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

Posts tagged ‘Bagan’

Rainy Days and Myanmar

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It’s the rainy season in Southeast Asia and where I live in Bangkok we are getting rain showers almost every day, sometimes in the afternoon and again at night, and an occasional morning drizzle too. It makes for a soggy commute going to and from work, but what can you do? Me, I’ve got an umbrella AND a raincoat in my bag, so I’m ready for the deluge. Hey, I was a boy scout, so can bet that I’m always prepared!

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Myanmar has also seen lots of rain recently. The water level in rivers like the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) has risen dramatically, so much so that there is flooding in some areas in and around Mandalay and Bagan, and further upcountry.

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But the theme for my post today is not the wet weather, but those amazing Myanmar people. Call them Burmese or Myanmar (or Shan, or Pa-O, or whatever ethnic group that they belong to), but the main thing to know is that they are kind, delightful people. Some of the sweetest, most hospitable people you will ever meet. Tourist attractions aside, the people of the country are the main reason I keep going back to visit so many times. Rain or shine, these people are the best!

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Photos by Aung Thaung, novice monk from Shan State

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Today’s photos were all taken by Aung Thaung, a novice monk at Tat Ein monastery in Shan State. The photo above is a self portrait that he took during our trip to Bagan. The other photos were taken either in Bagan or back in the village or at the monastery.

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In addition to his Buddhism studies at the monastery, Aung Thaung is also a member of the fifth grade class in the village’s primary school. When he is done with his two-year stint at the monastery he plans to continue his education back in his home village (don’t ask me exactly where that is; over the hills and far away!) or possibly in nearby Nyaungshwe where his aunt is living.

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When I was in the village recently, and during our trip to Bagan, I would frequently hand over my camera to Aung Thaung and let him take photos to his heart’s content. He’s a polite kid and very responsible, so I had no worries about him using the camera. Plus, the smile on his face each time was evidence that he was enjoying the opportunity!

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I thought about whittling the number of photos in today’s post down to a dozen or so, but there were just too many good and/or funny photos to share. Enjoy Aung Thaung’s photos!

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Silver House Restaurant in New Bagan

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When I was in Bagan recently I had the chance to revisit a favorite eating establishment, the Silver House Restaurant in New Bagan. Hey, for me, food plays a vital part in the joy of travel, so I’m always delighted to find places that please my stomach. The food at Silver House is always delicious, plus the owners, U Aung Koont and his wife, provide excellent service along with that trademark Burmese hospitality.

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Tourists that visit the ancient temple ruins in Bagan have the choice of staying in three distinct areas. There is Old Bagan, where you will find most of the most popular temples. But the hotels are quite expensive in Old Bagan and the area is strangely devoid of any real residents (you can read elsewhere about why that’s the case: there as a forced relocation of the old community). Many tourists, especially those on a budget, prefer the town of Nyaung U, which is closer to Bagan’s international airport and has more of a thriving business district. My choice for accommodation, however, is in New Bagan, a small town just down the road from Old Bagan and the village of Myinkaba. The room rates in New Bagan are about the same or slightly higher than Nyaung U, but it’s not as busy — meaning, it’s much less hectic — and offers the visitor a more tranquil stay.

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Rather than try any new restaurants in New Bagan this time — and there are more than ever — I headed over to Silver House for all my meals. I hadn’t been there in about three years, a shockingly long time considering that I used to frequent the restaurant four or five times every year for the better part of the past decade. But I don’t visit Bagan as much as I used to, and the last time I was in town I had the crew from 90th Street in Mandalay with me and didn’t have time to visit Silver House.  So, I made up for it on this visit, and enjoyed catching up on local events and politics with U Aung Koont.

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My Bagan friend Nine Nine accompanied me to Silver House when he wasn’t working at his hotel job or busy with family matters. One night, we had dinner at Nine Nine’s house, a sumptuous spread that his wife and mother-in-law prepared, while his infant daughter played in a corner. Afterwards, Nine Nine came back to my hotel and serenaded me on acoustic guitar with a medley of Myanmar music, including songs by Linn Linn and a new discovery, Wai La. Great stuff!

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If you are in New Bagan, you can find Silver House on the town’s main road, sometimes called Khaye Street, across the street from the Shwe Ou restaurant and the Ruby Guesthouse. They are open every day!

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Marionettes at the Temple

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Touring the ancient temples in Bagan with the novice monks from Tat Ein village was a very memorable experience, both for the sights themselves and the monks’ reaction to it all. None of these youngsters have ever been to Bagan before so they were quite excited to see these historic places. But of all the temples we visited and things we saw I think the little grove of Burmese style marionettes and puppets was what interested the novice monks the most.

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These marionettes were hanging from tree branches just outside one of the large temples in Old Bagan. Don’t ask me to tell you which temple it was because I wasn’t paying enough attention at the time to remember. Hey, blame it on the heat! At first I thought maybe some enterprising vendor was selling the marionettes, but no, they were just out there for decoration.

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In any case, there were hundreds of these cute, colorful marionettes hanging from the tree branches, and the monks were utterly fascinated by it all. The monks were either taking photos of the marionettes with their cell phone cameras or asking me to take some shots of them posing with a marionette of their choice.

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Mount Popa summit: Monks & Monkeys Meet!

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For the past several years I’ve been taking groups of children — including novice monks — from Tat Ein village, near Nyaungshwe in Myanmar’s Shan State, on field trips to places and festivals in the area. They are a well-behaved, appreciative bunch of kids and I always enjoy these outings.

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When I was in the village late last year, one of the teachers told me that the novice monks wanted to visit Bagan next time. Would I be able to take them, she asked? Bagan is one of the most famous destinations in Myanmar, home to an estimated three-thousand ancient Buddhist temples. The only problem is that Bagan is a bit far away from Nyaungshwe, about 7-8 hours by car, so an excursion there would have to be a multi-day trip.

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Well, we ended up doing it; a three-day trip, there and back. I rented two trucks, which was enough for about fifty passengers. We had thirty-plus monks — both novice monks and a few senior monks, one of the teachers from the village, a couple of high school girls, one of the village elders, two drivers, and a one befuddled foreigner. The perfect group!

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Before reaching Bagan, we stopped at Mt. Popa, an extinct volcano that is now a major tourist attraction and Buddhist pilgrimage sight. Mt. Popa is home to dozens of nat shrines (a nat is considered a spirit of sorts, and believed by some to possess powers) along with some sacred Buddhist shrines. Visitors can walk up a covered stairway to the top of the mountain (more of a big hill, actually) and enjoy some fantastic views, all while trying to maneuver the obstacle course of frisky monkeys that dart up and down the stairs and from the rafters overhead. Literally, there are monkeys everywhere, most of them looking for food, packets of which are conveniently being sold by vendors everywhere you turn. Some of the more bold monkeys will literally reach into your pocket if they see something edible or colorful!

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If it’s not the monkey food vendors, it’s the flower vendors that will get you. All devout Buddhists will feel the need to buy some flowers for one of the shrines, so those vendors end up doing a brisk business too. The those monkeys must also work up a thirst running up and down those stairs, I noticed more than one of them sipping a soft drink!

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Well, the monks had a great time interacting with the monkeys and seeing the sights. Miraculously, I saw more than a handful of the youngsters produce smart phones from under their robes and snap a few photos. Where did those phones come from?!

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Orlando to Bangkok to Mandalay

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Where have the last two months gone? It’s been almost that long since I posted anything on this blog. During that time I’ve taken a trip to Myanmar and returned to Bangkok, hosted a friend from Mandalay, and worked myself into a stupor at my bookshop. Then came along this past weekend when news came of a singer being shot to death in my hometown of Orlando, Florida, and less than a day later another news flash about dozens of people killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando (initially, I was confused, believing that both incidents were linked). As of this writing, there are 49 people confirmed killed and nearly that many more injured or hospitalized. This happened in Orlando? The sleepy town we used to jokingly call “Bore-Lando. The mind boggles. Honestly, I can’t fathom such a horrific crime — they are calling it the worst mass murder in US history – occurring in my placid hometown back in Central Florida. But that only goes to show you that such madness can occur anytime and anywhere. But maybe more so in the gun-crazy environs of the USA.

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There have been many insightful, eloquent, and thoughtful articles and blog posts already written about the Orlando incident, that I can’t think of much more to say. All I can add is that I hope everyone in Orlando, and in gay clubs, straight clubs, and clubs catering to every musical and ethnic persuasion, remain open and do a booming business this week. Don’t let the lunatic fuckers intimidate you and prevent you from enjoying yourself and being around people you care about. Fight the power. Fight the insanity. And keep on dancing, dammit!

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Meanwhile, there was my trip. I’ll try and post some more photos from that trip in the coming weeks, but honestly, work has been so time-consuming in recent months that I’m not sure how much time I can devote to posting articles and photos. But, as usual, I had a very memorable time in Myanmar and there are some pretty cool tales to tell and fun shots to share.

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After spending two weeks in Myanmar — the  highlight of which was taking those irrepressible novice monks from Shan State’s Tat Ein village on a 3-day road trip to the ruins of Bagan — I returned to Bangkok … but not alone. Accompanying me on the flight home was my friend Ye Man Oo from Mandalay, taking his first trip out of Myanmar, not to mention his first time on an airplane. For the past couple of years he has been talking about how his dream was to come to Bangkok and see my bookshop. Well, defying all obstacles, we made that dream come true. More about his trip in a future post, but the two weeks he spent with me in Bangkok was an incredible experience — for both of us. Having him around constantly was a bit tiring — exhausting might be more accurate! — but his upbeat nature and boundless enthusiasm was contagious and by the time I took him back to the airport I was very sad to see him depart. But hey, there’s always a next time, and Ye Man Oo is already trying to convince his parents that he needs to make a return trip this summer. And frankly, he was so helpful at my bookshop every day that we would be thrilled to have him back again.

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Mandalay Calling!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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The Fermented Tea Leaf Express

From off the beaten tourist trail, here is an assortment of photos from my last trip to Myanmar; food, friends, and fantastic places! Take a ride on the fermented tea leaf express!

 

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Lunch spread at Phyo Maung Maung’s house in Bagan.

 

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Nine Nine playing some Linn Linn songs on guitar in Bagan.

 

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A sandstone painter in Bagan displays his wares.

 

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Ko Soe and his son in Bagan.

 

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Lunch at Zin Ko’s grandmother’s house.

 

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The friendly front desk staff at the Hotel Queen in Mandalay.

 

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Explosion of colors at the market in Nyaungshwe.

 

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Mar Mar Aye at the Golden Bowl Bookshop in Nyaungshwe.

 

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Zin Ko and his grandmother in Mandalay.

 

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Myanmar Beer!

 

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Monks! Monks! Monks! in Tat Ein village.

 

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All hail the mighty duck in Mandalay!

 

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Ma Pu Sue and Lesly in Nyaungshwe.

 

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Shelter from the storm at the Tat Ein monastery.

 

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Mandalay’s fire tower on 81st Street.

 

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An afternoon game of football in Nyaungshwe.

 

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A plate of fermented tea leaf salad: a true Myanmar treat!

 

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U Kyaw in Mandalay.

 

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Yes, we have bananas!

 

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With Zin Ko and Baw Ga in Mandalay.

 

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U Tin Chit at his teashop in Mandalay.

 

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Don’t drink that!

 

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Ko Maw Hsi in Mandalay.

 

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Outside the classroom lessons in Tat Ein village.

 

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Kyaw Zin Tun at the Hotel Queen in Mandalay.

 

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Mr. Jerry at his bike rental shop in Mandalay.

 

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Nuns making their rounds in Mandalay.

 

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The first cut is the deepest at the Tat Ein monastery!

 

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Novice monk at the Tat Ein monastery applies ointment to his “haircut” wounds.

 

Good Friends Forever

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Looking over some of the photos that I took in Myanmar recently, I was struck by the many shots of friends posing together. They might be longtime friends, new acquaintances, classmates, monks from the same monastery, kids living in the same neighborhood, or employees at the same restaurant. But there is some sort of common bond that links them: people experiencing the ups and downs of life together, treasuring the good times, good friends forever.

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Walter Sylvest: 1941-2014

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Walter Sylvest, one of my very best friends, passed away this week at a nursing home in Bangkok. He had been hospitalized since falling ill in October last year and never fully regained the ability to speak or recognize visitors Even though he was 72 years-old when the illness struck, he had still been quite active and teaching full-time at the Horizon International School in Mandalay. Previous to that, he taught at various international schools in Bangkok such as St. Stephens and Bangkok Prep.

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I first met Walter during a trip to Thailand in 1992. He moved there the following year and I finally made the jump in 1996. On the surface, we didn’t have much in common, plus he was much older than I, and yet, we somehow bonded. I was a voracious book reader, but I don’t think that he ever read anything more than the daily newspaper. I liked to listen to music when I was at home, while he preferred watching action movies and “professional” wrestling matches on TV. Seriously, he was fanatical about his wrestling.

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But we were both single men — loners, if you will — living in Bangkok. No wives, or ex-wives, or children to be responsible for, so that was something that at least we had in common. For us, the great common denominators were food and travel. We usually got together for dinner at least once a week, and ended up taking many trips together to places around Thailand, and eventually to Laos and Myanmar.

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One of the things that I most admired about Walter was the way that he was able to re-invent himself and change careers and places of residence so many times. After working as a teacher in the Alabama public school system for many years, he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s and became an actor, appearing in TV shows and commercials, as well as bit roles in a few movies. He had a reoccurring role in the critically acclaimed TV series Frank’s Place, about a popular New Orleans restaurant. Despite rave reviews, the show didn’t strike it big with audiences and was cancelled after one season. After visiting Thailand in 1992, Walter moved to the kingdom the following year and resurrected his teaching career. He taught for another dozen years, and even did some substitute teaching after he officially retired. But then he came back for yet one more teaching gig at the school in Mandalay about five years ago. When I saw him there in September last year, he was zooming around town on his motorcycle, making plans to bake more treats for his students, and planning a visit to Bangkok. About a month later he was hospitalized, never again to return to Mandalay.

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Walter often “blamed” me for introducing him to Myanmar, a country that he ended up falling in love with, as I also did. Not only did he accompany me on a few trips to Myanmar, he eventually moved to Mandalay and started teaching again in his late sixties. “I’d be having a nice, peaceful retirement if it weren’t for you,” he’d heckle me good-naturedly. “Yeah,” I’d reply, “and you’d be bored out of your mind.”

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Walter was not an easy person to get to know. He had a hard façade that was tough to crack. If you didn’t know him well, you might be put off by his gruff, abrupt nature. He wasn’t a “people person” and didn’t like to socialize with other teachers at the schools where he taught. But if you got on his good side, he proved to be a loyal and dependable friend. Just last year, after one of the boys that I knew on 90th Street in Mandalay drowned, Walter helped arrange for me to make a donation to the boy’s family. He would do anything for a friend.

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He combined his love for teaching and his love for cooking by often baking cookies and cakes and taking them to school to give to students, teachers, and administrative staff. He would also occasionally invite some friends or teachers to his apartment and cook dinner for them. When we cleaned out his apartment in Mandalay earlier this year, we found dozens of cookbooks and hundreds of recipe pages downloaded off the Internet.

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I was informed about his passing on Tuesday morning by the doctor who was taking care of him. She sent me a text message and followed that up with a phone call. Later that morning the hospital sent also me an e-mail, and then a woman from the US Embassy called to make sure that I had received the news. I did my part in getting the word out by sending additional e-mails to friends and colleagues who had known Walter or worked with him. His cousin back in Alabama (Walter’s home state) had already been contacted, so I notified one of his childhood friends, a woman who had known Walter for over 60 years. I also called a man who had lived in the same apartment complex with Walter in Bangkok. They were not close friends, but this guy had taken the time to visit Walter when he was in hospital, and was always asking for updates on his condition, so I thought that he should know too.

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But I wasn’t done yet. I sent e-mails to mutual friends in Myanmar, in both Bagan and Mandalay, people at teashops, restaurants, schools, and hotels. They all remembered Walter and had been asking about him, so I wanted to make sure that they knew. Two teachers at Walter’s school sent me very nice recollections of their time with Walter, and I received very touching notes from Ma Khin Thida and Kyaw Zin Tun at the Hotel Queen in Mandalay. I think those notes made me cry the most.

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Walter was not a man you would forget if you met him. One mutual friend, who had taught with Walter at a school in Bangkok, described him as “like someone from a David Lynch film.” That made me laugh! Indeed, Walter was an unforgettable “character” in the truest sense of the word. With his thick southern accent, occasional malapropisms, and sometimes gruff demeanor he could appear unfriendly or demanding. And sometimes he really was. You certainly did not want to get on his bad side or feel his wrath! But he was also a considerate, polite, and very giving person too. I saw this generous side to him so many times, especially during trips to neighboring countries. He would visit orphanages in Laos and buy clothes for the children, even sponsoring a few kids in school. At poor rural schools he would buy pencils and notebooks for the students. At a very rundown teashop in Mandalay he bought shoes and shirts for the entire staff of boys — about 15 kids — who were working there. And he performed such acts of kindness more than a handful of times.

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I’ve spent the past few days thinking about our times together; the trips and dinners, and good memories. Whenever we got together Walter would always say something, or offer an observation, that invariably made me laugh. My favorite restaurant in Mandalay, Aye Myit Tar, was one that he loved to dub “the greasy spoon” due to its oily curries. It wasn’t his favorite place to eat, but he would graciously accompany me there anytime I wanted to visit. If nothing else, he was always entertained by the enthusiastic and friendly crew of waiters there. In fact, just a week ago, while dining at that same restaurant, two of the waiters asked about him.

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Walter was truly one of a kind. I’m really, really going to miss his friendship.

 

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