Tips for volunteering in unexplored Myanmar

Tips for volunteering in unexplored Myanmar

If you scroll down the internet for volunteering opportunities in Myanmar (Burma), you won’t find a framework as you’ll find in its surrounding countries. Sure, there are possibilities to teach English, but choices are limited. Since the country has only opened up just a few years ago this is not a surprise. So what if you want to volunteer and you can’t find a fitting existing voluntary program to help you out? Just fix it yourself! With a determined mind and the tips below I’m sure you’ll come a long way.

Written by Grietje Evenwel.

Based on volunteering in Myanmar in 2014: directing and coaching a musical at the university in Yangon. This post is part of the BoB Tips and Tricks series. 

Ask around

If there’s no organization to help you out, the most important thing is to find a reliable partner for volunteering in Myanmar. It’s said that every person in the world is at a maximum of 8 handshakes away from you. So the only thing is to find out which hands to shake! Share with your friends, family, blogs, facebook, twitter. Shortly said: share with everyone that you want to go for volunteering and what you want to do. Big chance someone will know someone who knows someone, who knows someone… and before you know you’ve found the one you’re looking for.

Do what you’re good at

Once I heard a story about a group of young volunteers building a school in Africa during the day, but at night the locals came to rebuilt everything the volunteers had done. True or not, it’s still a good metaphor for what you don’t want to happen! If you got no experience in medical care, don’t go nursing and if you’re not an English teacher: don’t teach English. Instead, bring something you’re good at and qualified for. It will give you and the organization you work with the most benefit and joy.

My students at the myanmar institute of theology, Yangon. Do what you're good at! I helped directing their play. ©Grietje Evenwel.
My students at the myanmar institute of theology, Yangon. Do what you’re good at! I helped directing their play. ©Grietje Evenwel.

Determine who pays what

If you’re going for an organized volunteering experience in Myanmar you simply pay the organization and they’ll take care of everything. But when you arrange everything yourself it’s just you and the organization you work with who will determine ‘who pays what’. You can pay for everything yourself, you can ask for some sponsoring or funding or for example you can ask the organization to provide a bed and some food and take care of visa and transport yourself. For some inspiration about this last concept, check out the International Webman and the Backpacker Intern.

Check where to go

Things change fast in Myanmar. Big parts of the country are open for foreigners but a lot of places are still closed. It does also happen that a place opens up and then closes again. It’s hard to predict.
If you’re going for volunteering outside of the touristic places like Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake, check if that place is open for foreigners. 
And if there are things going on, like rebel armies, make sure to check until right before you go. If you’ve already found a partner organization, they may also be able to provide you information. The latest Myanmar updates are also easily found on social media.

Bagan, an image of Myanmar as you know it. ©Grietje Evenwel.
Bagan, an image of Myanmar as you know it. ©Grietje Evenwel.

Play it safe

Though Myanmar is quite different compared to some years ago and it’s less likely you’ll harm someone, it’s still wise to take care of what you do and where you stay. For example: it’s oke now to talk about political issues in public, but staying at a Birmese house without a licence (guesthouse) is still not allowed. Play it safe and stay at a place that is allowed to host you!

Where to go_ Pa-O village near inle lake. ©Grietje Evenwel.
Where to go_ Pa-O village near inle lake. ©Grietje Evenwel.

Working with…

Myanmar exists of a lot of people from different backgrounds and ethnicities. The biggest part of the population is Burmese, but there are also Shan, Karin, Kayin, Karen, Mon, Rakhaing, etc. 
It’s good to know what people you’ll work with so just take a good afternoon of internet research and you’ll know what you’re talking about!!

ear Monywa. Even if you don't speak the same language, you can still play checkers. ©Grietje Evenwel.
ear Monywa. Even if you don’t speak the same language, you can still play checkers. ©Grietje Evenwel.

Be prepared for internet free days

Internet is available in a lot of places in Myanmar, however, at some spots it’s so slow you can hardly say if it’s working. If you’re going outside of the big cities, be prepared for some waiting and a lot of internet-free days. 
Also keep the side effect in mind: it can take some time before getting a email reaction from a Birmese organisation for example. Just wait and if you really need reaction, don’t hesitate to sent a second or third mail.

Yes = yes

Though it can take some time before people respond to your email, if people in Myanmar say yes, they mean yes. No manjana manjana feeling. If they tell you they’ll arrange it for you, they do!

On the road between Mandalay and Shwebo. ©Grietje Evenwel.
On the road between Mandalay and Shwebo. ©Grietje Evenwel.

Enjoy

Myanmar is a wonderful country with maybe even more beautiful people. Take your best smile to share along the way, cause it’s certain you’ll receive a lot of smiles back!

Monk at Pa-O village near Inle Lake. ©Grietje Evenwel.
Monk at Pa-O village near Inle Lake. ©Grietje Evenwel.

About the author

Grietje Bloem kopieGrietje Evenwel is an experienced traveler and co-founder of the concept ‘Travel by Polaroid’. Travel by Polaroid is based on the concept of giving away polaroid photo’s while traveling. Giving away a polaroid photo often ends with a unique encounter and a beautiful story. Follow her also on Youtube! 

 

 

Would you like to go volunteering in Myanmar? Or do you have more tips? I’d love to know!

Also read our other posts on Myanmar 

8 COMMENTS

  1. Looks like Grietje and I had many of the same experiences. Myanmar is a wonderful spot, and with the huge influx of tourists, will have a hard time hanging on to the charm you find at every turn. Get there as soon as you can!

  2. Awesome article! We’re hoping to get there towards the end of the year and, coming from international development backgrounds, would love to do some work there. Your photos are amazing! Looks like such a beautiful country with such beautiful people!

  3. Thanks for sharing this Manouk and Grietje. I visited Myanmar in 2010 and it was very, very different from what it sounds like now. Things seem to be changing so fast that it is really important to focus on travelling responsibly to prevent Myanmar from getting the worse of mass-tourism, including the voluntourism nightmares that have been exposed recently. Great post!

  4. I agree with you on the aspect of using your skills to help. If you are not a qualified social worker yet volunteer in an orphanage you are likely to cause more harm than actually help. You wouldn’t let you hair cut by a mechanic either. Volunteering also should be a life commitment, not just something to tick off your bucket list as a backpacker because it provides cool photo opportunities for your facebook page.

  5. Excellent point on volunteering in an area that matches your skills. I’m sure that is how to best contribute. I am certainly going to remember that everyone in the world is less than 8 handshakes away :)

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