Diary of a Volunteer - TOK Meng Haw
I've just returned from a 9 day humanitarian mission to Myanmar with
the Firefly Mission. It is one of the most fulfilling thing I have
done this year and one of the most unique and meaningful oversea
trip I've been on.
In the short 9 days stay in Myanmar, we visited 8 schools and
orphanages, 3 majestic pagodas, 3 Nunneries, 2 monasteries, 1
hospital and 1 home for the elderly. We offered dana to thousands of
monks and nuns, play with children, treated to cultural shows by the
children. We watched sunrises and sunsets, counted shooting stars
and awed by the beautiful display put up by thousands of stars in a
dark night sky.
(right, the main stupa of Shwedagon Pagada)
We arrived at Yangon at 1145am and got right to work, to collect the
items we brought with us. All 80 of us have put aside half of the
luggage we can carry by weight to bring the donated items over.
The logistic team, with the help from rest of the volunteers and
airport staffs were able to collect the donated items quickly and
the checkout was fast compared to the previous trip. We checked in
to the hotel with little hassle and by mid afternoon we make the way
to our first stop, Samiddhodayasukhitarama Daw Nanacari Myanaung
Samiddhodayasukhitarama Daw Nanacari Myanaung Nunnery
Throughout the trip, Firefly Mission gave strong support to
nunneries because nuns generally has lower status than monks in
society and thus receive less support from the community.
Money and part of the items we brought from Singapore were donated
to the nunnery. The 10 Preceptors (technically, they are not nuns
thus the pink robes) then chanted to bless us and to share merit
made through the offerings. So deeply moving was the chant that and
many of us shed tears.
left; the Nunnery
center; shoes belonging to the 10 preceptors placed neatly at
right; the 10 preceptors waving good bye to us when we leave
After dinner, we visited Shwedagon Pagoda. It is the most majestic
pagoda I have seen. Surrounding the main pagoda were hundreds more
smaller Buddha images and shrines and it took us more than an hour
to circumnabulate the main pagoda as we try to take in the scenes
that is constantly unfolding before us. The pagoda is said to
enshrine the hair relic of the Historical Buddha and relics of 4
On day 2 we visited another nunnery that also acts as a orphanage, a
Nursery for orphans up to age of 5, a Home for the Elderly and had a
dinner Presentation of the Scholarships and Penny for School
(Donation items being loaded onto the 3 coaches in the morning
before our trip)
At the nunnery, we gave out balloons and other toys to the orphans.
There was a brief moment of awkwardness initially as the children
simply sat quietly as we gave out the balloons and toys. I was told
the children loves balloons before the trip, but now it seems they
were totally cool and indifferent to the toys we were giving them.
Then with little warning, when every children received a balloon,
all of them spontaneously started playing with the balloons!
It was here that I received my first lesson on Myanmese children.
They were really discipline and listen to what the teachers and
elders say. We see this being repeated over and over again during
our stay in Myanmar.
Watch video clip of the children playing with the balloons
The nursery we visited house orphans up to the age of 5. One of our
volunteers visited this nursery two years ago with Firefly Mission
and was deeply sadden when she saw the diluted formulate milk the
children were given. On this visit, she donated a thousand dollars
worth of milk power to the nursery.
(left, one of the more sickly young orphan in the nursery)
We then visited Hninzigone Home for the Elderly. This Home for the
Elderly is truly amazing. While their equipments may not be as
advance as most Elderly Homes in Singapore, the residents here were
physically and mentally very healthy. We could sense that most of
the residents here were really happy individuals and very contended.
The Home was run based on the Buddha's teachings.
A 90+(left) and 80+(right) years old resident at the Home. Both
sat in the meditative posture for the whole 30 mins or so we were
there. The older resident has some hearing problem but is otherwise
very healthy. The younger resident was still reading and writing and
even asked us to write our names in her book.
Is this the secret of their health and longevity? Everyday the
residents here have three sessions of 1 hrs meditation each. Having
done meditation ourselves, we were very impressed how well they
could sit in the meditative posture despite their advance age.
At night, we were present to witness the presentation of
Scholarships to students who has done well for the studies. Firefly
Mission is working with Border Areas Development Association to help
provide scholarships to students who has done will in their studies.
Myanmar Trip - Day 3
Our first visit on the third day was to Zamburatana Buddhist
Cultural Course center. We were greeted by eager youths from the
center who were aware that we were coming.
For the pass few years FFM (Firefly Mission) has been a strong
supporter of the venerable and the center. Support in the form of
monetary donation and computers were well utilized by the center.
One of the senior Firefly member shared with me that when FFM send
the first computer over to the center, it was so over utilized that
the machine broke down. The venerable then requested to FFM to send
over more computers. FFM gladly reciprocated by sending computers
donated to them from various organisations in Singapore to the
The students at the center presented to each of us a Firefly Mission
T-Shirt they have printed and one of the student even put together a
video clip to thank FFM for their support to the center. The youths
chatted with us while the younger ones draw pictures and later
presented them to us.
Our next stop was to Naga Cave Monastery. The Monastery was set up
with the objective of educating the monks in both Buddhism and
modern academic studies. The monastery is currently home to about
1200 monks and nuns and we were fortunate enough to offer food to
them on the third day of our stay in Myanmar.
Bro Chong Jin offering food to the nuns
young novices going to wash their bowls after their meals.
another young novice after taking his meal
We then took a 5 hours coach ride to Bilin where we stayed at
Mountain View Hotel for the next three days.
Mountain View Hotel is located in the country side and is very close
to nature and except for the mild inconveniences caused by the short
blackout that occurred daily, the stay was wonderful. We were awed
by the stars filled night, counted shooting stars and watched
sunrise in the morning.
(top, in the morning on the first day of our stay this white
horse appeared and was roaming around in the nearby forest)
We visited schools and hospital built by venerable and played and
sing and dance with the children, and talk to the villages.
Watch the video clip of FFM volunteers playing with the children
Watch the video clip of FFM volunteers singing with the children
FFM volunteers taking photos with the young students from one if
the school build with monetary support from FFM.
Offering of equipments to the local hospital. FFM have previous
provided much support to setting up of this hospital.
The doctor (center) with two nurses working at the hospital.
Myanmar Trip - Day 5 (Part 1)
On day 5 we visited more schools that
have received support from FFM. In fact, I was really impressed by
the out reach by FFM and the impact they have on the communities in
Myanmar. All these would not have been successful if not for the
dedication and hard work by the main FFM members, all of them have
full time jobs and family to care for.
Wherever we go we seems to be warmly received by the local
community. At Shifu Hill Monastery School we were warmly welcomed by
the performance put up by the children from the school.
New Generation Youth Parahita Centre
As part of our mission in Myanmar, we also visited orphanages and
schools that we have previously not been in contact with. New
Generation Youth Parahita Centre is one such centre.
Located outside the 'tourist belt', the center receives little
support from foreigners like us. Even our tour guide has not been to
this centre before. Very evidently the physical condition at this
centre is the worse we have seen so far.
The monk who set up this center explained to us how the centre was
set up and how he try his best to support the children in this
school. The government gave support in the form of rice to the
students, but it is not enough to support the school. The monk have
to give dharma talks and write books to raise money to support the
Not captured in the above video clip was part of the conversation
where the venerable told us sometime children would be taken by the
truck and 'dumped' by the road side. These children would stand by
the side of the road and look out for venerable and other monks
passing by and hoping these monks would take pity on them and take
What can you see at night when there is no light? ....Firefly!
We were in one of the hall talking to the venerable, the teacher
(speaking in Myanmese) incidentally asked the children what can they
see at night when there is no lights.... and the children replied:
The journey up the mountain itself was interesting. We covered much
of the journey on lorries that have been "converted" to transport
passengers and then walk the rest of the journey up Golden Rock.
The slope is steep but still manageable, however some volunteers
decided to take a more comfortable way up and let others do the
walking for them.
Opting for an easier way up the mountain, some volunteers took
The hotel is simple but comfortable, any shortcoming is more than
made up for by the fantastic view it offers. We spent much of the
late afternoon and evening at the Golden Rock Pagoda pasting gold
leaves on the Golden Rock and taking in the beautiful scenic views.
Left, a volunteer pasting gold-leaves onto the golden rock.
right, a beautiful sunset over the golden pagoda.
Myanmar Trip - Day 7
We make our way down Mountain Top Hotel and then travel to Shwegyin.
Shwegyin used to be very rich place in the pass as much gold could
be found in the waters in the rivers there. In fact the name "Shwegyin"
comes from the chinese word Sui Jin which means Water Gold.
(left, part of the school has been
converted to sleeping place for FFM volunteers)
The gold are gone now and village is again poor. FFM has been
supporting Venerable Aggasara and the schools built by him. While
the school provide education and acts as a monastic school for the
children, there are christians attending the school. In our stay
there, we were treated to cultural performance put up by the
children who were both buddhist and christians. It is really
inspiring to see that even in poor villages here, there is a high
degree of religious tolerance and the monastic school built by the
venerable is providing all children basic education, irregardless of
We spent the night at the school and slept at one of the classroom
that have been converted to our bedroom. In the late afternoon and
into the evening, the children volunteers of FFM played with the
children from the village. Each party take turn to introduce games
they play to the other children. They played until it got dark and
the children could not see each other before dispersing.
One of the impression I got from my stay in Myanmar was that while
the children in the villages are poorer materially compared to those
from the city area, they are happier. Perhaps contentment is indeed
the greatest wealth, as the Buddha have said.
In the morning we visited the site of a new school that the
venerable is building. Two of the building is already completed but
there are still much work left. The land was donated but lay
devotees and belongs to the Sangha and not specific individual monk.
The Sangha (or the community of monks and nuns) acts as the trustee
for all properties that have been donated. This practice dates back
to the time of the Buddha and is still in practice here in Myanmar.
School library that is still in the early stage of construction
Although they have wells, the lead contend in the water is too
high thus the water is not fit for human consumption. As a result,
rain water need to be collected for drinking and cooking. These are
some of the challenges faced by the venerable when he tries to set
up the school.
Small hydro-power generator is used to generate electricity to be
used by the school. A few kilowatt of electricity can be generated
in this way.
We spent the rest of the morning playing with the children in the
school and giving out toys, sweats and balloons to them. By late
afternoon we bordered the coaches that will be bring us back to
Yangon, back where the journey first begin. All the other children
from the village, it seems, and some of the adults also turn up to
say goodbye to us.
Myanmar Trip - Day 9 (Last Day)
It was the last day of our
Humanitarian Mission in Myanmar. This is the fourth time FFM has
organised a mission like this to Myanmar and is the biggest turn out
thus far, a total of 83 of us. For many, like me, this is the first
time we've been on a trip like this.
We spent the morning on last day visiting another orphanage and
nunnery, both located in the Yangon area. While it is sad to see so
many orphans, we were also glad that the local buddhist communities
are taking the lead to provide for the needs of the children. FFM
and the volunteers, for their part also try their best to help these
One of the volunteers taking photos with the orphans at the
The 10 preceptors queuing up to receive offering of robes,
medicine and other basic necessities from FFM volunteers.
After the visits, FFM volunteers then split into two group. One
group went to do some last minute shopping before heading off to the
airport. A small group made pay a visit to another venerable monk
and to look at the center he is running. It was also a short
educational tour for many of us to look at the padi field farmers
The venerable monk showing us the crops that has been planted.
After our visit, we make our way to Yangon Airport. Our flight is
four plus in the afternoon, we took our last photos and say our good
byes to the tour guides and drivers who have been so helpful
throughout the trip.
On the day after we arrived back at Singapore, we were greeted by
some of the heaviest rainfall in the last 75 years. This is a deep
contrast to the sunny weather we had at Myanmar(although it is
suppose to be the winter season).
I'm sure many of us were left with deep impression of the trip and
are trying to adjust back to reality. We like to think of ourselves
as donors and volunteers, but to a very large extend I think we
received as much as we gave. What we gave in money and material, we
received back in spirit.
Its been four days now and I think the strongest impression that
stayed with me are the resilient and strength of the people.
Although most of the villagers are materially poor, inside they are
just as rich and happy.
Another thing that stayed in my mind are the smiling faces of the
children. They are so innocent, and yet displayed much disciple,
readiness to learn and give fully to what they do. The video clip
below are some of these children. They discovered that I was taking
a video clip of the dance performance with my handphone and readily
volunteered themselves to be the 'stars' of my video.
I am also deeply impressed by the monks and nuns for taking the lead
to try to take on the challenges of providing for so many orphans
and other children who's parents were simply too poor to send them