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

Posts tagged ‘Ma Thanegi’

Rainy Days and Good Friends

It’s been a wet and wild week here in Bangkok. It’s raining nearly every day, sometimes two or three showers each day. Raining cats and dogs … not to mention rats and cockroaches. Yeah, it’s a wild city.

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In the midst of all this precipitation, a flurry of good friends has arrived in Bangkok for visits, ranging from a few days to a few weeks. Now that is the sort of storm that I enjoy! Last week heralded the arrival of Ma Thanegi and Myriam Grest, both from Yangon, and hot on their not-so-high heels was ex-Bangkok resident Janet Brown, now living in Seattle. I met those three charming women for several good meals around town, including lunch at the brand new Broccoli Revolution, a vegetarian restaurant at the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 49. It’s run by Naya, the same Thai woman who helped start the popular Monsoon Restaurant in Yangon.

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That same week I had yet another visit from a Burmese friend, this time Ko Soe Moe from Mandalay, who was making his very first trip to Thailand. Soe Moe is a freelance tour guide and translator and took advantage of the annual September lull to visit our fair kingdom. He spent most of his time up north, in and around Chiang Mai and Chiangrai, but also visited Ayutthaya. He took the overnight train to Bangkok from Chiang Mai and spent his last morning at my bookshop and then headed out for a quick tour of the riverside temples before making tracks to the airport for an early evening flight back to Myanmar. Soe Moe told me that he was very impressed with Thailand and plans to return next year, bringing his son with him.

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And they still keep coming. This week, by old Orlando buddy B.T. arrived for another extended stay in Thailand (Pathum Thani, for the most part), after spending most of the summer back in Florida, tacking on a few weeks in Berlin. My final visitor is Richard from Texas, who arrived this week for his annual Thailand sojourn. He’ll be here for almost a full month before flying back to celebrate Halloween in Dallas. Dinner this week? Why not!

It’s been fun to see everyone again, for however brief or long period of time they are here. Janet will also be in town for most of the month, and we are planning further meals in Saphan Khwai at the long-running Abu Ibrahim Indian restaurant and of course some Thai treats at Ton Khrueng, further down Soi 49. I think I’ll have to put off my plan to go on a diet for yet another month!

 

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Books & Borders

tatein_20131124_103637 While I was in Mandalay last week, my Japanese friend Kazuko was on the other side of Myanmar, visiting friends in Shan State’s Tat Ein village. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to travel all the way to Shan State (a full day’s journey by bus, but only a 25-minute flight), so we weren’t able to meet. But when Kazuko was in Bangkok two months ago, I gave her a copy of M is for Myanmar to give to Maung Thwe, the boy who I had known when he was a novice monk at the monastery in Tat Ein, but who is now living with his family again in the village. Kazuko gave the book to him during her visit and reports that Maung Thwe was very happy to receive the present. Thanks to Kazuko for the photos!

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The cool thing about M is for Myanmar, besides the fact that it has very colorful illustrations, is that the text is in both English and Burmese, making it easy for children to read. M is for Myanmar is published by Things Asian Press, the same fine company that recently published Ma Thanegi’s cookbook, Ginger Salad and Water Wafers: Recipes from Myanmar, and Janet Brown’s excellent travelogue, Almost Home. Things Asian has been publishing travel books for over a decade, but they also have a children’s book division, and in addition to the Myanmar book they have published many other titles, including B is for Bangkok, H is for Hong Kong, and T is for Tokyo.

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What’s Cooking in Myanmar?

As the year winds down, it’s beginning to look a lot like … Burmese food! Call it Myanmar cuisine, or the old familiar, Burmese, but the tasty and underrated cuisine from this country is ready to take its place at the world’s culinary table. Yes, I love the food that I’ve tasted during my travels in Myanmar (everything from noodle dishes such as monhinga and mondhi, to the amazing fermented tea leaf salad), but I’m not the only one; before this year is out, there will be three excellent new books about Burmese food available in bookshops and from online dealers.

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Just published this month is Ma Thanegi’s Ginger Salad and Water Wafers: Recipes from Myanmar. This is actually an expanded version of her An Introduction to Myanmar Cuisine that was first published in 2004. This new edition, published by Things Asian Press, includes gorgeous photographs by Tiffany Wan, showing you not only the wide variety of food featured in the book, but also many captivating sights from around the country. Chapters in the book cover: Soups, Main Dishes (various meat and fish curries, stews, steamed and grilled dishes); Soups; Salads (an incredibly diverse section, with recipes for Tofu, Grilled Eggplant, Pennywort, Long Bean, Green Mango, Ginger, Tomato, and Shrimp Paste salads); Vegetables; Relishes; Rice (there’s more to rice than you think: coconut rice, rice porridge, briyani, fried rice, rice salad); Noodles (don’t get me started, this is one of my favorite food categories in Myanmar cuisine, and Thanegi offers a wide range of recipes of the more popular dishes); Desserts and Snacks (fritters, pancakes, sauces). If you think that Burmese food consists of nothing but oily curries and greasy fried rice dishes, prepare to be enlightened!

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And the first bookshop in the world to have the new Ma Thanegi cookbook in stock? No, it’s not my shop in Bangkok, Dasa Books, but Golden Bowl Travel in Nyaungshwe’s Shan State. Shop owner Ma Ma Aye is very proud to offer Ginger Salad and Water Wafers to travelers passing through town. She is also stocking other titles by Ma Thanegi, including Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, Nor Iron Bars a Cage, and the fascinating alternative guidebook from Things Asian Press, To Myanmar With Love.

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Earlier this year, Naomi Duguid’s latest cookbook, Burma: Rivers of Flavor was published. As in her past cookbooks, Naomi not only showcases the food of the country or region, but also focuses on the people and culture. Naomi spends a lot of time in each country she visits and Myanmar is no exception. She has a true appreciation and love for the country, and it shows in her book. Here is one very good description of her book that I found online:

Interspersed throughout the 125 recipes are intriguing tales from the author’s many trips to this fascinating but little-known land. One such captivating essay shows how Burmese women adorn themselves with thanaka, a white paste used to protect and decorate the skin. Buddhism is a central fact of Burmese life: we meet barefoot monks on their morning quest for alms, as well as nuns with shaved heads; and Duguid takes us on tours of Shwedagon, the amazingly grand temple complex on a hill in Rangoon, the former capital. She takes boats up Burma’s huge rivers, highways to places inaccessible by road; spends time in village markets and home kitchens; and takes us to the farthest reaches of the country, along the way introducing us to the fascinating people she encounters on her travels. The best way to learn about an unfamiliar culture is through its food, and in Burma: Rivers of Flavor, readers will be transfixed by the splendors of an ancient and wonderful country, untouched by the outside world for generations, whose simple recipes delight and satisfy and whose people are among the most gracious on earth.

 

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Next up, scheduled for January 2014 publication is Robert Carmack’s latest food offering, The Burma Cookbook: Recipes From the Land of a Million Pagodas. Robert has travelled to Myanmar dozens of times over the years and knows both the country and it cuisine inside out. This is the product description of the new book:

The Burma Cookbook is a lavishly photographed cookbook and historic travelogue, tracing contemporary and colonial Burmese dishes over the past century. With its rich traditions of empire, The Burma Cookbook highlights the best of present-day Myanmar, including foods of its immigrant populations – from the subcontinent, down the Malay Peninsula, and Britain itself. The authors spent some ten years researching the book, while organizing and hosting culinary tours to uncover the country’s most popular dishes. The authors had exclusive access to The Strand Hotel’s collection of historic menus, pictures and photos, while contemporary photography by Morrison Polkinghorne portrays Myanmar street life.

By the way, Robert and Morrison continue to conduct their very popular “Food Tours” of various Asian locales. They have a Vietnam food tour scheduled from December 29 through January 5, and their next tour to Myanmar will revolve around the annual water festival in April next year. For more information, check their website:

http://globetrottinggourmet.com

And the common denominator connecting these three cookbook authors? Not only are they are all avid travelers, ones who give back to each country that they visit, but they have all shopped at my bookshop in Bangkok. I can confidently say that they are all good people with good taste — in both food and books!

 

90th Street Sorrow

The untimely death of young Aung Phyo Zaw in Mandalay last week really shook me. When tragedies like his drowning happen, one feels helpless. What can you do to help the family members and friends who are grieving? It’s especially frustrating when they are in Mandalay and I’m in Bangkok and I can’t physically be there to pay my respects.

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Nevertheless, I wanted to do something, felt like I needed to do something. I feel a real solidarity with the people I’ve met on 90th Street in Mandalay. They treat me like family and I want to reciprocate whenever possible. I sent e-mails to two of closest friends in Yangon, Ma Thanegi and Win Thuya, and also sought the advice of Zin Maung Maung, my Burmese tutor in Bangkok. I asked them all for details on the Myanmar custom for dealing with death, and what would be appropriate for me to do in this case. I also expressed concern for the two other boys who had been swimming with Aung Phyo Zaw and what could be done to help or console them. I received these suggestions:

“You can send money saying please may you share in the merit of giving a Soon Kyway meal to the monks. They will be doing that anyway, and your contribution will be convenient for them.

“The Buddhist belief is that it’s karma from past lives and that nobody escapes the time of their death when it arrives. Tell them that accidents happen. It’s such a tragedy, but is karma. With these beliefs, Burmese Buddhists can deal with trauma.”

“In Burmese custom, we invite some monks at home and do some good donation for him on 7th day. So, if you want please give some money to use for the donation and offering for monk.”

I decided to donate some money for the Soon Kyway ceremony, which was held on the 29th at the family’s home in Mandalay. I asked my friend Walter, who is teaching at a school in Mandalay, to take the money down to U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street and give to him or ask for Khin Nwe Lwin, if she was around. I have no idea what sort of turnout that they have for this type of ceremony, nor what the vibe is like. I doubt it’s some sort of festive wake in the vein of what you see in New Orleans. But I’d like to think that it wasn’t all sorrow and tears, that the people gathered together last Saturday on 90th Street remembered Aung Phyo Zaw and his shy smile and the good times that they enjoyed with him.

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So today, in remembrance of Aung Phyo Zaw , I’m posting photos of some of the people from 90th Street; the neighbors, the children, his friends, my friends.

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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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Jack Reacher, Chipper Jones, and Margeaux Mango

I got an e-mail last week from Lee Child’s website, informing me that the new novel was coming out; another Jack Reacher spectacular. Say no more; I gotta have it. Gotta read it. Now. And luckily, my sense of urgency was satisfied. I strolled over to the Emporium, went to the tiny branch of Asia Books located there, and the new Lee Child book, A Wanted Man, was right there on the shelf. Less than 48 hours later, I had read all 400 and something pages, satisfied again by another fun, funny, and thought provoking Jack Reacher adventure. Really, I love these novels. On the surface, they might fit the mold of action-packed thrillers; lots of action and bad guys getting put in their place by Reacher. But there is a lot more going on in these novels than Jack Reacher kicking ass, drinking lots of coffee, getting the girl, and leaving town with only a toothbrush in his pocket. These stories force the reader to think, and marvel at the way that Reacher thinks through various situations, as he ends up dispensing his own style of justice. And this time around I loved the baseball references; from the Kansas City Royals and George Brett to the New York Yankees and the legendary Bill “Moose” Skowron. If Lee Child is not a baseball fan — and I wonder if he really is, having grown up in England — he’s certainly done his research.

 

Speaking of baseball, another thing that brought a big smile to my face this week was seeing the Sunday night walk-off homer by Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves. I don’t have a TV, and if I did I wouldn’t even have access to cable sports, but I watched a clip of Chipper’s home run on ESPN’s website. Now 40 years-old and playing a final season before retirement, Chipper is having also one of his best seasons ever. He takes a day or two off each week nowadays, needing to rest those surgically repaired knees, so his stats may not rank with his best, but when he’s in the lineup he still makes an impact. He’s virtually carried the Braves all year. So why isn’t he in the running for another MVP award this year? The Braves look like they are going to make the playoffs, probably as a wild card finalist, and there is no way they’d be in that position without Chipper. Maybe he doesn’t have enough “official” at bats to qualify for the leader boards, but I’ll say it again; when he’s playing, he delivers. Seeing the highlight reel of that home run on Sunday night was a totally feel-good moment, one of those things that remind me of why I love the sport so much. I only saw Chipper play one time before I moved to Thailand in the mid-1990s, and that was when he was playing for the Braves in 1991 … the Macon Braves, that is (At that time the Macon Braves were the Class A farm team of the major league squad). Somewhere in a dusty closet back in Florida, sitting in a neglected box of crap, are photos I took of Chipper back when he was playing for Macon. Not only has he been a Hall of Fame caliber player, Chipper Jones has always been one of the game’s class acts — a rarity in today’s world of overpaid, spoiled athletes. Here’s hoping that the Braves do in fact make the playoffs, Chipper remains healthy, and he shines during his final moment in the sun.

 

And speaking of shining, and to complete today’s triple play, my friend Margeaux, who goes by the nickname of Mango, flew in from Spain yesterday. She was only in Bangkok for two days, but it was enough time to get together and meet for a fine dinner, this time at Cabbages and Condoms, the touristy but tasty Thai Restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 12. Great food and great company; I was smiling like I’d just seen another Chippper Jones home run when I left the restaurant. Mango is works as an interpreter at conventions and meetings around the world, particularly in Asia. She is flying to South Korea tomorrow for a week-long event, and next month she’ll be working an even longer seminar in India. In between work, she is trying to finish writing a raw food cookbook. Busy lady! Too bad she won’t be around next month when our mutual friends Janet Brown and Ma Thanegi will also be in Bangkok.

 

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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