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.
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.
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.
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!
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!!
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!
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!
Grietje 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!