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

Archive for November, 2011

Taking the Village Kids to the Festival

I had planned on taking a group of novice monks from Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery in Nyaungshwe to the Taunggyi balloon festival while I was in town. I had talked to several of the monks back in June and mentioned that I intended to return in November for the festival, and they were all keen to go too. My friend Htein Linn talked to the Saya Daw, the abbot of the monastery, and they worked out a plan where I could take ALL of the novice monks if we went on two separate days. That was fine with me, and the expense wouldn’t be that outrageous, but my only concern was which portion of the festival that the monks wanted to attend; the daytime or nighttime balloon launchings, or perhaps both? Htein Linn seemed to think that the monks wanted to see only the night program and indeed, after talking to the Saya Daw, that ended up being the plan. But that presented one slight dilemma: I preferred to see the animal balloons during the day. So what to do?


I could, of course, rent a car and go by myself one afternoon. But these outings are always much more fun if locals come along too, so that gave me an idea. What if I took a group of students from the primary school at Tat Ein Village, located near Nyaungshwe? I guessed that they had never been to this festival before and would enjoy it. I’ve been dropping by the school on trips over the past two years, donating everything from shoes and soccer balls to first aid kits, so they know me pretty well at this point. Htein Linn thought the idea was entirely do-able, and after checking with the principle and teachers at the school, we got the go-ahead to take a group of students on Sunday. It was decided that we’d take only the older students, the fourth and fifth graders, along with a small group of middle school and high school students (who live in the village but go to school in Nyaungshwe), and some novice monks from the village’s monastery. Altogether, that would be slightly over 50 children. To accommodate such a crew, Htein Linn arranged for me to rent a big flatbed truck.


When I arrived at the school the morning of departure, a group of novice monks were sitting in front of U San Di Mar, the senior monk in the village, getting his blessings for the trip. When that ritual was done, every single one of the young monks walked up to me, huge grins on their faces, and shook my hand. To say that they were excited about going to the festival would be a definite understatement.  As I had surmised, none of these kids — not the monks or the other students — had ever been to the festival before. But what I didn’t realize was that none of them had ever journeyed this far from their village before. And going to Taunggyi takes less than one hour by car. This was looking like it would be an amazing first-time experience for them — and for me too.

 After lunch in the village, we departed for Taunggyi, arriving just before 2:00. Part of that journey involves some steep turns on the road, but I’m happy to report that not a single kid got sick or vomited on the way. The festival grounds in Taunggyi were packed with vehicles of all sorts, along with throngs of balloon watchers and balloon launchers. These balloon crews are attractions in themselves. It takes about a dozen people to handle and launch a single balloon, and other members of the party play musical instruments, dance, and sing (some of them a bit inebriated!). In addition to the balloons, there were booths selling food, clothing, and other goods. Our truck was one of the largest vehicles entering the area, so it took us several minutes to negotiate the maze of humanity and debris and find a parking space.


After we parked, everyone climbed out and surveyed the scene around us, a giant elephant already soaring overhead. All the children were instructed to hold hands and follow the teachers into the main spectator area. The teachers kept the kids in one spot, making sure they didn’t wander too far away, but that didn’t stop most of them from buying all sorts of snacks to munch on. Even the monks had some spending money that the Saya Daw had given them. After about two hours of watching a variety of animal-shaped balloons rise into the sky (and a couple crashing and burning!) in the hot midday sun, it was decided to head over to the Sulamuni Paya, one of the more revered pagodas in town. We spent about 30 minutes wandering around that site and taking lots of pictures before it was time to visit one more place in Taunggyi, the park on the edge of town.


I call it a park, but it’s much more than that. In addition to gardens, a game room, playground, and a wooden suspension bridge (from which there is nice view of the valley below), they also have small zoo with monkeys, bears, deer, rabbits, and a variety of birds. The children loved this park, and I think just by itself it would make for a fun field trip. I think the kids would have been content to spend the rest of the afternoon in the game room alone, but we pulled them away to see the animals before they got too immersed by the video games and toys (some of them got really excited by a sandbox in one corner of the room!), and more importantly, before the sun set.


But the best part of the whole day, at least for me, was the ride back to Nyaungshwe. For the better part of an hour, the kids sang songs. Sang one song and then launched into another. Loudly, joyfully. They never stopped, singing at the top of their lungs; Shan songs, Pa-O songs, and Myanmar songs. They sang everything that the teacher called out, a very “Me and Bobby McGee” moment, you might say. Towards the end of the trip, one of the older novice monks started a really cool call-and-response number. He would yell out a line and the others would follow with a rousing chorus. I was spellbound by it all. The air was turning cooler as the sun set, but I swear I was getting chills from the songs and not the dip in temperature. Really, listening to them cheerfully sing these songs was a most magical experience, one that I’ll never forget. In retrospect I wish that I had brought some sort of recording device with me to capture those wonderful musical moments, but I was so caught up in the spell that I neglected to even take photos of the singing. But that’s okay too. I think taking photos — or even recording the songs — would have broken the spell at the time.


By the time we reached Tat Ein village if was dark. The kids poured out of the truck, big smiles on their faces, and another hand-shaking session started again, laced with profuse expressions of thanks. Che zu tin ba de! I was smiling too, but also trying to hold back the tears, having become so overwhelmed by this shower of gratitude and sheer joy that surrounded me. These kids had stolen my heart.



Taunggyi Balloon Festival

The annual Balloon Festival in Taunggyi is a big event in Myanmar. There is a smattering of foreign tourists in attendance, but the vast majority of festival goers come from towns and villages around Shan State as well as other parts of the country. This deluge of visitors invariably overwhelms the town of Taunggyi, which was a popular Shan State Hill Station way back when the Brits had their colonial paws on the country nearly a century ago.

The festival lasts for seven days, culminating on the full moon night of Tazaungmon. The festivities each day are split up into daytime and nighttime programs. During the day, animal-shaped balloons (made from paper or sometimes plastic) are launched from a big field on the outskirts of town. At night more traditionally-shaped, but much larger “fire balloons” are launched, spewing a spectacular display of fireworks as they rise in the full moon-lit sky.

But the festival, as I was amazed to discover, is more than just balloons. It’s like a county fair (complete with rides like Ferris Wheels and bumper cars), a street parade, an outdoor concert, a gambling den, and food court, all rolled into one — supplemented by the myriad balloons being launched. There are also vendors and booths selling clothing, electronic goods, and a variety of other products.


The crowd was also much larger than I had expected. Tens of thousands of people each day arrived to enjoy the festival. One person I asked guessed the crowd at 50,000 one night, and that may have been a conservative estimate; the place was just packed. The wife of one of my friends was so alarmed by the size of the crowd one evening that she and her daughter stayed outside the gates, not daring to rub elbows (and who knows what other body parts?) with the masses inside.

Because there are no fireworks displays during the day, spectators are allowed to stand closer to those balloons. In fact, when they noticed me taking photos, I was invited by one rambunctious group to step under their balloon and take some shots of their animal balloon being “ignited” by huge torches. The smoke from these torches fills up the interior of the balloons, causing them to eventually lift off. Of course that assumes that someone hasn’t accidentally set fire to the exterior of the balloon — which does happen on occasion. Seeing pig-shaped balloons flying overhead, I couldn’t help thinking of the cover of Pink Floyd’s Animals album!

The fireworks displays at night are attached to a platform that is suspended by ropes from the underside of the balloon. In some cases, I watched fireworks spewing from platforms a full fifteen minutes after the balloon had been launched. But I also watched more than a couple of balloons NOT lift off and prematurely shoot off errant batches of fireworks into the crowd. So yeah, things can get a bit dangerous out there. One morning, back in Nyaungshwe, I was told by one man that he had seen two motorcycles catch fire the previous night by fireworks gone astray.

I’ll write more about this festival next week, specifically about the village children and groups of monks that I took to the festival, outings that were spread out over three days and nights. I’ll even do a separate post with photos that one of the kids took.

Trails Less Traveled

As I mentioned in a recent post, Myanmar was absolutely crawling with foreign tourists when I visited in late October and earlier this month. I had not intended to visit Bagan this time around, but due to my earlier-than-planned departure from Bangkok — fearing the incipient threat of floods — I had extra days at my disposal once I arrived in Myanmar. I pondered a short visit to Mawlamyine, a city I still haven’t seen, but after being assured by my travel agent in Yangon that there were still some available seats on a flight to Bagan, I took that option instead.


 I’ve been to Bagan well over a dozen times and I thought I had pretty much seen most every pagoda worth seeing at this point. Oh, how wrong I was. Instead of using my friend Gaw Soe and his horse cart to tour the ruins, I decided to use only a bicycle this time, renting a dependable set of wheels from U Aung Koont at the Silver House Restaurant in New Bagan. I ended up taking some paths and trails that I had never explored before, and discovering some pretty cool pagoda ruins I had never seen before. None of them were towering monstrosities or among the more popular ones in the area, but they were no less interesting or charming. And the best part: at each and every site, I had the place to myself, never running into any other tourists.


The only downside to my “off the road” explorations was the two flat tires I got one day. But that was my fault for taking a shortcut through the woods and thinking those thorny branches on the ground wouldn’t do the bike any harm. Next time, I’ll leave the bike on sturdier ground and hike the rest of the way to any ruins on the horizon. One other negative to cycling this time around in Bagan: on many of the paved roads in the area there were huge patches of sand, making it tricky if not impossible to ride. I had to hop off the bike several times and push it through the sandy bits. I’m used to doing that on trails in the area, but not on main roads! I asked locals why there was so much sand on the roads, and they all told me it was due to heavy rains in recent months. Okay, I can accept that explanation, but why has no one bothered to clean up the mess? In Yangon and Mandalay I see crews sweeping the streets every morning. Doesn’t Bagan have people with similar clean-up skills? They really need to do something about this problem quickly. Even locals driving motorcycles tell me that they find the sandy roads a headache. I can just picture a foreign tourist wiping out on a sandy stretch of road and breaking an arm or leg.


People Touring

I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve visited Myanmar. I reckon I’ve made about 20 trips at this point, but I have yet to become bored. Of course I’ve seen most of the popular sites on the tourist trail by now, and more than a few off the beaten path too. So what keeps me returning again and again and again? The answer is easy: the people. Sweet, polite, charming, hospitable, resilient, patient, and just plain nice. Any positive adjective applies; they are all that and more. Here are some photos of a few of the people that I shared time with on this trip.







Tourist Tsunami

While I was in Myanmar this month I was astonished to see that they were having a flood too. But unlike in Thailand, where rising waters were creating havoc, Myanmar was dealing with a huge wave of tourist arrivals. I’ve been visiting the country two or three times a year the past seven years and I’ve never seen as many tourists as I witnessed over the past three weeks. Frankly, it was astonishing.


And there is one big reason for this increase in tourism: The Lady. Yes, now that she has dropped her opposition to tourists visiting her country, it’s no longer deemed a politically incorrect thing to do. Sigh. Of course, that whole tourism boycott thing was ridiculous and misguided from the start. During the previous two decades, if you dared to tell those diehard “Free Burma” blowhards that tourism was actually helping many people in the country, you would be ridiculed and branded as an “apologist” for the junta. But now that The Lady says that tourism is okay, well nobody is squawking about boycotts any longer. And since Myanmar (or Burma, as many still insist on calling it) is now an acceptable destination in the eyes of the PC watchdogs, tourists are beginning to arrive in droves.


My hotels in Mandalay and Nyaungshwe were both fully booked while I was there. And even in Bagan, where I am often the only guest at the hotel, there were other tourists staying there, and plenty of them to be found on the streets; cycling, walking, or riding in horse carts. Hotel and restaurant staff, drivers, tour guides, and souvenir vendors were all glowing with big smiles. Finally, after many bleak years, business was looking up. Hope. They now have hope.


One day in Nyaungshwe I dropped by Shwe Yan Pyay monastery to give the novice monks copies of photos I’d taken of them at the balloon festival in Taunggyi the week before (more on that event in a later post). Predictably, the monks were excited to get the photos and huddled together in a corner of the room, divvying up the bounty. A group of French tourists was also at the monastery at the same time, and they circled the monks, frantically taking photos of the scene. Cute, but a little scary too. They won’t be “my monks” for much longer, now that the rest of the world has started to discover their lovely quaint wooden monastery, and this beautiful, engaging country.

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