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

Posts tagged ‘Mandalay’

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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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!

 

It Takes Two!

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It was one of those accidental incidents of musical convergence, the stars aligning, or something else implausibly silly. Earlier in the week I was listening to a compilation CD that included the 1988 classic “It Takes Two” by Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, which has been hailed as one of the greatest rap/hip-hop songs of all-time. I don’t listen to much hip-hop at all, but that tune is addictively catchy. Like many creations of that genre, it sampled an older song, in this case “Think (About It)” by Lyn Collins from 1972. That’s an oldie that many people have never heard before, but I was playing that song on yet another compilation CD that I have, James Brown’s Original Funky Divas, earlier this week too.

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That phrase “It Takes Two,” motivated me to post these paired photos today. Yes, here are more photos from my recent trip to Myanmar, and this time all with two people in the frame … or in one case, a boy and a dog! But two it is: classmates, fellow monks, relatives, or just plain friends.

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City Faces, Country Faces

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During my last trip to Myanmar I was spent most of the time in two places: the chaotically comfortable city of Mandalay, and the lovely and laid-back countryside environs of Nyaungshwe in Shan State. Whether I was in the city or in a village like Tat Ein — just down the bumpy dirt road from Nyaungshwe — there were always plenty of children wanting to have their photo taken.

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Having a camera isn’t such a novelty in these days of photo-equipped smart phones, but the kids know that when I make a return trip several months later, I’ll bring them all prints of the best shots, so that creates a demand. Plus, it’s fun for me too. Yeah, making hundreds of prints each time gets a bit expensive, but it’s worth it for the additional round of smiles that results!

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Scraps of a Journey

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It was another week of work and rain and work and heat and more work. I feel exhausted every day. No time to give great thought to what I can post on this blog, but I wanted to do something, so here are some photos from my last trip to Myanmar, scraps from the journey; people, places, things, and signs.

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