Late for Nowhere

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

Archive for November 2014

Catholics celebrate 500 years in Myanmar

leave a comment »


The view of the Catholic Church’s 500th Jubilee from my office window.

Saint Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Yangon held a festival from November 21 to 23 to mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Catholicism in Myanmar. The cathedral’s location directly across the street from my office ensured that I did not miss a single word of the sermons, or a single note of the liturgical music, that were broadcast throughout each day at a volume of about 8,000 decibels from the church’s robust PA system.


St. Mary’s Cathedral.

According to the website of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar, evidence of Christianity in the region can be found in frescoes in ancient city of Bagan dating back to 1287AD.

But the “official” arrival of Catholicism is pegged at the year 1510: “After the discovery of the route to India by Vasco da Gama in 1497, Portuguese missionaries set out for the Far East as chaplains to Portuguese soldiers, sailors and settlers,” the website says. “The rich land of Burma attracted these Portuguese traders and by 1510, after having founded Goa as the seaport to the East, they came to Mergui, Tavoy, Syriam and Akyab befriending the King of Pegu.”


Women in traditional Kachin dress.

This means that the 500th jubilee should have occurred in 2010, but the Catholic Church was not able to hold celebrations at that time due to restrictions on religious freedom imposed by the previous military government. The slight political liberalization that has occurred since then has been accompanied by a loosening of constraints on religious worship, so the celebration was finally able to occur four years late.

Christians make up about 4 percent, and Catholics 1 percent, of Myanmar’s population of 51 million. A huge proportion of the people at the festival appeared to be ethnic Kachin, many of them travelling from the far corners of the country to attend the event. Yes, people of all faiths take their religion very seriously in Myanmar.


Vendors at the festival.



Written by latefornowhere

November 24, 2014 at 9:11 am

Spirit walls, rice wine and legends of war

leave a comment »


On the way to Sankar in Shan State.

For anyone who has an extra day to spare while visiting Inle Lake in Shan State, one great excursion is the long boat ride south from the main lake to the Pa-O and Shan village of Sankar. During the early part of the journey, the boat leaves the lake behind and enters a network of narrow canals winding through a landscape of rice paddies, passing within arm’s reach of fishermen catching shrimp in nets and eels in wicker traps.

The canals eventually spill into a wider waterway, flanked on either side by bamboo forests and agricultural land. One sight of interest is the sprawling Sie Sone Monastery, where during the latter stages of World War II locals stashed guns provided by US and British forces, and shot any retreating Japanese soldiers who dared come too close.


Heading south from Inle Lake.

Farther south, boats enter an idyllic valley of cornfields, white egrets and stone farmhouses equipped with waterwheels before finally arriving at Sankar Pagoda, where trees and other plants run riot over the collection of small brick stupas.


Sankar Pagoda.


Old monastery in Sankar.


Pagoda and guardian.

Locals say that 500 years ago, Sankar was an important center of Shan culture, with a palace, white elephant compound, plentiful pagodas and nine monasteries, all but one of the latter now in ruin. A school now sits where the Shan palace was once located, and across the road is a pagoda fronted by two frangipani trees, called sankar in the Pa-O language. Legend says that a Shan prince once carved a Buddha image from one of the tree branches and enshrined it in the pagoda, thus giving the town its name.


Pagoda fronted by frangipani trees, from which the village gets its name.

Visitors to the village can spend time exploring the old monasteries, wandering among the village’s stone houses, visiting the market and mingling with the Pa-O residents. Most of the women still wear attractive traditional dress on a daily basis – indigo blouses reaching down to mid-thigh, with matching longyis underneath, the dark fabric offset with brightly colored, turban-style headdresses.


Kids in Sankar.


Pa-O woman and her frightened child.


After leaving the village, the boat pilot and guide take visitors through an area that long ago consisted of rice fields but is now a shallow lake thanks to a dam built in the early 1960s. There is a stilted Pa-O village here, and in one area old pagodas that were originally built on dry land now rise out of the water.


Waterlogged stupas.

The southernmost point of the journey is an ancient wall that spans the artificial lake, said by some to have been built by nats (spirits) in a single night to impress their girlfriends. The more plausible explanation is that it was an irrigation aqueduct built centuries ago by Shan farmers.


The nat (spirit) wall.


The nat wall bisects a shallow reservoir.

The return trip includes stops at several riverside religious sites, including the breezy hilltop pagoda of Sankar Thayangone. Not far away is a small distillery where visitors can sample shots of fiery rice wine before embarking on the relaxing ride back upriver for further adventures at Inle Lake.


Serving homemade rice wine.

During my return trip from Sankar, I noticed a cave high up on a cliff on the far side of a paddy field. I asked my Pa-O guide about it, and he said that according to local lore, Japanese troops had hid there during their retreat from Burma to elude Allied air patrols. It was also said that the Japanese had left a huge cache of weapons and other supplies at the back of cave, which they had booby-trapped with grenades and which had never been recovered.

I asked my guide if it was possible for us to climb up to the cave entrance. He looked at me and admitted that he had always wanted to explore the opening but had never had an excuse.

We stopped at a monastery to borrow a couple of flashlights, and two men there asked if they could also come along. By the time we made it to the base of the cliff, we had picked up two more locals who had been walking near the paddy field and asked where we were going.


Our party of impromptu cave explorers.

The climb up to the cave was steep and required our hands as well as our feet, but it wasn’t too tricky. The cave itself was another story: Our flashlights were weak, and away from the entrance the floor became slippery with bat guano. There were also a few drop-offs into voids whose bottoms we couldn’t see.


Inside the cave.

Needless to say, we didn’t go back far enough to find the mythical Japanese weapons cache – that’s a job best left to spelunkers with ropes, strong headlamps and a willingness to fiddle around with 70-year-old explosives.


Farmers near Sankar.


Toll collector on the way back to Inle Lake.


No sweat: Hot-weather hiking in Kyaukme

leave a comment »


The view from the monastery in Nwe Sa village, Shan State.

It was mid-April, the hottest time of the year in Myanmar, and our trekking guide Sein Tun wasn’t drinking any water. While my wife Thandar Khine and I each dispatched several 1-liter bottles of life-sustaining H2O throughout the course of our single-day, 23-kilometer (14-mile) walk through the hills of northern Shan State, Sein Tun subsisted on small sips of hot green tea served at the monasteries and village houses we visited along the way.

When I asked about this strange (and to my mind potentially dangerous) approach to hydration, Sein Tun pointed to the perspiration-drenched T-shirt that was clinging to my torso.

“When you drink, you sweat,” he said. Pinching his own shirt between his thumb and forefinger, he added, “See? Very dry.”

I had always assumed that sweating on a hot day was a good thing, part of the body’s natural cooling system aimed at preventing such inconveniences as death by heat stroke. All the same, I wasn’t about to lecture Sein Tun on Western water-ingestion customs, however scientifically sound: He had been a trekking guide for 10 years, and his green-tea system seemed to be working just fine for him.

Sein Tun met us at our hotel in the town of Kyaukme at 7am, and we walked a few blocks through the already wide-awake town to board a dilapidated Chinese bus that was jam-packed with Shan and Palaung locals.

“It’s not usually this crowded, but there are only two buses that drive this route and the other one crashed last week,” Sein Tun informed us less-than-reassuringly as we rattled away from the stop.

The bus managed to hold itself together, and after 20 minutes our trekking trio disembarked from the wreck-on-wheels along a quiet stretch of road between villages. Sein Tun led us to the start of a trail that we never would have found without his help. We shouldered our packs, stepped off the pavement and plunged into the countryside.

Our walk began with a 6.5km stretch to the Palaung village of Nwe Sa, most of it uphill, some of it hellishly so. Knowing we had a long day ahead, we walked slowly and (Sein Tun excepted) drank plenty of water.


Sparse forestland in Palaung territory.

The first couple of kilometers consisted of shade-free farmland worked by the Shan, but then we entered Palaung territory where villagers grew black tea in the spaces between tall, leafy trees. As we gained elevation, we enjoyed decent views across a cultivated valley backed by a haze-obscured range of hills in the distance. Irrigation kept the rice growing for the summer harvest, aided by early rains that Sein Tun said had come the previous week.


Sein Tun and Thandar Khine at the entrance to Nwe Sa village.

Our first stop in Nwe Sa was a monastery with a dozen monks in residence. We sat with the head monk eating bananas and green tea, while demons and tortured souls peered at us from the paintings of Buddhist hell that had been hung high on the walls around the perimeter of the main hall.


Hillside monastery in Nwe Sa.


Hell awaits.

We then explored the neat, well-tended town of about 100 houses and 600 residents, where tea cultivation was the main industry. Nearly everyone was out working in the fields, but there were a few kids and elderly residents around. For the best view, we climbed a hill that had been consecrated as the site for a yet-to-be-built pagoda. An adjacent, slightly lower hill was home to a nat (spirit) shrine where offerings were made to ensure a fruitful harvest.


Nat shrine in Nwe Sa.

We ended our tour at a wooden house raised off the ground on stilts in the traditional Palaung style. The longhouses for which the Palaung were once famous – large enough for 10 or more families – are now rarely seen, but the smaller varieties seen today are usually spacious enough to accommodate an extended family or two.

The house where we stopped was inhabited by a passel of curious but well-behaved children, presided over by their mother who prepared noodles for lunch. We rested there for quite a long time – long enough that our host brought out blankets and pillows so we could nap if we so desired. We politely declined over fears that we might fall into a deep, dreamless sleep from which we would not awaken until the next day.


The elderly and the young in Nwe Sa.


Our lunchtime host in Nwe Sa.

Indeed, the loop we were hiking is more sensibly done over the course of two days, with the added bonus of spending the night in a Palaung village. But we had asked for a single-day trek that was physically challenging, so around 12:30pm we stepped back into the blazing sun and continued on our way.


Harvesting summer paddy.

We headed downhill and into open farmland and, throughout the afternoon, dropped by a series of houses to rest, eat snacks and of course drink hot tea. We walked across a picturesque valley where golden summer paddy was being harvested, and then climbed up into a forest of young teak trees. We stopped at a small monastery where an 85-year-old monk lived alone. Religious and astrological tattoos decorated his arms, shoulders and shaven head. His sole companions were a trio of kittens that slept in a plastic bucket next to his bed.


A solitary life.

From the monastery we walked down a long flight of stone stairs to a pond that Sein Tun said blossomed with lotus flowers during the wet season. In April it was barely more than a mud pit, but the scene still managed to retain an aura of Edenic tranquility compliments of a stately banyan tree that shaded a pond-side shrine installed with a Chinese-style laughing Buddha.


The stone stairway down to the pond.

We took another long rest here before the final push back to Kyaukme, which we all reached alive and well despite our contrasting approaches to liquid replenishment.

The next day my wife and I hopped on local transport to Hsipaw, located 35km northeast of Kyaukme. The town is another good starting point for treks to Palaung villages, but with our feet still aching from the previous day, we opted for an activity that promised greater opportunities for staying cool: a boat ride on the Dokhtawaddy River.

We met our boatman at the river on the eastern edge of town and embarked on an hour-long ride in his long-tail boat. There was plenty to see as we chugged our way upriver, including flying and floating waterfowl, a few villages and a cliff-side monastery overlooking the water. The trip was relaxing but not entirely effort-free: The passengers had to contribute a bit of casual bailing to ensure that the porous craft did not flounder and sink to the bottom of the river.


Bailing water from the leaky boat.

Our destination was the confluence of the river and a secondary stream, a turbulent juncture where water rushed among big rocks worn smooth by erosion. There were several calm pools that were deep enough for safe jumping, even during the dry season. We spent several hours there, diving, swimming, floating and sunning ourselves on the rocks.


Docked near the confluence.


Our swimming hole.

When we wanted to explore further, we stopped struggling against the current and let it carry us to the other side of the river. We then walked upstream along the rocky bank and jumped into the water, allowing the flow to take us back to the confluence, where our pilot waited with his leaky boat for the return trip to Hsipaw.


A boatload of locals arrives at the confluence.

Written by latefornowhere

November 20, 2014 at 9:00 am

11 Hills Challenge Bicycle Race: My Ride

with 4 comments


One of the climbs on the 11 Hills Challenge course. Photo: Lisa O’Donnell

With the first round of a new six-part, yearlong road bike and mountain bike race series coming up this weekend in Myanmar, I guess it’s long past time that I posted my thoughts on the 11 Hills Challenge Bicycle Race, organized by Bike World bike shop in Yangon and held on October 12.

A note on the course: The “11 hills” moniker makes the event sound a bit intimidating, but it’s even tougher than that; the hill count is one-way, so with the race being contested on an out-and-back course, there are actually 22 climbs in the space of less than 40km (25 miles). Some are short enough to fly up using momentum from the previous downhill section, but others are quite long and grueling. The worst of them start out steep and only get harder toward the top. On a positive note, the first (and last) couple of kilometers of the course are flat, providing a good warm-up at the beginning and a fast run-in to the finish.

The road is paved, but the event was open to both road and mountain bikes, with prizes given in the following categories:

Men Road:

Under 25



 Men Mountain Bike:

Under 25



Women Road:

Under 40


Women Mountain Bike:

Under 40


Registration. Photo: Lisa O’Donnell

I opted to ride the mountain bike category, since I was too fat and unfit to pedal up the hardest of the hills in even the lowest gear on my road bike. A total of 54 cyclists showed up for the challenge, most of them Myanmar nationals but including about a dozen foreigners. Seven women participated: one local and six foreigners. Fourteen riders were registered in my category, Men Mountain Bike 40+.


Pinning race numbers. Photo: Lisa O’Donnell

Given my general lack of race fitness, which included severely limited endurance (my longest rides in the weeks leading up to the event were about one hour long), my strategy was to tuck into the slipstream of the faster riders on the flat bit at the beginning, and then settle into my own pace once we hit the hills. An important part of this approach included resisting the temptation to look over my shoulder so I wouldn’t feel pressured to “race” against those close behind me. My goal was getting over the early hills at a pace that was reasonably quick but would not put me in the red zone: I needed to retain enough energy to keep pedaling once I passed my one-hour endurance mark, even though I knew I would have to back off the pace at that point to survive to the finish.


A Buddhist monk acts as starter for the race. Photo: Lisa O’Donnell


That’s me in the blue helmet, already looking spent four pedal-strokes into the ride. Photo: Lisa O’Donnell

The day was fairly hot, so I made a point of drinking frequently from my water bottles. About halfway through, I started praying for a dousing of cool, unseasonal rainfall – which never came – and toward the end I passed through the familiar dark night of the soul that I always experience during events like this, where I ask myself why I am out suffering on a bicycle rather than sitting at home playing Halo 4 on my Xbox, with a big bowl of Cool Ranch Doritos to my right and a frosty pint of beer to my left. (There is no logical answer to that question.)


The hills begin … Photo: Lisa O’Donnell


… and keep coming. Photo: Lisa O’Donnell

It also became clear that I had made the correct decision in choosing my mountain bike, with its triple chain ring and super-low gearing, as I passed a number of Myanmar cyclists who were clearly stronger and fitter than me but who were massively over-geared to the point where they had to dismount and push their road bikes up some of the hills. One of these suffering roadies flagged me down as I approached: He had run out of water, and I gave him half of what I had left. I had to keep the rest for myself because by that point the sun was high and I still had three or four inclines to struggle over before the finish line.


There’s me again in the blue helmet. Photo: Lisa O’Donnell

At long last, with my endurance seriously flagging, I finally crested the last hill, and it was only then, on the last descent and during the flat section back to the start/finish, that I started looking back to make sure no one passed me in the final kilometers. I rode across the line with a Myanmar cyclist who seemed just about as exhausted as I felt.

In the end, the fastest road cyclist was Hla Win, with a time of 1 hour, 25 minutes. The fastest mountain biker was Kyaw Gyi (1:35), and the winner of my category was Ko Naing (1:39). The fastest woman was Deb Gillespie (1:50). I came in at 1 hour, 47 minutes, placing 4th out of 14 in my category, and finishing 15th overall out of the 54 participants.


Some of the faster riders close in on the finish line. Photo: Lisa O’Donnell


Me and another rider coming up to the finish. Photo: Lisa O’Donnell

The winding road through the 11 Hills. Photo: Lisa O’Donnell

Written by latefornowhere

November 19, 2014 at 9:09 am

Canopy walking at the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM)

leave a comment »

Blog.01 (FRIM)

The canopy walk at FRIM viewed from ground level.

During a recent weeklong visit to Kuala Lumpur, I decided to get away from the noise and traffic for a day and visit the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) 16 kilometers northwest of the city.

Established in 1929 on a site described at the time as “little more than abandoned tin mine pits, vegetable gardens and shrubby forests,” the forest was nurtured back to life by foresters and scientists who studied plant growth and forest ecology as the trees matured.

FRIM is not only a world-renowned research site, but also a recreation area where visitors can appreciate the scenic beauty of the shady forests and hilly terrain. The main attraction is the canopy walkway, reached via a 30-minute uphill trek from the visitor center. The hike through the humid jungle is a sweaty affair, but this is a small price to pay for spending a few hours away from the wide world of pavement and concrete.

I reached the canopy walkway just behind a group of about 30 students, several of whom took one look at the narrow path swaying through the trees and decided they would rather stay on the ground. I could understand their hesitation: The vertiginous walkway is 150 meters long and is suspended between trees about 30 meters above ground level. I’m not too fond of heights either, but I swallowed my fear and walked the walk.

It was, of course, a worthwhile venture, offering panoramic views of the forest from above, plus glimpses of KL in the distance. Fear has a way of heightening our senses, which are dulled by the constant din of modern life and the brain-deadening habit of staring at computer and smartphone screens all day long. Walking above the forest was almost like meditation: For 15 minutes I was hyper-aware of my every step, my every hand movement, my every breath. The entire walk – the sights, sounds, smells – is imprinted in my mind more vividly than it could have been captured by a video camera.

The canopy walkway is open to the public from 9:30am to 2:30pm, with the last registration at 1:30 pm. It is closed on Mondays and Fridays, and it also closes during rainy weather, reopening two hours after the precipitation ends. Tickets must be purchased at the FRIM One Stop Centre before embarking on the hike to the walkway, which takes about two hours roundtrip. The cost is RM10 for non-Malaysian adults, RM5 for Malaysian adults, and RM1 for  children 12 years and below.

Day trips to FRIM are offered by many tour companies in KL. Independent travelers can take the KTM Komuter to Kepong and then a short taxi ride to the park.

Written by latefornowhere

November 4, 2014 at 3:15 am