, the building had been opened and Emily and I were shown to an upstairs room where sleeping mats had been provided on the floor to allow us to take a few hours sleep before Sunday dawned.

Sleeping mats for Emily and I at the 'CARE' Centre, Mawlamyine.

Sunday 19th April 2015

Somewhat refreshed, we loaded up the car and continued south, pausing at a typical Burmese teashop to refuel the passengers and at a modern filling station to refuel the car.

Our car outside the teashop.

Our first destination was the Drop In Centre at Kot Kha Pon Village, in Mudon Township where crowds of excited children, obediently seated on the floor, anticipated our arrival.

Staff at Kot Kha Pon distribute snacks to the waiting children.

Dr. Hla Tun described the presents they were about to receive. A complete ‘kit’ to start them on the new school year was demonstrated, including a sturdy bag, a folding umbrella, a supply of exercise books, pencils, eraser, sharpener, Biro, plastic ruler and a school uniform appropriate to the age and sex of each child.

Dr. Hla Tun with one of the sturdy bags,

First, the Doctor donated financial support to four High School students who had performed well in the previous year.

Dr. Hla Tun with outstanding students.

This gave the D.I.C. assistants a few minutes to start assembling the ‘kits’ for the younger children, each kit presented on a metal tray. Emily and Jan made the presentations then the children were invited to try on their new uniforms (white shirts for boys, white blouses with green detailing in different styles for different age ranges for girls, green shorts or longyi for boys, green longyi with a black border top and bottom for girls.

Jan making a presentation to a young girl.

Very soon, we were looking at a sea of white shirts and blouses, rather than the multi-coloured hues of the day clothes the children had arrived in.

"... a sea of white shirts and blouses..."

One of the girls was noted for her traditional dancing and she was prevailed upon to give a short demonstration.

A demonstration of traditional dancing.

There was then a feature I'd not seen before. Each child had been given a handwritten ticket with a number. Additional gifts had been made up into lots with extra pencils or similar school items and the number on each ticket indicated the extra gift the child received.

Finally, there was the 'group shot' to record the children, volunteers and visitors who had participated.

Kot Kha Pon D.I.C.: The group shot.

What happened next? An awful lot. I'll tell you about it as soon as I'm able.
Go to next post.

My pictures

By road to Mon State.
Kot Kha Pon D.I.C.

My posts on this trip

All my posts on this trip to Myanmar can be found here.

[Pictures added 12th May 2015]