Some notes from my last trip, plus another excuse to post more photos, some of which have no correlation to the text.
Justin Bieber rules Myanmar! We all know how massively popular the teen singer is in many countries around the world nowadays, but I was surprised to find that he’s also huge in Myanmar. People were listening to him in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and even Tat Ein village in Shan State. I had dinner one night with a family in New Bagan, and our evening’s entertainment consisted of watching an endless loop of Justin Bieber videos on their new TV (I have an unsettling feeling that the money I had left for their children’s education the previous year was diverted to buy this TV set). The Bieber-thon could be construed as form of torture for most people, but these folks all loved Justin’s videos and songs. Get ready for that Shan State tour next year.
I’ve mentioned the “maverick monk” at Tat Ein village in Shan State, U San Di Mar. His nickname among the locals is Phone Phone (pronounced “Pone Pone” as opposed to the annoying device you talk on). Four years ago, Tat Ein was a fairly isolated village, even though it’s only a scant few kilometers from the tourist town of Nyaungshwe. There was no road into the village, at least not one that a four-wheel vehicle could navigate. They didn’t have a school, temple, or monastery. But then Phone Phone showed up, taking up residence in a nearby cave, an abode from which he never leaves. Originally from the Monywa area, he apparently is a highly regarded monk with devoted followers around the country. He used his network (a Buddhist version of Facebook?) to gather donations and work out a plan to build a school, monastery, and road for Tat Ein. Donations were also used to hire teachers and a principal for the school. The school had their three year anniversary last year. Even though they have managed to do a lot so far, it still remains a poor school with many needs. Phone Phone is a very personable and curious monk, eager to both dispense advice (he maintains that swimming is bad for your health!) and ask questions of his visitors. During one of our conversations he wanted to know about Native American “Indians” and if they still lived in the US. He requested some DVDs (I assume he has a DVD player —and electricity — in that cave!) of cultural or nature themes (from Thailand or the US) the next time I visit.
In Nyaungshwe I had dinner one night at the home of Ma Pu Sue, a friend who is a freelance tour guide. Sue cooked up a fantastic meal, and her two daughters and a niece joined us. Later that week, I ran into Sue with a couple from France that she was showing around Shwe Yan Pyay monastery. A day after that we crossed paths yet again outside the cave in Tat Ein where U San Di Mar greets visitors. It was good to Sue and other guides busy during the start of the high tourist season. It looks to be the best ever for those in the local tourism industry; foreigners are all over the place this season.
At the monastery in Tat Ein I showed the novice monks how to use the movie feature on my camera. Both Kaw Wi Da and Pyin Na Thiri took turns making fairly hilarious videos. When those novice monks get in front of a camera they just get goofy! During one filming, Pyin Na Thiri twirled around in a circle to make a panoramic film of his monastery and fellow monks. It’s a wonder he didn’t get dizzy and fall down after making multiple revolutions!
One of the “little delights” that I enjoy when in Nyaungshwe is the singing cyclists. People in this country love to sing, and in Shan State the musical urge seems especially strong and robust. In the evening, when I’m having dinner at great little family-run restaurant such as the Unique Superb Food House, I can almost always hear groups of cyclists passing by and singing their hearts out. Such a lovely vibe.
I adore the kids at Tat Ein village, but another reason for my repeated visits there this time was the delicious vegetarian lunches that they serve at the school. U San Di Mar has a dedicated crew of volunteers that prepare lunches for the monks and teachers each day; all vegetarian dishes and all very, very tasty. One of the cooks in Tat Ein used to work in an area hotel. Really, these meals were as good, or better, than ones I had in local restaurants, and those were very tasty too. The cuisine in Shan State — including home-cooked delights at Ma Pu Sue and Htein Linn’s houses — has become my favorite in the entire country. Everyone associates curry or fried rice with Burmese food, but the soups and salads and veggie dishes are incredibly good.
When in Mandalay I rode a bicycle everywhere as usual. But the traffic in the city is now so congested that cycling has become a very heads-up activity. Pedal slow and steady, look both ways when entering an intersection, and look both ways again. The roads are clogged with a dizzying mix of cars, trucks, motorcycles, trishaws, bicycles, carts, pedestrians, and even farm animals. And once in a while some old lady will throw a bucket of water on the dusty dirt road I’m travelling one, and then I have to swerve to avoid getting splashed. I got sideswiped by a motorcycle once doing just that. And in the city there are almost no traffic lights whatsoever. Needless to say, when approaching an intersection with no stop signs or lights, you need to be very cautious. And at night, that caution increases ten-fold due to the dearth of street lights. You want adventure? Cycling in Mandalay is for you!
When I arrived in Mandalay, I almost didn’t even find a bike to rent the first day. It was the full moon day of Tazaungmon and many shops were closed, including that of Mr. Jerry, where I normally get my wheels. As I was trudging down 83rd Street, looking for another place that had bikes, I saw a familiar face; an old man who drives a trishaw. He’s also the father of Mr. Htoo, another guy who used to rent bikes on the same street, but who now drives a motorcycle taxi for tourists. Mr. Htoo’s father said he’d take me to a nearby place that had bikes, and would not charge me. The place he took me was also closed, but he found a small hotel on the next street that has some bikes for rent, one of which had a seat that was high enough for my long legs. Success! We hadn’t gone very far, but I really appreciate “Papa Htoo” taking the time to find a bike for me, so, against his protests, I gave him some money.
During one of my many visits to Shwe Yan Pyay monastery, the Saya Daw gave me a hand-written note that someone had left for me. At first I was puzzled: who knew I would be coming to this monastery, and coming at this time? The note was from Marlar Htun, a Pa-O guide from Taunggyi who I used the year before to tour the ruins in Kakku, and whom I correspond with by e-mail. On that previous trip I had taken four monks from Shwe Yan Pyay, so she knew I’d no doubt be going to the monastery when I was in town. During another trip to Taunggyi earlier last year, with yet more monks in tow, I dropped by the Golden Island Cottages office where Marlar Htun and guides are based. Marlar Htun is a voracious reader and I had some books to give her, but she wasn’t around that day, so I left the books and a note. A month later I got an e-mail from her, thanking me for the books. This time around, we met while she was meeting some clients in Nyaungshwe one day. She surprised me by taking me to lunch at Daw Nyunt Yee, a very nice little restaurant in town that is run by friends of hers. “They are like my family,” she told me. Good friends. Good food. A good day.
One of my friends in Yangon, Thant Myo Aung, works as a waiter at Feel Restaurant, right in the middle of Yangon’s “embassy row” (France, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.). At least once when I’m in town we’ll meet for dinner. Our usual favorite place, Sandy’s Myanmar Cuisine, closed last year, so on Ma Thanegi’s recommendation (when it comes to food in Myanmar, she knows everything!), we tried a new restaurant across the street from the Summit Parkview Hotel. I can’t remember the name of this place, but the food was indeed very good, a mixture of Burmese and Chinese dishes … and they showed English Premiership Football matches on TV screen, which is a big plus for local diners. After dinner, we took a walk down Pyay Road to the shopping center adjacent to City Mart. Thant Myo Aung knows that I like to listen to Burmese music, particularly the band Iron Cross, so he popped into a small CD shop and asked the clerk if they had the new album from Myo Gyi. Indeed they did, so he bought it … and then gave it to me. I tried to pay him for the disc, but he waved off the money. A very nice gesture from someone who I know doesn’t earn much money.
Speaking of music, when I was in Bagan, my friend Nine Nine serenaded some of us one night with an acoustic guitar set. Nine Nine is a pretty good guitar strummer, but what surprised me was how good his voice sounds. “Keep practicing,” I told him. “You could be a star one day!” Two of the songs he has learned, ones which caught my ear, were by a musician named Lin Lin. They didn’t have any Lin Lin CDs for sale in Bagan but in Mandalay I found his new live album, and in Yangon, at a shop in Bogyoke market, I got a copy of the album that had Sin Za (“Think About It”), one of the songs that Nine Nine played for me.
In addition to the wonderful Myanmar natives that I encountered this trip, I also met some interesting foreign tourists. At Shwe Yan Pyay one day, I talked to an interesting American woman who just returned from a trip to Papua New Guinea. At my hotel in Nyaungshwe, I met Susanna from Austria. She is also a frequent visitor to Myanmar and knows both Htein Linn and the owner of the Golden Kite Restaurant. When she heard that I was doing some teaching at the school in Tat Ein village, she gave me some pencils to pass out to the students. Much more useful than candy, which some tourists like to give.
In the line at Myanmar immigration, waiting to get my passport stamped and exit the country, the woman in front of me told the officer: “We had a very nice time here. It’s a lovely country.” He thanked her and added: “You are welcome to come again.” And I bet she will. Most people who visit this amazing country come away very impressed. Make plans to join us, but do it soon before Myanmar (or “Burma”) becomes the next hip travel destination and the tour bus contingent overwhelms the place.