Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Archive for March 2014

Ayeywarwaddy River cruise photo essay: Day 3

leave a comment »


Dogs guard their dirt pile kingdom along the east bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River.

Another rainy day: The passengers who had come from Germany seemed disappointed that the countryside was not drenched at all times in tropical sunshine.

Our boat didn’t travel very far on the Ayeyarwaddy River on this day – only about two hours total. Instead, we spent most of the time making land excursion to areas just outside the city of Mandalay: the ancient capital Inwa (Ava) in the morning, the hilly, monastery-studded town of Sagaing midday; and the traditional handicrafts town of Amarapura in the afternoon.



Bicyclists and pony carts negotiate the muddy tracks around Inwa, an area that served as the capital of Burmese kingdoms on four different occasions from the 14th to 19th centuries.



A Buddha image weathers the elements at Inwa. (Photo: Thandar Khine)



Once-mighty Inwa now consists of vast tracts of farmland peppered with ancient pagodas and monasteries. (Photo: Thandar Khine)



Peacock motifs abound at Inwa’s Bagaya Kyaung, a teak monastery built in 1834.



Mist drifts through the hills of Sagaing, home to dozens of pagodas and monasteries.



Buddhist nuns and volunteers wash dishes following a donation ceremony at Saya Theingi Kyaung nunnery in Sagaing.



A donor greets the 93-year-old head nun at Saya Theingi Kyaung in Sagaing.



Donors visit Saya Theingi Kyaung nunnery in Sagaing. (Photo: Thandar Khine)



Spools of blue thread feed into manual looms at a longyi-weaving factory in Amarapura.



A fisherman walks across Taungthaman Lake at Amarapura.



A boatman rows across Taungthaman Lake, with 1300-meter U Bein Bridge in the background.



Local residents walk across U Bein Bridge.



The sun struggles to make an appearance at the end of another rainy day at U Bein Bridge.



Ayeywarwaddy River cruise photo essay: Day 2

leave a comment »


For breakfast, a bowl of fresh mohinga made with noodles and fish broth.

The second day of our 12-day cruise dawned overcast and drizzly as the boat got underway from its overnight anchor spot. We passed the confluence of the Ayeyarwaddy and Chindwin rivers, continuing north as the river cut through steep, sandy banks on either side.

The landscape consisted of flat farmland where cows stood in small groups in the muddy fields. The villages we passed appeared as small collections of wood houses nestled among groves of tall trees, with small pagodas, usually white or gold, near the water and standing out against the verdant backdrop. The river traffic was light, consisting of local rowboats that hugged the shore, and the occasional barge barreling down the middle of the river carrying gravel or teak logs.

The main stop of the day was Yandabo village, famous as the site where a peace treaty was signed ending the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826. A white monument marks the spot where the pact was made. Yandabo is also a known for its production of pottery, which is made from clay dug directly from the riverbank.



Clay pots glisten in the rain in Yandabo village.



A woman uses a mallet to put the finishing touches on pottery in Yandabo.



Traditional, manual methods are still used to turn pottery in Yandabo. (Photo: Thandar Khine)



Decorative details on pottery.



The walkways of Yandabo are paved with pottery shards.



A future pottery maker smiles (or not) for the camera.



A young girl takes her brother for a piggyback ride around the village.



Night descends over the Ayeyarwaddy River.


Ayeyarwaddy River cruise photo essay: Day 1

leave a comment »


The RV Paukan 2007 stands ready to cast off from Bagan at midday and start its upriver journey to Kachin State. (Photo: Thandar Khine)

American landscape photographer Laura Gilpin once described rivers as “magic” things that seem a “moving, living part of the very earth itself”. This enigmatic quality is a big part of the reason why river travel is appealing to so many people, why it has inspired great poetry and literature through the ages, and why it evokes dreams of exploration among those who have trouble staying rooted in one spot for very long.

There can be a paradoxical quality to exploring a country by river, the general idea being to follow the most beaten path imaginable – a trough between two banks through which a tremendous amount of water constantly flows – to visit areas few tourists have reached. But this is precisely the experience that river travellers in Myanmar can expect, including those who have more than a few days to follow the course of the 2,170-kilometer-long Ayeyarwaddy.

I had just such an opportunity in October 2012. Thanks to what amounted to an extremely lucky guess, I won a wine-tasting contest in Yangon whose grand prize was a 12-day trip for two along the Ayeyarwaddy on the RV Paukan 2007 riverboat. The trip would take us upstream from the ancient city of Bagan to the town of Bhamo in Kachin State. Then we would turn around and head downriver to end the journey in Mandalay. My wife Thandar Khine and I flew to Bagan to board the ship with a group of tourists from Germany. Our 12 noon departure was accompanied by late-monsoon rain showers that continued off and on for the rest of the day.

Following are some photographs from the first day of the trip.


This was our room for 12 days, blissfully free of television, telephone and WiFi, but with a sliding door providing views of the river and the passing landscape. (Photo: Thandar Khine)



A crewmember scrutinizes river conditions as a Buddhist sangha flag flies at the front of the vessel.



Thandar Khine stands on the top deck, where we spent the vast majority of the daylight hours enjoying the scenery. On the first day we passed through the flat, green landscape of central Myanmar under grey skies and light rain.



The official on-board Comfortmeter indicates fine sailing conditions.



After a couple of hours we passed an under-construction bridge that, when complete, would connect Pakokku on the west bank and Letpanchepaw on the east. At 3.4km long, it was also set to be the longest such bridge in the country.



Our first stop of the trip was Shwe Pyi Thar village on the river’s east bank, famous for the production of sweet jaggery candy from palm sap. Unfortunately, it wasn’t jaggery season when we visited so there was not a whole lot going on in that department. Here, a villager carries a basket of uncooked rice.



Shwe Pyi Thar girls smile as they enjoy the afternoon rain.



A woman smokes a homemade cheroot in the doorway of her house in Shwe Pyi Thar. (Photo: Thandar Khine)



Another Shwe Pyi Thar girl smiles in the rain. (Photo: Thandar Khine)



A woman wears a hat big enough to protect herself and her child from the elements. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


Spirits in the material world: Northeastern Cambodia’s eerie jungle burial sites

with one comment


Ethnic Kachok burial site near Kaoh Peak village, Ratanakiri Province, Cambodia

When approached by boat on the sluggish, ocher-colored Sesan River, the entrance to the remote village of Kaoh Peak in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri Province is protected by a straw sentinel wielding a wooden sword and makeshift crossbow.

The humanoid figure, standing on a hill overlooking the boat landing where villagers of the Kachok ethnic group bathe and gather water, is meant to protect local inhabitants from dangerous outside forces, including unwelcome visitors and viruses.


The boat ride to remote Kaoh Peak village on the Sesan River

For outsiders, this guardian indicates that they are about to cross the boundary into an alien domain where nature spirits hold sway and ghosts roam the shady jungle trails.


The straw, crossbow-wielding guardian at the entrance to Kaoh Peak village

Unchallenged by the guardian or the villagers as our boat beached on the muddy bank, our travel party – which also included Khmer journalist Roth Meas, my wife Thandar Khine and the boatman we had hired in Veun Sai – disembarked and walked up the path from the river.

We were greeted at the edge of the village by Dek Torb, 58, a thin, shirtless man who described himself as the “village assistant”. We explained that we had come to see the famously unusual burial sites on the outskirts of Kaoh Peak, a proposal to which he easily agreed, but with one important condition.

“See the village first, then I’ll take you to the graveyard, then you must go back to your boat by a different path and leave,” he said. “Otherwise the spirits might follow you from the graveyard back to the village and cause trouble for us.”


Left to right: Our hired boatman, Kaoh Peak resident Dek Torb and Khmer journalist Roth Meas

Thandar Khine saw reason in this approach. Being ethnic Kachin from Myanmar, she had grown up among people who spread salt at the gates of their houses when they returned from funerals, to prevent evil spirits from following them from the cemetery.

“I think ghosts are bored in the forest,” she commented about Dek Torb’s request, seeing some humor in the prospect of being hassled by the dead. “They’ve probably got nothing better to do than follow living people around.”

Our tour of Kaoh Peak was brief. With a population of only 1120, the village was small and attractive, a collection of sturdy wooden houses resting in the shade of tropical trees.


Kaoh Peak village

Like most chunchiet (ethnic minorities) in Ratanakiri, the Kachok – who make up 2.7 percent of the province’s population – are animists. Un Sreng, the director of the Department of Culture and Fine Arts in the province, had described the general animist belief system when we visited him in the town of Ban Lung, from which we had started our journey that morning. 

“All the ethnic minorities in Ratanakiri province have similar beliefs. They pray to spirits called areak neaktar, and there are many kinds, such as spirits of houses, trees, water, farmland, villages and mountains,” he said.

“They also believe that spirits can save their lives when they are sick, so they make offerings to the spirits to cure themselves. But many also believe in science, so when they are sick they go to hospital, but they never stop praying to the spirits.”


Ethnic Kachok villagers in Kaoh Peak

He explained that in the past, many villages had allowed visitors to see their cemeteries, but some outsiders had been disrespectful, picking up objects meant as gifts for the spirits and even offering money to buy ritual pieces from the burial sites.

“When this happened, the ghosts gave the villagers bad dreams and made people sick, so now many villages have closed their burial sites to outsiders,” Un Sreng explained.

Kaoh Peak was one of the diminishing number of villages that still let visitors have a peek at their funeral rites.


Ethnic Kachok villagers in Kaoh Peak

Among the locals we met during our tour of the village were two elderly men sipping rice wine through bamboo straws. They invited us to join, each of us taking turns drinking the sharp liquid and snapping photos.

As we were getting ready to leave, a Khmer-language argument erupted between Roth Meas and the more inebriated of the two wine-sippers. We excused ourselves before he became too cantankerous, and as we walked away Roth Meas explained that the man had asked us to send copies of the photos we were taking.

“I said no. There are people who believe that ethnic villagers have the power to use magic to make you sick, so you shouldn’t promise them anything. You shouldn’t tell them you’ll send pictures when you won’t,” he said, then added, “And you shouldn’t do anything wrong in their village.”


Two guys enjoying some rice wine on a tropical morning

Since none of us were likely to visit Kaoh Peak again, refusal seemed the more honest, if immediately impolite, course of action. But it also created a quandary: be honest at the risk of raising the man’s ire and being cursed on the spot, or make a promise that wouldn’t be kept and be struck down later.

All of this was probably a moot point, presupposing belief in curses and evil spirits. And Un Sreng had tried to debunk the idea that chunchiet used magic to make people sick.

“I’ve never heard of ethnic people using magic powers to cause harm. I’ve read news stories about witches among Khmer people, but not among ethnic groups,” he said.

Whatever the case, it was clear that cross-cultural biases were in play here, with our Khmer friend fearing curses from ethnic minorities, and Un Sreng citing cases of witchcraft among the Khmer. Meanwhile, no explanation was forthcoming about what was meant by doing “wrong” in the village. We were effectively flying in the dark when it came to the social mores of the Kachok people, and could only hope we didn’t inadvertently do anything stupid or curse-worthy during our visit.

I turned these issues over in my mind as we beat a hasty retreat to the home of Dek Torb who, in the meantime, had located a beige T-shirt to wear and had readied himself to lead us into the jungle.

We followed him down a narrow pathway through the trees, our way occasionally blocked by chest-high bamboo fences with no gates, forcing us to scramble over. The purpose, he explained, was to prevent people from casually wandering into the graveyard.

After climbing over the third fence, we came to a sun-drenched clearing, in the center of which was the village’s most recent burial site – a brightly painted, cloth-draped wooden pavilion with a tin roof, the entire structure surrounded by offerings of jars, bowls, bundles of cotton and animal bones. It looked like a gaudy funeral boat sailing to the underworld through a sea of flotsam.


Kachok burial site

Fronting the tomb were two human figures carved out of wood – one boy and one girl – and at the back were two sets of wooden elephant tusks, symbolizing the two elephants that the human pair use for transportation.

Dek Torb explained that none of the offerings, including the statues, meant anything in particular other than being intended as gifts to the deceased, aimed at ensuring that the living no longer owed anything to the dead. In this way, the ghosts would be at rest and would not pester the living for unpaid debts.

“This particular site belongs to a 60-year-old man who died seven days ago,” Dek Torb said, adding that the man’s relatives had held a funeral for four days at their home, during which the body was cleaned and dressed in new clothes. Then the corpse was brought to the grave site and buried – without being cremated – in a casket with extra clothes, bowls, spoons and pots, the head facing east for rebirth in the next life.

The burial, he said, marked the beginning of another three days and two nights of mourning around the grave site, the term “mourning” being applied loosely.

“Once the funeral moves into the jungle, only the relatives are still crying. For everyone else, it’s a big party for listening to gong music, dancing, drinking and eating,” Dek Torb said. “At least one animal is sacrificed at each funeral, and all the parts are used: The meat is eaten, and the bones are left at the grave as an offering.”

All of this was giving me some great ideas for my next Halloween party. Meanwhile, Thandar Khine asked Dek Torb to pose in front of the death pavilion for a photograph, but he refused. Photos of him were OK, and photos of the tombs were OK, but the two together were not.


Wooden carving of a human figure near a Kachok burial site

We moved on, passing out of the sunlight and into the deeper shadows of the jungle, and soon arrived at another equally outlandish grave site, this one belonging to a 70-year-old man who had died three months before.

The party debris was more apparent here, and the ground was littered with empty cans of Klang Beer – apparently a great beverage for raucous send-offs to the afterlife. (It says so right on the can: “Klang Beer is a perfect drink for all kinds of celebration and it can be savored at any time of day.”)

The small details of this pavilion were also more whimsical than the first: A wooden airplane had been affixed to the roof, and the boy-girl statues – which Dek Torb called “human beings of ghosts” – sported very detailed sex organs, obviously carved with tender-loving care. The boy also had a wooden pistol strapped to his side. We later saw other figures wearing sunglasses or carrying mobile phones.

“The artisans who carve the statues like to add little jokes to their work,” Dek Torb said as I moved in for some close-up snapshots of the details.


Modest burial site for the child of a poor family

We continued walking through the trees, next passing a modest bamboo-and-thatch burial site. Although Dek Torb had been quite open about who had been buried at the other sites, at this one he was strangely silent and wouldn’t say anything about who was buried there. The plot didn’t look big enough to hold anyone other than a child.

Why the discrepancies in tomb design? Dek Torb explained that funerals are paid for by the family, with those who can afford the expense paying up to US$2000 to sacrifice multiple animals such as pigs, cows and buffalo, as well as to buy materials to build the pavilion, offerings for the site, and enough alcohol to keep the non-mourners happy.

“Poor people get funerals, but they usually last a shorter time. There’s no set length for funerals,” he said. “They also use cheaper material like thatch and bamboo.”

He added, “For the rich, funerals are similar for men and women. For the poor, men get better funerals. Women don’t get much.”

As we walked on, the burial areas became more frequent but also older. It was obvious that once the funeral is over, the graves are not maintained and are left to rot away in the harsh jungle elements. When they’re gone, they’re gone for good.


Older burial sites are untended and quickly reclaimed by the jungle.

We were in twilight jungle now. The sun, although directly overhead, seemed very far away. We stopped at the decayed pavilion of a woman, 40, who had passed away four years ago. A lush banana tree grew out of the center of her plot. Thandar Khine nudged me in the ribs and said she could “feel something” in the forest that she didn’t like.

Dek Torb chose this moment to start telling his own ghost stories, claiming that when he was 15 years old, a bad spirit had hassled him every time he walked down a particular path in his village. It would shake the bushes when he passed, and every time it happened he ran. But like a bad horror movie, he couldn’t escape. He started dreaming that the ghost was another villager, a man who wasn’t even dead yet. Dek Torb said he thought the ghost was trying to fool him so he would let his guard down.

And then? Well, the ghost eventually stopped bothering him, he said, but later another unforeseen force entered his life. He started talking about the history of Kaoh Peak village, that it was built in 1977 by the Khmer Rouge to consolidate the family clusters in the area, that he had met Pol Pot when Ratanakiri province was a Khmer Rouge stronghold, that he had eventually become a member of the Khmer Rouge himself.

I was listening to Dek Torb but also looking around and noticing that the undergrowth was thick with the rotting remnants of boy-girl couples, the crumbling wooden totems scattered through the jungle like signposts for the afterlife.


Rotting wooden totems from old burial sites are scattered through the jungle.

I started wandering around taking photos, so spellbound by the eeriness of my surroundings that I caught myself tramping through the undergrowth without a thought for more practical matters like snakes, landmines or unexploded ordnance. Not that I was certain such worries would be relevant (landmines in a cemetery?), but when I realized that I was far off the well-trod path, I gingerly made my way back to the others.

“I only learned to speak Khmer after Pol Pot started making us use it,” Dek Torb was saying. “All the people in the village speak Khmer too, but now many of them pretend they don’t understand it. We still use Kachok language to talk among ourselves.”

Pol Pot had also made the chunchiet stop using their old burial practices, but he didn’t destroy the existing graves. Once the civil war was over, Dek Torb said, the traditional burial practices were revived.

Only a few more minutes of walking and we were back in the sunlight, our path bypassing the village by following the riverbank back to the boat landing. There, among the bathing locals and under the watchful eye of the straw guardian on the hilltop, we said goodbye to Dek Torb. As we shoved off from the riverbank and drifted into the current, I noticed that he avoided walking straight back to the village, instead disappearing down a different trail that continued away from the cemetery.


Kachok villagers bathe and wash clothes at the Kaoh Peak boat landing.

We motored back down the river toward Veun Sai, stopping along the way at the village of Preung Lok, home to the Kruy ethnic group. We sat under a shady tree with some villagers who told us about their religious beliefs. Unlike Dek Torb, they said they didn’t believe in reincarnation.

“When people die, they are gone from the earth,” one man said. “There is no rebirth.”

When we asked how he thought humans were created, the man laughed and said, “We don’t know about those things. We’re only concerned about praying to local spirits.”

“Trees can have good or bad spirits. When there’s a bad spirit we cut the tree down and have a ceremony to banish the spirit. We make offerings to trees with good spirits and pray for protection for the village,” he said.

And what happens if a property developer comes and cuts down a good-spirit tree?

The man paused, thinking deeply, and then spoke slowly, his answer underscoring the seclusion of his village: “I don’t know what would happen. So far we haven’t had problems with developers or the government wanting to cut our trees.”

During this conversation, a strange thing happened. I took out my digital camera, the one I had been using all day, but it wouldn’t work. I could turn it on, but when I pressed the shutter release, the lens made a soft clicking sound but wouldn’t focus.

I thought about the angry rice wine drinker of Kaoh Peak village, and wondered if the supposed ability to make people sick extended to electronics. Or maybe my camera, which had been heavily used and abused in the three years since I bought it, just picked that moment to stop working. Or maybe it was just one of those things that happen when the living pass through the land of the dead.

Journey below the surface of the Earth

leave a comment »


Ethnic Pa-O cadets take a break from playing football to pose for photos near Hopong in southern Shan State.

To enter a cave is to abandon the easily recognisable waypoints that provide clues as to where in the world you are. There are no familiar hills or trees, no stars in the sky, no reassuring architecture with which to get your bearings.

It’s no coincidence that caves are commonly associated with otherworldly experiences. They are, in countless stories both ancient and modern, the realm of monsters, oracles and eccentric hermits.

Hten San Cave, located 42 kilometers (26 miles) east of Taunggyi in southern Shan State’s ethnic Pa-O country, is no exception.

According to local lore, the cavern was found by a 10-year-old novice named Shin Borida. For a long time he kept his discovery secret, using it as a place for meditation and sharing it only with the spirits who lived there.


The entrance to Hten San Cave

Eventually the monk asked these spirits whether he could open the cave to the public. The restless souls assented but on the stipulation that a ritual be held to aid in their relocation to another nearby cavern, where they would take up residence and where humans would be forbidden to enter.

The ceremony was held by Shin Borida and other monks, and ghost-free Hten San Cave was opened to the public on February 12, 2009, to mark Union Day. But it wasn’t until early 2013, when the nearby town of Hopong was removed from the government’s blacklist of areas off-limits to foreigners, that the cave was made accessible to international travelers.


Dragon sculpture near the entrance to Hten San Cave

I visited the cave earlier this month with my wife, driving from Taunggyi on a bumpy, madly twisting road through a landscape of sunburned hills and cave-riddled limestone outcroppings.

Upon arrival at Hten San, we were dumbfounded to find that the entry fee was a rapacious US$20 for foreigners, which the Pa-O ticket-taker agreed was too much. He acknowledged that the famous Pindaya Caves north of Aungban could be seen by foreigners for a mere $3, but he added that he dared not question the pricing scheme put in place by the cave’s board of trustees.

“At busy times Hten San Cave has only three or four foreign visitors a week, but sometimes we get only one foreigner in a month,” he told me. “I think more would come if the fee was lower.”

I asked if a souvenir stalactite was included in the price. He said no, but he offered to guide us through Hten San and afterward take us to another cave that had not yet been opened to the public. Two caves for the price of six: How could I resist?


Inside Hten San Cave

We plunged into the underworld. Hten San turned out to be much superior to Pindaya, the latter of which suffers because its natural beauty is concealed behind thousands of garishly painted Buddha images. At Hten San, several attractive shrines have been placed at strategic points, but the unembellished subterranean environment is also given plenty of space to simply exist for its own sake.


A Buddhist shrine inside Hten San Cave

Our guide explained that the entire cave system was about 6000 feet (1818 meters) long, but so far only about one-third of that has been made accessible. Originally, water flowed across the tunnel floor, but a dam was built to divert its course and gravel was put down to create a walking path for visitors. Some water still trickles through, and pilgrims believe that splashing it onto one’s skin will bring good luck.


A Buddhist pilgrim makes an offering at clay shrine deep inside Hten San Cave. (Photo by Thandar Khine)

We re-emerged into the sunlight and walked to the second cave. Along the way, our guide pointed out the barred and locked entrance to the forbidden third cave where the “spirits and souls” from Hten San now live. “It is very bad luck to enter and disturb the spirits,” he said.

Meanwhile, the second grotto, known as Meditation Cave, was even better than Hten San. There were no shrines, and we had it all to ourselves. We enjoyed the glittering rocks, narrow passageways and stalagmite forests, all shrouded in eerie silence.


Meditation Cave in all of its natural glory

Our guide said the trustees planned to maintain the cave in its natural state, aside from a small “swimming pool” under construction on a high ledge and intended for use by a resident angel named Nan Lu Hyawm, from whom the extraordinarily beautiful Pa-O women of the surrounding villages were thought to have descended.

“The girls work in the fields but still have fair skin and good body structure,” our guide said. “One village has seven or eight girls who are very tall and light-skinned like Koreans.”


The back entrance to Meditation Cave

As we returned to the surface, he admitted that although he was a devout Buddhist, he didn’t really believe most of the “supernatural” stories associated with the caves.

He did, however, fill us in on some history, describing how during World War II Japanese soldiers eluded the Allies by ducking into Hten San Cave and escaping through a back exit; how 30 years ago Meditation Cave was used by Pa-O dacoits to store the corpses of their murder victims; and how the area was riddled with “bottomless” sinkholes into which the aforementioned dacoits were thrown whenever they were captured by Pa-O villagers.

Hopong village, meanwhile, had been a flashpoint for vicious fighting between the Myanmar army and Pa-O rebels until peace deals were forged in the early 1990s.

The area is now at peace, and Shin Borida has a huge following among locals, many of whom emulate him in adhering to a strict vegetarian diet. He is even said to possess special powers, including the ability to read people’s thoughts and determine whether they harbour good or evil in their hearts. It’s said that one of his fingers grew back after being cut off.

When we visited Hten San Cave, a number of pilgrims awaiting the monk’s daily appearance were hanging out at a nearby pavilion where free vegetarian meals were served.

He didn’t show up at his usual time, so we drove to his hilltop monastery a few kilometers from the caves. On the way we passed a big house that Shin Borida’s devotees had built for his mother, and we stopped to photograph a group of pre-adolescent Pa-O cadets who were dressed in camouflage gear and playing football.

At the monastery we were told that the revered monk had just left for Hten San Cave – perhaps he had passed by while we were taking photos of the cadets.

Resigned to having missed out on meeting him, we took time to enjoy the sweeping view from the hilltop but declined an invitation to eat vegetarian food at the monastery. Our driver had told us about a place in Hopong famous for its fried chicken and rice, and we were keen to give it a try.

Had we met Shin Borida, and had he used his powers to probe my mind, he would have detected a small amount of consternation over the $20 entry fee, as well as profanely un-vegetarian thoughts of sinking my teeth into some mouth-watering Hopong fried chicken.

But mostly he would have sensed my contentment at having found my way into another extraordinary, formerly war-torn but now peaceful corner of Myanmar.


The view from Shin Borida’s hilltop monastery


A geography-based guide to selected books about Myanmar

with 2 comments


Katha in Sagaing Region, where George Orwell (Eric Blair) lived in 1926-7 and where he set his novel “Burmese Days” under the fictional name Kyauktada

Some of these books might inspire readers to travel to the destination depicted, while others might make you think twice before following the hellish path trod by others.

Southern Kachin State

American author Tim O’Brien once wrote that “a true war story is never moral … If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted … you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” Few will experience any sense of moral uplift from reading Brendan Koerner’s Now the Hell Will Start (2008), the harrowing but enthralling true story of Herman Perry, an African-American soldier assigned to help build the Ledo Road during World War II. Facing demoralizing, pestilential conditions in the jungles of Kachin State, and further unhinged by his epic-scale indulgence in opium and marijuana, Perry eventually snapped and shot dead a racist lieutenant, then fled into the wilderness where he found shelter in a Naga village. While Perry went native, even marrying the village chief’s daughter, the US Army launched its biggest manhunt of the war to bring the fugitive to justice. War is indeed hell. You can experience your own small bit of hell by trying to get an official travel permit for this difficult-to-access region.

Northern Kachin State

Well-known snake specialist Joe Slowinski has the unfortunate distinction of having died on September 11, 2001, and so news of his passing went largely unnoticed in the midst of events of greater global significance. Fortunately, writer Jamie James felt that Slowinski’s story was worth telling, which he does in fascinating detail in The Snake Charmer (2008). Slowinski met his end during an expedition north of Putao in Kachin State, the same territory explored by British plant hunter F. Kingdon-Ward in Burma’s Icy Mountains (1949). The description of Slowinski’s last 24 hours, in which he struggles to fight the effects of a venomous snake bite, will have readers gasping for breath. Of course this account should not stop anyone from trekking in the wild and beautiful Putao region – just be sure to decline if someone invites you to reach your hand into snake-filled bag.

Myeik Archipelago

Hear the word “pirate” and one thinks either of the Caribbean (thanks to the seemingly never-ending Disney/Johnny Depp movie franchise) or Somalia, where modern-day ship hijackers are doing their part to de-romanticize the concept of the loveable, heroic swashbuckler. But during the 15th century the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea were also hotbeds of pirate activity, with ship and cargo thieves often hiding out among the 800 islands of the Myeik Archipelago until they could escape from authorities. Siamese White (1936) by Maurice Collis brings this era back to life in a way that will prompt many readers to drop everything and book a boat trip in the islands. While you’re not likely to find any gold buried in sunken chests, the unspoiled sand, sea and sky will be treasure enough.

Inle Lake

Amy Tan earned her name as a writer through books that explore multi-generational family relationships, such as The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001). Her 2005 novel Saving Fish from Drowning, with its more adventure-oriented plotline and occasional attempts at humor, is somewhat less successful but it still makes for a decent casual read, especially for those interested in fictional depictions of modern-day Myanmar. The book tells the unlikely tale of a group of tourists who enter Myanmar from China, follow the Burma Road for awhile and end up at Inle Lake, where they are kidnapped by a group of ethnic guerrillas. Tan’s presentation is more whimsical than suspenseful, with the clueless tourists not even realizing they are being held hostage – they think the trek to the ethnic village is part of their package tour. In reality, of course, visitors to Inle have zero chance of being kidnapped, and the events in the novel are really no weirder than watching cats jump through hoops at the mid-lake Nga Phe Monastery.


British poet Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” (1892) is by far the most famous piece of English-language writing, fictional or otherwise, to have been inspired by Myanmar. It’s been posted in hotel bars, used on the websites of tour companies and cited ad infinitum in travel stories about the country. Once you get past Kipling’s religious and cultural biases, and the fact that it’s not possible to look “eastward to the sea” from anywhere in Moulmein/Mawlamyine (but you can look westward to the wide Thanlwin River), it really is a nice little poem, successfully evoking a romantic image of colonial-era Myanmar. It’s also a reminder that Mawlamyine in Mon State is well worth a visit: a quiet, leafy town bisected by a ridgeline topped with numerous pagodas, including Kyaikthanlan Paya, thought to have inspired Kipling’s poem.


Smile As They Bow (2008) by Nu Nu Yi is the first novel by a Myanmar writer to be translated into English and released by a major American publisher, and in 2007 it was shortlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize. The brief novel is set in Taungbyone, just north of Mandalay, during the nat (spirit) festival held every year around the full moon of the lunar month of Wagaung (August). Nu Nu Yi follows the story of aging transvestite medium Daisy Bond and an unfolding love triangle involving his assistant and a young beggar girl, but the star of the book is the festival itself, famous for its loud and boisterous atmosphere. The author’s lively descriptions pull the reader straight into the center of the action. Travelers who find themselves in the Mandalay area in August will want to check out the festival, guaranteed to offer an over-the-top sensory experience unlike any other in Myanmar.


No Myanmar-bound backpacker’s travel kit would be complete without a copy of George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days, but how many visitors actually make their way up to Sagaing Region’s Katha, where the novel is set? The name of the town in the novel has been changed to Kyauktada and the story is fictional, but the place is real and visitors will still recognize many of the landmarks that were in place when Orwell (real name Eric Blair) was stationed in the town in the 1920s as part of the British colonial police force. The tennis court is still there, as is the old British Club, among others. Visitors to Katha will quickly discover that the way to these buildings isn’t exactly called out with flashing neon signs, but aimless wandering in an unfamiliar town is one of the real pleasures of independent travel. And if you get lost, locals will be happy to unintentionally misdirect you until you stumble upon the sites on your own.

Mon State (Mudon)

Michio Takeyama’s Harp of Burma (1946), as well as director Kon Ichikawa’s brilliant film adaptation The Burmese Harp (1956), focuses on a group of Japanese soldiers sent to Myanmar to fight during World War II, but it’s less about war and more about the effort to retain some sense of humanity under inhuman conditions. Most of the story takes place after the soldiers are captured by the British and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Mudon, Mon State, where they boost their morale by singing, and also try to solve the mystery of the disappearance of one of their compatriots. Captured Japanese soldiers might have been more concerned with getting home after the war than admiring the scenery, but the area around Mudon is a fascinating landscape of forests, rubber tree plantations and streams flowing to the sea from the mountains. The town is located about halfway between Mawlamyine and Thanbyuzayat, the latter being the location of the western terminus of the Death Railway immortalized in the film Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Pyin Oo Lwin

In 1975 Paul Theroux published the book The Great Railway Bazaar, recounting his 25,000-mile journey by train from London to Southeast Asia, on to Japan, and back to London on the Trans-Siberian Express. Three decades later he repeated the trip and published his updated observations in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008). On both trips he visited Myanmar, the first time on a forbidden quest to ride across the Gokteik Viaduct in northern Shan State. Most interesting, however, is the comparison between Theroux’s overnight stay at Candacraig in Pyin Oo Lwin in the 1970s, and his return decades  later, by which time it had been renamed Thiri Myaing Hotel. The manager remembers every detail from the earlier visit, and tells Theroux that people still come from the US, Britain and Australia “holding your book, wanting to meet my father” – a vivid illustration of the power of good travel writing to get people out of their homes and exploring the world.

Eastern Shan State

Set in 1886, Daniel Mason’s novel The Piano Tuner (2002) tells the story of a Londoner named Edgar Drake who is hired to travel to Myanmar to repair the piano of a British army doctor stationed in eastern Shan State. The author’s evocative description of Drake’s journey through Myanmar – by ship to Yangon, up the Ayeyarwady River to Mandalay, eastward by horse through the mountains of Shan State to a village on the Salween River – has a dreamlike quality that combines historical realism with timeless romanticism. It’s the type of book that makes adventurous explorers yearn for the days before the invention of the package tour, when getting off the beaten track meant more than taking an air-conditioned bus down a slightly narrower road.

Monkeying around in Hlawga Wildlife Park

with 2 comments


Sunrise at Hlawga Reservoir north of Yangon

They were coming at us from all directions, a horde of little furry men trying to hitch a ride on the truck we had driven into the park. But then we took a closer look and saw that they weren’t men at all, but rather a large contingent of Hlawga Wildlife Park’s resident population of rhesus monkeys looking for food handouts.

We had bought some bananas at the park gate, and as we tossed them out of the truck, the monkeys trotted alongside, sometimes on two legs and sometimes on four, snatching the yellow fruit from the air and retreating into the forest to enjoy their free snack.


A rhesus monkey leaps for a snack at Hlawga Wildlife Park

After we had left the primate welcoming committee behind, we found ourselves driving on a narrow, winding, red-dirt road through a forest of leafy trees and dry ravines. Before long I started spotting deer among the trees – first alone, then in small groups, and finally in a herd gathered at a feeding area where they vied for food with another group of monkeys.

The animals were tame enough to not scatter when they saw humans but not so tame that I dared try to pet them. Some of the deer were sporting impressive racks of antlers (not to mention hooves) that looked like they would be capable of inflicting a fair amount of damage to anything they perceived as a threat, while the monkeys seemed to maintain a teeth-bared, don’t mess-with-me attitude toward the world at large.


Monkeys and deer vie for food

It was partly for the sake of these animals that the Hlawga Wildlife and Zoo Park was established in 1982 about 35 kilometres (22 miles) north of Yangon. Specifically, the fenced-in Wildlife Park portion was set aside to protect the trees and other plant life in the drainage basin of nearby Hlawga Reservoir (one of Yangon’s main water sources), establish a population of indigenous wildlife species in natural conditions, and provide a recreational area for locals and tourists.

Species that have been introduced to the park include deer (of the hog, barking and sambar varieties), rhesus monkeys, pythons, pangolins (a type of armoured anteater) and mythun (a type of wild cattle). The freshwater Zokanok Lake also provides habitat for a large number of migratory bird species.

Just outside the Wildlife Park is a mini-zoo that includes a Biodiversity Museum, Bird Museum and Environmental Education Center where preserved land animals, birds and butterflies are on display. There are also photographs of indigenous animal and plant species, pictures of threatened birds, and maps of bird migration routes and ecotourism sites in Myanmar. Among the living animals in the zoo are black bears, birds (such as Himalayan griffon vultures, greater spotted eagles and green peafowl) and elephants, the latter of which can be ridden by visitors on a quick five-minute jaunt.

Hlawga Reservoir lies beyond the park boundaries to the south. Like the smaller lake inside the park, it is an important stopover for waterfowl migrating long-distance through Southeast Asia. It is therefore a popular spot for birdwatchers from Yangon to congregate and look for avian species such as the pale-capped pigeon, Asian fairy bluebird, racket-tailed drongo, black-crested and black-headed bulbul, scarlet-backed flowerpecker and black-winged stilt. Trails around the reservoir that are used by villagers also provide recreation for hikers and mountain bikers. However, because the lake is a primary source of drinking water for Yangon, water recreation is generally prohibited.


Pagoda on the south shore of Hlawga Reservoir

Back inside the Wildlife Park, my travel companions and I stopped at Picnic Site 1 to explore on foot. Beyond the vendors who were selling food for both humans and animals was a walking trail that led to Zokanok Lake, where traditional huts can be rented for day use and viewing platforms provide unobstructed views across the water.

After watching a small group of white egrets glide through the air over the muddy lake, we followed the trail across a suspension bridge, which brought us to a boardwalk that skirted the shoreline. At the end of the wooden walkway we found another dirt trail that eventually brought us back to the main road at Picnic Site 2, where our driver was waiting with his truck to take us past more enclaves of monkeys, deer and the odd mythun. (Although we had our own truck and driver, those without transportation can avoid backtracking by taking advantage of scheduled shuttle buses that drop passengers off and pick them up at the four picnic sites in the park.)


Suspension walking bridge in the wildlife park

Picnic Site 3, with its lakefront tables and pavilions, was the most popular by far. Vendors sold traditional snacks and drinks such as pickled tea leaf salad and toddy wine, as well as more general fare like fried rice, whiskey and beer. All around were picnickers enjoying the late morning sun, while yet more crazy monkeys darted from the forest coveting anything they thought they could get their paws on. There was also a gaggle of geese that hung out onshore for awhile before taking to the water and swimming out to an island where I spotted a stork that was so big it had nearly achieved emu-like proportions.

Not far past the somewhat more serene Picnic Site 4 were two hippopotamuses that came trundling out of the water when their keeper called their names, Pauk Kyaw Ma and Thi Thi Maw (I was expecting names that were a bit more African). We dropped some watercress into their open mouths, climbed back into the truck and drove on.


Resident hippos Pauk Kyaw Ma and Thi Thi Maw

As we neared the exit gate, we witnessed yet another group of humanoids hooting, screeching and bursting with activity by the lakeshore. I started looking around for a vendor to purchase some more bananas for the crazy critters before I realised they were an altogether different kind of wildlife – an enclave of teenagers who were enjoying a Sunday in the park in their own loud and restless way.


Come back soon, ya’ll.

Holding the fort against pizza fundamentalism: Pa Pa Pizza review

with one comment

For many people in Yangon, 2012 will be remembered as the year of the Great Ham and Pineapple Pizza War.

Played out on internet forums, it was the ugliest of rows, with the open-minded, pro-pineapple protectors of gustatory enlightenment facing off against the dark, regressive forces of anti-pineapple food fundamentalism, who would limit pizza toppings to wooly mammoth meat and other old-school ingredients favored by civilizations long in decline.

Throughout this protracted war of words, Pa Pa Pizza — whose original outlet is located in block C of Pearl Condominium on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road — courageously stood firm in its resolve to continue offering a wide range of choices to consumers in Yangon, and the Hawaii pizza has remained on the menu to this day.

As I like to say, “I don’t agree with your toppings of choice, but I will defend to the death your right to eat them,” and during a lunchtime visit to Pa Pa’s location on Nawaday Street, no one in our party of four expressed the least interest in having pineapple on their pie.

We were more interested in the Sicilian pizza that, according to the menu, could be ordered by the slice, but our attempt to do so was flummoxed by the fact that no slices were actually available for purchase.

Instead, we ordered four pies: chicken (K8000), vegetarian (K7000), three cheese (K7500) and pepperoni (K9500).

It’s safe to say that Pa Pa’s is pretty much the best place to go in Yangon for reasonably priced pizza. Chicken isn’t my favorite topping, as it’s usually a bit too dry — and this one was no exception — but the vegetarian and three cheese pies were beyond reproach. Even better was the pepperoni pizza, with thick chunks of tasty meat the likes of which are rarely seen on pizzas even in the West.

The new venue could use some small improvements. The restaurant as actually located down a narrow laneway, and first-time visitors might have difficulty spotting the small, low-lying sign amid the visual clamor of Nawaday Street.

The interior decor is a bit spare, despite the artwork on the walls, and some low-volume music would also nice.

The drink selection is quite limited, consisting of not much more than canned soft drinks, bottled beer and the dreaded Berri Estates boxed wine. Gelato Sole is available, but we were too stuffed with pizza to consider dessert. (Note: four pizzas is way too much for four people.)

The service wasn’t too bad by local standards but still had its quirks. Upon entering we were greeted by four waiters, who all dashed back to the kitchen as soon as the first person in our group ordered a pizza. It would have been nice for at least one of them to stick around for a few seconds to see if anyone else in our party wanted to order something.

Pa Pa Pizza
9B/F1 Nawaday Street, Dagon township, Yangon.
Tel 09-42112-4373, 01-376-907

Food: 8
Drink: 6
Atmosphere: 7
Service: 7
X Factor: 8
Value for Money: 8
Score Box: 8/10

Essential commands for colonial Burma

leave a comment »

A while ago a local friend – disappointed that, after years of study, my Myanmar-language skills remained roughly equivalent to those of a Burmese cat – gave me a book entitled Burmese Self-Taught (In Burmese and Roman Characters) with Phonetic Pronunciation by RF St A St John, Hon MA (Oxon).

The book, as one might guess from the cumbersome title and author’s name, was the product of Edwardian-era England (it was published in 1911) and was intended as a primer for colonial administrators, civil servants and missionaries relocating from the temperate maritime climate of the United Kingdom to the monsoon tropics of Burma.

It’s a curious little tome.

For starters, Mr RF St A St John, Hon MA (Oxon) mentions in the preface that the “people of Burma” refer to their own language as “Myanma hbatha (the language of the Myanma)”, which might be news to those who are under the impression that the military junta invented the word “Myanmar” out of the blue in the 1990s.

The book also includes an excerpt from an article by Dr Francis E Clarke titled “A Glimpse of Burma” that originally appeared in Christian World magazine on February 3, 1910.

We learn from the good doctor that travellers to Rangoon will find the place teeming not with the “straight-featured, thin-limbed, agile Aryans” to be seen in Calcutta, but rather with “round-faced, jolly, plump Mongolians, with slant eyes and yellow skins, and the merriest of black, twinkling eyes”.

Visitors will also be exposed to the “gorgeous, glittering” Shwedagon Pagoda as well as “a multitude of other sights, odd, beautiful, bizarre”. However, they will find “no god in Rangoon, but only the placid, unwinking, half-smiling image of Gautama Buddha”.

With these introductory pleasantries out of the way, the aspiring colonial administrator can move on to the business of learning the language of his temporary home.

The book’s vocabulary section is organised in an odd way. Most language-learning systems these days begin with immediately useful words and phrases such as “hello” and “my name is …”, but Burmese Self-Taught is downright Biblical in its arrangement.

It follows a plan roughly akin to the six-day creation in Genesis, beginning with words related to “the world and its elements”, followed by “land and water”; “animals, birds and fishes”; “town, country and agriculture” and “the human body”.

We then get into words essential for everyday human existence, such as those related to (in the following order) eating, drinking, smoking, working, travelling, prosecuting criminals, bringing military force to bear against the enemy, praying and arranging funerals.

Even more practical is the subsequent section on “useful and necessary idiomatic expressions”. It is here that the student finally learns to enunciate basic words like “yes”, “no” and “thank you” (the latter, the author notes, is “seldom used” in Burma).

Let’s see what other phrases the author reckoned might constitute essential learning for Burma’s colonial taskmasters-to-be (with accompanying pronunciation guide):

Make haste! (ah-lyin pyoo-bah)

Come here! (dee-goh lah-geh)

Come back! (pyahn lah-geh)

Be silent! (tayt-tayt nay)

Get up! (htah-lik, htah-bah)

Are you not ashamed? (mah shet-hpoo:-lah)

You are to blame (ah-pyit-tinzah-yah kowng:-thee)

Of course these are all useful phrases for putting uppity natives in their place, but Burmese Self-Taught goes far beyond everyday practicalities by supplying helpful expressions for just about every imaginable contingency.

Faced with a confounding case of androgyny? Just ask, “Is it a man or a woman?” (yowkyah: lah: mayn:-mah lah)

Waking up from a coma following a tumble from your bullock cart? Query the doctor thus: “What month is it?” (thee lah beh lah leh)

The book ends with a “specimen of Burmese handwriting”, which upon closer inspection is actually a rendering of the Lord’s Prayer. In the event that readers might want to recite the prayer aloud in the local language, the “specimen” is followed by a transliteration of the Burmese words with English translation.

At first I couldn’t fathom why the Lord’s Prayer would be included here. Of course the benevolent colonialists would never have dreamed of imposing their own culture and religion on the Burman populace. I finally realised it must have been intended as a readymade party trick.

Imagine one evening at the Pegu Club, circa 1912, as Colonel Archibald James Twizzlehurst observe, “I say, old Jonesy has loaded himself with eight gin and tonics, and his face is red as a toe-maah-toe. I reckon the old chap is girding himself to deliver a rousing rendition of the Lord’s Prayer in Burmese!”

Then, consulting his dog-eared copy of Burmese Self-Taught, Col Twizzlehurst shouts at the round-faced, jolly, plump Mongolian barman, “Byahndee-ah-yet tah-hkwet pay:-bah! Ah-lyin pyoo-bah!” (Give me a glass of brandy! Make haste!)

Muttering quietly to himself, he adds, “Never go anywhere without my St John. Jolly good book. Jolly good.”

Written by latefornowhere

March 3, 2014 at 3:22 pm