A Hidden Treasure: A Special Visit to Brother Felice Orphanage
Beautiful guestpost by my good friend Claire Ham:
When I was heading to Inle Lake, a popular tourist city in the southern Shan State, visiting vineyard and local orphanage was not really on my mind. Not that I didn’t care for it. I simply had no knowledge of it. Upon arriving at the local Heho airport, I was met with enthusiastic promotion of Red Mountain Estate vineyards and wineries. I was rather surprised to see the flyer with beautiful landscape images. I just put that away in my purse without giving too much thought.
After one hour of ride, I made it to backpacker area called Nyaung Shwe. Since I arrived in the late afternoon, it was already too late to join a full day boat tour around the lake. Out of curiosity for that mysterious flyer, and a bit of travel fatigue, my travel companion and I decided to check out the vineyard and enjoy a lazy afternoon over a glass of wine. The friendly staff at the hotel recommended us to go there around sunset. We took his advice, and hired a car to make it in time for the famous sunset.
About half-way to the Red Mountain Estate, I spotted a sign that says “Brother Felice Orphanage.” Orphanage in a tourist city? Who would have guessed that? Since I like to hang out with local children when I travel, I thought about going there first, yet, we didn’t have a lot of time before the sun went down. So, I put off that idea.
The vineyard had quite an impressive landscape, which reminded me of wine country I visited back in California. Surprisingly, its selection of wine and food were amazing! I was told that 400,000 plants was imported from France and Spain, and after some experiment process, variety of wines were produced. I guess the cool climate, and its soils were just right for wine-making! If you happen to be a jaded wine lover, no worries! The spectacular sunset will fool your sensitive palate.
After a pleasant wine tasting and dinner, it was rather late to drop by this orphanage.
For the next few days, we were busy exploring this wonderful town that offers so much to see. We hired a boatman for the day and went around the area to check out the famous fishermen feet paddling, floating garden, long-neck women, various silver-smith & knitting workshops, a few monasteries, and all that jazz! I thought about visiting a hot spring, too, but it didn’t sound attractive for February’s hot weather.
On our last day in Inle Lake, I wanted to take it easy. While I was looking for post cards to write, I remembered my initial plan to visit the orphanage. I walked into a travel agency nearby and asked for a taxi to take me. Soon after, the Burmese version of tuk tuk driver showed up. His limited English didn’t concern me much. He already knew where I wanted to go, so, I jumped into the back of his modest vehicle and let him find his way. When we finally arrived there, I realized that I was empty-handed. Oh no! I asked him to take me to a candy shop. It was not so easy to explain the concept of candy to the driver and actually find it. Believe it or not, sweets like candies and chocolates were not that common in that small neighbourhood, which was a bit distant from tourist area.
When I came back, the children were about to have dinner by themselves. I asked for their teacher whom I could talk to, but, nobody. Still, one of older kids kindly invited me to dinner and made me a nice cup of tea. All of the children were sitting around the big dining table and eating their simple and modest meal, which was comprised of rice, a few veggies, and a bowl of soup. They seemed to be pleased with unexpected desserts that I brought along.
Not long after, their director, Ms. Ma Mi Nge came back. She greeted me with a big smile and shared some basic information about the place. It was founded by Catholic priest, Felice from which the name came. That explained the mystery of the name of the orphanage: Brother Felice Orphanage. Don’t forget that Myanmar is a heavily Buddhist country. The director assured me of the religious freedom of children, which made me smile.
I asked her how the place was financed, and if I could help her in any way. Her answer was quite surprising. The only secured help is some bags of rice from Germany every month. No official help from their own government. After some thought, I suggested to her that maybe I could make a Facebook page for the organization to better find a necessary sponsorship. Then, I realized that I’d need some photos. I didn’t bring a camera there to be discreet. Not everyone likes to show how they live to random tourists, right? Ms. Ma Mi Nge offered me her camera and let me walk around with it to take photos of their facility.
When I was done taking photos, she introduced me to her cute children. We talked for some time with her translation help. They seemed a bit shy, yet, remained quite friendly. I spotted several English books in their small library, but, they were not helpful enough for us to communicate well, obviously. Before I said good-bye to them, I took several group photos for Facebook page. They still had lovely smiles in front of a complete stranger. Then, so long. I couldn’t stay more, unfortunately, as my driver had to head back home.
It was indeed a brief encounter. I felt sad that I didn’t have time to go back to play with them. It would have been wonderful. We had a couple of outbound flights scheduled the next day and the following day and couldn’t afford to buy a new ticket.
It took a while for the director to get back to me with those pictures. Pictures with smiling children. I don’t even know their names. But I think of them often, and wonder how I can help them out to make sure they won’t lose their bright smiles. No matter how genuine I felt about the director’s caring hearts for her kids, they don’t even have a bank account. How many people would make time out of their busy life schedule to go to Western Union to send money to those kids whom they have never met before, unlike myself who grew up in an orphanage in South Korea and understands the fact that the kindness of random strangers can change one’s life.
But if you do have a plan to visit this beautiful Inle Lake, make sure to drop by and say hello to these adorable children. It will be a very special present for YOU. Something that Lonely Planet guide can never tell you. A slice of real life and real people. True essence of Myanmar lies in the smiles of kind-hearted souls in spite of harsh reality they have to face.
About Claire Ham: She was born and raised in South Korea, and has travelled to Asia, North & South America, and Europe extensively while working for The Hollywood Reporter and various film festivals before. Now she is a life coach based in Germany.