Late for Nowhere

Exploring Myanmar, and sometimes beyond

Treasure Island: Geocaching by bicycle on Pulau Ubin

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During the week or so that the Pokemon Go craze lasted, people around the world could be observed shamelessly engaged in capturing virtual monsters that “existed” only insofar as players were willing to keep their eyes glued to their mobile phones.

While I have never played Pokemon Go, I have occasionally indulged in geocaching, which similarly involves relying on a phone app – or a GPS unit – to navigate real-world locations while on the hunt for a particular objective.

The key difference with geocaching is that the goal of the pursuit is not an imaginary creature but an actual object – usually a “cache” of small trinkets or a log book stashed inside a plastic container and hidden from the sight of casual passersby.

This tangible aspect means that geocaching, which has quietly persisted since its founding in 2000, is a more subtle pursuit than Pokemon Go: The actual existence of geocaches means that they are subject to thievery or disposal by anyone who discovers them accidentally. As a rule, therefore, these GPS treasure hunters seek to avoid being observed as they remove the containers from their hiding places.

So it was that on a recent trip to Singapore, I found myself milling about a picnic area on Pulau Ubin awaiting the departure of a large group of hikers who had decided to enjoy their lunches and tick a few boxes off their bird-watching lists a mere 5 meters from where, unbeknownst to them, one of these geocaches had been concealed.

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In an effort to loiter uncreepily in the vicinity, I feigned interest in the local flora, but I could only maintain my nonchalance for so long while staring at tree bark and sun-bleached leaves. The bird-watchers seemed to have hunkered down for the duration, and I eventually lost patience, remounted my rented mountain bike and pedaled away, silently vowing to return later in the day.

Pulau Ubin – an island that lies off Singapore’s northeast coast – is an undeveloped haven of traffic-free paved roads and dirt pathways that provides and easy, inexpensive escape from the commotion of the rest of the country. The forests and wetlands are best explored on foot or by bicycle, the latter of which can be rented on the island at prices ranging from S$5 to S$15 (US3.5 to US$10.5), depending on various factors such as how rusted they are and whether the gears and brakes actually work.

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Bumboats to Pulau Ubin can be caught at Changi Point Ferry Terminal. The 10-minute ride costs S$3 a person, with boats leaving as soon as there are 12 passengers. Once on the island, I splurged on a workable S$15 mountain bike and cruised inland for a day of exploration.

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Geocaches are each given a unique name once they’re placed and once their locations are uploaded onto the geocaching.com website, and I started by heading north to the far side of the island to find one called Orchid Garden. While a pedaled down a lonely, tree-shaded road, I occasionally glanced at the map on my phone to confirm that I was steadily closing the distance to my target.

Unfortunately, once I was within 0.1 miles of the cache, my Singapore SIM card conked out and I started receiving SMS’s from a telecoms operator in Malaysia – Pulau Ubin is close enough to the border, and remote enough from the center of Singapore, that my phone thought I had entered another country.

Unable to access the geocaching app, I continued on nonetheless, soon reaching an oceanfront campsite with mainland Malaysia visible across the briny strait. A hand-painted sign reading “Orchid Garden” pointed me to a dirt trail tunneling through the jungle.

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A few minutes later I arrived at the “garden”, where I found a modest shack, storage shed and boat dock on a property strewn with plant pots, ceramic sculptures, rusting motorcycles, torn fishing nets and other detritus. A makeshift “Cold Drinks Sold Here” sign promised the undeliverable as it pointed to a phantom business venture.

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Without the app to help me narrow the search, there were an infinite number of places where a small plastic box could be hidden among the clutter. After poking around for about 20 minutes I was no wiser about where it might be located. There were other caches to find, so I grabbed my bike and continued riding down the jungle trail, eventually spilling back onto pavement.

My Singapore SIM card soon returned from the dead, and I followed a network of winding roads to the western end of the island to find the Lady Gold cache hidden in Ketam Mountain Bike Park. Once inside the park, I followed the beginner-level “blue” trail to Pipit Hut, a rest area for hikers and cyclists.

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I had the shelter to myself, and my phone app indicated that the cache was hidden somewhere in the forest about 100 meters away. I plunged into the trees on foot but soon found my progress waylaid by a chain-link fence meant to keep people away from one of the long-abandoned quarries that in the 1960s had supplied Singapore’s construction industry and given Pulau Ubin (Granite Island) its name.

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Returning to the hut, I tried following a hiking trail in hopes that it would curve around and lead me in the right diction, but the longer I walked, the farther I moved from the cache. The sky darkened and the trees started swaying in a tempestuous wind, so I backtracked to the shelter and ate crackers while enjoying the spectacle of a brief, violent thunderstorm.

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The sun returned as the storm raged southwestward, but I remained flummoxed over the location of Lady Gold. Well, there were other caches to find, so I rode away empty-handed and followed the GPS signal to Recovery and Rest, where the aforementioned gaggle of lunch-eating, bird-watching miscreants stopped me dead in my nerdily frustrated geocaching tracks.

I was zero for three. Moving glumly onward, I aimed myself north in search of Not Too Deep, located in the forest along a nondescript stretch of pavement. I parked my bike as close to the cache as I could get on the road, and once again dove into the jungle. The trees were widely spaced, making for easy walking, but the ground was strewn with deep layers of huge leaves.

A GPS signal will normally bring searchers within 5 to 10 meters of the treasure, but actually finding it requires good, old-fashioned digging and snooping about. So many hiding places, so little time. Just as I was beginning to despair about my fourth failure, I kicked over a pile of leaves and there it was – a green ammunition can nestled among the roots at the base of a large banyan tree. I fell to my knees and howled lusty praise to the gods of geocaching. A group of cyclists who happened to be passing by on the road glanced nervously into the jungle and started pedaling faster.

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Flush with success, I took a break from the hunt and rode to the east side of the island to check out the Chek Jawa Wetlands, the flagship wildlife sanctuary on Pulau Ubin. A 1.1-kilometer boardwalk takes hikers through mangrove forests and along the coast, skirting an ancient coral reef, mud flats and sand banks that emerge only during low tide. There was also a 20-meter-high viewing tower, which, not surprisingly, had been commandeered by another group of bird-watchers.

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The afternoon was waning, so I abandoned plans to return to Recovery and Rest, and instead resolved to find two geocaches stashed not far from the boat jetty. The first, named Treasure Island, was hidden along a beautiful stretch of trail between two freshwater creeks. There were plenty of hikers around, but a quick, efficient search among the trees during a lull in the foot traffic revealed the hiding place of the small plastic box. Two for five. I was on a roll.

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My last destination was U-bin Tricked – the name refers to Japan’s invasion of Singapore in February 1942, when the Japanese duped the Allies into believing the assault would come from the northeast. The Allies, falling for the ruse, deployed their freshest troops on Pulau Ubin, leaving the northwest coast of Singapore virtually undefended against the actual attack.

I’d like to be able to report that my last geocache search was successful, but I’d be fibbing. I did find the location – an old concrete bunker cleverly concealed inside a banyan tree – but upon entering the dark, enclosed space was confronted by a foul odor and a swarm of buzzing wasps.

I didn’t stick around long enough to determine the source of the smell or to assess precisely how angry the wasps might be at my intrusion. Rather, I beat a hasty retreat while wondering whether Pokemon Go might be an easier, less hazardous hobby to pursue.

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Written by latefornowhere

December 13, 2016 at 1:53 pm

Goat-roasting mountain bikers dominate downhill race at Myanmar National Cycling Championships

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After a four-year hiatus, Myanmar’s national cycling championships returned with a vengeance from December 2 to 6, with hard-fought medals awarded in the disciplines of road racing, BMX, mountain bike downhill and mountain bike cross-country.

The Myanmar Cycling Federation (MCF), which organized the event, underwent major restructuring in 2014 and last year set about reviving the sport in the country by holding more events and bringing in more sponsors, such as Myan Shwe Pyi Tractors, Myanmar CP Livestock, 100 Plus and AMI Insurance.

“This is the second year we started seriously organizing cycling races, and the first time in four years we have held the national cycling championships. I think overall it’s a great start,” said MCF president Khin Maung Win.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm among the cyclists. This event has focused more on elite riders, so we don’t see heavy participation from all the cyclists out there who have emerged in the past two or three years. There are many cyclists out there, but this level of competition is something new in Myanmar.”

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The championships kicked off with a three-day road stage race. Prizes were awarded to the top finishers on each day, but the national champion’s jersey was given to the cyclist who completed all three days with the fastest accumulated time.

The first race saw the field of 42 competitors ride 160 kilometers (100 miles) from Nyaung U to Meiktila. A crash on a sandy section of road about 30km into the race took down 10 riders, all of whom were able to remount and continue racing. The combination of hills and stiff headwind split the field into small groups, with SEA Games veteran Soe Thant from the National A Team taking the win in a time of 4 hours, 48 minutes, 18 seconds. His teammate Aung Phyo Min finished second at 3 seconds, while third-place Zin Lin Ko crossed the line 2m 16s behind the winner.

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Day two from Meiktila to Pyinmana was similarly contested over 160km, but the course was flatter and swifter than day one. Another crash occurred about 20km into the race when an errant canine dashed through the middle of the group of fast-moving cyclists, causing Aung Ko Oo (Speed Team) to hit the deck. The unfortunate cyclist suffered a broken leg and was taken to hospital for surgery.

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Meanwhile, Aung Phyo Paing (National A Team) and Sai Aung Kham (GTM A Team) escaped the field and finished first and second in 4h 4m. Zin Lin Ko led the main field across the line more than 10 minutes later.

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The third and final road stage was a 30km time trial on wide roads around Wunna Theikdi Stadium in Nay Pyi Taw, with each rider starting individually at one-minute intervals. The day’s race was won by Kyaw Tun Oo (GTM A Team) in 39m 19s, but the overall national championship title went to Aung Phyo Min, whose accumulated time of 9h 38m 37s over three days of racing bested second-place Soe Thant by 42 seconds and Zin Lin Ko in third by 3 minutes.

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On day four, the championships moved to Mount Pleasant in Nay Pyi Taw, the venue for the 2013 SEA Games BMX and mountain bike races. Zar Ni (GTM) out-pedaled 22 competitors to win the BMX championship, while Aung Naing Tun (Mandalay Free Riders) was fastest on the mountain bike downhill course, making it to the bottom in 2m 53s. His MFR teammates dominated the day, sweeping the top 10 spots.

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Aung Win Tun – manager of the Mandalay Free Riders team, which prepared for the race by guzzling beer and roasting a goat on a flagpole the night before – noted that Aung Naing Tun’s time was on par with medalists at the 2013 SEA Games. “He rode an awesome speed. He’s racing at the elite professional level,” Aung Win Tun said.

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Aung Naing Tun, who has been competing for eight years and who bested second-place Aung Paing Soe by 7 seconds, said he did not find the downhill course particularly difficult.

“The tracks we ride in Mandalay are more difficult than the course in Nay Pyi Taw. This track is better for riding at high speed, but it’s not technically difficult,” he said.

The national cycling championships closed on December 6 with the mountain bike cross-country race, consisting of five laps of a tough 4.4km course that included several technical sections and some very steep climbs and descents. Winner Ben Rowse (Bike World A Team) covered the course in 1h 17s, beating the previous day’s BMX champion Zar Ni by 1m 41s.

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Although Rowse is Australian, he was named Myanmar national champion by virtue of an MCF rule stipulating that foreign residents are eligible to take the title.

“The mountain bike track was really good. A lot of the riders struggled, but it’s good that they can see what a challenging track is like and what they need to improve on,” Rowse said.

“There were some good riders out in the front. One guy [Zar Ni] was pushing me all the way to the finish. I think he crashed on the fourth lap and couldn’t catch back up, so I got a bit of a break and managed to win.”

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Bike World team manager Jeff Parry said he was happy with how his riders performed, considering they were competing against the top national cyclists.

“In the mountain bike section, I think we excelled. We came in first and seventh places, and the winner comfortably came in first,” Parry said. “The course was certainly up to Asian international standards. It was fast in places, with a couple of steep climbs and sections that were technically challenging. I think it’s been a successful five days of cycling.”

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MCF president Khin Maung Win said he hopes to build on the momentum of the national championships.

“One positive thing I see is that are a lot of new sponsors coming on board,” he said. “And of course the most exciting part for me is the young 18- or 19-year-old cyclists winning. They are showing great potential. That’s the future of cycling. Going forward, we want to go into the middle schools and high schools so the younger kids can enjoy competitive cycling.”

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Return to Kyaukme

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Eight months after the conflict in Kyaukme township made international news, convincing visitors to return hasn’t been easy – but there are many reasons to visit this picturesque region of Shan State

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Kyaukme township in northern Shan State has been a frequent presence in news headlines this year, and for all the wrong reasons.

Longstanding peace in the region was disrupted in February when fighting broke out between two previously allied ethnic armed groups: the Restoration Council for Shan State (RCSS), which had signed the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2015, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which had been excluded from the peace deal.

The fighting has continued throughout 2016, further complicated by frequent clashes between the Myanmar army and the TNLA. Allegations of rights violations have been made against all three sides, and thousands of refugees have fled to Kyaukme town to escape the war zone.

The conflict made international news in April when two German travelers and their local guide were wounded by shrapnel from an explosive device as they neared Kyaukme at the end of a three-day trek from Hsipaw – an incident that brought tourism to a virtual standstill in Kyaukme township.

The conflict has been an unfortunate turn of events for a town that my wife and I have visited a number of times over the past decade. We had always enjoyed the non-touristy atmosphere, the silent nights, the aimless walks around town in search of food and beer, and the long treks through the bewitchingly tranquil Shan countryside. Despite the reports of war, we decided to return during last month’s full moon of Thadingyut to see for ourselves whether tourists were justified in giving the town a wide berth.

On previous visits to Kyaukme, we had stayed at A Yone Oo guesthouse, which up until a few years ago was the only place in town licensed to accept foreigners. While not exactly cozy, A Yone Oo does offer the advantage of cheap rooms and a central location near Kyaukme’s main market.

This time we sprang for accommodation at Hotel Kawli, which opened in June 2015. The location isn’t great – a couple miles outside of town along the Mandalay-Lashio highway – but the US$45 rooms are big, bright and comfortable, with small balconies overlooking green hills and farmland. We were also enticed by the hotel’s facilities – specifically, by the prospect of going for a swim and getting a massage after a day of trekking.

Hotel staff arranged two Shan trekking guides, Kyaw Hlaing and Aik Dar, who showed up promptly at 8am just as my wife and I were finishing our breakfast of Shan noodles. We climbed onto the back of their motorcycles and headed west from Kyaukme, bumping along a rocky dirt track for a few miles until we picked up the narrow, roughly paved road that, had we followed it to the end, would have taken us all the way to Mogok in Mandalay Region.

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After about 45 minutes of cruising past lush, monsoon-nourished paddy fields, we began climbing out of the Kyaukme valley, the road snaking its way higher and higher into the mountains. After another half-hour, high altitude pines started appearing in clusters among the deciduous trees, and each bend in the road revealed increasingly spectacular vistas of deep ravines and knife-edge ridgelines. We passed Shan, Palaung, Lisu and Gurkha villages, and finally stopped for a rest at a roadside shop for green tea and kao moon hodong – sticky rice and sugar wrapped in banana leaf.

We had hired Kyaw Hlaing and Aik Dar to take us on a half-day trek in an area unaffected by the region’s ongoing skirmishes. They assured us that the conflict zone was located to the north and east of Kyaukme, and that the road heading west toward Mogok was “safe and peaceful” enough to accommodate motorcycle tours and treks of up to three days in length.

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“The German tourists [injured by the explosive] were on a three-day trek from Hsipaw [east of Kyaukme] to Kyaukme. But the incident happened closer to Kyaukme, so everyone thinks the whole area around our town is dangerous,” Kyaw Hlaing said. “Now tour companies in Yangon don’t send tourists to Kyaukme anymore. We tell them the place where we trek is safe, but they don’t believe us.”

But other, far less dire hazards lurk along the way. Shortly after departing the snack shop, Aik Dar, who was carrying my wife on his motorcycle, suffered a rear flat when he sped over a small rock that tumbled from the cliff bordering the road. While he set about repairing the blown tire, Kyaw Hlaing flagged down a passing Shan motorcyclist and recruited him to take my wife to the starting point of the trek.

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It was a fine demonstration of the sort of spontaneous selflessness common throughout Myanmar, except the motorcyclist explained that he was unable to travel all the way to our destination – it was his girlfriend’s native village, and it just so happened that his parents would be visiting her home the following day to arrange the young couple’s marriage and dowry. If the motorcyclist passed her house beforehand, it would be bad luck for their relationship – as Kyaw Hlaing explained, the couple would “miss” each other and the engagement would be off. I image it would not have helped matters had the boy’s fiancée seen him flying through town with a strange woman sitting on the back of his motorcycle.

This local custom necessitated the minor inconvenience of Kyaw Hlaing depositing me at a small general store near the trek’s starting point, then doubling back a mile or so pick up my wife where the Shan motorcyclist had dropped her off at the edge of the village.

While I awaited Kyaw Hlaing’s return, the elderly owner of the store produced a small chess set and challenged me to a game. I smiled and politely declined, as I have been known to lose matches in fewer than 10 turns against even moderately competent opponents – and elderly men who keep chess boards within easy reach are usually better than moderately competent. My intuition was confirmed when Kyaw Hlaing told me the man was a chess master who had won tournaments around the country, earning the nickname U Palaung among his rivals.

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My humiliation averted, we started walking. Kyaw Hlaing led my wife and me down a dirt path that descended steeply away from the paved road. After 20 minutes we turned left onto a narrower track that followed the contour of the hillside, with tea plantations above and below, and a dramatic view of the mountains and sky unfolding before us.

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The tea plantations were cultivated by the Silver Palaung residents of the interconnected villages of Ban Lin and Naung Sin, our trekking destination for the day. Ban Lin was the quieter of the two, and few people were out and about as we walked through. We visited a home where five Palaung women were sitting and talking, and most were wearing traditional dress, including longyis whose colorful stripes represent the scales of the mother dragon from which all Palaung are believed to be descended. One woman with a big, toothy smile practiced the only English phrase she knew – “Be my guest” – as she served us soft drinks.

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We ate lunch at a breezy hillside shop staffed by a cook young enough to be a contestant on Master Chef Junior. Upon our arrival, she set to work whipping up multiple servings of fried eggs with onions and chilies, pickled mustard leaves, sautéed pumpkin and mountain rice.

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Naung Sin was only a 10-minute walk away, and the atmosphere was far more festive than Ban Lin. Most of the locals had gathered at the village monastery for an end-of-lent donation ceremony. When we arrived, a monk was delivering a sermon that was being broadcast over a loudspeaker at ear-damaging volume, which led to inevitable jokes about the repercussions of unplugging amplifiers or snipping speaker wires.

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We quickly left the din of Naung Sin behind and climbed a steep track back to the paved road, where Aik Dar was waiting with our motorcycles. By this time the sun had reached its zenith, but the alpine air remained crisp and pleasant. We stood beside a road sign bidding us a friendly adieu from the “lush and green tea regions”, and watched isolated thunderstorms drift across the valley.

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Before we departed, Kyaw Hlaing pointed to some nearby hills, which he said were occupied by RCSS troops living in jungle encampments. “This area is peaceful because the RCSS won’t let the TNLA come near, and they [the RCSS] let the Palaung live their lives,” Kyaw Hlaing said. “Nobody likes it when soldiers, whether they’re Shan or Palaung, come into their village.”

Indeed, the residents of Ban Lin we spoke with betrayed no sense of unease about the proximity of the RCSS encampments. As one of the Palaung women we had visited said, “We don’t see the soldiers near our homes. We’re happy they stay away.”

Perhaps under the gaze of RCSS sentries, we rode our motorcycles out of the mountains and down into the stifling valley, where visions of pool plunges and foot massages began dancing through my head.

But shortly after our arrival at Hotel Kawli, we learned that even as we were out walking through the idyllic countryside and sharing soft drinks with smiling Palaung women, fighting had occurred that morning between the Myanmar army and the TNLA in a remote highland area 50 kilometers north of Kyaukme.

It was hard to unwind when we knew that people might be getting shot or bombed a shorter distance away than we had travelled by motorcycle to go trekking.

This story was originally published in the November 25-December 1 issue of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

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Creating the design from the details

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“The Silver Set” by Tin Aung Kyaw

French novelist Gustave Flaubert once said that anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.

That’s the idea behind an exhibition titled The Details opening at the Yangon Gallery on September 16, featuring photorealist and hyperrealist paintings by eight local artists.

The participating artists include Myoe Thant Oung, Aye Nyein Myint, Aung Thiha, Aung Myin Baw, Tin Aung Kyaw, Aung Htoo, Khine Minn Soe and Myo Min Latt.

“All of their art is about ordinary objects and scenery that we see on a daily basis,” curator Lynn Whut Hmone said. “But they focus on the details and they show it in a way that we’ve never seen before, which makes us appreciate the little things around us.”

As an example, she cited Aung Htoo, who makes paintings of household objects made of steel.

“Aung Htoo’s paintings are so detailed that you can see the little scratch marks on the steel utensils he paints. You don’t notice them even when you’re eating, but it looks beautiful in the paintings,” she said.

Lynn Whut Hmone made a distinction between photorealism – which simply seeks to re-create an image in the way it would be seen in a photograph – and hyperrealism, in which artists use photorealism as a reference but inject additional emotion into the artwork.

“There is more to hyperrealism. The artist puts more feeling into it and tries to show something beyond just representing the reality,” she said.

One painting in the exhibition that treads the line between these two types of art is Tin Aung Kyaw’s “The Silver Set”, an extremely meticulous painting that took the artist about 200 hours to complete. While the silver objects are rendered in photorealist detail, the semi-abstract background gives the artwork a somber, almost gothic, feel.

“It took me a while to figure out about the background because I wanted something that wouldn’t disturb the silver set yet was interesting in its own way,” Tin Aung Kyaw said. “I wanted the viewer to feel something when they looked at the painting.”

Artist Aye Nyein Myint also focuses on inanimate objects, and her painting “The Shape” depicts a baroquely complex mushroom half-submerged in a glass of water.

“I decided to paint this because I really like the shape of the mushroom. If you look long enough, it looks like a dancing lady wearing a skirt. But viewers can look at the shape and think of something else,” Aye Nyein Myint said, adding that her paintings are not intended to show how her subjects would look in a photograph.

“I paint objects the way I feel in terms of color and texture. Some of my paintings are very detailed because I feel like it’s necessary to show that, and sometimes they’re not,” she said.

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“The Shape” by Aye Nyein Myint

Myoe Thant Oung, who at 52 is the elder of the exhibition – some of his students are taking part in the show – paints natural scenery with the aim of conveying particular ideas to those who see his artwork.

His contribution to The Details includes a series of paintings titled “Strength of Life”, one of which depicts flowers growing from a dead tree stump, while another shows a small plant sprouting among weathered stones.

“I want to show concepts in my paintings. For example, people would easily cut up a tree and not notice the beauty of nature, but even if you cut up a tree it doesn’t die – it grows again,” Myoe Thant Oung said. “I want to show the strength of nature, and I want people who see this painting to get the feeling of strength and hope for themselves as well.”

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“Strength of Life” by Myoe Thant Oung

Aung Thiha, meanwhile, is showing a series three portrait paintings – of his youngest daughter, his eldest daughter and his wife – titled “Reflection of My Heart”.

Each of these artworks is unusual in its own way: The wife, for example, is shown from behind and drenched with water, while the youngest daughter is seen through a window which is dripping with soapy water, her head cocked and her face bearing an ambiguous, almost sad, expression.

“For the painting of my young daughter, I wanted to show the beautiful reflections on the window and also the texture and transparency of the soapy water,” Aung Thiha said. “For her face, this is what my daughter looks like when one of her parents is away. Even when her mother goes to the market, she will be waiting for her, like she is longing for someone or missing someone. I tried to capture that expression.”

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“Reflection of My Heart” by Aung Thiha

Curator Lynn Whut Hmone said she hoped visitors to the exhibition would enjoy the chance to see photorealist and hyperrealist paintings, which are not as common in Myanmar as more traditional types of realism.

“I want people to look at the art and see the details of the things around them, and learn to notice and appreciate them more,” she said.

“All these things around us have their own beauty, textures and colors. Even when looking at a simple white teacup, we don’t notice that there are so many colors reflected there. Artists can see this clearly and show it in their work.”

The Details is showing from August 16 to 20 at the Yangon Gallery, located in People’s Park near the Planetarium Museum off Ahlone Road. The gallery is open daily from 10am to 6pm.

This article was originally published in the September 16-22 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

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Myanmar’s very own Walt Disney brings legends to life

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Five years ago artist Htet Lin Aung could only dream of becoming an animator. Now he is well on his way to making his ambition a reality.

In June 2011, Htet Lin Aung showed his art in public for the first time. The occasion was the Artistic Reinforcement Touch group exhibition at Yangon’s Lokanat Art Gallery, featuring the work of young artists enrolled in the University of Culture’s bachelor of arts program.

Htet Lin Aung’s acrylic painting of an armor-clad Kinnara birdman stood out among the dozens of other artworks in the exhibition. The mythical Kinnara, normally a symbol of love in classical Myanmar literature, was depicted here as a fierce warrior with its feathered wings spread in rage and menace.

At that time, 18-year-old Htet Lin Aung – who had moved to Yangon from Meiktila in 2008 to attend the university – said that one of his hobbies was studying the characters from Myanmar history and legend.

“I learned about Kinnari and Kinnara in Myanmar traditional art class, and they are used by artists to represent sorrow and love,” he said. “They never had a remarkable place in literature other than entertaining kings and queens. They should be more than that. That is why I created [a different] story of Kinnari and Kinnara. Love causes many things. Where there is love, there is war.”

His dream, he said at the time, was to turn his version of the Kinnari and Kinnara story into an animation feature, and eventually to create high-quality animation that would be seen around the world and recognized as a product of Myanmar.

“To produce animation requires many people and costs a lot of money, but I’ll be patient and go through any hardships until I get there,” he said.

Five years on, Htet Lin Aung – now going by the name Mg Shino, after a character in a Naruto video game whom his friends say he resembles – is well on the way to realizing this dream. He now works in his own small studio in Yangon, where the walls surrounding his work desk are decorated with drawings, cartoons and stills from animation features from around the world.

“Since I finished university in 2011, I’ve given all my time to making animation. From the time I was a child, I’ve dreamt of making my drawings come to life. I didn’t think it was interesting for them to stay motionless on paper, so I was attracted to animation,” Mg Shino said, adding, “My parents never wanted me to become an artist, but now I’m finally getting my chance.”

Indeed, art was always a hard sell for his parents, who thought he was not focused enough on his school lessons as a child.

“My teachers scolded me about my drawings and called my home. But I could never remember the dates or facts of history very well, so I drew small pictures of what I was learning at school to help me remember. I did this all the way through 10th standard,” he said.

His parents planned to send him to a military school after matriculation, but an uncle who saw Mg Shino’s drawings convinced his mother and father to allow him to pursue his passion and attend the University of Culture.

But even landing a job at the 5 Network television station after graduation failed to impress his parents, who worried about the long hours he spent sitting in front of a computer. His work creating animation segments for advertisements and music videos finally helped send the message that he was not wasting his efforts.

“My parents have slowly come to accept my work, and when they see me interviewed on TV about my animation they are proud of me,” he said.

Mg Shino’s recent projects include a short animation segment of Inguli Marla, a notorious prince from Myanmar legend who wore a necklace of human fingers.

“He cut off people’s fingers – even his own mother’s – and finally tried to cut off the Buddha’s finger. I wanted to do a test project of Inguli Marla running, which is nice because he wears a necklace of fingers that moves while he runs,” he said.

Over the years, Mg Shino has also maintained his early interest in Kinnari.

“Now I’m studying the characteristics of bird-humans – their bones and joints, how long their wings should be and how they fly. Different kinds of birds have different characteristics,” he said. “I’m focusing on this project at the moment, and hope to release it next year.”

The influence of Japanese animation is evident in some of Mg Shino’s past work, but an even more obvious inspiration is Walt Disney.

“I loved fairytales, but when I was young I could only watch stories from other countries, like Cinderella, Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. All children love these films, but there was no animation depicting the many interesting fairytales from our own country. We grow up hearing our grandmothers read those stories to us, but I want to bring them to life,” he said.

“The characters I’ve made so far are mostly similar to Disney in style, but now I’m working to create my own style for my own characters,” he added.

In the meantime, Mg Shino must struggle not only with his own creativity but also with striving for success in a country in which the animation industry is virtually nonexistent.

“Until 2005, there were very few animators in Myanmar, but recently a few more young animators have emerged,” Mg Shino said. “Some other countries have well-funded studios where hundreds of animators work together on one feature, but here we all work on our own without support. I had to learn by watching animation cartoons over and over again, and I use Adobe Flash software, which I learned from another local animator.”

He said the local animation industry would benefit from more competitions, more support from the government and businesspeople, and more understanding from parents and society at large.

“People don’t know anything about making animation, and the parents of young artists don’t support them. In our country, most people do not have the habit of encouraging or appreciating each other. They would rather attack or insult you,” he said.

“As animators, we are not wasting our time but working hard to realise our dreams. We can see what painters want to say with their brushwork, and we can understand what actors or directors want to say in their movies. When action and art combine, the result is animation. For me, this is the best way to get people’s attention and send a message.”

Samples of Mg Shino’s art and animation can be seen on his Facebook page.

Lynn Whut Hmone conducted the original 2011 interview with Htet Lin Aung; more recent quotes from the artist were translated from Myanmar language by Nyein Ei Ei Htwe.

Art in full bloom

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Artist Mon Thet Rose Field #3 Mixed Medium 36x36in

Mon Thet, “Rose Field #3”

Flowers grow, flowers wilt, flowers die. But some artists dedicate their creative energy to preserving, in perpetuity, the beauty of flowers in full bloom. Such is the case for the five painters participating in the Gandha exhibition at the Yangon Gallery from August 27 to 31. Working in oil, acrylic and watercolor, artists Maung Aw, Mon Thet, Hla Phone Aung, Win Thandar and Zay Yar Aye are all renowned for their works depicting colorful blossoms in nature or as still-lifes.

The show is the brainchild of Than Thar Palae Thwe, who normally serves as Yangon Gallery’s business development executive but who is making her first foray into curating.

“I’ve been helping my colleagues organize exhibitions for the past two years, so I’m familiar with the artists, but this is my first time as a curator,” she said. “I named the exhibition Gandha because it’s a Pali-language word that means ‘fragrance’. I wanted to use fragrance as a metaphor for flowers.”

Than Thar Palae Thwe’s first challenge was securing the participation of Maung Aw, one of Myanmar’s most well-respected artists. Now 71 years old, he gave up painting flowers decades ago in favor of other themes. “Maung Aw’s flower paintings are really well-known among the art community and buyers, but he stopped painting them around 20 years ago and changed his drawing subjects. But I wanted to show people his flower paintings,” she said.

Than Thar Palae Thwe visited Maung Aw’s studio to appeal to him in person. “He doesn’t paint every day now because of his health, so I was worried about that – what if he refused me? But he accepted it easily. I asked him to please draw one or two paintings as he wished, and he gave me three new paintings,” she said.

Once Maung Aw was on board, it was easy to convince the other artists to take part. Like Maung Aw, Zay Yar Aye had also stopped displaying his flower paintings 10 years ago but agreed to contribute six or seven new and rare watercolors – he usually exhibits acrylic work – created specifically for the exhibition.

“One reason I am participating is because the artist I like best, Maung Aw, is also included in this exhibition,” Zay Yar Aye said. “I started painting flowers in 1996 and I continued for about 10 years. Those paintings were easy to sell, but several years ago I realized that I needed to stop because I was ashamed of myself for doing it just for the money. Flower paintings were keeping me from working on other subjects,” he said.

Now, returning to an old theme has helped re-invigorate his artistic life, he said. “The new flower paintings are based on my old style, but mixed with the new style I have developed since I stopped. Around 15 years ago I was not mature and my technique was not as good as now.”

While colorful blossoms are naturally imbued with physical beauty, Zay Yar Aye believes flower paintings should provide more than just a visual experience, and he strives to epitomize the title of the exhibition. “When people see my paintings, I want them to get the smell of the flowers. Maybe that’s why people like them. I get that across because of my passion for flowers – and also because I know the secrets of how to put the smells in the flowers,” he said, adding that those secrets would remain undivulged.

For Mon Thet, who has been painting flowers for more than 20 years, the invitation to participate in Gandha prompted him to make a special trip to paint the famous rose gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin. His aim as an artist, he said, is to give viewers a “different perspective compared to nature” and to express the delicacy of his subjects. “When I see flowers the first thing that comes to my mind is that I feel refreshed and relaxed, so I want to see people who look at my paintings get the same feelings as me,” Mon Thet said. “I want to erase people’s fatigue and give them good feelings.”

Erase your fatigue at Gandha, showing from August 27 to 31 at the Yangon Gallery, located in People’s Park near the Planetarium Museum off Ahlone Road. The gallery is open daily from 10am to 6pm.

Artist Win Thanda Cherry # 2 Acrylic on canvas 30x40in

Win Thandar, “Cherry #2”

 

A new direction for sculptor with an art of stone

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Yangon Gallery director Lynn Whut Hmone (left) and artist Nann Nann at the opening of Nann Nann’s “Art in Me” exhibition on August 19.

Artist Nann Nann has always been versatile in her creativity. Since graduating in 1998 from the University of Culture in Yangon with a bachelor of arts degree, she has delved into painting, sculpture and even performance art, holding exhibitions in Myanmar, Thailand, Hong Kong and the United States, and earning numerous awards from organizations both at home and abroad.

Her preferred medium is stone, but opportunities to make the kinds of large-scale sculptures she prefers are rare. Still, she has managed to land several important commissions, including marble sculptures for FMI City in Mandalay and SPA Corporation in Yangon, as well as a bronze piece for Eskala Hotel at Ngwe Saung beach.

“My feeling as an artist is that I want to use stone, but it is a difficult medium. You need a lot of work to make a stone sculpture,” Nann Nann said, adding that she often uses painting as an outlet for unrealized sculptural ideas.

“Since I have few chances to create stone sculptures, I make paintings using thick paints and abstract brushwork to depict space and form. The images look like sculptures on the canvas,” she said. With few chances to make her beloved stone carvings, and with painting restricted to two dimensions, Nann Nann’s latest exhibition, titled Art in Me and opening August 19 at the Yangon Gallery, sees her treading new creative territory: wood sculptures made using found objects.

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“For the past six or seven years, I’ve been collecting interesting objects whenever I travel around the country for my painting or sculpture projects,” Nann Nann said. “When I see things I like, I collect them – mostly wood objects you can find at old furniture shops or at monasteries in rural regions. When I see something, sometimes I know right away how I’m going to use it and other times I just collect it because it’s interesting and I figure out later what to do with it.”

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Once back in her studio in Yangon, Nann Nann sets about recycling the found objects, sometimes polishing or painting the wood, sometimes adding new elements or designs to create something different.

“It’s interesting to me when I find a wood carving that represents something real, for example a woman or an elephant. There is a name attached to it – you can identify what the object represents,” she said. “After I recycle the object, it still has that same name, but when you look at it from afar, it looks more abstract. You can’t tell exactly what it is.”

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One untitled piece showing in the Art in Me exhibition originated as a wood sculpture of a man rowing a traditional canoe. Nann Nann upended the boat so it stands vertically, then affixed a dim light inside that emits a feeble but warm glow.

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“When you see the dim light, it reminds you of a small fishing village. If you have ever been to a fishing village near the ocean, the environment is very tranquil and the house lights are dim. I want to give you that feeling. I’m not just turning the sculpture into a lamp. Each piece in the exhibition is trying to convey a different feeling,” she said.

For Nann Nann, evoking particular emotions is what making art is all about. It’s something she learned from her parents – both of whom are well-regarded painters – as well as from the many art teachers from whom she has learned over the years.

“I put all my emotions into my art works. It makes me feel good when I’m making something new and I get a strong feeling inside,” she said. “When I get inspiration from within myself, I just want to create and create.”

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This story was originally published in the August 19-25, 2016, edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

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Written by latefornowhere

August 20, 2016 at 2:43 am

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