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

Posts tagged ‘Yangon’

Myanmar’s Tourism Dilemma

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It’s often said, “Be careful what you wish for,” and in the case of Myanmar’s burgeoning tourism industry, no truer words were ever spoken.

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In the past year or so, there have been incredible changes in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest, ran for election and won a seat in Myanmar’s parliament; the country’s president has engaged in various reforms and freed political prisoners; media restrictions have been lifted … and well, the world was watching all of these amazing developments, and all of a sudden many travelers want to visit the country. Perhaps too many.

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Due to this sudden spike in tourist arrivals, the country’s tourism industry is fraying at the seams. You can safely assume that all hotels in Myanmar have raised their rates compared to a year ago, but many have gone beyond simple seasonal rate hikes and have doubled or tripled the cost of a night’s stay. One reason for this rate ugliness is the simple fact that there is a shortage of hotel rooms. Supply and demand, don’t you know. If you are planning on visiting in the next month or two, but haven’t booked a room yet, well … good luck. You’re gonna need it. There may be no room at the inn for you, your spouse, and 2.5 kids.

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And it’s not only hotel rooms that are at a premium. Airplane flights, seats on boats, buses, and trains may also be hard to come by … and more expensive. Thinking of hiring a private car and driver to get from one town to another, or maybe the services of a tour guide who can speak your language with some competency? Once again, if you haven’t made those arrangements already, it’s probably too late. If nothing else, the good ones are taken.

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And what about, uh, eating? Most people have to do that at least a couple of times each day. But where will you eat? And much will it cost? I was talking to a woman who owns a restaurant in Yangon earlier this week and I mentioned that business must be very good lately. She let out a big sigh, and confirmed that yes, her place was very busy, but because there were so many tour groups descending on her place, it was placing extra demands on her staff; from cooks to waiters and managers. When you are used to serving a certain number of customers each night and all of a sudden that number triples, how will you handle it? Plus, the fact that tour groups comprise the majority of customers at her restaurant, many independent travelers found themselves either being turned away or having to wait a very long time to be served. Such is the price of success.

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Thus, I fear that anyone visiting Myanmar for the first time this year, or in the coming months, but not come away with the most positive of impressions. I’m sure they will be pleased by the friendliness and politeness of the locals, plus the fact that it’s an extremely safe country to visit, but it’s no longer a particularly affordable travel destination, and the quality of lodging and meals may not live up the standards of many veteran travelers. Also, there are still troublesome money issues: credit cards are not widely accepted, ATMs are just in the planning stages, and any US bank notes you wish to exchange must be in immaculate condition or they will be refused.

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Hopefully, this new wave of tourists will be very patient and considerate, realizing that they are visiting a country that is still getting its sea legs. But if they give Myanmar a chance, they may end up loving it.

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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!

 

Welcome to Changing Myanmar!

Every time I return from a trip to Myanmar, especially during the past two years, friends and customers at my shop will ask me: “Do you see any changes happening there?”

 

Normally I shrug my shoulders and say: “Not really.” And that’s the truth. Any changes in the past have either been non-existent or very subtle ones. But this year the changes are more readily apparent and, for the most part, positive ones. If you follow the news, you obviously know that Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest last year, ran for a seat in parliament this year and was elected. She also seems to have finally accepted the fact that allowing tourists to visit her country is not such an evil thing. As I noted in a post last month, her once-banned image can now be seen everywhere around the country, and her name is in all the papers. Citizens can also now express themselves more openly when talking politics — in public, in newspapers, on radio, and on the Internet.  Things still aren’t as “free” as they are in Western countries (or, shall we say, “appear” to be in those countries) but the changes are for the better.

 

Two things of note have become much cheaper in Myanmar this year: cars and cell phones. The price to buy a new car has suddenly become affordable for many, so drivers are ditching their old clunkers and buying new Japanese models. The downside to this is a lot more traffic. Yangon is increasingly becoming paralyzed by Bangkok-like traffic jams in some areas. The ability to buy a cell phone is also now within the budget of more people, and access to wireless Internet is also becoming more common. I’m already annoyed by all the loud, chatty morons I see — and hear — in local restaurants. I mentioned in a post last month about seeing the “Free Wi-Fi” sign at a teashop. The gadget revolution in Myanmar has begun. And credit cards and ATMs — yet more common conveniences that Myanmar never had — are now on their way too. Changes, changes, and more changes.

 

As expected, after Aung San Suu Kyi was freed and the government engaged on a vigorous series of reforms, Myanmar started making the news and more foreigners became curious visiting the country. And since “The Lady” no longer forbids such excursions, tourists are now descending on Myanmar like the proverbial locusts. But this increase in arrivals is offering a mixed bag of results. Hotels are raising their rates to alarming new heights. A room in Yangon that cost me $18 a year ago is now $32 … and will probably be even more before the end of the year. At “nicer” hotels, I’m sure the rates are outrageous. The price of air tickets is also going up (even though there are more domestic airlines this year) and other transport options are also more expensive due to the cost of petrol and the increased demand.

 

The influx of more tourists will certainly offer more economic perks for the locals, but the extra demands from some overly picky western travelers — many of whom are used to being pampered in more traditional tourist havens — are creating headaches for local guides and tour operators. People working in the Myanmar tourism industry have become used to dealing with laid back, knowledgeable, and very reliable travelers; people who did their homework before visiting Myanmar and knew what to expect. They weren’t so demanding or prone to changing their minds or breaking commitments. The “new breed” of curious tourists, locals tell me, are proving to be much more difficult to deal with.

 

Myanmar is now seen as a “hot” new investment opportunity by many businesses. But I fear that this bevy of greedy developers and investors will do more harm than good. I look at what’s happened in Cambodia — where the rich are getting richer and the poor are as desperate as ever — and I fear the same fate will befall Myanmar. In the past several years, many poor people in Cambodia have been forced out of their old neighborhoods and “relocated” by the government, who use the seized land for new developments such as condos, office buildings, and shopping centers. Other residents can no longer to afford to live or operate small businesses in these prime locations and are also forced to move. And that’s what I fear is going to happen in Yangon and Mandalay, and even in small towns like Nyaungshwe. When the big cats come to town, how much longer can my friend Htein Linn afford to rent a shop on the main street in town? Say goodbye to lovely old neighborhoods, rich with tradition and a sense of community, and welcome another ugly high rise building or mall. Maybe that’s progress in the eyes of some of these greedy creeps, but not in mine.


Judyth’s Myanmar Memoir

I had heard of Judyth Gregory-Smith several years before I actually met her in person. Until that time, she was only known to me as “the trishaw lady” from Australia. I don’t think Judyth has ever pedaled a trishaw in her life (she can correct me if I’m wrong!), but her association with that most Burmese of transport options was due to the fact that she had purchased a couple of trishaws for a Burmese man to start a business in Mandalay. The appreciative young man then named one of the cute three-wheeled contraptions after Judyth.

 

When I finally met Judyth, it was totally by chance. I had gone to the Feel Restaurant in Yangon with Ma Thanegi for lunch one day. The place was busy as usual, but amidst the throng I recognized one man, Kyar Min sitting at a corner table. The odd thing, however, was that he was a trishaw driver in Mandalay and I’d never previously seen him outside of that city. What was he doing in Yangon, I wondered? It was at that moment that I noticed that he wasn’t sitting alone, but with a Western woman. He introduced her; this was the famous Judyth! It turned out that Ma Thanegi also knew Judyth — both of them being travel writers who had trod similar paths —- but she had not met Kyar Min before. More introductions were made.

 

Fast forward to this year and Judyth’s fascinating new book, Myanmar: a Memoir of Loss and Recovery, has just been published. In this book she writes about her various experiences traveling alone around Myanmar, while gradually coming to terms with the illness and subsequent death of her husband. The book, Judyth says, traces two journeys: a geographical journey and an inner journey. The Pansodan Art Gallery in Yangon recently wrote a short review of the book on its blog, calling Myanmar: a Memoir of Loss and Recovery “a well-observed account of places and people, and her deeper involvement over the course of several years of visits. This is a great book as a gift to people who want to know more about life in Myanmar in those years, whether they have been here or not, and (aside from its sobering prologue) a highly amusing and well-written book which freshens our sense of why we love this country so much, even now during the crashing monsoon and heavy weather.”

http://pansodan.blogspot.com/view/mosaic#!/2012/06/last-decade-before.html

 

In between her country hopping (she was in Vietnam earlier this month, before making plans for another return to Myanmar) I asked Judyth about her new book and her experiences in Myanmar.

When did you visit Myanmar for the first time? And what were your initial impressions of the country?

I first visited Myanmar in 1987 with my late husband, Richard. He was on leave from his Australian government position in the embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. He asked his counterpart in the embassy in Myanmar to do an itinerary for us and we visited Bagan, Mandalay, Bago and many other “must see” destinations in the two weeks’ visa that was allowed in those days. We both loved Myanmar — especially the people — and vowed to return, but over the years we went on to work in other countries and to other places on holidays. In 2003 I did return, but alone: Richard died in 2001.

 

At what point did you decide: “I’m going to write a book about my experiences in Myanmar”?

The first journey I took on my own, with five words of Burmese, was by train to Mawlamyine. An hour or two into the journey the train stopped. When it had been stationary more than an hour, the engine driver came to tell me why we couldn’t proceed: a train in front had tipped its load all over the track. I left the train and eventually found a truck going to Kinpun, so I visited Kyaiktiyo and the Golden Rock Pagoda and then found a way to get to Mawlamyine by bus. So many funny things happened on these journeys, that I thought they could be the beginning of a book on travel in Myanmar.

 

How long did it take you to write the book? Did you agonize over re-writes or did it flow quickly?

The book took more than seven years to write. It started life as a travel narrative, as I am a travel writer, but because of sanctions against Myanmar, no publisher was interested. Eventually, a Sydney publisher suggested I should rewrite the manuscript as a memoir. This took me 18 months. I turned my journey around Myanmar into two journeys — my geographical journey, and my interior journey as I tried to come to terms with the illness and death of Richard.

 

One of the people you write about in your book, Kyar Min, is someone I know also. Tell us about meeting him for the first time.

On my first overnight bus trip to Mandalay my daughter, Fiona, working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Yangon, asked me to telephone to tell her I’d arrived safely. This I did, but the man with the telephone on the street spoke even less English than I spoke Burmese. He hailed a trishaw man across the street who spoke English and he took me to a cyber cafe so I could work on my manuscript. The trishaw man, Kyar Min, had supported his invalid father, his mother and three siblings for ten years when I met him. I decided it was time for someone to give him some support. So he came on holiday to Australia and my generous friends helped him with cash, which he used to buy some secondhand trishaws for him to rent out. This has not been a great success, but a little sewing business that we started has done better and is growing. Kyar Min is the manager and quality control manager of the little project.

 

Obviously, you aren’t the typical tourist who visits Myanmar one time, says “That was nice”, and never returns. Like me, you return again and again. What keeps you going back?

The book is now published, but I return to Myanmar on my tourist visa three times a year. I go to the market with Kyar Min and the seamstresses and we buy fabric for which I pay. Then the seamstresses go off to sew. Kyar Min monitors them daily, going from house to house on his trishaw, checking that they have all they need and improving the standard of their work and. Just before my visa expires I return to each woman, collect what she has made and ask how much I owe her. I pay whatever she asks, so if my plane crashes on my way home they have at least been paid for their labor. Fortunately for them (and me!) my plane has not yet crashed! Kyar Min and the seamstresses know that whatever I sell for them when I go back to Malaysia (where I have a base) or Australia (which I visit for six weeks a year) I will take the profit (or helping money as they call it) back to them. As one person humorously pointed out I am a one-person, not-for-profit, NGO!

 

Things are changing quickly this year in Myanmar, perhaps too quickly. Are you optimistic about positive changes happening in the country, or do you fear the deluge of greedy developers and investors will have a negative impact?

I am optimistic about change in Myanmar as long as developers and investors employ Myanmar staff and ensure part of the profit of their endeavors goes to the people of Myanmar. I believe Myanmar cultural norms, particularly where family is concerned, will go some way to prevent negative exploitation, for example in the tourist industry.

 

For someone going to Myanmar for the first time, what are five “must” things they should either see or do?

They must visit the three most important Buddhist shrines in Myanmar: the Shwedagon in Yangon, the Mahamuni in Mandalay and the Golden Rock Pagoda in Kyaiktiyo. Bagan is, of course, a must, as is Mandalay.

 

What are some of your other favorite travel destinations? Are there any other countries that you would still like to visit?

I’ve enjoyed time in UK, Europe, Nepal, Sudan, Kenya, and Malaysia. I’d like to visit Egypt because my mother was born there. I’d like to re-visit Rome, Paris and Athens with my grandchildren, as I took my children there when they were young.

 

What are some other books about Myanmar, either fiction or non-fiction, that would you recommend?

Aung San Suu Kyi – Freedom from Fear

Andrew Marshall – The Trouser People

James Mawdsley – The Heart Must Break: The Fight for Democracy and Truth in Burma

George Orwell – Burmese Days

Inge Sargent – Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess

Sir James George Scott (Shway Yoe) – The Burman: His Life and Notions

V.C. Scott O’Connor – Mandalay and other cities of the past in Burma

F. Tennyson Jesse – The Lacquer Lady

Thant Myint-U – The River of Lost Footsteps

U Toke Gale – Burmese Timber Elephant

Donovan Webster – The Burma Road

Lt. Col. J.H. Williams – Elephant Bill

 

How can interested readers get your book?

I chose to publish Myanmar: A Memoir of Loss and Recovery through Lulu Publishers in the USA. It can be bought online from Lulu, from Amazon.com, or from Barnes and Noble. There is also a Facebook page for the book: https://www.facebook.com/MyanmarJudythGregorySmith

http://www.lulu.com/shop/judyth-gregory-smith/myanmar-a-memoir-of-loss-and-recovery/paperback/product-18957635.html#ratingsReview

 

 

Fun Finds

I love hunting for old books when I’m on the road. In Yangon, the outdoor bookstalls on Pansodan Road can sometimes yield little treasures, and in Phnom Penh I always seem to find a gem or two at Bohr’s Books. While in Kuala Lumpur last week, I visited some several secondhand bookshops and also the BookXcess outlet in Petaling Jaya’s Amcorp Mall for some good cheap remainder titles.

One of the goodies I found at the Junk Bookstore in KL (and yes, that’s really the name of this shop) was Every Little Crook and Nanny a 1972 novel by Evan Hunter, the author also known as Ed McBain. Every Little Crook and Nanny is a bit different than McBain’s popular 87th Precinct series of novels, ones that have been dubbed “Police Procedurals.” This one is more of a comic caper, reminiscent of Donald Westlake’s delightful Dortmunder books. The Hunter novel features a cast of (almost) lovable Mafia goons, a hapless kidnapper, and a bizarre police officer or two. Good fun.

 

I also found a battered copy of Hot Day, Hot Night by Chester Himes, which is the sixth novel in the classic Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones series. First published in 1969, this is a 1975 edition, big afros on the cover and all. A review in the San Francisco Chronicle called Himes “the best writer of mayhem yarns since Raymond Chandler.” Mayhem yarns? Whatever you want to call this style of crime fiction, it’s the addictive kind, and I look forward to reading this old Chester Himes novel very soon.

 

Yet another goodie I was thrilled to find was William Kotzwinkle’s Jack in the Box, one of the more warped coming-of-age tales that you are likely to read. Comic books, teenage hormones, and a wacky cast of characters make for a very humorous novel. Kotzwinkle is a brilliant writer who has written some of the funniest books around, The Bear Went Over the Mountain being one of most hilarious novels of all time, in my opinion. Really, that book was one of those laugh-out-loud tales that you’ll think about reading again a few years later, just to see if it’s still as funny as it was the first time. Jack in the Box isn’t nearly as guffaw-able, but it’s still an entertaining read. Kotzwinkle, by the way, wrote the screenplay for a movie you might have heard of: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

In addition to that lot, I found old paperbacks from authors such as Kingsley Amis, J.D. Donleavy, John D. MacDonald, Charles McCarry, Trevanian, Jonathan Raban, Arthur C. Clarke, E.L. Doctorow, Erle Stanley Gardner, M.C. Beaton, and two old “Quiller” novels by Adam Hall. Definitely not the latest best sellers, but this delightful mish-mash of books was just what I was looking for.

Trip Notes: November 2011

Some notes from my last trip, plus another excuse to post more photos, some of which have no correlation to the text.

 

Justin Bieber rules Myanmar! We all know how massively popular the teen singer is in many countries around the world nowadays, but I was surprised to find that he’s also huge in Myanmar. People were listening to him in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and even Tat Ein village in Shan State. I had dinner one night with a family in New Bagan, and our evening’s entertainment consisted of watching an endless loop of Justin Bieber videos on their new TV (I have an unsettling feeling that the money I had left for their children’s education the previous year was diverted to buy this TV set). The Bieber-thon could be construed as form of torture for most people, but these folks all loved Justin’s videos and songs. Get ready for that Shan State tour next year.

 

I’ve mentioned the “maverick monk” at Tat Ein village in Shan State, U San Di Mar. His nickname among the locals is Phone Phone (pronounced “Pone Pone” as opposed to the annoying device you talk on). Four years ago, Tat Ein was a fairly isolated village, even though it’s only a scant few kilometers from the tourist town of Nyaungshwe. There was no road into the village, at least not one that a four-wheel vehicle could navigate. They didn’t have a school, temple, or monastery. But then Phone Phone showed up, taking up residence in a nearby cave, an abode from which he never leaves. Originally from the Monywa area, he apparently is a highly regarded monk with devoted followers around the country. He used his network (a Buddhist version of Facebook?) to gather donations and work out a plan to build a school, monastery, and road for Tat Ein. Donations were also used to hire teachers and a principal for the school. The school had their three year anniversary last year. Even though they have managed to do a lot so far, it still remains a poor school with many needs. Phone Phone is a very personable and curious monk, eager to both dispense advice (he maintains that swimming is bad for your health!) and ask questions of his visitors. During one of our conversations he wanted to know about Native American “Indians” and if they still lived in the US. He requested some DVDs (I assume he has a DVD player —and electricity — in that cave!) of cultural or nature themes (from Thailand or the US) the next time I visit.

 

In Nyaungshwe I had dinner one night at the home of Ma Pu Sue, a friend who is a freelance tour guide. Sue cooked up a fantastic meal, and her two daughters and a niece joined us. Later that week, I ran into Sue with a couple from France that she was showing around Shwe Yan Pyay monastery. A day after that we crossed paths yet again outside the cave in Tat Ein where U San Di Mar greets visitors. It was good to Sue and other guides busy during the start of the high tourist season. It looks to be the best ever for those in the local tourism industry; foreigners are all over the place this season.

 

At the monastery in Tat Ein I showed the novice monks how to use the movie feature on my camera. Both Kaw Wi Da and Pyin Na Thiri took turns making fairly hilarious videos. When those novice monks get in front of a camera they just get goofy! During one filming, Pyin Na Thiri twirled around in a circle to make a panoramic film of his monastery and fellow monks. It’s a wonder he didn’t get dizzy and fall down after making multiple revolutions!

 

One of the “little delights” that I enjoy when in Nyaungshwe is the singing cyclists. People in this country love to sing, and in Shan State the musical urge seems especially strong and robust. In the evening, when I’m having dinner at great little family-run restaurant such as the Unique Superb Food House, I can almost always hear groups of cyclists passing by and singing their hearts out. Such a lovely vibe.

 

I adore the kids at Tat Ein village, but another reason for my repeated visits there this time was the delicious vegetarian lunches that they serve at the school. U San Di Mar has a dedicated crew of volunteers that prepare lunches for the monks and teachers each day; all vegetarian dishes and all very, very tasty. One of the cooks in Tat Ein used to work in an area hotel. Really, these meals were as good, or better, than ones I had in local restaurants, and those were very tasty too. The cuisine in Shan State — including home-cooked delights at Ma Pu Sue and Htein Linn’s houses — has become my favorite in the entire country. Everyone associates curry or fried rice with Burmese food, but the soups and salads and veggie dishes are incredibly good.

 

When in Mandalay I rode a bicycle everywhere as usual. But the traffic in the city is now so congested that cycling has become a very heads-up activity. Pedal slow and steady, look both ways when entering an intersection, and look both ways again. The roads are clogged with a dizzying mix of cars, trucks, motorcycles, trishaws, bicycles, carts, pedestrians, and even farm animals. And once in a while some old lady will throw a bucket of water on the dusty dirt road I’m travelling one, and then I have to swerve to avoid getting splashed. I got sideswiped by a motorcycle once doing just that. And in the city there are almost no traffic lights whatsoever. Needless to say, when approaching an intersection with no stop signs or lights, you need to be very cautious. And at night, that caution increases ten-fold due to the dearth of street lights. You want adventure? Cycling in Mandalay is for you!

When I arrived in Mandalay, I almost didn’t even find a bike to rent the first day. It was the full moon day of Tazaungmon and many shops were closed, including that of Mr. Jerry, where I normally get my wheels. As I was trudging down 83rd Street, looking for another place that had bikes, I saw a familiar face; an old man who drives a trishaw. He’s also the father of Mr. Htoo, another guy who used to rent bikes on the same street, but who now drives a motorcycle taxi for tourists. Mr. Htoo’s father said he’d take me to a nearby place that had bikes, and would not charge me. The place he took me was also closed, but he found a small hotel on the next street that has some bikes for rent, one of which had a seat that was high enough for my long legs. Success! We hadn’t gone very far, but I really appreciate “Papa Htoo” taking the time to find a bike for me, so, against his protests, I gave him some money.

 

During one of my many visits to Shwe Yan Pyay monastery, the Saya Daw gave me a hand-written note that someone had left for me. At first I was puzzled: who knew I would be coming to this monastery, and coming at this time? The note was from Marlar Htun, a Pa-O guide from Taunggyi who I used the year before to tour the ruins in Kakku, and whom I correspond with by e-mail. On that previous trip I had taken four monks from Shwe Yan Pyay, so she knew I’d no doubt be going to the monastery when I was in town. During another trip to Taunggyi earlier last year, with yet more monks in tow, I dropped by the Golden Island Cottages office where Marlar Htun and guides are based. Marlar Htun is a voracious reader and I had some books to give her, but she wasn’t around that day, so I left the books and a note. A month later I got an e-mail from her, thanking me for the books. This time around, we met while she was meeting some clients in Nyaungshwe one day. She surprised me by taking me to lunch at Daw Nyunt Yee, a very nice little restaurant in town that is run by friends of hers. “They are like my family,” she told me. Good friends. Good food. A good day.

 

One of my friends in Yangon, Thant Myo Aung, works as a waiter at Feel Restaurant, right in the middle of Yangon’s “embassy row” (France, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.). At least once when I’m in town we’ll meet for dinner. Our usual favorite place, Sandy’s Myanmar Cuisine, closed last year, so on Ma Thanegi’s recommendation (when it comes to food in Myanmar, she knows everything!), we tried a new restaurant across the street from the Summit Parkview Hotel. I can’t remember the name of this place, but the food was indeed very good, a mixture of Burmese and Chinese dishes … and they showed English Premiership Football matches on TV screen, which is a big plus for local diners. After dinner, we took a walk down Pyay Road to the shopping center adjacent to City Mart. Thant Myo Aung knows that I like to listen to Burmese music, particularly the band Iron Cross, so he popped into a small CD shop and asked the clerk if they had the new album from Myo Gyi. Indeed they did, so he bought it … and then gave it to me. I tried to pay him for the disc, but he waved off the money. A very nice gesture from someone who I know doesn’t earn much money.  

 

Speaking of music, when I was in Bagan, my friend Nine Nine serenaded some of us one night with an acoustic guitar set. Nine Nine is a pretty good guitar strummer, but what surprised me was how good his voice sounds. “Keep practicing,” I told him. “You could be a star one day!” Two of the songs he has learned, ones which caught my ear, were by a musician named Lin Lin. They didn’t have any Lin Lin CDs for sale in Bagan but in Mandalay I found his new live album, and in Yangon, at a shop in Bogyoke market, I got a copy of the album that had Sin Za (“Think About It”), one of the songs that Nine Nine played for me.

In addition to the wonderful Myanmar natives that I encountered this trip, I also met some interesting foreign tourists. At Shwe Yan Pyay one day, I talked to an interesting American woman who just returned from a trip to Papua New Guinea. At my hotel in Nyaungshwe, I met Susanna from Austria. She is also a frequent visitor to Myanmar and knows both Htein Linn and the owner of the Golden Kite Restaurant. When she heard that I was doing some teaching at the school in Tat Ein village, she gave me some pencils to pass out to the students. Much more useful than candy, which some tourists like to give.

 

In the line at Myanmar immigration, waiting to get my passport stamped and exit the country, the woman in front of me told the officer: “We had a very nice time here. It’s a lovely country.” He thanked her and added: “You are welcome to come again.” And I bet she will. Most people who visit this amazing country come away very impressed. Make plans to join us, but do it soon before Myanmar (or “Burma”) becomes the next hip travel destination and the tour bus contingent overwhelms the place.

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