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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