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

Posts tagged ‘teashop’

Guest Photographer: Zin Ko



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.

Where Tourists Never Wander: the Other Side of Mandalay


This is the side of Mandalay that tourists never see. It’s not an especially pretty area and doesn’t offer amazing photo opportunities, and there isn’t anything of historical importance to see, but visiting this part of town has given me an immensely eye-opening perspective on the local way of life and the chance to know some truly wonderful people.


I found 90th Street quite by accident one day a few years ago, cycling around the south side of Mandalay on my rented bike, no destination in mind, just wandering around and exploring new neighborhoods. This stretch of 90th Street is not much more than a bumpy dirt road, bordered by ramshackle houses and tiny shops. Children play in the street, motorcycles whizz by, chickens and pigs wander into the road, and monks stroll by holding umbrellas to shade themselves from the blistering sun. This street doesn’t look or feel like the rest of the bustling Mandalay, exuding more of a laidback rural vibe.



There’s this little teashop on 90th Street, run by a nice man named U Tin Chit. The teashop is called Nwe Oo Aung Teashop, but I can never ever remember that name, so I just call it U Tin Chit’s Teashop.  The teashop has no windows or doors; open air, baby! It’s open round the clock; just like a 7-Eleven branch, they never close. As you might surmise, it’s not a fancy place. You can sit on plastic stools or wooden benches. Sit on the floor if you want, I don’t think anyone will mind. Have some tea, a bean-filled pastry or a tasty greasy snack. Stay as long as you like. Chat with the local men or the kids that pass in and out of the place, often stopping to stare at what’s on the TV in the corner. Maybe you can’t get anything you want, like at Alice’s Restaurant, but it’s a very relaxed place with friendly locals.



I’ve been going to this teashop for several years, and each time I visit, the kids or my friend Ko Maw Hsi will take me on short excursions in the surrounding area; to a monastery or temple, a school, a jade workshop, a swimming hole, a little shoe shop, someone’s home. These are fun little tours and I’m discovering more of the area each time I visit, plus getting to know these people and their families a little more as well. I’m very fond of these folks. Even though they are quite poor, the hospitality they offer each time is beyond generous. At this point I think I can say we’re all good friends; Ko Maw Hsi, U Tin Chit, U Nyunt Tun and his sweet daughter Khin Nwe Lwin (who recently graduated from university), Moe Htet Aung, Khang Khant Kyaw, Zin Ko, Baw Ga, Yu Naing Soe, and the rest of the neighborhood crew.



During this trip, Moe Htet Aung invited me to visit his home for the first time. I’d met his mother before, but I had no idea if there was a father living at home, or even if he had any brothers or sisters. From what I gather, it’s just him and his mom and a younger sister living in this house. It’s a fairly basic wooden house, at least one that blends in with the rest of the neighborhood. Like the others, there doesn’t appear to be any running water inside the home; families must bathe and use facilities outdoors. No real surprise there, but the real shock for me was the walk to the house. After turning down a series of narrow dirt lanes, surprised vendors greeting me with big smiles, we had to navigate a huge field of garbage to reach his house. That’s right, garbage. Trash, rubbish, scraps; an entire field filled with this junk. And I followed the kids as they nonchalantly traipsed through it all.



Once we were at the house, I was offered hot tea, as is standard practice at most homes in Myanmar. They also brought out a chilled can of Red Bull, a beverage that I absolutely will not touch. I thanked them, but told them I was full and could not drink it. They told me to put it in my bag and drink it back at my hotel. That ended up being a good diplomatic compromise; I put the can in my bag and gave it away to a street kid an hour later.



Someone noticed that my left arm was sporting red splotches; the result of bites from some sort of insect in my hotel room. The kids looked real concerned at my “injury”, and Moe Htet Aung’s mother announced that she had the perfect remedy; thanaka! You might not have heard of thanaka but you’ve seen it; it’s that yellowish paste that many people in Myanmar wear on their faces. It acts as a sunscreen, but many women also liken it to a beauty cosmetic and you’ll often see locals wearing thanaka in all sorts of pretty, creative patterns on their face. In any case, Moe Htet Aung’s mother told me that the thanaka will also soothe the skin and reduce the itching from the insect bites. She had me sold on the idea; let’s do it. And they did. And it did.



After the doctoring was done, I realized that it was getting late, at least closer to the time when I needed to head back to my hotel to clean up before a dinner appointment, so I told them I needed to leave. I followed the crew of kids, which had someone grown in number during the time I was at the house, and we walked back across the field of debris, down the quaint little lanes and back to the teashop where my bike was parked. I waved goodbye to Maw Hsi and the other men sitting at the teashop. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said as I hopped on my bike (making sure my longyi stayed tied!). And I was looking forward to it; another day of new experiences with my friends on 90th Street.



We Are Family


I was in Mandalay last week, cycling down 83rd Street, passing the busy 27th Street intersection near the Silver Star Hotel, when I heard someone shout: “Hey, Brother!”


I glanced to my right, being careful not to swerve into the perilous lanes of converging traffic — cars, motorcycles, trucks, bicycles, ox carts, 3-wheeled rigs; it’s a dizzying transport stew — and noticed a man waving at me. It was Maung Lwin, a trishaw driver I’ve used many times. I found a safe point to turn around, hopped off my bike and walked over to talk with Maung Lwin. “Brother, be thwa ma le?” he asked me, a big grin plastered on his dark, weathered face. “Brother, where are you going?” Just a typical greeting, but I get a kick out of the way the locals call you brother, or uncle (you know you’re getting “up there” in age when you hear more of the latter) in either English or Burmese.




I’ve met many friendly locals like Maung Lwin while traveling around Myanmar. In addition to conversation and camaraderie, they invite you into their homes, cook elaborate meals for you, buy you little presents as tokens of friendship, and above all, they treat you like you are someone special to them. It feels nice to be accepted like that, almost like you’re part of the family.





I hope it doesn’t sound like a cliché, but I truly feel a special bond with many of the locals I’ve meet around Myanmar. From small villages in Shan State and the dry zone of Yenangyaung, to the bustling cities of Yangon and Mandalay; the people are all gold. I return to the same places again and again, so I’m always guaranteed to run into someone I’ve met during previous trips.





In hotels and restaurants, schools and monasteries, teashops and on the street; the locals really make you feel at home. It’s a bond that I cherish, and I look forward to reconnecting with my friends, and meeting new ones, each time I’m in Myanmar. We are family indeed!










21 Shots: Remembering Myanmar


I’m thinking a lot about Myanmar lately, as I begin planning my next trip over there. As the days fly by I realize my departure date is less than two months away. Holy monhinga … time to start picking out which longyis, in my ever-growing collection, to wear. All this trip preparation reminds me that I still have a bunch of photos leftover from my last trip that I haven’t posted yet. So, on that note, here we go: 21 more reasons to remember Myanmar.



Making morning treats at a small neighborhood teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay.



Novice monks bring water for the primary school at Tat Ein village in Shan State.



Students at a village school near Inle Lake play games during their lunch break.



Early morning cyclist on a muddy street in Nyaungshwe.



Tapping and blowing out a tune in Shan State!



Students at Tat Ein’s primary school peek under the partition to check out what I’m teaching in the other class.



Ko Maw Hsi and his daughter in Mandalay.



Zin Ko shows off his tasty new key chain in Amarapura.



Drying out chili peppers outside a monastery near Nyaungshwe.



Even monks enjoy a game of late afternoon football!



A student in a pretty hat poses in front of a pretty plant at a temple near Pindaya.



Nyaungshwe traffic jam!



Taking aim while playing the shoe game at a pagoda in Amarapura.


A little afternoon street corner guitar serenade in Yangon.



A monk in Mandalay during his morning meditation walk.



Checking out the tunes at the teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay.



Ko Maw Hsi bangs a gong in Mandalay.



Novice monk with his alms bowl outside the monastery at Tat Ein village in Shan State.



Dancing the day away in Amarapura.



Students at a village school near Inle Lake play on the slide during their lunch break.


Politicians, Friends, and other Delights

Blink and you missed it. Barack Obama made a whirlwind tour of the region earlier in the week, spending a half-day in Bangkok, about six hours in Yangon, and the better part of two days at an ASEAN summit meeting in Phnom Penh. Hillary Clinton also put in an appearance at each location, but then had to fly off to the crazy lands — The Middle East — in an attempt to pacify the Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and possibly other aggrieved nationalities. Does that woman ever get any sleep?


It would be an understatement to say that Obama’s visits to Thailand and Myanmar were met with great excitement — and approval — from the populace in each country. People in Asia really like him. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a great smile. Obama himself appeared to be delighted by the warm reception, and looked like he was enjoying the visits. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck “I Love Democracy” Shinawatra couldn’t keep from beaming in every photo that I saw, looking like a schoolgirl getting to meet a famous pop star. And then there were several photos of Obama in Yangon, hugging and kissing Aung San Suu Kyi … uh, rather fervently. The Lady appeared a bit taken back from such an overt display of affection from Barry, but hey, it’ll certainly sell more newspapers in Yangon and give the fellows in the teashops something to talk about. And it sure beats having some creepy overweight dude, wearing a snorkel and flippers and carrying a bible, showing up on your doorstep late one night, dripping lake water and asking to spend the night. That’s one incident — and in case you missed it, yes, it really happened — that I’d love to know more details about.


Obama made visits to such sacred sites as Wat Pho in Bangkok and Shwedagon in Yangon, but by contrast, once he arrived in Phnom Penh he didn’t stop for any temple tours, but headed straight to the ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where serious business was discussed. The tone was set when Obama greeted Hun Sen — Cambodia’s Prime-Minister-for-Life and don’t you dare think otherwise — with a firm handshake, absent of any back slapping or pleasantries. Even if it was “Give a Thug a Hug” week, I don’t think Obama would have lowered himself to embrace Hun Sen. And good for him. Hun Sen is one of the creepiest “leaders” in the region and it’s about time people started standing up to him. By all accounts, the meeting with Hun Sen was “tense,” Obama giving the old Khmer Rouge foot soldier a dressing down on the subject of land seizures, human rights, freedom of speech, and other such sticky issues that the Cambodian government brushes under the bamboo mat. Despite the millions of dollars in foreign aid money that floods into Cambodia each year — it reportedly receives the highest percentage of any country in Asia — poverty in the country is still rampant and infrastructure well behind that of Thailand. It’s the same old broken record: the rich get richer … and they drive SUVs and get away with…


On another Cambodian note, I’ve been flooded with phone calls from friends there this week. The subject of Hun Sen and/or Obama never came up, however. Nowadays, my Cambodian friends have more important things to worry about; like paying school tuition, paying hospital bills, and affording to eat. I talked to three of the Tri brothers, and also Chamrong in Siem Reap. His wife just gave birth to their first child, a boy, but the baby was born one month premature, necessitating a multi-week stay in the hospital for mother and child. Rong took off from his job at the airport for over a full week to help take care of them. Happily, they are all home now and Rong is back at work. Another friend, So Pengthai has also had to help his wife and children recuperate from various illnesses. Blame it on the rainy season, which thankfully, now appears to have run its course.


Yet another Cambodian friend from Siem Reap, Chiet, has been calling me almost every day … from Thailand! He’s working in another province as a welder, trying to earn some extra money, Hell, trying to earn any money at all. He’s had a problem finding steady work this year in Siem Reap, so somehow he got hooked up with a job broker that brought him to Thailand. I don’t think he has legal working papers, which makes him one of thousands (perhaps the number runs into five or six figures … or more?) of Cambodians and Burmese who are working in Thailand without proper documents. Not exactly slave labor, but don’t think these people are getting paid a fair wage either. Whatever the case, Chiet is working every day of the week — no days off — and is quite tired, but in pretty good spirits overall. There is another Cambodian working with him, but the rest of the workers, I gather, are Thai. He’s obviously lonely, being away from friends and family, so I’m one of his few daily social contacts, albeit one that’s on the phone. If I can figure out exactly where he’s working — trying to get him to distinguish Sakhon from Nakorn and Pathom from Phanom and other similar words is a difficult task — I may visit him next month. He plans to work here until mid-April, the annual Khmer — and Thai — water festival period, before going back to Siem Reap. In the meantime, we talk each night, which is helping to improve my rusty Khmer skills; word and phrases I haven’t used in years are coming back to me. We joke about eating grilled dog for dinner, plus he’s learning some Thai words too, which he is thrilled to impress me with. I only hope he doesn’t fall into any bad habits — drinking and drugs come to mind — during his exhausting labor stint in a different country. It ain’t an easy life for people like him.


Mr. Obama goes to Myanmar

It’s official: Barack Obama will visit Myanmar later this month, the first US president to ever visit the country formerly known as Burma. Not surprisingly the trip has been both lauded and criticized, depending on which special interest human rights group or political organization is attempting to make itself heard. Nowadays, of course, a politician just can’t make a trip without people trying to analyze it or condemn it. But I think it’s wonderful that Obama is making this trip. It’s not “premature” or “misguided” — it’s the right thing to do.


The downside to this historic trip is that Obama will most likely spend a grand total of 16 hours in the country — half of that time sleeping — and will no doubt confine his visit solely to Yangon. Which is a shame because he won’t have the opportunity to see more of this beautiful, mesmerizing country, and get to meet more of the people, as opposed to the quick, generic glimpse he’ll be given by his greeters and minders.


In Yangon he is scheduled to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, now an elected member of the opposition party (one of many parties, actually), and reformist Prime Minister Thein Sein. He will most likely make the obligatory visit to Shwedagon, the country’s most famous and most revered pagoda. And after that? Meetings with the new US ambassador, some sort of bland dinner, and off he’ll go. See you later … thanks … take care. Which country is next? Oh, the joy of politics.


It would be really cool if Obama and his entourage dropped by a local restaurant, such as Feel, where my friend That Myo Aung works as a waiter, while he was in Yangon. It’s not far from Shwedagon, so why not?  Feel specializes in Burmese cuisine, but they also have Thai and Chinese dishes and some Western food. Something for everyone. Want a cappuccino with your curry? No problem! That Myo Aung is an incredibly attentive waiter, very friendly (as is almost everyone in this country), and has a smile that will light up a dim room. I can just picture him and Obama grinning at one another. That Myo Aung  and I will usually go out for dinner together at least once when I am in town. This trip, however, I didn’t have much time in Yangon, so I only saw briefly three times; once when I dropped by for a late breakfast with Ma Thanegi, later the same day when I met Win Thuya for lunch, and on my last day in town when I stopped by for a late afternoon coffee. As usual, That Myo Aung’s waiter radar kicked in and he found me before I could even sit down. I ordered a latte and we chatted for a half hour or so. When it was time to pay the bill, he waved me off; he had already paid for me. What could I say except: Che Zu Tin Ba De (Thank You!). The hospitality in this country never ceases to amaze me.


And on that subject, I’ll give you some more examples. In Mandalay I always drop by Minthiha, a rather large teashop at the corner of 72nd and 28th Streets. Actually, they have several branches in town, but this one has always been my favorite, thanks to a tip from Win Thuya many years ago.  After going there so often over the years, most of the waiters know me, and a couple of them always make an extra effort to treat me like royalty, much like Thant Myo Aung in Yangon. At Minthiha, my two regulars are Yan Naing Soe and Yan Zaw Win. I also make a point of taking them out to dinner when I’m in town, and sometimes we’ll go somewhere afterwards, maybe to a local shopping center or one of the Happy World complexes where they have games, silly rides, and a haunted house. Good, cheap fun. During one of my visits, meeting my tour guide friend Ko Soe Moe for breakfast one morning, Yan Naing Soe picked up the tab. And during another visit, Soe Moe paid. It was almost ridiculous; I couldn’t even spend my own money there!


Maybe such bill paying doesn’t seem remarkable to most westerners, but when you think about the fact that most of these guys are earning less than twenty US dollars per month — a month! — working at local restaurants and teashops, that’s an extremely generous thing for them to do. Naturally, I try and tip these waiters well, but I still think that their kindness exceeds the bounds of normal generosity.


But such hospitality is the Myanmar way. Selfish these people are not. I paid for very few meals when I was out with other locals. Ma Thanegi treated me to breakfast; Win Thuya paid the lunch bill; in Nyaungshwe Htein Linn treated me to pizza and beer at the Golden Kite Restaurant one night; also in Nyaungshwe, Ma Pu Sue invited me to her house for dinner another night, and on my final day in Nyaungshwe, another tour guide friend, Malar Htun, drove in from Taunggyi and took me to lunch, and later she handed me a bag of Shan State coffee. And there’s more. The kids at Tat Ein primary school were always offering me candy and any other snacks they had with them. Dirt poor village children and they don’t think twice about sharing what they have. The teachers at that same school made sure I had extra helpings of food at lunch each day or brought me tea and snacks when I was teaching English classes. Whenever I’m at Ko Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay, they never let me pay for anything I eat or drink. At Maw Hsi’s house in Mandalay, more home-cooked meals. Yes, these are my friends, but none of these people are rich and they really don’t need to be paying for my meals and treating me all the time. But that’s just the way they are. They are good people. Proud people.


Why do I keep going back to Myanmar again and again? It’s the people, of course. More than the overwhelming generosity and hospitality, it’s their personality and spirit that impresses me. I only hope that Barack Obama has the chance, in between meetings and briefings and chatting with The Lady, to meet some of the other down-to-earth human jewels that live in Myanmar. You’re in for a treat, Barack!


Mandalay Meandering

I spent a full week in Mandalay during my visit to Myanmar in July. I’ve been there so many times that I rarely bother to revisit any of the popular tourist attractions in town. My usual routine involves going to teashops (Morning Star, Minthiha, or a small one near the railway station that has delicious monhinga in the mornings), restaurants (Aye Myit Tar for Burmese cuisine, and V Café for western dishes), and just simply riding my bike around town. Sometimes I don’t have a real plan; I just hop on the bike and ride off into the dust, often getting lost in the process. That’s when the adventure starts!


During these somewhat aimless bike rides I’ve discovered some incredibly memorable people, places, and things: lovely old monasteries, tree-lined avenues and bubbling brooks, friendly local families (one of them, I kid you not, was named the Adams Family … and they are Burmese!), and quaint little neighborhoods. One of those is the neighborhood on 90th Street, where U Tin Chit’s teashop is located. I usually make my way over there every day when I am in town, stopping at the teashop first for conversation — and tea, of course. Inevitably, the kids will come around after school and they will take me on walks or bike rides around the area. I never know where we are going to go — a park, a monastery, a lake, a jade workshop, a school — but it’s always fun. Really, I never get bored of hanging out with this crew.


My friend Maw Hsi, one of the regulars at the teashop, planned a few new excursions in the area this time. One day, while the kids were in school, we rode our bikes around town and visited a half-dozen monasteries, from small ones to huge complexes. Another day we took the kids to the chinlon tournament at Mahamuni Paya. Other times, we just meandered down the jigsaw pattern of small narrow lanes until we reached the river. Here are some photos I took of the kids out and about, hamming it up for the camera. Just another day in Mandalay.




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