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

Posts tagged ‘Nyaungshwe’

Morning Monhinga for the Monks!

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The birthday of my friend Ma Pu Sue is on November 27, only one day before my own. That being the case, if I happen to be in Nyaungshwe during that time of the month, we will get together with her friends and family to celebrate. This past November, however, she had clients at her Bamboo Delight Cooking Class every day while I was in town, including a group of over twenty one morning. The Tazaungdaing full moon period also fell during this time, which always coincides with the popular balloon festival in nearby Taunggyi, an event that I was planning to attend one day — along with 90 children, novice monks, and teachers from Tat Ein village.

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Needless to say, we had a lot going on, plus I was scheduled to leave Nyaungshwe on the day of Sue’s birthday, so if we were going to do anything to celebrate, we needed to do it a day early. Sue suggested that instead of a birthday dinner we should make a donation to the monastery at Tat Ein. But not just a regular monetary donation; her idea was to offer the novice monks a feast of home-cooked monhinga for breakfast one morning.

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So that’s exactly what we did. If you aren’t familiar with monhinga, it’s basically Myanmar’s national dish. It’s most commonly eaten in the morning, but can also be enjoyed anytime of the day or night. Rice or vermicelli noodles serve as the foundation for the monhinga soup, usually comprised of a fish broth with sliced banana stems, onions, lemongrass, garlic, and maybe a bit of pepper and some sliced egg. Variations of monhinga can be found around Myanmar, but crunchy gourd fritters and a sprinkling of coriander are also usually added, along with a squeeze or two of lime. Over the years, I’ve grown from moderately liking it to becoming a seriously big fan of this tasty dish. I honestly think that Sue’s version is the best that I’ve ever tasted. This is seriously addictive stuff!

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Sue, her husband Lesly (who, it must be said, is the “genius” behind this monhinga recipe), and two assistants got up early to prepare the monhinga feast on the appointed day. All that I could do was stand around and try not to get in their way as we waited for the monks to arrive on their morning alms rounds. Sue and Lesly had tables set up around their yard, enough to accommodate the 40 monks who were expected. Sue also brought out a white board with greetings written in Burmese, explaining our “donation event.”

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At about 7:30 that morning the line of red robes finally appeared, walking slowly down the dusty road. The whole crew was in attendance; Soe Nyaunt, Aung Thaung, Htun Phyu, Saing Aung, and rest of the novice monks I know from the Tat Ein monastery. The all sat down, hands politely on laps, and patiently waited for the food to be served. I think my assessment that this version monhinga is extremely tasty was supported by the monk’s reaction: most of them had second and even third helpings!

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When the meal was over, I stationed myself by the gate and following Sue’s advice, as the monks walked past me I handed each one an extra “gift” of 1000 kyat, money which they were to spend later that day at the balloon festival (more on that trip in a later post). Not a traditional way to celebrate a birthday, but definitely a memorable and gratifying one.

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Dancing in the Shan State Moonlight

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It was the full moon night in late November, a period known as Tazaungdaing in Myanmar, and also the time of a very popular annual festival. My friend Ma Pu Sue, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaungshwe with her husband Lesly, decided to throw a very memorable party that night at her home.

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Not only did Sue and Lesly prepare a very tasty spread of food — grilled fish, seasonal salads, and two varieties of sticky rice — but the invited guests were treated to a live traditional Shan band, complete with a knife dancer. The locals mixed with the foreigners — guests from France, the Netherlands, Kenya, and the USA — and everyone pretty much danced all night.

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The wine and whiskey were flowing — or in some cases with Lesly pouring the contents of a bottle down the throats of a few eager local fellows — as the guests were smiling and dancing the night away. Isabelle from France had a flock of young neighborhood girls mimicking her every choreographed dance move and when she finally sat down to take a break, a couple of the girls started copying my more rather freestyle moves! Better that, I guess, than trying to copy the moves of the boy who had been dancing with the two long knives!

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A few hours later, the band had stopped playing, the knife boy was dancing with the rest of us (thankfully, without those knives!), and a few of the more inebriated men had to be propped up against the wall of Sue’s new guest room so that nobody would trip over them. All things considered, it was another fabulous night under the moonlight in Nyaungshwe’s lovely Shan State.

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Fifth Grade Frenzy!

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My day of teaching in Tat Ein village ended with an afternoon fifth grade class. This was the first time I’d ever taught the fifth graders, seeing as how in previous years there was no such class in the village, the school only offering grades one through four. Following the villagers’ expansion plans for the school (they are in the process of constructing a new classroom and study hall), the fifth graders now meet in a separate building.

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The good news is that in this building they are separated from the lower four grades and the classroom is less noisy. But the downside is that it’s a temporary situation and they don’t have any desks or chairs in the room yet. And no, there is no air-conditioning and not any fans either. Open window air circulation, baby! For now the students sit on the floor and write in notebooks that are either propped on their lap or on the floor itself. No, it’s not an ideal setup, but at least the kids can take their classes in the village instead of having to make the long walk or bike ride to nearby Nyaungshwe.

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Unlike the relatively small fourth grade class I taught that morning (12 students) the fifth group class was huge by comparison; over 30 students. But it was a nice mixture of boys and girls, and of course those ubiquitous — and often mischievous — novice monks, including two of my favorites in the bunch, the irrepressible duo of Saing Aung and Soe Nyaunt.

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As with the fourth graders, I stuck to my usual arsenal of activities and lessons. In these classes I’ve learned that it’s easier, and more fun, to get the students out of their chairs (or in this case, off the floor) and involved in the lesson. For this group, however, the sheer numbers of students made it more difficult to get them to focus on what I was teaching and what we were doing. There were even a couple of monks who used the time to take naps. Ha! So much for my exciting lesson!

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Eventually, I let a few students come up to the board and write some words in English — or Burmese — and that helped to revive their sagging attention spans. The girls especially got a kick out of playing teacher. But even that excitement was short-lived and we spent the last 30 minutes of class just taking photographs!

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Jumping For Joy in Shan State

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Before the classes start each morning at Tat Ein’s primary school, near Nyaungshwe in Shan State, the students can found outside playing games. For the boys it might by football, some form of dodge ball, or even marbles. Most of the girls, however, stick to badminton, hand-clapping games, or jumping rope.

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After their lunch break, before afternoon classes commence at one o’clock, the kids are playing games again. It’s refreshing to see the children outside and having fun, moving around and jumping around, and screaming for joy. I think it’s healthy — both physically and mentally. It sure beats observing a bunch of kids huddled over a smart phone, mesmerized by digital images and poking their finger on a screen. Alas, I fear that day will be coming to Myanmar very soon too. But for now, at least in this Shan State village, the kids know how to make their own fun.

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During this last trip, jumping rope seemed to be the game of choice, not only for the girls but for a few boys too. It’s a good thing that the weather cooperated during the week I visited and there were no rainstorms, or those ensuing troublesome patches of mud. Thus, it was good clean fun in every aspect.

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Monks for the Road

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My bags are packed and I’ll be hitting the road soon, off to Mandalay and Shan State for about 12 days. As usual, one of the highlights will be visiting the novice monks at the monastery in Tat Ein village, not far from the town of Nyaunghswe, which in turn is just down the canal from the famous Inle Lake.

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These little monks are great kids, and most come from other villages in the region. Staying at the monastery gives them a chance to get an education at the local primary school, as well as learning more about Buddhism. But what happens when they leave? I’ve been discussing a plan with Ma Pu Sue (the owner of the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class) about how I can help sponsor some of these young monks, keeping them in school after they leave the monastery. All too often in Myanmar, especially in this part of Shan State, the kids study until the fourth grade, maybe the sixth grade, and then they stop. By that point, many of the children are seen as income earners by their families, who don’t see any benefits to keeping the kids in school.

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Both Sue and Kazuko, a friend from Japan who also is a big donor to the village, have helped sponsor children from this village or the Nyaungshwe area, so I’ll be relying on their advice and suggestions to make this idea a reality. And hopefully I’ll also be teaching some English classes at the school (which just started their new term last week). Looking forward to the adventure!

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Shan Birthday Girl

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When I arrived in the Shan State town of Nyaunghwe back in early March, once I was settled in my hotel room, I slipped into a longyi and immediately headed outside. My first stop was to Golden Bowl Travel & Bookshop to rent a bike and chat with the owner, Mar Mar Aye. She’s a wonderful lady and almost single-handedly runs the shop.

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It turned out that I arrived on an auspicious day; it was her daughter Tina’s birthday. They were planning a celebratory dinner at a local restaurant that night, and Mar Mar Aye graciously invited me to join them. I asked if I could bring anything, but Mar Mar Aye told me that presents were not necessary. However, I suggested that I could buy the birthday cake. That idea, at least, met with approval!

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The restaurant that we went to, Pwe Daw Win, is a recently opened place on Yone Gyi Road, about a kilometer east of Golden Bowl and the central market area, not far from the road that leads to Tat Ein village. We rode our bikes to the restaurant T about seven o’clock that night, where we met another family friend, Lwan Moe Aung, who is a local trekking guide. At Pwe Daw Win you have the option of eating in the main dining room or one of the cute little open-air private huts (for lack of a better word). We opted for a hut, Mar Mar Aye ordered the food, and soon the feast began!

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Tina couldn’t wait to get to the cake: she started cutting it up and serving it even before all the main courses had arrived! Hey, whatever floats your boat, right? I certainly didn’t complain. The cake, luckily, was quite testy, and so was the rest of the food at Pwe Daw Win. Good food and good friends; needless to say it was a very good evening!

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Shan State Street Parade

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I might be exaggerating if I say that I see some sort of street parade every single day when I’m in Myanmar, but it sure seems like it! If not every day, I certainly come across some sort of parade or procession a couple of times each week every time I’m in the country.

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Sometimes the procession might be for a wedding, a noviciation (Shin Pyu) ceremony, part of a full moon festival, or for making donations to a local monastery. When I was in the Shan State town of Nyaungshwe last month, I was fortunate to witness a very colorful little parade one afternoon. Young girls were dressed in their finest, complete with makeup and lipstick, and teenage girls walked down the main street of town attired similarly. Groups of young boys were also part of the procession, some of them also dressed up in frilly clothes and sporting makeup. What was that all about? Well, this was part of a traditional Shin Pyu ceremony, where the boys are paraded through the streets (one riding a horse!) before going back to the monastery, whereupon they have their head shaved and they will become a novice monk for a week or longer.

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The procession in Nyaungshwe included a few adults too, some of whom were driving trishaws full of donations, along with a small marching band. It was an entertaining and colorful spectacle, yet another fascinating example of the unique way of life in Myanmar.

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