East meets West

Just returned to Mandalay after a very welcome two-week break travelling in Thailand and Lower Myanmar. I spent the first weekend of the holiday in Bangkok with Sandy and Kaythi, the two teacher trainers who had taken me away for a weekend to experience ‘village life’. I wanted to return their hospitality and show them something of ‘my world’ . Of course Bangkok is not really my world but it is a lot closer to it than anything in Myanmar. In fact very few people in Myanmar have ever been abroad, it is not something people do, so this was quite an adventure for us all. Little did we realise beforehand what an undertaking it would be to gain permission.

First, as government employees, my friends needed to present themselves in person at the Ministry of Education in the new capital Nay Pi Taw. Permission would be granted on the basis of a letter from their principal and other official forms. Our new principal was luckily very much in favour of the trip and supplied both an official letter and some advice on how to convince the ministry to grant permission. It took a total of three trips to Nay Pi Taw, which lies a few hundred kilometers south of Mandalay, to obtain the necessary piece of paper to present to the passport office in Mandalay. But it all went well, also thanks to  colleagues who were willing to cover for missed lessons on account of the journeys, which took around six hours each way and involved staying overnight.

And then it was my turn to face an obstacle. What I hadn’t realised is that going away with teacher trainers would contravene British Council health and safety protocols, and regulations for child protection. To my dismay I was ordered to cancel the trip. But here again we were lucky, the organisation I work for, VSO, had no such protocols and agreed to shoulder  responsibility if anything went wrong. So finally we were set to go.

We had one last obstacle when we arrived at the airport in Myanmar. My friends were told they would need 500 dollars each in cash to be allowed into Thailand or risk being refused entry. This is something they hadn’t anticipated and until the moment they got through passport control in Bangkok I was very nervous, knowing only too well what it means to be ‘sent back’. But here again we were lucky and after waiting in line for what seemed like ages, we were making our way, with a whoop of joy, to the taxis.

I had reserved two rooms in a very basic hostel in the old centre and it turned out to be perfect. The rooms were bright and shiny and clean, and there was a kitchen where you could cook and help yourself to drinks and snacks at any time of day or night. After a few minutes freshening up we set off to discover Bangkok. First stop was a noodle stall for something to eat. I think my friends had expected all food outside Myanmar to be inedible and I was relieved when they said Thai food tasted very good, that is after they had smothered it with chili sauce. Then, suitably fortified, we walked to what I thought would have to be the most ‘Western’ experience you could have in Bangkok, the infamous Khao San Road, where all the backpackers go. Here we are in front of a McDonald’s (still unknown Myanmar):


The atmosphere in the Khaosan Road reminded me a bit of Camden Road, anything goes. When Kaythi and Sandy said it made them feel ‘free’, I felt the whole trip was worthwhile already.


This was also the first time I had seen them without long skirts on!

The next day we set off for the Siam centre, a huge and ultra luxurious shopping mall in the centre of Bangkok with every designer and high street shop you can imagine, like walking down Oxford street, Regent street and Bond street all combined into one.


We went into a multi-media exhibition there and of course took selfies. It was entitled ‘exploring the borders of identity’ (or something similar) so I suppose that was appropriate:


After that we found a Madame Tussaud’s, and had some more photo fun:


and then of course there were selfies in the toilets, which were a bit like a work of art  themselves:


And then it was time for shopping. We went to the more affordable MBK shopping centre where Kaythi and Sandy got down to business right away:


And this was the result a few hours later, sitting in the Skytrain:


The next day we visited the Grand Palace and the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Unfortunately I’d forgotten to charge my phone so no photos. But it was stunning! As devout Buddhists my friends couldn’t leave  Bangkok without having paid their respects to this most sacred of all Buddha images. We visited some more temples and drove through Chinatown and then it was time for more shopping. Kaythi and Sandy wanted to get presents for all the family and friends who had helped to make the trip possible and there were difficult decisions to be made.

We finally made it back to the hostel and the kind owner offered to make us pasta, which I said we couldn’t refuse because he was Italian. We ate with the owner and his Thai girlfriend and a young German backpacker and had some interesting conversations during the meal. I reflected on how good it felt to have people of different nationalities eating together.

And then it was the next morning and time to leave again. Here we are at the airport. Sandy and Kaythi on their way home and me off to spend a week on a Thai beach.


I was interested to know what my friends, who had never been abroad before, would think of Bangkok. The first thing I noticed is that Kaythi (my ‘village girl’, sitting on the right in the photo above) paid more attention to the trees and plants than the buildings and shops, naming all the trees we passed and picking flowers for me to smell. It reminded me how we tend to link new experiences to what we already know. Of course she also noticed differences, remarking wistfully on a school that had airco in every window.

Sandy acted like she’d been living in the city all her life. She had no problem asking some men in uniform to show us the way when she thought I was lost and she spent at least half an hour negotiating with this shop assistant about some make-up she wanted to buy:


I dubbed her my ‘over-empowered girl’. Though of course I was overjoyed to see her  taking matters into her own hands. I had wanted the trip to give these young women the confidence to travel abroad on their own in the future. And  I felt I had succeeded when they revealed to me that they were no longer afraid of ‘the abroad’ and started to say ‘yes, mum’ when I got too bossy.

We also had lots of discussions about what we saw in Bangkok and the differences with Myanmar. They felt Thailand had lost its identity and hoped the same wouldn’t happen in Myanmar when economic development finally came. I had thought they might not want to leave Bangkok but in fact they seemed happy to going back home. The fact that they experienced prejudice towards the Myanmar on several occasions during the weekend probably didn’t help.

They also learnt lots of new words along the way, some of which were new for me too:


So as well as having fun it was education for all of us and my hope is that one day they might travel to Europe where I can really show them ‘my world’ and introduce them to some of my wonderful young colleagues in Amsterdam. I’m sure they would have some interesting conversations together too.








One comment

  1. “Yes, mum”, I love that :-). Interesting that your two students commented on Thailand having lost its identity: I wonder what they meant by “identity”.


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