Volunteering in Myanmar
Discover volunteering opportunities in Myanmar, an under-explored Southeast Asian gem.
The country also known as Burma is so different from its well-travelled neighbours. With a proudly and passionately unique culture, incredibly friendly locals and interesting customs, Myanmar is a spectacular country to volunteer in.
Myanmar stretches from the foothills of the Himalayas in the north, where Mount Hkakabo Razi rises 5,881 metres, down to the Bay of Bengal in the west and the Andaman Sea in the south.
Roughly 135 ethnic groups make up the people of Myanmar and the country is among the world’s most culturally and ethnically diverse. The government groups these into eight main racial groups: Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and Bamar, which is the dominant group, making up nearly 70% of the population.
Since gaining independence from Britain in 1948, Myanmar has witnessed decades of military dictatorship, a range of ethnic and political challenges, and an arduous struggle to political normalcy and democracy. Reinventing its place in international trade, diplomacy, and geo-strategy, Myanmar today presents a complex picture, and how it engages with its own history plays an important part in this process of transformation.
With a population of 51.4 million, the country has a per capita GDP of USD$1,105. The poverty rate is 37.5%, one of the highest in the region. Among ASEAN countries, Myanmar has the lowest life expectancy and the second-highest rate of infant and child mortality.
Myanmar faces significant development challenges. According to the World Bank, approximately a quarter of the population live in extreme poverty and food insecurity is an ongoing challenge.
Australia’s aid program contributes to some of Myanmar’s complex development challenges. Australian volunteers have supported NGOs and government bodies with humanitarian assistance to refugees, assisted in the development of Myanmar’s health, education, political and social reforms, and have worked to enable the private sector to boost economic growth.
Australian volunteers have supported a wide range of partner organisations in Myanmar to achieve their development goals since 2012.
Volunteering opportunities in Myanmar support communities across a range of development priorities, including:
- Peace, post-conflict and humanitarian
- Economic growth and trade
- Private sector development
- Rural development
- Women’s economic empowerment
This recipe for Pon Yay Gyi Kyet Thar was developed by Australian volunteer Gordon with Sanon Restaurant, which supports disadvantaged young people to build a hospitality career.
Download the recipe for Pon Yay Gyi Kyet Thar
Life as a volunteer in Myanmar
Culture and religion
Although a range of indigenous cultures exist in Myanmar (including the Kachin and Chin, several Hill tribes, and Inle Lake Intha people) the majority culture is Buddhist and Bamar. In traditional villages, the monastery is the centre of cultural life, however elements of western culture were assimilated under British colonial rule. The education system was modelled along similar lines and colonial architecture still in evidence in major cities.
Around 90% of the population are Buddhists and follow the Theravada school of Buddhism, which along with animism and the worship of ancestors, plays a significant role in Myanmar culture. There are 37 nats or spirits related to animism. Many religious festivals and holidays are associated with Buddhism and animism and these events are widely and devoutly celebrated. While predominantly Buddhist, freedom of religion is widely accepted in Myanmar; Muslims, Hindus, and Christians practice their faiths openly.
Four important rules to observe in Myanmar’s Buddhist society are:
- Females should not touch monks
- Money should not be given to monks
- Feet should never be placed on chairs or tables, and should never be directly pointed at an image of Buddha, a monk, or at anyone else
- The head is considered the most sacred part of the body and people should not be touched on the head
Burmese is the national language of Myanmar, with minority languages used in different areas of the country. English is widely spoken in urban areas. Language should not provide a barrier for volunteers, except for some bus journeys and when in remote areas.
Myanmar has a monsoon climate with three main seasons. The hottest period is between February and May, when there is a little or no rain and temperatures can rise above 40°C. The rainy season is generally from May to October, giving way to dry cooler weather from October to February. Overall the best months to visit are from November to February.
Lightweight cottons and linens are recommended throughout most of the year. A lightweight raincoat and an umbrella are needed during the rainy season.
The cost of a local sim card is less than AUD$2.00. There are four main operators: MPT (the most widely used), Telenor, Ooredoo and MyTel. Local calls are cheap, though network quality is unreliable. Most internet users in Yangon use their phone for internet access. Internet speeds are slower than elsewhere in Asia, however, in most work locations they are strong enough to support Skype, Zoom, Viber.
Myanmar people use Facebook and Messenger widely, with Facebook a significant source of information and updates about the country and what’s happening.
Dining and entertainment
Shopping malls and markets are reportedly the best in Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw. Branded and imported goods are more expensive compared to other neighbouring countries.
Vegetarian and gluten-free restaurants can be found online and via Tripadvisor.
There are many clubs and classes to join, including yoga, public speaking, Burmese language, dancing, painting, writing and music. Yangon has a vibrant art scene that has existed for many decades, and volunteers can listen to live music – traditional and modern.
The in-country team support volunteers to contact real estate agents to find appropriate rental accommodation. If a long-term lease is required with upfront rental, the Australian Volunteers Program will try to provide a sufficient advance accommodation allowance to cover this. Leases generally require a six-month upfront payment.
Volunteers living in Nay Pyi Taw stay in hotels, as accommodation in private rental apartments is not permitted.
In Yangon, infrastructure is generally in a poorer condition than other Southeast Asian capitals. Public transport in Yangon is limited and tends to be crowded and uncomfortable. Traffic jams are notoriously common, however there is an abundance of taxis, and fares are affordable – between US$2.00 and US$4.00 to most areas.
Driving in Yangon is not recommended. Bicycles and motorcycles are not permitted on the main streets, although some foreigners ignore this rule.
In Nay Pyi Taw, private cars, bicycles and motorcycles are the most common forms of transport and some government organisations provide bus transport to and from work. Unlike Yangon, it is not possible to simply hail a taxi on the street. Taxi or car rental can be arranged, usually through hotels.
In areas that foreigners are allowed to visit, Myanmar is very safe in terms of personal security: incidents of crime against foreigners are extremely low and Yangon is considered to be one of Asia’s safest large cities.
Volunteers may sometimes be approached by ‘money changers’ and people trying to sell things, but this will usually be done in a good-natured manner.
While the areas in which foreigners are permitted to travel are safe, other areas are not, including some border areas. Travel to these areas is highly restricted, and roads throughout Myanmar have regular checkpoints for identification purposes.
Volunteers should avoid large public gatherings and demonstrations, as there is always the outside possibility of clashes and violent incidents.
Tap water is not safe to drink; buy bottled water. Outside established tourist and top-end restaurants, food preparation is not always up to western standards.
Myanmar has some poisonous and potentially deadly animals. Diseases such as rabies are prevalent among animals like dogs and monkeys.
Before applying for a volunteering assignment in Myanmar, please do some further research on living in Myanmar and the organisation you are hoping to volunteer with. Successful applicants will have the opportunity to discuss expected living and working arrangements with their recruitment officer.
One Australian volunteer is supporting the growth of e-learning in Myanmar, meaning many people are accessing education who never could before.
Find out how