Sanon is a training restaurant in Nyaung U, Bagan, dedicated to providing opportunities for those who have missed out on education, aspiring to help change lives and build futures for marginalised Myanmar youth.
Sanon - which means ‘turmeric’ in Burmese - was set up in 2016 by the Myanmar Youth Development Institute (MYDI) and Friends International. Set in a serene, open location, the restaurant uses local ingredients to create dishes from across the world. With an open plan kitchen, guests can watch the young cuisiniers hard at work, receiving hands-on, expert training.
A year and a half following Sanon’s opening, 17 students graduated from Sanon, all who are now working around the country in restaurants, hotels and on cruise ships, either in the kitchen or front of house. A few days after the graduation, waited on by Sanon’s fresh intake of students, Sampan Travel dined at Sanon: a delectable lunch of charred eggplant salad with straw mushrooms and coriander alongside ‘Kyaw Kyaw’s Beef Curry’. After our fill, we sat down with Restaurant Manager & Senior Trainer Ye Min Thant as well as Sanon’s English Teacher Ann from Australia, to find out more about Sanon and the prospects of their graduates.
Ye Min Thant, please introduce yourself and let us know how you came to work at Sanon.
Ye Min Thant: From 2014-2016 I worked in Nay Pyi Daw. I was working as a restaurant manager, but also as a trainer with Swiss Contact. At that time me and Swiss Contact trained teenagers and young learners. After that I changed to Shan Division, but I worked there only one year. I was really interested in Sanon because I wanted to train the teenagers again. That is why I came here.
I really appreciate this organisation because my government cannot do this for teenagers; they cannot help them make their lives and careers. Before, these students cannot find jobs. They do not know how to go their way; they have lost their way. They do not know what to do. We train them in production and service - two months kitchen, two months service - and then they choose which one they have interest in. Finally they know what they want to do. Now, all last year’s students have a job. All 17.
Why have these young people lost their way?
Ye Min Thant: Because of the government. For example for me, I passed the 10th Standard, but my mark is not high. I attended the university and at that time my uncle said, ‘If you go to university, what will you then do?” I go for four years, and I get the degree but it is useless. My uncle also got the university degree … Now he makes t-shirts! That is education in Myanmar …
Is it very hard for the young in Myanmar?
Ye Min Thant: Sure. But Sanon and Swiss Contact are two organisations who can help them. We provide accommodation, money, uniform, everything we provide. Also transportation charges for classes.
This morning my friend sent me one message about training schools in Yangon. They have two training schools but the cost is really high. If you don’t have money you don’t have a chance. If you see some of our students: no money, no parents, very poor, at the time, they cannot get this chance.
How do you find these students?
Ye Min Thant: First, we need to give information on Sanon to the village leaders. For example this year we go to the village Mangyi Koe Gwa Village, we met the village leader and we talk about the organisation and what we are doing. We give them the pamphlet, the flyer, or show a video clip. At that time the village leader is very interested and they contact us. Now we will get 12 students from this village.
Do many apply to become students with Sanon?
Ye Min Thant: Yes. But we have criteria. We accept only 17 - 23 [year olds]. And they cannot be passed 10th Standard [usually around 15 or 16 years old in Myanmar]. Last year we had 17. This year maybe we accept 30. We have already 10
We do interviews and see if they really want it or not. Some students have no education. At the time we cannot accept. We are training in two ways: production and kitchen, and in the handbook we do not use Burmese words, only English. If they cannot read English, it is very hard for them to learn.
Ann: Yes. Except for Khai Yah Win. She had not been to school. And she came and couldn’t read or write Burmese. But Teacher Margaret organised lessons.
Ye Min Thant: Yes. She didn’t know how to read Burmese language. She could speak very well but cannot write or read.
Ann: So through teacher Margaret and contacts in the community Sanon is able to fill some gaps.
I believe that you started with 19 students in 2016. Were some unable to finish the course?
Ye Min Thant: Some cannot stay long. Some don’t want to stay any longer, and so they go back home. We are working in the service industry. So there are rules and regulations: ‘You must do like that, You must not do like that.’ We have to teach them responsibility, personal grooming, so many things we need to start to train them. It is hard.
Ann: A lot of the youth in Bagan work on their family farms. So two of the students here have got sponsors in Australia that give the family money so that the students can come here and increase their skills. The low-income families are the ones that cannot afford to improve the career prospects of their children. So we have to have more sponsors. The students that come from orphanages are different. But the ones that come from the farm need extra support. It is about moving that whole family out of poverty; giving financial support while going through the training
What are your first graduates doing now?
Ye Min Thant: Me and Mr Lin [Sanon’s Project Director] find all the old students jobs. Some of the students today are still in Nyaung U. Some are at the Bagan Thande Hotel, two waiters and two in the kitchen. Two are in the kitchen of a Pandaw ship, some in Nay Pyi Daw, and some in Yangon
Ann: And a couple of the students had three interviews for jobs, and were offered more than one job. So then they could actually go and negotiate with the employers. In fact, some of the hotels rang us asking for staff!
Ye Min Thant: Yes, they came to talk to me. One hotel wanted three students, but the salaries are very low. We cannot agree to this. Because we have trained these students for 1 year and 6 months. More than other students. They have too much knowledge! We cannot compare to others who do not have this training.
Some of the students are really clever. Maybe in five years they will be a manager because they are interested, hard-working, and very ambitious. They reach very hard! We can see that, we can see the potential. For example, Stephen is really clever, really very clever …In five years he will be at least a superviser.
Ann: He wants his own restaurant in Meiktila. He wants to open his own restaurant with two other students. He is a switched-on kid.
Ye Min Thant: Even though we train them up to be waiters and waitresses, his knowledge is enough to set up a bar. He is only 19 years old.
Ann told us earlier that at the graduation picnic some of the graduates spoke to the new students about their experience at Sanon and offered advice. She said that it was very emotional and some of the graduates and some of the new students were in tears. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Ann: Yes, what did Ko Sai say?
Ye Min Thant: He said that when he began at Sanon he didn’t work 100%, because he cannot read very well. He said to new students, don’t do it like him, they need to be interested, they need to work hard, from the start. Like that.
The old students said that they now must start to do a job. It is very hard because they are used to being here. We are a family. They feel it very hard to go out on their own.
Bagan is Myanmar’s premier tourist destination and then numbers of annual visitors is expected to keep rising fast. How do you view tourism in Bagan?
Ye Min Thant: Our organization’s policy is about training. But elsewhere, there is only basic training. Basic, basic, basic! There have too many hotels, and they do not have the skills! Not the high-quality training.
Ann: That is what I see. I spend some time with the owners of the restaurants and hotels here, and finding well-trained staff with a good level of English is a constant battle.
Ye Min Thant: I have asked the Myanmar Restaurant Association, ‘How many times do they come here to train on the supervisor course’? They say, ‘One time.’ Only one time! Now so many restaurants and hotels! Why just one time? It must be once a year, at least! Three times better, or something like that.
Ann: There is the fear that if we don’t train the Myanmar youth then hotels will bring their own people from somewhere else, their own staff with better English, from other places to Bagan.
Is the growth of tourism a good thing for the youth of Myanmar?
Ye Min Thant: Teenagers have so many opportunities in Bagan if they can speak English very well. If they are interested in being a guide, they can be a guide. If they are interested in hospitality, they can work in a hotel. But it depends upon the education.
For teenagers, I have to ask the government to do more for organizations like Sanon. With Sanon, the teenagers have a really nice opportunity to get a good job, and get a good income. Now there are so many training schools in Yangon, Mandalay, and Nay Pyi Daw. But for maybe 6 hours three times a week, it is around 250 US$. So if you have much money you can go. If you have no money you cannot go.
Some teenagers really want to go, but they have no money.