Sometimes the most memorable adventures unfold before you in unexpected ways. Such was the case when my day trip from Yangon turned into two days of volunteering in a village on nearby Dala Island.
Yangon was meant to be the only stop in my ten days in Myanmar that allowed time for touristy activities. This was my second volunteer travel experience with RAKLife and I knew the other days would be full as we supported projects in local communities. But, after meeting the group for the first time at breakfast our guide, Jim, excitedly told us about his idea for a different sort of adventure in Yangon.
I’ve volunteered with Jim before and know that he loves any opportunity to learn about the culture and people from wherever he’s visiting. He had arrived a few days earlier and, while exploring Yangon, met a teenage girl named Khin.
While purchasing postcards from Khin, Jim learned that she lived in a village across the Yangon River. He asked if she would take him there and she said yes.
As they explored her village and Dala Island together, Khin shared a bit about life in Myanmar. As they parted ways, Jim asked if it would be possible for our group to visit the next day. This is where our unexpected day trip from Yangon began.
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Visiting the Markets on Dala Island
The next morning, we met Khin near a pagoda in the center of Yangon where we hopped onto tri-shaws (three wheeled bicycles with seats on it like a taxi). After a short ride, we arrived at the ferry terminal that would take us to Dala Island.
The day before, Jim had asked Khin if we could prepare a meal for her village as a thank you for our visit. Khin smiled and agreed that would be a very nice treat! The previous night she had spoken with other women in the village to agree what dishes we should prepare and made a shopping list.
Our shopping list included several live chickens, large bags of rice and vegetables I’ve never seen before! We spent the afternoon visiting several different markets near Dala, collecting each item on the list.
The markets are a social hub of the villages, where children play and adults socialize. The young boys pictured above paused their pretend sword fighting outside the market to pose for a photo. When I showed them the photo on my camera, they couldn’t stop giggling.
Once we found everything, we delivered it to Khin’s friend’s home, where the food would be prepared the next day. The sun was sinking low in the sky and we were exhausted and thirsty. We took a seat on the side of the road and bought fruit juice drinks from a stand across the street. It was time for day one of our day trip from Yangon to come to an end. We needed to rest up for the day ahead.
Preparing the Meal
The next day, we made the same journey back to Dala, our day trip from Yangon now becoming a 2-day trip. We arrived to discover that several of the women were so excited about the meal that they had stayed up most of the night cooking (and slaughtering chickens). I was a little disappointed I wouldn’t get to do some cooking, but their excitement was contagious. Khin explained that meat was a special treat that they don’t have often.
Since the food was nearly prepared, we began to measure out bags of rice to distribute to the families as a thank you for welcoming us into their village. Large bags of rice (roughly 30-50 lbs each) were dumped onto a woven mat that was covering the floor. From there we had metal cans that we used to “measure” out equal amounts of rice for each family into bags. The hardest part was tying the bags shut without tearing the bag!
Talking Politics, Life, and Aspirations
Before serving the meal, Khin’s family invited us all to eat in their home. Their home was made of bamboo and stilted to stay dry, a typical design for this village. Khin explained that four people live in her home. With the addition of our group of ten, we literally took up every inch of space!
While we ate, we talked with Khin about her friends and the Presidential election in Myanmar. This would be the first elected civilian President in 50 years. She shared how hopeful she was the future of her country.
Her and her best friend, Nae Nae, also talked about what life is like as a teenager in Dala. In so many ways, it’s similar to life as a teenager as I experienced it in the US. Khin told us how fortunate she is to have learned English which allowed her to earn money working with tourists; selling postcards and giving tours.
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Random Acts of Kindness on a Day Trip from Yangon
It was a very hot day and the time was getting late, so we hired tri-shaw drivers to take us down the long dirt path to where we would serve the meal.
At first, the building seemed like it was a community building on the edge of the village. However, I noticed that there were murals painted on the walls inside that depicted scenes of death and the afterlife. I realized that we were serving food in the village’s crematorium.
The women explained to us that equal portions are very important. They took care showing us how to serve the perfect portions for everyone. Each serving should have the same number of pieces of meat and potatoes. While they showed us how to do this, members of the village starting arriving for the meal!
In all honesty, the serving of the food was quite stressful. It quickly became chaos so some of the women stepped in to help us! In the tiny space of the crematorium, there must have been nearly fifty people.
Understandably, some of the children were wary of us visitors, while others were quite curious. The radiating energy in that space is something I will never forget.
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After lunch, we delivered bags of rice to each home in the village saying thank you to each family for welcoming us. A man who seemed to be the leader of the village walked with us making sure each family received just one bag. When one little boy tried to sneak a second bag, the man laughed and explained he’s a mischievous one.
As we walked through the village, we had a sea of children walking with us. What’s amazed is that wherever I go, there are elements of play that remain the same. You can always play peekaboo, tag, or race each other. There’s just no language for being a child.
My Day Trip to Yangon Comes to an End
All good things must come to an end. As we hopped on our tri-shaws to take the long dirt road back to the ferry terminal, I glanced up to see the little boy who had been by my side all day chasing after us waving and smiling. Khin and her two friends rode with us to make sure we made it on the ferry safely and to say goodbye.
While my expectation was to see the sites in Yangon, this day trip to Dala was the most wonderfully heartwarming surprise.
About Volunteer Travel
Not all volunteer travel experiences are designed to benefit local communities in a sustainable way. I recommend doing your diligence on any organization you are considering volunteering with.
Things to look for are how money is spent to support the local community, whether there are enduring genuine partnerships with the local community, and whether the time and situation allows for authentic connections to be made. The ethical nature of a volunteer travel organization or NGO is often not immediately evident on the surface.
This experience unfolded very unexpectedly and organically. All materials were purchased through local vendors. Our emphasis was on learning about the culture and expressing our thanks to Khin’s village for welcoming us. To be transparent, this volunteer experience contributed financially to the local community but was not sustainable.