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

Posts tagged ‘Yenangyaung’

The Middle of Nowhere: 90th Street on the Road (Pt. 3)


The last stop on my trip within a trip with the crew from 90th Street in Mandalay was a remote place called Shwe Set Taw. We left from Bagan and passed Chauk and Salay and Yenangyaung, stopping briefly at a large pagoda in Magwe before crossing the Ayeyarwaddy River and continuing past the town of Minbu. That was the last real town of note, and still we kept driving, and driving, and driving. I’d never seen such dry, desolate looking landscape in all of Myanmar. No large trees and no signs of habitation. Just flat, ugly stretches of no-man’s land Where were they taking me?!



I’d never heard of Shwe Set Taw before this trip, but Maw Hsi and the truck driver, along with the kids, decided that this “side trip” was what they wanted to do, so I gave it my blessing, not knowing at the time what a long journey it was going to be. From Bagan, the one-way driving time was nearly six hours! And that’s six hours driving on roads that weren’t always paved, sitting in the back of flatbed truck. My ass is still sore.






When we finally arrived, I saw a sign proclaiming “Shwe Set Taw Wildlife Sanctuary.” Huh? I had assumed that this was going to be some sort of grand sacred golden pagoda. A wildlife park? Well, I learned more about the place quickly from Maw Hsi. Shwe Set Taw certainly is an official government wildlife sanctuary, but it’s also the site of a very sacred pagoda, hosting what are reputed to be a set of the Buddha’s footprints. Maw Hsi told me that the history of this site goes back nearly two thousand years! Many people from Bagan and around the region come to visit and spend the night, and with the confluence of two large streams it makes for a nice swimming hole too. But it’s only open about six months out of the year, most of the low-lying area become flood-prone during the rainy season.





I have to say that I wasn’t blown away by the visit to Shwe Set Taw; it was sort of a ho-hum destination from my perspective. A lot of traveling on bad roads just to go swimming and gaze at a set of footprints. Once was enough! But for Maw Hsi and the kids it was one of those possible once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimages that they can tell their family and friends about. And for their sake, I’m glad we went. Plus, the kids got to buy cheap, silly sunglasses and eat more junk food, so they were quite happy!




Hpone Thant (or “Harry”, as he’s called) has a nice write-up about Shwe Set Taw on his informative blog:



Bouncing Down Bad Roads in the Back of a Truck


Here are some photos I took during a three-day road trip with the kids from 90th Street in Mandalay earlier this month. Forgive the “shaky” quality; most of them were taken in the back of a truck while bouncing down bumpy roads in the Myanmar countryside. So, you can safely assume that it wasn’t easy trying to hold the camera still and snap photos under those conditions.



And it certainly wasn’t a comfortable ride either. I sat in the back — with only a bamboo mat and my backpack to lean against — with the kids and Ko Maw Hsi, one of the fathers, while the driver and another father from the neighborhood sat in the front cab. I could have demanded one of those comfy front seats, but then I would have missed out on the experience — and silliness — of hanging out with the rest of the crew, and that was part of the trip’s appeal.




Even after three long days, mostly spent in the cramped confines in back of this truck, the kids remained cheerful. They’d pass the time cracking jokes, singing songs, shouting at other trucks full of passengers (“Hey!”), wearing their crazy cheap sunglasses, tossing snacks to village  kids we passed along the way, and playing tricks on one another: just boys being boys. At one point a heated, but playful argument ensued; the supporters of Chelsea against the supporters of Manchester United. Yes, even in Myanmar, Premiership Football matches from England are hugely popular. But one thing the boys could all agree on was supporting their favorite local team; the Mandalay-based Yadanarbon. And that led to rousing “Yadanarbon” cheers. Good memories.





From Mandalay, we headed to Mt. Popa, and then on to Bagan where we spend the first night. Day number two was even longer, driving past Chauk and Yenangyaung, to Magwe, Minbu, and eventually to Shwe Set Taw, out in the middle of nowhere, and back to Bagan again. The third day was slower paced, but still a long one as we returned to Mandalay.





I’ll post more stories and photos about the trip later, but today I’m sticking with the bumpy road photos that I took from my little corner of the truck.








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!











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)

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