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

Posts tagged ‘Feel Restaurant’

Back on the Yangon Streets

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Admittedly, I’ve been neglecting Yangon during my recent trips to Myanmar. I always spend the first day of my trip in Yangon, then head off to Mandalay and Shan State — maybe a few days in Bagan — for the bulk of my stay, and then back to Yangon for the final half-day before returning to Bangkok. I used to spend much more time hanging out in Yangon, but after the better part of a decade I’ve seen all there is to see and other than meeting friends for meals in local restaurants, there isn’t all that much I want to do in the increasingly crowded and traffic-choked city.

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But I added an extra day at the end of this trip, just so I’d have more time to schedule meals with friends such as Win Thuya, Ma Thanegi, and Thet Myo Aung. Having the luxury of an extra day meant that I didn’t have to cram so many appointments into a narrow window of time. Also, instead of napping back at the hotel I forced myself to get out and about and take more walks around town. And by doing that, I remembered why I used to enjoy Yangon so much. Despite the heat and congestion, there is a vibrant, upbeat pulse that pervades the city. Lots of vendors on the streets, a steady flow of pedestrians, plenty of wacky billboards, and a rainbow stew of people. But there are more vehicles on the road (even without motorcycles; Yangon being one of the few cities in Asia where the two-wheelers are prohibited) and sometimes crossing the street can be a frustrating task.

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I stopped into tiny pharmacies to buy drugs (anti-fungal skin cream for monks in Shan State), teashops for meals and tea (of course!), and restaurants such as Feel (where Thet Myo Aung works) for my noodle fix. And every time I’d be in these places, some friendly stranger would strike up a conversation. Maybe they noticed me thumbing through my dog-eared Burmese phrasebook, or wearing a stylish longyi, but whatever the motivation it always resulted in a very nice chat in either English or Burmese. Yangon, I still love you!

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Mr. Obama goes to Myanmar

It’s official: Barack Obama will visit Myanmar later this month, the first US president to ever visit the country formerly known as Burma. Not surprisingly the trip has been both lauded and criticized, depending on which special interest human rights group or political organization is attempting to make itself heard. Nowadays, of course, a politician just can’t make a trip without people trying to analyze it or condemn it. But I think it’s wonderful that Obama is making this trip. It’s not “premature” or “misguided” — it’s the right thing to do.

 

The downside to this historic trip is that Obama will most likely spend a grand total of 16 hours in the country — half of that time sleeping — and will no doubt confine his visit solely to Yangon. Which is a shame because he won’t have the opportunity to see more of this beautiful, mesmerizing country, and get to meet more of the people, as opposed to the quick, generic glimpse he’ll be given by his greeters and minders.

 

In Yangon he is scheduled to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, now an elected member of the opposition party (one of many parties, actually), and reformist Prime Minister Thein Sein. He will most likely make the obligatory visit to Shwedagon, the country’s most famous and most revered pagoda. And after that? Meetings with the new US ambassador, some sort of bland dinner, and off he’ll go. See you later … thanks … take care. Which country is next? Oh, the joy of politics.

 

It would be really cool if Obama and his entourage dropped by a local restaurant, such as Feel, where my friend That Myo Aung works as a waiter, while he was in Yangon. It’s not far from Shwedagon, so why not?  Feel specializes in Burmese cuisine, but they also have Thai and Chinese dishes and some Western food. Something for everyone. Want a cappuccino with your curry? No problem! That Myo Aung is an incredibly attentive waiter, very friendly (as is almost everyone in this country), and has a smile that will light up a dim room. I can just picture him and Obama grinning at one another. That Myo Aung  and I will usually go out for dinner together at least once when I am in town. This trip, however, I didn’t have much time in Yangon, so I only saw briefly three times; once when I dropped by for a late breakfast with Ma Thanegi, later the same day when I met Win Thuya for lunch, and on my last day in town when I stopped by for a late afternoon coffee. As usual, That Myo Aung’s waiter radar kicked in and he found me before I could even sit down. I ordered a latte and we chatted for a half hour or so. When it was time to pay the bill, he waved me off; he had already paid for me. What could I say except: Che Zu Tin Ba De (Thank You!). The hospitality in this country never ceases to amaze me.

 

And on that subject, I’ll give you some more examples. In Mandalay I always drop by Minthiha, a rather large teashop at the corner of 72nd and 28th Streets. Actually, they have several branches in town, but this one has always been my favorite, thanks to a tip from Win Thuya many years ago.  After going there so often over the years, most of the waiters know me, and a couple of them always make an extra effort to treat me like royalty, much like Thant Myo Aung in Yangon. At Minthiha, my two regulars are Yan Naing Soe and Yan Zaw Win. I also make a point of taking them out to dinner when I’m in town, and sometimes we’ll go somewhere afterwards, maybe to a local shopping center or one of the Happy World complexes where they have games, silly rides, and a haunted house. Good, cheap fun. During one of my visits, meeting my tour guide friend Ko Soe Moe for breakfast one morning, Yan Naing Soe picked up the tab. And during another visit, Soe Moe paid. It was almost ridiculous; I couldn’t even spend my own money there!

 

Maybe such bill paying doesn’t seem remarkable to most westerners, but when you think about the fact that most of these guys are earning less than twenty US dollars per month — a month! — working at local restaurants and teashops, that’s an extremely generous thing for them to do. Naturally, I try and tip these waiters well, but I still think that their kindness exceeds the bounds of normal generosity.

 

But such hospitality is the Myanmar way. Selfish these people are not. I paid for very few meals when I was out with other locals. Ma Thanegi treated me to breakfast; Win Thuya paid the lunch bill; in Nyaungshwe Htein Linn treated me to pizza and beer at the Golden Kite Restaurant one night; also in Nyaungshwe, Ma Pu Sue invited me to her house for dinner another night, and on my final day in Nyaungshwe, another tour guide friend, Malar Htun, drove in from Taunggyi and took me to lunch, and later she handed me a bag of Shan State coffee. And there’s more. The kids at Tat Ein primary school were always offering me candy and any other snacks they had with them. Dirt poor village children and they don’t think twice about sharing what they have. The teachers at that same school made sure I had extra helpings of food at lunch each day or brought me tea and snacks when I was teaching English classes. Whenever I’m at Ko Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay, they never let me pay for anything I eat or drink. At Maw Hsi’s house in Mandalay, more home-cooked meals. Yes, these are my friends, but none of these people are rich and they really don’t need to be paying for my meals and treating me all the time. But that’s just the way they are. They are good people. Proud people.

 

Why do I keep going back to Myanmar again and again? It’s the people, of course. More than the overwhelming generosity and hospitality, it’s their personality and spirit that impresses me. I only hope that Barack Obama has the chance, in between meetings and briefings and chatting with The Lady, to meet some of the other down-to-earth human jewels that live in Myanmar. You’re in for a treat, Barack!

 

Judyth’s Myanmar Memoir

I had heard of Judyth Gregory-Smith several years before I actually met her in person. Until that time, she was only known to me as “the trishaw lady” from Australia. I don’t think Judyth has ever pedaled a trishaw in her life (she can correct me if I’m wrong!), but her association with that most Burmese of transport options was due to the fact that she had purchased a couple of trishaws for a Burmese man to start a business in Mandalay. The appreciative young man then named one of the cute three-wheeled contraptions after Judyth.

 

When I finally met Judyth, it was totally by chance. I had gone to the Feel Restaurant in Yangon with Ma Thanegi for lunch one day. The place was busy as usual, but amidst the throng I recognized one man, Kyar Min sitting at a corner table. The odd thing, however, was that he was a trishaw driver in Mandalay and I’d never previously seen him outside of that city. What was he doing in Yangon, I wondered? It was at that moment that I noticed that he wasn’t sitting alone, but with a Western woman. He introduced her; this was the famous Judyth! It turned out that Ma Thanegi also knew Judyth — both of them being travel writers who had trod similar paths —- but she had not met Kyar Min before. More introductions were made.

 

Fast forward to this year and Judyth’s fascinating new book, Myanmar: a Memoir of Loss and Recovery, has just been published. In this book she writes about her various experiences traveling alone around Myanmar, while gradually coming to terms with the illness and subsequent death of her husband. The book, Judyth says, traces two journeys: a geographical journey and an inner journey. The Pansodan Art Gallery in Yangon recently wrote a short review of the book on its blog, calling Myanmar: a Memoir of Loss and Recovery “a well-observed account of places and people, and her deeper involvement over the course of several years of visits. This is a great book as a gift to people who want to know more about life in Myanmar in those years, whether they have been here or not, and (aside from its sobering prologue) a highly amusing and well-written book which freshens our sense of why we love this country so much, even now during the crashing monsoon and heavy weather.”

http://pansodan.blogspot.com/view/mosaic#!/2012/06/last-decade-before.html

 

In between her country hopping (she was in Vietnam earlier this month, before making plans for another return to Myanmar) I asked Judyth about her new book and her experiences in Myanmar.

When did you visit Myanmar for the first time? And what were your initial impressions of the country?

I first visited Myanmar in 1987 with my late husband, Richard. He was on leave from his Australian government position in the embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. He asked his counterpart in the embassy in Myanmar to do an itinerary for us and we visited Bagan, Mandalay, Bago and many other “must see” destinations in the two weeks’ visa that was allowed in those days. We both loved Myanmar — especially the people — and vowed to return, but over the years we went on to work in other countries and to other places on holidays. In 2003 I did return, but alone: Richard died in 2001.

 

At what point did you decide: “I’m going to write a book about my experiences in Myanmar”?

The first journey I took on my own, with five words of Burmese, was by train to Mawlamyine. An hour or two into the journey the train stopped. When it had been stationary more than an hour, the engine driver came to tell me why we couldn’t proceed: a train in front had tipped its load all over the track. I left the train and eventually found a truck going to Kinpun, so I visited Kyaiktiyo and the Golden Rock Pagoda and then found a way to get to Mawlamyine by bus. So many funny things happened on these journeys, that I thought they could be the beginning of a book on travel in Myanmar.

 

How long did it take you to write the book? Did you agonize over re-writes or did it flow quickly?

The book took more than seven years to write. It started life as a travel narrative, as I am a travel writer, but because of sanctions against Myanmar, no publisher was interested. Eventually, a Sydney publisher suggested I should rewrite the manuscript as a memoir. This took me 18 months. I turned my journey around Myanmar into two journeys — my geographical journey, and my interior journey as I tried to come to terms with the illness and death of Richard.

 

One of the people you write about in your book, Kyar Min, is someone I know also. Tell us about meeting him for the first time.

On my first overnight bus trip to Mandalay my daughter, Fiona, working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Yangon, asked me to telephone to tell her I’d arrived safely. This I did, but the man with the telephone on the street spoke even less English than I spoke Burmese. He hailed a trishaw man across the street who spoke English and he took me to a cyber cafe so I could work on my manuscript. The trishaw man, Kyar Min, had supported his invalid father, his mother and three siblings for ten years when I met him. I decided it was time for someone to give him some support. So he came on holiday to Australia and my generous friends helped him with cash, which he used to buy some secondhand trishaws for him to rent out. This has not been a great success, but a little sewing business that we started has done better and is growing. Kyar Min is the manager and quality control manager of the little project.

 

Obviously, you aren’t the typical tourist who visits Myanmar one time, says “That was nice”, and never returns. Like me, you return again and again. What keeps you going back?

The book is now published, but I return to Myanmar on my tourist visa three times a year. I go to the market with Kyar Min and the seamstresses and we buy fabric for which I pay. Then the seamstresses go off to sew. Kyar Min monitors them daily, going from house to house on his trishaw, checking that they have all they need and improving the standard of their work and. Just before my visa expires I return to each woman, collect what she has made and ask how much I owe her. I pay whatever she asks, so if my plane crashes on my way home they have at least been paid for their labor. Fortunately for them (and me!) my plane has not yet crashed! Kyar Min and the seamstresses know that whatever I sell for them when I go back to Malaysia (where I have a base) or Australia (which I visit for six weeks a year) I will take the profit (or helping money as they call it) back to them. As one person humorously pointed out I am a one-person, not-for-profit, NGO!

 

Things are changing quickly this year in Myanmar, perhaps too quickly. Are you optimistic about positive changes happening in the country, or do you fear the deluge of greedy developers and investors will have a negative impact?

I am optimistic about change in Myanmar as long as developers and investors employ Myanmar staff and ensure part of the profit of their endeavors goes to the people of Myanmar. I believe Myanmar cultural norms, particularly where family is concerned, will go some way to prevent negative exploitation, for example in the tourist industry.

 

For someone going to Myanmar for the first time, what are five “must” things they should either see or do?

They must visit the three most important Buddhist shrines in Myanmar: the Shwedagon in Yangon, the Mahamuni in Mandalay and the Golden Rock Pagoda in Kyaiktiyo. Bagan is, of course, a must, as is Mandalay.

 

What are some of your other favorite travel destinations? Are there any other countries that you would still like to visit?

I’ve enjoyed time in UK, Europe, Nepal, Sudan, Kenya, and Malaysia. I’d like to visit Egypt because my mother was born there. I’d like to re-visit Rome, Paris and Athens with my grandchildren, as I took my children there when they were young.

 

What are some other books about Myanmar, either fiction or non-fiction, that would you recommend?

Aung San Suu Kyi – Freedom from Fear

Andrew Marshall – The Trouser People

James Mawdsley – The Heart Must Break: The Fight for Democracy and Truth in Burma

George Orwell – Burmese Days

Inge Sargent – Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess

Sir James George Scott (Shway Yoe) – The Burman: His Life and Notions

V.C. Scott O’Connor – Mandalay and other cities of the past in Burma

F. Tennyson Jesse – The Lacquer Lady

Thant Myint-U – The River of Lost Footsteps

U Toke Gale – Burmese Timber Elephant

Donovan Webster – The Burma Road

Lt. Col. J.H. Williams – Elephant Bill

 

How can interested readers get your book?

I chose to publish Myanmar: A Memoir of Loss and Recovery through Lulu Publishers in the USA. It can be bought online from Lulu, from Amazon.com, or from Barnes and Noble. There is also a Facebook page for the book: https://www.facebook.com/MyanmarJudythGregorySmith

http://www.lulu.com/shop/judyth-gregory-smith/myanmar-a-memoir-of-loss-and-recovery/paperback/product-18957635.html#ratingsReview

 

 

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