Previously called Burma, Myanmar has only opened it’s boarders up to tourism in the last 5 years. Ellie, Holly, Alistair and myself went in not knowing what to expect…
Meeting Alistair and Holly there, Ellie and myself fly into Mandalay and are immediately confronted with severe flooding… getting off of our bus into knee-deep water - and wading our way to our hostel.
The next day we get a transport to the ancient city of Bagan, with over 2200 temples mostly made out of brick and open to climb and explore. We hired e-bikes (yes, electronic scooters – Myanmar seem ahead of the rest of the tourism world in this aspect) and we spent the next few days climbing temples and watching the sunsets over the large archaeological area (below). We tried for sunrise - but the weather was not our friend, with storms most mornings.
Whilst at the Bagan Lotus Hotel I spoke to one of the young female receptionists ‘Po Po’ about local life (below, last photo, on the righthand-side). Amusingly she asked if I played the guitar? As she had seen me check-in with my guitar case... I explained that the case in fact contained tennis equipment and described what we were trying to achieve through the MTWT charitable project. With a sparkle in her eyes, she insisted that we come and visit her local village to see her old infant and primary school to deliver some tennis.
The next day Elle and myself woke up at 8am and met Po Po in the lobby, who we followed on our scooters to the very small local village (not more that 500 people). The small infant school was basic with wooden desks and no chairs – let alone any sports equipment.
You’ll notice the yellow-white paste the children have on their faces (above) – this is ‘thanaka’ a substance acquired by working a local bark into a grind-stone with water. This cosmetic paste is then applied to the locals faces to act as a homemade sunscreen.
The children applied themselves well to the ball games, improving their reception skills in the limited time we had with them. They were extremely attentive for such a young age, although were a bit lost when it came to the racquets - the ball games were enough for them. With ratios of 11:1 for 4/5 year olds the session went incredibly well, with the children smiling throughout, and the teachers engaged with what was delivered. You could tell that the teachers would be putting these games into practice when we manage to send them their own Zsig Sports equipment school set.
We’ve never had a more staged group photo (below)... With the teachers asking the children to raise their arms, don’t think they had any idea what was going on... As they look like they have been forced to raise their arms if they had enjoyed the day - I assure you they did.
During the midday sun we had worked up an incredible sweat – no wonder the locals retreat to shade during the day. Po Po jumped back on her scooter and we then followed her to the secondary school around the corner.
Here we arrived to a large square field/dust area with a surrounding school building facing inwards. The children were intrigued about their western visitors and you could see hundreds of heads peeping out of the windows around the yard as we walked across to meet the teacher we would be working with.
Ellie and myself started setting the net up under the shade of a tree, whilst a class (what seemed at completely random) were selected to partake in the activities. A lucky lottery ticket.
What a session! Possibly the most engaged and interactive session of all our travels so far – with half the children joining in the tennis session and the others clapping and cheering on the side-lines for their class mates - an incredible infectious atmosphere. I don’t think I have ever seen children have so much fun with a racquet and ball, with the supportive atmosphere only adding to this (below).
When saying our thank you and goodbyes to the classes – we stroll towards the exit and Ellie spot's a group of children playing an intriguing playground game (below).
The children had made a game where all their flip-flops were placed underneath the ‘catchers’ feet, and the owners of the the footwear formed a circle around him, trying to acquire their flip-flops back without getting caught. It was such a simple game, using the limited resources have to hand – and the children couldn’t be happier as they showed stealth and agility to acquire their property back to get out of the game. Yet another example of the imagination shown by the children we have visited on our adventure.
Po Po, keen to show us her village, introduced us to some of the elders of the community where we sat and tasted some of the local food – a selection of fermented dishes - not for the weak stomach.
What Ellie and myself hadn't realised was that the ladies, we presumed were all generations of a family, were preparing this banquet for a Buddhist wedding the next day...
Grazing on the taster plates they presented us, we were swiftly invited to attend the ceremony. The excited and proud look in their eyes as they propositioned us was not one we could have extinguished, so we gladly accepted. We were told later that day that the whole community would be there for the event, plus the local villages in the surrounding area. What had we got ourselves in for?!
We arrived at the wedding with Po Po at 11am, as we found out that the ceremonies only last between 6am to midday with the locals coming and going for breakfast. The locals vied for the bride and grooms attention as they passed on their best wishes. We managed to do the same, although it was they who requested a photo (above). Could get used to the celebrity lifestyle - although I believe they were just being inviting to newcomers to their community, and treat no other different.
There was loud local music in the background, but strictly no singing or dancing (not that I had tried to do either). The food was… interesting… with us being served a cold dish, consisting of rice noodles, chickpea custard and oiled pork (yum it was not). The dried chillies helped me get the food down, although Ellie couldn’t quite start/finish the dish – if I could have stomached it, I would have tried to help. They took the plates away seemingly incredibly happy that we almost finished the food, but we passed on seconds. A lot of the locals were looking in our direction with intrigue, as we were probably only westerners that have probably visited for a long time – Elle’s blonde hair and blue eyes particularly stood out in the crowd.
I realise what a a unique experience this was and enjoyed every moment. An experience we would have only been exposed to through the Mini Tennis World Tour project. It has allowed us into so many communities and lives of people we would not have even crossed paths with otherwise. Something I have grown truly thankful and appreciative of as this charitable project has continued.
As our time in Bagan had come to an end. We checked-out of the hotel, said our goodbyes to Po Po who had agreed to be our ambassador to receive the shipment of Zsig Sports tennis equipment and get it to the school and teachers.
To finish our time in Myanmar we joined a trek from Kalaw to Inle lake. Here we saw village life in an even more rural state. The true simple life. What a team for this leg of the journey! (below - left-to-right - Myself, Ellie, Holly and Alistair).
The Burmese live such a happy and simple life – it was a joy to see and be a part of, if only for a few weeks. We can only imagine how much this country is going to change over the next 10 years. A must visit for people looking for something slightly off the normal beaten track. Truly unique.