Late for Nowhere

Back cycling on the roads and trails of the U.S., and dealing with reverse culture shock, after 13 years in Myanmar and Cambodia

Getting fit and fitted for a new cycling season

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Photo: Austin Brooks

It’s been quite a while since I last owned a high-end road bike. Not that I haven’t been riding – I logged more than 4,200 miles in 2017, mostly on my sturdy old Trek 4700 hardtail mountain bike equipped with 1.5-inch city tires – but with thoughts of American-style road racing running through my head for the first time in two decades, I decided to kick off the New Year with the purchase of a Specialized Tarmac Elite.

The prospect of new cycling endeavors on a new bike also inspired me to take steps toward realizing the legendary “perfect” pedaling position, so I booked a session with bike-fit guru David Coar at Summit City Bicycles and Fitness in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The three-hour fitting process was divided into three parts, starting with a discussion that covered everything from my background as a cyclist (East Coast crits in the 80s; So Cal cross-country mountain bike races in the 90s; occasional gran fondos and casual tours ever since), my cycling goals (a bit of masters racing, interspersed with gran fondos and centuries), and issues with pain or discomfort on the bike (none).

Part two involved a meticulous body assessment from bottom to top, during which Maharishi Dave observed my (sometimes strained) efforts to perform particular movements and stretches. He also took numerous measurements of esoteric biological nooks and crannies like foot angulation and structure (high arch on right foot), spinal flexion and curve (neutral), shoulder rotation (full range), lower extremity alignment (neutral), and IT band tightness (mild).



Photo: Austin Brooks




Photo: Austin Brooks


During the third part of the fitting, I mounted my Tarmac, which had been attached to an indoor trainer, and did some pedaling under the watchful eye of David, who stopped me occasionally to take more measurements and make incremental adjustments to my position.



Photo: Austin Brooks


The primary revelation of the fit process was that my femurs are unusually long, which David said made me a good candidate for a custom frame (too late for that). It also explains why, at a modest 5 feet 9 inches tall, I have always found it extraordinarily difficult to sit comfortably in airplane seats without hitting my knees on the seat in front of me.

In any case, long femurs are meant to be an advantage in cycling due to the extra leverage they afford, and it’s a fortunate condition that I share with legendary pros like Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault. In fact, David guaranteed that once my bike position was perfected, I would make the podium of every race I entered or I would get a full refund on my fit.*

(*Not really.)

The other big surprise was that I had spent years cycling with my saddle too low – way, way too low. David raised it about 5 centimeters, which at first felt horribly elevated. Meanwhile, my elongated femurs meant that my saddle had to be moved back as far as possible to align my knees with the pedal spindles, and a slightly longer left femur necessitated adjusting the fore/aft position of my left cleat to compensate.



Photo: Austin Brooks


My ischial tuberosity (sit bone) measurement was unusually narrow, so we swapped out the bike’s stock saddle for the narrowest one available in the shop, allowing me to sit back where I’m supposed to be instead of sliding forward in search of a more tenable position. Finally, we shortened the stem by 1 centimeter to offset the rearward adjustment of the saddle, and we lowered the handlebar a bit to facilitate a marginally more aero position.

The day after my fit, I took a test ride on Zwift. Although I suffered from a bit of tightness in the back of my legs just below the knees, I did feel like I was able to utilize my power for a greater portion of each pedal revolution; in fact, my estimated functional threshold power (FTP) went up by 8 watts despite holding back to avoid injuring muscles that were being used in new ways. 

My legs were sore the day after the test ride – not in a bad way, but rather like the feeling of going for a run after a few weeks off. The ache receded over the next three days, and I quickly became accustomed to the dizzying heights of my readjusted saddle. With my acclimatization period coming to an end, I’m looking forward to ramping up my training and seeing the extent to which my position allows me to take advantage of my physical peculiarities.  

Now all I have to do is shave my legs and ride 2,000 miles, and I might be ready to jump into a couple of Category 5 races by May.  



Photo: Austin Brooks




Written by latefornowhere

February 15, 2018 at 3:07 pm

Cyclocross un-paves the way

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Most of the time, the grassy expanse of Bloomingdale Park just north of St. Mary’s River and west of Wells Street is a picture of tranquility. On Wednesday evenings from August to December, however, it becomes a gathering spot for some of Fort Wayne’s most daring and adrenaline-addicted cyclists.


The 30 or so athletes – ranging in age from pre-teen to 50-something – congregate at 6 pm to pedal laps on a mile-long course that twists and turns across the lawn and through shady tree groves. The unpaved track seems designed for burly mountain bikes, but most participants favor lightweight bikes equipped with road-style dropped handlebars and knobby, all-terrain tires.


The sport is called cyclocross, a type of off-road bicycle racing that originated in Europe at the turn of the 20th century but has only recently gained a foothold in the United States. According to the sport’s governing body, USA Cycling, cyclocross is now the fastest-growing cycling discipline in the country, with participation more than quadrupling in the past decade.


Fort Wayne’s riverside training races, sponsored by Fort Wayne Outfitters and now in their tenth year, have easily kept pace with the nationwide explosion in popularity.

“It’s kind of neat to watch the sport grow from five people showing up 10 years ago to 30 people on a Wednesday night now,” said Chad Tieman, who helps organize the rides.


Cyclocross courses are designed to test fitness and bike-handling skills, and might include anything from grass, mud and sand to sharp turns, steep hills and low barricades that force cyclists to dismount and carry their bikes for short distances. With the season running from late summer into winter, riders also face variable weather conditions, from 90 degrees and dry in August to 20 degrees and snowing in December.


“Cyclocross is ever-changing,” said Tieman. “It’s not like a paved road where you ride in a straight line for hours. Cyclocross keeps you on your game and keeps your mind moving.”


For serious cyclists, the Wednesday rides serve as preparation for the Ohio Valley Cyclocross Series, consisting of 10 race weekends in Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Louisville, and other cities in the region.


“If you go to a race in Cincinnati, you’ll probably see 40 racers from Fort Wayne, and half of them finish on the podium in their category,” said Tieman. “I really credit these Wednesday nights. It really pushes you, riding with your friends.”


With gutsy cyclists blazing through multiple laps on short courses that double back on themselves, cyclocross is more spectator-friendly than other cycling disciplines. Fans at weekend races are rambunctious, shouting, heckling, ringing cowbells and offering hand-ups of beer to racers.


“One reason I like cyclocross is the guy in first place doesn’t always get a lot of applause,” said Tieman. “It’s the guy who’s in last, who’s trying his hardest, who gets the most cheering. I love that. It’s the coolest thing about the sport.”


Dave McComb, who organizes separate Wednesday night training races at Franke Park under the auspices of 3 Rivers Velo Sport Cycling Club, said another attraction of cyclocross is the short, intense nature of the races compared with road or mountain bike events, which means less training for time-crunched adults.


“When I had children, I got into cyclocross because it really fit the lifestyle of a masters [age 35-plus] racer with kids. You don’t have to ride your bike 12 hours a week to be good at a 45-minute race,” he said.


While the Franke Park sessions are free, Fort Wayne Outfitters charges $10 to ride each week. The fee covers insurance, course maintenance, and post-ride food and drinks. It also includes a donation to Neighborlink, a nonprofit that mobilizes volunteers to provide free home repairs for low-income seniors and people with disabilities.


Neighborlink also sponsors a grassroots cyclocross team, organized by Andrew Hoffman, who said money raised last year through the sport was used to install six new furnaces and repair a dozen more in local homes.


Hoffman said that although cyclocross might appear intimidating to the uninitiated, newcomers should not be afraid to show up on Wednesdays and give it a try.


“You don’t have to have a cyclocross bike, and you don’t have to be hyper-competitive. Just bring your mountain bike and give it a shot,” he said. “The local cycling community is extremely welcoming to new people, regardless of your skill or how fast you are.”


A slightly modified version of this story was originally published in the November 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

Around Inle Lake in 18 days

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Leg-rowers rule Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival



Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, located on the western end of Myanmar’s Inle Lake, is considered the holiest Buddhist site in southern Shan State. The ornate, two-story structure sits on the water like a sacred island, and each day, a steady stream of boats loaded with pilgrims arrives and departs from the dock near the stairs that lead up to the inner sanctum.

The focus of devotion at the pagoda is a group of five oddly shaped relics displayed on a pedestal in the middle of the main room. Upon close inspection, the objects look like roughly textured lumps of gold, one of them vaguely spherical, three of them taking the form of a pair of misshapen eggs – one sitting on top of the other – and the fifth like two stacked eggs with a small spire protruding from the top.


Studying these objects, few who did not know the story behind them would guess that they were originally statues with human form, but that have lost their shapes as the result of many, many years of gold leaf application.

While the statues are, as a group, often referred to as Buddha images, some say that only three represent the Buddha while the other two are arahats, or disciples of the Buddha who have reached the highest level of spiritual achievement before entering nibbana. The statues are commonly believed to have been cast during the reign of Bagan King Alaungsithu (1112-1167 CE), and one can easily imagine that in another 900 years of gold leaf application, they will take on the appearance of perfectly spherical, golden bowling balls.

The pilgrims who flock to the pagoda often rub strips of red cloth against the figures. These bits of cloth are then tied to cars, trucks or motorcycles in the belief that the drivers and passengers will be protected from accidents and other forms of bad luck.


The golden statues are also the focal point of the annual Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, which occurs from the first waxing day to the third waning day of the lunar month of Thadingyut – this year from September 21 to October 8.

The festival is the biggest event of the year at Inle Lake, a shallow body of water located at an altitude of 880 meters (2900 feet) above sea level and surrounded by low mountains. Home to numerous ethnic Intha and Shan villages – some of which lie along the shore, while others rise out of the water on wooden stilts – the lake is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Myanmar.

During the festival, four of the five statues are placed on a decorative barge shaped like a karaweik (mythical bird) and taken on an 18-day tour around the lake, stopping at each village for a night or longer so residents can pay homage.


According to legend, the tour originally included all five statues, but one year a storm capsized the barge, dumping the relics into the lake. Divers recovered four of them but were unable to locate the fifth. Upon returning to the pagoda, however, pilgrims found the last statue mysteriously restored to its proper place on the pedestal, dripping wet and covered with algae from the lake. That image has remained there ever since, standing guard over the pagoda while the other four statues embark on the annual festival tour.

The slow-moving procession around the lake is one of the more spectacular annual rites in Myanmar. The karaweik barge is propelled from village to village by Inle Lake’s famous leg rowers, who stand on one leg while using the other to push their oar through the water. Dressed in traditional costumes, they row in unison to the beat of a huge drum.

The barge is escorted by dozens of boats, which are also steered by costumed leg rowers. Some ceremonial boats also carry dancers and martial artists who showcase their skills to the thousands of people who gather by the lakeshore to celebrate the event.

The scene at each village is a combination of devotion and carnival-like revelry, and visiting Inle Lake during the festival provides a great opportunity to see gatherings of different ethnic groups, including Shan, Intha, Danu, Palaung, Pa-O and Taung-Yo.

Devout Buddhists eagerly await the arrival of the procession in their villages, offering food and fresh flowers when it appears. Meanwhile, the villages take on the atmosphere of a country fair, with vendors selling food, drinks, toys, clothing and other consumer goods, and entertainers offering magic shows, marionette performances and dance dramas.

Among the highlights of the festival are the boat races, in which teams of leg rowers wearing traditional costumes compete against groups representing villages around the lake. The races normally occur on two specific dates during the festival period – this year on September 27 at Nyaung Shwe, and on October 8 at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda – and these are the best times for visitors to take part in the celebration in all its dynamic and colorful grandeur.




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.


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 an 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.


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.


Geocaches are each given a unique name once they’re placed and once their locations are uploaded onto the 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.


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.



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.



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.


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.



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.


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.




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.


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.




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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”


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.”


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


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.


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.


“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.


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.



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.


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.



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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.”


“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.”


“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.