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Travel and service work in Burma and Thailand
Old 04-05-2009, 01:04 PM   #1
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Travel and service work in Burma and Thailand

I'm wondering if anyone has any experiences or feedback relating to a trip I'll be taking in May. I'll be in Burma (Myanmar) and northwestern Thailand for over two months. My travels are for pleasure, and also for volunteer work. I've made some trips to the region in the past. Sometimes I've taught English on a random basis, for example holding daily classes for restaurant or hotel staff. It's a great way to interact with the locals. This trip will probably be a little more structured than ones I've taken in the past.

As background, in my hometown of Tucson I've been volunteering for a number of years with refugees. For the past year and a half I've worked extensively (typically 25 to 30 hours a week) with about a dozen families, Burmese refugees resettled from camps just inside the Thai/Burma border. They are Karen and Chin tribal people. They've spent their lives coping with Burmese soldiers burning their villages, shooting at them, the worst kind of stories that you read or hear about of life under nasty regimes such as that which currently governs Burma.

I help as I can with things like finding jobs, teaching English, dealing with bureaucracies, problem solving in general. "Cultural orientation" is what it's called in the resettlement business. I just sort of fell into this. My background is small business ownership. I retired in March 2007 at the age of 48. Never married, no kids, so I have all the freedom in the world to go overseas with some frequency for pleasure or service work. The work I do here is extremely rewarding. Many of the refugees have become good friends, in spite of often comical language barriers, and I'm an honorary member of a number of extended families.

So I'm wondering about the experiences of others who have done overseas service or aid work, or who perhaps work with refugees in America. Also, any travelers out there with Burma or the border area under their belts? I did read Billy Kaderli's account of a trip to the border town of Mae Hong Son in Thailand. For those who know the area, I'm tentatively planning to travel to Mae Sot, Umphang, Mae Hong Son, Mae Salong, Mae Sai (the Golden Triangle). I'll do volunteer work where I find it, although I have good contacts in the camps, which are off-limits to travelers, through my Burmese friends here in Tucson. I'm assured that I can pass through the Thai checkpoints with locals, friends of my friends here in America. I'll be crossing into Burma at Tachilek on a two-week permit (not quite a visa) which will allow land travel only to the cities of Kentung and Mongla, at the Chinese border. The country is a bit of a locked-down military dictatorship, so as an American, about 50% of Burma is absolutely off-limits. Land crossings are tricky; most fly in and out of Rangoon (Yangon). Surprisingly, travel in Burma will be extremely safe, as it generally is in all of Southeast Asia. It's the Burmese who are at risk. Foreigners like myself are hands-off. Crime is almost non-existent.

Who's been? Who dreams of going? I'd love to hear from fellow travelers and volunteers. Thanks.

Tom
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Old 04-06-2009, 10:36 PM   #2
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Inspiring post! We have been to Thailand a few times and last week shared a flight home to Phoenix with a Burmese family. We have seen refugees arriving and greeters waiting here in Phoenix a few times but are just now appreciating the magnitude of the migration. Sounds like you are doing some thing good for these people. Our input on Northern Thailand is of no use - all tourist activity. Good luck on your mission and keep us all up to date!
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Old 04-14-2009, 05:39 PM   #3
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Mae Hong Son is beautiful.

Lovely green mountains, lake in the middle, not too big not too small, little airport to take plane to Chiang Mai.

We had trouble leaving.

Cool place to stay if you like dogs = Sang Tong Huts. It's just outside of town with huts on stilts along the side of a hill. Fun is that they have lots of dogs that greet you every time you arrive home and walk you to the road every time you leave.

Sang Tong Huts
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Old 04-14-2009, 06:19 PM   #4
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nphx, thanks for your kind words.

tiuxiu, thanks for the link. Sang Tong Huts looks enticing, saw another great recommendation for them in the guidebook of choice for Thailand. I've got a really good feeling about Mae Hong Son.

Tom
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Old 04-14-2009, 07:13 PM   #5
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Wow. I can't do what you do, but I'm glad there are people like you in this world. I hope you have a pleasent and productive trip.
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Old 04-14-2009, 08:44 PM   #6
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Sounds like you are doing some good in the world. My wife and all her family came to the US 25 years ago as refugees from SE Asia. They were fleeing the murderous genocidal dictator du jour at the time and ended up in refugee camps in Thailand and then the Philippines before eventually being sponsored to come to America. They had some very friendly folks back then that helped them get settled in the US and get jobs, housing, transportation, schooling, etc. Keep up the good work!
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Old 04-15-2009, 09:04 AM   #7
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Everyone's words are too kind. I've always been embarrassed by praise; perhaps at age fifty, it's time to get over it.

FUEGO, your wife must be Cambodian, is that right? I'm wondering if she ever travels "home", and if you accompany her? And if you don't mind my asking, is it a mixed-race marriage? If so, how have the cultural differences worked themselves out for the two of you? I'm white myself. I've never been married, but have had a number of relationships with Asian and Mexican women. The differences, in sum, seem to have generally added to rather than detracted from the relationship.

Oops, I realize now that race is almost never directly discussed on this board. Hope no one's toes have been stepped on.

Tom
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Old 04-15-2009, 09:47 AM   #8
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I'm half white, half Hawaiian/Chinese/Tahitian. When I travel in SE Asia the locals all assume my Dad was GI who knocked up a local back in the 60s and I'm on some pilgrimage to find my long lost relatives.
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Old 04-15-2009, 09:51 AM   #9
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FUEGO, your wife must be Cambodian, is that right? I'm wondering if she ever travels "home", and if you accompany her? And if you don't mind my asking, is it a mixed-race marriage? If so, how have the cultural differences worked themselves out for the two of you? I'm white myself. I've never been married, but have had a number of relationships with Asian and Mexican women. The differences, in sum, seem to have generally added to rather than detracted from the relationship.

Oops, I realize now that race is almost never directly discussed on this board. Hope no one's toes have been stepped on.
Ooohhhh, a race discussion!!

Yes, the wife is cambodian. She has never actually been to Cambodia ever. She was born in Thailand "in the jungle" somewhere near the Cambodian/Thailand border. I have never been to anywhere in SE Asia either. Someday we will probably go over there, and others in her family have already.

I am white, so we do have a mixed race marriage. It is really a non-issue for us and I don't give it a whole lot of thought. She is fully Americanized since she has lived here since she was 6. The main difference is she likes her mom's home cooking and that involves some foods that I find a bit repulsive. But who doesn't like their mom's home cooking? And there is a language barrier between me and her parents, so we don't really communicate beyond basic phrases and gestures. In terms of cultural beliefs, she isn't particularly spiritual or religious (though she professes belief in Buddhist principles), so there isn't really a lot of conflict in that area. She claims to believe in ghosts and spirits, which is no different than a significant portion of mainstream American culture. Culturally family is very important to her and she approaches that sphere of life with a different mindset and attitudes than the typical American. If anything, I think the fact that her family came from a very poor background has made her more cognizant of finances, money, and truly important things in life and less materialistic to a certain extent.
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Old 04-15-2009, 10:10 AM   #10
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And there is a language barrier between me and her parents, so we don't really communicate beyond basic phrases and gestures.
So you're just like every other American couple.
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Old 04-15-2009, 10:18 AM   #11
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So you're just like every other American couple.
Exactly, but not completely of my own volition.
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Old 04-15-2009, 02:34 PM   #12
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I don't know about that part of the world (and I would love to go there) but I do have a suggestion that you keep good records of expenses if you want to claim a tax deduction. I retired last year, DW & I flew to Biloxi MA and worked on a Habitat For Humanity project for a week, stayed in Salvation Army housing. Anyway, for the first time I kept a record of expenses and took a tax deduction. Previous work was all local so I never tried to claim anything, usually ended up making a donation anyway. But if you are going for a long, structured service effort then a lot of expenses may be tax deductible.
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Old 04-15-2009, 02:42 PM   #13
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I'm half white, half Hawaiian/Chinese/Tahitian. When I travel in SE Asia the locals all assume my Dad was GI who knocked up a local back in the 60s and I'm on some pilgrimage to find my long lost relatives.
That describes my BIL. Father was a GI, knocked up a local vietnamese gal, then she had to put BIL up for adoption. He has no idea who his real father (or mother) is. He looks Mexican. He gets a lot of "hey amigo's" (he works in construction ).
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Old 04-15-2009, 02:47 PM   #14
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I don't know about that part of the world (and I would love to go there) but I do have a suggestion that you keep good records of expenses if you want to claim a tax deduction. I retired last year, DW & I flew to Biloxi MA and worked on a Habitat For Humanity project for a week, stayed in Salvation Army housing. Anyway, for the first time I kept a record of expenses and took a tax deduction. Previous work was all local so I never tried to claim anything, usually ended up making a donation anyway. But if you are going for a long, structured service effort then a lot of expenses may be tax deductible.
Interesting idea. I wonder if you could spend a month or two traveling and bumming around somewhere like SE Asia (like the OP plans on doing) and as long as you can document volunteering, say, 20+ hrs per week (via a diary or journal or something), calling all of your expenses incurred in traveling as charitable contributions. I know I have seen week long volunteer travel packages to central america (for example) that claim to be fully tax deductible. Why not "roll your own" volunteer vacation of this sort and claim it as a deduction?
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Old 04-15-2009, 06:51 PM   #15
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That describes my BIL. Father was a GI, knocked up a local vietnamese gal, then she had to put BIL up for adoption. He has no idea who his real father (or mother) is. He looks Mexican. He gets a lot of "hey amigo's" (he works in construction ).
Perhaps his Dad was a Mexican American?

ha
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Old 04-15-2009, 07:25 PM   #16
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Perhaps his Dad was a Mexican American?

ha
Could be. I'm not sure if his adoptive Vietnamese parents knew the lady they got him from or if they knew the story of who the GI was.

I don't know if they ever considered the GI may not have been white.

It's funny in a way - his son (my nephew) actually thought he was Mexican for the longest time (until age 5-6) and cried when he finally found out he wasn't.
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Old 04-15-2009, 07:29 PM   #17
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Perhaps his Dad was a Mexican American?

ha
Mexican Americans
They don't just like to get into gang fights
They love flowers, and music
And white girls named Debbie, too...
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Old 04-15-2009, 07:48 PM   #18
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Mexican Americans
They don't just like to get into gang fights
They love flowers, and music
And white girls named Debbie, too...
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Old 04-15-2009, 08:18 PM   #19
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Leave that part in...
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Old 04-16-2009, 07:02 AM   #20
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Leave that part in...
I've been thinking, these Cheech and Chong things are funny in context, but probably offensive in a broader context. I've got many Mexican American friends and relatives, and we often joke around, but it's an insider type of joking. So, if I could remove that like to the Cheech clip I would, but I can't. However, in its proper context, and as a satire, I think it's funny.
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