A moment of inspiration on the way out of Laos

Since first traveling in Southeast Asia earlier this year, I’ve taken a greater interest in the region, particularly, for some reason, in Burma. I’m not entirely sure what sparked the interest. Perhaps the sudden global focus on the small country, the mixed stories of great business opportunities and unspeakable horrors still being committed by the government against the Burmese people. I began to read books and articles about the country whenever I had the chance. But I still haven’t been, and up until a few days ago, had never spoken with anyone from there.

While volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park outside Chiang Mai a few weeks ago, I worked alongside Burmese staffers but because of the language barrier, was unable to communicate with them outside of enthusiastic smiles and a few English words here and there.

While in Laos on a visa run last week, I had the opportunity to speak with a Burmese woman who was waiting in Vientiane to have a Thai work visa processed. The meeting was unexpected and inspiring, and has stayed with me since returning to Thailand.

This woman had been waiting for nearly a week to have her visa processed, as a series of bureacratic frustrations had cropped up and delayed her getting the document. She told me that because she is Burmese, she is only allowed to apply for a Thai visa at the embassy in Vientiane one time, a fact of which she had been unaware. Now she was there for the second time, banking on the kindness of someone in the embassy to give her a pass and put the application through anyway.

We spoke for a bit while I waited for my ride back to the border and out of Laos. She was hoping the additional documents she needed for her application would come through by the next day, and was looking at another four days in Laos, minimum. She laughed as she described her circumstances, in the way only a person who has accepted the frustrations of her situation and is trying to make the most of them does.

She told me a bit about her life in Burma, and how she had come to be applying for a Thai work visa in Laos in the first place.

She grew up in a rural area in Burma, and moved to Yangon to pursue her education. But, she told me, the cost of living was so high she needed to get a job, which meant extremely long days of work and study. She eventually crossed the border into Thailand and now works at a clinic in Mae Sot that serves Burmese refugees.

In addition to her day job and volunteer work, she is also studying online for a degree in sociology from an Australian university. But because she is still learning English, she is essentially studying a new language as well as working toward her degree.

Hearing her story prompted me to reflect on some of my own complaints about work in the past few months. That I was uninspired, unmotivated, felt directionless at times, unsure of what I want to come next. Suddenly I felt grateful to be in the position I am, to be more or less able to move wherever I want, and have the freedom and flexibility to do work I enjoy. Between visa issues, classes, work and personal demands, this woman said she “can’t see past tomorrow;” she has to go one day at a time.

Our conversation turned to life in her native country, and the changes, or lack thereof, seen in Burma since its opening up during the past year and a half.

“Maybe at the higher levels there has been change. But most people don’t see any difference. Life is still difficult,” she said. She added that it is extremely difficult for her to complete her studies or get any work done while in Burma, due to electricity shortages and slow, unreliable internet. Again, I thought about my own life and how if the wifi where I’m working goes down for five minutes, I’m aggravated and put out. And again, I realized I'm far more fortunate than I tend to appreciate.

“There is no trust,” she went on to say of the notoriously violent and repressive government. “For a long time in Burma, the people do not trust the government. Even when there is a cease-fire, the people don’t believe the soldiers won’t do anything.”

Our meeting was brief, but I was grateful to have had the opportunity to talk with this woman. Her determination to educate herself, help other people and her willingness to speak honestly about her hardships were humbling and inspiring.