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

Posts tagged ‘Myanmar’

No-Fi, iZombies, and other notes

Business at my bookshop in Bangkok was very good in December and has continued to be strong so far this month, which is a big relief after the extremely slow days during the flooding mayhem in October and November. The Lunar New Year (“Chinese New Year”) holiday hasn’t officially started — that’s later this month — but we’re already seeing lots of travelers from the Asia region, taking their long holidays in Thailand or passing through Bangkok. And many Western tourists are finally trickling back into Thailand too. Maybe this year’s high season won’t be so dismal after all.

Not all people walking into my bookshop come to buy books. Inevitably, we get some laptop-lugging geek asking if we have wi-fi, the answer to which is a resounding “NO!” But the fact that we are wi-fi-less doesn’t stop many of the laptop slackers, or those with some other trendy iDevice that will be obsolete in six months, from laying claim to a seat at our front counter and “hanging out” for several hours, blissfully unfazed by the fact that they are monopolizing one of the few seats in the shop. They seem to think that ordering one cup of coffee entitles them to such privileges. Oh, if I had a grenade. What is it with the new generation and the bizarre sense of entitlement that so many of them flaunt?

Speaking of clueless, I continue to be amazed by the legions of electro-zombies stumbling around town — on sidewalks, in malls, on public transport — transfixed by their shiny new iDevices, totally oblivious to what’s transpiring around them. They are blissfully mesmerized by that little screen, furiously texting, or poking away at the screen of their iWanker. I find this e-addiction both humorous and frightening; a “perfect storm” of social engineering that I think will have a negative effect on civilized society. Well hell, it already has had a negative effect, but I think it’s only going get worse. But hey, as long as these folks have the latest shiny gadget in hand, they won’t care that their freedoms are quickly eroding, or that around-the-clock Big Brother surveillance is nearly here. You want “social networking,” well you got it, baby! It only confirms a long-held belief: most people are sheep.

I made my weekly trip to the Sizzler restaurant on Thonglor for dinner last Thursday night. After I had finished eating, one of the waiters told me that they would be closing down next week. That’s closing as in “for good”. Well, that threw me for a loop. I’ve been going to that particular branch of Sizzler on nearly a weekly basis for most of the past decade. For me, the big draw is their well-stocked soup and salad bar. It’s a chance for me to get a good balanced meal instead of just eating noodles or rice for dinner, or getting lazy and ordering a pizza. Anyway, it looks like I’ll now to find another substitute for my Thursday night meal. I suppose I could go to the Sizzler in Central World Plaza instead, but that’s a little out of my way.

Speaking of Central World, I did go there earlier this week and walked around the B2S branch, browsing the CD selection. I managed to not buy a single CD, remarkable restraint for me. But then again, they weren’t having a sale and I didn’t find anything on my wish list in stock. The B2S shop aside, Central World remains a baffling maze of shops, department stores, escalators, and obstacles — they even have a small ice skating rink. There is no logical pattern to the layout, a bit like Bangkok itself! After all these years, I still manage to get lost or turned around when I visit this retail monstrosity. But one thing I did notice at Central World — as well at other malls and restaurants I have visited this month — is that they STILL have those gaudy Christmas decorations on display. I’m tempted to borrow a wrecking ball from one of the nearby construction sites and initiate a bit of creative demolition. I’ll deck their fucking halls!

When leaving Central World, I debated on how to get home. I could walk back to the BTS Skytrain station at Chidlom, take the Skytrain to Ekkamai, and then get a motorcycle taxi the rest of the way home. Or I could walk across the street to the Pratunam Pier and take a water taxi on Klong Saen Saeb, the big canal that intersects the city. I opted for the boat and took it to the Thonglor Pier, whereupon I walked the rest of the way home. Easy. I hadn’t taken the water taxi in several months, and using this mode of transportation reminded me of how much I enjoy it. I used to be a regular boat commuter in the mid to late 1990s, those traffic-jammed days before the Skytrain or Subway systems were in operation and Bangkok commuters had more limited options. Despite the fact that the black klong water is horribly polluted, smells bad, and boat’s engines are loud as hell, I find the ride on the water is very relaxing. I don’t have to worry about being sideswiped by a passing motorcycle or breathing toxic bus fumes. And naturally there are no traffic jams — or even boat jams — on the klong!

One of the supremely cool customers at my shop — one that doesn’t sit at the counter and play with his laptop — is an American named David, just back from his first trip to Myanmar. Even though he’s from Philadelphia, and a Phillies fan, David’s a good guy, and I was happy to give him lots of pre-trip advice about traveling around the country. He reports that he enjoyed Myanmar very much and is already planning a return trip for later in the year. He made the usual circuit — Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, and Nyaunghswe/Inle Lake — as well as heading west to the beach town of Ngwe Saung. He found a huge bungalow right on the beach for only $15 per night. Yes, bargains can be found over there, even during the high season.

Burmese Water Break

Whether walking or cycling around villages and towns in Myanmar, you can’t help but notice that there is always a place to stop for a refreshing drink of water. And no, we aren’t talking about an abundance of 7-Eleven stores like you see all over Thailand.

Throughout Myanmar, little roadside stands are everywhere; in the heart of the city and out in the sticks, in front of schools and monasteries, outside homes and businesses, and even inside caves! Thirsty? No need to ask, just help yourself!


Road to Ruins

There is something about old temple ruins that holds a magnetic attraction for me. I can wander around these atmospheric sites for hours on end, marveling at the carvings, bas reliefs, cracked walls, and even the shards of broken antiquity lying on the ground. I’ve visited Angkor in Cambodia dozens of times and never get tired of its special splendor, nor do I ever get bored touring Bagan and its thousand-plus pagodas, even though they haven’t been “properly” restored according to some observers.


In recent years it has become somewhat of a chore to admire the temples at Angkor due to the onslaught of tourists who have descended upon the archaeological park. Gone are the days when you could wander around Bayon and not be run over by busloads of loud tourists. Ten years ago it was the Japanese and Thais who were most noticeable, but they’ve been supplanted by Chinese and Koreans. Meanwhile, in Myanmar — even in the famous ancient town of Bagan — the tourist numbers are scant and you can still roam around the ruins without hearing someone yell “Hey Dude”. You MAY stumble across a few stray tourists at some of the bigger pagodas during high season, especially around sunset time, but even when Bagan does get busy, the numbers pale in comparison to Angkor.

While they don’t boast the elevated splendor of Bagan’s numerous pagodas, the ruins in Shan State’s Nyaungshwe vicinity are also quite interesting in their own way. Many people are familiar with the magnificent Intha stupas in nearby Indein, on the shores of Inle Lake, but right in the heart of Nyaungshwe are smaller groves of old beauties, begging to be admired. Take a walk around town or cycle down some of the dirt lanes in the area and be prepared to “discover” some very cool ruins. Here are some photos from both Bagan and Nyaungshwe that I took recently.

Fragments from the Road

Here are some photographic fragments; odds and ends from my recent trip to Myanmar:

Morning fishing at a canal in Nyaungshwe.

At the teashop on 90th Street, Khin Nwe Lwin demonstrates a traffic signaling program she designed for her master’s thesis at university.

High-class transportation in Mandalay.

Villagers on their way to the morning market in Nyaungshwe.

Bamboo balancing act at a building in Mandalay.

Mo Htet Aung and Mo Gyi in Mandalay.

Backpacking monks near Zeigyo market in Mandalay.

Gaw Soe and his infant son in New Bagan.

My regular fruit seller at the market in Nyaungshwe.

A “nat” tree ornament in Yangon.

Teachers and students at a rural school near Nyaungshwe.

Newspaper seller and waiter at Minthiha teashop in Mandalay.

A novice monk chops wood at Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe.

It’s mango season in Mandalay!

Ma Pu Su and her daughter in Nyaungshwe.

Young waiters at a teashop near the railway station in Mandalay.

Myatt Swe Oo in Bagan appears to a man of many talents!

Two university students at Yankin Hill near Mandalay.

Trishaw driver taking a nap in Mandalay.

Bike shop in Mandalay.

Students take a badminton break at a rural school near Nyaungshwe.

Smile Monsoon


The weather during the two weeks I was in Myanmar was very, very hot. Energy-sapping and sweat-inducing heat that required multiple shirt changes each day. And when it wasn’t hot, it was rainy. But there were also more than a few moments of sunshine and a few precipitation-free days. But no matter what the weather there was one constant: the smiles! Here a just a few examples of those magic moments from my recent trip to Myanmar. These people make every trip extra special.






Yankin Hill in Mandalay

One of my rituals when in Mandalay is taking a group of kids from a neighborhood on 90th Street, near one of the teashops I patronize, on a field trip somewhere in the area. In the past two years we’ve gone to Mingun, Amarapura, Pyin U Lwin, Paleik, Inwa, and Monywa. This time around we stuck closer to town, going to Yankin Hill, which is located only about 30 minutes from Mandalay.

Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot to see at Yankin Hill, but it provided enough diversions to entertain the 16 children and yours truly for a half day. In addition to the scenic views at the top of the big hill/mountain, there is a petting zoo with several deer, a monastery where a monk tends to a few hundred frisky monkeys, several pagodas with Buddha statues, a few caves, and supposedly a waterfall. There was even a colorful ogre statue that little Zin Ko took a fancy to, insisting that I take a photo of him posing in front of it.

After determining that visiting the waterfall would require too lengthy a walk — and with the oppressive heat on this day that wasn’t an enticing prospect — the kids opted to cool off by swimming at the huge public pool back in Mandalay afterwards. Following that, we had a late lunch and then headed back to 90th Street to recuperate from the brief but exhausting excursion. Except for one semi-scary accident — one of the boys took a nasty tumble on a stairway at Yankin Hill that ended with a big lump on his forehead and a sprained arm — the day went smoothly. The children were their usual polite, playful, and delightful selves.

Mandalay Heat

On the road this week, spending most of the time in Mandalay, one of my very favorite cities. That’s an odd proclamation, since most travelers to Myanmar will tell you that Mandalay was perhaps the least interesting city they visited. But many of those tourists do a typically “too quick” pass through town, only spending two or three days to see the supposed highlights of the area. And in the process, at least in my opinion, they miss out on the real interesting stuff to see and do here.

This week, for example, I’ve hung out in teashops, taken a group of 17 children to see the sights on Yankin Hill (and later to a swimming pool), ridden my bike all around town, stopped and visited monasteries and talked to monks, dined with locals, played putt-putt golf at a makeshift neighborhood “course” (basically a big pile of sand that these kids cleverly engineered to accommodate one hole!), and weighed in on the big Barcelona vs. Manchester United football match, which was obviously THE biggest event of the month as far as the locals were concerned.

I’m off to Nyaungshwe and the Inle Lake area on Thursday, hoping to make visits to Pindaya and Taunggyi while I’m there. Once again, this has been a thrilling, humbling, and challenging trip. My language skills are frustratingly still not where I want them to be; most of the time I have to repeat myself or I leave my listeners scratching their heads in bewilderment. But when it clicks, it’s very satisfying. And that’s enough to keep me trying.

Besides the oppressive heat, and the frequent rain storms, the biggest downer for me was hearing that Gil Scott-Heron had passed away a few days ago. This news has really, truly depressed me. Gil Scott-Heron was one of my favorite, most cherished musical artists, one who I’ve followed and listened to since I was in my late teens. Even though his output was negligible the past few decades, his passing will leave a big void in the music world.

Shan State Novice Monks


Another week with too much murder, misery, and mayhem in the news. To counteract all that negativity, here are a few happy photos of the congenial novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, an old teakwood monastery on the outskirts of Nyaungshwe in Myanmar’s Shan State. Nyaungshwe is the gateway to nearby Inle Lake, a picturesque body of water framed by craggy green mountains, and home of the famous leg-rowing fisherman.

Many of these novice monks come from Pa-O villages in the area. They spend most of the morning and afternoon studying, but once in a while — as you can see in these photos — they cut loose and revert to being silly young boys.



The Myanmar town of Yenangyaung doesn’t get many foreign tourists, but that’s not a big surprise. There really is no magnetic draw in the area that would motivate bus loads of camera clickers to pay a visit. But nestled amongst the rusty old oil derricks and craggy hills, is a community of friendly, caring people who will leave a lasting impression on you. The only reason I ended up visiting the town was because a friend of a friend of a friend had recommended the experience.  


Located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, Yenangyaung used to be a major oil well and refinery center in the country. In fact, during World War II, Yenangyaung’s location was considered to be of such strategic importance that it became the scene of a battle between Allied forces and Japanese troops. In recent years, oil activity has picked up again, including one major company that has “successfully re-entered and recompleted several shut-in wells as oil producers.” Most people in the area, however, continue to eek out a meager living as farmers, or raise goats, pigs, and chickens.


One of the people I met in Yenangyang was Eric Trutwein, a native of the town who heads an NGO that builds cisterns — resembling small reservoirs — in area villages that have no water supply. In the past, villagers had to walk several miles to obtain water, and even then it might by muddy or unsuitable for drinking. Eric’s “cistern solution” gives them a safe and sturdy source of water all year round. They don’t get much rainfall in this part of the country, so having a source of water in the “dry zone” is very important for these people.


In addition to the cistern building, Eric and his family support many poor families in the Yenangyaung area via several agricultural projects. They have also launched a service to help care for elderly residents and orphans in the area, and have built new classrooms for schools. During one trip I helped launch an English teaching program at one of the schools. I wasn’t sure what to expect in the way of language abilities before I arrived. But I was quite impressed by the students and their English skills. Except for some of the very young children who had not been exposed much to English, most of the children I talked to were quite confident and eager to speak.


To help raise money for his charitable efforts, Eric opened up a small guesthouse called Lei Thai Gone (“The Gentle Breeze Inn”). It’s perched on a hill overlooking the Ayeyarwady River, an absolutely gorgeous spot with a serene, idyllic vibe. Honestly, it’s one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever stayed. If you just want to get away from it all for a while, and aren’t picky about deluxe amenities, this is the perfect place.


Besides visiting schools and cistern projects, I enjoyed taking walks around town and along the riverside, basking in the aura of everyday life in this charming rural town. Talking to monks and chatting with vendors, it was all fun. It certainly made for a refreshing change from the more touristy spots around the rest of the country.


Because Yenangyaung does not normally host foreigner tourists, he must get permission from local authorities prior to each visit. If you are thinking of a visit (it’s only 3 hours from Bagan), you can contact Eric at: egsimco (at)

Myanmar’s Golden Rock

One of the more magnificent but least visited sites in Myanmar is Kyaiktiyo, more commonly known as Golden Rock. Actually, I should amend that “least visited” part; not many foreign tourists make the trek to Golden Rock, but hundreds of thousands of Myanmar natives do in fact make the pilgrimage every year.


One of the factors that limit the number of foreign tourists is that getting to Kyaiktiyo is not the easiest of journeys. But the difficulties and lack of comfort only make it a more memorable adventure. Or at least that’s one of looking at it. Kyaiktiyo isn’t near any airports so you have to either rent a car and driver (note: the car may not have working AC and the driver will probably be chewing — and spitting — betel nut the whole way), or endure a cramped bus ride to get there. For my trip to the rock I opted for a bus from Yangon’s Aung Mingalar bus station to Kinpun, which is the closest town to Kyaiktiyo. The entire journey lasted about five hours, and wasn’t nearly as miserable as I had expected. Then again, I wasn’t expecting much in the way of a luxury ride, and the lack of AC or onboard porta-potties certainly didn’t bother me. The scenery was nice and the people on the bus were very friendly. The coolest thing I saw during the ride was a little teashop at the side of the road in one rural town we passed. It wasn’t the shop itself, but the sign that caught my eye: The Wuthering Heights Café. There MUST be an interesting story behind that establishment. Too bad I couldn’t have hopped off the bus for a quick tea break there.


The bus trip ends upon arrival in Kinpun, but you still have a way to go before actually reaching Golden Rock. In Kinpun you have to board a flatbed truck for the ride to the top of the mountain. The truck is uncomfortably packed — asshole to elbow, as the Tom Jans song says — with passengers. And because of the narrow rows, any large Westerners like me will find themselves not only with their elbows touching someone else’s body parts, but their knees touching their chin. No leg room on this rig. But then the real torture starts: the truck makes the ascent up the mountain with alarming speed. At some points, when rounding curves, I was certain that two of the wheels were not touching the ground. With each precarious twist and turn on the road the passengers would scream. Whether those shouts indicated glee or fear is uncertain, but I was certainly feeling very nervous. Imagine an incredibly scary rollercoaster ride. This was worse.


Once the truck reaches the top and everyone gratefully disembarks, you still aren’t at your destination. For the final leg of the ascent you must walk, and that requires a hike that takes the better part of an hour. Or you can pay a team of porters to carry you to the top on a stretcher. Really. I saw a few people taking advantage of that “quaint” service. I assume that they had some sort of physical handicap that prevented them from walking, but you never know. But I also saw an amputee on crutches slowing making the climb unassisted, an inspiring sight if I ever saw one.


Once you get to the top — and have caught your breath — and gaze upon the actual rock, it’s a pretty impressive sight. Walk up for a closer look, and it’s even more amazing; the rock teetering there on the edge of the cliff, looking as if it would fall off if you gave it the slightest shove. Many men and boys were scattered around the sacred orb, applying gold leaf to the surface of the rock. Women, however, were noticeably absent. And that’s because they are not allowed to touch the rock, or even approach it too closely, due to some sort of preposterous Buddhist regulation.


The best times to see Golden Rock are at sunset and sunrise. But if you want to be there during those periods, you must stay at one of the overpriced hotels near the top. That’s because the truck from hell stops making its runs before sunset and doesn’t start up in the morning until after sunrise. The hotels take advantage of this situation and over-charge for their rooms, but in the grand scheme of things it’s a small price to pay for the magnificence of Golden Rock at night, all lit up and glowing like an enormous lumpy grapefruit. The native tourists who come to visit Golden Rock are allowed to stay overnight and camp out at the top. And let me tell you, it’s like a big party there at night, a festive atmosphere overwhelming the entire terrace. Incense and candles are being lit, offerings of food and fruit are spread out in front of shrines, people are sharing meals together, and groups of friends and families gather in front of the rock to take photos. Lots of smiles and a feel-good vibe all around. Let it glow!


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