Visit to Myanmar (Part 1)

Carolyn and I had been asked for some time to come and help our long time friend who is currently the head of ADRA Myanmar. So we finally visited Myanmar during January and February (2014) for three weeks. We had previously helped when he was director in Laos and Thailand. Help was needed to strengthen their food security through improved agricultural methods, different varieties of food that could be eaten, stored and sold, and low pressure irrigation methods. He considered our climate and soils to be very similar to those in Myanmar and that our fruit and vegetables should be successful there as well.

Myanmar is similar to the State of Queensland in size and its position from the equator, but located in the northern hemisphere. However, the vegetation is completely different, no lush tropical rainforests like some parts of Queensland in the parts we saw! During their ‘winter’ and their dry season, the forests are in their most dormant state, with everything coated in a thick mantle of fine brown dust and forest trees still holding onto plenty of large dried-up leaves. It’s a land of contrasts, rugged coastlines, rich delta fields in the south, dry zones with wide lazy river flood plains up the centre, high mountain ranges up to 6,500 feet to the northwest and north, and fertile lakes and hills to the east. Not so many years ago the landscape was rich with teak trees, most of which have now been felled and shipped overseas, leaving sparse, open, dry forests and cleared fields.

We had been asked to bring grape vines with us and wondered how we were going to do that, especially as our growing seasons were opposite and we didn’t know whether our plants would adjust. However, we were fortunate to find dormant rooted vines left from last season in a cool room in Mildura and selected 75 vines of three seedless varieties, some bud wood and various seeds to take with us. We kept them cold till we arrived, then allowed them to warm up and burst into life. Once we left Yangon, the buds were starting to swell. We travelled up through the central dry zone through the state of Bago and into Magway to ADRA’s research centre and farm. Here we were able to use some of the budwood to demonstrate how to graft onto their existing grape vines, and plant some of the rooted vines that had begun to shoot. We also planted watermelon seeds in the plot they had prepared, which were thriving and producing beautiful fruit in photos we received soon after we returned to Australia. No doubt they would have enjoyed eating them by now.

We travelled on from there to Bagan where thousands of ancient Buddhist pagodas and shrines dotted the landscape. The next morning it was quite surreal to see dozens of hot air balloons floating over the hazy landscape. Later we climbed a large, pyramid-shaped pagoda and visited another large white square pagoda that had been built around 600 AD. Each square had four huge Buddhas (all in different poses) one at the centre of each side, reaching up into the top of a very high central dome, with each square getting smaller into the middle. Massive ancient wooden gates were at the entrance of each square and on wheels and tracks to enable them to be moved. It was a very busy place, surrounded with markets and still used for worship.

Trevor and Carolyn Monson with Buddist temples and shrines in the background – Bagan, Myanmar

Trevor and Carolyn Monson with Buddist temples and shrines in the background – Bagan, Myanmar

In Bagan we were also privileged to be shown how lacquer ware was made by master lacquer ware makers – from the fine strips of bamboo woven together, to the black plant-derived lacquer that is applied and dried, layer upon layer, and the painstaking process of scratching intricate designs into the surface to create hard shiny containers in beautiful designs and colours. We travelled on to Pakkoku to stay the night, then on through to ADRA’s administration centre for the state of Chin at Gangaw, where we met the team and stayed the night.

Quite by chance the next morning, we found at least 20 Apis dorsata hives in a nearby tree while waiting for a tiny battery to stop the alarm system going off on the car. We thought at first the hanging combs were empty but soon found they weren’t when the bees would all wave to one side when a vehicle went by on the road beneath. Little is known about this large Asian bee, except that the same hive comes back to its own hive comb each year, then leaves as soon as resources have been exhausted, leaving a clean, empty comb. Where they go and how they know where to return, no one knows. From then on we kept our eyes open for dorsata hives and found some much larger ones, but not occupied. Dorsata honey is widely collected throughout Asia as wild honey and is good to eat, but of course the hive is destroyed in the process.

Apis dorsata colonies in trees

Apis dorsata colonies in trees

From here we travelled all day with the ADRA team in three 4-wheel drive vehicles on the most rugged of roads, if you can call them that, using fords to cross rivers and the most flimsy of bridge structures, past women washing clothes in the rivers and farmers driving bullock carts and tending crops. We soon found ourselves climbing into a labyrinth of mountains so thick and steep that you could scarcely get a vehicle around each corner without backing up, with the highest of peaks and sheer drops, and valleys so deep that you couldn’t see the bottom. Every curve had to be navigated as well as the rugged road and deep potholes.

Eventually we got to Luong Ngo village, which was classified as a reasonably large and privileged village of around 300 homes with 9 churches and several schools, and the luxury of a nurse. (You may find it interesting that although most of Myanmar is Buddhist, the Chin State with a couple of others are mostly Christian from the British occupation – hence all the churches.) We were accompanying the ADRA team as it visited with the people here and further into the mountains to report on the projects they were operating there and get feedback as to their progress and future needs. We were given a formal greeting and treated like royalty at each of the villages we visited. Decorations, flowers, plants and curtains were constructed across the entrance to the village with a large vinyl printed sign. A welcome was given, songs sung, drum messages sent and gun shots fired into the air before the road was opened, revealing the whole village, men women and children, lining each side of the road, eagerly asking that we shake each hand. But not before we were personally welcomed with flowers and leis around our necks. Once we got to the second village Trevor couldn’t help but ask if he could have a go at using the musket too, which they gladly obliged with others of the party joining in!

The villagers at Luong Gno village greeting their guests

The villagers at Luong Gno village greeting their guests

The chief of Luong Ngo village where we stayed in the Chin mountains could speak a little English. He was proud to tell us of his achievement 35 years of teaching for the government and his ability to work in the fields beside the young men at the age of 70. In fact he was declared the winner at the dance the village put on for our visit! Upon his retirement he’d been asked to be the chief of the village. He had a daughter living in the village and two sons of whom he was particularly proud. His eyes danced as he said that they both had double master’s degrees, one in Science and Divinity, and the other in Finance and Divinity. No doubt only a few ever have the chance of going to university. And one can only guess what high aspirations parents have for their children and the seeds of desire that must have been sown to encourage students to break the cycle of village life.

Not only was the chief’s house set up with beds for us all, but we were served beautiful meals in the chief’s second house across the road, given a private place to have nice hot dip baths and given the use of a clean water squat toilet. From there we visited two or three more villages further into the mountains, riding on the backs of motor bikes as there was no road. Here we were surprised to know that we were the first white people they had seen! The mountains were so steep that we were amazed at how well our riders coped with getting us in and out and that we had stayed on the bikes! All village programs had been going well and requests were given for a road to connect the far village to their nearest village across the range, so that they could get medical help during the wet season. The last village had 90 children going to their grade 1-4 school and asked for furniture for their empty building and the possibility of higher education.

A number of our rooted vines were planted in Luong Ngo village next to the chief’s house and we’re confident that next time the team visits the villagers will have them trellised and producing fruit. These grapes were welcomed as they couldn’t eat the small sour grapes growing on their wild vines. This village had a plentiful water supply coming from numerous springs at the top of the mountain, but the other two villages weren’t so lucky. We still can’t get our heads around the fact that springs are tapped at the tops of mountains. And we wondered why villages were built near the top rather than in the valleys. The answer was that the higher you are the less humidity, heat and mosquitoes you have to deal with! So, kind of makes sense. Wherever we found good supplies of house water, small plots of vegetables and fruit trees, such as mangoes and avocados were magnificent and growing well around their homes. Of course, villages always had land nearby that they kept slashing and burning to grow their main crops. The problem was that as their population increased the land wasn’t always sufficient to provide enough food. Each of these villages indicated they had more land that could benefit from terracing to increase their food production.

From here we had to go back through the mountains, rejoin the main road and travel over more mountain ranges to Haka, the capital of Chin state. On the way we visited another village where they were asked if anyone kept or knew where there were bees. It was exciting when we were taken to two hives that had been happily living in logs for quite some time – one was a trigona hive that had been kept for some 15 years and the other a cerana hive – quite remarkable as they say you can’t keep them very long! In Haka we met with the Minister for Agriculture who was really pleased with the progress of all the projects being run with his people. Afterwards he took us to the research farm where we left the rest of the vines to be planted and budded once the buds and shoots had erupted properly. He was very interested in sending proper import orders to Australia to get more grape vines and fruit trees to improve the diet and food stability for those living in the mountains of Chin. But, he really needed to do something about their lack of water at the research farm – which was the reason why a number of their trees, including an avocado, were completely dead!

Native bees in Myanmar

Native bees in Myanmar

Hideous driving conditions is something that the people of Myanmar have to deal with every day. In fact, we think most villagers would have had a stint at building roads, even if it was through the food for work scheme or in exasperation to improve access to their village. A number of villages had said they had built several miles of their access road. Truck loads of rocks were strategically placed along every roadway we travelled on, except the new double- to triple-laned concrete expressway between Yangon and Mandalay. However, they don’t seem to bother with engineering techniques. One needs to remember to slow down when approaching a bend in the road or the car will try to tip over! And no attempt has been made to straighten even one of the myriads of corners in the mountains, to make travel a little more comfortable! Many photos were taken of the men splitting rocks with big hammers and the women carefully laying them neatly between strings on the roadway. Smaller rocks were used to fill in the gaps, then 44 gallon drums of tar melted over roadside fires and sprinkled thinly over the top from kerosene tins with holes in the bottom. Women then sieved fine rock on top. A very slow and laborious process for $2 or $3 a day! All so easily destroyed with rain and traffic constantly destroying their hard work, especially as they are only one lane wide and vehicles have to negotiate around each other.

Road-making in Myanmar – Village women sorting rocks prior to the laying of the road

Road-making in Myanmar – Village women sorting rocks prior to the laying of the road

The villagers lay broken rocks between strings

The villagers lay broken rocks between strings

But, all keep busy, road making, manning roadside stalls and shops, selling food, clothes or fuel in the thinnest of used plastic drinking water bottles. Many others work the fields by hand or with their yolked bullocks and wooden carts. These carts were driven by anyone, including small children, and used everywhere to cart anything. And one couldn’t help but notice how differently animals were treated and how close people and animals worked together. Wherever you went, goats, sheep, cows, bullocks, pigs or whatever animal, completely trusted their owners and stayed at their side, no matter what vehicles were going past. And never any thick rope or chains to tie them up! Just short thin pieces of rope or string connecting them to a thin branch or stick! And they would just stay there completely content with no attempt to eat a piece of straw beyond their reach.

 

Bitumen is laid over the rocks

Bitumen is laid over the rocks

The bitumen being laid over the rocks from perforated kerosene tine, prior to rolling.

The bitumen being laid over the rocks from perforated kerosene tine, prior to rolling.

The bitumen being laid over the rocks from perforated kerosene tine, prior to rolling.

From Haka we crossed several more ranges to the north and at last descended onto the huge Irrawaddy plain to Kalemyo, where we had the privilege of meeting up with a successful beekeeper who happened to be the president of the beekeeping association in that area. He had got into beekeeping simply through his fascination for bees and their care for humans by producing honey and pollen for them. He took us some 15 miles across the flood plain, past impressive crops, through paddy fields and past several houses to a stand of 40 single hives neatly positioned on bamboo stick legs, keeping them some 30 cm off the ground. All his 1200 hives were Apis mellifera – he’d never kept any others. He worked them as 10 frame singles, shifting them around the country with a hired truck three times a year.

Apis mellifera hives under bananas- Kalemyo, Myanmar

Apis mellifera hives under bananas- Kalemyo, Myanmar

Trevor Monson inspecting Apis melliferahives – Kalemyo, Myanmar

Trevor Monson inspecting Apis melliferahives – Kalemyo, Myanmar

They wintered on sunflowers, stayed around Mandalay during the wet season and shifted to flowering jujube trees quite a distance further south in the dry zone. Jujubes are a type of plum that is grown on a rather nice looking, but prickly drought-tolerant tree and eaten fresh, dried or glazed as a type of confection. Jujube honey is probably the best tasting and most dense of their honeys. The hives were very quiet, happily sheltered under banana palms and collecting nectar and pollen from the sunflower fields and ground covers. The bees looked really nice, healthy and full of brood with layers of honey and pollen around the brood. A second box was cracked and the queen found - a very yellow queen from Israel. However, Trevor was quite surprised to find an Apis ceranabee happily running around on the brood comb. It was easy to see because it was smaller and black in comparison to the very pretty yellow Italian bees he kept.

After seeing the bees out at the sunflowers, the beekeeper took us back to his house in Kalemyo to meet his lovely wife and two daughters. As he introduced them he made a point of telling us that they both had degrees in Economics, but had not yet been employed. The parental pride in their achievements was again obvious.

As with Chinese beekeepers, he didn’t seem to be having much of a problem with Varroa, but mentioned having to treat with miticide strips once or twice a year. Honey production wasn’t prolific but compared to wages of $2 and $3 a day the returns were very good, especially if you could produce honey with moisture of around 18%, which is not easy during the wet season. Unfortunately not all their honeys have the best of flavour, but it is being successfully marketed with some help from the government, one place being the tax free section at the airport. Beekeeping isn’t as advanced as China, but they are giving it a go and they certainly know how to use pollen supplements and sugar syrup stimulation to produce better colonies. Our beekeeper would really appreciate books on caring for bees so he can promote beekeeping more. But, his biggest concern is the farmer’s attitude to bees being around their crops. As in China, they think the bees carry their crop away with the pollen! He needed simple photos, footage and information that would help explain to growers that bees are intricately involved in the production of their crops, absolutely essential for some, and responsible for increased quality and yield. Asian universities have done research that leaves no doubt of the value of bees, but getting the information out there and having it understood and accepted is another thing.

Author:  Trevor and Carolyn Monson