Late for Nowhere

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Archive for February 2014

The twilight bats of Shwedagon Pagoda

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Asian wrinkle-lipped bats fly from the western entrance of Shwedagon Pagoda at dusk.

My favorite time to visit Shwedagon Pagoda is at dusk: The temperatures cool down, the stupa’s chimes ring in the evening breeze – and of course there’s that sunset thing that normally occurs somewhere in the vicinity of the western horizon.

The best approach to Shwedagon at this time of day is the western staircase. From there, it’s possible to witness the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of Asian wrinkle-lipped bats emerging at twilight from under the eaves of the religious buildings surrounding the pagoda.

The bats fly west in search of food, passing in a steady stream that takes about 40 minutes from beginning to end. A short video I shot of the flitting procession can be seen here on Vimeo: Shwedagon bats.

Not surprisingly, this huge bat population produces a high volume of guano. In the past, this waste has been collected by Buddhist monks living in monasteries around the pagoda and sold as fertilizer to farmers who grow vegetables on floating gardens at Inle Lake.  

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February 27, 2014 at 4:35 am

Pa-O gather at colourful Kekku festival

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Kekku Pagoda east of Inle Lake in Shan State

We drive along a dirt road in the hills east of Inle Lake in a hired 4×4 truck, passing one eerily silent village after another.

The normally vibrant towns seem virtually empty of inhabitants. Just past the Nepalese village of Yae Cho we see a lone woman cultivating turmeric. At a hilltop pagoda in Kyauktalone, the only sound we hear is the chiming of bells at the top of the stupa.

Passing an empty market in Saug Pho village, our guide Maung Ngwe says, “Usually this market looks very nice – it is all black.” He is presumably referring to the dark clothing of the Pa-O women who, on most days, would be crowding the bazaar, buying and selling vegetables, kitchenware and other goods.

Minutes later we see three girls walking along the road wearing traditional Pa-O garments: indigo-coloured blouses and longyis, with bright headdresses wrapped around their heads like turbans.

“They’re dressed in their finest clothes,” says Maung Ngwe. “They’re on their way to Kekku to find boyfriends to marry.”


Ethnic Pa-O women

Them, and seemingly everyone else in the region. Thus the mystery of the empty villages: It’s the full moon day of the lunar month of Tabaung, the culmination of the annual Kekku Pagoda Festival. It is one of the most important events of the year for the local Pa-O.

Although Kekku Pagoda can most easily be reached by driving south from Taunggyi on 42 kilometers (26 miles) of paved road, during a visit to the festival last year, I opted to travel by rough dirt road from the east side of Inle Lake.

I had started the day by taking a 10-minute boat ride with Maung Ngwe from Golden Island Cottages on the southern end of Inle to a small dock on the eastern shore, where we met our driver Ko Myint Htoo and his “spare” Si Si.


Left to right: Si Si, Ko Myint Htoo and Maung Ngwe in Kyauktalone

We piled into a waiting four-wheel-drive pickup truck and drove out of the Intha village of Magyigone on a narrow, rocky road. We soon turned onto a wider, smoother dirt road that would have taken us to Loikaw – 154 kilometers (95 miles) away – had we continued straight, but we quickly jogged left onto another narrow path that we would follow all the way to Kyauktalone.

We passed fields where sugarcane had recently been harvested (“Cooking for rum,” Maung Ngwe said), then the rough road wound up into the hills, through jungle and past cheroot leaf plantations and a Pa-O village with a new cement monastery and its own rice husk power plant (Maung Ngwe: “One village, one monastery”).

After 90 minutes of driving, we left dirt and entered Kyauktalone, where we stopped at a hilltop pagoda that provided a good view of the town with about 1000 sturdy concrete houses but few discernible inhabitants. They were already at the festival.


Pa-O girls without their turbans

Although the pavement continued to Kekku and beyond to Taunggyi, outside of town we veered onto dirt again for a “shortcut” to the pagoda festival.

It was just past here that we entered Saug Pho village, where the three well-dressed Pa-O girls were making their late departure for the festival. For the rest of the way, we passed an increasing number of trucks and other vehicles crammed with locals heading for the festival. Others were walking, either along the road or following the railroad tracks that paralleled the road.

We arrived at Kekku just before 11am. The area surrounding the pagoda had been turned into an impromptu camping site, where bullock carts, small tractors and motorcycles were parked among hundreds of Pa-O families huddled in the shade of trees, sitting on bamboo mats and blankets on the ground as they cooked their food on open wood fires.


The shady camping site near Kekku Pagoda

It was a striking scene. Here was the “black” that had been missing from the market in Saug Pho: Nearly everyone was wearing traditional indigo clothing, as well as bright headdresses ranging in colour from red, orange or pink to white or green, some consisting of woven cotton scarves and others simple towels.

According to local lore, Pa-O women are descended from naga (dragons), symbolised by the baton some wear in their headdress to represent the dragon’s eye, while the layering of their clothing represent the dragon’s scales. Pa-O men, on the other hand, are said to be descended from zawgyi wizards who once had powers of flight and invisibility.


Home away from home at the camping site during the Kekku Pagoda Festival

The Kekku Pagoda Festival lasts for about a week – this year from March 9 to 16 – bringing extended families together under the open sky as the moon waxes nightly towards full brightness. Friends and relatives sit talking and socializing, while many young Pa-O – like the girls from Saug Pho – cruise for lifelong mates.

There is also a market area where vendors sell food, clothing, kitchenware and other goods. At night there are traditional song and dance performances that often last until early morning. The main activity, however, is paying homage to the Buddha with offerings of incense, candles, food and small saffron robes for the sacred images at the pagoda complex.

Kekku Pagoda itself consists of a collection of more than 2000 small, closely packed stupas. Although the architectural style – enhanced by carvings of flowers and celestial beings – suggests that the pagoda was built in the 16th century, Pa-O legend says the stupas are much older, having been erected 2500 years ago by Buddhist missionaries sent to the area by India’s King Asoka.


Pa-O women visiting Kekku Pagoda

According to one story, over the years the pagoda was forgotten and buried by shifting soil until a group of tusked boars from the jungle somehow discovered that something powerful was buried in the earth and started digging. When hunters came the boars fled, only to return to continue digging after the hunters left.

Once the site was uncovered by the boars, locals named it Weq-Ku (Pa-O for “pig help”), later changing it to Kekku for ease of pronunciation. The legend is commemorated at the pagoda with a small shrine holding an image of a gold pig.

As with many legends, there are competing versions of the origin of the name “Kekku”. One old-timer at the festival said the name actually derives from the Pa-O word “kakku”, meaning “to cross a border”, referring to the fact that during the feudal period (which only ended in 1959) many people had to cross into other feudal territories to visit the pagoda.


Ancient, damaged Buddha images in a storage room at Kekku Pagoda

In any case, the pagoda was not seen by foreigners until 1996, when a western journalist was allowed to visit Kekku as part of a project to document local culture. It now lies within the region administered by the Pa-O National Organisation, and a special pass to visit must be arranged through Golden Island Cottages.

My first visit to Kekku had occurred in September 2004. On that occasion, I had reached the pagoda by trekking from Inle Lake with two Pa-O guides, walking through the misty jungle on a slippery red clay track under cloudy, late-monsoon skies.


The muddy trekking route from Inle Lake to Kekku in 2004

The slow pace had allowed for close observation: forests of lacquer trees with Xs cut into the bark to collect sap; raging rain-swollen streams; fields of turmeric, garlic, rice, corn and cheroot leaves; a tree where rocks and leaves had been piled to propitiate the resident nat (spirit) and ensure protection for journeys through the jungle.

We had stopped at the village of The Ta Kauk to drink green tea and eat bananas while we watched a family dry cheroot leaves on metal plates over a furnace. We later stopped at Hti Ne village to eat lunch with a three-generation household, and then continued on to Naung Khe where children ran shouting out of the school to see the strange foreigner walking through town.


A Pa-O woman we met along the way from Inle to Kekku in 2004

In 2004, Kekku Pagoda had a wild feel to it, the stupas looking weathered and ancient. Exploring the narrow passageways between the spires meant walking barefoot on exposed earth.

Only a few years later, the aesthetics were quite different: Many of the stupas had been repaired and made to look new. The pagoda grounds had also been bricked over, ensuring adequate foot protection for tender-footed visitors.

It seemed possible that more had changed at the pagoda between my two visits than in the previous 300 years.


Kekku Pagoda during my first visit in 2004

Written by latefornowhere

February 25, 2014 at 9:47 am

The downs and ups of the Irrawaddy Literary Festival

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Duncan Jepson, Douglas Kerr and Tom Vater (left to right) speak about crime writing at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay on February 14.

The second edition of the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, held in Mandalay from February 14 to 16, produced its share of controversy.

A month before the festival even started, about 50 local poets and 30 cartoonists announced plans to boycott the event for a smattering of reasons, including harboring bitter feelings about the inclusion of authors from government-linked writers’ associations.

Once the festival got underway, there was grumbling among a few international authors about Htoo Foundation’s sponsorship of the event. One Bangkok-based writer told me that he would not have come to Myanmar had he known Tay Za was involved, and he named one other prominent author who felt the same way.

These feelings were a source of minor amusement among my local friends, including a small-business owner I ran into at the Yangon Airport on the way back from the festival. Her response was typical: “Tay Za is no worse than the rest of them. To be fair, you’d have to boycott everything sponsored by a major Myanmar company.”

Meanwhile, the festival’s opening day descended into confusion after the Ministry of Culture revoked permission for organizers to hold the event at the last minute at Kuthodaw Pagoda, forcing an abrupt change of venue to Mandalay Hill Resort.

The venue switch resulted in the circulation of a rumor around Mandalay that the first day’s events had been cancelled. In reality, the transfer to the hotel was made with impressive speed and adeptness, and the first round of panel discussion kicked off only about an hour behind schedule.

The cancellation rumors ensured that the crowds remained small throughout the opening day. The first discussion I attended – featuring authors Douglas Kerr, Tom Vater and Duncan Jepson talking about crime writing – was held under a tree behind the hotel and attracted about a dozen people. Triple that number found their way to a talk by Mr Vater later in the afternoon.

One of the main draws at the festival – and for many, the only draw – was the appearance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on February 15.

I had mixed feelings about her inclusion in the event: Sure, she’s swell and all, and of course her presence was an enticement to foreign authors who attended.

But it seemed unfair that only one Myanmar parliamentarian among many should be invited to the festival. Also, 10 other literary panel discussions – which, ostensibly, were what the festival was all about – could have been held in the time slots taken up by Daw Suu Kyi’s two appearances.

I attended the first talk, which featured Daw Suu Kyi “in conversation” with Dame Joan Bakewell.

Getting a seat in the rather small venue involved wrestling my way through an anarchic scrum of idolaters. My media pass helped me make the cut, as the National League for Democracy (NLD) security detail first allowed foreign authors to enter, followed by foreign media, followed by everyone else.

I was also lucky to be white, as the NLD’s Keepers of the Gate waved me into the room but stiff-armed the media-pass-bearing Thai journalist who had been standing next to me. He eventually made it inside, but only after submitting to the NLD’s seating hierarchy.

The “conversation” itself was rather tepid, retracing ground that has been covered hundreds of times before: How did you pass your time under house arrest? Have you read many books on politics? I thought things would heat up a bit when Ms Bakewell mentioned the “trouble in Northern Ireland” between Catholics and Protestants and asked how Buddhism applies to political life.

“Here we go! Religious conflict in Myanmar!” I thought.

“I don’t think Christians are quite Christian in political life, are they? Buddhists are not necessarily Buddhist in political life or even in their social lives,” Daw Suu Kyi responded. “There are good Buddhists and not-so-good Buddhists.”

That was about as controversial as it got.

I didn’t bother struggling my way into the “Literary Heroes and Villains” discussion that also featured Daw Suu Kyi later that same day. Instead, I remained outside and watched the event on the big video screen that had been erected near the hotel’s swimming pool.

This talk was marginally more interesting than the first, but, disappointingly, most references were to authors of ages long gone by: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot.

Participant Louis de Bernières, the author of the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994), deserved hearty applause for at least bringing the discussion into the late 20th century with his mention of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Meanwhile, the welcome and informative references to Asian literature were left to the other panelists, Chinese-born British writer Jung Chang and Myanmar Book Center chair U Thaw Kaung.

For me the highlight was Sunday: The crowds were bigger than the opening day, but the shouting mobs of Daw Suu Kyi’s Saturday appearance were gone, and the attention reverted back to the participating authors and literary agents where it belonged.

Some of my favorite moments of the festival occurred during my one-on-one conversations with writers like Duncan Jepson and Michael Vatikiotis, and literary agents such as Marysia Juszczakiewicz, Kerry Glencorse and Kelly Falconer.

At a time when foreign “experts” are flooding into Myanmar to instruct local policymakers on how to behave democratically, hold a census or kick-start the economy, it was heartening to hear the degree to which these writers and agents were actually interested in literature written by Asian authors.

I didn’t get the sense that they had come to the festival with the pompous goal of “teaching” the locals about writing and publishing, but instead were here to learn about Myanmar’s literary scene and take some of that knowledge back home with them.

In the future, the Irrawaddy Literary Festival would do well to pour all of its resources into accommodating this kind of cultural exchange – in particular, giving authors who are little-known to the international community a rare chance to shine – rather than providing space to celebrity politicians who have plenty of other platforms from which they can speak.

Decrease the peace: United Nations bureaucracy lampooned

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My review of The England Operation, an alternate-reality novel written be a former UN peacekeeper

Some of the English language’s most inventive authors have written novels exploring alternate versions of history or reality: Philip K Dick, in The Man in the High Castle (1962), imagines the social and political landscape of North America following an Axis victory in World War II. Alan Moore’s graphic novel Watchmen (1986-87) is set in a world where the existence of superheroes alters the course of the Cold War. The City and the City (2009) by China Mieville is an odd, noir-ish tale about two cities in Europe that occupy the same physical space but exist in separate, but often overlapping, dimensions.

The England Operation, by Yangon-based British author Peter Swarbrick, adds a different twist to the genre, offering a clever and very humorous reality based on a classic carnivalesque inversion of reality.

Whereas such reversals during carnival celebrations are usually social (the king becomes the fool, while the downtrodden peasant plays leader), here the exchange is geopolitical: In Swarbrick’s world, the wealthiest nation on the planet is the United States of Africa (USA), and Nairobi is the globe’s pre-eminent metropolis, home to the best universities in the world. Islam is the dominant religion, with after-work drinks enjoyed at a restaurant called Thank Allah It’s Thursday.

From the African perspective, Europe is the Dark Continent, and England, where most of the novel is set, is “cold, bleak, muddy, rainy, snowy, foggy, sleety, remote, roadless, godless, unfriendly, uncivilized, Christian, quarrelsome, unforgiving, profitless, backward”. The North American Colonies are a place of discord, where ruthless pirates prey on yachts off the coast of Cape Cod.

These reversals require frequent reality (or rather unreality) checks while reading. For example, the term “US Marines” tends to evoke mental images of American soldiers fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan; in The England Operation, however, it refers to the elite, globetrotting fighting force from the United States of Africa.

The author is also playful with people’s names; a character named Saloth Sar (better known in our world as Pol Pot) is not the genocidal leader of an agrarian Southeast Asian country, but rather the special assistant to the head of the “world’s premiere intergovernmental body”, the Organisatio Nationorum Orbi, or ONO.

The plot of the novel revolves around the launch of a peacekeeping mission to England. Normans had invaded the country in 1066; it’s now 1141, and there’s civil war between two claimants to the throne, both of whom are descended from the original invader, William the Conqueror. ONO is sent in to protect the civilian population from abuses from both sides.

While the more advanced nations such the USA, Nirvana (encompassing areas of Asia, including Myanmar and Cambodia) and Persia have developed motorized vehicles, firearms and airships that travel slowly from one country to another, England itself is stuck in the 10th century. Outside influences have created a landscape that looks a lot like the Middle Ages with machine guns in the hands of the powerful and the privileged.

How this global state of affairs came about is never explained by the author, and it doesn’t have to be. This is the world that is presented, and in its own odd way, it all fits together. All that’s required is for the reader to buy into it and enjoy the journey. Swarbrick provides more than enough imaginative – and often funny – detail to make it easy to do so.

At its core, The England Operation is a satirical critique of the United Nations and its culture of bureaucracy and inefficiency. Swarbrick is a veteran of UN peacekeeping missions to Cambodia and several African countries, including six years spent in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and is therefore well-placed to level criticism at the shortcomings of such missions: rewarding incompetence at the highest levels, deadlocking over how to interpret peacekeeping charters, holding redundant meetings instead of taking real action, spending tremendous resources on writing reports that are not only useless, but are also aimed at shifting blame from where it belongs onto others who are powerless to defend themselves against accusations – resulting in an inability, or unwillingness, to learn from past mistakes.

The official name of the England Operation is Angliae Operatio Nationorum Orbi (ANGLONO), whose efforts, once on the ground, fall far short of their imagined potential: “Most of ANGLONO’s activity, the object of most of its most strenuous efforts and probably its signal achievement, consisted in establishing, deploying, expanding, supplying, servicing, rotating, and catering to ANGLONO.”

The narrative continues: “[T]he chief duty of The Administration is to support itself. This is a fulltime job, requiring administrators to administer themselves and each other. Logistics units provide logistics services to other logistics units and, if they can spare the time, to other parts of The Administration. Personnel officers recruit other personnel officers to help them administer other personnel officers and, circumstances permitting, to join the logistics and finance sections. Finance officers ensure the regular payment of salaries and allowances to finance staff and, if in a benevolent mood, of logistics and personnel staff.”

As the story progresses, a series of poor decisions and missteps results in the “peacekeepers” getting dragged into a widening circle of violence rather than presiding over an orderly situation. As civilians are attacked, raped and murdered by Norman-backed warlords, the peacekeepers indulge in circular arguments over what precisely is meant by the ANGLONO mandate to protect civilians from being attacked, raped and murdered.

At one meeting the head of ANGLONO, a man from Nirvana named Monivong, says, “The first thing to go once things start getting rough is some nice plan drawn up by people sitting round a table in a conference room.” The response, as described by the author: “The people sitting around the table in the conference room nodded.”

There are complex political undercurrents at play, one of the most prominent being the exploitation of England’s sheep for an African wool company run by a “senatrix” with high political ambitions. The government of Normandy is complicit and tries to shift attention away from its own involvement in the pillaging of sheep by urging ANGLONO to use force against the mysterious Sons of Hereward, a homegrown English terrorist group that might or might not actually exist.

This might sound like bleak material for a novel, but Swarbrick’s keen sense of humor goes far in keeping the mood light and satirical. The England Operation is driven by the clever and meticulously developed premise, rather than by plot or character. There are nods to interpersonal affection or enmity between characters, but the personnel largely operate at the service of the premise. Their inner lives are explored mostly through their own memories of the past, which provides background but does not do much to reveal deep-rooted motivation.

The result is that, in a strangely appealing way, The England Operation is more like a history book than a work of fiction. But unlike “real” histories, this is one in which readers will not know how the story turns out until they reach the end of the book.

Written by latefornowhere

February 22, 2014 at 5:38 am

Cracked rear view

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There is something about being run over by a fast-moving car that is decidedly unpleasant.

I discovered this the hard way a few weeks ago when some young thug driving a black Suzuki Swift slammed into me from behind while I was pedaling my bike along Baho Road in Yangon’s Insein township.

Upon impact, I flew over the handlebars and hit the grimy, oily pavement at about 30 kilometers per hour; the driver, following conduct not uncommon in Myanmar, kept on going, entirely unconcerned about whether the person he had just cuffed was alive or dead.

My high-speed glide across the road left me bleeding from gaping wounds on my hands, arms and legs. Where once there was skin, now there was raw-hamburger-like gore.

Not one of the dozens of slack-jawed bystanders nearby offered any help, but at the time this listless lack of loving-kindness didn’t really concern me: A cursory assessment revealed that my bike was more or less unscathed, so I picked myself up, remounted and started chasing the swerving psychopath who had run me down.

I caught up with him less than 2 kilometers down the road, where he had made a right turn onto a side street and sat waiting at a traffic light.

Had I been in a more decorous state of mind, I would have simply photographed his license plate and turned it over to the police, ensuring an appreciable stint of jail time for the driver.

But I wasn’t thinking very clearly. The collision had thrown a switch in my brain, inducing a fit of rage- and adrenaline-fueled intoxication. I was in Judge Dredd mode, intent on administering a hefty dose of medieval street justice.

I flew past the idling car on the left side – the driver clearly had no idea I was coming up from behind – and used my right fist to punch the side-view mirror. The glass shattered, and the plastic housing snapped against the side of the car.

Satisfied that I had grabbed the driver’s attention, I slammed on my brakes, came to a complete stop and turned around in anticipation of a spirited melee.

My fervent hope was that the pitiable fool would emerge from his car and start shouting about his broken mirror, at which point I planned on knocking him to the ground, stomping his greasy guts out all over the pavement and throwing his car keys into the nearest sludge-filled drain.

I would then ride home for a pleasant evening of scrubbing the gravel out of my oozing sores.

But he didn’t get out of the car. He and his 20-something male passenger sat frozen and bug-eyed for a second or two, seemingly both surprised and horrified to find I was still alive.

Then, snapping out of his momentary hypnosis, the lunatic gunned the engine, swerved into the oncoming lane of traffic and sped to the traffic light, where he made a fantastically dangerous right turn across two lanes of moving cars. And then he was gone.

I thought about continuing the chase but realized I had already pedaled myself well into the pulmonary red zone. While I would have thoroughly enjoyed destroying another side-view mirror (and perhaps crafting a nice necklace out of the driver’s teeth), I had already defied death once and I was feeling about two heartbeats away from cardiac arrest.

As I cycled the last few kilometers to my house, I reflected on various aspects of the incident.

Of course I was angry that the barbarian behind the wheel had a) hit me and b) not stopped. I was also extremely disappointed that none of the onlookers had made a move to see if I was okay – so much for the stereotype of the “friendly and helpful” locals.

Then there was my reaction: that I “shoulda woulda coulda” avoided flying into an uncontrollable rage, and instead used the opportunity to gather evidence that would get the hit-and-run driver off the streets and into a jail cell where he belongs.

But equally unsettling was the fact that I got whacked on a stretch of road I had always considered relatively safe. I spend a lot of time cycling in far sketchier places, where chaotic traffic patterns demand quick reflexes and split-second improvisation.

The “accident” had occurred at a spot where the road was wide and straight, where traffic was light and where there were few random obstacles.

These conditions allowed me to ride closer to the right-hand curb than usual – as in, well out of the way of the regular flow of traffic – and at the moment of impact I was traveling in an unwaveringly straight line: a skill acquired through tens of thousands of kilometers of cycling and many years of competing in bicycle road races.

It just goes to show: When it comes to danger, death and narrow escapes – or the unruly troglodytes who instigate them – there’s no accounting for time, place or circumstance. The unavoidable “dark horizon of our future” is always there in front of us, and when we are cycling out on the open road – with nothing for protection but paper-thin fabric and a Styrofoam helmet – we can find ourselves propelled across it anywhere, anytime.

This story was originally published in the February 17 to 23 issues of The Myanmar Times.

Written by latefornowhere

February 20, 2014 at 6:43 am

Back to Basics: 72 hours in Singapore

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In a departure from matters strictly Myanmar, this general article is about escaping to Singapore for a long weekend of basic indulgences that are tough to find in Yangon. A slightly altered version was originally published in the Nov 2013-April 2014 issue of Mingalabar, Myanmar Airways International’s inflight magazine.


Cognitively confusing architecture in Singapore

Singapore offers plenty of big-ticket attractions to entice visitors from around the globe, with major draws including Sentosa Island, Universal Studios, Marina Bay Sands, and Gardens by the Bay.

I had been to all of these destinations on previous trips to Singapore with my wife, so on our most recent visit in October we decided to get back to the basics and spend three days exploring some of the country’s old standbys, including the Colonial District, Little India, and Orchard Road. We wanted a short holiday from Yangon that combined eating, shopping, soaking up some culture, and exploring the outdoors, all of which are easily done in Singapore.

We decided to start at the very beginning. On the afternoon of our arrival from Yangon, we walked along the north bank of the Singapore River from our hotel near Clark Quay to the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, commemorating the site where Mr. Raffles landed on January 29, 1819. He later signed a treaty with local rulers to establish a trading post, thus beginning the long march of development that has made Singapore what it is today.


Chinese tourists scrutinize bronze statues outside the Asian Civilizations Museum.

Nearby is the Asian Civilizations Museum, which is an essential stop for anyone who wants to learn about regional culture. Located in the beautifully restored Empress Place Building, the museum showcases more than 1,300 artifacts displayed in 11 galleries. Permanent and changing exhibitions focus on the cultures of Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, and China.

Two notable temporary exhibitions during our visit were “Lacquer Across Asia,” featuring lacquerware from mainland Southeast Asia and China; and “Devotion and Desire: Cross-Cultural Art in Asia,” showcasing objects that reveal “surprising connections between Asian cultures, and between Asia and the wider world.” Both shows included rare objects from Myanmar, which were nice to see but also served as a sad reminder that some of the country’s important cultural treasures were plundered long ago and dispersed to museums around the world.

Leaving the museum, we crossed the elaborate, pedestrian-only Cavenagh Bridge, passed the stately Fullerton Hotel, and crossed the road to Marina Bay to check out the goofy Merlion statue. A big crowd of tourists was already there, photographing this cartoonish half-lion, half-fish symbol of Singapore that spits an endless stream of water from its mouth into the bay. We snapped some pictures of our own, then wandered south along the water until we came across a food festival sponsored by the U.S.-based Ben and Jerry’s ice cream brand, complete with live music, prize giveaways, games for kids, and of course people dressed as dairy cows. Our discovery of the event was unexpected, and it illustrated for us how there is always something happening in Singapore. A casual wander around the city will inevitably uncover plenty of surprises and special activities.


The pride of Singapore: The ludicrous, water-spewing Merlion statue

For dinner we headed for Boat Quay along the Singapore River, which is home to a collection of diverse restaurants offering everything from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to Thai, Indian, and British pub grub. We opted for rich, delicious northern Indian food at Haldhi Restaurant (chicken tikka masala, kadai paneer, basmati rice, garlic naan, and mago lassis), then ambled a few doors down to The Penny Black Victorian London Pub. By this time darkness had long since descended, and we watched the illuminated tour boats plying the adjacent waterway as we sipped Guinness (me) and vodka-and-cranberry-juice cosmopolitans (my wife).


Northern Indian food at Haldhi Restaurant on Boat Quay

The next day was earmarked for shopping, but with most malls not opening until 10am, we had time for an early-morning visit to Singapore Botanic Gardens west of Orchard Road. The gardens open at 5am, admission is free, and the morning air is cool and fresh, so it’s a great way to kick off the day on a relaxing note.

Singapore is currently campaigning to have the gardens listed as the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason. Already on UNESCO’s list of “tentative sites” for their “outstanding universal value,” the gardens were founded at their present site in 1859 by a local agri-horticultural society. They now encompass 74 hectares (183 acres) and boast a number of attractions, including a 6-hectare tropical rainforest; an Evolution Garden that shows how plant life developed on Earth over millions of years; a ginger garden; a children’s garden with a playground, maze, tree houses, and interactive exhibits; three lakes; an outdoor concert area; and several restaurants.

The centerpiece is the 3-hectare National Orchid Garden, which holds a collection of more than 1000 species and 2000 hybrids of orchids. It’s the only area within the gardens that charges admissions (US$5 for adults, US$1 for students and senior citizens 60 and above, free for children under 12), and it’s open from 8:30am to 7pm daily.

After enjoying the greenery, it was time for a headlong plunge into Orchard Road, a world-class shopping destination that is lined for block after block with everything from megalithic malls to small electronics shops. I don’t remember many details of the retail cyclone that swept us along during our spending spree; all I know is that we started at one end of Orchard Road with full wallets and empty hands, and came out on the other side several hours later, much poorer but our arms laden with full-to-bursting shopping bags.

As might be expected, there are also countless eating options on Orchard Road, ranging from elegant, high-end restaurants to food courts serving inexpensive but delicious rice and noodle dishes. For lunch we opted for tasty gourmet kebabs at Shiraz Mazzeh, a roadside branch of the main Shiraz Persian restaurant on Clark Quay.


Diwali decorations along Campbell Lane in Little India

In the evening we took the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) subway to Little India, an atmospheric neighborhood where colorfully painted vintage shophouses line the narrow streets and alleyways. Little India is always energetic, but it was even more so during our visit, which coincided with the lead-up to the Diwali, an important Hindu festival of lights aimed at thanking the gods for happiness, health, wealth, and the knowledge within us. Busy Serangoon Road was festooned with beautiful electric lights and other vibrant holiday decorations, while a “festival village” had been set up on adjoining Campbell Lane and Hastings Road where vendors sold Indian ethnic wear and jewelry, arts and crafts, Bollywood movie and music discs, and special Diwali sweet treats.

Since we were already in Little India, we could not pass up the opportunity to enjoy Kerala food from south India. We found a place on Dalhousie Lane called Premaas Cuisine, and we took it as a good sign that the restaurant was packed with South Asian families dining on biryani, roti prata, crab masala, and fish curry.

The next morning was dedicated to outdoor adventure. We took the No. 2 bus from Tanah Merah MRT Station to Changi Bus Interchange, where we hopped on a small bumboat for the 10-minute ride to Pulau Ubin (S$2.50 each way), a sparsely populated island just off Singapore’s northeastern coast. Our main activity was cycling on the island’s quiet roads and dirt pathways, but the island can also be explored on foot.

We rented bicycles near the dock for around S$10 each for the entire day, and set off to explore the jungle-covered hills, peaceful coastline, and mangrove forests. It’s a great place for bird watching, and visitors are also likely to see big lizards and some other small wildlife. There are several religious shrines around the island, as well as an observation tower and a sensory trail meant to be walked with eyes closed to better understand the sounds, smells, and textures of the surrounding environment.

We spent several hours on the trails before cycling back to the jetty area. There were a number of restaurants there, and we picked one where we could sit outside and enjoy a lunch of Singapore’s signature dish, chilli crab – which, despite its name, is more sweet than spicy – washed down with a couple bottles of beer.


Cycling the pathways of Pulau Ubin

After lunch we headed back to the Colonial District in the city’s center and stopped by the Singapore Art Museum. This institution normally holds very good exhibitions, but during our visit most of the galleries were closed in preparation for the Singapore Biennale 2013, a huge contemporary art show held once every two years at venues around the city. This year’s event, which runs from October 26 to February 16, 2014, is well worth checking out because it features work by 82 artists and art collectives from Southeast Asia presented under the theme “If the World Changed.” Participants include installation artists Nge Lay and Po Po from Myanmar.

Not far north of the art museum is Bugis Junction, another one of Singapore’s outstanding shopping areas. We browsed the stores, ate ice cream and then ducked into the air-conditioned cinema to catch a movie – in this case Gravity starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, a spectacular film to see on the big screen. The silence of outer space plays an important role in the movie, so we jumped at the chance to see it in Singapore – where the audience is polite enough to stay quiet in the theater – rather than in Yangon, where moviegoers routinely gab away on their mobile phones and let their kids run up and down the aisles in their squeaky shoes.

We capped off our long day with a visit to Clark Quay along the Singapore River, which is home to a vibrant collection of bars and restaurants of every description. The place was jammed with hungry and thirsty locals and tourists, and we wound our way through the crowd until we settled on Muchos Mexican Bar and Restaurant for enchiladas and margaritas. Afterward we strolled across the river on a pedestrian bridge and sampled a few pints of micro-brewed beer at the sprawling, factory-like Brewerkz. My favorite was the dark and malty Black Pig Stout, while my wife preferred the faintly floral Golden Ale. The extensive and diverse selection of beverages was a welcome change from the tragically limited beer options available in Myanmar.


Singapore after dark

We spent the morning of our last day in Singapore enjoying a short stroll in Fort Canning Park near our hotel. Hundreds of years ago the hill was avoided by locals out of respect for the fact that it was home to the sacred shrine of Sultan Iskandar Shah, the last ruler of ancient Singapura. Now the park features shady footpaths that wind around the hill, and it attracts tourists, history buffs, runners, and anyone else looking to escape the chaos of the city. Music concerts and other special events are also frequently held there.

One of the main historical sites in the park is the Battle Box, where the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese was made by the British during World War II, but during our visit it was closed for maintenance. Still, we were able to enjoy the Edenic atmosphere within the park, and the slight elevation gave us the chance to enjoy one last view over scenic Singapore before we returned to our hotel, checked out, and transferred to Changi International Airport for our flight back home to Yangon.

Video: Descent by bicycle into Gokteik Gorge

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I’ve already written a few posts about my trip to northern Shan State over Christmas holiday. One the way back to Yangon, we spent two days in the town of Kyaukme, where my wife’s uncle runs a guesthouse.

 On my free day in Kyaukme I rode my bicycle to the bottom of Gokteik Gorge and back, a return trip of about 56 miles.

 When I reached the rim of the gorge, I mounted a GoPro on the top of my helmet to record the 20-minute descent on the twisting – and sometimes truck-clogged – road to the bottom.

 An edited, 5-minute-long version of the descent video can be seen on You Tube by following this link: Gokteik bike descent.

Written by latefornowhere

February 12, 2014 at 11:20 am

From the archives: Yangon welcomes ‘Glass Palace’ author Amitav Ghosh

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Despite his huge popularity in Myanmar, Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh is NOT among the authors who will be participating in the Irrawaddy Literature Festival in Mandalay from February 14 to 16. Nevertheless, the festival and the accompanying interest in Asian literature provides a good excuse for me to post a story I wrote for The Myanmar Times based on a visit by Ghosh to Myanmar in November 2012, during which he spoke at the Indian embassy in Yangon.


Amitav Ghosh speaks at the Indian embassy in Yangon on November 15, 2012.

World-renowned Bengali author Amitav Ghosh gave a talk at the Indian embassy in Yangon on November 15, focusing the discussion on his novel The Glass Palace, which follows events in Myanmar from the Konbaung dynasty to the modern era.

Ghosh is the award-winning author of seven novels in the English language, as well as five works of nonfiction. The Glass Palace, published in 2000, has been translated into more than 25 languages, including Myanmar by writer Nay Win Myint and retired forestry official Hteik Tin Thet.

Ghosh took the stage at the embassy to tremendous applause, and began by commenting on how much the atmosphere of Yangon had changed since his last visit 15 years ago.

“It’s like going from one planet to another,” he told the audience.

He also commented that he thought it was “really miraculous” that so many people had read The Glass Palace, and that it has been translated into so many languages.

“When I was writing The Glass Palace for years and years, I would sometimes think, ‘What am I doing? Am I mad? Who’s going to read a book about Indian laborers who were in Burma 100 years ago?’” he said.

Ghosh told the audience that the book really began in a “very lonely little house” in Kolkata, India, where his uncle’s family lived after having fled their home in Burma when the Japanese attacked in 1941.

“My uncle was an entrepreneur and founded a very successful timber business in Burma, but when the Japanese bombed Rangoon on December 24, his timber yard caught fire and he lost everything,” he said.

“He had to move back to Kolkata, and he and his wife and his son moved into the this tiny house. It was a strange thing to see this person, who was accustomed to being rich, as his life slowly dwindled. I used to sit by his bedside and listen to his stories.”

Ghosh said his uncle introduced him to great writers such as Maurice Collis, Knut Hamsun, John Steinbeck and Nikolai Gogol. He later found that these same authors had “an enormous impact” on Indian writers as well as famous Myanmar authors such as U Mya Than Tint.

He said his uncle, like many Indians, had been “haunted” by his experience in Burma. 

“When they came back to India, which in many ways is a hard and difficult place, they would remember Burma as a place of great softness, kindness, gentleness,” he said.

“These memories haunted exiles everywhere, and my family were also exiled from what is now Bangladesh. But there was something different in the quality of the memories that people carried back from Burma. There was a yearning, a wish to reconnect, to be back.”

Ghosh said his trip to Myanmar 15 years ago was prompted by these stories told by his uncle.

“At a certain point in my life I wanted to write about this uncle of mine, this man who had been pouring these stories into my head for 20 years. It was at that point that I first came to Myanmar,” he said. “It was an extraordinarily powerful and intense experience because I was fortunate to be able to meet many wonderful writers, such as Saya Mya Than Tint.”

He said Saya Mya Than Tint’s writing ended up having an enormous impact The Glass Palace.

“Our interests coincided in many ways. He was a writer who had a deep interest in people and real life. When I left his house he gave me a mimeographed, translated version of the book he was then working on, which was called Tales of Ordinary People,” he said.

“For this book he went out and interviewed people, almost at random. These are wonderful stories that come alive in this book. Many of the little stories that went into The Glass Palace were inspired by Saya Mya Than Tint, and I feel a deep sense of gratitude toward him.”

He said Mya Than Tint, Ludu U Sein Win and other writers he met on that trip would talk at great length about the press scrutiny board and the techniques of government censorship.

“These were writers who had struggled with very deep and intense literary questions, of modernism and language, and they were going to this office where there was a young military officer who had hardly read anything in his life, and whose principal interest was golf. If he didn’t like what you had written, he would roll it up into a ball and hit it with a golf club,” he said.

“But these writers told me that censorship was impossible. If you’re a writer who knows his work, you can always find a way to say what you want to say. And that is one of the great challenges of writing … Your language becomes more and more symbolic, and in that sense more and more modernist.”

Ghosh said his writing of The Glass Palace was also driven by the question of what happened to King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat after they were exiled to Ratnagiri, India, following the surrender of Burma to the British in 1885.

“One of the reasons I write fiction rather than history is because there aren’t really historical sources for the things I write about. With Thibaw’s life in Ratnagiri, there’s so little material. One really does have to try to imagine it. This is the great challenge of writing fiction,” he said.

“When I started writing those bits about Thibaw, I said to myself, how am I going to write in the voice of a man who is so immeasurably distant from me? What do I know about what he was thinking?”

He said he found inspiration from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book August 1914: “In that book, there’s an amazing 100-page monologue that happens in the head of Czar Nicholas just before the fall of the Romanov dynasty. And that really inspired me. I thought, if Solzhenitsyn can do that, then why can’t I?”

Ghosh added that he preferred to depict characters who took action to change their lives.

“I think people aren’t victims. Even when they live in very difficult circumstances, they try to make the best of it. When I met Saya Mya Than Tint and Ludu U Sein Win, this became very real for me because they lived through unimaginable difficulties. But Saya Mya Than Tint was not filled with self-pity, he was not thinking of himself as a victim, he was trying to get on with life,” he said.

“I think it’s very important, when you write about people who are in difficult circumstances, not to sentimentalize them. It’s easy to think that people who are poor, who are suffering, have forgotten laughter. But people in very difficult circumstances also smile, laugh, love and live.”

Written by latefornowhere

February 11, 2014 at 2:43 am

Interview with writer Wendy Law-Yone

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Wendy Law-Yone, author of Golden Parasol: A Daughter’s Memoir or Burma, will appear at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival at Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay from February 14 to 16. I had the chance to interview her in Yangon last week for a story for The Myanmar Times, posted below. (Full disclosure: I also have a personal interest in the book, as I appear in the “Prologue” as the “English-language editor” whom Wendy meets during her first visit to the Myanmar Times office back in 2011.)


Wendy Law-Yone in Yangon

The years immediately following a dramatic change in government are dangerous and confusing times for any country.

In Myanmar, the 2010 election was a hopeful step toward democracy and away from the decades-long nightmare of military rule.

But there are also many new uncertainties, including questions about the extent to which the government should exercise control over the lives of its citizens; about the ability – or willingness – of authorities to quell sectarian violence; and about the sincerity and motives of some elected politicians, from ex-military officers to figureheads of the pro-democracy movement. 

This is, of course, not the first time the country has faced a major democratic transition: In January 1948, Burma gained independence from autocratic British rule, kicking off an exciting but chaotic period of attempted nation-building and democratization.

As writer Wendy Law-Yone points out in her book Golden Parasol: A Daughter’s Memoir of Burma (2013), such times are also exhilarating for journalists. During the post-independence period, “news-gathering … was an exciting, free-wheeling no-hold-barred business” that also had its downside: “[J]ournalists were often perceived as troublemaking scum or bad-news messengers that deserved to be snuffed out.”

Wendy’s father, Ed Law-Yone, knew about these hazards firsthand: In July 1948 he launched an English-language newspaper in Yangon called The Nation. He printed 2000 copies of the first issue but sold only 20. Despite these modest beginnings, the paper was destined to become the most influential English-language daily in Burma at the time.

Golden Parasol tells the story of Ed’s life, which was in turns fascinating and frustrating. He was acquainted with U Ne Win through the 1950s – he was sometimes invited over to the general’s house to play chess and Scrabble – but ended up in jail soon after U Ne Win took power in a military coup in 1962.

Released five years later, Ed moved to Thailand to help form the People’s Democratic Party, whose aim was to organize a revolt against U Ne Win and restore democracy in Burma. A widespread revolution failed to materialize, and Ed eventually moved to the United States to spend his remaining years with his family.   

His daughter Wendy had been born in 1947 and grew up spending evenings in the office of The Nation while her father worked at his desk. She was arrested in 1967 while trying to leave Burma illegally but was released after 10 days and allowed to move to Thailand, where she started working as a newspaper journalist.

Toward the end of his life, Ed entrusted Wendy with the manuscript containing his own written account of his life. For more than 20 years after her father’s death, Wendy couldn’t bring herself to read her father’s papers. When she finally did, she wasn’t certain how to approach the writing of his memoirs.

“In the beginning I was asked to write a book of my father’s memoirs, but I knew instinctively that this was something I couldn’t do and probably didn’t want to do,” she said in an interview in Yangon last week.

“It was such a big story and his voice was very forceful, but it was a book that was written in kind of a white heat toward the end of his life. Most memoirs are self-serving. He had a different agenda. This last spurt of journalistic urge came out, like, ‘I’ve got to get down this story that I lived through.’”

Wendy finally came up with the idea to write her own memoir based on her father’s written account, and thus the seeds of Golden Parasol were sown.  

“[My father’s manuscript] would be the foundation, but I would tell what I remembered. The editors also said the book needed to be my story but about my father, and that was a very big hurdle,” she said.

“Even though I was resolved to do it that way, I hadn’t realized how daunting and intimidating my father’s voice was. My older brother read the first draft and said, ‘When it’s your voice it’s fine and interesting, but when you start to channel dad’s voice the effect is grotesque.’ It was a bit harsh but I realized it was true.”

By the time Wendy started working on Golden Parasol, she had already published three novels – The Coffin Tree (1983), Irrawaddy Tango (1993) and The Road to Wanting (2010) – and she expected writing nonfiction to be easier.

“My novels always covered difficult subjects to confront. I thought, ‘Nonfiction is factual. It’s all there. All I have to do is write it,’” she said, quickly adding that this turned out not to be the case.

“I realized the subject matter didn’t matter. It all had to do with an intrinsic problem I had, which I related to the influence of my father: Somehow I got infected with the idea that I needed to be able to stand by every word and defend it, either grammatically or factually or politically,” she said.

“I always thought that maybe this was because it was fiction, but when I started to write nonfiction I thought, ‘Now it’s about the country, politics and history, and how much more so.’ There was a fundamental fear of needing to get it right.”

What helped Wendy get beyond this impasse was the understanding that she could not possibly write the definitive book about the politics of her father’s era.

“I realized that it had to be just about things my father saw and things related to him,” she said.

Nevertheless, the resulting book has been criticized in some quarters for not containing enough material about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the current pro-democracy movement.

“The book does deal with what’s happening now. I touch on the changes that I myself had been a part of, but many, many people have asked why I haven’t talked more about Aung San Suu Kyi,” she said. 

“But Aung San Suu Kyi simply wasn’t a part of the history. General Aung San was, and so I wrote about him.

“I was trying to show that many people think Aung San Suu Kyi’s was the first project to restore democracy, but it’s not true. There was already one such project back in my father’s time, which is now forgotten.”


Written by latefornowhere

February 10, 2014 at 3:04 am

Images of elephant tracking in Myanmar’s Bago Yoma mountains

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Sunrise from the veranda of Myanmar Beauty Guest House in Taungoo

The Bago Yoma mountains west of Taungoo remain a wild and rugged place where untamed elephants roam and ethnic Kayin live in remote villages. It’s also an area where domesticated elephants are still used in the logging industry — which begs the question of how much longer the place will remain wild and rugged. In the meantime, the very personable Dr Chan Aye of Myanmar Beauty Guesthouse in Taungoo leads guided trips into the mountains, which include visits to elephant camps and to Kayin villages. One of the great aspects of these trips is that Dr Chan Aye provides checkups and medicine free of charge to villagers, so you can see firsthand how your fees benefit the local communities.

Following are some photographs from a trip I took into the mountains with Dr Chan Aye.


Making an offering to the spirits (nat) to ensure safe travels before heading into the mountains


Protection against the road dust


Ethnic Kayin child


Dr Chan Aye provides a medical checkup in a Kayin village


Traditional Kayin embroidery


That’s me struggling to string a traditional Kayin crossbow. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


That’s me (center) trying to look all Indiana Jones as we head deeper into the hills. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


Kayin woman and child


Young Kayin elephant driver (mahout)


Young Kayin mahout


Working elephant pulling a teak log


Working elephant head-butting a teak log


A logger shows off an axe that was chipped while chopping some very hard wood.