EUNOIA G.O. MYANMAR 2019 – ROVING IN RANGOON: A TRIP JOURNAL

Written by: Ernest Tan (19-E6), Wong Sean Yew (19-U4), Sit Jie Ren (19-A6)

Designed by: Lee Entong (19-U2)

Photographs by: Ernest Tan (19-E6)

“Our teachers always tell us not to learn in silos. So it was really cool to see the large silos in action – to also see where our food actually comes from.” 

Day 4

The three days of service learning activities ended, and we then took a bus ride to Yangon. To conclude our service learning component, we had a dialogue session at World Vision’s Myanmar Office, which coordinates all operations in Myanmar. The representatives outlined World Vision’s Strategic Projects in Education, Health, Child Protection, Economic Development, and cross-cutting themes like disaster adaptation and risk reduction. World Vision’s various projects, approaches and processes were also highlighted, especially its focus on sustainable and long-term development. Notably, we learnt about the humanitarian situations in Shan State and other parts of the Union, which we were previously unaware of. At the end of our journey with World Vision in Myanmar, we brought away with us a new perspective of viewing poverty and service learning, with Hsien Kit from 19-E5 saying “You don’t help the poor by giving, you help by empowering.”

Next, we visited UMG College Myanmar (UCM), a tertiary institution in Yangon specialising in engineering. We first sat through an introduction of UCM, and had an opportunity to interact with the students there. While we certainly had a language barrier, we could see that the students were extremely eager to engage with us. We had a brief discussion, somewhat comparative in nature, about our education systems and daily routines. We then learnt that their pre-university education already involved a high degree of field specialisation (civil engineering and electronic engineering, et cetera), which greatly differed from the junior college system we were used to. We also visited their learning environments where the students displayed their completed projects. We were thoroughly impressed with the sophistication that went into them (speaking as Physics students!). We were also subsequently treated to a cultural performance by the graduating students, ending the visit on a high note.

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Interaction with students at UMG College Myanmar.

Lastly, we visited the famed Shwedagon Pagoda, a majestic Buddhist religious monument dating back to 588 B.C.. Many of the buildings were adorned with gold leaf and plates, representing the great veneration the Buddhist people have for their religious figures. These gold-embellished pagodas are also the reason why Myanmar is sometimes called “The Golden Land”. We were extremely honored to visit the pagoda, which is considered to be the most sacred one in Myanmar. For fans of Rudyard Kipling, you might be glad that the author has written about the pagoda in the book, From Sea to Sea and Other Sketches, Letters of Travel.   

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A picture of the Shwedagon Pagoda.

 

In addition, here’s a haiku written by Li Xin Ru from 19-I5. 

Monks in saffron robes

Gold, diamonds and gems

Pagodas gleaming

 

Day 5

The next day started off with a meeting with the Singapore Ambassador to Myanmar, Ms Vanessa Chan. Ambassador Chan shared with Trip Members her everyday job scope, Singapore-Myanmar bilateral relations, and the structure of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Trip Members also had the opportunity to ask the Ambassador some questions at the Question & Answer Session.

One insight we gleaned was the behind-the-scenes and tedious work involved in the Foreign Service. Ms Chan shared with us the various roles in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from policy and operations, to even note-taking by junior diplomats. She also talked about the disruption that diplomats and their families have to go through due to the constant change in postings. “Three years in and three years out” was the phrase she used to describe the phenomenon of career diplomats’ 3-year alternate postings in local and foreign offices. Many of us were surprised because we were unaware of the rigour of diplomats’ lives. 

Another pertinent point she shared was ASEAN’s principle of consensus-based agreements and non-interference, which has shaped the relatively harmonious relationships that characterise ASEAN. She mentioned that ASEAN would only agree to the lowest common denominator of agreement between all states.

The visit was extremely fruitful and engaging. Ivan Tan from 19-E5 felt that the Ambassador gave “a realistic, no holds barred, yet inspiring review on the work of diplomats operating on foreign soil.”

Next, we also went to the Myanmar premises of Wilmar International, a Singapore based Fortune 500 multinational company. There, we were introduced to Wilmar’s operations around the world, and particularly in Myanmar. We also went on a tour of the extremely spacious premises consisting of office departments, high-capacity silos and even a port! As Jody Lim from 19-E3 described, “Our teachers always tell us not to learn in silos. So it was really cool to see the large silos in action – to also see where our food actually comes from.” 

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Production line of edible oils

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High capacity silos

We then went to Myanmar Plaza for a free and easy shopping trip, which was a wonderful respite from the hectic travel schedule. While primarily sedentary in nature, the shopping mall brought us further insight into Singapore-Myanmar business ventures. We encountered a variety of Singapore brands such as BreadTalk, Astons and Ya Kun. This odd sense of familiarity in a foreign land by finding the Singaporean identity in another cosmopolitan context was especially fascinating. However, this could not have been possible without the various economic efforts implemented, such as the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (MSDP), contributing to Singapore’s status as Myanmar’s biggest foreign investor. We concluded our shopping trip with a greater appreciation for Myanmar’s promising economic landscape – but not without getting some local speciality goods! 

The locals like their tea very much – it was a constant at every settlement we visited in Hmawbi and Taikkyi – both in drink and food (such as tea leaf salad). And it was extremely refreshing – and we would think, a wonderful complement to fried or savoury food. We therefore purchased “a lot of tea” from the local supermarket – from instant milk tea to loose Oolong tea leaves from the high mountains. What a euphoric and cathartic spree.

 

Day 6

We first visited Yangon Bakehouse, a non-profit social enterprise for disadvantaged women started in 2012. The Yangon Bakehouse empowers these women by employing them as apprentices to equip them with Culinary, English and Life Skills. This improves their employability and their job prospects to secure them a stable economic livelihood. The women were also empowered with knowledge about safe sex and their rights. We also later visited the Yangon Bakehouse Cafe, where the pastries were supplied to. 

We were extremely touched by the uplifting mechanisms that were extended to the disadvantaged. Nicol Low from 19-I2 commented that “it was really empowering to see the Bakehouse employ workers who have disabilities – something that you cannot really see sometimes due to the sometimes pragmatic focus on economic profit.” 

We also stopped for brief photograph stops at Aung San Suu Kyi House and Yangon University. Our guide told us about their historical contexts and political significance. Notably, we drew comparison between Aung San Suu Kyi House and 38 Oxley Road, both sites bearing great significance for Myanmar’s road to democracy and Singapore’s road to independence respectively. Our guide also informed us that Yangon University was the site of demonstrations in 1962 and 1988 (8888 Uprising), which History students will be familiar with.

We also took the Yangon Circular Railway for about 35 minutes. It was truly an experience, with many sights and sounds along the way. Interestingly, the train set was previously owned by Japan Railways, a herald to Japan-Myanmar relations.

We managed to get a glimpse of how Myanmar people go about their lives daily, including the real and not-so-beautiful. Ngia Wen Xin (19-U3) added that the train ride “was really fascinating because we could observe the charming daily lives of the Myanmar people – ranging from the fruit peddlers to everyday commuters.” 

 

Day 7

After dwelling in the city centre for a considerably extended period of time, we set off for a neighbouring township – Dalla – via a 10-minute ferry ride! Upon arriving at the harbour, we were greeted by trishaws – our primary mode of transportation in Dalla. Soon enough, we were on the trishaws to experience the sights and sounds of Dalla.

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Ferry ride!

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Trishaw ride in Dala City.

The hospitality of the local people were once again evident, as we heard enthusiastic greetings of “mingalabar (hello)” and saw children with their tiny hands, eagerly extended to give us high-fives. It was also a reminder of the time we spent in the rural areas of Hmawbi and Taikkyi at the early part of the trip, with the beautiful rustic charm and community spirit. 

We first visited a man-made water body, serene and flanked by lush greenery. According to our guide, it is a communal space for washing and the water deposits are also used for consumption. 

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We next visited a handmade rice paper business – the equivalent of popiah (spring roll) wrapping in Singapore. It was interesting to see the spreading of the paste over a hot metal plate – the very same traditional process that is now hard to find in Singapore. How nostalgic!

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Rice paper making.

Lastly, we visited Chu Chu, a social enterprise committed to recycling, upcycling and providing employment opportunities to rural people. It trains and employs the local people to modify items regarded as trash (such as plastic bottles and rice sacks) into merchandise sold to fund the enterprise. We felt that the enterprise was very innovative in terms of how they managed to upcycle material to useful items. 

This was evident not only in the merchandise they sold, but also the shop interior. We were first greeted by a bridge made of worn-out rubber tyres, followed by glistening lamps that turned out to be solar-harnessing glass bottles. 

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Glass bottles on the ceiling, to allow natural light!

 

After that, we returned via ferry to visit the National Museum, where there was an abundance of artifacts illustrating Myanmar’s rich heritage and its predecessor states. Unfortunately, photography was prohibited, hence we could not take photographs of the artifacts on display.

Surprisingly, we noted that there was no mention of Myanmar’s Post-Independence Era or mention of General Aung San, who our guide informed us was the father of independence. This stood in stark contrast with the narrative of Singapore’s road to independence and developments following that, which we are all well informed of when we visit the National Gallery. This set us wondering about how countries choose to frame their history, emphasizing different periods of their past, which may reflect the different beliefs and values of their society.

 

Day 8

After an exhilarating 7 days, we headed to Yangon Intl Airport for our morning flight. We arrived back at Changi at 3pm, in cold, wet and windy December weather. Exhausted, we collected our baggage and returned home, but not before taking a wefie!

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