As WildChina continues to travel beyond China’s borders to the neighboring countries of Bhutan, Laos, and Myanmar, we’ve also expanded our list of eligible countries for WildChina Explorer Grant proposals. WildChina Founder and CEO, Mei Zhang explains why we’re taking our style of deep, exploratory travel beyond China, and tells us what she’s looking for in this year’s WildChina Explorer Grant applicants.
Myanmar was a place I never had the desire to visit. Growing up in southern China’s Yunnan province, we always believed that it was just the poor cousin next door. My father used to push me in a swing and tell me that he’d swing me to Myanmar. Forwards, I was in Myanmar, backwards, I was in Yunnan. There was no air of exoticism and mystery around the place. For me, it was just a more primitive and undeveloped version of Yunnan.
I’m sure you are expecting me to say that I visited for the first time and then everything changed. But that wasn’t the case. On my first visit to Myanmar I was working as a translator on a UN mission against drug trafficking. Not surprisingly, my grim impression of our neighbors was not dispelled. Sure, the scenery was beautiful, but I did not see the charm. Partially because of what I was dealing with, but mostly because I wasn’t open to seeing it.
There are parts of Asia that are often perceived as homogeneous. The Indochinese Peninsula, for example, is one such area. Mention Laos, Cambodia or Myanmar, and rice, rivers and rattan come to mind. The Himalayan region is another with Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet bringing images of mountains, monks and monasteries. These blanket impressions are not just held by the outside world, but even those who live right on the doorstep. Myself included, before I took the time to explore deeper with an open mind.
So here comes the turning point in the story, the visit that changed my perspective on Myanmar…
I was invited to speak at an eco-tourism conference and afterwards decided to extend my stay. I took a visit to Inle Lake, and again found the scenery no different to Yunnan. A serene lake bordered by mountains with rolling mist. It could have been Yunnan’s Erhai Lake. But there was something in the calm, serene energy that underpins Burmese culture that really struck me.
Myanmar is a deeply Buddhist country and as I stopped at a modest temple en-route to the lake from the airport I felt this spirituality. I was on a main visitor route surrounded by scenery that felt so familiar, yet the atmosphere felt different. My home, just over the mountains, felt like a million miles away.
China and its surrounding regions have something in common, I’ve found. They reveal their most vibrant and curious colors only under careful, loving observation. These are the kinds of discoveries that I want to share with WildChina travelers, whether they’re within China’s borders of beyond.
I will be looking for this same desire for deep, thoughtful exploration in this year’s WildChina Explorer Grant applicants. I want to see applicants who know that there is so much to learn when we take a close look, whether they’re way off the beaten path or just off their front doorsteps.
Apply for the WildChina Explorer Grant 2016 here.