Dec 10, 2015

We made it!

We are happy to announce that we have reached Mandalay! The NEroute team completed the journey travelling 17,015 non-flying kilometers between Queenstown, New Zealand and Mandalay, Burma. Click here for a full list of how we passed each segment. If you made a pledge you should expect an email soon with your specific contribution amount. If not, it's not too late to donate to our charity partners:

Pledge per km Donation Amount
0.01¢ $1.70
0.1¢ $17.02
0.2¢ $34.03
0.5¢ $85.08
10¢ $1,701.50
50¢ $8,507.50

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World Education
(Please put in the project field)

It has been a long and thrilling journey to say the least. Elizabeth and I would both like to thank you for following and supporting us so far. For encouragement, we visited one more World Education project center along the Thai-Burma border:


Sitting just across the mountains from Myanmar is the border town of Mae Sot, Thailand. Over the last few years the town has been booming as more and more traffic has been allowed to cross the border. Nick and I arrived here after spending 28 wonderful days in Myanmar. World Education’s office here works on a number of projects and we were able to visit three schools with which they have a relationship.

These schools are located within Thailand, but are attended by migrants from Myanmar. The first we visited, New Wave, currently has 110 students in attendance. Families who have come across to Thailand for various reasons will send their children to New Wave where they are taught using the official Myanmar school curriculum. World Education has been able to facilitate multiple schools’ access to the curriculum and national testing. Students who pass the 4th grade end-of-year test will receive a certificate allowing them to enter the 5th grade should their family return to Myanmar. This is important to many of the families who desire a future back in Myanmar. Staying with the official curriculum not only allows them to feel more connected to their country, but prepares them to return with as little disruption to their children’s education as possible.

From left to right: Kelly - Education Officer, Amy - Program Associate, myself, Nick, and U Zaw Htet - School Director of New Wave School

The parents of these children are extremely supportive of their children’s education, both emotionally and financially. This school has received little outside funding since opening in 2007, and is primarily funded by parents giving what they can. These parents, often employed with transient and temporary work in a new country, will provide whatever they can afford to keep their children in school. The teachers also provide tremendous support, taking little compensation for their work and committing themselves to the students. These teachers, like the children and their families, are migrants from Myanmar.

The facility is simple but inviting. There is a boarding house for the students whose parents have gone too far away looking for work. The school tries hard to keep students enrolled for an entire academic year at a time, interrupting their education as little as possible in the flow of a single school year. This involves sending vehicles to the outskirts of the city and some students living on-site as their parents move around for to find work.

World Education is able to support this school by providing training to the teachers, paying the testing fees for the students, and working with both the Thai and Myanmar governments to ensure a seamless continuation of these students’ education.

Our visit fell on a holiday, but many students were in attendance anyway, studying for the upcoming Government exams.

Our second visit was the most profound for me: a small school for disabled migrant students. The Starflower Center was started by World Education and VSO, but is currently operated by a local organization, the Burmese Migrant Workers Education Committee (BMWEC), with support from World Education. This school is also for families from Myanmar, but more specialized in their support. Among the school’s 26 students there are those who struggle with blindness, deafness, Cerebral Palsey, Down’s Syndrome, and other learning difficulties.

The students enjoying their daily singalong time.

This school is also underfunded, but has been crowdfunding to provide for the needs of the school. World Education hires and trains the teachers as well as working with the parents, many of whom were completely unable to manage a disabled child. Without being able to put them into general education, working parents were sometimes leaving their disabled child home alone while both parents would leave for work. Now the school not only provides a safe environment for the children, but parents are being coached on physical therapy, emotional support, and how to provide special need for their child.

As soon as we entered the classroom, a small ball of energy bounced toward Nick and embraced him. As he came pelting to do the same for me, I saw it was a small smiling boy. Many of these students were incredibly isolated before this school was available for them, but now they are able to get social interaction from adults and other students regularly, and seem to interact very well with each other.

Another boy was pointed out to us as the first student of the school 6 years ago. When he began at the school he could neither walk nor speak. He can now speak both Burmese and English, and we were able to see him not only walk, but dance. His legs are slightly unsteady, but that does not stop him from enjoying their class dance time as much as everyone else.

Dance time!

The third school was for young adults, aged 19 - 25, and focuses on community development. It is called Wide Horizons, and was started by World Education in 2006. The program is very competitive, taking 24 students a year: 12 men and 12 women. These 24 students will spent a year living on site studying full time and another year in internships. During the internships they are required to write quarterly reports back to the school outlining what they have learned and how they have applied the first year’s knowledge within their organization.

These organizations over the years have been in health, education, environment, and many other categories. These young men and women learn critical thinking, grant writing, computer skills, as well as more emotionally pertinent lessons. Amassed from a variety of ethnic backgrounds within Myanmar, many of these students have been discriminated against in the past and this program reinforces that they and their people deserve to be treated equally and listened to. The program provides many of these students with the confidence required to be a voice for community building and cultural mingling and many go on to be prominent community leaders.

The students participating in their weekly literary discussion time.

Approximately 200 students have passed through the doors of Wide Horizons over the years it has been operating. While they are mixed in their desire to stay in Thailand or return to their home country of Myanmar, all are intent upon improving lives through community. Both Thailand and Myanmar are richer from the skills that have been provided to these 200 dedicated young adults.

All three schools here are providing such wonderful opportunities for children, families, and young adults who have left their home country of Myanmar to live in Thailand. Having been chased out of their country by lack of work, loss of land, cultural persecution, etc, these people deserve to be able to send their children to school. The ability to maintain a piece of their culture in this new country and plan to return one day is so important to them, and World Education is not only facilitating that, but also educating their young adults to become community leaders.

Nov 17, 2015

Touring Myanmar

With the meditation retreat canceled, we had 10 days unexpectedly free to be tourists around the country. With only a 28 day visa, this actually turned out to be a huge blessing. It wasn't until we got to Yangon and started discussing where to go next and what to do that we realized how much we actually wanted to see the country beyond the inside of a meditation center. In just 5 of those 10 days that we'd have been locked up without looking at or speaking with another person, we:
Explored Yangon,
Tried to take a train to Bagan,
Were turned away from the train to Bagan,
Took a train to Inle Lake,
Visited 2 vineyards,
and had decided to come back to Myanmar again.

One might assume that pulling into the Yangon railway station without any plans in the city or knowing where we'd be sleeping that night would be stressful for us, but that person would be more like Elizabeth and Nick 9 months ago than today. In truth, since leaving Australia we can count on one hand the number of days that we entered a city with a reservation for a place to stay.

We found a hostel online and commenced a search for how to fill our 10 new-found days.

The original Pegu Club, famous gentleman's club from the 1800s and inspiration for the cocktail of the same name. It belongs to the dogs now, also mosquitoes that don't care you've literally just spayed on repellent

A speakeasy that's not a mass of abandoned buildings: the Blind Tiger. Nick ordered a Pegu Club in homage

A permanent and very famous fixture in Yangon, cemented to the dock, but traveling through time with its nightly "dinner and a show" performances of traditional dances and shows.

Myanmar is also famous for its street food. Most tourists probably wouldn't opt for the pig brain purchased off the side of a highway, but most tourists are not Nick.

An enjoyable time in Yangon was followed by a desire to see Bagan, land of a thousand temples. Bagan is a famous area in Myanmar, and Nick and I bent ourselves toward it as our next stop. A quick search on told us that the daily train would leave mid afternoon, and we showed up at the station to purchase our sleeper seats.

As quick aside, a shoutout to them as the most amazing website for train travel in foreign countries, countries like Indonesia, Myanmar especially. With Indonesia and Myanmar you're lucky to be able to find whether a train route even exists on any in-country websites, and are most likely to find that timetable information online consists of a badly translated version of "go the the station to find out the current timetable." Seat 61 has timetables, prices, and class information on trains in virtually every country.

Crowding around the station window (people in Myanmar don't love queuing) approximately an hour before our train was to leave, we learned through multiple attendant's broken English that the train to Bagan was going to be at least 9 hours late and quite possibly more. They would not sell us a ticket until the approximated 9 hours from now (11pm), when they would have a better idea of exactly how delayed it was likely to be. Relatively certain that this meant we would arrive back at 11 only to be told that the train was canceled or in something equally certain to strand us at a train station late into the night, we quickly changed plans. Bagan could wait, we would make our way up toward Mandalay from the East instead, hitting the popular Inle Lake.

Re-inserting ourselves into the crowd, we were able to successfully purchase sleeper car tickets leaving in just a couple hours. Our first train with a sleeper car!

We ordered dinner on the train, Nick chose "Fried Sparrow," those are 4 whole birds. Tiny, but whole. We didn't love the sparrow, but it was fun to try

Changed trains at sunrise

And were treated to some lovely views for the rest of the day

Inle Lake was a lovely area, full of more tourists than we had seen in a while, not since leaving Koh Tao, Thailand a few weeks prior. In the more Southern areas of Myanmar we'd seen basically no foreigners and in Yangon we'd met some, but they were mostly doing business here. Inle Lake, apparently, is where they were all hiding.

We took a boat tour around the lake, which I recommend to everyone who visits the area. It's kind of "the thing" in the area.

We saw local fishermen

Labeled for reuse by Paul Arps on Flickr:
The 5 Buddha statues at Paung Daw Oo temple on the lake. These statues were originally images of the Buddha, but have been covered in so much gold leaf by male worshipers. Women are not allowed to touch them

The barge used to annually take 4 of the 5 images around the lake. 1 image always remains within the temple

Additionally on the tour we were taken to see a silver jewelry making shop, a floating market, a knife making shop, a weaving factory, a restaurant, a boat maker, a temple, and a floating garden. All of this was actually on/in the lake. At one point our boat was going through a village where everyone's front porch had steps down into the water. These villagers had small, nearly flat boats with which they would get around. For some reason there was also a motorbike on someone's porch. No idea why or how, as we were no where near land, and the only boats we'd seen around were small canoes.

The floating garden, producer of thousands of tomatoes, supplying a large amount of the surrounding area. When we stepped foot onto it, our feet sank down 6 inches into the lakewater.

A bike ride around the area showed us some beautiful sites and some ruins

And ended at a beautiful vineyard offering tastings and a supply of surprisingly delicious wine

A second vineyard lay 20 km out of town and we decided to stop there on our way out of the lake area and toward our final charity destination...

Stay tuned for our final blog post under the heading of the charity campaign!

Nov 10, 2015

Meditation Disappointment

We made it to Mandalay!!
We are currently calculating our kilometer total and catching up on posts
Stay tuned for the details of this last leg of our adventure

We took a bit of a break while my parents met up with us in Thailand :)

As Nick and I stood on the train platform, tickets purchased, the sky began to lighten into a dull blue. Our train scooped us up and trundled into the sunrise. I have seen a few of these illusive sunrises now, and I maintain that sunset is where it's at. One can gallop romantically off into the sunset, but with sunrise I'm convinced that the closest to romance one can achieve is a galumph.

On this particularly early morning we were leaving behind the city of Dawei, Myanmar. Dawei was lovely, as Kawthoung and Myeik had been. Myanmar was so lovely it was exceeding my expectations, admittedly it wasn't hard as I had pretty much no idea what to expect and had made very few expectations. Dawei was my favorite of the first 3 cities. There was good food, we went on a beautiful bike ride, and everything aside from the hotel was super cheap. (Hotels in Myanmar are expensive!!)

Apparently fruity drinks come with raw eggs in them in Kawthoung. Also white bread

Myeik was the largest of the 3 first cities

Beautiful Dawei, also Elizabeth's fingertip because art

Beautiful scenery for biking

We hit biking rush hour with all the kids getting out of school

Now we were on our first train ride, and enjoying the amazing scenery between cat naps. This train was 24 hours and would bring us to Yangon in the early morning before our designated meeting time at the meditation center at noon. Even the early hour and the fact that there were no sleeper cars on the train couldn't dampen my excitement, we were on our way!! We made it across the restricted roads and didn't have to turn back and miss the meditation retreat to go back to Thailand!

We're on our waaaaay

A particularly bumpy section of track jostled us awake around midnight. I began re-positioning myself, ("maybe if I crouch down in my seat a bit I won't get thrown bodily into the air on the next bump") when Nick gently nudged my arm and wordlessly handed me his phone. An email shown starkly at me from the lit screen, an email from the meditation center. I read it once, uncomprehending. Was it more explicit directions for our arrival at their Yangon office in 12 hours? I rubbed my sleep filled eyes and tried again.

Dear Meditators,
We are very sorry to tell you about cancellation of the 10-day course
which will be held on 05th October, 2015 at Dhamma Nidhi Vipassana
Center, Inntakaw, Bago.
It will be cancelled due to having some difficulties.
Please see at <- a website with their schedule on it, the next meditation happening almost 2 months away. Visas are good for 28 days.
with regret,
Dhamma Service Team

That doesn't seem right. No, that can't be right. No, not now that we're this close! I looked over at Nick, blearily horrified. If I was still in doubt of what I read, his face solidified the truth. We weren't barreling toward our meditation anymore, just arriving at 6 AM in a random city.

While we would later reconcile the loss by deciding to return to Myanmar later and try again (at a different center), for the moment we were both feeling a bitter disappointment.

Oct 14, 2015

The Final Frontier

The closure of the backpack's compartments crystallized in Nick's consciousnesses as the pleasant feeling of self-contained readiness. The feeling held familiarity after eight months of travel. Only the road awaited. Today's road led to the the harbour and the office of Thailand's Department of Immigration. The last border to be crossed was also the least sure; a gateway into a land where whole regions were forbidden to foreigners. This included the region just past the border, a region that must be crossed before the final destination of Mandalay. The self-contained surety of himself and his affects served as a counterpoint to this ambient uncertainty.

It had been raining steadily for days. But today the gentle thrum of the tin roof ceased and grey cracked slowly to reveal glimmers of a blue reality above. “Ready.” Elizabeth replied to his unspoken question. Both turned to leave the room.

At the road they hailed a songthaew toward the pier. It required a certain preparatory interrogation of helpful locals to obtain information on the correct route number and expected fare, but Nick always preferred this to the effort of haggling down foreigner prices with an ambitious taxi driver. The two travelers settled into the padded seats and smiled at the other two truck-bed wayfarers. The universal greeting of southeast Asia when common language fails.

The encounter at the counter for leaving Thailand was perfunctory. The general and unspoken assumption was that the two travelers were heading across the channel for a visa run and would be back later that day to collect our new 30-day permission to stay in Thailand. Such was the desire of all but a handful of travelers who crossed the border from Ranong. Instead they were to attempt a traversal of the thin southern reaches of Burma along the 800-odd kilometers of the Andaman coast.

Stepping away from immigration Nick and Elizabeth were immediately engaged by a smooth long-tail operator who, despite his ambition, hesitated for only three beats before accepting their 100 baht offer in exchange for international conveyance.

The muddy waters flowed swiftly around the few small islands that lay in the stream. They roiled in patterns known only to the boat operators who plied through on a daily basis. The first glimpse of the verdant shores of Burma swung into view.

As the splintery craft nosed into the expanse of turbulent currents of the Kraburi river mixing with the Andaman sea the occupants hastily donned an array of life jackets. Though relatively unconcerned, Nick reflected on Elizabeth’s story of how many of the locals did not know how to swim, especially the women. For a moment the prospective terror of such an undertaking stuck him. The idea of a lonely vessel tossed upon a violent and indifferent sea surrounded on all sides by certain death.

Visas into Burma had already been granted through the shockingly efficient agency in Kuala Lumpur—a process that consumed only two days. The stern gaze of an immigration officer’s scrutiny is half made up of cold and keen incision and half apathy. Either one can lead to trouble. Breath catches, awaiting the verdict: either a condemning question or…

*Whomp, whomp* that double-thump of a stamp upon the inkpad and the passport.

*   *   *

Kawthaung is a city of substantial grit, both figurative and literal. It comprises the southernmost cusp of mainland Burma and dangles between the watery expanse of the Kraburi and the Andaman sea.

Fishermen’s huts project out from the shore, raised high above the muddy tidal flat on spindle legs of old timber. These pathways of jerry-rigged planks lead into the heart of the lively town with markets and beer bars buzzing and higher up perches the watchful golden monastery of the hilltop.

The rainy season lasts for eight months of the year and Nick and Elizabeth were right in the middle of it. They had both spent the preceding days in futile research of whether or not the boats were running up the coast to Myeik. Dead telephone number. No answer. Disconnected. Upon arrival in Kawthaung Nick was finally able to pursue the ephemeral boat in person. “No boat. Because season.” Undaunted, he approached another hotel. “No boat, only fly.” The travel agent: “No boat. Mogh.” Grim-face Nick returned to the hotel, hopes of a 4:30 AM departure dashed. Backtracking to Thailand and having to acquire another visa in Bangkok before approaching the Mae Sot border crossing much further north was not an inviting prospect.

According to all reports, the only hope of proceeding north was by boat. A road did exist, rutted and cratered by the rains, but it was barred from travel by foreigners. There were a few stories of those who had gotten through—passing by checkpoints in the dead of night or when no one was watching. One would have to be extraordinarily lucky to find a bus ticket vendor even willing to sell to a foreigner. This occupied Nick’s ruminations as he attempted to traverse the doors of sleep.

The morning introduced a congenial chorus of summary rejection. Eversmiling. As the hours of searching wore on, hopefulness engendered by the ubiquitous 3-in-1 coffee mix gave way to grim determination. The misting rain fell coating the whole town and dampening the spirit. Kawthaung’s pool of ticket agents was running severely low after the 13th rejection. Nevertheless by mid-afternoon Nick was able to unearth one travel agent seated beside a muddy road who was willing to sell a bus ticket onward to Myeik. Said ticket was purchased quickly, with nonchalance and not too many questions.

“If we get stranded at a checkpoint that would be quite an adventure!” exclaimed Elizabeth over a celebratory Myanmar beer.

“Well we could be stuck thirty kilometers out of town with no way back and fewer ways forward.” This seemed to dim the pioneering sparkle in her eye.

“It’s the best chance we’ll have this month. We’ve got to take it.” Nick continued in a tone more deserving of the toast.

15 hours in a 9-person van filled with 14 other people loomed ahead in the night. Though the road might have been a perfectly respectable dirt track at one point, there was an immense effort to turn it into a paved superhighway that seemed to be underway along the entire length of the route. The effect was that the track was covered in gravel that could more accurately be described as a collection of untarred boulders.  These, mixed with the rains, made matters much worse than any respectable dirt track would have dreamed.

The road was of such a condition that half of the occupants were retching to the gyrations of the van by the second hour. The intrepid driver was not phased in the least by this scene of unmitigated regurgitation and continuously dispensed a stream of small plastic bags from a spool attached to the dashboard.

All things considered it was not terribly conducive to grasping any shuteye whatsoever.

The exhaustion was relentless. The van slowed and Nick flickered into full alertness. Was this the police checkpoint? But no, just another rest stop sparsely populated by listless men at ease and at whiskey...

At long last the dawn broke its golden yolk over the eastward Tenasserim hills. First rays struck the expansive rice fields and caused a slow explosion into verdant green. Then the rain came down over the hills waving curtains of splashing droplets into the paddies. In the distance rose the small urban spectacle of Myeik.

“We’re too close to be turned back now. We broke through!”

Oct 12, 2015

Southern Thailand in Pictures

Leaving Malaysia we entered Southern Thailand to reach the river border into Myanmar. Northern Thailand will wait until after leaving Myanmar.

For starters, I literally snuck across the border and back to go to the ATM. The onward train ticket was bought with baht.

The legendary floating market of Hat Yai. Raindrops of the passing storm still fall in the river.

The legendary disappointing prawn stick at the floating market: falsely molded and painted fish balls.

This delicious waffle renewed Elizabeth's faith in Thai street food.

Buddhist crematorium

Elizabeth's guesthouse

Continuing north through the countryside by train

Elizabeth had a hard time eating this chicken foot, apparently it's 'disconcerting'

Heavy surf between Koh Samui and Koh Phangan. Passengers were screaming, crying, and vomiting all over the deck. I felt bad for laughing like I was on a roller coaster.

Releasing of lanterns into the Koh Phangan sky

We kayaked from Koh Tao to a small island off the coast

Hiked up to see the lovely view

The world's first ever selfie panorama! (don't fact check that)

Fire spinning all night long

A rainstorm in the distance at sunset

That's odd, the storm doesn't appear to be moving in one direction or the other. Oh, it's moving directly toward us...

I got a shave, thinking a ladyboy would know how to get the closest shave (turned out to be sub-par at best).

Time for the boat to Myanmar! Waterproof the phone and passport, and get ready for meditation!