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

Archive for January, 2016

Afterwards in the Park

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Part two of the balloon festival outing with the kids from Tat Ein village was going to the Eastern Amusement Park in Taunggyi. This park has lovely gardens, a small zoo (some monkeys, a few bears, rabbits, deer, and various types of birds and waterfowl), plus plenty of playground rides and games for the kids. They’ve even added a swimming pool in the past year.

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I’ve taken these kids on a variety of trips over the past few years; to events like the balloon festival, to old temple ruins and new pagodas, plus a couple of caves. But I think it’s safe to say that the highlight of each and every trip is going to this park in Taunggyi. When we were at the fairgrounds earlier in the day, waiting for the balloons to be launched, one of the novice monks, Htun Phyu, asked me if we could go to the park afterwards. “Of course we can,” was my immediate reply, as if there was any doubt in the matter.

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There is an entrance fee to the park, but the park management very graciously waived the fee for the novice monks and the teachers, so I only had to pay for the male and female students, plus myself. The kids had a great time on the rides, and running down the swinging bridge, while begging me to take photos the entire time. Happy to oblige!

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Bombs Over Laos

If you read a newspaper or checked the news online this week you might have noticed that US Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit to Laos. There wasn’t any particularly urgent need for Kerry to visit the country, but Laos is the latest in a revolving door of countries in Southeast Asia to act as “chairman” for the ASEAN block of nations, and Kerry’s visit was part of the USA’s renewed “engagement” with Asia.

The article that I read noted the “grim legacy” of the Vietnam War era, in which the United States military planes dropped more than 250 million bombs on Laos. Yes, a poor land-locked country that was not even a participant in that unfortunate war became a victim itself. It’s been said, that per capita, Laos was the most bombed country in history.

Another sobering statistic is that more than 30 percent of those bombs failed to explode at the time, but have remained “active” weapons within the country, continuing to maim and kill people all these years later. Since the end of the Vietnam War — and that’s now been 40 years — about 50,000 people in Laos have been killed by these UXO (unexploded ordinance), and tens of thousands more than that have been injured, including loss of limbs.

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The best book I have read on this subject is Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos by Karen J. Coates. This isn’t a book that bombards you with a bunch of statistics and is content to lambast the American government for its acts. Instead, it’s a book that shows the human side of the issue. The empathetic and penetrating reportage by Karen Coates takes you inside the lives of the people in various villages and towns around Laos, ones whose lives have been permanently affected by the bombs, and shows you how they cope with this nightmare. It’s a sobering, gripping read.

Meanwhile, we’ll see if Kerry raises the issue of human rights with the Laos government, a secretive communist bunch of thugs in their own right. One of the most disturbing current human rights issues in Laos is the “disappearance” of Sombath Somphone in December 2012. Sombath was a widely respected community development worker in Laos, but apparently his efforts to ensure transparent economic and social development in Laos were considered threatening to the commie rulers. After being stopped by police and taken away in a truck he hasn’t been seen in three years.

Creepy Americans, creepy Laotians … creeps, creeps everywhere. What can you do, expect hope for peace and justice, press for changes … and fight the power. Really, don’t let the assholes win.

Balloon Festival Here We Come!

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As mentioned in my previous post, while I was in Myanmar in late November it was the time of the Tazaungdaing full moon and the annual balloon festival in Taunggyi, the largest city in Shan State, and about a 45-minute drive from Nyaungshwe. They have two decidedly different types of balloons at this festival. During the day they have balloons crafted to resemble animals — very large animals such as chickens, cows, elephants and pigs. I have yet to see a giraffe. But once the sun sets, the nighttime balloons come out, bigger and more traditional, but with one added feature: fireworks! Watching these giant creations launch upwards, shooting off flumes of colored light is indeed a spectacular sight.

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I attended this festival about four years ago, taking a group of students and novice monks from Tat Ein village to see the day-time portion of the festival. I also took two groups of monks from Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe to the nighttime festivities, taking one group one night, and the other group the following night. It was fun, but the temperatures dropped considerably at night and I froze my ass off. Once it was all over, I vowed that was enough of the balloon festival for me.

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But then came this year. After I realized that my trip coincided with the balloon festival once again, I just couldn’t bring myself to NOT take the kids from Tat Ein village again. I figured a simple day-time outing wouldn’t kill me, and besides, I don’t think there was anyone at the monastery or at the primary school who had gone on our previous outing, so this would be a new experience for all of them.

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This time around I rented three “light trucks”, enough to hold the 90-some people in the group; students, novice monks, teachers, and a couple of adults from the village. Upon arrival in Taunggyi, the roads were packed with vehicles going to the festival; cars and trucks and vans and motorcycles and a variety of other wheeled contraptions. It was slow going, and once we reached the main gate, we were told to turn around and go to another entrance, causing even more of a delay.

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Long story short, the festival this time was a dud. We were at the main balloon grounds for nearly two hours and not a single balloon was launched. Oh, they tried. Time and time again. But strong winds made it difficult for the “torch bearers” to create enough smoke under the balloons to launch them. Funnily enough, the kids didn’t seem to mind too much, content to sample the variety of food that was for sale at the site. Man, those monks can put away some food! And I keep forgetting; they don’t have snacks and goodies like this in their village.

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Some of the kids wanted to go on a big Ferris-wheel type ride, so I bought tickets for the ones who wanted to ride; a few boys, some of the monks, and almost all of the girls! Judging from their reactions after the ride was over, they enjoyed it very much! Instead of waiting around to see if any balloons were going to be successfully launched, we left the grounds and headed to a local hilltop temple, where the kids all enjoyed posing for photos, the girls all dressed in their finest for the occasion. While we were at the temple, someone looked skyward and pointed; there were three balloons — animals becoming distant specks — floating towards the clouds. Oh well, better than nothing!

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Morning Monhinga for the Monks!

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The birthday of my friend Ma Pu Sue is on November 27, only one day before my own. That being the case, if I happen to be in Nyaungshwe during that time of the month, we will get together with her friends and family to celebrate. This past November, however, she had clients at her Bamboo Delight Cooking Class every day while I was in town, including a group of over twenty one morning. The Tazaungdaing full moon period also fell during this time, which always coincides with the popular balloon festival in nearby Taunggyi, an event that I was planning to attend one day — along with 90 children, novice monks, and teachers from Tat Ein village.

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Needless to say, we had a lot going on, plus I was scheduled to leave Nyaungshwe on the day of Sue’s birthday, so if we were going to do anything to celebrate, we needed to do it a day early. Sue suggested that instead of a birthday dinner we should make a donation to the monastery at Tat Ein. But not just a regular monetary donation; her idea was to offer the novice monks a feast of home-cooked monhinga for breakfast one morning.

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So that’s exactly what we did. If you aren’t familiar with monhinga, it’s basically Myanmar’s national dish. It’s most commonly eaten in the morning, but can also be enjoyed anytime of the day or night. Rice or vermicelli noodles serve as the foundation for the monhinga soup, usually comprised of a fish broth with sliced banana stems, onions, lemongrass, garlic, and maybe a bit of pepper and some sliced egg. Variations of monhinga can be found around Myanmar, but crunchy gourd fritters and a sprinkling of coriander are also usually added, along with a squeeze or two of lime. Over the years, I’ve grown from moderately liking it to becoming a seriously big fan of this tasty dish. I honestly think that Sue’s version is the best that I’ve ever tasted. This is seriously addictive stuff!

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Sue, her husband Lesly (who, it must be said, is the “genius” behind this monhinga recipe), and two assistants got up early to prepare the monhinga feast on the appointed day. All that I could do was stand around and try not to get in their way as we waited for the monks to arrive on their morning alms rounds. Sue and Lesly had tables set up around their yard, enough to accommodate the 40 monks who were expected. Sue also brought out a white board with greetings written in Burmese, explaining our “donation event.”

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At about 7:30 that morning the line of red robes finally appeared, walking slowly down the dusty road. The whole crew was in attendance; Soe Nyaunt, Aung Thaung, Htun Phyu, Saing Aung, and rest of the novice monks I know from the Tat Ein monastery. The all sat down, hands politely on laps, and patiently waited for the food to be served. I think my assessment that this version monhinga is extremely tasty was supported by the monk’s reaction: most of them had second and even third helpings!

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When the meal was over, I stationed myself by the gate and following Sue’s advice, as the monks walked past me I handed each one an extra “gift” of 1000 kyat, money which they were to spend later that day at the balloon festival (more on that trip in a later post). Not a traditional way to celebrate a birthday, but definitely a memorable and gratifying one.

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