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

Archive for July, 2015

Pa-O Girl Party!

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Okay, all of these girls aren’t from Pa-O villages, in fact perhaps none of them hail from anywhere outside of Shan State’s Tat Ein village, but judging from the eager manner in which they donned traditional Pa-O outfits, a few of these girls certainly appreciate the black-themed Pa-O style.

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When I wasn’t visiting the novice monks at the monastery up the hill, I would often spend time with these friendly young village girls near the school down the hill, not far from the village’s famous “cave”, where head monk U Sandimarr, affectionately known at Bhone Bhone, spends most of his time.

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And just like the monks, these girls are delightful company and absolutely love to have their photo taken. Smile and say “Mingalaba!”

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Stumbling Around Old Ruins with Young Monks

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As I mentioned in my previous post, last month I took the novice monks from Tat Ein’s monastery to see the ancient Pa-O ruins in Kakku. To handle this group — 41 monks — I rented two large “light trucks” for the trip. Accompanying us were six teachers from the primary school and two parents from the village, plus the two drivers.

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Because I am a foreign tourist, I was required to pay an entrance fee and also hire a Pa-O guide to tour the ruins. Both charges are very reasonable, but I told the staff at the Golden Island Cottages office in Taunggyi (they oversee the whole operation in Kakku) that I had been to Kakku several times already and didn’t need a guide, plus I had 41 young monks in tow! Nevertheless, they stuck to company policy and assigned a guide to me, a young Pa-O woman named Khin Twe. She turned out to be a very charming young lady, eager to practice her English with a foreigner, so it was a pleasure having her along.

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The site of the ruins is less than 30 kilometers from Taunggyi, but the journey takes about an hour by car due to the rough roads. Factor in the trip from the village to Taunggyi, and it’s the better part of two hours. But hey, it’s a very scenic drive! Due to the fact that many of these kids aren’t accustomed to riding in vehicles, going up and down big hills, inevitably a few of them get car sick. To help prevent that from happening this time, or at least prepare for any bouts of projectile vomiting, I passed out car sickness pills before breakfast at the monastery, and then equipped each truck with packages of plastic barf bags (thanks to Mar Mar Aye for buying them!). With that important preparation accomplished we were ready to roll!

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As usual, the group split up upon arriving at the ruins. I tell you, it’s hard to keep track of forty young monks once they start wandering around several thousand old stupas! It’s a good thing I had the teachers and parents along to watch over them, but frankly they didn’t seem all that concerned if any of the monks wandered off or not! Despite my best efforts, I could never get everyone in one place at the same time until the very end, when we finally took group photos outside the entrance.

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For the most part the novice monks remained well-behaved, if not stoic, as they walked around the site. Perhaps their lack of exuberance was due to the fact the Kakku is considered such a sacred place for the Pa-O tribe, and many of the boys at this monastery come from nearby Pa-O villages in Shan State. But the monks certainly let loose and started running around later in the afternoon when we went to the park and zoo in Taunggyi. I will post some photos from that delightful excursion in the near future.

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Teachers in the park

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When I was in Shan State last month I took a group of novice monks from the monastery at Tat Ein village on a trip to Kakku and Taunggyi. Joining us for the trip were the six teachers from the village’s primary school.

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Not only was it beneficial to have the teachers along to help keep the sometimes rowdy young monks in line, it was a joy to have them accompany us. They are a friendly, polite bunch. None of the teachers had ever visited the ancient Pa-O ruins at Kakku before, so they were appreciative of the chance to see them.

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Later, at the park and gardens in Taunggyi, the teachers followed the monks’ cue and loosened up and got a bit silly posing for the camera. Another good outing with a bunch of good people!

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Searching for Life in Nay Pyi Daw

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As per our tradition when I’m in Mandalay, I took a group of kids from the 90th Street neighborhood on a trip. We started these excursions about seven years ago, usually visiting places in around Mandalay, such as the famous U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, the snake pagoda and ruins in Paleik, the Sagaing hills, and sites further away in Monywa and Pyin U Lwin.

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Two years we took our first overnight trip, going to Bagan, Mt. Popa, and a distant national park. Last year was another multi-day trip, travelling to Shan State towns such as Taunggyi and Nyaungshwe. When I visited Mandalay back in March I didn’t have the time, energy or money for a big trip, so we made a half-day visit to Sagaing and Mingun. Last month, however, I wanted to make it up to the kids and take them someplace new. Their choice: Nay Pyi Daw.

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In case you aren’t aware, Nay Pyi Daw is Myanmar’s brand-spanking new capitol. So new that it didn’t even exist a decade ago. Really! Construction on this city — fully designed to be the country’s capitol, main government and administrative center — didn’t begin until 2002, the first government offices weren’t moved there until late 2005, and the official new name wasn’t announced until 2006. The dust hasn’t settled yet.

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Now that the city has been built — or rather, is still in the process of being constructed — and the government is in place, it’s been decided by the powers-that-be that Nay Pyi Daw should be one of Myanmar’s main tourist attractions. To help accomplish this lofty goal, they’ve built a huge zoo (zoological gardens), a giant sports stadium (the SEA games were held here a few years ago), and a bunch of gaudy replicas of other famous temples in the country.

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Nay Pyi Daw is certainly drawing plenty of Burmese visitors, but during the one day I spent there I didn’t see any other foreign tourists. And frankly, after my initial visit, I have no desire for a return trip. To call the attractions a disappointment and boring would be an understatement. Even the most interesting place, the zoological gardens, is already looking a bit worn around the edges and poorly maintained.

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But the main thing about these trips, at least from my viewpoint, is making sure that the kids have a good time and get to see something new. So, in that respect, the trip was a success. The crew all seemed to enjoy themselves, and as usual, they spent most of the time buying all sorts of snacks and sweets and other junk food to eat in between meals and seeing the sights. And now that most of them have smart phones, they can take turns snapping photos of one another, saving wear and tear on my own camera!

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As other journalists have already reported, Nay Pyi Daw is a very quiet city. Spookily, quiet. Hell, I’m not even sure if it actually qualifies as a city yet, either in geographic size or population numbers. Honestly, the roads have hardly any vehicles using them, you don’t see many people walking around, and the place just has a weird, eerie vibe. I always thought that Vientiane in Laos was the sleepiest capitol city I had ever visited, but Nay Pyi Daw beats that, ranking as comatose!

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Fifth Grade Frenzy!

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My day of teaching in Tat Ein village ended with an afternoon fifth grade class. This was the first time I’d ever taught the fifth graders, seeing as how in previous years there was no such class in the village, the school only offering grades one through four. Following the villagers’ expansion plans for the school (they are in the process of constructing a new classroom and study hall), the fifth graders now meet in a separate building.

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The good news is that in this building they are separated from the lower four grades and the classroom is less noisy. But the downside is that it’s a temporary situation and they don’t have any desks or chairs in the room yet. And no, there is no air-conditioning and not any fans either. Open window air circulation, baby! For now the students sit on the floor and write in notebooks that are either propped on their lap or on the floor itself. No, it’s not an ideal setup, but at least the kids can take their classes in the village instead of having to make the long walk or bike ride to nearby Nyaungshwe.

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Unlike the relatively small fourth grade class I taught that morning (12 students) the fifth group class was huge by comparison; over 30 students. But it was a nice mixture of boys and girls, and of course those ubiquitous — and often mischievous — novice monks, including two of my favorites in the bunch, the irrepressible duo of Saing Aung and Soe Nyaunt.

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As with the fourth graders, I stuck to my usual arsenal of activities and lessons. In these classes I’ve learned that it’s easier, and more fun, to get the students out of their chairs (or in this case, off the floor) and involved in the lesson. For this group, however, the sheer numbers of students made it more difficult to get them to focus on what I was teaching and what we were doing. There were even a couple of monks who used the time to take naps. Ha! So much for my exciting lesson!

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Eventually, I let a few students come up to the board and write some words in English — or Burmese — and that helped to revive their sagging attention spans. The girls especially got a kick out of playing teacher. But even that excitement was short-lived and we spent the last 30 minutes of class just taking photographs!

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Fourth Grade in the Village

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During my trip to Myanmar last month I visited Shan State’s Tat Ein village as usual and this time, with school back in session, I taught some English classes at the primary school.

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Today, I’ll present photos from the morning class that I taught, a group of fourth graders. The students comprised two girls from the village, three boys, and seven novice monks. They were a well-behaved group and I led them through my usual battery of easy lessons. We started off with introductions in English — Hello, my name is Aung Thaung. What is your name? Nice to meet you! —- culminating in a handshake, which always cracks up the kids. Seriously, if you want to get a child to start giggling, ask them to shake hands with another student.

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Other popular activities included the animal mime game, and the “Where is my watch” activity, which helps both with telling time and asking questions (“Do you have my watch?”). These were tried and tested activities and always popular with the young students, but with only 12 students in the class I had to stretch some things out so that there wouldn’t be any dead time.

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The biggest challenge was trying to speak loudly enough so that the students could understand the lesson. Grades 1-4 are all held in the same small building, separated only by thin partitions, so the noise is often overwhelming. But I tried to refrain from shouting and managed, I think, to make myself understood, whether I was speaking in English or Burmese.

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I’ll post photos of the larger — and much wilder — fifth grade class later in the week, but for now enjoy the smiling faces of these fourth graders!

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A Book of Travels with Wade Davis

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Wade Davis is one of those writers who had been on the periphery of my book-reading vision, but one that I had never actually read before until recently. He has written about a dozen books, the most famous being The Serpent and the Rainbow (which was made into a fascinating, if not disturbing and controversial, film over 20 years ago, about voodoo practices in Haiti), but it wasn’t until I read a recent interview with composer Philip Glass in “By The Book” column of the New York Times that I decided to read something by Wade Davis.

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Glass’s description of the book he had been reading by Davis, The Wayfinders, very much intrigued me:

“Reflections of an anthropologist who went all over the world. He spent his life traveling around trying to figure out why people think the way they are thinking. It’s fantastic. We don’t learn this in school about the world of indigenous people.”

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I had only one book by Davis in stock at my shop, The Clouded Leopard, so that became my choice of the first one to read. The book is described by the publisher as “a spellbinding collection of travels, from Peru to Haiti, conveying a timely and urgent message for our times.” It is indeed that and more. Davis is an ethnographer and photographer (among other accomplishments) with a passion for understanding more about other cultures, particular indigenous ones who are threatened by the spread of “progress” in these modern times. While there is an intellectual edge to his writing style, it’s far from stodgy or stilted. Davis has a fluid engaging writing style not unlike John McPhee, another master of non-fiction. To give you an example of the power of his writing, here is a paragraph from one of the chapters of The Clouded Leopard, about the Penan people who live in the rainforests of Borneo:

“Language is the reflection of the soul of a people. In Penan there are forty words for sago, and none for good-bye or thank you. In a forest of such abundance, in a culture in which sharing is an involuntary reflex, in a life of endless wandering, certain words have no relevance. Certain concepts have no meaning. For the Penan, land is a living entity, imbued with spiritual meaning and power, and the notion of ownership and land, or fragile documents granting a human the right to violate the Earth, is an impossible idea.”

In case you haven’t gleaned it yet, Davis had an affinity for these people and was concerned about the threats to their traditional way of life. For many years Davis traveled through many of the world’s most remote regions in search of places where cultural diversity survives, untainted by the influences of globalization and modernization. Even during the 1980s and 1990s, when many of his books were researched and written, that wasn’t such an easy task. Reading The Clouded Leopard takes the reader into what feels like another world, but one that you very much want to experience and understand.

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