A month at the Phaung Daw Oo School
The last 6 weeks have been a fascinating journey in a country that is at a cultural crossroads; Myanmar is moving from the traditional values that have shaped it for the last millennia into the 21st century at a frantic pace.
I was in Monywa (Mo-ya) a city 4 hours east of Mandalay at a monastery to help a group of local university students improve their spoken English when I experienced this first hand.
We arrived at 11.30, monks have to eat before noon so they were in a hurry to have their lunch, they had been waiting for us. It's traditional that monks eat first, we ate next, 2 westerners waited on by half a dozen students. The food was good Myanmar fare.
We taught in the afternoon in a typical large room with wall fans but no air conditioning. The power was out for most of the afternoon so the lack of AC was irrelevant. It was of course hot, we sweat buckets – not figuratively, literally. This was a pretty standard day for me but it was about to change.
That evening, like all good hosts they wanted to show us the best of their city. We saw a stunning sunset from a hilltop pagoda. We then drove into town, the streets were as chaotic as usual, hot, sticky, full of noise and people and traffic. It was now dark, there were only a few street lights so I couldn't see far. It was everything I have grown to expect of a city in Myanmar.
But then we rounded a corner and suddenly it all changed. The darkness become a blinding light, the chaos, a calm, the noise, quiet. The rough road was gone, it felt like we were levitating between towering white washed walls, bathed in brilliant blue-white light. This was the grand entrance to something big? And there it was, the answer to why we were here. Written in intense blue and red neon “Ocean Centre”- Myanmars’ very own shopping mall chain.
Inside was a completely different Myanmar to the one I had experienced that afternoon; bright white lights, white walls, all at 20 C (cold), there were even travelators to whisk the smiling customers from floor to floor. Many of the regulars were dressed in western clothing. We looked oddly out of place, 20 students in traditional lonygis, 2 westerners and a maroon robed Monk in this "new" Myanmar.
The students were excited to show us everything, the fast food restaurants, the Japanese import store, the flat screen TV's, all the"stuff" that was for sale. But most of that this was the “future”, this was their future, this is where Myanmar was going, all shiny and bright!
To be far it was helpful for our teaching, all the labels were written in Burmese and English. We talked about many things. What this was for, what that did, what things tasted like, it was both useful and fascinating. We looked at a western style bed with pillows, bolsters and a sprung mattress, they understood it was a bed but why all the padding?
The most salutary fact came out at the end, when we asked if they ever shopped here, not one of them did – in fact they couldn’t imagine shopping there as the prices were so high. And a lot of what was for sale they didn't realise they needed, not yet anyway. With a little advertising I'm sure they will.
We then went back to the monastery to sleep on the floor on our straw mats as people have done for centuries. It was all very surreal.