When Ko Khun Aung Htut, was 12 years-old, he used to walk eight miles a day to school, a journey that took him six hours for the round trip.
It is a big challenge even for an adult.
Ko Khun Aung Htut, who is now 30, recalls the tough times he had to endure as he overcame distance and other difficulties as he pursed his middle education.
Hailing from Htee Onn Sout village, Hsi Hsaing township, Pa’ O self-administrative zone, Southern Shan, the young boy was determined to give himself the chance that few of his village mates had.
“I attended a monastic education school because there are no other schools from where I came.” said Ko Khun Aung Htut.
He continued his education from middle to high school at the monastic school but said he could not complete a basic education because his family could not afford to pay for school.
Ko Khun Aung Htut then left from school to work on his family’s farm.
But Ko Khun Aung Htut’s story is not unique for people living in border areas where there is no basic education.
There are no schools in the villages and the few that are there, are located quite a distance away. Many of the parents cannot afford to send their children to schools and the ravages of war and conflict does not make it conducive for a school environment.
Children in these ethnic areas are sent to monastic schools to continue their education.
After finishing the primary level of education, students from rich families can go to schools in the cities where they stay at hostels to pursue their higher education.
But students from poor families can only opt for monastic schools that found throughout the country with the help of the local Sayadaws who preside at the monasteries.
According to some sources, most of the children studying in the monastic schools come from conflict zones and where there is an outbreak of violence in ethnic areas.
Historically, the monastic education system was established in the year 1044 during the Bagan Period when the first Myanmar Nation was set up.
From 1962 to 1972, the monastic education schools were placed within a sub department under the basic education.
But, in 1982 the monastic education schools were suspended.
Ten years later, in 1992, monastic education schools were allowed to re-open.
According to last year’s data from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture, there are now a total of 1568 of monastic education schools nationwide.
Nearly 300,000 orphans and poor children are able to get an education from these schools which employ 7,800 teachers.
Data from the census released in 2014 show that poverty rates remain high as nearly 70 percent of Myanmar’s 51 million people who live in rural areas.
Many children from not only remote areas but those living in urban areas, including the Yangon Region, still rely on monastic schools for education.
Fifty-six-year-old Daw Kyi Nyunt, who has two grandchildren, said she moved them from a government school to a monastic education school since 2015 because of a downturn in the family’s economic situation.
She now lives in A Lwan Sut village, Thanlyin Township, Yangon Region.
“Every child can access education due to the monks or Sayardaw, who are take in the children to continue their education,” she said.
Daw Hla Hla Yee, who is 34 years old, a parent who sends her child to a monastic school, said that her daughter attends Grade 6 at the school because she trusts the monastic education system.
“I send my daughter to the monastic school because they teach far more effectively compared with government schools, and we do not need to send her for extra tuition,” she added.
Today, monastic education schools are being run with the support of the Ministry of Education and are managed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture.
U KhineMye, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Education told The Myanmar Times that the “the monastic education schools complement the Myanmar system of education.”
“Sayardaw Gyi, the founders of the monastic education schools, provide lunch to students as well as teach the poor children who rely on such schools for their education,” he said.
Although free education only started at the primary level in the 2011-2012 academic year and was extended to higher levels in the 2015-2016 academic year, many children still did not receive basic education schools.
In Myanmar, there are 2.7 million children ranging from five to 16 years of age who have dropped out of school.
U Myo Thein Gyi, the minister of Education, told a forum last year that there are 3.5 million children who are over 15 years of age and considered illiterate.
Sayadaw U Nayaka, principal of Phaung Daw Oo monastic high school, that is located in Mandalay Region, said that the dropout rate can be reduced by enhancing the role of monastic schools.
“Most of the children who live in monastic schools are poverty stricken. Because there is no social pressure, they will think that all of their friends are like them. Therefore, the monastic education schools can help reduce the dropout rates,” Sayardaw said.
Daw Myint Myint Aye, who is 56 and has six children, said that free basic education means the enrollment stage is free, but parents are still charged for association fees, cleaning fees and pension for the teachers.
“Parents still pay for tuition fees because the government school teaching systems requires students to achieve high marks in exams.
“The government says their education is free. It is just free in terms of school fees. However, we still need to buy things like bags, lunch boxes and exercise books.
“During the rainy season when our schools are open, we must buy umbrellas. These are basic needs. Then, I have to send and pick up my children at the school gates because they are too young to go and come back on their own.
“I can’t afford this because we are a low income family. Sometimes we barely have enough to eat,” Daw Myint Myint Aye said.
She is a casual worker eking out a meagre living.
Daw Myint Myint Aye cannot afford to send all her children to school. Now her three older children have left school so that the three younger ones can continue schooling.
“Now I send them to a free school. I cannot afford to send them to government schools. So we rely on free night classes for our family’s education,” Daw Myint Myint Aye added.
And for many, like Ko Khun Aung Htut, getting an education is still a long walk filled with perils and obstacles.