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

Posts tagged ‘Irrawaddy River’

Heading to the Hills: Mingun and Sagaing


When I was in Mandalay last month, I followed tradition and took some of the kids from 90th Street on a trip in the area. We’ve taken a dozen trips or more over the past decade, and in recent years we’ve gone as far away as Bagan and Shan State (Taunggyi, Nyaunghswe, Inle Lake).



This time around I didn’t have the budget or the energy for a long trip, so we stuck closer to Mandalay, visiting the nearby towns of Mingun and Sagaing. I’ve been to Mingun many times, and in the past have always taken the boat on the Irrawaddy River that makes morning runs to the riverside town. The trip takes about an hour each way. You know you’ve reached Mingun when you see the towering base of the Mingun Pagoda next to the river. This pagoda was actually never finished. It was designed to be the country’s tallest pagoda when construction began back in 1790. But after the ruling king died, and an ensuing earthquake caused a huge crack to form on the structure, construction was halted and never resumed. But the project was so grandiose that even the resultant base is alone an impressive sight. There are now signs discouraging tourists from hiking to the top, but everyone makes the climb anyway.



The other highlights in Mingun include the huge Mingun Bell (noted as the world’s largest “uncracked” bell), the Hsinbyume Paya, a white-washed pagoda distinguished by its funky “waves” of walls, and don’t forget those huge “guardian lions” next to the riverfront. Throw in the Mingun Home for the Aged (a nursing home), and a few more monasteries on the hill, and that’s about all there is to see or do in Mingun.





For this trip, instead of taking the boat, the kids made the decision to hire a small “light truck” that would take us to both Mingun and the nearby town of Sagaing, famous for the hundreds of pagodas that are strewn around the surrounding hills. After climbing Sagaing Hill (accessible by a very long series of stairs), the crew was exhausted and some of the boys took naps on the terrace. Once again, though, they were well behaved and the excursion was a delightful way to spend the morning and early afternoon. Other than buying the entry ticket for foreigners at the Mingun Pagoda, and paying for lunch for everyone, it was a fairly inexpensive outing too.















Mandalay River Tragedy


I was checking e-mail at my shop on Saturday night when I noticed one from my friend Khin Nwe Lwin in Mandalay. I get notes from her on a fairly frequent basis, but the subject heading in this e-mail instantly made me frown with concern: Bad News

I clicked the message and read what she wrote:

“I have to say to you bad news. Today at 11:00 Hein Htet Zaw’s brother, Baw Ga and Zin Ko go to Irrawaddy river to swim. Their parents didn’t know that. Now, Hein Htet Zaw’s brother was drowned about 12:00. Baw Ga and Zin Ko talked to my aunt about 2:00.”

This was like one of the punches to the gut that leave you gasping for breath. A child dead. But my mind raced: who was it? She said that it was Hein Htet Zaw’s brother, but  I didn’t know that he had a brother. I knew of at least two cousins. Was it one of those boys? When I’m in Mandalay, I always take a group of these kids on a trip somewhere in the area. Baw Ga and Zin Ko are two regulars, both of whom I know very well, so I assumed this “brother” was one of the crew too. But who was the boy who drowned?

I wrote back to Khin Nwe Lwin, expressing my condolences, and asked her the name of this child. She wrote back a couple of hours later and told me:

“His name is Aung Phyo Zaw and he is eleven years old. He is attending six standard in this year. I can’t suffer this feeling, but this is his fate.”

She also attached a photo of her and Aung Phyo Zaw, which I’m posting below. I remember him now. He wasn’t one of the regulars who go on trips with us, but he was one of the kids that I saw around the neighborhood. He’s also one of the bunch that I bought school uniforms for last month.


I can almost picture the scenario. It’s a hot June afternoon. It’s a Saturday, so there is no school to worry about. Someone, maybe Baw Ga or Zin Ko, suggests a swim in the river to break the monotony and beat the heat. They’ve done it so many times before. What’s the big deal? Every time I come to town, these kids want to go swimming somewhere; in the river, a lake, a public swimming pool. It doesn’t matter where; they love to swim. But this time the swimming session turns tragic. I still don’t know all the details. Did the other two boys witness their friend going under the water? If so, did they try and help him? Did Aung Phyo Zaw yell for help? Was there a strong current in the river? I don’t know. All that Khin Nwe Lwin added was one horrifying fact; as of Sunday morning they still had not found the body.

My heart goes out to his family. Is there anything as tragic as the death of a child? I can’t even imagine what these people are feeling. But in addition to his grieving relatives I am especially worried about Baw Ga and Zin Ko. What are they feeling right now? They just witnessed the death of their friend. Are they blaming themselves for their friend’s death? Are other people in the community blaming them? Are they wondering how they could have prevented this from happening? Another image flashes through my mind: Baw Ga and little Zin Ko, shaking with grief, scared and crying, and then having to go to Aung Phyo Zaw’s house and break the news to his mother. And so I really worry about Baw Ga and Zin Ko. They are sweet, sensitive kids and I don’t want this tragedy to devastate them more than normal.

Death is a difficult thing to accept. I certainly don’t deal with it very well. But when I hear things like “it was his fate” or “karma,” or the even more ridiculous “it was God’s will” or “he’s in a better place now” … I just want to scream at such absurd religious nonsense. I know, I know; people take solace in their faith and that helps them to cope with things like death. But to say that such a death is all part of the creator’s master plan or that you should just accept it as fate strikes me as the wrong way to deal with it.

Meanwhile, tonight I will be thinking about my friends on 90th Street in Mandalay. I won’t be muttering any nonsensical prayers, but I will worry about them, and hope they have the strength and support of family and friends to deal with this tragedy.


Ma Thanegi on the Ayeyarwaddy

For those readers familiar with Ma Thanegi’s excellent travel book The Native Tourist, the publication of a new travelogue by the spirited Myanmar writer is good news indeed. The adventurous, irrepressible — and always hungry — traveler is back with another memorable adventure. In her new book, Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, Ma Thanegi and her colorful supporting cast travel down Myanmar’s famous Ayeyarwaddy River, as well as into the lively villages and towns scattered on its shores. But Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy is much more than an account of a trip, it also gives the reader insights into Myanmar’s complex history, culture, and its diverse populace.

Myanmar gets more negative press than any other country in Southeast Asia, thanks in no small part to the brutal and inept ways of the ruling junta. Much of the criticism is certainly justified, but the one-dimensional focus on the junta’s horrible ways gets more than a bit tiresome. Based on what is “reported” by the international media, you would assume that everyone in the country is either a political prisoner, desperate to leave, or living in poverty. Yes, there are some political prisoners, there are some people who want to live elsewhere, and there are some pockets of poverty (as in any country in the world today), but that’s only part of the story. There are also large parts of the country where people are content, businesses thrive, and the junta does not terrify the populace. In other words, things are fairly normal.

Thus, it’s enlightening to read books like Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy that give the reader a different perspective of life in Myanmar. One of Ma Thanegi’s strengths is her ability to shed light on this “other” side of Myanmar, and especially how she gets the people she meets during her travels to open up and talk about their lives. Amidst the heartbreaks and hardships there is lots of love and laughter too. And parts of this book are very, very funny. Ma Thanegi is an extremely engaging writer with a perceptive eye for detail. Even if your travels are confined to the pages of this book, with Ma Thanegi to guide you, you’re in for a mesmerizing trip.


Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy has been published in a paperback edition by Things Asian Press. It’s available online at and at Dasa Books in Bangkok. Also available is To Myanmar with Love, another excellent book of travel stories from Things Asian Press with contributions from a variety of writers, including Ma Thanegi.

Tag Cloud