He’s back! One of my guest photographers from last year, Zin Ko, has returned with more photos that he took with my camera. Except for the photo at the very top, what’s posted here today is a collection of shots that Zin Ko took around the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay, in Bagan, and at Mt. Popa during our recent trip. And of course, while playing with the camera, he had to take a photo of himself, which you can see above.
Zin Ko is an 11-year-old student in Mandalay. During the current summer school break (“summer” being the period from March through May here in Southeast Asia) he is working part-time at one of the neighborhood gem shops, polishing jade stones. An only child, Zin Ko lives with his parents in a small house a couple of doors down from U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay. He likes to dance the gangnam style and is a supporter of the Manchester United football team.
Here is a link to see some of the shots that Zin Ko took last year.
It’s become a tradition for me to take a group of children from the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay on a day trip of some sort when I’m town. We’ve been to a variety of places in the area over the past five years. The time was no different, or actually it was; instead of a single day excursion, we spent three full days on the road exploring historic sites much further away from Mandalay. In the case of one remote place, it would qualify as “out in the boondocks.”
Our destination the first day was Mt. Popa, one of the most sacred sites in Myanmar. Mt. Popa is located near Bagan, so our plan was to arrive there in the morning and end up at Bagan in the afternoon, where we would spend the first night. Mt. Popa is an extinct volcano, but it was last seen spewing lava about 250,000 years ago, so nowadays the only thing to fear on the mountain is the hordes of monkeys scampering all over the place, begging for food and trying to snatch the hats or sunglasses from the heads of unsuspecting tourists. The big attraction of Mt. Popa, however, and what makes it sacred for the locals, are all the nat shrines located there. A nat is spirit, and most people in Myanmar have a belief in them to some degree. In addition to the various nat shrines, there are some more traditional shrines to Buddha at Mt. Popa too.
And all those monkeys! Really, they are more than a bit of a nuisance the way they run around and create havoc; it’s as if they owned the place! Well, maybe they do; they’ve probably been in residence there longer than any humans have. Of one thing there is no doubt; the monkeys have turned into an attraction themselves. Vendors stroll up and down the stairways selling monkey food as well as flowers for the shrines. I used all the pocket change (small banknotes, actually, since there are no coins in Myanmar) that I had to buy monkey food and flowers for the kids to distribute.
I’ve been to Mt. Popa three times already, so the excursion wasn’t that special for me. But then again, I got a kick out seeing how excited everyone else was about being there. For Maw Hsi and the kids it was definitely a big deal. They can now boast to their friends and family; “I’ve been to Mt. Popa.” And most of them bought souvenir t-shirts as proof!
Here are some photos I took during a three-day road trip with the kids from 90th Street in Mandalay earlier this month. Forgive the “shaky” quality; most of them were taken in the back of a truck while bouncing down bumpy roads in the Myanmar countryside. So, you can safely assume that it wasn’t easy trying to hold the camera still and snap photos under those conditions.
And it certainly wasn’t a comfortable ride either. I sat in the back — with only a bamboo mat and my backpack to lean against — with the kids and Ko Maw Hsi, one of the fathers, while the driver and another father from the neighborhood sat in the front cab. I could have demanded one of those comfy front seats, but then I would have missed out on the experience — and silliness — of hanging out with the rest of the crew, and that was part of the trip’s appeal.
Even after three long days, mostly spent in the cramped confines in back of this truck, the kids remained cheerful. They’d pass the time cracking jokes, singing songs, shouting at other trucks full of passengers (“Hey!”), wearing their crazy cheap sunglasses, tossing snacks to village kids we passed along the way, and playing tricks on one another: just boys being boys. At one point a heated, but playful argument ensued; the supporters of Chelsea against the supporters of Manchester United. Yes, even in Myanmar, Premiership Football matches from England are hugely popular. But one thing the boys could all agree on was supporting their favorite local team; the Mandalay-based Yadanarbon. And that led to rousing “Yadanarbon” cheers. Good memories.
From Mandalay, we headed to Mt. Popa, and then on to Bagan where we spend the first night. Day number two was even longer, driving past Chauk and Yenangyaung, to Magwe, Minbu, and eventually to Shwe Set Taw, out in the middle of nowhere, and back to Bagan again. The third day was slower paced, but still a long one as we returned to Mandalay.
I’ll post more stories and photos about the trip later, but today I’m sticking with the bumpy road photos that I took from my little corner of the truck.
I returned last night from a road trip within a road trip: a 3-day excursion to Mt. Popa, Bagan and points further beyond, from Mandalay and back again. On this trip I took 13 kids from the 90th Street neighborhood where I spend a lot of time when I’m in town, along with two of the fathers and a driver. I rented what they call a “Light Truck” here in Myanmar; a long flatbed vehicle with no seats in the back, but with a roof. There was enough room for all of us to squeeze on, but it was far from comfortable. I had to sit with my knees folded or tucked in because there wasn’t any room to stretch out. But the kids didn’t seem to find, resting or sleeping on one another, arms and legs akimbo, sometimes buried under another body. After 3 days of 10-12 hour driving, often on bumpy roads, my posterior is very, very sore. But my back held up surprisingly well, possibly because I used my backpack as support.
As I expected, some of the kids got car sick along the way. and many of them tired easily and slept away long stretches of the drives. But there was also lots of laughter, singing, horseplay, and an overall happy vibe. These kids have always been a joy to travel with, but this is the first time we’ve ever traveled for such a long distance or spent the night away from Mandalay. I shacked up at a hotel in New Bagan while the rest of the crew spent two nights at a Monastery near Old Bagan. I read an article recently that dubbed monasteries such as this one as “the new hotels of Myanmar” because of many travelers are taking advantage of the option, because of the recent boom in tourism and dearth of hotels. But any foreigner staying at a monastery, should be aware of the Buddhist protocol, not to mention the fact that there are not any beds (you’ll be sleeping on the floor, possibly with a thin bamboo mat as your “cushion”), and don’t even thing about showers and hot water.
I’ll have plenty of photos to post in the coming weeks. I’ll be in Mandalay another day and wind down the trip for two days in Yangon before returning to Bangkok. Once again, it’s been an exhausting trip, but filled with plenty of great experiences and lots of smiles. Just the tonic I need.