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

Archive for June, 2011

Monks on the Road: Taunggyi

The day I left with the group of novice monks from Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung to go to Pindaya, I noticed some sad faces on the monks we’d left behind at the monastery. It was obvious that all of them wanted to go on the trip, but of course I couldn’t take everyone — the van could only hold so many bodies, small monks or not. They understood that, but I’m sure that didn’t lessen the disappointment. But luckily I had a way to make it up to some of the ones who couldn’t go to Pindaya.

 

I had plans to go to Taunggyi the following day, to visit May Hnin Kyaw at the Kan Baw Za Library, and had already arranged to rent a car for the trip. With only me and the driver, I figured that there was plenty of room in the back seat for a few monks too. So, when the van dropped everyone off at the monastery after the trip to Pindaya, I walked over to a group of disappointed novices who had not been able to go with us that day, and invited them to go with me to Taunggyi. “Can you go tomorrow?” I asked one of them? With a big smile he answered in the affirmative: Thwa ya ba de!

And with that, monk trip number two was all set, this time with four novices in tow. I also brought car sickness medication, just in case, but this bunch had no problems with the long and winding road. The drive to Taunggyi takes about an hour and some of that route is indeed uphill. After all, Taunggyi means “big hill” in Burmese. Years ago, it was a popular “hill station” retreat for the colonialist Brits, pink-skinned wimps who couldn’t stand the heat of the lower elevations. Nowadays, it’s one of the bigger centers of commerce in Shan State. As we approached Taunggyi, storm clouds were brewing, so I told the driver to take us to the big park in town first. Of all our destinations this day, this was the one that we absolutely needed to see without getting soaked. The park is on the outskirts of town and also has a small zoo; some monkeys, deer, rabbits, turtles, birds, and a lethargic bear. Nothing earth-shaking, but it’s a pleasant diversion for the locals.

Like the group I had taken to Pindaya, these four monks are also of Pa-O heritage. The Pa-O have a very distinctive dialect, an almost musical sound I call “the Pa-O patter,” that I find delightful to listen to. They even have a way of rolling their “R”s that is very cool. I’d love to find out if they have recorded some of their native folk songs; no doubt those would sound great too. After walking around the park, and across the wooden suspension bridge, we headed back to the car, making it just in time before the skies opened up. Next stop: the Shan National Museum.

 

I had phoned May Hnin Kyaw the day before and had arranged to meet her at the museum. It was there, she told me, that her group was holding its annual “Lovely World” exhibition, and today was the opening ceremony. Besides hosting a library and reading club, her group also is active in health education, computer training, language teaching, organic farming, and other environmental programs. They call themselves a “non-profit, non-political humanitarian organization based on voluntary services and committed to promoting peace, cooperation, and development.” A friend of mine who visited the area last year and met this group was so impressed with their projects that she sent money for me to donate to them. Along with that donation, I brought them some books from my shop in Bangkok. Actually, their library (which recently moved to a bigger location in downtown Taunggyi) is already well stocked with both English and Burmese books, as well as magazines and other periodicals. Their exhibition at the museum was quite impressive and was well attended despite the rainy weather. The monks seemed to find the exhibits interesting too, but I think they got the biggest kick about seeing the regular exhibits in the museum, particularly the ones that depicted Pa-O tribal costumes and artifacts. Each one asked me to take a photo of them standing in front of one the Pa-O exhibits.

 

Every time I’ve come to Taunggyi with a group of monks, they have wanted to visit Sulamuni Paya, one of the biggest and most revered pagodas in the area, and this group was no exception. We made a circuit around both the interior — the monks stopping at each of the four giant Buddha images to pray — and the exterior. Luckily, the rain had stopped so we were able to do our outdoor strolling without resorting to umbrellas. It rained a little on the way back to town, but that certainly didn’t dampen our spirits. Another nice outing with a polite and appreciative group of young monks.

 

Monks on the Road: Pindaya Caves

For as long as I’ve been coming to Nyaungshwe — “the gateway to beautiful Inle Lake” — I’ve always paid daily trips to Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, the lovely old teakwood monastery nestled on the outskirts of town. The monastery has these very distinctive huge oval windows, and it’s not unusual to find some of the novice monks peeking out from behind the windows or posing in front of them for photo-snapping tourists. I’ve taken more than my share of photos here too, and I’ve even let the monks borrow my camera and let them take shots themselves. Let them loose for a few minutes and before you know it there are an extra hundred shots on the memory card. The cast of monks changes slightly each year, but every time I return there are always a few dozen familiar faces. They’re nice kids and I look forward to seeing them each year, chatting with them in Burmese (obviously not my native language, but not theirs either; most of them come from Pa-O tribes), and taking more photos in and around the monastery.

In recent years I’ve take some of them on days trips in the area, either to Taunggyi or to see the ruins in Kakku. The first few trips I took only two or three monks at a time, then last year the number crept to five. For my trip this year, the destination was the Pindaya Caves and the total climbed to eight novice monks. Needless to say, a bigger van was required this time. Of the five that I took to Kakku last year, not a single one could go this time. One monk had transferred to another monastery, while the remaining four had exams coming up the following week and needed to study. Or at least they were told by the Saya Daw (abbot) that they had better stay and study. And even though I know these guys wanted to go to Pindaya (we had talked about it last year) they were certainly not about to doubt the advice of the Saya Daw. So I ended up with a group of younger monks that I had never travelled with before. I knew a couple of them from previous trips, but not well enough that we’d ever had lengthy conversations. So, rather than picking out who to take, I basically let them arrange who would go. And of course it ended up being a nice bunch of youngsters.

 

The van picked me up at my hotel and we got to the monastery before 8:00 that morning, after the monks had eaten breakfast and gone on their alms rounds. The first order of business was meeting with the Saya Daw and getting his blessing for the trip. I’d already asked him the day before, so this was more of a formality. He’s a really nice man and I enjoy talking with him. He’s always asking me questions about Ayoddaya (the name many people in this region use for Thailand) and my travel plans. And he always gives his consent for the monks to travel with me. This time was no exception. But you could tell the younger monks were a bit nervous and intimidated by the process of asking for permission. As they sat respectfully in front of him, the Saya Daw would call out their names, ask some questions, write something in his notebook, and then grunt his approval. After all eight monks had gone through this ritual, we were ready to roll. But first … car sickness medicine!

 

On more than one occasion I’ve had monks lose their breakfast in the car, so I was prepared with pills that I’d bought at the pharmacy the day before, and a dozen plastic barf bags. I had rehearsed my “vomit speech” earlier. I told the monks that the road to Pindaya would wind up and down through some very steep hills. Sometimes, I added, people get car sick or feel dizzy and will vomit. So … you may want to take these little pills right now if you think you might be susceptible to such a condition. I handed them each a bottle of water and passed out the pills. NOW we were ready to roll on down the highway.

 

The trip to Pindaya took about two and a half hours. And yes, three of the monks did get sick. They weren’t the smaller ones, as I would have expected, but the oldest ones in the bunch. But hey, when you aren’t accustomed to travelling in vehicles like this, it doesn’t really matter how old you are. Sick is sick. We stopped a few times along the way for photos — the elevated railway bridge between Heho and Shwe Nyaung junction is always a picturesque spot — and passed the scenic town of Aungban before arriving in quaint little Pindaya. Buddhist monks can’t eat after noon, so they usually have their final meal of the day around 11:00 each morning. It was only about 10:30 when we arrived in Pindaya, but rather than heading over to the caves straight away, we decided on an early lunch. The van driver picked a clean looking little restaurant on the main road and it turned out to be a great spot; very good food and friendly service. The women running the place asked me all sorts of questions and fussed over the monks.

 

With our bellies full, it was time to explore the Pindaya Caves, famous around Myanmar, not for bats or stalagmites, but for its thousands of golden Buddha images. The latest count has over 8,000 of the glittering images tucked inside the caves. The caves are set inside limestone cliffs, perched high over a lake. Outside the scenery is quite lovely and inside it’s simply majestic. I’ve heard the term “gaudy” used to describe the interior of the caves, but I don’t think that’s a fair criticism. Just about anywhere your gaze falls you will see glittering Buddha images of various sizes. The sea of images make for an amazing visual tapestry, and my crew of young monks seemed absolutely dazzled by it all. In addition to the panorama of Buddhas, the monks seemed to enjoy one additional aspect to the cave visit: their first elevator ride! Many years ago, the only way to get to the caves was to make a steep climb up the hill on foot. But now with a glass elevator installed, you can not only get to the top without tiring out, but you can enjoy the nice view too. And the monks were able to do just that. Seeing the look of wonder on their faces was absolutely magical. And the best part: nobody got sick!

 

Of course the monks wanted their photos taken, both inside and outside the caves, and I was more than happy to oblige. At one point, while we were on the way out — about to take photos in front of the “giant spider” that guards the caves — a couple of Spanish tourists stopped us and asked to have their photos taken with the monks. And of course the monks were quite happy to accommodate that request. Next time I’ll have to come prepared: Monks on tour! Get your souvenir t-shirts now!

On the way back to Nyaungshwe we stopped at some sort of sacred temple, one where a highly revered monk’s body is kept under glass. I always find those sort of displays a bit unsettling so I ducked outside and took shots of some of the monks frolicking on the well manicured lawn. Zonked out by the day’s strenuous activities, most of them napped on the way back. And not a single one got car sick this time. As we approached the foot of the green Shan State hills we were greeted by a rainbow on the horizon. A perfect way to end this day.

Richard Barone

Richard Barone, the former lead singer of the Bongos, has recently written a memoir, Frontman: Surviving the Rock Star Myth. The book details his rise from a teenage T. Rex fan and child D.J. in Tampa, Florida, to lead singer the Bongos (a highly acclaimed “alternative” rock band in the 1980s) and his subsequent career as a solo artist. It makes for a fun read, even if you don’t know anything about Barone or the Bongos. There is also a motivational element to Barone’s memoirs, a “think positive” message that some readers may find quite inspirational. Barone writes eloquently of the “dark days” when drug use got the better of him, but shows that the power of the human spirit, and that of his music, was able to lift him out of that ditch.

Barone has led a colorful life and met tons of musicians and celebrities along the way (be prepared for a LOT of name-dropping within these pages), but anyone who was involved with, or interested in, the “alternative” music scene of the 80s, will find his tales quite entertaining. One of the most fascinating is Baron’s meeting Tiny Tim, the famous singer of “Tiptoe through the Tulips,” at a small club show in Tampa in the late 70s, and later arranging for Tiny Tim to record some songs at a local studio. Years later, Barone bumps into Tiny Tim in New York City and is asked if he still has the tapes of those songs. He did. And does.

Barone’s newest album, Glow, released in 2010, is a splendid collection of songs, some of them written with the album’s producer, Tony Visconti, best known for his production of T. Rex and David Bowie albums. Barone’s talent for penning catchy songs remains intact, and he still possesses a luscious “forever young” voice. And it shouldn’t be a surprise that there is a Marc Bolan/T. Rex cover included on the album, in this case, “Girl.” Another of the album’s highlights is “Silence is Our Song,” a tune that Barone collaborated on with legendary songwriter Paul Williams.

I interviewed Barone in the early 1980s (thirty years ago!?), back when we were both young whippersnappers. The Bongos were playing the 688 Club in Atlanta, and I drove all the way up from Orlando, Florida to see the show. At the time I published a fanzine called Dogfood, and was eager to interview Barone and his band. He graciously consented to speak with me, detailing the band’s history and giving insights into Drums Along the Hudson, the fabulous album they had just released. An hour later he and the Bongos were onstage, thrilling the crowd with a very energetic performance.

Drums Along the Hudson has recently been re-released, sporting extra tracks this time around that weren’t on the original version. I only wish that Nuts and Bolts, the album that Barone recorded with guitarist James Mastro the following year, would also see the digital light of day. That one is a stone-cold classic that deserves to be made available once again.

www.richardbarone.com

www.youaretheglow.com

Tat Ein School

I first visited the primary school in Tat Ein village about two years ago. Htein Linn, a friend who lives in nearby Nyaunghswe and operates Golden Bowl Travel Services & Bookshop (yes, the best selection of books in Nyaungshwe!), mentioned that this village was very poor and the school had many needs. On my first visit I donated shoes (your basic sandals, which the locals call “slippers”) for all the students. When I returned last year I donated a variety of medicine which we put into First Aid boxes that Htein Linn had made. This time around I came back to re-stock the first aid boxes with more medicine (I bought some stuff in Bangkok and the rest was easily purchased at pharmacies in Mandalay), to give the kids copies of photos from the previous trip (always a hit!), and also some footballs (soccer balls, for you Americans!) and badminton sets.

 

The school only opened three years ago. Before it was built, the village not only did not have a school, there wasn’t even a proper road here from Nyaungshwe, and many people still lived on the “other side” of the hill. Even today, the “road” is not much more than a bumpy, rutted dirt path, but at least cars, motorcycles, and my bicycle can access the village without too much trouble. Thanks to the heroic efforts of one very thoughtful monk (who lives in a nearby cave!) and several generous donors, the villagers know have new homes, a proper school, and a road. No electricity yet, but at least this is a start.

 

All the classrooms are housed in the same building, with no walls separating them. There are currently five classes in this room. Needless to say, it gets pretty noisy in there on most days. We are planning to build some partitions in the room later this year, hoping that will help cut down on the noise factor and make things less chaotic … or at least make it easier for the teachers to manage their classes. Right now, the rowdiest kids in the room are the little novice monks from the nearby monastery who attend classes here each day. And, as you can tell from these photos, they are also the biggest hams in the class!

 

By sheer luck, I was in town for the third anniversary celebrations at the school the following week. I’ll have more photos of that colorful and festive occasion in a later post.

 

 

Morning Alms in Nyaungshwe

While I was in Nyaungshwe earlier this month, I got up early one morning and cycled over to the Shwe Yan Pyay monastery to take pictures of the novice monks as they made their alms rounds. The monks line up every morning at about 6:45, preparing for the walk around the neighborhood, where villagers dish out offerings of rice and other food. There are about thirty novice monks at the monastery, but not all of them make the walk every morning. Some of them stay behind, from what I can ascertain, to clean the grounds or study. Nobody sleeps in!

 

These young monks are a very polite and respectful bunch, but that doesn’t preclude them from having fun and acting a little goofy while they are waiting for the alms walk to commence. Prior to lining up, I noticed one novice kicking around a small rock (no doubt thinking he was the next coming of Lionel Messi; most of these guys are big football fans), while another one poked his friend in the ribs with a stick. Two others diligently inspected a younger monk’s head to make sure that no unwanted insects had taken up residence there. Once a senior monk appeared (hmm, maybe THEY get to sleep in), they were all ready to make the march through the village on the other side of the road.

 

I tagged behind for the first half-mile, and then jogged ahead to take some photos as the villagers made their offerings. Even at eight in the morning the sun rays were intense. “It’s hot, isn’t it?” one of the less shy little monks commented as we trotted down the dirt road. “It’s VERY hot,” I agreed, wiping sweat from my brow. Quite a change from when I was last there in December and the weather was chilly.

 

By the time we returned to the monastery about forty minutes later, the “perfect line” of monks had broken into a disorderly mess. It was obvious that some of the smaller ones couldn’t keep up with the others. Plus, that’s a pretty long walk in your bare feet, even if you do get to kick some rocks around.

 

Food Bliss

There are a lot of myths, misconceptions, and misunderstandings about Myanmar — and that’s without even touching on the touchy topic of politics or even the “correct” name of the country. Suffice to say, the “Union of Myanmar” is a diverse country composed of many different states, and within those regional divisions are dozens — over a hundred, actually — different ethnic groups, all possessing a slightly different culture, cuisine, style of clothing, and language. Shan, Kachin, Wa, Karen, Intha, Bama, Pa-O, Padaung, Mon, Naga, Chin, and Rakhine are only a fraction of what can be found.

 

The cuisine found in the country is also a diverse and multi-faceted thing, so much more than the stereotypical oily Burmese curries and greasy fried rice dishes that most travelers expect to find. Noodles dishes such as monhinga, ohno kauk swe, and mondhi are great choices for breakfast. I often find that one bowl is not enough! There are also a wide variety of savory soups (everything from lentil and pumpkin to gourd and roselle leaf) and salads to sample. The salads, in particular, are some of my favorite treats, sometimes a meal in themselves. But don’t go thinking the salads are mainly composed of iceberg lettuce or some other drab ingredient. Among the many creative concoctions, my favorites include the famous fermented tea leaf salad, ginger salad, tofu salad, tomato salad with peanuts, and the leafy pennywort salad. There is even a spicy rice salad that I’m quite fond of eating for lunch.

 

If you are ever invited to a meal at someone’s house, do yourself a favor and accept the invitation. I’ve found the home cooked meals to be among the best ones I’ve had in the country. But one warning: your hosts will insist that you sample everything on the table and gorge to point where it feels like your stomach is going to explode (try not to think about that hilariously gruesome restaurant scene from the Monty Python movie). Thus is Myanmar hospitality!

 

On my most recent trip, by far the best meal I had was at a rural village school near Nyaungshwe in Shan State. The village was celebrating the third anniversary of the school’s founding (I’ll be doing a separate post about this school next week) and they held a special lunch for the donors after the morning ceremonies were over. The vegetarian spread they served us was incredibly delicious. I’m not sure who prepared it, or even where it was prepared (there is no electricity in this village!), but it was as close to a food orgasm as I’ve ever experienced. The very next day I was invited by my friend Ma Pu Su to her house for lunch and she dazzled me with another awesome spread of salads and fruit. She’s talking about offering a cooking class to our travel clients, and I think she should go for it. She definitely knows what she’s doing in the kitchen.

 

If you are travelling in Myanmar, throw away that useless Lonely Planet book (okay, rip out the maps and keep those) and start sampling as much local cuisine as you can. Personally, I think Shan State has the best mix of food, although I have a soft spot in my heart (and stomach) for those Mandalay noodles. And people wonder why I looked fatter when I returned to Bangkok!

 

Mandalay Monks

While I was in Mandalay I was having a late lunch one day at the Minthiha teashop with my friend Soe Moe when the subject turned to my plans for the rest of the afternoon. Soe Moe, who is a tour guide and an adventurous traveler himself (“Last month I asked my wife if I could go somewhere for a week, and she let me. I just wanted to travel!”), had recommended that I take a bike ride along the river late in the afternoon. “Lots of activity and interesting things to see,” he added.

So that was my plan. It was about four o’clock when I left my hotel. I was riding down 35th Street, going west towards the river, when I decided to get off that congested main road and hit some quieter side streets. Mandalay is often dismissed as an ugly, dusty, chaotic, congested city with far too much and traffic and non-descript buildings. A dizzying mix of cars, buses, bikes, motorcycles, ox carts, bicycles, trishaws, and pedestrians, all jostling for position on the road. But when you hit the side streets, a whole different scene emerges: attractive little neighborhoods, shady lanes, lovely old monasteries, children flying kites, groups of young men playing chinlon, quaint little teashops. I love exploring this colorful side of Mandalay.

When I take my bike rides, I will often ramble around with no clear idea of where I’m going. Which is ideal: get lost and let adventure find you. And this time was no exception. I was riding down one funky little street (it turned out to be a northern extension of 90th Street, but I didn’t realize that at the time) when I noticed a couple of big old white stupas on the left hand side. After I had pedaled a few yards further, I made a U-turn (carefully checking to make sure no other vehicles were approaching; I’ve come close to being clipped a few times for not being so observant) and went back for a closer look at the pagoda. It turned out to be an active monastery, as evidenced by the dozen or so novice monks who were playing football in the dirt road.

 

I hopped off my bike (I always wear a longyi when cycling, so the hopping part isn’t as easy as it sounds; I’ve suffered more than my share of embarrassing longyi wardrobe malfunctions) and asked the young monks if it would be okay for me to snap a few pictures. A couple of them shrieked and ran away, while several others just stood around and grinned. I took a few shots and then let the monks look at the results. Instant laughter. Between my ability to speak their language and seeing these silly pictures I was now their friend. And suddenly, the shy ones now wanted their photo taken too! I spent the next ten minutes snapping more pictures before deciding to wind things up and continue my cycling adventure further on down the road. I still had two more days left in Mandalay, so I promised the monks that I would return before I left town and give them some prints. Like so many young children that I’ve met in Myanmar — including novice monks like these — many of them have never had a photo of themselves to keep.

 

Two days later I was back. This time, of course, I was recognized and immediately greeted upon arrival. After I had passed out the photos (a tricky act in itself; some of the youngsters wanted to grab the prints right out of my hands!), that led to the inevitable “second round” of photo taking. And this time, you can be assured, a LOT more novice monks wanted their photo taken. I was told that there were 108 monks at this monastery (the name of which was written for me in Burmese, but have yet to get it translated) and it seemed to me as if each and every single one of them was lined up, wanting to pose for the camera. Some struck a serious pose, some flashed peace signs, and others just acted goofy. Hey, they may be monks but they’re still just playful kids.

 

I spent over 45 minutes at the monastery this time, taking well over a hundred shots. At one point I was mercifully led away from the throng by one older novice monk and invited to meet his aunt and uncle who lived next door! Alas, that was my last day in Mandalay before leaving for Shan State, so I didn’t have time to make prints of the second round to give everyone. But when I return again later this year, I’ll be bearing a bunch of photos, expecting to be mobbed by this rowdy but delightful bunch of novice monks. Another unexpected but memorable moment in Mandalay.

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