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

Posts tagged ‘Mandalay’

And a Time for Feasting

One of the great joys of visiting Myanmar, at least in my opinion, is sampling the various types of food. There are plenty of good restaurants serving traditional Burmese fare, such as Aye Myit Tar in Mandalay. You can also find places specializing in dishes from Shan State and other regions from around the country. The sheer variety is amazing.

You can also get very good meals at teashops. Most teashops in Myanmar have a nice variety of noodle and rice dishes, as well as bread and fried snacks. Get there early in the morning to taste some of the scrumptious noodles dishes such as monhinga, mondhi, and ohno kauk swe. Finger licking good indeed!

While I love dining at restaurants and teashops, I can honestly say the absolutely best food I’ve had is at the homes of friends. In Mandalay, I might be invited to Ye Man Oo’s for dinner, or to his uncle, U Nyunt Tun’s house. Incredible food! If I’m in Nyaung Shwe I have to juggle invitations, enjoying home-cooked treats at Mar Mar Aye’s house or a feast at Ma Pu Sue’s place. When in doubt; just say “yes” to them all … and prepare to eat a lot!

 

 

New Year Reflections

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Another New Year is here, which inevitably leads to reflection, resolutions, setting goals, and all those sorts of “start-the-year-anew” things. I’m just glad the idiotic Christmas season is finally over. Even here in Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, you can’t escape the people wishing you a “Merry Christmas.” Okay, I realize that most of them mean well, but don’t they have working brains? Why do they I assume that I’m a Christian and/or that I celebrate Christmas simply because I’m a Westerner? I can forgive the Thais, who seem to think that Christmas is nothing more than another festive Western tradition, but I have to wonder about the mentality of the Westerners who so blithely assault you with their inane Christmas cheer. Enough already!

This past year has been a difficult one for me, at least in terms of enjoying life in Thailand. I’ve lived in Bangkok for almost 21 years, but the charm and appeal of day-to-life has definitely faded. Maybe the “honeymoon” is finally over, or perhaps my tolerance for Thais and their “mai pen rai” way of living has finally been exhausted.

Having to “manage” Thai employees has been the real test, a particularly exhausting exercise in patience. Most days I feel like a glorified babysitter, having to monitor these people and dealing with their habitual tardiness, inefficiency, and immature behavior. Turn my back for a single minute and they are playing with their “smart” phone or engaged in idle chatter. I’m not sure how  much longer I can put up with it all.

Actually, I still like Thai people. They are a pleasant, fun, laidback bunch of people — it’s just that I don’t especially like working with them! But I have to remind myself that it’s not all bad — and they aren’t all bad. I see nice people doing nice things every day, and it puts a smile on my face. And I also have to remind myself that I’m living in a city where the cost of living is still relatively low, there aren’t serious safety concerns, and there are a plethora of inexpensive transportation options available. Yes, for all is faults and warts, chaos and congestion, Bangkok remains a very nice place to live. I doubt I would be saying that if I was still living in the USA.

And so I remain in the sanctuary of my bookshop, enjoying the parade of interesting and genuinely kind customers who pass through each day. Just in the past few days, I’ve had nice conversations with regulars such as Phra Ratha (the book-buying monk with a burgeoning library), Sam the Thai Neil Young fan, Jim from Nashville, the nice Canadian lady (then again, aren’t all people from Canada nice?) who will buy a dozen books at a time, Robert from South Dakota, Daniel from New Zealand, Christopher G. Moore the writer, John from Sheffield, Kenny the Walter Mosley fan, Pumas from India, and many other nice but nameless customers. Some days are stressful and it can get insanely busy, but the cool customers help to make the occasional chaos tolerable.

I’m also thankful for the mails or phone calls from old friends that I’ve received this past week: my old boss Richard (who is now in the Philippines), Richard in Dallas, Linda in California, Hach and Pov in Cambodia, Janet in Seattle, Ye Man Oo and Hein Yar Zar in Mandalay, Chiet in Nontaburi (by way of Cambodia), Khin Nwe Lwin in Japan, Keith in London (who was in Istanbul this past week, but luckily not in harm’s way), Thay in Siem Reap, Mar Mar Aye in Nyaung Shwe, and my dependable Florida friends Tony, Dave, and Stan. Suddenly the year ahead — facing the frightening prospect of Donald Trump leading the world’s most powerful nation — doesn’t seem quite so depressing. Then again, buckle up and prepare for the worst!

This morning I was pleasantly surprised to see my old friend Bay at the motorcycle taxi stand near my apartment. He’d been “missing” for the past six months — gone back to his home province, presumably — and I was getting worried, so having him back in town and working as usual was a sign that things are perhaps back to normal.

Normal? I’m not even sure what this is anymore, but here’s hoping for a year that is decidedly less cruel, violent, and heartbreaking.

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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Paleik rhymes with Snake!

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A little further down the road to Mandalay — it’s about a 45-minute drive — is the hamlet of Paleik, famous for its “Snake Pagoda.” And true to its name, there are indeed some snakes in residence at this old pagoda. And large ones they are; two rather lengthy Burmese pythons. If you had heard there were three snakes, well there were, but one of them passed away a year or so ago.

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Paleik has always been one of my favorite spots to visit when I’m in Mandalay. The biggest draw is the bizarre daily ritual at the pagoda, where the snakes are bathed and fed, and then escorted to a platform where tourists can take their photo holding one of the long, slippery creatures. That whole spectacle is pretty cool, but the bigger attraction for me is the grove of ancient stupas that can found a few hundred yards behind the pagoda. The site is very atmospheric and tranquil, without hordes of tour groups trampling about and getting in your way.

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I hadn’t been to Paleik in about five years and expressed an interest in going back, so my friend Ye Man Oo talked his father into taking us there one morning, along with one of his cousins. Expect for the young cousin — who apparently wasn’t used to riding in motor vehicles —- spewing the contents of his morning bowl of noodles on the floor of the pickup truck when we rounded a curve, it was a pleasant drive. We got there too late for the morning snake-bathing ritual, but we still got to see both snakes slithering around the grounds and curling around the Buddha figure where they usually stay.

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As for the nearby ruins, some of the stupas look like they have been refurbished since my last visit, which was somewhat of a disappointment. I prefer my ruins looking old — the more crumbling and dilapidated the better — and am not too keen on seeing shiny new versions of ancient structures. Nevertheless, it’s still a nice place to walk around and soak up the tranquil atmosphere, something that’s getting increasingly harder to find with the rising number of tourists visiting Myanmar.

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People, Places, Signs & Things: Moments in Myanmar

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A vendor hawks her wares in Taunggyi.

 

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November is the start of kite flying season in Nyaungshwe.

 

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Ko Maw Hsi lights a fire in Mandalay.

 

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Three teachers from the primary school in Tat Ein village take a break at a teashop in Taunggyi.

 

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School crossing sign in Mandalay.

 

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Handmade paper umbrellas in Mandalay.

 

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Female students in Shan State’s Tat Ein village.

 

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Don’t feed the birds in Mandalay?

 

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Ma Pu Sue prepares a meal at her Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaungshwe.

 

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Getting ready to finally pave the road to Tat Ein village.

 

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Saing Aung, a novice monk from Tat Ein, surrounded by balloons in Taunggyi.

 

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Sunset near U Bein Bridge in Amarapura.

 

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A young girl helps prepare a snack in Tat Ein village.

 

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Peace and solitude at a temple in Mandalay.

 

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Novice monks from the monastery at Tat Ein.

 

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The world famous Catfish Museum in Mandalay!

 

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Petrol bottled to go in Nyaungshwe!

 

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On the road to Tat Ein village: Welcome to Shan State!

 

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A farmer takes advantage of the low water level at the lake near U Bein Bridge.

 

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Cooking up snacks at Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaungshwe.

 

Birthday Dining

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Yesterday was the birthday of my friend Chiet, so I took him out for a big dinner. Chiet is from Cambodia and I met him about 14 years ago when he was a little brat, wandering around the streets of Siem Reap, where I was running a bookshop at the time. We stayed in touch over the years, he grew up, and he is now working a construction job in the Bangkok area. Being nearby, we are able to meet for meals at least a couple of times each month. Normally we go to a Thai place on Sukhumvit Soi 49, but for his birthday I decided it was an occasion to splurge and treat him to something really special, that being the dinner buffet at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit Hotel.

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The one good thing about Chiet, besides being an all around nice and cheerful guy, is that he appreciates a good meal and can keep up with me when it comes to putting away some food. Thus, I figured he could put a good dent in the buffet spread at the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit … and I was right. I jokingly told him that I’d be angry if he only ate two plates of food, so he did me proud my polishing off five plates. And, at the ripe age of 26, he also had his first taste of lobster, which he liked it quite a bit.

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About two months ago I had my own birthday celebration while I was in Mandalay. The dinner spread wasn’t nearly as extravagant as the one I had with Chiet in Bangkok, but it was still pretty tasty and very memorable. I invited 15 friends from the 90th Street neighborhood that I frequent, including the teashop owner U Tin Chit, to have dinner with me that night at Aye Myit Tar restaurant. I reserved a big table for the crew and we were given very attentive service by Ko Ko Oo, Kyaw Myo Tun, and the other waiters. Ye Man Oo and his brother Ye Thu Lwin gave me a traditional Burmese shirt along with a gorgeous longyi. They insisted that I wear the new outfit to dinner, which I was more than happy to do. Two of the other kids, Baw Ga and Khang Khant Kyaw, ordered a big birthday cake.

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Ye Thu Lwin explained the procedure for “distributing” the cake. I had to cut small pieces of cake and then feed each guest one of the pieces. Luckily, I manage to perform this feat without cutting anyone or dropping cake on the floor. But then came the part they hadn’t told me about: the food fight! Well, it wasn’t as wild as people throwing food around the room, but the kids — and the adults — soon started grabbing bits of the cake icing and smearing it on one another. Ah, good messy fun! I have to say, it was one of the more enjoyable birthday parties I’ve ever had. More Mandalay magic!

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Reeling in the year!

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Another year comes to a close, as we reel in the year and flip the page on the calendar, or rather toss out that dog-eared old calendar and break out a new one. To keep things in sync with 2016, here are 16 photos to greet the New Year, all taken last month when I was in Myanmar. Greetings from Shan State, Mandalay, and from my home in Bangkok: Best Wishes for a very happy and healthy New Year!

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A Bridge Too Crowded

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My recent trip to Mandalay also coincided with my birthday. I didn’t have any big auspicious plans for that day, except for one wish: I wanted to see the sunset at U Bein Bridge in nearby Amarapura. My friend Ye Man Oo arranged for his father to take us — along with his brother, cousin, and a few other friends — to the bridge that afternoon. We all piled into the back of the pickup truck and thirty minutes later we were at the bridge.

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I’ve been to U Bein Bridge five or six times already, but I never tire of the experience. I’m always charmed by the quaint old structure (supposedly the world’s longest teakwood bridge), the steady flow of pedestrians (along with a few bicycles, but no motor vehicles are allowed) going from one side of the lake to the other, and the lovely scenery. People fishing off the bridge, taking photos (and these days, the inevitable “selfie”), and watching the world go by.

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But this time, I was disturbed to note that the usual tranquil atmosphere had been displaced by hordes of tourists, both locals and foreigners, who had descended upon the bridge. Honestly, I felt like I was back at one of Angkor’s more popular temples; the place so overrun by visitors that you couldn’t stop and take a photo for fear of being trampled. I’m not exaggerating; it was that crowded. The other odd aspect was that the water level in the lake was very, very low; the lowest I’ve ever seen it. I didn’t notice a single person fishing this time, and frankly there weren’t many spots where someone even could fish. Most of the land beneath the bridge was high and dry, and there were even a few enterprising farmers plowing fields under it!

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In past visits my strategy was usually to walk across the bridge to the village on the other side, and then hire a row boat to take us back again. But this time, due to the plethora of tourists, there were no boats available. And of course nearly all of those tourists had requested that their boat wait on the east side of the bridge until sundown so that they could photograph the iconic structure as the sun set. Still a lovely sight … but be ready for the crunch!

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The Migrant Worker’s Plight

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A friend of mine from Texas was visiting Bangkok last month and one night we met for dinner at a Korean restaurant near his hotel. Imagine my surprise — and delight — to discover that all of the waiters at this restaurant were from Myanmar! The food was decent enough but the service from these waiters was outstanding. Of course that fact that I can speak some Burmese no doubt helped to endear me to the staff. Once they discovered that I knew some Myanmar zaga, they became MUCH more conversational. My friend and I were so impressed by the service that we went back the following week, and I’ve returned with other friends on two more occasions. Needless to say, the crew recognizes me now and instead of the usual greeting in Thai, I’ve earned a mingaglaba and lengthy conversations.

The young men (and at least one woman in the kitchen!) at this restaurant are among the millions of citizens from Myanmar who are working overseas, most of them in nearby countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. Migrant workers from Myanmar have been in the news again recently, in a very negative way, with wire service reports claiming that workers at some seafood factories in Thailand have to endure slave-like conditions, working 16-hour days with no holiday time off and for paltry wages.

That’s obviously the darkest of the dark side of the migrant worker situation in this part of the world. While there is no denying that some migrant workers have to suffer through horrible working conditions, most of the foreign workers (from countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos) in Thailand are fairly content with their situation. Their salaries are usually lower than what a Thai worker would receive for the same minimum wage job, and they often are not eligible for health care benefits or holiday overtime wages, and yet compared to what they would make at a similar job — if they could find one — in their native country the employment situation in Thailand is much, much better.

One of my best friends, Chiet, is from Cambodia and he has been working as a welder at various construction projects in the greater Bangkok area for the past three years. I always ask him if he plans on going back to Cambodia and his answer is always the same: “No, I want to stay here. I can make more money and life is easier.”

Sure, he misses his friends and family, but life is difficult for young people in Cambodia, especially those like him that don’t have much education. And the same goes for people in Myanmar. Despite the great strides in “opening up” the country and holding elections and making cell phones affordable for the masses, the economy is still sputtering, the cost of living is rising, and the wages for basic jobs are very, very low. Thus, many Burmese people like the waiters I know at this Korean restaurant continue to seek employment in Thailand and other countries.

Another friend, Yan Naing Soe, called me earlier tonight. I first met him at a teashop in Mandalay many years ago but he’s been working for a landscaping company in Malaysia for the past two years. A few months ago he moved back to Myanmar and is now working in the town of Muse, on the border with China. Although most people have never heard of Muse, it is a bustling trade center and the country’s main gateway to China (near Yunnan Province). For young men like Yan Naing Soe, if there are job opportunities in places like Muse or Malaysia, that’s what you do and where you go.

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One aspect of the migrant workers that gets mentioned frequently is the so-called problem of underage workers in factories. Frankly, I think that’s something that the authorities should be much more lenient about. The reality of the situation is that many young people in poor Southeast countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos — and even in “wealthy” Thailand — stop going to school in their early to mid teens. Are you telling me that you are going to forbid a 15-year old who is trying to earn money to help support their family from working? What are their options? I mean, let’s be realistic. Sure, in an ideal world they would stay in school until they are 18 years-old, but we don’t live in such an ideal world, and even the definition of what is ideal or proper is not the same in every country or culture. This insistence on employing only those who are 18 or older is sheer nonsense.

When I was in Mandalay last month a friend took me to his father’s shoe shop, a little neighborhood place where they make handmade sandals for men and women. There were several “underage” children working in this shop, but the conditions were not “slave-like” or abysmal whatsoever. Granted, this was a tiny business and most of these kids were either relatives or neighborhood friends who wanted to work, so it wouldn’t be fair to compare their situation to that of a factory worker in Thailand. And yet there are parallels. People need work, they want to work, and they should be able to do that.

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Meanwhile my Cambodian friend Chiet is looking for another job in Thailand. His last employer docked his wages for missing a week of work and he’s not happy about that. But it’s not like Chiet was goofing off or had gone back home without authorization. His leg became infected from some pieces of cut glass at the work site and he had to go to a hospital in Bangkok to get treated. And who paid for this treatment? Me of course! I shudder to think what would have happened to his leg if he had not promptly received proper medical care.

So yeah, the treatment of migrant workers in Thailand and elsewhere could still be a lot, lot better. But don’t forget that for the majority of those working in Thailand, like the waiters at the Korean restaurant, having a job enables them to earn enough money for themselves and to send funds back to their families.

Back in the Saddle

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After a brief hiatus I’m back in the blog saddle and posting again, although for how much longer I’m not sure. It seems like there’s never enough time in the day to do everything I want to do, and I’m finding myself increasingly less enthusiastic about sitting down and writing things for this blog, or even composing e-mails to friends. Such is the sad reality of modern life.

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But hey, I’m going to give it a try and see what happens. I just returned from a very short, but very memorable trip to Myanmar, and if anything helps to get my creative juices flowing, it’s trips like that and being with those wonderful people in Mandalay and Shan State. But before I start posting photos and stories from that trip, I still have some photos from my previous trip to Myanmar that I intended to post back in October but never got around to doing. So here are a few oldies before I bombard you with new shots.

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