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

Posts tagged ‘90th Street Mandalay’

Mandalay Calling!


Whenever I return from a trip to Myanmar I am often asked about the situation in the country, specifically what has changed lately. Most everyone is aware of the new government that was formed this month by Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD (National League for Democracy) party, and that’s obviously a big change, and one that hopefully will be a harbinger of many positive changes in the country.


But the biggest change, by far, that I’ve noticed in Myanmar over the last two years has been the explosion in mobile phone usage. In previous years, both the cost of phones and SIM cards was so high that it made their use prohibitive for most of the population. But thanks to new government regulations and the entry of two foreign telecom companies —- Oredoo and Telenor — the price of both phones and especially SIM cards has dropped considerably, enabling millions of people in Myanmar to use phone services and social media. And they are doing it in droves!


With these recent developments, many of my friends in Myanmar now have phones as well as access to a variety of apps, the Internet, and social networking sites such as Facebook. It’s been amazing for me to witness this sudden revolution in a country where even an old-fashioned mobile phone was a rarity five years ago. The free Line texting app is very popular in both Thailand and Myanmar, so that’s making communication very easy for me and my friends. Whenever I hear a beep on my phone nowadays, I’ll think: it’s Mandalay calling — and most of the time that’s the case. It might by Mr. Htoo, also known as Htoo Htoo, a local jack-of-all-trades who mostly works as a motorbike taxi driver in Central Mandalay (just down the block from the Nylon ice cream shop!). Or it could be some of the kids from 90th Street in Mandalay. This week I heard from Baw Ga, Ye Man Oo, and Khang Khant Kyaw. Where, I wondered, were Ye Thu Lwin and Ye Win Zaw? Checking in from Bagan was Nine Nine, telling me about a cool new singer he thought I’d like. In Nyaungshwe I can quickly contact with Ma Pu Sue, or from the hinterlands of Muse, Yan Naing Soe has also been sending me messages. I’m just waiting for the day when I get a call from a monk in the village. And honestly, I imagine that day is not too far in the distant future.


And it’s not just text messages; with Line you can also make free phone calls — and even video calls! Some days I feel like Dick Tracy with a high-tech wrist watch. Honestly, the stuff amazes me. As a result of this app, I’ll often get calls from Yan Naing Soe, Ye Man Oo (who has the best English skills of the bunch), or even Kyaw Myo Tun, a waiter at Aye Myit Tar restaurant in Mandalay. Yeah, some days the connection sucks and it’s almost impossible to hear clearly, but on a good day — or night – when the lines are clear, it’s like magic.


This week has produced a flurry of messages from the Mandalay crew especially, all of them excited about the annual water festival this week. If it’s been as hot there as it’s been in Bangkok lately — and this week has been a scorcher — they are all going to be soaking up as much water as possible. Happy New Year!


Birthday Dining


Yesterday was the birthday of my friend Chiet, so I took him out for a big dinner. Chiet is from Cambodia and I met him about 14 years ago when he was a little brat, wandering around the streets of Siem Reap, where I was running a bookshop at the time. We stayed in touch over the years, he grew up, and he is now working a construction job in the Bangkok area. Being nearby, we are able to meet for meals at least a couple of times each month. Normally we go to a Thai place on Sukhumvit Soi 49, but for his birthday I decided it was an occasion to splurge and treat him to something really special, that being the dinner buffet at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit Hotel.


The one good thing about Chiet, besides being an all around nice and cheerful guy, is that he appreciates a good meal and can keep up with me when it comes to putting away some food. Thus, I figured he could put a good dent in the buffet spread at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit … and I was right. I jokingly told him that I’d be angry if he only ate two plates of food, so he did me proud my polishing off five plates. And, at the ripe age of 26, he also had his first taste of lobster, which he liked it quite a bit.



About two months ago I had my own birthday celebration while I was in Mandalay. The dinner spread wasn’t nearly as extravagant as the one I had with Chiet in Bangkok, but it was still pretty tasty and very memorable. I invited 15 friends from the 90th Street neighborhood that I frequent, including the teashop owner U Tin Chit, to have dinner with me that night at Aye Myit Tar restaurant. I reserved a big table for the crew and we were given very attentive service by Ko Ko Oo, Kyaw Myo Tun, and the other waiters. Ye Man Oo and his brother Ye Thu Lwin gave me a traditional Burmese shirt along with a gorgeous longyi. They insisted that I wear the new outfit to dinner, which I was more than happy to do. Two of the other kids, Baw Ga and Khang Khant Kyaw, ordered a big birthday cake.



Ye Thu Lwin explained the procedure for “distributing” the cake. I had to cut small pieces of cake and then feed each guest one of the pieces. Luckily, I manage to perform this feat without cutting anyone or dropping cake on the floor. But then came the part they hadn’t told me about: the food fight! Well, it wasn’t as wild as people throwing food around the room, but the kids — and the adults — soon started grabbing bits of the cake icing and smearing it on one another. Ah, good messy fun! I have to say, it was one of the more enjoyable birthday parties I’ve ever had. More Mandalay magic!






Traditional Doctor in Mandalay


I could spin you a long, tall tale about how I got sick when I was in Mandalay and resorted to visiting a local practitioner to get healed, but that wasn’t exactly the case. I was invited by Ye Win Zaw, one of the kids from 90th Street in Mandalay, to visit this particular traditional doctor, who just so happened to be his grandfather!



As often happens in these cases, I’ll meet a local and speak of bit of Burmese with them, which only makes them think that I am more fluent than I actually am, and encourages them to speak non-stop for the next thirty minutes, convinced that I understand what they are saying. If I’m lucky I can comprehend fragments of the discourse and perhaps understand the gist of what they are saying. Just don’t ask me for details!



This particular doctor is also a Buddhist monk and he uses traditional herbs and remedies to heal patients with various ailments. He has a whole wall — make that four walls —plastered with photos of many of his patients, presumably ones that were successfully treated.


I asked Ye Win Zaw and some of the other kids who accompanied us (there is always a throng that comes along on these impromptu outings!) if the doctor’s remedies did the trick and made these sick folks better again, and they answered in the affirmative. It appears that the old doctor must be doing something right!



From Mandalay to Japan


She’s in the air as I write this, flying from Mandalay to Tokyo with a layover in Seoul, South Korea. Yes, Khin Nwe Lwin, the brilliant young woman from 90th Street in Mandalay is off to study at a university in Japan. To say this is big news for Khin Nwe Lwin and her family would be an understatement. This is a life-changing opportunity.


I’m sure that her father, U Nyunt Tin, is extremely proud of her, as are her mother and siblings, plus her cousins and friends, most of them living within a stone’s throw of U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street. And hey, I’m proud of her too. Khin Nwe Lwin is an amazing young woman and I feel privileged to count her as a friend. I hope that her experience in Japan will be both enjoyable and beneficial.


Earlier this year she won a scholarship to attend the graduate school of Natural Science and Technology at Okayama University, where she will be a doctoral student for the next three years. But it’s been a nerve-wracking past few months, as Khin Nwe Lwin had to travel to Nay Pyi Daw and apply for a passport, and then wait patiently to get that passport and then the all-important travel visa. Last week she finally got all the necessary documents and was good to go! I got a note from her a few hours ago, saying that she was at Incheon Airport in Seoul, waiting for her next flight to Tokyo.


This is the stuff that dreams are made of. Congratulations and best of luck to Khin Nwe Lwin!


Phone Calls, World Cup, and Mandalay Sorrow


I received an e-mail this morning from a friend in Mandalay. He was replying to a note I had sent him last week, in the wake of the violence that erupted in the city. Here is an excerpt:

“Sorry for the late reply. I was not able to use the internet for a couple of days, and so I couldn’t check any mail. Thanks a lot for your concern, we were safe, but I lost a very close friend of mine, who was more like a brother to me, we have known each other very well for more than 15 years. We have been together at least once a week. He was brutally killed on his way to the Mosque in the early morning. It is still very difficult for me to accept that he left us.”

Needless to say, I was stunned to hear that one of the two people killed during the disturbances in Mandalay last week was the friend of a friend of mine … a friend I won’t name to protect his privacy at this time. I was more than stunned and saddened to hear this news, I was outraged. Honestly, if a close friend of mine had been senselessly killed under similar circumstances, I would be beyond angry. I’d want to hunt down the fuckers responsible for the killings and seek revenge. No mercy. Screw forgiveness, give me justice.


On a more pleasant note, I had a phone call on Sunday night from Baw Ga, one of the kids I know from the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay. Before I left Mandalay in early April, Baw Ga announced that he had a phone number (actually it’s a cell phone that is shared by members of his family) and asked if I would call him. Of course! Having access to a phone is a big deal for Baw Ga and many people in Myanmar. Until recently, having a cell phone was a huge luxury, and ownership of such phones is still not as common as it is in other Southeast Asian nations. But the gap is closing swiftly. The people in Myanmar have gone from having almost zero access to telephones to having internet-enabled smart phones with all the bells and whistles. They can take and show photos, post silly stuff on Facebook, send text messages, and talk to their friends. Needless to say, they are having a blast with these new devices.


So I’ve called Baw Ga a few times and we’ve had some very nice, but very basic conversations. My Burmese is far from fluent and his English skills are even more limited, so we stick to easy subjects like the weather, work, school, and sports. This week I asked him about the “problems” in Mandalay and what he had been doing lately. I also asked about the new school term. He’s in the 11th grade now, which boggles my mind. It seems like only yesterday that he was just one of the “little kids” that I took on trips around the area. Man, they grow up quickly!


Like most young males in Myanmar, Baw Ga is a huge football fan. In the current World Cup he is rooting for Germany. I was half-heartedly pulling for Colombia until they got knocked out of the tournament by Brazil last week, but honestly I don’t really care which nation wins. I’m not a big fan of football/soccer and watching the World Cup games with my friends from the nearby motorcycle taxi stand (most of them are Argentina fans) hasn’t changed my opinion. I find these games mind-numbingly boring. What is exciting about a 0-0 draw? Of course they would probably have a similar opinion of my favorite sport, the mighty game of baseball, and no amount of explaining the rules and strategy would change their mind. They would still be mystified and bored, just like I feel when I watch one of these sloppy football matches with player after player shamlessly falling to the ground and acting like they’ve been horribly injured. Another foul; how exciting! Give me a break! Oh well, at least I have some knowledge of the sport at this point and can use that for my conversations on the phone with Baw Ga. For that, at least, the sport is useful!



My Favorite Teashop


Once again, during my recent trip to Mandalay, I was a frequent visitor at U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street. I’ve written a lot of this teashop over the years, and how I accidentally discovered it during one of my bike rides around town. That turned out to be one of those “happy accidents” that ended up becoming an important part of my life.



This welcoming little place is a throwback to the good old days when life was not so chaotic and hurried. The teashop is an open air joint with wooden benches and plastic stools, steaming thermoses of Chinese tea sitting on the rickety old table. Gentlemen from the neighborhood sit around and chat or just pass the time of day. No rush, no fuss, take it easy. You want air-conditioning, cushioned seats, a full lunch menu, and wi-fi? Go elsewhere!




About the only nod to modern times are the two TV sets on one side of the open-air teashop, and the fact that U Tin Chit now has a smart phone which he is having a lot fun learning how to use. Children, housewives, monks, and other locals from the neighborhood drop by the teashop to watch what’s on TV or to order some bean cakes to go. U Tin Chit, if he’s not taking a nap in the back room (hey, give the guy a break; he pretty much runs the place alone and it’s open 24 hours a day!) will be happy to serve you. Zin Ko, one of the local kids, is now owner of my old camera, so don’t be surprised if he sneaks up and takes a photo of you!







This is my hangout, my favorite teashop, and I call many of the people who frequent this special establishment my friends. Truly, they are a special bunch. It’s my home away from home and I hope nothing dramatic ever changes here. For me, no place in town is more comfortable.








Shin Pyu Ceremony in Mandalay

It was another one of those happy accidents, or at least an unplanned stroke of luck, that led me to a shin pyu ceremony being  held at a neighborhood on 90th Street in Mandalay last month.



I was riding my bike towards U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street one morning when I noticed the colorful trappings of the shin pyu ceremony adjacent to a monastery. I parked my bike and with camera in hand (of course!) I asked if it would be okay for me to take some photos. Ya ba de. Of course! There were several boys being “initiated” that morning, and their proud parents and grandparents were out in force. Two lovely ladies in the crowd invited me to stay in partake in meal, even though I was a total stranger just passing by. But that’s typical of Burmese hospitality; nobody is a stranger for long. I thanked the women, but begged off the meal invite, explaining that I had just had a big breakfast at my hotel. But I did stay and take more photos, lots of smiles amidst the beautiful décor.



So what, you ask, is a shin pyu ceremony? The shin pyu ceremony is considered a VERY important rite of passage in a young boy’s life in Myanmar, similar in a sense to a Jewish youth having his bar mitzvah. It’s considered somewhat of an obligation for the parents to give their son a shin pyu ceremony, but it’s not unheard of for other relatives or donors to contribute to the ceremony as they can be quite elaborate and expensive undertakings.




The shin pyu, or novitiation ceremony, often takes place during the summer months (March through May) in Myanmar when schools are closed. Normally the boys that participate are between the ages of 9 and 12, but sometimes younger or slightly older. As you can see in these photos the boys are decked in very elaborate and colorful costumes, or “princely attire,” and sport lots of makeup too!



 In the morning of the ceremony there is usually a procession around town, or perhaps just around the neighborhood, in either a car or sometimes even on a horse! Depending on finances, there may also be a band or musical troupe accompanying the procession. Eventually the boys return home, change out of the fancy clothes and then go a monastery later in the afternoon, whereupon their heads are shaved and another ceremony is conducted, the boy then officially becoming a member of the Holy Order of Sangha. Typically, after a shin pyu ceremony, a boy will stay at the monastery as a novice monk for a minimum of one week.



I didn’t stick around for any processions or head shaving, but here are a few examples of one stage in the amazing shin pyu ceremony.


Teashop Comfort


During my last trip to Mandalay in November, I spent most afternoons at U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street. I’ve written about this teashop many times in the past, but suffice to say it remains one of my favorite places in the world. Maybe it’s not cozy by most people’s standards, but for me it’s one of the most comfortable and relaxing places I know. The laidback atmosphere, the tasty tea and snacks, and the delightful company of U Tin Chit, the regular customers, the parent’s showing off their babies, and the local kids; it all makes for an unbeatable combination.

















Shin Phyu from Zin Ko

It’s official: my camera is gone! No, I didn’t lose it or have yet another malfunction, but I no longer have it with me in Bangkok. When I was in Mandalay back in late November I left it with Zin Ko, one of the boys who has used the camera in the past. I didn’t foresee any need for the camera in the months ahead, and Zin Ko had expressed an interest in borrowing the camera to take photos at some neighborhood weddings that were coming up, so I told him he could keep it. I stressed to him, however, that I might need to use it again when I come to Mandalay next time, so this wasn’t necessarily a permanent gift. I told him that I was thinking about buying a new camera, but I didn’t have enough money yet. But if I did end up buying a new model, I promised that I’d give him the old one.


Well, business has been very good at my bookshop the past couple of months, and determining that I now had enough money to splurge on a new camera, I broke down and bought one this week. I’ve almost worked out all the functions, but I’m a slow learner, so it’s going to take me a while to figure everything out. Now I need to phone up U Tin Chit’s teashop and leave a message for Zin Ko: the camera is now yours, kid. Go wild!


In addition to weddings, another important tradition in Myanmar is the Shin Phyu, a Buddhist ceremony in which young boys go through an elaborate ritual before temporarily becoming a novice monk. This ritual involves dressing up in elegant costumes and putting on so much makeup that, well, you’d be inclined to think that you were seeing a girl. But no, it’s only a time-honored Burmese tradition and has nothing to do with cross-dressing. When I was in Mandalay last year several of the boys from the 90th Street neighborhood, including Zin Ko, gave me their Shin Phyu photographs as souvenirs. I scanned a few examples for today’s post.



Meanwhile, I’ll be curious to see what sort of photos that Zin Ko has been taking. I haven’t scheduled my next trip to Mandalay yet, but I’m hoping for a return sometime in the first half of this year.


Helping Hands


An unexpected trip coming up this week: back to Mandalay. As much as I love the city and my friends there, this trip is not one of pleasure, but born of necessity. My friend “H” is still in the hospital in Bangkok, still in ICU, in fact, and his condition has not improved. I’ve talked to the doctors at the hospital, his cousin in Alabama (his closest living relative), and the administrators at the school where he’s been teaching in Mandalay. The consensus is that he will not be able to return to work again, even if he survives this illness.



The school needs to hire a new teacher and vice-principal to replace “H”, and they also need to use the apartment that they were renting for him in Mandalay. I’ve been appointed to be the one who goes to the apartment and takes care of moving everything out of it. I’ve been exchanging e-mails with his cousin on a daily basis, trying to figure out how we are going to handle this. It’s almost certain that “H” will not be able to return to Mandalay, no matter what happens, so we will have to put his possessions in storage for now, and maybe try to sell some things, or give others away, at a later date. I’ll also take some smaller items and any paperwork back to Bangkok with me.  Frankly, I’m not looking forward to having to deal with this stuff, but it needs to be done and I don’t want to shirk the responsibility. I owe it to my friend.



I’ll only be in Mandalay for four full days, so I’ll need to organize all of this stuff pretty quickly, plus go to the school one day and clear out any personal items from his office and classroom. In addition to all the things in his apartment — the usual mix of furniture, TV, stereo, microwave, etc. — he has a motorcycle. I don’t even know where to start.




But I’m lucky to have many friends in Mandalay to help me. People I trust, and who I trust will give me good advice. Through an exchange of e-mails, my friends on 90th Street have been helping me with suggestions on where I can store some of the items. They’ve also been asking about “H” and his condition. He’s not a regular at the teashop like I am, but he’s been there a few times with me, and he’s also helped funnel money to people when I asked him to help. When I wanted to send some money to buy new school uniforms for the kids, “H” drove down there on his motorcycle and gave the funds to U Tin Chit. When young Aung Phyo Zaw drowned earlier this year, “H” also agreed to help me out by taking money to the family. So, needless to say, they know him well on 90th Street.




Although I’m not looking forward to having to deal with this apartment stuff, I’m very much looking forward to seeing everyone over at U Tin Chit’s teashop and the kids on 90th Street again, plus the waiters at Aye Myit Tar restaurant, and other friends such as Htoo Htoo, Htun Zaw Win, and Ko Soe Moe. This task may not be a pleasurable one, but with the help and comfort of good friends, I’m confident it will all work out.



This trip was thrown together very quickly, so I wasn’t even aware of the dates, but I’ll be in Mandalay on Thursday the 28th, which is the American holiday of Thanksgiving. And the 28th also happens to be my birthday.  Surrounded by friends in one of my favorite restaurants, I do believe I’ll be ordering an extra beer that night.



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