Silk and Stones Travel

Happy New Year



“There is a special charm to journeys undertaken before daybreak in hot lands: the air is soft and cool and the coming of dawn reveals a landscape fresh from the night dew.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters from Burma

Dear Friends,

I’ve missed you.  For five months, I’ve been immersed in a project based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, The BEAM Education Foundation, as part of a new program sponsored by The Princeton in Asia Foundation (PiA).  This year, I am one of PiA’s first Senior Fellows.  Since September, I’ve been in Chiang Mai or in Myanmar (see the Silk and Stones Blog pages for both the ridiculous and the sublime from those travels and experiences).

Normally I would choose a photo with some seasonal appeal as part of a holiday greeting, but I’m late with this letter, and I’m also seeking your insights, guidance and help on a project involving my friend and colleague, Sai Win, from Inle Lake, Myanmar, pictured above with his new social enterprise, The Eleven Inle Travel Desk.  Some of you have traveled with me and met this remarkable man.

Myanmar has been in the news frequently this year, including the well publicized trip of their democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, through the US last fall.  While there are many major challenges to reform and unite this complicated country, one of the most visible and exciting developments is the emergence of initiative and a spirit of entrepreneurship.  It feels like someone has taken the lid off, and new ideas are bubbling up.

Sai Win’s idea is one of those gaining momentum.  He works as a high level guide in Inle Lake (one of the most beautiful places in Myanmar and all of Southeast Asia), and with the reforms, tourism is on the rise.  Sai has already started a program, “Save the Nature”, to reduce pollution on the lake, especially through removing plastic from the lake.  His new social enterprise venture, The Eleven Inle Travel Desk, is a helpful resource center for tourists at Inle and fees from that facility help fund the “Save the Nature” projects and events.  He has also started training programs to help junior guides and other tourism workers improve their skills.  One of the essential skills is English fluency, and Sai holds evening classes at his home to help other guides become better at conversation with their clients. 

Around the lake are a number of beautiful hotels, guesthouses, restaurants, shops, and other attractions.  Although English is now taught in the schools, there are few qualified English teachers, so the level of fluency is limited.  The Inle area residents are already fluent in several languages:  their own tribal language (Shan, Akha, Lisu, Pah Oo, etc.), Burmese (it’s the language of government), and possibly a smattering of Thai, Mandarin, or Japanese.  But English fluency is essential.

I’ve had conversations on several past trips with Sai Win about what might help the workers on the lake, and Sai is practical:  help them with skills to earn their living first, and then they can be self supporting for the rest of their life.  In Inle the growth business is tourism, and hence English skills are essential and urgent.

With Sai’s guidance and help, we’re planning a summer English Immersion program for 40 tourism workers around the lake.  Skilled and experienced ESL volunteer teachers aided by an Inle translator will teach groups of about 10 students in daily classes in July and August.  These forty tourism workers will be selected from enrollees in a year long tourism training program sponsored jointly by the Norwegian World Freedom Fund and one of the most elegant and successful resorts on the lake.

In addition to the language classes, we’re also going to run a pilot translation service for the businesses around the lake, helping them with customer documents, business and marketing materials.  Inle already attracts many international tourists and improving the quality of the English materials will make everyone more successful.  When the English translation service is working, it will make sense to add other languages, Mandarin, Japanese, etc.

This project is also planned to be a good example of “community based development”, returning as high a percentage as possible to the local economy.  The inspiration for this approach comes from three respected and motivated tourism leaders:

  1. Arild Molstad, author of “Last Chance Destinations” and global tourism leader

  2. Kristin Holdo Hansen, founder of The Soria Moria Hotel in Siem Reap, and winner of the 2012 prize for Responsible Tourism - Community Development

  3. John Hummel - professor, global leader, and now head of a research center on Community Based Tourism in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s Payap University

If this language project can adhere to their wise counsel, we will be in good shape.

So, we have lofty goals and ambitious plans.  Obviously we need as much help as possible.  Here’s how you can help.  Get in touch with me if you have advice, insights, experience, if you would consider volunteering for the ESL teaching, or if you can contribute or have suggestions about other organizations or individuals who would be aligned with this idea and able to contribute.  This summer’s immersion program is a bare bones pilot, so we modest funding requirements. 

And one final quote from the Je Ta Wun Monastery School in Myanmar.  This is a school that provides education to children who cannot afford to attend the public school:

Proverbial Wisdom

(from the Je Ta Wun Monastery School, Nyaung Oo, Myanmar)

  Possessions are impermanent

  Wisdom is the coveted pot of gold

  The golden jar of learning cannot be stolen

  Only in a good pond does the lotus thrive


Silk and Stones Travel emphasizes the remote and unusual, and the local culture in travel to developing countries.  All itineraries support the individual or group traveler with creative routes, unusual activities, and thoughtful, reliable, safe logistics and services.

Silk and Stones Travel

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Sai Win, Elite Guide and Founder of Eleven Inle Travel Desk, Inle Lake, Myanmar