Late for Nowhere

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Archive for October 2013

Night on a mountain of myths

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Rest stop on the long climb up to Thandaung Gyi.

The old British hill station of Thandaung Gyi in Myanmar’s Kayin State boasts the kind of dramatic setting out of which strange legends are born.

On the edge of town juts the highest point in the Dawparkho Range, a craggy 1462-metre (4824-foot) peak that on clear days provides great views of forest-covered mountains in all directions.

But the weather patterns are unstable, and shifting winds often push low-lying clouds across the mountaintop. Visitors can suddenly find themselves stranded in the middle of a storm or enshrouded in thick mist that reduces visibility to mere meters and deadens all sound.

Given the eerie ambiance, it’s little wonder the peak is the focal point of an ancient tale about a princess named Naw Bu Baw, who moved to these mountains from the sea to marry a local prince.

Naw Bu Baw’s status as a foreigner, plus the fact that she owned a magical comb that made her hair shine like the sun and gave her powers of invisibility, caused the local Kayin people to accuse her of being a witch. When her husband died in battle, the Kayin dragged her to the high peak, put her on trial and imprisoned her in a rock cavern, where she was devoured by hungry spirits.

Skip forward to the junta era, during which soldiers from the Myanmar army sought to occupy the rugged mountaintop for strategic purposes. According to regional lore, heavenly forces, displeased with the presence of wicked minions of the unholy military government, cast lightning bolts down on the peak, sending the soldiers scurrying for lower ground, never to return.


Prayer chapel along the stairway to the peak of Naw Bu Baw’s Mountain.

Naw Bu Baw’s Mountain, as it is known locally, is now topped by what must be one of the biggest Christian crosses in Myanmar. Just below the peak lies a guesthouse run by the Zion Hill Baptist Church, and from there a stairway with 374 steps climbs to the mountaintop cross, which was erected in 1995.

Along the way are small prayer rooms for solitude-seeking pilgrims, and there is an odd boat-shaped chapel on the peak, evoking the biblical tale of Noah’s ark. A small blue sign indicates the precariously positioned rock on which Naw Bu Baw’s witchcraft trial took place.

In September I spent one night at the Zion Hill Church guesthouse, an endeavor that required a fair bit of persistence from me and my two Myanmar travel companions.


Sign indicating the site of Naw Bu Baw’s witchcraft trial.

This is because Thandaung Gyi – nestled in a mountainous area that once served as a battleground between the Myanmar army and Kayin rebels – has only been open to tourists since early this year, and some local officials are still confused about how to deal with foreigners, especially those who try to stay in town after dark.

Thandaung Gyi is located 44 kilometers (27 miles) east of Taungoo, and I covered the distance between the two towns in about three hours on my bicycle while my friends travelled by car. We left early in the morning, crossing the Sittaung River just east of Taungoo and following a road that took us past paddy fields and through a series of Kayin and Bamar villages.

After 10 kilometers, the flat terrain gave way to rolling hills and dense deciduous forestland, and at 21 kilometers we rolled into Thandaung Lay. This is a relatively new town, established in 1959 as the township’s new administrative centre; the former capital, Thandaung Gyi, was thought to be too remote.

Thandaung Lay is home to Shwe Thandaung Resort, and we stopped there for a mid-morning break. It sits along the bank of the roiling, monsoon-swollen Pathi Creek on 100 acres of shady land that doubles as a 20,000-tree betel nut plantation.


Pathi Creek at Shwe Thandaung Resort, Thandaung Lay.

When we arrived at the resort – which is open for business but requires some renovation to raise the accommodation to international standards – the idle staff jumped at the opportunity to ply us with orange soda, barbecued deer meat and deliciously spicy Kayin papaya salad.

From Thandaung Lay, the narrow road climbed steeply for 23 kilometers all the way to Thandaung Gyi.

I’ve traveled to many of Myanmar’s farthest corners, and this was easily one of the most stunning stretches of road I’ve encountered anywhere in the country. Each switchback through the tree-covered mountains offered fresh vistas more breathtaking than the last.

There were no cars, few motorcycles and only a couple of Kayin villages along the way. We also passed one or two ratty compounds protected by bamboo spikes; they looked like zoo enclosures built by someone who hates animals, but they were actually military outposts manned by soldiers from the Myanmar army.


The winding road up to Thandaung Gyi.

We reached Thandaung Gyi before noon. I packed my bicycle in my friends’ car, and we headed for the residence of the family that runs Zion Hill Church. They insisted that we join them for lunch – a mix of Bamar and Kayin dishes, including a hearty soup made with rice, pork and “herbs from the forest” – and then escorted us to the guesthouse on the slopes of Naw Bu Baw’s Mountain above town.

We settled into the big common room where we would be sleeping, then climbed the 374 steps to the cross at the peak, enjoying the beauty of drifting clouds and sunlight at play among the endless green hills.

It wasn’t long before the weather took a turn for the worse. Dark, low clouds appeared from nowhere and swept over us, bringing a veil of icy rain. We retreated to the guesthouse and sat on the balcony waiting for the downpour to end. Sure enough, the poor conditions soon passed, giving way once again to a mix of sun and white clouds.

In the afternoon we drove down into town to have a look around. We stopped at a shop on the main street to buy snacks and drink a few bottles of beer – something I had been looking forward to during the long, hot bike ride up the mountain.

Across the road, young men were playing football on what was possibly the worst pitch in the world: Earlier in the day we had seen cows grazing and defecating in the low-lying field, which was also waterlogged after four months of monsoon rain. The players were running around barefoot as they pursued the ball, slipping and sliding in the gooey mud-and-cow-patty slop.

The shop was run by Daw Suu, an elderly woman of Nepalese descent whose grandparents had moved to the hill station in 1915 to oversee a factory that processed locally grown tea for shipment to Lipton in the United Kingdom.

Thandaung Gyi remains a centre for the cultivation of tea – as well as coffee, betel nut and red bananas called shwengapyaw (golden bananas) – and the original processing factory is still in operation.

But the days of shipping tea leaves to the UK are long gone: The small factory is now run by the army to process and package black tea for Myanmar soldiers. We stopped by and were given a tour of the facilities by an extremely friendly army captain who acted as manager.

We returned to the guesthouse around 6pm, just in time to witness a brilliant mountain sunset. The bad news was that high winds had knocked out electricity to the building the night before, and the wires had not yet been repaired. We settled in for a candlelit evening. Once the sun went down, we could see the electric lights of Taungoo twinkling in the distance.


Sunset seen from the guesthouse at Naw Bu Baw’s Mountain.

There was a kitchen in the guesthouse, but we were pleasantly surprised when the church family sent up more food from lunchtime, with apologies for the lack of electricity.

Facilities at the guesthouse were pretty basic: There were no beds, and we slept on the carpet-covered concrete floor with thin blankets for padding and warmth. Temperatures never dropped as low as we had feared, but a chorus of strident snores produced by my travel companions inspired nightmares of being chased around Jurassic Park by grunting dinosaurs.

We woke before 6am to find the mountain completely socked in by impenetrable blue-tinted fog. We packed our belongings and drove through the damp mist into town, where we found a modest shack with the words “coffee shop” painted in bright, sloppy letters on the front door.


The day dawns misty and blue on the mountain.

The shack was barely big enough to hold three plastic tables and a scattering of diminutive chairs. We were served Taungoo-style mohinga, potato samosas, bean pastries and the regionally famous Thandaung coffee. Everything was fresh, delicious and unbelievably inexpensive.

Before heading out of town we visited the old Anglican church, which loomed grey and ghostlike in the heavy fog. We were assaulted by leeches while walking through the high, wet grass around the locked-up, otherworldly cathedral, and we retreated to the car to pull them off.

Our last stop was a meditation center on the edge of town, where we found a modest stupa and a hilltop sitting Buddha image. By this time the clouds were breaking and the sun shining through, so we were able to enjoy one last incredible view of the mountains from the heights of Thandaung Gyi before descending back to Taungoo.


A woman prays at a sitting Buddha image in Thandaung Gyi.

As might be expected of a place only recently opened to foreign travelers, Thandaung Gyi lacks big-ticket tourist draws: There are no ancient, sky-piercing pagodas, no lacquerware workshops staffed by demure Burmese damsels, no unintentionally hilarious drug elimination museums, nor any mediocre business hotels misleadingly marketed as luxury accommodation.

What it does offer is natural beauty and the chance to visit a town that was once off-limits due to fierce fighting between the Myanmar government and ethnic rebels, but is now a peaceful mountain retreat for its Kayin and Nepalese residents.

Getting to Thandaung Gyi is not as easy as reaching Bagan or Inle Lake. Private transport is required from Taungoo, and there are two checkpoints on the way that are staffed by easily confused immigration officials. Your chances of being happily waved through will increase if you bring multiple photocopies of your passport and visa.

There’s no clear consensus on whether spending the night in Thandaung Gyi is actually permitted for foreigners. Some visitors have been allowed to stay, while others have been sent back at sundown. It’s worth trying to stay the night (if you can handle the no-frills accommodation), but be prepared for a same-day 44km journey back to the lowlands if permission is denied.

Written by latefornowhere

October 28, 2013 at 9:10 am

Prison life and the art of joyful rebellion

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With the end of direct pre-publication censorship in August 2012 came the proliferation of a previously stifled genre of Myanmar literary nonfiction: the prison memoir.

Within months, a flood of books and articles by ex-political prisoners hit the market. Most of these accounts were written in the Myanmar language, with one notable exception being Ma Thanegi’s book Nor Iron Bars a Cage, released earlier this year by San Francisco-based Things Asian Press.

Ma Thanegi is an artist and writer who, before her arrest in 1989, worked as a personal assistant to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But in the years following Ma Thanegi’s 1992 release from Yangon’s Insein Prison, she was accused by a particularly rabid element of the Myanmar exile community of being a “traitor” to the pro-democracy cause.

Among Ma Thanegi’s supposedly traitorous ideas was daring to realize earlier than most that Daw Suu Kyi was merely human and not an infallible demigod. The artist/writer also challenged the National League for Democracy’s unbending junta-era doctrine by suggesting that economic sanctions and tourism boycotts might not be doing much to uplift the country’s poor.

Ma Thanegi’s approach in Nor Iron Bars likewise would have irked certain political zealots of years gone by, who might have preferred their prison narratives to be jam-packed with titillating torture porn – whether fact or fiction – meant to showcase the malevolence of the military regime.

Fortunately, Ma Thanegi does not indulge.

While she does dedicate some time in Nor Iron Bars to detailing the belligerent and psychologically taxing interrogation sessions she endured, and she also describes how some pro-democracy political prisoners and Burma Communist Party members were subject to occasional beatings, she shows little interest in exaggerating to fulfill popular notions of what life in Insein Prison was supposed to have been like.

There are some readers who, even now, are bound to feel let down by the dearth of over-the-top brutality aimed at the women who spent time in jail following the 8-8-88 uprising. As Ma Thanegi complains in the Foreword, “What disgusts me is the number of people I have met who were actually disappointed or upset that we weren’t raped by the male guards.”

Instead, the book focuses on day-to-day life in the jail, in particular the “steady, strong and warm friendships” that formed within the community of inmates, and their relations with the guards and prison administrators. The cast of characters includes accessories to murder, student political prisoners, parliamentarians elected in 1990 and never allowed to take office, prison guards both cranky and sympathetic, and young women repeatedly jailed for prostitution.

Of course, not everything was rosy in Insein Prison. There were, among other hardships, the grueling interrogation sessions, the sadistic lack of adequate healthcare, and acute feelings of boredom and depression with which to contend.

One of Ma Thanegi’s great themes as an author has always been food, and here she writes at length about the sub-par prison rations and the never-ending efforts by inmates to procure proper ingredients for adequate meals.

Despite the subject matter, there is simple beauty in these stories, a matter-of-fact frankness and sincerity that sometimes borders on the childlike, especially when the author writes about her affinity for cats, dogs, birds and butterflies. There are practical jokes, real-life ghost stories and recitals of verse composed entirely in the head of the poet.

The overall tone is one of resilient optimism in the face of deprivation. The prisoners quickly learned how to improvise in an environment designed to quell creative thought, and discovered in their own ways how to find small bits of happiness in the dark corners of a setting meant to destroy all enjoyment.

Structurally, Nor Iron Bars reads more like a collection of anecdotes than a coherent narrative. There is little in the way of plot to pull readers through the book, but the stories and character profiles are united by the overarching theme, which is clearly expressed in the book’s most oft-quoted sentence, “We were supposed to be miserable, and we were damned if we’d oblige.”

You might not plow straight through the book without interruption – I finished two other novels in the same period that I read Nor Iron Bars – but like a collection of poetry, it will pull you back again and again for its inspirational tales of rebellious joy and optimism.

This review was originally published in the October 21-27 edition of The Myanmar Times.

Written by latefornowhere

October 21, 2013 at 5:13 am