We took a boat up the Irrawaddy from Bagan to Mandalay. We thought the trip would take 7 hours, but actually it took 14. We saw the sunrise and the sunset from the boat. None of us had come prepared with enough food, and the kitchen on the boat did not inspire confidence. But there was beer, and I managed to rally a group for my favorite activity: playing cards. It was not your typical dharma boat ride.
The wide, placid river belied the danger lurking at every moment: we were well into dry season, and the river was almost too shallow to be navigable. Giant sandbanks stretched out into the water, and so a man with a painted pole stood at the bow, measuring the river depth every few minutes. This process slowed the voyage considerably. Once, with no warning, we pulled right alongside another boat in such a way that collision seemed imminent, but the boats did not so much as touch. Meanwhile, packages and passengers were exchanged in the middle of the river.
Arriving at our destination, one of the major, great cities of Myanmar, there was no dock or pier, only the river bank. The crew placed a narrow wooden board to connect the ship to the shore, and we all balanced along the plank in the pitch dark to disembark. Women came and took our bags, balancing them on their heads as they took them ashore.
“I have a lot of romantic notions about Mandalay,” I had said to our teacher, at some point during the ride. He did not respond, but adopted a guardedly neutral expression.
After seeing the dusty, dry land around Bagan, though, I should have known better. Both Bagan and Mandalay lie in the central dry region of Myanmar. Even though it had a romantic reputation (thanks in part to Rudyard Kipling, who didn’t even spend much time there), it was still Burma. While I had hoped to find a thriving, beautiful, cultural heart of the country, what I discovered was another hot, dusty, noisy, decaying city. At first glance, in fact, Mandalay seemed less interesting and diverse than Yangon, with its austere and forbidden central palace.
What it did have though, was a location far enough from the Yangon-centered former oppressive regime that its citizens traditionally enjoyed a greater degree of autonomy. And that was why we were there.
Seventeen years ago, two of Myanmar’s most prominent monks founded Phaung Daw Oo, a free school for K-12 education for poor and orphaned children from Mandalay and surrounding areas. According to our teacher, this was a risky and highly unusual thing for the monks to do. The school provides full-time residential housing and meals for the children, teaches English to everyone, and fast-tracks education in English in all subjects for those who show aptitude. The school is helping to solve a problem that many poor families face: pulling their children from school at a very early age to work or get married. Phaung Daw Oo is also revolutionary in its focus on teaching methods that employ critical thinking instead of rote memorization, a radical idea in education in Myanmar. This sort of endeavor would not have survived, we were told, under the noses of the generals in Yangon.
Today the school has over 6000 students and still exists entirely on donations. They are always looking for English-speaker volunteer teachers to come teach in any subject, for any amount of hours per week, and they provide a free room at the school for the volunteers. We got to see the living quarters for the girls, a sweet and humbling experience. In a cement building adorned inside with colorful fabrics and posters of singers, each student survived in a space about the size of two yoga mats. They all slept on the floor and lived together in big open rooms with no privacy at all. The older ones are assigned to help look after the little ones, and everyone runs around the dusty, dirt-floor campus more-or-less freely, screaming, chatting together, or playing outdoor games.
We spent every day at the school or on outings around the city accompanied by some of the students. For the older students, we were there so they could practice English-language conversation with native speakers. For the little ones, we read to them from books in the English-language library. We also attended a conference on forging a partnership with a university in Sweden (so Phaung Daw Oo teachers could go to be trained in pedagogy).
I loved chatting with the older girls, but I had trouble remembering their names. Two of them helpfully wrote them out for me: War War Khing and Wah Wah Khaine, both pronounced exactly the same. The girls were unfailingly polite and kind and fun to be around. They giggled when I asked them to show me how they tie their longyi and when I attempted to squat with them to hang out. Even in long skirts, they squatted around with the greatest of ease, while I struggled hilariously. When I asked them if they ever wore jeans, they said, “sometimes.” They helped us order vegetarian food when we ate at a Thai restaurant, and we encouraged them to try something new. It may have been their first time in a Thai restaurant and possibly in any restaurant at all. Ordering an individual plate for each person was completely foreign to them, too, and in the end they opted for sharing a dish of their familiar, daily food: fried rice with pork.
One day our group and some of the students climbed into our huge air-conditioned bus (that we regretted using; it felt contrary to our desired way of interacting with the country) and went to see a monastery and U Bein bridge. Most of the girls promptly threw up, carsick. On the bridge, the oldest and longest teak footbridge in the world, we witnessed university students dressed in more of an urban style, some in couples, and we noticed how it seemed cool to unwrap a snack and throw the plastic wrapper over the railing. Like many places in Myanmar, the ground below (in the dry season, much of the bridge is over dry land) was blanketed in plastic trash.
In the evening, we went up to the top of Mandalay Hill, wandering barefoot in the gorgeous temple. There, it seemed as if the entire youth of the city had come to look for foreigners to practice English. As I walked in meditative silence, taking in the stunning 360 degree view, I was approached again and again by sweet-faced locals asking to chat. I talked and talked until I was exhausted. I could feel their optimism, as if they knew this was their chance, with the opening of the country, to change their lives, and they were gonna take it. Sometimes I ventured to ask about politics or the government, but every time, they would skirt the question or change the subject. The old fear runs deep.
Another day, we got out of town, Myanmar-style. We all piled into the back of a pickup truck and went to an organic farm owned by the school. The girls had all thrown up when we used the bus, but they sat on the dirty, hard, bumpy truck-bed for an hour in their beautiful skirts with the greatest of ease. On the farm, we met a lively German woman who stays there for several months each year. She treats the young children as her own grandchildren and has taken it on herself to teach the Burmese family living there how to keep the kitchen clean, German-style. “Before I came,” she said, “they would use the same towel for everything: wiping baby’s nose, cleaning the counter, the toilet, and the dishes. The farm won’t last forever,” she continued, “the Chinese are buying up land here and installing a resort and golf course. I want this family to be able to find work in a nice place when the time comes.”
Then we went swimming at a minimally-developed, very rustic sort of Burmese water park. There was a natural waterfall cascading from the hills with bamboo paths and ladders zig-zagging through several enormous pools. The girls dutifully changed from their longyi into jeans and t-shirts and jumped in the water, fully clothed. We saw groups of Myanmar university students doing the same: hanging out listening to pop music, and swimming fully clothed in jeans and shirts.
“Wow, even with no supervision, they swim in clothes,” we remarked, dumbfounded. I also thought that for these kids, it might be next to impossible to locate a swimsuit for sale in Myanmar, much less the money to buy one.
On our last day in Mandalay at the school, we all cried when we said goodbye. The students had taught us far more than we taught them. Even with the smells and the dust and the screams of 6000 children, I felt drawn to come back to teach. The future was wide open, not only for myself, but, for the first time, perhaps for the children of Myanmar as well.
Here are photos from Kuthodaw Pagoda, home of the world’s largest book. Resulting from the Fifth Buddhist Council in 1871, there are 729 stupas that each house a large stone tablet with Pali inscription, all together comprising the entire Tipitaka Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism.