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

Archive for July, 2012

Invasion of the Ugly Tourists

It’s started. A wave of obnoxious, pushy, and rude tourists is descending upon Myanmar this year. I suppose it was inevitable, considering all the favorable publicity that Myanmar is getting lately, but it still saddens me to see this beautiful country infested by ugly tourists.


Of course we can lay the blame solely upon Aung San Suu Kyi. Ever since “The Lady” came to the belated realization that tourism was not such an evil thing for her country after all, and she finally gave her conditional approval for foreigners to visit, Myanmar is now a “hip” destination and western tourists are arriving in droves. As a result of this tourism wave, hotel rooms are now becoming scarce (Thinking about visiting during the year-end high season? It may already be too late to book rooms in some towns), and the ones that are accepting bookings have jacked up their room rates astronomically. Hello, commerce!


I’m not bothered so much by an increased number of tourists — the more people who discover this amazing country, the better — but it’s the quality of the new arrivals that concerns me. Many of these newcomers appear to be the sort of pushy types who feel like they are entitled to deluxe treatment; being pampered and fussed over, and having their every wish and whim accommodated. But quickly and cheaply, of course. They are types who interact as little as possible with local people, worrying more about the cable TV options in their hotel room than the fact that the woman who cleans their room can’t afford to eat lunch. Won’t some of these dweebs be shocked when they discover their hotel doesn’t have wi-fi, they can’t get a latte with skim milk, and they can’t use credit cards! And that’s only the tip of the discomfort iceberg. Power cuts, bad roads, their cash (bank notes) being rejected for having imperfections. A visit to Myanmar is fraught with inconveniences. That said, it’s still the most interesting and enjoyable destination in Asia, and anyone with an open mind and patience will be rewarded with incredible experiences.


During my recent trip, I witnessed an example of this “new wave” of tourists in the presence of one extremely annoying asshole. I was visiting Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe late one morning, during the monks’ lunchtime break. I had brought my usual donation of fruit (this time 30 mangoes) and was strolling around the monastery taking some photos. At one point I was standing near the side of the building taking a shot of a monk who was next to a window. A rather garishly dressed, and quite obese, western tourist, standing about 50 feet away, hollered at me: “You know you are in my picture! Will you move?!” In his picture? I looked over and he appeared to be taking photos of a group monks standing near the middle of the building, far from where I was situated. Was wide-ass using a wide angle lens, or what was the problem? Rather than saying anything, I glared at the fat fucker and retreated into the shadows. I took some more photos, both inside and outside the beautiful monastery, and on my way back to where my bike was parked I saw — and heard — Mr. Flabby attempting to line up a group of novice monks for a photo. Of course he couldn’t make the necessary arrangements himself, so he was ordering his guide to tell the monks where to stand, and how to pose, impatiently shouting and waving instructions with his piggy fingers. I was tempted to shout my own blunt message to that obnoxious twit, but I decided to make a graceful exit instead, not wanting to see the monks — most of whom I know from previous trips, and have taken on trips — to see me losing my temper. Here’s a photo (below) that I took of the monks a few days later — without any loudmouth tourists around.


I fear that more obnoxious pricks like this fool will soon be stomping around monasteries and temples all over the country, trampling on both the people and their sacred customs. How will the courteous and kind locals deal with these creeps? It’s going to be a very “interesting” year for the Myanmar tourism industry, and a real challenge for them to handle this heavy influx of sometimes “difficult” visitors.  


Mandalay Monks Revisited

On the other side of 90th Street in Mandalay, between 34th and 33rd Streets, is a rather large monastery, populated by nearly 100 novice monks. During one of my meandering cycling trips around town, I visited it for the first time during a trip last year, and returned again this month. I wrote down the name in one of my journals, but damned if I can find the thing when I need it. So whatever this monastery is called, it’s a lively one, and the novice monks in residence enjoy posing for photos — especially knowing that I’ll go a local camera shop and bring them back prints the following day!


One day I met a local man who had stopped by the monastery on an errand of some sort. He appeared to be a regular. During our conversation, when he was asking the usual “where do you come from?” sort of questions, one of the monks standing next to us told him that I owned a bookshop in Thailand. Good memory, kid! Here are a few shots I took during two recent visits to the monastery during the late morning “lunch” break.




Elephant Dance

I was making my usual afternoon visit to U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay one day recently when one of the regulars suggested that his grandson perform a sin ka (elephant dance) for me. An elephant dance? Why yes! Apparently such a dance is some sort of tradition for kids in Myanmar. I mentioned this performance to several friends later, and the typical comment was along the lines of: “Oh yes, I used to do that when I was a child too.”

Anyway, as soon as the dance idea was mentioned, out came a makeshift trunk (don’t ask me who makes these things or where they were keeping this particular appendage), some instructions from grandpa, and then the little boy started through the motions of the elephant dance, totally uninhibited. I have to say, it was amazing! The patrons of the teashop were cheering and egging the boy on, and he rose to the occasion. He was a natural. What a ham!


I have to give credit to Zin Ko (pictured below in the white shirt) who took these particular photos. He also shot a video that was equally entertaining, complete with the elephant dancer and panoramic views of the crowd (including a monk in attendance!). And let me tell you, this wasn’t a short dance. This little kid went on for the better part of five minutes, struttin’ his trunky stuff. Hilarious!

Chinlon Stroll


When I was in Mandalay, they were holding an annual multi-day chinlon tournament on the grounds of the famous Mahamuni Pagoda, so I invited my friend Maw Hsi and some of the kids from 90th Street (where U Tin Chit’s small teashop is located) to attend one night.


If you’ve never heard of Chinlon, or seen it played, it’s a very fast-paced and exciting sport. It’s similar to the game of Sepak Takraw that’s played in other Southeast Asian nations, using the same type of cane or wicker ball (slightly larger than a US softball), but without a net or teams facing off against one another. Basically, a group of people (usually in groups of five, and almost always men) form a circle and kick the ball around. In these chinlon tourneys the men are constantly in motion, rotating counter-clockwise while kicking the ball around to one another. The object is to keep it in the air as long as possible. By saying “kicking” I’m simplifying what these talented athletes are doing. The kicks come from all angles; behind the back, using the side or heel of the foot, and in many cases the guys are performing acrobatic kicks and using their heads to propel the ball. No hands, please! When a really talented team gets into a rhythm, it’s a mesmerizing sight.


I had assumed we would hop in a little blue truck taxi and take that from the teashop to Mahamuni, but Maw Hsi waved off my suggestion and said that we could walk. I’m an avid walker and don’t mind a long stroll, but my first thought was: how long is it going to take us? I’m familiar enough with Mandalay to know that the pagoda was not located in the surrounding neighborhood, so the thought of a multi-mile hike didn’t exactly thrill me and my already tired legs (cycling around town all day, every day took its toll). Maw Hsi estimated the walking time at about 45 minutes, and the kids didn’t appear too shattered at the task, so off we went.


What a great idea the walk turned out to be! We cut through all sorts of colorful little neighborhoods and across creeks (complete with scary little makeshift bridges) and a few major roads. It was one of those amazing, impromptu Mandalay tours that tourists never get to experience. Women were outside cooking or selling food, men were repairing motorcycles, children were playing games, and monks were chatting with locals. And once they caught sight of me and my crew of twelve, there were always looks of surprise and a few howls of laughter.


When we got to Mahamuni the tournament was in full swing. Actually, it starts in the morning and continues into the night, with only brief interludes as an endless parade of teams (some from other countries too) demonstrate their chinlon prowess. I assume there is some sort of judging system, seeing as how no team is directly competing against another one at the same time. Along with the players, there is an announcer and an accompanying orchestra! Yes, a traditional Burmese style band with drums, cymbals, and a few other noisy instruments liven up the atmosphere as the chinlon ball is being kicked around. Festive it is! The venue wasn’t as packed as it had been on previous visits, but there was still a vocal mix of local and a section reserved for monks (including one novice who was napping on his friend’s shoulder). Once again, not a tourist in sight.  

At one point, I handed the camera over to Zin Ko, my trusty 10-year-old photography assistant, and he took some photos of the action, and even shot a short video. The kid is getting the hang of it. We watched two teams play for the better part of an hour and then adjourned to the adjacent pagoda, a huge one and the most revered Buddhist spot in Mandalay. The kids paid their respects to the giant Buddha figure, and then wandered around the rest of the grounds, ringing bells, beating drums, and just doing the silly things that kids love to do. I watched it all, enjoying their antics and the friendly vibe that resonated. We walked back to the teashop on 90th Street, where U Tin Chit cooked up a batch of fried rice for the crew. Tired, yes, but man, those kids were obviously very hungry too; second helpings for all!

Joys of Travel

Whenever I visit Myanmar I’m overwhelmed by the friendliness, the hospitality, and the cheerful nature of the people. No matter where you venture, smiles abound. And they are sincere ones. Forget Thailand: Myanmar is the true “Land of Smiles.” There are also times when I aim my camera on those delightful faces and the happy smiles morph into looks of sheer joy. Here are a few of those magic moments.






Travel Advisory

I’m back. Perhaps only temporarily, but back among the living bloggers once again. My last post was back in April, and since then I’ve been feeling burned out, uninspired, and overworked. In no mood whatsoever, to write or post anything on this site. 

I just returned from a 16-day trip to Myanmar, however, and if there is anything to get my blogging juices flowing, it’s being around the inspirational people of Myanmar. Needless to say, I’ve got oodles of photos to post and more than a few stories to tell. But that barrage may not start for a few more days. Since I returned to Bangkok on Friday, I’ve been overwhelmed by work. Once again, my lazy-ass employees did their best to do as little work as possible, while managing to screw up my bookshop. I’ve spent the past four days trying to correct mistakes, change the neglected wall and window displays, update the shop’s website, marvel at some of the crap they took in trade, and try (and ultimately failing) to keep my cool. It didn’t help that the downstairs air conditioner expired yesterday or that our new and improved book management computer software is slower and more prone to glitches than the previous version. Sigh. So yeah, it may be a few more days — and hopefully not weeks —until I post something. Thanks for your patience and words of encouragement.

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