Ma Soe Soe Myint wants to run a tea shop. Ma Thin Thin Hlaing would love to expand her textile business and Ma Nwe Win is hoping her village will soon have electricity.
A few years ago, these were impossible goals for anyone living in Myaing, one of the poorest areas in Myanmar, around 90 minutes’ drive from Bagan.
However, since NGO ActionAid teamed up with travel group Intrepid in 2015, there’s been a transformation in the 1400+ people living across the four tiny rural villages. They can dare to dream.
With HQ in Johannesburg, ActionAid is an international NGO working across 45 countries to help around 15 million people free themselves from poverty, injustice and discrimination through developing their own skills and voices. “When the idea of the community-based tourism project was first muted, the villagers weren’t keen,” says Aung Min Naing, manager of the Myaing program since its inception.
“They were worried their villages were too dirty, they didn’t have anything interesting to offer and wondered how they could possibly cook for tourists,” he says. But through careful planning, support, education, and partnering with Intrepid Travel, the Community Lodge has become so popular, ActionAid is looking to replicate the model in other parts of Myanmar.
The traditional style and relaxed feel of the Community Lodge gives an immediate sense of community spirit. Hand-built by the villagers using local materials, the wooden buildings with thatched roofs overlook the newly constructed reservoir that helps provide essential water for farming.
Under the guidance of Aung, leaders of each of the four villages involved in the program coordinate everything from the night musical concert to the hospitality. We dine at a magnificent wooden ‘rain tree’ table decorated with sprigs of flowers eating dishes like pumpkin and chicken curries with all the trimmings.
All the food served is organic and grown in the village farms. “The project sends people to courses to learn about food hygiene,” says Aung. “They then become leaders and teach others.” This is one of the main aspects of the project – empowering people to make change.”
Aung understands the power of self-belief and has turned his life around: 20 years ago he was a heroin addict. “One day it came over me that there must be more to life,” he says. “I went cold turkey. Now I get to help people build better futures.”
Immersion in village life is uplifting: over the two days we travel to villages by pushbike (although a tuk-tuk is available for people not wishing to ride) and learn that each village has what’s called The Village Book.
Ma Nwe Win, one of the village leaders in Inn Yaung, explains how future plans and ideas are put forward from the various groups. “We have groups for mothers, fathers, youths, children, each one working to help the whole village. We then have meetings to decide on what to work towards.”
Already this village has achieved two big goals – a school and clean water. “Before this tourism project we had a bad history. Now we have confidence and can earn money through things like cooking.”
Ma Soe Soe Myint together with other people in the village of Kangyidaw West prepare us a traditional brunch of rice flour pancakes with tomatoes and bean sprouts and chickpea fritters all cooked over an open fire.
We sit in the cool shady garden of Ma’s family home that she hopes will one day be a thriving tea shop. All six of Ma’s siblings are directly involved in the community tourism project and she proudly shows a photograph of her daughter who is studying at university; a village first.
Other villagers like Ma Thin Thin Hlaing are given the opportunity to learn a craft and start a business through support from ActionAid.
Working at her loom made out of an old bed, the smile on Ma’s face says it all. It might take her up to two months to weave 20 metres of fabric but it’s worth it.
Ma’s proud to have her exquisite work showcased in the ActionAid shop in Bagan and as part of the Intrepid Travel carry bags.
However, it’s the children in each village who are the heart stealers. Sometimes shy at first, it doesn’t take long before we’re singing ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’, clapping, laughing and having our faces painted with thanaka, a natural sunscreen made from ground bark.
In Su Le Pan, the children of the village present us each with a tiny mango tree to plant. Placing the tree in the ground is a profound reminder of the potential just one small seed can yield.
How to help?
Experience Myanmar on Intrepid’s Best of Myanmar itinerary and spend two days in the Community Lodge to help support the program. Direct donations can also be made to the not-for-profit The Intrepid Foundation, which matches all donations dollar for dollar. actionaid.org/australia