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Posts tagged ‘Golden Bowl Travel’

Shan Birthday Girl


When I arrived in the Shan State town of Nyaunghwe back in early March, once I was settled in my hotel room, I slipped into a longyi and immediately headed outside. My first stop was to Golden Bowl Travel & Bookshop to rent a bike and chat with the owner, Mar Mar Aye. She’s a wonderful lady and almost single-handedly runs the shop.


It turned out that I arrived on an auspicious day; it was her daughter Tina’s birthday. They were planning a celebratory dinner at a local restaurant that night, and Mar Mar Aye graciously invited me to join them. I asked if I could bring anything, but Mar Mar Aye told me that presents were not necessary. However, I suggested that I could buy the birthday cake. That idea, at least, met with approval!



The restaurant that we went to, Pwe Daw Win, is a recently opened place on Yone Gyi Road, about a kilometer east of Golden Bowl and the central market area, not far from the road that leads to Tat Ein village. We rode our bikes to the restaurant T about seven o’clock that night, where we met another family friend, Lwan Moe Aung, who is a local trekking guide. At Pwe Daw Win you have the option of eating in the main dining room or one of the cute little open-air private huts (for lack of a better word). We opted for a hut, Mar Mar Aye ordered the food, and soon the feast began!



Tina couldn’t wait to get to the cake: she started cutting it up and serving it even before all the main courses had arrived! Hey, whatever floats your boat, right? I certainly didn’t complain. The cake, luckily, was quite testy, and so was the rest of the food at Pwe Daw Win. Good food and good friends; needless to say it was a very good evening!



Searching for Books in Shan State


I had extended my stay in Shan State’s Nyaungshwe for an extra two days in order to attend a pagoda festival in Hat Ein village. The festival was being held on a full moon day, which I was told, would guarantee a most festive festival. My only problem was that I was about to finish the paperback book I brought with me, The Secret Soldier by Alex Berenson (a great read by the way, part of his intriguing John Wells espionage series), and I needed another book to read until I could return to Mandalay where I had another book tucked away in an extra bag. I’m one of those people who believe that a day without books is like a day without sunshine, so I had to solve this predicament quickly.



Luckily, there is a small shop in Nyaungshwe, Golden Bowl Travel, that stocks books. They are located on Yon Gyi Road between the main market and Golden Kite Restaurant. It’s run by Ma Ma Aye and her darling daughter who goes by the nickname of Tina. They are truly sweet and very helpful people. I browsed their selection of English language titles (they also have books in French, German, Swedish, Italian, and Dutch), pondering several titles. There was a 2-for-1 Ed McBain edition, but I’d already read both novels, so I continued perusing the shelves. I pondered a John Cheever short story collection, but the book looked too heavy for my needs, both the size and weight of the book (I need something relatively small to stick in the shoulder bag that I always travel with) and perhaps too serious in tone for my carefree travel mood. In the end, I opted for a Stuart Woods novel, Orchid Blues. I had read one Stuart Woods book about a decade ago (don’t even ask me to remember the title!), recommended by a friend who is also a big mystery buff, but I don’t recall being that thrilled with that book. In any event, I figured I would try Woods again and see if I liked him better this time around.


Well, that didn’t happen. In fact, I can truly say that I hated this book, a reaction that I rarely have when reading mystery novels. But this book was so trite and lame that I gave up after about 100 pages. I’m amazed that I even made it that far, but it wasn’t like reading that many pages was a particular challenging task; the dialogue was so simplistic and ridiculous that a child could have breezed through it. In fact, I wonder if this was indeed aimed a “young reader” market. It certainly will insult the intelligence of anyone that reads reasonably well-written crime fiction. Honestly, I can’t heap enough scorn upon this book. Total rubbish.


So, I took it back, along with the Berenson book that I had finished, and resumed the task of picking out another novel. I looked at both the McBain and Cheever books again, but opted not to get either one. Then I noticed a Daniel Silva book on the wall. I think I’ve read all the books in his Gabriel Allon series, but this particular novel, The Mark of the Assassin, was a one-off effort that I hadn’t read yet. Say no more, I’ll take it! And, predictably, it was a very good read, although it struck me as a paint-by-numbers spy story with relatively few surprises. Nevertheless, it held my interest and lasted me until I reached Mandalay.


I know; experienced travelers who read would advise me to get a Kindle or some other sort of e-reader for when I’m on the road, but having such a device doesn’t even remotely appeal to my reading tastes. Give me a real book with that magical paper smell and the familiar comfort of turning the pages. I’m a holdout and proud of it!



Kakku with the Kids: The Trip, part 1


The first time I visited the primary school at Tat Ein village was about four years ago. My friend Htein Linn, who runs Golden Bowl Travel Services & Bookshop in Nyaungshwe, took me there after I expressed an interest in helping an underprivileged school in the area. The first time we took donations of sandals for the students, the type of flip-flop footwear that most people in Myanmar call “slippers.” After that initial donation I followed it up with sports equipment (footballs, volleyballs, badminton sets), medicine on the trip after that, and then first aid boxes to hold the various medicine and bandages.




About two years ago one of my visits coincided around the time of the annual balloon festival in nearby Taunggyi. This festival features two varieties of balloons; one type is launched during the day and the other type is accompanied by fireworks at night. I had already made plans to take the monks from Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe to the festival, but those monks only had time to attend the night-time festivities. I really wanted to see the daytime balloons too — they are constructed in the shapes of various animals — but didn’t fancy travelling all the way to Taunggyi by himself. I then had one of those spontaneous brainstorms that turned into a brilliant idea: Why not invite the students from the school at Tat Ein village?




I discussed the idea with Htein Linn and he enthusiastically endorsed it. Most of these kids, he told me, had never travelled very far from their village, certainly not past Nyaungshwe, so a trip like this would be very special for them. After getting permission from the teachers and U Sandimar at the monastery, I ended up taking a group of 50 students and monks to that festival. I don’t think it’s a cliché to say that these kids had the time of their lives. Going to new places, seeing new things, the wonder in their eyes; it was an amazing experience not only for them but for me too. Seeing these kids having so much fun, and being so appreciative afterwards, really warmed my jaded heart.




Last year we took another trip, this time to the Pindaya Caves. That was a longer, more tiring, and dustier journey, but it was still a fun excursion for everyone. For my visit last month we ventured back to Taunggyi (there is a nice park with a small zoo on the edge of town, along with a very popular temple) and further down the road to the ancient Pa-O stupa ruins in Kakku.




We had lunch at a monastery near the famous “grove of stupas” (there are about two thousand of these cool old monuments crammed together in the park) and then wandered around the site afterwards. The only problem was coordinating a group of that size. This time around we had over 70 students (not only from the primary school, but kids from the village who attend the high school in Nyaunghswe), teachers, novice monks, senior monks, and a few parents. And when it came time to see the actual site, some people went in one entrance, others went in another entrance, and a few more straggled behind or got lost. Not a single group of kids followed a logical path through the park. Needless to say it was pretty much total chaos. But fun chaos. I wanted to get photos of everyone, or at least pictures of as many of the kids grouped together as possible, but that ended up not happening. I just never saw some of the group while we were there!






I’ll post some of the Kakku shots today, along with a few of photos that I took at the school before departure. I have plenty more photos that I took at the park and the temple Taunggyi — along with some that one of the novice monks took with my camera (that will be a post by itself) — but I’ll save those for next week. This week is the annual “New Year” water festival throughout the region: in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos. The locals are enjoying a long holiday break and celebrating with water silliness. Happy “New Year” to everyone once again!











Shan Lunch Break!

The students at Tat Ein’s primary school get a two-hour lunch break each day. Classes stop at eleven each morning and resume at one in the afternoon. The novice monks in class, however, get to leave earlier, around 10:45, so that they can walk up the hill to their monastery for lunch.


When I’m teaching at the school, I’m invited to eat lunch with the other teachers and volunteers that help out at the monastery. The meals, a bounty of freshly prepared vegetarian dishes, are always delicious; stir-fried dishes, soups, and salads are the usual fare. They don’t serve any of the oily curries that so many people associate with Burmese food. Then again, this is Shan State and the cuisine is a bit different, my favorite in all of Myanmar, vegetarian or not.


After I’ve finished my lunch and one of the teachers has brought me coffee (on top of all the tea I’ve already consumed) and some fresh fruit, I feel the need to walk it off. Some days I might stroll up to the monastery and talk with the monks, or visit the head monk, U Sandi Mar, in his cave, but usually I just walk around the school yard and watch the children playing games, snapping a few photos in the process. What you see in today’s post are some of the typical lunch break activities at the school; children scampering down the slides and see-saw, playing football or dodge ball, picking flowers, or playing card games. They certainly know how to entertain themselves.


But, sadly, some of them don’t get to eat lunch every day. At least the novice monks are assured of a meal at their monastery, but that’s not the case with all the children. Tat Ein is a very poor village and some of the children don’t go home for lunch. It might be because their parents are working in the fields and don’t have time — or the money — to fix a midday meal for their children. U Sandi Mar and his crew try to feed as many kids as they can each day, but there isn’t always enough food for everyone. It definitely makes me think twice when they offer me second helpings. Politeness dictates that you accept what is offered, but I often beg off and tell them that I had a huge breakfast and I’ll already full.


On the other side of the mountain, a few kilometers away, the village of Loi Kin has a small primary school and many students there also go without lunch each day. My friend Htein Linn, at Golden Bowl Travel in Nyaungshwe, is concerned about this problem and wants to start a program where tourists can donate money to provide lunches for these poor students. I think that’s an excellent idea. If you are interested in helping, and are passing through Nyaunghshwe (“on the shores of famous Inle Lake”), stop by Golden Bowl Travel and talk to Htein Linn. If has time, he’ll even take you to one of the schools. You can reach Tat Ein by bike or a very long walk, but Loi Kin is further away, and accessible by only steep, rutted paths, so a motorcycle is the better option. Golden Bowl Travel is located on Nyaungshwe’s main street, between the market and Golden Kite Restaurant (good pizza and pasta there!). Htein Linn also has a good selection of secondhand books at his shop!




Road Trip to Pindaya Caves

In November last year I took a group of students and novice monks from Tat Ein village to the annual balloon festival in Taunggyi. Here’s the link for photos from that excursion:

That trip went so well, and was so much fun — for me as well as the kids — that I wanted to take them somewhere else in the area when I returned this time. I asked the teachers and U Sandi Mar (the head monk in the village) for suggestions on where the children wanted to go this time. The verdict was unanimous: the Pindaya Caves.


These sacred caves are tucked away high in the hills, overlooking a lake in the small town of Pindaya. It’s a two-hour-plus drive from Nyaungshwe. Unlike some “caves” at sites around Myanmar, these are actually real caves (as opposed to some alcove carved into a cement wall) — and huge ones — located inside craggy limestone hills, full of stalactites and stalagmites … and thousands upon thousands of Buddha images of all shapes and sizes. Last count, there were something like 9,000 of the holy images inside the caves, perched and balanced and stacked everywhere. It’s either totally awe inspiring, or sort of gaudy, depending upon your point of view. Actually, I find the caves quite impressive; Buddha images surrounding you at every level and at every twist and turn. There are no bats flying around inside the caves (at least none that I saw or heard), but the ground is damp in many parts, and the paths are rough and narrow, so you really need to watch your step.


One of the greatest things about this trip, at least for me, was watching the children’s reactions to so many of the new sights and experiences. Two things come to mind; being with them as they took their first elevator ride (there is a glass observatory elevator that takes people “up the hill” at the caves); and being in the truck as they witnessed an airplane taking off for the first time (as we passed the airport in Heho). Seeing the wonder in their eyes and the excitement in their voices … I’m telling you, I feel really lucky that I was there for those “first” moments. That was special. I also had to remember; this was the farthest that most of them had been from their village before.


This time around I took nearly 70 people on the trip. Mostly students from the primary school in Tat Ein, novice monks from the monastery, plus some older kids from the village who go to middle school or high school in Nyaungshwe (the village has only the one small primary school at this point). In addition to the kids, a senior monk, a nun, three teachers, and a couple of parents came along. Htein Linn from Golden Bowl Travel also joined us, as did two of my friends visiting from Bagan. This throng couldn’t all fit in the big truck that I rented, so we also hired a second, smaller vehicle to handle the overflow.


We stopped at a monastery outside of Pindaya and had an early lunch at about eleven in the morning. I’m not sure if this stop had been planned or was a spontaneous one, but the monks in residence definitely had enough food to feed us all. That’s just the way things always seem to work out in Myanmar. Afterwards we headed to the caves, stopping for LOTS of photos outside the entrance, where a gigantic spider is one of the highlights. But due to all the photo-taking outside, I wasn’t able to get inside the caves with the first few groups of arrivals (the elevator that takes you up to the entrance can only handle 10-12 people at once) and we spent the first ten minutes trying to round up everyone. It was a bit disorganized, but thankfully we didn’t lose anyone and I didn’t notice anyone falling on the slippery paths inside the caves.


On the way back to Nyaungshwe we stopped at another temple, one that hosts the mummified body of a respected monk, and at the railway bridge between Heho and Shwe Nyaung — where some of the monks engaged in a rock throwing contest, trying to hit a metal crossbar down the hill. Once again, lots of photo requests, plus the children bought snacks at each and every stop. Even the monks were magically pulling money out of their robes and buying all sorts of junk food to eat. Hey, what you can say; it’s a special trip for them and they’re just kids!


As was expected, some of the kids got car sick during the trip. Htein Linn and I both brought little plastic barf bags, plus we stopped at a pharmacy and bought some medicine to help calm the stomachs of the ones who were susceptible to car sickness. Another problem was all the dust on the “shortcut” route that took in the morning. Indeed, it was faster, and we bypassed more hills this way, but the dust got all over everything. I was amazed at a couple of the young monks in the group; they stood in the back of the truck during the entire journey to the caves AND back again, not once sitting down or getting sick. Now that’s stamina!



Missing Monks

I’ve developed a ritual. As soon as I arrive in Nyaungshwe, after I’ve unpacked my bags and settled into my room at the Nandawunn Hotel, the first thing I always do is hop on my bike (courtesy of Htein Linn at Golden Bowl Travel, just down the street), and make tracks to Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, an old teakwood monastery on the outskirts of town.


I time my arrival at Shwe Yan Pyay between 11:30 am and noon, knowing that the novice monks have their lunch break until 1:00, and have free time before resuming their studies to chat and take photos. When I arrive on the first day of each trip, I have photos to give them, shots I’d taken on the previous trip. Because there isn’t a photo shop in Nyaungshwe, I can’t make prints while I’m in town, so that means waiting six months or longer until I can return and give them the photos. This time I had shots of the balloon festival in Taunggyi that we attended in November last year. During past trips I had rented cars and taken three or four monks at a time on short trips in the area. About a year ago I sprung for a van and increased the monk quota to ten per trip. But for the balloon festival last year I went all out, taking every monk at the monastery. We had to split them up and do it over the course of two nights, but we did it.


When I arrived at Shwe Yan Pyay this time, it seemed rather quiet. I poked my head in the main hall and no one was around, so I wandered over to the other study hall and found exactly one monk, resting in a corner. He told me that most of the novice monks were taking exams in town (this was the annual “big exam” month) but a few others were in another nearby building I walked over there and found nine novices, along with two senior monks … all of them intently watching a football match on TV. No afternoon studies today! I passed out the photos and asked them about the exams. I was told that the exams had been going on for about two weeks already — some of the monks watching the football match had already finished — but there were a few more days left before it all concluded. I didn’t have much interest in hanging around and watching the game on TV, so I took my leave and walked back to my bike, thinking how strange it was to see so few monks at the monastery (a week later, things looked back to normal).


Later that same day, I pedaled over to Tat Ein village, the site of another monastery and also a primary school. I had taught English lessons there last year and had taken those kids — including another bunch of novice monks — to the same balloon festival in Taunggyi. Once again, I had oodles of photos to pass out, along with some small gifts for three of the novice monks that I had spent the most time with: Pyin Na Thiri, Kaw Wi Da, and Zar Na Ya. Not wanting to enter the school in the middle of a lesson (during previous visits, as soon as I walk in the classroom, bearing photos, total chaos ensues), I arrived around 3 pm, just before the day’s classes were about to end.


The bike ride to Hat Ein is not an easy one. The distance from Nyaungshwe isn’t so far (I’m guessing it’s less than 5 km), but the dirt road is pretty bumpy and some of the inclines are very steep, forcing you to dismount and walk at some points. By the time I arrived at the school I was sweating profusely, helped in part by the heavy backpack (filled with hundreds of photos and gifts for the teachers) that I was wearing. I was greeted with big smiles by the teachers and the students, some of whom had poked their heads out the window when I arrived. Looking around the room, however, I didn’t see any of the monks I knew. Where were they?


And then one of the teachers gave me the news; they were all gone. Transferred to another monastery in Shwe Nyaung (a larger town, about 20 km away, on the road to the airport) only a few weeks ago. Not only had the three I had known well been packed off, but another eight novice monks had gone with them; and I had brought photo packs for those eight monks also. Gone? Damn, I felt devastated. Here I was, really looking forward to seeing these little monks again, and that wasn’t going to happen. One of the teachers assured me that they could have the photos sent to the new monastery … although she didn’t know the name of it or where exactly it was located! When I talked to a senior monk the next day, he also promised that he would make sure that the monks got the photos, so I feel somewhat reassured that they would eventually get to see the shots, many of which they took themselves. See these links for the photos they took:


It felt strange, like there was a definite void with so many of the “old monks” gone from the village. It bothered me for all of twenty minutes, until classes were over and I trudged up the hill to visit with the remaining monks at the monastery and give them photos from the previous trip. The other monks there — some of whom I remembered from the previous trip and some of whom were new arrivals — were incredibly sweet and friendly, as if sensing my disappointment at not seeing all of the previous crew. My short visit turned into a mini-party, with the novices coming up to greet me, wanting to hold my hand or shake my hand, and pose for more photos.

I looked around at these smiling faces, all clad in brilliant red robes, some of them giggling and running around the monastery, and realized that the void that had been created by the departure of Pyin Na Thiri, Kaw Wi Da, and Zar Na Ya and friends would easily be filled by these other genial — and sometimes silly — young monks. What can you do but smile and go with the flow, however unpredictable it may be at times.




The Other Side of the Mountain

Only a few kilometers away from Tat Ein village in Shan State, on the other side of the mountain, and down some incredibly difficult to navigate dirt roads, is the small village of Lwe Kin. Actually, there is a Lwe Kin South and a Lwe Kin North. I visited the northern village. Not only is this village more remote than Tat Ein, it’s even poorer.


My friend Htein Linn knows two of the teachers at the primary school in Lwe Kin and tries to encourage tourists to visit when they have time. Of course, getting them there is the big challenge. You have to make the journey on foot, by bike (and half of that journey involves getting off your bike and pushing it up hills or across ditches), or find someone with a motorcycle. The first time I visited, two years ago, I took a bike. Uh, never again. The last two trips Htein Linn borrowed his brother’s motorcycle to take us. With money from donations, Htein Linn juggles several projects at the school each year. He is currently making arrangements to have new washrooms and toilets built for the students.


Sadly, one of the most difficult challenges is persuading parents in Lwe Kin to let their children attend classes. Many poor families living in the area consider their kids to be valuable workers that can help them earn extra income, thus some parents would rather have the children helping them in the fields than letting them go to school. But once they are in class, some of these children really thrive. If you visit Nyaungshwe and the Inle Lake area, consider a short trip to see this school. Htein Linn at Golden Bowl Travel can fill you in on all the details.

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