musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

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My friends Ma Pu Sue and her husband Lesly have been operating the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaung Shwe for about three years now, and from all indications, business is booming. Even during the recent slow season they still had clients nearly every day of the week. Clearly, they have gained a very good reputation via word of mouth recommendations and reviews on Internet sites such as Trip Advisor.

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I’ve been privileged to have been a guest at Sue and Lesly’s home for many meals over the years, but until recently I had never observed one of their cooking classes. But during my most recent visit to Nyaung Shwe, Ye Man Oo — the boy from Mandalay who is helping us with Chinlone Books — had gone with me to visit Ma Pu Sue and seemed quite intrigued with the idea of these cooking classes and asked if we could observe one. Sue graciously agreed to let us be “flies on the wall” during a scheduled class the next day.

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Along with Ye Man Oo’s friend from Mandalay, Zin Min Phyo, we arrived at the appointed hour and found eight tourists already in the process of cutting, peeling, folding, stirring and preparing the lunch that Sue and Lesly had planned. After all the prep work was done, it was time to commence the actual cooking. As Lesly explained to us, the timing of cooking each dish is crucial. You don’t want to have something prepared too quickly and have it sit and get cold, only to end up waiting on a stubborn curry or soup to finish cooking. And there was indeed an array of different dishes being prepared, from a vegetable curry and a traditional Burmese tea leaf salad, to dumplings, tomato salad, and a stir fry dish.

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By the time everything was finished, Ye Man Oo, Zin Min Phyo and I were preparing to say goodbye and say thank you for letting us sit in on the class, but Sue and Lesly insisted that we stay and sample some of the dishes. It was an unexpected lunch, but I can assure you it was a tasty one!

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I was back in Nyaung Shwe again last month, primarily to deliver more books to Mar Mar Aye at Chinlone Books. Ye Man Oo from Mandalay came along to help me organize the bookshelves, and his parents kindly drove us all the way there. And that’s not a short or easy journey, having to navigate several mountain ranges to reach Shan State. In any case the trip was a success: we increased the bookshelf count from two to six, while adding about 500 books to the mix. And more are on the way!

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Besides the sheer number of books — not only in English, but also French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, and Japanese! — perhaps the most exciting aspect of being in Myanmar this time was seeing the new logo for the bookshop, one that was designed by Ye Man Oo himself. This kid is a very talented artist and has been brainstorming ideas for the past several months until he came up with a very cool design.

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The next step was getting some t-shirts made that sported his creation. We found a company in Mandalay called Moe Pale (thanks to my friend Ko Soe Moe for the recommendation!) that offered reasonable prices and good service. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to get the shirts made before we made the trek to Nyaung Shwe, but upon our return to Mandalay the shirts had been printed and were ready!

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I had a flight back to Bangkok the day after returning to Mandalay, but U Khin Maung Lwin graciously accepted the task of sending the shipment of shirts to Mar Mar Aye in Nyaung Shwe. And I’m happy to report that the shirts are now in stock in three sizes (medium, large, and extra large) and in three colors (white, light blue, and tan). And the price per shirt is only 6,000 kyat (about US$5). Why buy a boring Inle Lake t-shirt when you can purchase a beautiful Chinlone Books t-shirt?

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Meanwhile, we are gearing up for the next big book delivery sometime in September. Our aim is to beef up the number of books in all sections and languages in anticipation of the upcoming “high season” for tourism later in the year. If you are in Nyaung Shwe you MUST stop by Chinlone Books!

http://www.chinlonebooks.com/

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Shan State’s Nyaung Shwe is a small town, one of those burgs that boast a sole traffic light, a lot of good old boys hanging out at the local tea shop, and lots of farm animals running around, dodging the increasing number of motorcycles and trucks on the streets. But Nyaung Shwe is the accommodation town of choice for anyone who wants to visit nearby Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist attractions.

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I love visiting Nyaung Shwe but I can’t remember that last time I saw Inle Lake. See it once, and basically that’s enough. Sure, Inle is a tranquil body of water — or at least it’s the neighboring villages and one-leg-rowing fisherman that what make it so interesting — but there are plenty of other things to do if you are staying in Nyaung Shwe. Plus, it’s just a damn lovely town, surrounded by shimmering green rice fields and craggy green hills.

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If it’s waterways you want, you are better off taking a canoe trip down the town’s network of canals. The scenic canoe ride is much more relaxing and slower-paced than taking a big noisy boat on the big lake. Nyaung Shwe is also a delightful town to explore on foot or by bicycle. There are plenty of crumbling old temple and stupa ruins strewn around town, plus lots of giggling, friendly children flying kites and playing other outdoor games. Yes, they aren’t all addicted to online games just yet!

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In addition to a very colorful morning market, Nyaung Shwe is also home to a staggering number of Buddhist monasteries and some of these places make for very memorable — and very photogenic — visits, especially the old teakwood Shway Yan Pyay, located on the main road into town, near the Inle Lake ticket booth. Early each morning you can also marvel to the sight of long lines of monks making their alms rounds, a sea of red robes penetrating the morning mist.

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Taking half-day, full-day, or multi-day treks to nearby villages and towns such as Kalaw can also be a nice diversion from the lake trips. Nyaung Shwe is such a peaceful and laidback place that many tourists extend their stay just to relax or explore the area. Another option that has become popular in recent years is taking a cooking class. I’ll have another post in the near future about the cooking class I observed recently at Bamboo Delight, but they are only one of several classes in town, not only teaching tourists how to make tasty Burmese and Shan dishes, but also Indian food too.

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Inle Lake? Sure, it’s a “must see” if you are in Myanmar, but take time to discover the other wonders of Nyaung Shwe too!

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Rainy Days and Myanmar

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It’s the rainy season in Southeast Asia and where I live in Bangkok we are getting rain showers almost every day, sometimes in the afternoon and again at night, and an occasional morning drizzle too. It makes for a soggy commute going to and from work, but what can you do? Me, I’ve got an umbrella AND a raincoat in my bag, so I’m ready for the deluge. Hey, I was a boy scout, so can bet that I’m always prepared!

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Myanmar has also seen lots of rain recently. The water level in rivers like the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) has risen dramatically, so much so that there is flooding in some areas in and around Mandalay and Bagan, and further upcountry.

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But the theme for my post today is not the wet weather, but those amazing Myanmar people. Call them Burmese or Myanmar (or Shan, or Pa-O, or whatever ethnic group that they belong to), but the main thing to know is that they are kind, delightful people. Some of the sweetest, most hospitable people you will ever meet. Tourist attractions aside, the people of the country are the main reason I keep going back to visit so many times. Rain or shine, these people are the best!

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It was another glorious sunny day in the Shan State hills as I rode my bike over to Tat Ein village to take a new football and some badminton sets for the kids. But I wasn’t prepared for what greeted me upon arrival: a bunch of machete-armed monks!

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Not to be alarmed, it was just a group of novice monks who were cutting, chopping, and sawing logs to make stacks of firewood, kindling used by many of the villagers for cooking. Like they do most of the time, these boys turned the chore into a fun activity, laughing and grinning while they worked. And of course they all wanted their photo taken too! Hey, don’t point that blade at me!

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The group of aspiring lumberjacks wasn’t entirely comprised of novice monks, however. There was one adult male and two women, including a betelnut-chewing granny, who appeared to be the foreman of sorts, chastising any monk that wasn’t cutting the wood properly. And of course, the entire spectacle was attended/supervised by several giggling village children and the other novice monks too. Fun for the entire family!

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Nyaung Shwe Road Rules!

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Although it’s one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist destinations, owing to its proximity to Inle Lake, the Shan State town of Nyaung Shwe remains a relatively laid-back and quiet place. You won’t find any skyscrapers, traffic jams, or wild nightlife. Tranquil best describes the town, and I hope that pleasant vibe doesn’t change for a long, long time.

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When it comes to rules of the road, it’s best to keep in mind that Nyaung Shwe is very much a rural farm town and you will often find animals (cows, goats, pigs, ducks, etc.) wandering about town, sometimes straying onto the roads. And in the case of the almighty cows, they feel like they own the road and will either refuse to budge from his — or her — comfortable resting place. Beep your horn all you want, the cow is not going to move.

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Most motorists deal with the cow factor by just driving around the obstacle, while other drivers will stop and beep the horn incessantly, hoping that the cow gets the message. Sometimes they get up and slowly trot off, looking annoyed by the interruption of their siesta, and other times they ignore the honking altogether. Gotta love those cows! And every once in a while a confused tourist can be found blocking the middle of the road too. Now those are the real pests!

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Today’s photos were all taken by Aung Thaung, a novice monk at Tat Ein monastery in Shan State. The photo above is a self portrait that he took during our trip to Bagan. The other photos were taken either in Bagan or back in the village or at the monastery.

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In addition to his Buddhism studies at the monastery, Aung Thaung is also a member of the fifth grade class in the village’s primary school. When he is done with his two-year stint at the monastery he plans to continue his education back in his home village (don’t ask me exactly where that is; over the hills and far away!) or possibly in nearby Nyaungshwe where his aunt is living.

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When I was in the village recently, and during our trip to Bagan, I would frequently hand over my camera to Aung Thaung and let him take photos to his heart’s content. He’s a polite kid and very responsible, so I had no worries about him using the camera. Plus, the smile on his face each time was evidence that he was enjoying the opportunity!

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I thought about whittling the number of photos in today’s post down to a dozen or so, but there were just too many good and/or funny photos to share. Enjoy Aung Thaung’s photos!

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