‘Atmospheric’ is the only way to describe a walk through Chinatown in Yangon.
Like the city as a whole, it brims with liveliness and spirituality, pagodas and colonial buildings, tea shops and markets. It’s enchanting.
I’m at the end of my Urban Adventures day tour of the capital, part of the 14-day Magical Myanmar tour with Peregrine, and it’s safe to say our group feels pretty lucky to be led through the chaos by a local. That is, until she leads us down a quiet street, to a nondescript building. And then the confusion begins to mount…
Once inside, everything becomes clearer. We learn that we’ve arrived at the country’s first sustainable tourism hub, Jo Za So. And although it’s certainly less striking than the gold-gilded Shwedagon Pagoda we visited earlier, less iconic than Bogyoke Market we wandered through for hours, it’s the type of place that reminds you why you travel.
It’s a place that welcomes you with gentle hospitality, that leaves you feeling energised, uplifted, inspired.
And why? Because Jo Za So is all about supporting local entrepreneurs who offer tours, workshops, and events that show off Burmese culture. And in this time of decreased tourism to Myanmar I feel proud to learn that every visit directly empowers local communities.
But, first: it’s time to talk about the tea.
The building is two stories, with much of the simple ground floor taken up by a local tea shop. I find to my delight – I’m British, so a self-declared tea connoisseur – that the Burmese tea and local snacks are delicious. Not just because they taste good, but because, well, they leave you feeling good. You can stop for a bite to eat, knowing you’re giving back, or you can join an hour-long Tea Culture session and learn about Burmese tea shop culture and how to make – and order – authentic tea.
This Tea Culture workshop is one of many projects here focussing on empowering local women in particular. Ma Su Pyae, born and raised in Yangon, is one of these women. As she explains to us, “the workshop is not about only drinking tea, but also a good chance to understand about the Burmese culture and their community.” Indeed the tea culture, we learn, is derived from Indian, British and other influences, but is totally unique to the country. We also learn that resources and mentorship from Jo Za So have allowed Ma Su Pyae to successfully focus on building her make-your-own-tea workshop.
Full of tasty tea, we get ready to explore upstairs. But first, our leader tells us a little more about the partnership behind Jo Za So. The tourism hub is a joint initiative of AVI (an Australian not-for-profit), the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade (DFAT), and Intrepid Group (which Peregrine and Urban Adventures tours both fall under).
Together, they’ve worked with local organisations and operators to curate a range of authentic experiences. Some are based here in Yangon’s core, some are further afield, like their range of day tours. (I browse them, making a mental note to experience the waterfront city of Thanlyn on by bike and visit Hlegu township’s craft market next time I visit.)
What do they all these offerings have in common? That they received business training and small loans from Jo Za So. And that they were given a chance: a shared space in which to grow and thrive.
Ma Khin Htwe Cho is, we learn, the perfect example of someone Jo Za So can and does support. Raised by civil servants, she had no experience in the travel industry but a want to help spread tourism in Hlegu, a small town an hour outside of Yangon. The rural town was experiencing an exodus of young people leaving because of lack of jobs. What it did have, however, was abundant handicraft workshops and farms. And so Ma Khin Htwe Cho, aided by Jo Za So, set about showing off the town’s creativity, developing a day tour to provide jobs to locals, keep craft traditions alive, and show travellers the richness of the local culture. This project became the Hlegu Village Tour, the one I mentioned earlier. And one I had even more excitement about now I’d learnt more.
Heartened, we walk to the second floor – spacious in spite of the many beautiful textiles we find ourselves surrounded by. This is where we learn about the natural dye process and that we are allowed to do more than merely browse; we can shop the fabrics and handicrafts on display and bring them home.
It’s the umbrellas that most catch my eye. These are one of the most recognisable symbols of the country; the colours abound. Here at Jo Za So you can get creative, however, and not just purchase them. At the Pathein Umbrella workshop, you can paint your own traditional one. Talk about a souvenir with a difference.
My tour friends and I mill around for a while. Some buy pretty presents and others don’t, some of us chat and giggle, others are lost in thought. I’m fascinated by the fact this project is so one-of-a-kind, and can’t stop asking questions. I learn that starting a business in the city is incredibly difficult because rent is high and advance payments of at least six months are required.
So, in providing a space for entrepreneurship as well as financial support, Jo Za So has quite literally given small and medium-sized businesses an opportunity that doesn’t exist in Myanmar. An opportunity to spread sustainable tourism.
It also offers tourism events so that industry people can meet up, network and learn from each other. Yangon has precious little in the way of this, so this space for tourism professionals to come together feels particularly noteworthy.
As a female traveller, it really sticks with me that so many of the business owners Jo Za So supports are women. Burmese locals who, because of the tourism hub, are able to benefit from both mentoring and funding. Who are receiving economic opportunities not commonly open to women in Myanmar. Who are beginning to change the conversation around gender roles in this Southeast Asian nation.
Finally, I’m all out of questions. So I do buy a souvenir. But when I return home it’s not the material goods that are what I really treasure. I treasure the memory of Jo Za So, an exceptional project in an exceptional country.
I’m so happy to support the country’s first sustainable tourism hub. Consider doing the same and you’ll be so happy too.
For more information, and to donate to Jo Za So, click here.
100% of your donation goes to sustaining the running of the tourism hub and we match all funding.
- Village Arts and Crafts Tour: A journey to the heart of Burmese culture, a tour of the Hlegu arts and crafts market will give you a rare glimpse into Myanmar’s authentic food, traditions, and people.
- Experience Thanlyin on Two Wheels: Ditch the tour bus and see the waterfront city of Thanlyin by bicycle like a local. From the rich history of Myanmar’s biggest port to the buzzing local market stalls, you’ll coast through all highlights – and hardly break a sweat.
- Yangon Lifestyle Tour: Hop aboard a ride through Myanmar’s complicated history. You’ll explore the colonial buildings of centuries past, soak in the tranquility of Inya Lake, and experience food and tea shops steeped in tradition.
- Free Old Yangon Walking Tour: Save your money for souvenirs and take a guided tour through historic Old Yangon. Stroll through the park at the city‘s centre, marvel at pagodas and mosques, and learn how to cross the street like a true local.