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

Posts tagged ‘90th Street’

Hand-Me-Down Camera


After buying a new camera earlier this year I gave my old Canon to Zin Ko, one of the children I know from U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay. I always used to let Zin Ko borrow the camera when I was in town, so he was very familiar with how to use it, and he seemed very eager to have one of his own.


I actually gave the camera to Zin Ko last November, on the condition that he would just be borrowing it again until I bought a new model. I’ll do another post in the next day or two, featuring the photos that Zin Ko has taken the past several months, but today, the photos are ones that I took of the kid myself in March.




Despite having a camera to use, it’s been a rough year for Zin Ko thus far. He father passed away in early March, and a few months before that Zin Ko had to temporarily stop going to school, mostly due to family turmoil. The day after I returned to Bangkok in early April, Zin Ko went to a monastery in nearby Inwa to become a novice monk for ten days. Now that the Burmese water festival has come and gone, the next plan for Zin Ko is even bigger. He will be moving to Yangon to live with his uncle and aunt and a few cousins. Zin Ko has never even been to Yangon before, so this will be a big change for him in many ways. But hopefully, this move will end up being a positive change for Zin Ko and help to keep him in school.


One of the men in that 90th Street neighborhood, U Kyaw Hsi, was a big help this last trip, giving Zin Ko rides on his motorcycle so that he would be on time to meet me for dinner, accompanying us to the market, and taking him to the monastery in Inwa. In the absence of a father, I hope the men like U Kyaw Hsi and Zin Ko’s uncle will help the kid through this difficult period in his life.


One day while I was in Mandalay Zin Ko accompanied me to the Horizon Internation School, where an American friend of mine (the one who is still hospitalized) has been teaching the past several years. While we were there, the principal, Mr. Ahmet, gave Zin Ko a Horizon t-shirt and hat. That was a very kind gesture, which was very much appreciated by both of us. The t-shirt was several sizes too big (hey, he’s a growing boy; in another year it will fit!), but the hat was a definite hit. I don’t think Zin Ko took it off the following two days!


Good Hearts & Loving Kindness

I had dinner last Tuesday with two of my favorite people; Janet Brown and Ma Thanegi. Janet, now living in Seattle, had been in town for a week already, but Thanegi has just flown in from Yangon that morning. We met at my bookshop and then made plans to eat at a Thai restaurant on Thonglor. To make the journey easier I called one my motorcycle taxi friends, Bay, and asked him to bring a couple of other moto drivers to the shop to pick us up. Traffic was looking scary-bad, but within 20 minutes he and his buddies arrived and then whisked us away to the restaurant. I tipped the drivers generously and told Bay that he and his friends were welcome to join me for dinner whenever they had free time. Of course getting that free time is no easy task for these guys. They work insane hours with no days off. Anyway, Janet and Thanegi and I had a feast at the restaurant. Good food and good conversation; it was the perfect night.


The next day Thanegi stopped by my bookshop to buy a few more books. This time I remembered to snap a photo! A few days later I was treated to a surprise visit from Beth Goldring from Phnom Penh. Beth founded the Brahmavihara Cambodia Aids Project in 2000, the same year I met her. She’s also there in the top ranks of my favorite people category; a truly amazing, inspirational lady. It was a busy Saturday when she dropped by my bookshop, but I made time to sit down and chat for a while. As usual, Beth is in the middle of several projects and planning another fundraising trip to the US later this year, but she stocked up on mystery novels while she was in my shop.


And later that night, Bai and three of the motorcycle taxi drivers on my street dropped by my apartment to hang out and listen to music, the usual “Songs for Life” fare such as Pongist Kampee and Carabao. They’re a curious bunch — I don’t doubt I’m their first farang friend — and they pepper me with all sorts of questions, and I return the favor and ask them a bunch of stuff too. My Thai is still not fluent, so some of what they are saying doesn’t always register, but for the most part, we can carry on a semi-coherent conversation … and that thrills me. I truly enjoy their company.


Today is Valentine’s Day of course, but here in Thailand the date this year also falls on an important Buddhist holiday, Makha Bucha. Loving kindness and love the one you’re with; a great combination! That got me thinking that I should expand the theme of my post today and write about life and love and good friends, all those things that I often take for granted. This year I’m reflecting more on this sort of stuff as one of my best friends remains bed-ridden in a local nursing home, basically waiting to die. And mortality reared its ugly head last week when I got an e-mail from another good friend, So Penh Thay in Siem Reap, Cambodia, telling me that his father had passed away the day before. I wrote back, and also called him, but I feel that any words of sympathy on my part were inadequate.


Another one of my favorite people, Khin Nwe Lwin in Mandalay, sent me a couple of e-mails last week, attaching MP3s of some Burmese songs for me. She’s also been helping me keep track of people and things around the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay where I have many other friends. There’s a troubling issue with one of the kids there, but I’ll save that story for another post. But the main thing is that she is supportive of my efforts to help these kids and I really treasure our friendship.


Also in Mandalay, I can’t forget about Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung, two stalwarts of the 90th Street crew who I take on field trips when I’m in town. During the past two trips to Mandalay, Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung have also become my nightly dining companions, usually at Aye Myit Tar Restaurant on 81st Street. It beats dining alone, and they are nice, polite kids, so I’m always happy to have them tag along. My birthday happened to fall during the time I was in Mandalay last trip and Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung gave me gifts, one of which was this cute little stand with plastic swans and hearts that lights up when you flip a switch. “When the light comes on you will remember us,” Moe Htet Aung told me. Indeed I will!


On this Valentine’s Day, I send out hearts and arrows of love to all the friends and fine folks who continue to put up with me. And a Happy Makha Bucha Day too!


Mandalay Football Fun


I’m still in the process of learning, or trying to become more proficient in the Burmese language, or Myanmar zaga as it’s called over here, so sometimes I don’t fully understand what people are saying during conversations. So, when I was hanging out on 90th Street in Mandalay recently, and the kids mentioned something about football, I thought they were talking about going to watch a football match. But what they meant was PLAYING some football, and that ended up being a little football match between them — Moe Htet Aung, Baw Ga, Pya Thein, Zin Ko, and Ye Thu Lwin —and another group of kids that I didn’t know from the neighborhood.





They played on the grounds of a nearby monastery, using makeshift goals and roughly designated out-of-bounds markers. It didn’t matter that a pile of leaves was in the middle of the field … they’d just play around it. Occasionally, there would be a bit of shouting or heated discussion about some alleged infraction, but for the most part it was fun, friendly match. Unlike some of the real matches you see on TV. Little Zin Ko was the smallest player on the field and every time he’d kick a ball, he did it with such intensity that he ended up falling down. Each and every time. It was a bit comical … and nobody laughed harder than Zin Ko himself. A good sport!







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.








Bridge of Smiles

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve visited U Bein’s Bridge in Amarapura, not yet a dozen, but more than a handful. It takes less than 30 minutes to drive there from Mandalay, so it’s not a taxing journey, and it’s always enjoyable. Nice scenery and always a bunch of friendly locals walking across the bridge or fishing from it. No motor vehicles are allowed on the bridge, so the atmosphere is very quiet and laid back.


Once you are at the famous teakwood bridge (supposedly the longest such bridge in the world), the one that’s been pictured on several book covers (Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace and Thant Myint U’s The River of Lost Footsteps), you have the choice of walking across the bridge, or taking a rowboat, to the village on the other side. I find it fun to walk across and then take the boat for the return trip. Taking the boat is especially a nice idea around sunset time; with the bridge framed in the setting sun you can get some beautiful shots.


Ko Maw Hsi and I took a group kids from 90th Street to the bridge on a Sunday (no school!) while I was in Mandalay. Maw Hsi had the whole day planned, starting with breakfast at U Tin Chit’s teashop and then a tour of area temples. We piled 12 kids in a small truck and off we went. On the way to Amarapura we stopped at several monasteries and temples, the kids gleefully posing for photos at each stop. We had lunch at nice little restaurant in Amarapura and were then ready for the bridge. If it had been my choice I would have timed our bridge arrival for later in the afternoon, when it wasn’t so hot and the sun was in a better position for photos, but I always try to roll with the flow in these situations and let others decide what they want to do, and when to do it. And usually it all works out, as it did this time.  


As we walked across the bridge, it was obvious the water level in the lake was very high, the highest I’d ever seen it. A couple of lakeside restaurants, in fact, had water up to their roofs. Maw Hsi said the water level in the nearby Ayeyarwady River was also unusually high for this time of year. I hope that’s not a harbinger of flooding in a few months’ time.


We walked around the village on the other side of the bridge, stopping a couple of more temples. At one place, a youth group had gathered and was singing songs and playing games (one activity involved quickly passing around a balloon and trying not to drop it). I handed the camera to Zin Ko, who both took photos and a video of the silliness. Afterwards, the kids took a break and sprawled out on the temple floor, obviously exhausted by all the walking, not to mention jumping around and acting silly themselves.


When it was time to return to the other side, we debated renting a boat or not. Actually, because there were so many of us, we needed two boats. Maw Hsi was worried about the added expense, but I assured him that I had enough money to pay for it all. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t expensive at all, but I have to remember that Maw Hsi and the other families on 90th Street are very careful with their money and can sometimes see things like renting a boat — when you could just as well walk — to be a frivolous and wasteful expense. But at the same time, the kids really were tired and I know they got a kick out of riding the boats, so I was happy with the decision.





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!

Baby Bonanza

If I hang out long enough at Ko Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay, the babies start coming out of the bamboo woodwork. Yes, once word gets out that I’m at the teashop, I can rest assured that a baby — or three — will materialize that day. Actually, it’s not the little tikes who arrive all by their lonesome; it’s the parents who drag the infants into the teashop for a photo session, or they’ll meet me out in the street. Some of the babies, of course, will cry or pitch a fit (“Why do I have to pose for this geek?”), but sometimes you get a really happy kid who finds the whole scenario delightful.




Mandalay Teashop Hospitality

Here are some shots I took last month at the teashop and around the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay. From the very first time that I accidentally discovered this non-descript little teashop while aimlessly riding my bike around the southwest “Monk Quarter” of the city, they have never let me pay for any tea or snacks. Such generosity does not go unnoticed, so I always try to bring some small gifts for the owner, Ko Tin Chit and his staff, and also for the children in the neighborhood.


It’s also become a tradition that I take a group of kids on a half-day or full-day trip to some interesting place in the area. But this time I wasn’t sure if I would be able to afford any trips while in Mandalay. My finances were already stretched after three trips to the balloon festival in Taunggyi (only one of which I had budgeted for) and I was looking at another week — or two — of additional expenses. Because there are no ATMs or money transfer services in Myanmar, whatever cash you bring with you is all you have to spend.


Once I arrived in Mandalay, my first order of business was to drop by the teashop and see everybody. I stay in e-mail contact with Khin New Lwin, a university student who is the daughter of one of the teashop regulars, so they knew of my arrival. But I was feeling very torn as to whether to blow my budget and try and take the kids somewhere this time or not. I still had enough cash, but the big uncertainty was how long I would be staying in Myanmar this time, and I didn’t to be a little frugal. With the flooding situation in Bangkok it was looking more and more like I may need to extend my stay in Myanmar, thus I was going to need all the cash I had. I was about to plead poverty and tell the kids something along the lines of: “Sorry, I can’t take you anywhere this time, but next time I’ll make it up to you.” But after talking about the flooding in Bangkok, Ko Tin Chit seemed to have a good understanding of my predicament and suggested that I postpone any trips and save my money this time.


I was relieved that they understood, but still a little sad that we weren’t going to be making another communal excursion somewhere. But then Maw Hsi, one of the men who frequent the teashop, volunteered to take me around to some of the monasteries and pagodas in the area. “I’ll be your guide this time,” he laughed. Of course, once word got out of this plan, several of the kids wanted to tag along with us, which was more than fine by me. So that meant that Moe Htet Aung, Zin Ko, Ye Htit, Thar Nyi, and some of the other kids joined our afternoon neighborhood tours. And this touring wasn’t confined to one day, but was spread out over four different days. We went to big monasteries, tiny monasteries, teakwood monasteries, old pagodas, and one complex next to the river that housed some Buddha figures that had been salvaged from the water. Of course this — and the unusually steamy November temperatures — gave the kids a good excuse to go swimming.


Instead of it being a “see you next time” one-time visit to break the news to the kids that there would not be a trip this time, I ended up going back to the teashop every single day while in town, and those no-stress visits were one of the highlights of my trip. And every single day I visited some parent would give me a present of some sort, ranging from bags of fruit and sweets to sandals and longyis. Just another example of why I like going back to visit this friendly neighborhood: charming place and charming people.





Photos by Zin Ko

Today’s guest photographer is the youngest member of the Garlic Never Sleeps photo corps, 8-year old Zin Ko (pictured above), a primary school student in Mandalay. He’s one of the kids who can be found around, in, and out of the friendly little teashop that I frequent on 90th Street. Over the last three or four years I’ve taken the kids from this neighborhood on field trips to destinations in the area such as Pyin U Lwin, Monywa, Amarapura, Inwa, Paleik, and Mingun. Zin Ko wasn’t among the inaugural bunch that went on trips the first year, but at some point he joined the rest of the gang.


It’s still not clear to me how the kids are chosen for these trips. Instead of choosing them by myself, I leave it to the teashop tribunal. Whenever I arrive in town I usually talk to the teashop owner, Ko Tin Chit, or one of the parents that hang out at the 24-hour teashop, and let them know where I’m thinking about going this time. They will ask me how many kids I want to go, and I follow that with a question of my own: It’s up to you; how many kids can the truck handle? And when I show up the next day, the truck is packed with about fifteen —or sometimes close to twenty — children from the neighborhood. Zin Ko is now one of those trip regulars, but I still have no idea if I’ve met his parents or if he has any brothers or sisters amongst the crew.

The rest of the photos in the post today are ones that Zin Ko took with my camera when I was in Mandalay last month. It took him a while to get used to the camera, but like most kids, after he started taking photos it was hard to take the camera away from him! Most of the shots were taken inside or outside the teashop, or down the narrow dirt lane that constitutes this section of 90th Street.

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