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

Archive for March, 2013

Students Take the Shots!



While I was teaching the English class at the primary school in Tat Ein village, I handed my camera to a group of students and told them: “Okay, you can take some photos now.” And did they ever! I think they paid more attention to playing with the camera than they did paying attention to my lesson, but hey, that’s to be expected. Here are some of their more interesting — and funnier — photography efforts.










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Classroom Quandry


When I was in Shan State earlier this month I did a single day of English teaching at the primary school in Tat Ein village. This time around, however, the classroom setup was very different and as a result the lesson was much more difficult for me to teach.



Normally when I teach at this school, the class sizes are small, ranging from 6 to 15 students, and I only have to concern myself with teaching one group at a time. The school recently completed the semester (actually, the end of their school year) and final exams, so regular classes were finished by the time I arrived. But they’ve been holding “special” classes for the kids to give them something to do during their break, and just before I showed up, Ma Pu Su and our mutual friend Pascal (from France) also spent a couple of days at the school, teaching English and even giving art lessons. For my class, they combined all the students from the school, including ones that go to the middle school and high school in nearby Nyaungshwe. As a result, I had over 50 kids in class, ranging from first graders to high school students, and a few novice monks from the adjacent monastery. As you would expect, the English skills of this bunch ran from nearly non-existent to pretty impressive.




As soon as I saw the classroom setup — with partitions gone and desks moved into new positions — the problem become apparent; how was I going to teach this bunch? I had prepared various lessons and activities, but I quickly realized that most of it was going to be useless in a class this big, especially one that had students with such a wide gap in language skills. If I dumbed the lessons down for the beginners, the experienced students were going to be bored, and if I taught them something with any degree of complexity, the younger students would be totally bewildered by it all. And even if I had an activity appropriate for te whole bunch, how was I going to keep them all involved? A definite quandary.




I ended up doing some tried and tested language activities that combined English vocabulary with silly games. In one activity, I blindfolded students (one at a time!) and instructed them to walk in various directions around the classroom in a quest to find a hidden object. Of course I had to familiarize them with the various English phrases first (walk right, left, go straight, turn around, stop!), but even with that short lesson, some of the kids couldn’t get their directions straight and walked into walls or bumped  into their classmates. All of which only added to the fun and giggle factor.




I also brought along some small jigsaw puzzles and a few Dr. Seuss and Berenstain Bears books. I ended up not using them in a lesson but during the midday two-hour lunch break I dug them out of my backpack and let some of the kids have fun with them. Those jigsaws are always a hit, but I was pleasantly surprised at how engrossed they were in the books too. It was a challenging day in the classroom, but a very enjoyable one. These kids are all really sweet, very polite, and a joy to teach.









Back on the Yangon Streets


Admittedly, I’ve been neglecting Yangon during my recent trips to Myanmar. I always spend the first day of my trip in Yangon, then head off to Mandalay and Shan State — maybe a few days in Bagan — for the bulk of my stay, and then back to Yangon for the final half-day before returning to Bangkok. I used to spend much more time hanging out in Yangon, but after the better part of a decade I’ve seen all there is to see and other than meeting friends for meals in local restaurants, there isn’t all that much I want to do in the increasingly crowded and traffic-choked city.




But I added an extra day at the end of this trip, just so I’d have more time to schedule meals with friends such as Win Thuya, Ma Thanegi, and Thet Myo Aung. Having the luxury of an extra day meant that I didn’t have to cram so many appointments into a narrow window of time. Also, instead of napping back at the hotel I forced myself to get out and about and take more walks around town. And by doing that, I remembered why I used to enjoy Yangon so much. Despite the heat and congestion, there is a vibrant, upbeat pulse that pervades the city. Lots of vendors on the streets, a steady flow of pedestrians, plenty of wacky billboards, and a rainbow stew of people. But there are more vehicles on the road (even without motorcycles; Yangon being one of the few cities in Asia where the two-wheelers are prohibited) and sometimes crossing the street can be a frustrating task.





I stopped into tiny pharmacies to buy drugs (anti-fungal skin cream for monks in Shan State), teashops for meals and tea (of course!), and restaurants such as Feel (where Thet Myo Aung works) for my noodle fix. And every time I’d be in these places, some friendly stranger would strike up a conversation. Maybe they noticed me thumbing through my dog-eared Burmese phrasebook, or wearing a stylish longyi, but whatever the motivation it always resulted in a very nice chat in either English or Burmese. Yangon, I still love you!











Bouncing Down Bad Roads in the Back of a Truck


Here are some photos I took during a three-day road trip with the kids from 90th Street in Mandalay earlier this month. Forgive the “shaky” quality; most of them were taken in the back of a truck while bouncing down bumpy roads in the Myanmar countryside. So, you can safely assume that it wasn’t easy trying to hold the camera still and snap photos under those conditions.



And it certainly wasn’t a comfortable ride either. I sat in the back — with only a bamboo mat and my backpack to lean against — with the kids and Ko Maw Hsi, one of the fathers, while the driver and another father from the neighborhood sat in the front cab. I could have demanded one of those comfy front seats, but then I would have missed out on the experience — and silliness — of hanging out with the rest of the crew, and that was part of the trip’s appeal.




Even after three long days, mostly spent in the cramped confines in back of this truck, the kids remained cheerful. They’d pass the time cracking jokes, singing songs, shouting at other trucks full of passengers (“Hey!”), wearing their crazy cheap sunglasses, tossing snacks to village  kids we passed along the way, and playing tricks on one another: just boys being boys. At one point a heated, but playful argument ensued; the supporters of Chelsea against the supporters of Manchester United. Yes, even in Myanmar, Premiership Football matches from England are hugely popular. But one thing the boys could all agree on was supporting their favorite local team; the Mandalay-based Yadanarbon. And that led to rousing “Yadanarbon” cheers. Good memories.





From Mandalay, we headed to Mt. Popa, and then on to Bagan where we spend the first night. Day number two was even longer, driving past Chauk and Yenangyaung, to Magwe, Minbu, and eventually to Shwe Set Taw, out in the middle of nowhere, and back to Bagan again. The third day was slower paced, but still a long one as we returned to Mandalay.





I’ll post more stories and photos about the trip later, but today I’m sticking with the bumpy road photos that I took from my little corner of the truck.








Books in Shan State


Looking for something to read during your travels around the Inle Lake area of Myanmar’s Shan State? It’s not as challenging a task as you might think, thanks to the growing selection of books at Golden Bowl Travel Services in Nyaungshwe, the little town that serves as the gateway to Inle Lake. In addition to several hundred secondhand books, Golden Bowl also stocks new copies of several titles from Things Asian Press, including To Myanmar with Love, Ma Thanegi’s Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy and her new memoir Nor Iron Bars a Cage, and the bilingual children’s title M is for Myanmar.


Run by the personable Htein Linn, Golden Bowl stocks secondhand books in English, French, German, Italian, and other European languages. The selection isn’t huge by Western standards, but a bit of browsing always reveals something interesting and worth buying. I’ve found some truly cool titles in this shop over the years. And just like at other secondhand bookshops the world over, you can exchange the books you’ve finished reading at Htein Linn’s shop and receive some credit towards the purchase of more books, or sell what you have for cash. If Htein Linn is not around, you’re sure to meet his wife, Mar Mar Aye, or daughter, Han Nwe Nyine (she also goes by the nickname “Tina”), both of whom can answer any questions you have.


In addition to selling books, Golden Bowl offers the usual range of travel services (airline and bus tickets, money exchange, boat tours of the lake, canoe trips on local canals, trekking to nearby ethnic villages), plus a laundry service and bicycle rental. But even with the current boom in tourism, Htein Linn says that times are tough due to an equivalent surge in competition. A year ago, for example, he typically rented 10 or 12 bikes in a day. Now, the number of rentals is less than half of that due to dozens of other nearby businesses that rent bikes, some of them slashing their rates to attract more customers. But as Htein Linn pointed out to me, with maintenance costs (replacing flat tires, brakes, gears, broken baskets, etc.), when you start slashing the daily bike rental rate, the profit margin is almost negligible. He also has some competition in the book business, although some of those shops are selling only dubious photocopied versions of some popular novels and guidebooks, just like you’ll find in Cambodia and Vietnam.


Golden Bowl is located on the main East-West street in Nyaungshwe, on the same side of the street between the main market and the popular Golden Kite Restaurant (serving the town’s best pizza and pasta, along with wine from nearby vineyards). The bookshop is open daily until 8 pm.

We Are Family


I was in Mandalay last week, cycling down 83rd Street, passing the busy 27th Street intersection near the Silver Star Hotel, when I heard someone shout: “Hey, Brother!”


I glanced to my right, being careful not to swerve into the perilous lanes of converging traffic — cars, motorcycles, trucks, bicycles, ox carts, 3-wheeled rigs; it’s a dizzying transport stew — and noticed a man waving at me. It was Maung Lwin, a trishaw driver I’ve used many times. I found a safe point to turn around, hopped off my bike and walked over to talk with Maung Lwin. “Brother, be thwa ma le?” he asked me, a big grin plastered on his dark, weathered face. “Brother, where are you going?” Just a typical greeting, but I get a kick out of the way the locals call you brother, or uncle (you know you’re getting “up there” in age when you hear more of the latter) in either English or Burmese.




I’ve met many friendly locals like Maung Lwin while traveling around Myanmar. In addition to conversation and camaraderie, they invite you into their homes, cook elaborate meals for you, buy you little presents as tokens of friendship, and above all, they treat you like you are someone special to them. It feels nice to be accepted like that, almost like you’re part of the family.





I hope it doesn’t sound like a cliché, but I truly feel a special bond with many of the locals I’ve meet around Myanmar. From small villages in Shan State and the dry zone of Yenangyaung, to the bustling cities of Yangon and Mandalay; the people are all gold. I return to the same places again and again, so I’m always guaranteed to run into someone I’ve met during previous trips.





In hotels and restaurants, schools and monasteries, teashops and on the street; the locals really make you feel at home. It’s a bond that I cherish, and I look forward to reconnecting with my friends, and meeting new ones, each time I’m in Myanmar. We are family indeed!










Bumpy Roads and Big Smiles


I returned last night from a road trip within a road trip: a 3-day excursion to Mt. Popa, Bagan and points further beyond, from Mandalay and back again. On this trip I took 13 kids from the 90th Street neighborhood where I spend a lot of time when I’m in town, along with two of the fathers and a driver. I rented what they call a “Light Truck” here in Myanmar; a long flatbed vehicle with no seats in the back, but with a roof. There was enough room for all of us to squeeze on, but it was far from comfortable. I had to sit with my knees folded or tucked in because there wasn’t any room to stretch out. But the kids didn’t seem to find, resting or sleeping on one another, arms and legs akimbo, sometimes buried under another body. After 3 days of 10-12 hour driving, often on bumpy roads, my posterior is very, very sore. But my back held up surprisingly well, possibly because I used my backpack as support.

As I expected, some of the kids got car sick along the way. and many of them tired easily and slept away long stretches of the drives. But there was also lots of laughter, singing, horseplay, and an overall happy vibe. These kids have always been a joy to travel with, but this is the first time we’ve ever traveled for such a long distance or spent the night away from Mandalay. I shacked up at a hotel in New Bagan while the rest of the crew spent two nights at a Monastery near Old Bagan. I read an article recently that dubbed monasteries such as this one as “the new hotels of Myanmar” because of many travelers are taking advantage of the option, because of the recent boom in tourism and dearth of hotels. But any foreigner staying at a monastery, should be aware of the Buddhist protocol, not to mention the fact that there are not any beds (you’ll be sleeping on the floor, possibly with a thin bamboo mat as your “cushion”), and don’t even thing about showers and hot water.

I’ll have plenty of photos to post in the coming weeks. I’ll be in Mandalay another day and wind down the trip for two days in Yangon before returning to Bangkok. Once again, it’s been an exhausting trip, but filled with plenty of great experiences and lots of smiles. Just the tonic I need.


Cycling Awareness


I’m in Mandalay this week, cycling around town as usual, visiting friends, bumping into others whom I haven’t seen in years, or meeting new locals. But riding a bicycle — or any type of vehicle — in this town requires vigilance and awareness. You have to be very, very careful on these chaotic streets. Because there are very few traffic lights, and nothing in the way of stop signs, traffic flows constantly, and when you are approaching an intersection, it’s necessary to slow down, look both ways, and look again. Chaos may even be an understatement when describing the streets of Mandalay.

Besides interesting new sights and the friendly locals, I tend to get philosophical when I’m riding around town and seeing all the humanity and development — or lack of it — around me. Despite the boom in construction, there is still a lot of poverty, as well as people who are not benefiting from the upsurge in tourism. Prices for food and other daily staples aren’t getting any cheaper and renting a building, or even a small one-room apartment or house is also getting more expensive. But these people are nothing if not resilient and their attitude remains relatively cheerful and upbeat. Passing one poor neighborhood this morning I noticed a trio of children doing somersaults on some old carpet scraps that had been dumped by the side of the road. Yes, even when they have nothing, kids like this find a way to enjoy themselves.

I keep thinking about the things that we as human beings — especially anyone who has the financial means to do something — can do to alleviate poverty and lessen the gap between the dirt poor and the filthy rich. And it frustrates me and angers me because I don’t have any good answers for that, and I don’t see enough people making an effort to do anything about social and economic problems like these.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep peddling around this wild and wonderful city, and keep ruminating and hoping for enlightenment of some sort.


Road Weary


I’m back in Shan State this week, visiting my friends in Nyaungshwe and nearby Tat Ein village. I’ve had a wonderful time so far, but I’m already feeling very, very exhausted. Is it possible that I’m getting too old for all of this non-stop travel? Naw, that can’t be it!

Yesterday I visited U Sandi Mar, the head monk at Tat Ein, and was invited to stay for lunch. As usual, there was a fantastic spread of vegetarian dishes, all prepared the dedicated staff who also help with the adjacent primary school and monastery. After lunch and a chat with U Htin, the school principal (who told me he is a fan of American horror films!), I trotted up the hill to the monastery, where Sandatika, one of the vivacious novice monks in residence, was waiting for me, a big grin on his face.  While visiting U Sandi Mar I had given Sandatika a bag of stuff to hold for (fruit for the novice monks, along with some medicine that some of them need to treat skin infections on their head), and he patiently waited until I was finished. Great kid, as are the rest of the monks.

At the monastery, I took some more photos, instructed the monks how to use the medicine properly, and then took my leave. It was study time for Sandatika and three other older novice monks who are prepping for an exam this month. The remaining younger novices either rested or played with the football I brought. I rode my bike back into town, intending to rest for an hour or two before cycling over to Shwe Yan Pyay, another monastery in town. Well, that visit never happened. I was so weary that I slept until nearly 6 pm. Just enough time to get up, take a shower, slip into a fresh longyi, and cycle over to Ma Pu Su’s house, where she had another amazing dinner waiting.

I missed out on another dinner at her house two nights earlier. I had just returned from teaching a class at Tat Ein’s school and was heading out the door to buy some more monk medicine when Su dropped by my hotel to invite me to dinner. One of our mutual friends,  Pascal from France was also in town, and it would have been nice to see her too. But I was feeling very tired that evening too, and was looking at an early departure the next morning; a field trip with 70 village kids (and monks) to Kakku and Taunggyi. So, I had to beg off that invite, as well as one the following night, because I wasn’t sure what time we would return from the trip.

My plan today is mostly to rest, but I need to drop by Shwe Yan Pyay with a fruit donation later this morning, and stop by and see everyone at Tat Ein one more time before I leave for Mandalay tomorrow afternoon. This trip is already zooming by and I’m having fun, but I need to remember to pace things and not run myself too ragged.

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