Category Archives: Myanmar (Burma)

Lookin’ Like a Lady

Back for another assignment in fascinating Myanmar I am still having difficulty remembering Burmese names.  They just don’t look like American names. Take for example, Khun Kyaw Min Htike or how about Mya Zar Li Aye?   When I can, I write them down.  Otherwise I try to use memory tricks.  I remember that Soe Soe Aye is the way a seaman would say, “Yes, I’m feeling just OK.”  Got it?  The first reader with the correct interpretation of this memory device will receive a free soybean.  I am working with a variety of farmers in Myanmar and I can easily get access to a soybean.

Myo Min is my driver. He told me his name means King of the Family.  I think he is thrilled with his title. Not so sure about his wife and two teenaged sons though.

One of the farmer groups I am working with is the Myanmar Fruit, Flower, and Vegetable Producers’ Export Association.  Their abbreviation is equally challenging: MFFVPEA.  My first observation was that the acronym was a bit unwieldy. But they had already shortened it to MFVP by the time I arrived so I had to seek out some other way to add value.  Consequently, I decided to teach them basic marketing lessons.

We conducted a brainstorming session to generate new product ideas.  One of the farmers volunteer the idea of yam noodles.  (Nearly all noodles here are made from rice.) I didn’t understand his accent and I wrote on the board, YUM noodles.  Made sense, it sounded tasty.  When it came time for the farmers to come up with a marketing slogan for their new yummy noodles, they offered, “slut slut.” I think this might cause English speakers to react with a smirking doubletake – – like my dear readers did just now. I kept a straight face and asked what they had in mind. Apparently, slut slut is the sound a Burmese makes when slurping delicious food.  So their slogan works well.

And speaking of slurping sounds, I came across two unusual flavors of snack nuts in a Yangon convenience store. Seaweed and wasabi cashew/macadamia mix. Also almonds and anchovies. Both were pretty good, but not necessarily slut slut.

The association chairman thanked me after the marketing lessons.  He said that in the 18 year history of the association they had never received marketing training.  They had learned how to irrigate their fields, rotate the crops, harvest and safely store their produce, but never how to market their output.  Of course marketing is essential for farmers wanting to move beyond growing and eating. That is mere subsistence farming. Woody Allen once observed that 80% of success in life is just showing up.  Seemingly, I showed up at the right time to end their 18 year marketing drought.

I am often asked if I get feedback about the impact of the assignments I have worked on.  Not all the time…however two years ago I teamed up with a craft soap maker to train eight village groups how to produce and how to market handmade soap.  Of the eight villages, four have developed an ongoing business that provides extra income to the residents.  So, there can be a report of some, but not total, success.  But to put this in rough perspective, a baseball player hitting .500 would be a superstar.  We got to work with superstar villages.

I enjoy wandering around the towns I serve in so that I can observe the way locals live.  In a crowded, older section of Yangon I witnessed cords dangling from upper floors down to nearly ground level.  Each cord had a butterfly clip attached to the bottom end and a bell affixed at the upper end. Food delivery services will attach an ordered bag of food to the butterfly clip, jiggle the cord so that the bell rings.  The resident will then haul up his booty – – and I assume – – send payment back down via the butterfly clip. This would be a great way to get your almonds and anchovies.

Last Tuesday was a national holiday and I had the day off.  I crossed the broad Yangon River by ferry to explore the more rural areas south of the crowded city center. On board the ferry was a special seating area for foreigners and monks. I appreciate that I am viewed with as much reverence as a monk in this strongly Buddhist nation, but I thought it too exclusive to sit in that reserved section.  I didn’t want to be the ugly American.

At the far side of my ferry trip, the rural side, I began to explore on foot.  The underemployed bicycle rickshaw wallahs saw me as a sure customer.  Walking in midday sun, 95 degree heat and 95% humidity, is not a common practice.  One after another pedaled up beside me to make his pitch.  Always polite, I turned them all down. I needed the exercise.

One persistent rickshaw driver struck up a conversation.  He asked, “How old are you?” “69” I replied.  He seemed confused.  Burmese cannot accurately assess the age of a Caucasian.  To be fair, I couldn’t guess his age either. I think he was indirectly complimenting me when he said, “My father is 52.  He looks old.”  But then he paid me the ultimate compliment.  “You have a face like a woman.”   I guess I will double down on the use of Estee Lauder blush and eye shadow.  They seem to be working.

Curbside Service


Back in Myanmar for my fourth volunteer visit I figure it is time to tell you about which side of the road they drive on here: the right side – – just like in America.  Pretty mundane?  Not really, because the steering wheel is on the right side of the car.  This means that the driver is seated curbside as he drives.  In every other country in the world the motorist will be seated next to the center median allowing him vision of the road ahead. Sitting curbside does not allow such an essential perspective. Burma (as it was then named) was once a British colony (1824 -1948) and the Brits naturally introduced their driving system: drive on the left using a right handed steering wheel.

In 1970 the military dictator of Burma, General Ne Win, wanted to make a clean break from all things British.  He consulted his soothsayer.  The fortune teller advised Ne Win to switch the drive side of the road…but not the steering wheel configuration. So, now the driver is seated at the far right hand edge, the curbside of road.  When he attempts to pass a slower vehicle, he must pull out completely into oncoming traffic before he can determine if the road is clear to pass.

If not clear, in this country of narrow roads and heavy traffic, he must very quickly duck back into his correct lane…and sit along the curb again. It appears that General Ne Win knew more about military matters that about highway planning.

Now, as a passenger, I am seated next to the central median, and I am the first person exposed to a head-on collision as the driver attempts his essentially blind passing maneuver. I thought about wearing a bicycle helmet while in the passenger seat, but rejected that idea because I would rather risk a head-on than mess up my hair.  Instead I usually elect to close my eyes and sleep under the theory that if I don’t see bad things coming they won’t happen.

The challenge with sleeping in a car on the Myanmar road system is that all drivers toot the horn when starting their unseeing passing attempt.  And they honk a thank you to the vehicle once they have passed it.  They toot a heads-up-I-am-here to pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcycles – – especially to the motorcycles carrying a family of four.  All the other vehicles on the road are, as well, beeping out a cacophony of warnings and thanks.  Consequently, I am at elevated risk for a head-on and I can’t get to sleep.

I survived the unique highway system and arrived at my work site, Ayadaw, in central Myanmar where I assisted the Ayadaw Township Thanakha Association (ATTA).  Ayadaw has the ideal climate for growing thanakha. This is a species of citrus tree found only in Myanmar.  The powdered bark of the tree is used as a uniquely Myanmar cosmetic and skin restorer.  An estimated 90% of Myanmar women and 30% of men apply thanakha to their cheeks as a beauty aid.

The farmers in the association plant a thanakha tree farm, wait five years for the trees to grow a three-inch diameter trunk, just the right size to harvest, and then sell in six inch lengths to the consumer.  We don’t grow thanakha trees in the US, but perhaps you could envision Christmas tree farming: plant, grow for a few years, harvest, sell to consumers.  Pretty much the same for thanakha farming.

Thanakha is deeply entwined in Myanmar culture, there are 1000-year-old references to its benefits in the country’s literature.  My interpreter told me his grandmother applied the cream to his face daily when he was a kid; then she had him open his mouth for a dab on the tongue as a general health tonic.  He said it tasted terrible.  He has very nice skin today and he was seldom sick as a child.

All families have a grindstone the size of a large dinner plate.  They purchase a six inch length of tree trunk, place some water on the grindstone, and grind the bark into a yellow creamy paste.  Then they apply it to at least their cheeks, but often to their entire face. It is quite thick and most noticeable, almost as pronounced as face painting.  It is common to see women, especially in rural areas, wearing the yellow paste throughout the day.  One lady told me she applied it every day except on her wedding day when she went thanakha-free.

Following are unedited passages from the ATTA marketing brochure:

  • By daily smearing on the surface of the cheek, become the smooth skin
  • In winter season, get warmly feeling and in summer, cold feeling would be occurred on the skin
  • Good protection of the sun rays and harsh wind, soothe and freshen own mind and body
  • Whitening the normal complexion by applying daily
  • To maintain the moisture for the body coolness. Every pretty damsel loves Myanma Thanakha. Please try to smear on your surface for your glorious and brightness. Living at Upper-Myanmar, girls like to use natural Thanakha-make-up. Thus, no need to afraid of the sun rays and hot weather.
  • Good for curing rash and body heat, gout, arthritis, and gynecological diseases, antidote action and good to use for poisonous Bacteria bites.
  • For high fever feeling patients and mumps, bruises, furuncles

You may note that marketing communication, at least in English, is not yet their forte. You may also note that they claim more benefits than one could rationally believe.

They even hope to market the seeds as a holistic medicine to cure heart problems.  I suggested they stay away from this application until they had third party research that showed it to be safe and effective.  Personally, I figure it is safe and ineffective – – but I have not seen third party research to support my belief either.

Despite the over-hyped benefits of the product, there is little doubt that when pulverized on a grindstone with a bit of water, it produces a cream that is cool and soothing to the skin, probably repels mosquitoes, and clears the complexion.  So, all in all, a fairly beneficial product…heart claims not withstanding.

I helped ATTA improve their management techniques and provided business training.  They quite enjoyed the lesson on negotiating and the advantage of not just listening to the other party’s words, but also reading his body language.  Arms folded across the chest and leaning away likely means the other party is not interested in your thanakha offer.

But the good news here is two-fold: they are learning a new negotiating skill and they sure do have beautiful skin.




Civet Cats and Coffee

I am wrapping up five weeks in southeast Asia.  The bulk of that time I spent in Myanmar (Burma) where I conducted back to back assignments. The first was to give a series of marketing lessons to poultry farmers in Mandalay.  Some of you may know of this city by virtue of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “The Road to Mandalay.”

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,

There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:

“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

Worth noting is that Kipling never visited Mandalay. The first stanza is the give-away. Mandalay is inland, 400 hundred miles from the sea.

Now back to the marketing lessons:  As is customary on the road to Mandalay, one removes his shoes when entering the classroom.  For the first time in my life I taught class barefoot. The feeling is one of great freedom and is quite a necessity in an unairconditioned classroom in 90 degree heat and 90% humidity.

After the chicken farmers I moved on to Nyaung Shwe which means Banyan Tree of Gold.  There is a village a few miles away named Shwe Nyaung (Golden Banyan Tree.) Nyaung Shwe, Shwe Nyaung: this is all very confusing – – unless you are dyslexic, then I assume it is quite helpful. Easier to grasp are many of the Burmese names.  They are two-part and repetitive.  Some of the people I worked with were Myint Myint, Hnin Hnin, Htut Htut, Su Su, Moe Moe, and Aung Aung.  I am not making this up.  Now the beauty of such a system is that if you forget one of the name parts all you need to do is recall the other part, then double it.

In March, I had conducted market research around Nyaung Shwe on the demand for handcrafted natural soap.  We concluded that there was indeed high demand among the tourist hotels, spas, and souvenir shops in that town. Consequently, my NGO (Winrock International) sent two craft soap makers here to train women’s self help groups in eight nearby villages.  After the soapmaking lessons they decided that I should return to provide lessons on how to market their new product.

Special note for my female readers: Soap is little more than oil, water, and lye, for hardening.  One can add fragrances and scented herbs as the soapmakers of Nyaung Shwe do.  While I was teaching marketing, parallel training on lotion making was taking place.  Lotion is similar to soap but eliminates the lye hardening agent and adds a thickening ingredient such as bee’s wax to yield a creamy consistency.  I attended several of the lotion making sessions and as a result my hands are now baby soft.

Special note for my male readers: Next blog post I will discuss power tools and NFL player trades.

After my work in Myanmar I chose to visit Hanoi, Vietnam.  Hanoi is a beautiful blend of Asian and French Colonial styles.  Sidewalk cafes abound.  I even found one selling coffee for $12 a (tiny) cup.  I suspect this price exceeds even Starbucks’ Salted Caramel Mocha latte double venti superioso.  Now I am a pretty cheap guy, but out of curiosity I decided to try the $12 cup.  It was not just any coffee, it was Civet Coffee.  The civet cat, native to tropical Asia, apparently eats coffee beans.  The beans pass through its alimentary tract undigested but altered in some way by the civet’s stomach acids.  So, picture this: the coffee grower feeds coffee beans to a civet, collects them at the other end, washes them very, VERY well, roasts the bean, brews a cup of coffee, and serves it to tourists with more money than sense.

I do not have a refined palate.  I could not taste the difference between a normal cup and the civet cup.  I imagined I was drinking a basic cup of coffee. But my wallet told me otherwise.  At least I did not select the Wild Civet Coffee option at $46 per cup.  Really.

To get to the civet coffee cafe, I took an Uber.  In Hanoi, with nearly four million motorbikes, my Uber that day was an Uber-moto.  Very inexpensive and quite agile at avoiding traffic jams; there were some scary moments however.  My driver began the journey consulting his iPhone map.  One handed motorcycle driving with eyes on a tiny screen is not a safe practice.  At least he gave me a helmet to wear.

He weaved through the traffic like a broken field runner on the gridiron.  I even imagined I was reliving my glory days as second string quarterback on my freshman high school football team.  If only I had gotten into a game.

We zigged and zagged and shucked and jived and passed a bus on the curb side and nearly got run out of bounds by the bus. While he was executing his zig zag driving the other four million moto drivers on the road were doing the same.

Imagine four million second string QBs all running for their moment of glory that day.

Spirit in the Trees


When our team arrived at Chock Check village we were advised that during the preceding evening a shocking event had unexpectedly occurred.  A perfectly healthy 37 year-old man and his wife had gone into the forest to cut firewood.  They spotted a large and attractive – – for firewood purposes – – tree.  They set to work with their two handed crosscut saw.  About halfway through the tree trunk they stopped to rest.  After resting they turned their attention back to the tree.  Surprisingly, the trunk appeared in its original state: uncut.  So they began sawing again, and once more they rested midway through the laborious task.  After this second break, they discovered that the tree was still in its pristine state: no cut marks.

By this time the man was feeling a bit ill so they gave up on their cutting job and returned to their village home.  Shortly after arriving home, the man got noticeably sicker and suddenly passed away.  The devout Buddhist villagers have interpreted this unfortunate turn of events to the fact that the deceased and his wife had disturbed a large tree which they should have known harbored spirits of their ancestors.  The would-be tree cutter apparently paid the ultimate price for disturbing the spirits.  As penance, the villagers apologized to the tree and left offerings of fruit and lighted candles at its base. So far, nothing else untoward has occurred.

I was invited to Burma to work with Shwe Inn Thu (SIT), a women’s self-help group.  SIT helps women form savings clubs.  Groups of around 20 or so women meet together every five days – – sort of an odd cycle, but one that matches the five day rotating market schedule in this area. The group members each commit to contributing 200 Burmese kyats, about 16 cents in US currency, every five days to their common fund.  With all group members contributing and with enough perseverance, the common fund will grow to a size large enough to loan one of its members sufficient money to start a small business, say, selling woven bamboo handicrafts at a nearby tourist market.  After six months that loan recipient must repay the principal to the fund along with 3% interest.  Then a second member will tap the common fund to start her own business.  After several years of group contributions and several successfully repaid business loans, some of the groups have nearly $10,000 in savings.  This is microfinance at its most basic grassroots level.

Several Inle Lake villages hope to tap their common funds to develop community-based businesses.  The women’s self-help group, SIT, has selected eight villages around the lake to train in soap making.  The idea is to provide a new craft to the poor women in these communities.  They will produce the soap and sell it to nearby hotels, spas, and souvenir shops.  My job has been to evaluate the training needs of the villagers and the market demand for this creamy lather, florally fragrant, gently exfoliating, hand crafted natural product.  Please place your orders now.

Thit Seint Pin was one of the first villages we visited.  Situated on the edge of the lake are 82 households; 61 of these are classified as poor or very poor by SIT.  Using their metrics, poor means the household has enough food for six months of the year.  Very poor: just four months of food availability, plus the family cannot afford housing.  The community ponies up supplemental food and housing for these desperate households.  Now if one could teach the poor women to hand craft and sell soap, more money for more food would come their way. For many of the individuals their only current source of income is from casual labor:  for example, a poor farmer will hire a very poor woman to harvest tomatoes from one of the lake’s floating gardens.

And this lake is not just any lake, it is one of Myanmar’s leading tourist sites and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Inle Lake is the center of tourism, trekking, and crafts in central Myanmar.  It draws well-heeled tourists who pass by poor villages not knowing that the scenic stilt homes actually house really poor people.  Two years ago, I came as a tourist and had no idea the depth of poverty floating on the lake’s surface.  Don’t scrimp on your tipping when visiting Inle Lake.

In addition to the lake’s floating gardens, Inle is famous for its stilt villages. Many, many line the shoreline and also sit out over the lake.  Several are among the villages we are targeting for training and business development.  I feel like I am in a movie set when I arrive through a maze of wetland canals to reach one.  Invariably one of the village women will gather her savings group members into her one room home on stilts as I pull up in a motorized canoe. I give a short pitch about the planned soap making program. Then I ask some business-oriented questions in order to assess the degree of training necessary to turn them from casual laborers into soap barons.  Questions like:

  • Have you ever made soap before? (Usually, “No”)
  • Does your association have other business experience? (Sometimes, “We sell vegetables in the market.”)
  • Are there members in your association who have bookkeeping and financial tracking skills? (Surprisingly there are always a handful with this expertise.)
  • Would your association be interested to participate in this new soap making business? (Always a resounding, “Yes.”)

Then I ask if they have any questions for me.  Unvaryingly the first question asked is not business related, it is, “How old are you?”  Apparently, there is no social reticence to ask this and it is difficult for Burmese to judge the age of Caucasians.  I have no idea how old they are either. The next set of questions tends to be: how big is your family, do you have children, and do you have grandchildren?

They are surprised that my 30 year-old daughter and 27 year-old son are not yet married – – the  local youth here get married by age 20, if not earlier.  At Inn Phyar village I was able to temper their surprise at my grand-childless status by reporting that my daughter was recently engaged.  What my daughter is not yet aware of is that she has now been invited to hold her wedding ceremony in some very sweet lady’s one room stilt house on scenic Inle Lake.  You are all invited.


Myanmar: A World of Difference

Over the past six years I have conducted thirty volunteer business assignments in nearly as many countries.  None of the one score and some previous assignments quite prepared me for Myanmar.  The former Burma is as different as any place I have ever visited, and as fascinating.  About the only thing similar to previous assignments was the work assignment itself.

My work: Assist two different cooperatives, one of farmers and one of fishermen. My mission was to improve the effectiveness of their organizations.  I taught both groups, about 30 participants each, three days of related topics: business, leadership, and organization.  My curriculum consisted of some lecture (including the story of the tortoise and the hare – – slow and steady wins the race), some full audience participation, and some small group exercises.  One of their favorites was a brainstorming session to come up with as many new product ideas as possible within five minutes.  Next each group selected their favorite new idea and created a brand name, pricing, slogan, and a 10 second product pitch.  If any of you needs some ground sesame, I can connect you with a team of farmers that has a creative product pitch to give you.  Likewise for fish paste.

I was impressed with the range of activities offered by the co-ops.  Most farmers’ coops provide help to farmers focusing on agricultural assistance.  However, the Burmese coops offered a range of social services well beyond agricultural assistance.  One co-op found seasonal construction jobs for the farmers after the harvest was in, thereby providing extra income to the poor farmers.  In a similar vein, another co-op purchased rope making materials so the farmers could make money by hand crafting and selling rope.  Yet another arranged for community assistance to the elderly in their farming village.  All laudable activities.

The dress in Myanmar is a bit different than in the western world.  Men wear a LONGYI, an ankle length skirt-like affair.  Picture a very wide bag, open at both the top and bottom. One steps into it, takes the wide sides, and folds the sides in front, tying with a knot. This knot is every bit an art form as a man’s Windsor knot in the west.  Every man in my training class wore a longyi; and every woman, an ankle length wrap around skirt.  I wore the pants in class – – the only person who wore pants in class.

Women, especially rural women, but even many of my business colleagues in the capital, wear THANAKHA paste on their face.  This is a yellow-hued paste made from the powdered bark and wood of the thanakha citrus tree.  Thanakha protects from the harsh tropical sun and nourishes the skin. The Burmese women do have quite beautiful smooth skin when the paste has been removed.  Only thing is, many women wear a thick layer of paste out in public all day long.  Sort of a yellow tinted coating of Clearasil or perhaps an exceptionally thick application of (yellow) rouge all over the checks.

My first night I ate at a restaurant in the capital, Yangon.  Apparently a Caucasian face was a novelty in this restaurant.  There was a polite intramural scramble to see who got to seat me and take my order.  Several wait-staff got in on the act: bringing food, changing table ware, rearranging items, standing by to help.  At one point five of them were lined up in a row just an arm’s length from my table watching me eat.  I now know how Lady Gaga feels when passing through a crowd of teenage fans.

Between my work stints with the two cooperatives I visited Bagan, Myanmar’s historical Buddhist jewel.  For two hundred years, starting in the 11th century, the devout Buddhists built 4000 pagodas on a flat plain alongside the Irrawaddy River. As far as the eye can see, one views red, white, and golden pagodas crowded together on this plain.  And all have names.

A quite new name is the memorable, “Nuclear Catastrophe Overcome Pagoda.”  If the deal with Iran doesn’t eventually work out, I may convert to Buddhism and request this pagoda as my duty station.  Nearby was an equally unforgettable name, “Be Kind to Animals the Moon Restaurant.”  You have probably already deduced that they specialize in lunar vegan fusion.

In Magwe, one of my training sites, there was a perpetual haze from the hot dusty weather supplemented by the burning of field stubble following this, the harvest season. I hate to think what a lifetime of post-harvest breathing would do to one’s lungs.  But the upside is daily blood red spectacular sunrises and sunsets.  And speaking of blood red….

Betel, the nut from the areca palm, is a stimulant.  It is commonly chewed by rural men as a pick-me-up and as a social lubricant. In the horn of Africa one chooses qat, it’s kola nut in West Africa, coca leaves in the Andean highlands, and caffeine in the developed world.  Every culture has its mild stimulant of choice.  But betel is not so mild: six time the impact of a cup of coffee, with damaging physical effects.  It permanently stains the teeth and gums red.  Most of the betel chewers display obvious tooth decay.  (It is not clear to me whether betel is the cause or if betel chewers just don’t get dental care.)  The people are so friendly, so there is always a big smile – – with red on the gums and teeth, at least on the teeth that are still there. And then there is the blood red spit. Yucky. But fascinating.