SMALL TOWN MYANMAR; YENANGYAUNG & LEI THAR GONE

Yenangyaung is virtually unknown to tourists, even those actively planning a trip to Myanmar. And for good reason — there are no actual tourist sites. No world-famous archaeological wonders. No colonial-era architecture.

In fact, in Burmese Yenangyaung means “stream of oil”. That’s not exactly the kind of catchy slogan local tourism boards use to draw in the crowds.

So, why did I visit? And why should you?

In short, Yenangyaung is home to one of the most inspiring stories of compassion and charity I’ve encountered in my travels.


The middle-aged villager stepped toward a withering tree and hung up his coat. As I enjoyed sweeping views from the bluff, he turned and lifted his shirt.

My breath was taken away.

There, in the middle of his back, obvious signs of torture.

When I wrapped my fingers around my wrist mimicking handcuffs, I hardly expected this.

He turned to face me and pointed out more scars crisscrossing his forearms.

I couldn’t tell if he had been whipped or electrocuted, but this fellow had endured something nasty. Fifty years old, he was a student during the famous 1988 Uprising.

He pointed from our lookout, machine gun style, into the ramshackle villages below. He mimicked locals hiding from the gunshots. Then he pointed to the markings.

I had a lump in my throat.

An hour prior I descended into the poor villages below Yenangyaung, far from Myanmar’s burgeoning tourism scene, and was basically claimed by this gentleman as his personal guest. He showed me to a particularly intense game of chin lone, the Burmese version of foot volleyball. We walked out to the brick factory where teams of workers toiled in the blazing March sun. One thousand bricks per day netted the crew about US$1 each.

Workers at the brick factory

The brick factory

Workers carrying and stacking bricks

Hard work for not much pay

We didn’t share much in the way of language, but managed regardless. He was a fisherman, times were tough at the height of the dry season and he only caught enough to feed his family. 

We hoofed it up a parched hill to a solitary pagoda which overlooked the entire area. Atop the bluff he asked where I came from. When I said America he lit up.

“Obama, democracy!”.

That exchange led to the torture revelation. After hearing what he had been through, an affinity for democracy was understandable.

Buddhist pagoda atop a scrubby hill

The revelation point

I told him I followed the 2007 protests and touched my heart in solidarity. He couldn’t verbalize his thoughts, but his feelings were obvious. My new friend was reluctant to take a 1000 kyat tip (US$0.85), motioning for me to give it to the villagers instead.

I insisted.

Eventually he relented, looked skyward in thanks and accepted the token of my appreciation.

Local man and I giving thumbs up signs

Thumbs up to new friends

YENANGYAUNG

No travelers arrive in Yenangyaung by accident and not many go there on purpose.

The city is most famous for its petroleum production (remember, “Stream of Oil”) and as the site of a 1942 World War II battle… which happened to be fought over oil.

Besides that, it’s pretty much an average Burmese city of 50,000 people getting on with life.

But for one small guesthouse, Yenangyaung would see zero tourists. In fact on my second night I was indeed the only one there. The surrounding township held over 100,000 people, so that solo tourist stat was one impressive fact.

Two women walking down the street with goods balanced on their heads

Street life

Woman standing over numerous silver pots of food

Yenangyaung’s street food scene

CHARITY & COMPASSION AT LIGHT OF LOVE

Back in 2002, local resident Eric Trutwein retired and returned to his hometown. There he was confronted with desperate poverty and untold numbers of orphaned children, many victimized by the AIDS epidemic.

But what to do?

Instead of a low-key retirement, Eric got to work.

While living in a single room, he began caring for thirteen orphaned children. Food, shelter, mentoring, teaching — the whole deal.

From these humble beginnings grew the Light of Love Private High School.

Entrance gate to the Light of Love High School, Yenangyaung, Myanmar

Entrance to the school compound

Today Light of Love is a full-blown compound with multiple classrooms, a computer room and a health clinic. There are no fees. Uniforms are provided. Medical care and food are taken care of.

Two story stone school building at the Light of Love High School

The lovingly crafted school buildings

Printed saying on health, luck, success, love, peace, fun, happiness and joy at the Light of Love High School.

This would indeed make for a wonderful year

Check out the uplifting story of the school’s founding.

So how does the Light of Love school relate to local tourism and the experience of foreign guests in Yenangyaung?

LEI THAR GONE GUEST HOUSE

Well, in 2006 the same family behind the school opened up Yenangyaung’s only guesthouse. I came across a fellow traveler’s blog post singing the praises of this unknown place a month before my trip.

It didn’t take much reading before I booked in.

Its name? Lei Thar Gone.

Lei Thar Gone Guesthouse perched atop a bluff

Talk about a room with a view!

The guesthouse itself is a fabulous place to stay. I rank it as my absolute favorite accommodation during my first 27-night trip to Myanmar.

Fifteen separate rooms spread out across 6 or 8 buildings, so noisy neighbors aren’t a problem. A few Buddhist bells, perhaps, but they’re charming. The rooms themselves are absolutely gorgeous, kitted out with local stone, large showers and overhead fans.

Interior of bedroom at Lei Thar Gone Guesthouse. Two single beds, desk with chair and several windows.

Not a bad place to lay your head for a few days

Shady trees and cascading blooms line lush pathways around the property. The “Sunset Spot” is indeed the ideal place to kick back and relax at the end of a dusty day exploring the areaTrust me.

And a refreshing in-ground pool offered a welcome respite as March temperatures approached 90F (32C).

Panoramic photo of the in-ground pool surrounded by green trees and a view of Yenangyaung in the background

“Konde”, Burmese for good!

Then there’s the food.

I enjoyed breakfasts with a view on a terrace overlooking the Irrawaddy River. Not a bad way to start the day. Cheap dinners are available as well. During my visit everyone ate family style dinners at one large table, though it isn’t mandatory. But I loved it. When you travel alone, get-togethers like this can really make a day.

And if it’s quiet, it’ll just be you, the family and maybe a friend or two.

Eric held court at dinner each evening and dissected the current state of Burmese politics as the few guests picked his brain. Bless the man for simultaneously humoring our questions while attempting to enjoy his 3-course meal.

CHANGING LIVES IN YENANGYAUNG

Besides the physical comforts, lovely grounds and excellent food, your stay makes a difference.

By staying at Lei Thar Gone you are helping change lives. Literally educating, feeding and providing healthcare for those less fortunate than you. And in this corner of Myanmar, that is a substantial number of folks.

Photo of the sun through the patterned leaves of a tree

Eric’s family plows guesthouse profits into the school and the associated charitable works. My single room rate — US$30 plus $7 for dinner — covered wages and contributed to the humanitarian causes.

My visit actually overlapped with that of a lovely Swiss couple, Jürgen and Margrit, annual visitors who are involved in a foundation which supports the charitable cause of Light of Love and Lei Thar Gone. Jürgen offered all sorts of fascinating insights and my never-ending curiosity (and questions!) didn’t seem to bother him.

How did the school come to be? What effect did it have on the local community? Are there teachers or volunteers? How did you become involved? What is the long-term vision?

We spoke of the school, successful students and guesthouse employees. Of the wide supply chain, the nascent tourism sector and the depth and breadth of charity happening in this little corner of Myanmar.

I was emotional.

I felt inspired.

BURMESE VILLAGE LIFE

Thirty minutes after the torture victim and I parted, I strolled into the same village I visited the day prior. I sat on a ledge at the Buddhist shrine which appeared to double as the neighborhood playground. Yesterday a half-dozen kids greeted me. We had a kick about with a raggedy, half-inflated soccer ball that seemed to pre-date my time on Earth.

Cows grazing in the dry river bed of the Irrawaddy River beside Yenangyaung

March, the height of the dry season

Parched ground and scrub with a blue sky background

Thirty minutes walk between the villages and the guesthouse

Bamboo and wood home on stilts beside the dry bed of the Irrawaddy River

When I took an inflatable mini ball from my backpack their faces brightened. The ball swap was like a siren call. Soon a dozen eager youngsters were in on the action. Kids in their pajamas, toddlers in their undergarments, barefoot children, Croc-wearing girls. The whole gang came out.

Next up? More local connections, a quiet waterfall and a homemade meal in the former capital of British colonial Burma

Several mothers and babies sat out front of their wood and corrugated metal homes taking in the scene. Occasionally we paused for a passing motorbike, once for a convoy of goats!

Goats being led through the middle of a dusty village

Goats passing through!

After breaking a good sweat I sat down for a drink. The younger kids quickly gathered around, so I pulled out my phone.

This act kicked off their favorite activity — snapping photos and videos before witnessing their on-screen work. I would take a photo or shoot a video, then everyone crowded around to see the results. One kid made a goofy face, then everyone had to replicate it. Some posed like models in training, a brother and sister hugged, one cheeky lad even managed to throw up a middle finger in the back of a group shot!

This went on, conservatively, for twenty minutes.

Eight young local kids and I posing for a group selfie

Burmese girl with red shirt smiling and flashing the peace sign

Close up photo of six young children smiling and mugging for the camera

Eight kids in line posing for a group photo. Dirt road and bamboo homes in the background.

I now own perhaps the most in-depth collection of Burmese kids photos anywhere.

But I’m not complaining.

The kids were adorable and made perfect photography subjects. Many of their cheeks were colored yellow with traditional thanaka. Thanaka is ground up tree bark which is mixed with water and spread onto the face as sun protection or a cosmetic. You won’t get very far in Myanmar without seeing it.

Only one youngster spoke more than a few words of English, though it didn’t matter. Whether we played soccer, shot videos or dished out shoulder massages — which one of the young boys was quite adept at — all was good.

Young child looking up at me with his hands wrapped around my legs

The expert masseur

Three kids and I taking a selfie together beneath a corrugated metal roof.

This little village was one of the poorest places I had ever seen, so at the end of my visit I left the soccer ball as a gift. But there was a problem. The accompanying pump and needle kit were back at Lei Thar Gone, forty-five minutes walk down an exposed, sandy path along the banks of the Irrawaddy River.

Low water levels, sandy banks and parched bluffs of the Irrawaddy River outside Yenangyaung

It’s dry and the Irrawaddy is low

I decided to come back the following day.

LIFE IS KONDE

On my return trip the torture victim and I had a pleasantly unexpected detour. When I finally arrived the kids were ready. This time I had a frisbee as well, so that became the new object of everyone’s fascination. Well, that and my white sunglasses. After nine photos of various kids posing with my sunglasses we got down to the sporting action.

Photo collage of eight or nine children wearing my white sunglasses.

Same scene as yesterday, a dozen kids in a circle tossing the frisbee back and forth. Some knew how to throw it while others required a bit of guidance. One even mixed in a perfect backhand throw which elicited in me a smile of epic proportions.

“Konde!”, I said, Burmese for good.

And I meant it.

Not just the frisbee throw, but the cultural exchange, the kids, the connections, my stay at Lei Thar Gone, Yenangyaung and real Myanmar in general.

Sun setting beyond the seating area under the trees at Lei Thar Gone Guesthouse

The Sunset Spot


DO IT YOURSELF

Getting There

Yenangyaung surprised me with its connectedness to the rest of Myanmar. It sits at a crossroads of sorts. Bagan is just two hours north. Buses to Yangon and Mandalay are plentiful. Even long-distance buses to Rakhine State destinations Sittwe, Mrauk U and Ngapali Beach, while not calling directly in town, come quite close.

In short, you have options.

Google map of Myanmar with Yenangyaung at the center

I arrived after a 2.5 hour minibus ride from Bagan. The driver blew past the guesthouse and only stopped after I alerted his assistant. He refused to turn around, so I had to get out beside a random roadside shack on the edge of town. Luckily some friendly young people were inside. Typically of Myanmar, one of the kids offered to give me a lift on his motorbike.

Multiple buses connect Mandalay throughout the day. There are a couple of nighttime buses too, but it’s a short night. Plan on 5 or 6 hours. I departed this way, rolled into Mandalay early in the afternoon and hopped a taxi straight away for Pyin Oo Lwin.

Yangon is farther afield, so overnight buses connect the two from 6pm. There may or may not be daytime options as well. Ten hours.

If you’re interested in testing the limits of human endurance, the marathon Mandalay to Mrauk U and Sittwe bus (25 hours!) calls close to Yenangyaung around 930 or 10pm. Hopping on locally will cut that epic journey roughly in half, leaving twelve hours to Mrauk U, possibly more.

The Bagan area has the nearest airport. It’s actually in Nyaung U (NYU).

Reach out to Lei Thar Gone with questions. Therese is especially helpful and hooked me up with a variety of information to assist with advance transit planning. The guesthouse will books tickets, drive you to the bus station and ensure you’re aboard the proper bus upon departure.

Sleeping and Eating

Duh, the only place in town.

I originally booked two nights at Lei Thar Gone, but wound up extending for a third. If you can swing it, I suggest at least that. Relax by the pool, explore the villages near the river and see what life is like for average Burmese outside the tourist centers.

For food between breakfast and dinner at the guesthouse, you will be able to rustle up some options in town. That being said, if you’re expecting Western food in air-conditioned quarters, well, let’s just say you’ll be disappointed. Think market stalls and street carts, not sit-down meals and table service.

My room had a mini-fridge and the main reception area offers complimentary water fill-ups.

Seeing the Sights

Go for a walk! Discover what real Myanmar is all about.

Whatever you do, make sure to visit the school. Visitors are welcome and apparently the kids quite enjoy guests. Term ended literally the day prior to my arrival, so all was quiet, though I did have a peek around the facilities.

Lei Thar Gone offers formal tours such as a motorbike safari and an excursion with a local fisherman. Guests at the time of my visit spoke highly of the fishing trip. Others arranged for a guided trip by car to see some well off the beaten path ruins.

Pretty much anything you can dream up, I have a feeling the team at the guesthouse will do their best to make it happen.


Finally, a special thanks to Therese at Lei Thar Gone for her generosity in allowing me to use several photos from their wonderful collection. Give the galleries a browse, you’ll feel a part of the local scene. Better yet — plan a visit and take your own photos!

4 Comments

  1. HI, its me again, Sebastian

    I enjoyed reading this posting blog, awesome humble experience, thats my thing, interacting with locals and feel more appreciated what we have here in America.

    I will try to see if I can come by this place, just 2 hours down from bagan.

    quick question, have u visited these places: Sittwe, Mrauk U and Ngapali Beach?

    If so, how safe it would be considered to visit Mrauk? considering they fall in a danger prohibited area?

    Thanks
    Sebastian

    1. Hey Sebastian, glad you enjoyed it!

      Experiences like this definitely make you appreciate the basics of life.

      I never made it to Mrauk U and Sittwe, though they were on my list. I planned to catch the bus from Yenangyaung. I actually had and cancelled hotel reservations because Rohingya violence was flaring up at the time. I went to Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw instead.

      I don’t read too much into those government lists. You sound like a reasonable traveler. As long as you are informed, aware and stick to the usual sites, you will not have any problems. In fact, if you traveled like an uninformed tourist you might not even know anything was going on.

      Be cautious and register yourself in the STEP program. Whenever traveling off the beaten path I register myself.

      In all honesty, the military will not allow foreigners anywhere near the ‘trouble spots’. But I would keep my opinions on the Rohingya and their status in Myanmar to myself. You’ll find it’s a sensitive topic and locals have pretty much one attitude about it.

      I would have no issues visiting Sittwe or Mrauk U now. An incident took place in January which probably didn’t help the tourist perception of Rakhine State.

      Both are atop the list for my next trip.

      I’m not a beach person, so can’t help you on Ngapali.

  2. Wow Chris! What an experience! It sort of reminds me of our time visiting a couple of little local villages in the Congo while we were working there (playing with the kids and wandering the villages ect)… how gorgeous to have been able to spend so much time playing with the kids!

    We won’t be able to follow suit on our upcoming trip but this is really inspiring to keep in mind for future trips!

    Thanks for taking the time to write and share this… love your writing style and photos!

    1. Thanks, Peta!

      There’s nothing like hanging out with the kids in poorer communities to give you a sense of perspective, ah? They’re just so happy and fun loving, even though they have very little.

      I’d love to hear about the Congo one day…

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