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"Exploring the countryside of Nyaungshwe by bike"
By Steve Lyons, Dec 2012
For my second and last day in Nyaungshwe I had several options. I had wanted to go somewhere in the area where I hadn’t been before, a place such as Kakku (lots of ancient stupas) or Sagar (an old pagoda on the south end of the lake). After getting price quotes for both trips, I opted to stay in town. I wanted to visit the orphanage at Maing Thauk and this way I wouldn’t feel so rushed.
This was my fourth trip to the orphanage, but the first time that I had attempted to negotiate the journey by road — and on a bicycle, no less. I rented my bike from Golden Bowl Tour Services, run by a friendly fellow named Htein Linn. It turns out that he is also from Maing Thauk and knows the orphanage director, U Tet Tun. Htein Linn gave me proper directions to the village and ensured that both tires had plenty of air in them before I set off on my journey.
My legs were already a bit sore from cycling around Bagan and Mandalay, so I wasn’t sure if the trip to Maing Thauk would thoroughly wear me out or not. But thankfully, the road was pretty good and there were no steep hills to contend with, and I found the cycling to be most pleasant. As I cycled down the nearly deserted country road I marveled at the scenic surroundings: misty mountains in the distance, Inle Lake off to my right, fields of flowers, farms and rice fields on both sides of the road. For ten minute stretches I would not see any other vehicles or cyclists on the road. Occasionally I would pass a smiling child or an obstinate water buffalo, but that was about the extent of the acivity.
The weather wasn’t too hot and there was no rain to dampen my mood. This was pretty much as close to bliss as I could imagine.
Unlike my last trip, when I arrived around mid-morning, I timed this visit so that I would arrive near noon, when the kids came back to the orphanage for lunch. Most of them go to schools in Maung Thauk during the day and return to the orphanage for lunch before heading back to class again in the afternoon. The meals are cooked by a volunteer, but the children are the ones that serve everything. Groups of kids take turns putting scoops of rice onto each plate and dishing out bowls of soup. Before digging into their midday meal they stand at the table and offer thanks (a prayer of sorts) for the nourishment.
The orphanage director, U Tet Tun, is a kind and dedicated man who does his best to assure that the kids obtain a good education and moral upbringing, as well as having a safe and comfortable place to live. Not all of the children, however, are orphans. Some come from very poor families in area villages and if it weren’t for the orphanage they would not be able to attend school. Naturally, taking care of these children this requires money, so U Tet Tun is also forced to tackle the task of fundraising. The orphanage has several local and international donors, but even those annual contributions are not enough to meet all the expenses that U Tet Tun and the orphanage incur. Nevertheless, he maintains his positive attitude and every time I visit I am inspired after talking with him.
In addition to making a donation to the orphanage, I had brought about 20 children’s books for the kids, along with pens, a couple of soccer balls, and some of those small wicker balls they use to play chinlon with (a game similar to takraw). Needless to say, my bicycle basket and backback were full to overflowing. In fact, I had to make some adjustments to my load a few times when things kept falling out of the basket. I managed to make it to Maing Thauk without tipping over, although for the last uphill stretch of road I dismounted and walked my bike the rest of the way. The only positive aspect to that incline was that it made the return trip down a breeze, literally.
The village of Maing Thauk gets a trickle of tourists, thanks to floating market days when boatloads of vendors arrive on the shore to sell their products, all of which makes for a most photogenic sight. However, the orphanage and nearby forest monastery are also worthwhile stops; that is if you don’t mind the additional uphill walk to reach their location. But if you do, you’ll be rewarded with the inspirational sight of U Tet Tun and a hundred grateful children (about 50 boys and 50 girls, living in separate buildings) who are doing their best to carve out a life on the shores of the great lake.
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