The Myanmar town of Yenangyaung doesn’t get many foreign tourists, but that’s not a big surprise. There really is no magnetic draw in the area that would motivate bus loads of camera clickers to pay a visit. But nestled amongst the rusty old oil derricks and craggy hills, is a community of friendly, caring people who will leave a lasting impression on you. The only reason I ended up visiting the town was because a friend of a friend of a friend had recommended the experience.
Located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, Yenangyaung used to be a major oil well and refinery center in the country. In fact, during World War II, Yenangyaung’s location was considered to be of such strategic importance that it became the scene of a battle between Allied forces and Japanese troops. In recent years, oil activity has picked up again, including one major company that has “successfully re-entered and recompleted several shut-in wells as oil producers.” Most people in the area, however, continue to eek out a meager living as farmers, or raise goats, pigs, and chickens.
One of the people I met in Yenangyang was Eric Trutwein, a native of the town who heads an NGO that builds cisterns — resembling small reservoirs — in area villages that have no water supply. In the past, villagers had to walk several miles to obtain water, and even then it might by muddy or unsuitable for drinking. Eric’s “cistern solution” gives them a safe and sturdy source of water all year round. They don’t get much rainfall in this part of the country, so having a source of water in the “dry zone” is very important for these people.
In addition to the cistern building, Eric and his family support many poor families in the Yenangyaung area via several agricultural projects. They have also launched a service to help care for elderly residents and orphans in the area, and have built new classrooms for schools. During one trip I helped launch an English teaching program at one of the schools. I wasn’t sure what to expect in the way of language abilities before I arrived. But I was quite impressed by the students and their English skills. Except for some of the very young children who had not been exposed much to English, most of the children I talked to were quite confident and eager to speak.
To help raise money for his charitable efforts, Eric opened up a small guesthouse called Lei Thai Gone (“The Gentle Breeze Inn”). It’s perched on a hill overlooking the Ayeyarwady River, an absolutely gorgeous spot with a serene, idyllic vibe. Honestly, it’s one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever stayed. If you just want to get away from it all for a while, and aren’t picky about deluxe amenities, this is the perfect place.
Besides visiting schools and cistern projects, I enjoyed taking walks around town and along the riverside, basking in the aura of everyday life in this charming rural town. Talking to monks and chatting with vendors, it was all fun. It certainly made for a refreshing change from the more touristy spots around the rest of the country.
Because Yenangyaung does not normally host foreigner tourists, he must get permission from local authorities prior to each visit. If you are thinking of a visit (it’s only 3 hours from Bagan), you can contact Eric at: egsimco (at) mptmail.net.mm