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Archive for December 2014

The roots of Mount Popa

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The word “popa” is widely believed to be derived from the Pali word for flower, and even the folklore surrounding the mountain acknowledges its fame as a place where many blossoms grow: One story that continues to resonate with spirit worshippers to this day involved a servant who was sent each day by King Anawrahta of Bagan to collect flowers from the forests growing on the volcanic slopes. These forests also support an incredible array of plants that are believed to have medicinal properties. Local villagers collect some of them for direct use, while others are harvested to be made into pills and tablets for commercial sale. Some medicinal roots are even sold by vendors at the base of the stairway leading to the top of nearby Taung Kalat. In any case, officials at Popa Mountain Park distribute only a limited number of permits for plant collection, and 30 rangers patrol the park to keep an eye out for poachers not only of medicinal plants, but also of orchids and firewood.



While it is possible to spot some of these medicinal plants while hiking with a local guide, the best way to understand the sheer diversity is to visit the Popa Mountain Park Forest Department’s Environmental Education Center, which opened in 1993 and is located only 2.5km from Popa Mountain Resort.

Inside the centre are displays of dried, pressed and framed plants, as well as many of the butterflies and birds that populate the park. Outside, the Forest Department maintains a sizable Medicinal Plantation with demonstration plots that are signed for easy identification. Knowledgeable park officials – such as the impressively erudite Khin Myo Htwe, who has participated in exchange programs with botany specialists in Japan and South Korea – clue visitors into the properties of each species of plant, and how to prepare it for maximum effect.




Suffering from lucomederma (white spots on the epidermis)? Pluck a Plumba ginaceae plant from the ground, grind its roots into powder, mix it with the water used to wash rice, and apply the paste to the skin. Flatulence and hypertension got you down? Crush some Tinospora cordifolia into powder and mix it with honey. Gentiana kurroo root for toothaches, powdered Withania somnifera bark mixed with alcohol for menstrual cramps, sap from Tradescentia spathacea leaves for burns and scalds, lime-scented Glycosmic pentaphylla for soothing muscle pain: The list goes on and on.


Another attraction near the resort – just 3km away, and often reached by foot or horseback down a narrow dirt road – is an unusual sandalwood forest. According to Khin Myo Htwe, sandalwood trees are not native to Myanmar, but in 1957 a retired forester brought seeds from India and planted them in the Popa region.

“The trees require 20 years to mature, and unfortunately as soon as the grove reached the two-decade mark, poachers moved in and cut down all the trees,” she explained. The trees were targeted for harvesting and sale because of their many applications: the pith is use for medicine for runny noses and itchy skin, while the large roots systems (which penetrate 50 feet into the ground) are carved into Buddha images for homes and pagodas. Women also use sandalwood as a skin conditioner and perfume, and wood is also quite well known as a form of incense.

But the poaching incident did not mean the end of sandalwood in Myanmar. Miraculously, birds carried leftover seeds from the decimated trees to a nearby area, and around 20 years later another sandalwood grove took root on the slopes of Mount Popa. This is the forest that can be seen today, and its 60 acres are protected inside a walled compound, which is also home to two sambar deer and four golden deer that are allowed to roam free. The golden deer had to be reintroduced from other regions; native to Popa, they had previously been hunted into extinction in the area.

Khin Myo Htwe said that according to a December 2010 census, there are 574 sandalwood trees in the compound. She added, “Because sandalwood is not native to Myanmar, but because the seeds that created this particular grove were carried here by birds, it’s sort of an ‘unnaturally’ natural forest.”

Naturally occurring or not, the trees are thriving in the climate of Mount Popa, and the forest is popular side trip for visitors.


Popa Mountain Resort has also taken advantage of the local climate by establishing its own garden, which, since it was planted in 2009, has supplied most of the fruits and vegetables used in the resort’s restaurant. Hotel operations manager Myint Lwin explained that the area where the garden is located was once full of thick undergrowth and was initially cleared to keep snakes away from the guest rooms.

“But the soil and weather at Popa are particularly good for plant growth, so we had the idea to make a garden in the cleared area,” he said. “In the past we bought our fruits and vegetables from Popa village at the foot of the mountain, but with our garden we now grow most of what we need for the restaurant. We still buy some produce we don’t grow, and we also need to buy extra produce when there are many people visiting the restaurant. But during the low season when we don’t have as many guests, we even sell some of our produce to the village.”


The list of fruits and vegetables grown at the resort is impressive: cauliflower, capsicum, celery leaf, chili, coriander, citron, eggplant, kalian, lemongrass, lime, lemon, mint, green mustard, pennywort, radish, roselle, tomato, jackfruit, papaya, strawberry, banana, lettuce, broccoli and Thai ginger.

The staff also grow both white and red dragon fruit (the latter variety is more tasty and more expensive), with each plant bearing fruit five to nine times a year. When the dragon fruit nears ripeness, it must be covered with plastic to protect it from thieving squirrels (guava gets the same treatment). Rainy season, according to Myint Lwin, is best for growing fruit, while the dry, cool season favours vegetables and flowers.

“We strive to grow our produce as organically as possible. The soil is so rich that we don’t need to add chemical fertiliser unless absolutely necessary, and even then we use only a very minimal amount,” he said. Indeed, the nutrient-rich dirt literally clings to the shoes of anyone who walks around the garden, and when it’s damp, more than a little scraping is required to remove it from the treads of footwear. Because of this, Myint Lwin said the resort plans to establish paved footpaths between the planted plots for the convenience of guests who want to see where the restaurant’s fruits and vegetables are grown.


It’s fascinating to compare the growth of fruits and vegetables on the mountain to the farming traditions on the plains below. Between Popa and Bagan, in Kyaukpadaung township, many locals earn their living farming crops that are more suitable to dry soil, including maize, peanuts, sesame and other beans. Many of these same farms also have their own palm trees, from which sap, or toddy, is harvested by brave individuals who scale rickety bamboo ladders to collect sap-filled ceramic pots. The sweet toddy can be consumed directly, or it can be converted into a bitter juice popular with locals. It is also made into sweet jaggery candy, and some is set aside for fermentation to brew alcoholic toddy wine.

One farm located about halfway between Mount Popa and Bagan has about 80 palm trees, which are harvested twice a day by U Pho Thein. For him, this means an incredible 160 death-defying trips up and down the ladders every day.


While U Pho Thein demonstrated his work by effortlessly scrambling to the top of an 18m palm tree, another farmer, U Chit Oo Maung, explained the process: “The sap is collected twice a day, from 5am to 10am, and again from 2:30pm to 7pm. The harvesting season is from January until the end of September.”

The climber ascends the tree carrying minimal equipment: a knife in a wooden scabbard tucked into his waistband, and two or three small, empty ceramic pots dangling from rope also tied around his waist. When he reaches the top he removes the toddy-filled pots that had been put in place during the previous ascent, and replaces them with the empty pots.

He then uses the knife to slice about 1 inch from a part of the male trees called the htan-nou (toddy udder), a stem enclosing the palm tree’s flower cluster from which the sap drips when freshly cut. Each stem can produce toddy for about three months before being depleted, with the daily yield decreasing over time. A new stem will fill one pot in about 10 hours, while older stems will only partly fill the pot during that time.

The sap is sweet when initially collected and can be consumed in that state. Popular with locals is bitter toddy, which is made by mixing sticky rice power with the sweet sap and then allowing it to sit for one day. Although this drink is non-alcoholic, it is sometimes amusingly referred to as “sky beer”. The truly alcoholic variety is brewed by boiling jaggery candy and water in a pot, mixing in sticky rice powder, allowing the concoction to ferment for two days, and then dripping the liquid into glass bottles.


To make jaggery candy, fresh sweet juice is boiled in a large pan over an open wood fire until it becomes a thick paste. After it cools it is rolled into balls and allowed to dry in the sun. According to U Chit Oo Maung, a farm with 80 trees can produce about 25kg of jaggery each day, and this is usually purchased by brokers who then resell it to hotels, restaurants and other shops.

“But we don’t made much money from jaggery, even though it requires a lot of work to collect the sap and produce the candy,” he said. “That’s why a lot of palm tree climbers would rather find work doing other jobs in cities or even overseas, where they can earn more money.”

The palm trees of the Kyaukpadaung region can be used for much more than collecting toddy, and in fact no part of the tree goes to waste. The fruit of the female tree can be eaten directly, and the juice can be mixed with rice to make a custard-like snack called htan thee moun. The husks of the ripe fruit are usually fed to cows and oxen. The large fronds from the trees are used as roofing material for houses, and the tough frond stalks can be made into everything from baskets and hats, to furniture and yokes for oxen.

The tree trunks, meanwhile, are made into posts for houses, as well as tables and chairs, and the lower portions are even carved out to create big flower pots. The roots are used for firewood, and some portions of the root can even be roasted and eaten. The tree’s seeds are pressed to produce an oil that is used to make soap.

The list goes on, and as long as the diverse plants of Mount Popa and the Bagan region continue to thrive, the locals will be able to benefit from their bounty.

Trishaw gastronomy: A Mandalay teashop foodies tour

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Mandalay’s Nan Shae Market is ground zero for casual snacking.

Before embarking on the half-day Mandalay Teashop Foodies Tour offered by Grasshopper Adventures, my wife and I pondered whether to eat a bit of breakfast at our hotel.

Despite the insistent grumbling in our bellies, we opted against the idea. That decision gave us enough extra time to walk to the tour company’s office on Mya Sandar Lane, where the trip was scheduled to start at 8am.

While most excursions offered by Grasshopper Adventures require clients to utilize their own energy to pedal a bicycle, the foodies tour is conducted via hired trishaw, allowing travelers to relax and enjoy the scenery while someone else supplies the locomotive labor.

As it turned out, skipping breakfast was a smart idea. Nestled in the cozy passenger seats of our respective three-wheeled chariots, we were soon trundling along the shady byways and busy thoroughfares of eastern Mandalay, gobbling our way through an entire day’s worth of food in just a few hours.

Under the direction of our ethnic Kachin guide Zaw La, our first stop was a street-side fried food stall – the kind of place where locals pause on their way to work to pick up plastic bags filled with fried chickpea, lentil and tofu snacks, along with small baggies of tamarind, garlic and chili dipping sauce. We ate a few samples to quell the early-morning emptiness in our stomachs, and then continued along a quiet, leafy backstreet where pink-clad nuns walked in long processions collecting alms.


A fried snack vendor sets up for the morning rush.


Young Buddhist nuns make their alms rounds.

Farther down the street we checked out Nan Oo, a family-run enterprise where noodles are made fresh every day and sold to teashops and individual homes. The products are manufactured in several tasty denominations, including Shan, meeshay, coconut and monti varieties.


Fresh noodles at Nan Oo.

From Nan Oo we followed the noodle-distribution trail by swinging onto busy 19th Street for breakfast at Shwe Latyar mohinga shop, where the locally made noodles are counted among the fresh ingredients. We ordered Mandalay-style mohinga – which is has thinner fish broth, fewer noodles and less oil than the Yangon variety – plus chickpea tempura and green tea.

As we ate, Zaw La filled us in on the history of the Royal Palace, the layout of Mandalay and some important Burmese social customs. He also pointed to a public hall across the street and explained that whenever a marriage ceremony takes place there during one of his tours, he drags his clients along to crash the party and to enjoy the glories of a traditional Myanmar wedding.


Mandalay mohinga for breakfast.

Unfortunately, all was quiet on the matrimonial front on the day we joined the tour, so we plunged straight into the nearby Nan Shae Market, where the first floor is dedicated to clothing and the second floor houses vendors selling fly-magnet meat and a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables transported daily from Pyin Oo Lwin.

Of course there were also snack vendors galore in the market, and Zaw La urged us to cram some mount sikyaw (sticky rice dough mixed with jaggery) into our already half-full bellies. Crickets were also available for consumption but we decided to skip them, if only because it was too early in the day to indulge in nature’s own beer-matching munchies.


Snacking can be dangerous, so it’s important to wear a helmet at all times.

On our way out of the market we passed a stall selling bananas and coconuts – not for eating, but for making offerings to nat (spirit) shrines. Zaw La was inspired to tell the tale of the mighty blacksmith Maung Tint De, who was murdered by the king of Tagaung and later became the nat Min Mahagiri (Lord of the Great Mountain).


Bananas meant for offering to the spirits.

Off we rolled on our trishaws to another teashop, this one famous for its hearty pauksi (chicken and pork dumplings) and ei kyar kweh (Chinese fried donut sticks). We indulged in both, along with cups of Myanmar’s ubiquitous black tea with condensed milk, a tradition that Zaw La explained came to this country from Portugal via India.


Chicken- and pork-filled dumplings.

The atmosphere at the shop was noisy, with the under-aged waiters sounding like agitated gremlins as they shouted orders at ear-splitting volume. Zaw La said visits to this shop elicited the one question most frequently asked by clients on his tours: Why are these kids working instead of attending school? His ready response provides instructive insight into the debilitating effects of poverty in Myanmar, as well as into the dire state of the country’s educational system.

The next stop was the legendary Ah Yee Taung laphet thoke shop on 26th Street, where different varieties of pickled tealeaf salad can be sampled from a lacquerware dish before ordering a full serving – we chose the tongue-searing “special spicy green tea snap”, which also supplied our umpteenth caffeine kick of the day.


Laphet thoke (pickled tea leaf salad) samples in a lacquerware tray.

With the morning advancing and the temperature rising, we welcomed the ensuing respite at a thirst-slaking roadside juice stand, which boasted a wide range of fresh produce from which to choose. Zaw La urged us to mix the fruit as we desired, but my puritanical upbringing has conditioned me to tend toward the conservative in beverage-related matters so I stuck with pure pineapple juice.


Fresh fruit at a roadside juice stand.

We sat on plastic chairs in the shade of an almond tree and sipped our drinks while chatting and mulling the implications of the words “Zeus, the dope god” – a cryptic message that some enterprising graffiti tagger had painted on the wall of the water purification factory across the street.


Baffling graffiti.

From there it was just a couple of blocks to Shwe Pyi Moe Café on 66th Street. Famous for its Indian chapatti and poori platters, it also serves a menu of Shan favorites.

The café was meant to be the tour-concluding lunch stop, but by this point my wife and I could barely eat another bite. I managed to stuff a bit of chapatti and mutton curry into the last square centimeter of space left in my stomach, and then I waved the white flag of gastronomic capitulation.

And with that, Mandalay Teashop Foodies Tour came to a successful conclusion. But pity the poor trishaw drivers tasked with pedaling our bloated bodies those last few blocks back to where we had started our journey four hours earlier and several kilos lighter.

Travel Information

The Mandalay Teashop Foodies Tour costs US$33 per person and can be booked through Grasshopper Adventures, 4/3 Mya Sandar Lane (between Streets 24th and 25th streets, and 62nd and 63rd streets), Aung Myae Thar Zan township, Mandalay. Telephone: (95) 09-40265-9886; website:


11 Hills bike race redux

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Bike race photo 2

The start of the road race Ou Yin Wa village. There’s me in my blue helmet and yellow jersey, flying off the start line like a bolt of mid-pack greased lightning. Photo: MSP

In mid-October I took part in the 11 Hills Challenge Bike Race, as previously covered on this blog. Another race was run on the same course on November 23, this one about 6 kilometers longer and attracting a stronger field of local road racers, including a few national-level riders.

No mountain bikes were allowed this time so I used a road bike, which allowed me to travel a bit faster over the hills: I rode the course in 1 hour, 40 minutes – 7 minutes faster than the October race, despite the additional distance. Like last time, I finished in 15th place overall: no improvement in position, but a significant improvement in performance considering the quality of the other riders. The only real hitch in my ride was losing one of my two water bottles when I hit a big bump in the road toward the beginning of the race. Thankfully the temperatures stayed cool until after I finished, so I was able to milk my one bottle until the end.

A mountain bike race was held later the same day. I didn’t take part in that race, but I did write a story about both races for The Myanmar Times, posted below.

The November 23 event was the first round of a six-race series. The next round will be held in Nay Pyi Taw in the third week of January. Stay tuned …


 Bike races kick off year-long, Myanmar-wide series

Bike race photo 1

Cyclists start the mountain bike race held in Nga Su Taung village in Hlegu township, Yangon Region, on November 23. Photo: MSP

More than 80 local and foreign cyclists converged on Hlegu township north of Yangon on November 23 to participate in a day of road and mountain bike racing.

The event was the first round of a six-race, year-long series organized under the guidelines of the Ministry of Sport and sponsored by Myan Shwe Pyi Tractors Inc (MSP) and the Myanmar Cycling Federation (MCF).

The 46-kilometre (28-mile) road race, which started at 8am, was held on the notorious, vomit-inducing 11 Hills course in Ou Yin Wa village in Hlegu township.

The race was won by Phyo Wai Zin with a time of 1 hour, 22 minutes. He also triumphed in the 19-25 age group, while Kyaw Tun Oo finished first among the under-19s (1h22m). Australian Benjamin Rowse clinched the over-25 title (1h29m).

The cyclists then transferred to nearby Nga Su Taung village for the noon start of the mountain bike race. Poor race directions along a few sections of the challenging course caused some of the leading riders to take wrong turns and suffer disqualifications, but in the end victory was awarded to under-19 competitor Kyaw Tun Oo (55 minutes, 46 seconds).

The 19-25 category was won by Than Naing Soe (57m40s), while the over-25 title was taken by Kyaw San Win (57m10s). The women’s race was won by Ma Su Su Wai (1h20m).

MCF vice president Khin Maung Win – who is also the owner of main sponsor MSP, the authorized dealer for Caterpillar heavy machinery in Myanmar – said his company supports cycling because it is “a great sport and lifestyle that will help achieve better living … We are all winners if more people can cycle regularly and maintain a healthier lifestyle. We want to create awareness by supporting competitive cycling.”

He said the idea for the race series came from an “experienced cyclist” with whom he rides.

“The concept is to support competitive racers to prepare training programs based on an organized race calendar throughout the year,” he said.

The race was the first in a series of six events that will be held over the coming year in different locations all over Myanmar, with competitions scheduled every two months. The next events will be held in Nay Pyi Taw in late January 2015, and in Mandalay in late March.

The race series also has a charity element to it.

“We want to support the communities living in the vicinity of race events,” Khin Maung Win said. “We set aside some funds from our company to do that, but we also welcome other corporate sponsors. We like to support education for children, so the funds will go to either scholarships or school facilities.”

He said future events would see improvements – including installing better race course markers and holding the road and mountain bike races on different days – but for an inaugural event, both races went well.

“This was mainly due to sportsmanship demonstrated by all riders and support from the people of Oo Yin Wa and Nga Su Taung villages, local authorities, the Sports Ministry and the MCF. Our volunteers did a great job,” he said.

Knut Bjorgum, a Norwegian expat living in Yangon who finished 14th in the Over-25 category in the road race, was left with a positive impression of the event.

“The organisers, the challenging and beautiful course, the local riders, the cheering local communities – everything was great,” he said.


Written by latefornowhere

December 1, 2014 at 8:22 am