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

Archive for June, 2011

Smile Monsoon


The weather during the two weeks I was in Myanmar was very, very hot. Energy-sapping and sweat-inducing heat that required multiple shirt changes each day. And when it wasn’t hot, it was rainy. But there were also more than a few moments of sunshine and a few precipitation-free days. But no matter what the weather there was one constant: the smiles! Here a just a few examples of those magic moments from my recent trip to Myanmar. These people make every trip extra special.






New Shirts & Longyis

When I was studying Burmese, I should never have learned the phrase “I will pay for everything.” It certainly got me into trouble on this trip, or rather it made me shell out more money than I had expected. But in the end it was an expense I was more than happy to be burdened with.


It all started with one boy, from the crew on 90th Street in Mandalay, saying that he didn’t have enough money to buy a uniform for the new school year. The term was starting in just a few more days, so time was tight. I didn’t hesitate, assuring Yan Naing Kyaw that I would be happy to pay for his school uniform. But I should have realized that by agreeing to buy one uniform, I was opening the door to buying uniforms for all the kids that I normally take on field trips, plus two more for the younger sisters who could not (or were not allowed) go with us to Yankin Hill this time. The grand result: new uniforms for 18 children.


I went along with my trishaw driver, Maung Lwin, and one of the fathers, U Khin Maung Si, to Zeigyo, the main market in Mandalay, to purchase the uniforms. I had assumed that we would buy some ready-made uniforms, but the men agreed that buying the material for the shirts (white) and longyis (dark green) and then taking them to a neighborhood tailor shop would be more practical, not to mention economical. Who am I to argue with such logic? I’m just a gullible tourist.

 But even after purchasing the material, that wasn’t the end of my financial involvement. The following day I dropped by the teashop on 90th Street for my regular cup of tea and conversation (and yes, always, more photos!). One of the fathers asked me when I would be able to pay the tailoring bill. Huh? I hadn’t expected that additional expense. So, uh, I stuttered, how much extra will that be? The answer was: 250 kyat per uniform. Multiple that by 18 uniforms and the total was 45,000 kyat, or, calculating the latest exchange rate, a little over US$50. Not a huge expense by any means, but the problem was that I didn’t have that much with me and this was the last time I had planned on visiting the teashop before leaving town. I had other plans the following day, which would be my last in Mandalay before departing for Nyaungshwe, so that put me in a predicament. The teashop owner, Ko Tin Chit, told me not to worry, that I could pay when I returned on my next trip. But that won’t be until November, I told him. Not a problem he said. Even so, I didn’t like leaving my obligation unpaid. I had some money with me — about 20,000 kyat — so I gave that to Ko Tin Chit and promised to pay the balance later.


After I returned to my hotel that afternoon, the fact that I still had this outstanding debt really bothered me. It wasn’t much money, but my funds were dwindling faster than I had planned on this trip. Blame it on the poor exchange rate: last year it was around 950 kyat per dollar, and this year it was starting to creep below 800. Plus, all the hotels had raised their rates for the first time in six years, and this was even during the low season. I needed to conserve my cash, but I still had some emergency dollars in reserve that I could exchange for kyat. And that is what I decided to do that evening before going to dinner.


The following morning I woke up earlier than usual and pedaled my bike back down to 90th Street and gave Ko Tin Chit the rest of the tailoring fees. I felt relieved. And as an added “feel good” bonus, it was the first day of school and I got to see the kids strutting their stuff in their brand new uniforms, smiles on (most of) their faces. I felt like a proud parent myself that morning. Money well spent!


Creative Recreation

Remember those carefree days of outdoor games? The long ago and far away pre-digital days — before the masses were addicted to wretched mind-numbing computer games like Grand Theft Auto — when kids flew kites, held marbles matches, played hide and seek, and built sand castles? Well, those days are still here … at least on the streets of Mandalay in Myanmar.


When I was in Mandalay I was delighted to see the kids on 90th Street had constructed their very own putt-putt golf hole, utilizing a huge pile of sand in front of a nearby building. They let me borrow their plastic putter and I took a turn at whacking the tiny little, uh, soccer ball. But alas, I failed at making a hole-in-one, which was rather embarrassing, seeing as how I was once a winner of the Andy’s Trout Farm Putt-Putt Tourney in Dillard, Georgia. But then again, that was about 35 years ago!


On the other side of the street two boys were engaged in an intense marbles competition, with young Mr. Ye Thit emerging as the winner. Several blocks away, on a northern extension of the same street, some novice monks at a monastery were playing football, turning cartwheels, and playing with sticks and makeshift toys. In my book of life that counts as healthy entertainment!


Yankin Hill in Mandalay

One of my rituals when in Mandalay is taking a group of kids from a neighborhood on 90th Street, near one of the teashops I patronize, on a field trip somewhere in the area. In the past two years we’ve gone to Mingun, Amarapura, Pyin U Lwin, Paleik, Inwa, and Monywa. This time around we stuck closer to town, going to Yankin Hill, which is located only about 30 minutes from Mandalay.

Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot to see at Yankin Hill, but it provided enough diversions to entertain the 16 children and yours truly for a half day. In addition to the scenic views at the top of the big hill/mountain, there is a petting zoo with several deer, a monastery where a monk tends to a few hundred frisky monkeys, several pagodas with Buddha statues, a few caves, and supposedly a waterfall. There was even a colorful ogre statue that little Zin Ko took a fancy to, insisting that I take a photo of him posing in front of it.

After determining that visiting the waterfall would require too lengthy a walk — and with the oppressive heat on this day that wasn’t an enticing prospect — the kids opted to cool off by swimming at the huge public pool back in Mandalay afterwards. Following that, we had a late lunch and then headed back to 90th Street to recuperate from the brief but exhausting excursion. Except for one semi-scary accident — one of the boys took a nasty tumble on a stairway at Yankin Hill that ended with a big lump on his forehead and a sprained arm — the day went smoothly. The children were their usual polite, playful, and delightful selves.

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