Late for Nowhere

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

Archive for March 2015

Mandalay mountain bike race

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On the last day of the Mandalay cycling weekend, I decided to participate instead of taking photos. The course was the same as Friday night: A 5km (3-mile) loop with a series of short, steady climbs and quick downhills, with nothing too technical. We did five laps, which the fastest riders completed in about one hour. My time was 1 hour 9 minutes, which was good enough for 8th place out of 29 riders in the over-26 age group. Below are some of the photos I took after the race.


The top finishers had blood drawn for drug testing.


A couple of the elder statesmen of the cycling scene.


Awards ceremony.


The Mandalay Free Riders mountain bike club.


Tin Win Kyi, first place in the women’s road race March 28, first place in the women’s XC mountain bike race March 29. Triathlete-in-training at the national youth training center in Nay Pyi Taw.


That’s me after my race. (Photo: Khin Maung Win)

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March 31, 2015 at 1:07 am

Mandalay bicycle road race photo album

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The nighttime relay race on March 27 was followed the next morning by a 50-kilometer (30-mile) road race that started near Mandalay Palace, diverted onto a circuit that included three tough ascents of Mandalay Hill, and ended with a long flat section to the finish line. Lots of photos below, many of which I took from the back of a hired motorcycle.


Gathered for the 6am start.



Crash on the first straight section.










On Mandalay Hill.







Baffled tourists watch a rider crest Mandalay Hill.






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March 29, 2015 at 12:56 pm

Myanmar’s first night mountain bike race

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The third round of the year-long Cycle and Make a Difference Charity Series sponsored by Myan Shwe Pyi Tractors  is taking place this weekend in Mandalay, kicking off on Friday, March 27, with the first nighttime mountain bike race ever organized in Myanmar. The race consisted of 10 laps of a fast 5km (3 mile) course, contested by relay teams consisting of 3 to 5 riders each. The rules stipulated that no rider could do more than two consecutive laps before handing off to a teammate. Eleven teams participated.

My technical skills as a photographer are not quite up to the task of capturing fast-moving cyclists in low-light conditions, but below are some of the less-blurred shots I managed to get.


Cyclists prepare to plunge into the dark countryside around Yankin Hill in Mandalay.


Teammates solve some lighting issues.


Cyclists speed into the exchange area after completing a couple of laps.


Recovering after a hard effort.


One of the three-man teams celebrates after finishing the race.


Representatives of the top three teams get their medals.


Young girls from the national sports training center in Nay Pyi Taw.

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March 28, 2015 at 3:03 pm

A horseback ride in Hmawbi

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These photos are from a day trip to Hmawbi, located about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Yangon, for a horseback ride through the countryside. It was my wife’s first time on a horse, thus the mingled expression of fear and excitement on her face.

Horse 1


Horse 2


Horse 3


Horse 4

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March 25, 2015 at 3:18 am

Letkhokkon: Parting shot

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A misty sunrise at Letkhokkon Beach on our last day before heading back to Yangon.


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March 24, 2015 at 3:14 am

A sunset visit to Sal Eian Tan fishing village

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At the end of our fishing excursion, and before heading back to Orchid Adventure Shore Resort, we stopped off at Sal Eian Tan fishing village. On the far side of the village we found an empty beach with no other people or any development to be seen — the perfect place to watch the sun go down after a hard day of completely failing as competent fishermen.


A local fishing boat with Sal Eian Tan village in the background.



As soon as we waded through the water and onto dry land, this guy walked up to us and demanded that we take his photograph. So we did.







Village kids wave goodbye as we climb aboard our boat and head back to the resort.



An afternoon fishing excursion at Letkhokkon Beach

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Orchid Adventure Shore Resort owns two small motorboats, and the manager offered to take us out fishing near an island just off the coast. The tackle was decidedly rudimentary, consisting of bamboo poles with fishing line and hooks tied to the end. We used small prawn for bait. Neither me nor my friend Tom caught anything, but I did get a few nibbles from some smart-ass fish that kept stealing my bait.










Back to the beach

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With posts about my latest published articles out of the way, here are more photos from Letkhokkon Beach, including a few shots of the low-key Orchid Adventure Shore Resort, and of the very Burmese lunch (with fresh seafood) we were served upon arrival:




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March 21, 2015 at 3:04 am

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Seeking treasure and its undead guardians on Daysompar Pagoda Hill

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Daysompar Pagoda pic 10

Pick any pagoda in Myanmar and it’s almost certain to have extraordinary legends attached to it.

One site in particular kept popping up in conversations with Myanmar friends: a hilltop shrine 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of Bago known as Daysompar.

The forested hill on which the pagoda was located, I was told, was home to an array of nats (spirits), as well as to ghost-like entities who guard buried treasure. According to one second-hand rumor, there was also a subterranean passageway where mummified corpses could be seen.

Being suckers for high weirdness of the supernatural sort, my wife and I planned a day-trip to the pagoda. A couple of local friends declined to accompany us on the basis that it was ground zero for excessive paranormality, so we were on our own.

The drive from downtown Yangon took less than three hours, and when we got close we had to ask for directions because construction work along the old Yangon-Mandalay highway had obscured the sign at the turnoff to the dirt lane leading to the pagoda.

We parked under a shady tree at the foot of the hill and approached the pagoda from the main south-facing entrance. The stairway was lined with Buddhist nuns begging for alms. Most of them were widows, we were told, and they came to the pagoda from a nearby nunnery on Saturdays and Sundays.

Daysompar Pagoda pic 2


Partway up the stairs was a shrine to the regional nat Bago Medaw, recognizable by her horned water buffalo headdress and the golden fish she holds in each upturned hand. Also known as Nankarine Medaw, in her past life she was a water buffalo who raised an orphan boy whom she loved as her own son.

The boy grew up to be extraordinarily strong, and he travelled to the palace at Hanthawaddy (now Bago) with the intention of serving the king. The boy was accepted into service, and one day the king ordered him to kill the water buffalo who had raised him and cut off her horns, which were known to be filled with fine gold.

When the boy’s mother learned of the king’s order, she made a solemn wish for her own death, as she did not want her son to suffer in hell for committing murder. Her heart broken, she died as the result of her own wish and became a nat. To this day, her followers make offerings for good luck and other favors.

Daysompar Pagoda pic 6

The Bago Medaw shrine.

Daysompar Pagoda pic 5

Across the stairway from the Bago Medaw shrine was a small room holding a statue of Thaik Chote, chief of the treasure-guarding spirits at Daysompar.

Daysompar Pagoda pic 7

Thaik Chote, chief of the treasure-guarding spirits at Daysompar.

The hill is famous as a haunt for thaik, or spirits who are so attached to their material possessions that they stick around to guard their belongings rather than pass on to their next incarnations. Many of them are thought to be misers who hid money under the earth from robbers or dacoits, then died before they had the chance to reclaim it.

Such spirits are more properly called osa zaunt, while thaik refers to the treasure to which they are bound. This attachment is not always a symptom of greed: Some osa zaunt are believed to be awaiting the arrival of the next incarnation of the Buddha so they can donate their belongings, pay homage and achieve enlightenment.

Daysompar Pagoda pic 1

Actors Shwe Ba (left) and Kyi Kyi Htay play the roles of osa zaunt in the 1950s film Myaw Taw Yaung (Expectation).

In the meantime, osa zaunt who wish to can become human beings for a specific amount of time, but they must promise their thaik family – those from their previous life who are also attached to the buried treasure – that they will return after an agreed-upon period has elapsed.

That means former osa zaunt are walking among us. But – as if all of this were not eerie enough – while they are human they forget their osa zaunt existence. Their thaik family sends reminders in the form of dreams, and most of them also suffer from frequent illness: It is believed that the thaik family makes them sick so they will not enjoy their human life and will not want to dwell long in the human world.

The result of this belief is that normal people who suffer from bad dreams or recurring illness sometimes start to wonder whether they might actually be osa zaunt who will soon die and be called back to their thaik.

Anyone who suspects they might be an osa zaunt can consult a bodaw, or one who has gained great supernatural power through meditation, vegetarianism and moral purity. Bodaw can determine whether a disease originates from natural causes, was sent by a witch or is the result of being an osa zaunt. Bodaw can also determine the precise time when the osa zaunt is meant to die and return to the thaik.

The bodaw can attempt to cut the person’s connection with the thaik, a process known as thaik kyoe pyat. This usually involves brokering a bargain where the osa zaunt can sever his or her link to the thaik and remain human, but must fulfill a particular promise, such as sharing their Buddhist merit with their thaik family so they too can return to the cycle of reincarnation.

On the other hand, the thaik family might not agree to set the person free, and if angered they can launch supernatural attacks on the human-form osa zaunt, or on their human spouse and children, to hasten their return from the land of the living.

Perhaps the fear of seeing – or being – an osa zaunt lies at the root of some people’s reluctance to visit Daysompar Pagoda. One acquaintance who explained thaik beliefs to me said he knew of a family who, several years ago, drove to the pagoda from Yangon to pay homage to the Buddha. On the way, they got into a car accident that resulted in the death of their housemaid. The family subsequently assumed that she was an osa zaunt connected to treasure near the pagoda, and that she had suddenly been called back from the human world due to their proximity to her thaik.

Some also believe that the osa zaunt at Daysompar do not like people singing or cursing on the hill, and that they can make offenders lose their way. There are stories about pilgrims who sing on their way to the top of mountain and end up wandering around in circles in the forest. When others ask what they are doing, they say they are trying to find a way to the top of mountain even though the path is right before their eyes.

After visiting the strange nat and thaik shrines, we found the pagoda itself to be an unremarkable example of Mon stupa design. There was a large weekend crowd on the platform,

demonstrating that plenty of people had no fear of osa zaunt. In fact, many believe that those who were relatives of Daysompar osa zaunt in past lives can be granted material wealth by visiting the pagoda.

Daysompar Pagoda pic 8

Polishing a Buddha image on the pagoda platform.

Daysompar Pagoda pic 9

Making offerings at the pagoda.

But my wife and I were more interested in finding the cave with the mummies, so we left the hilltop platform by the back entrance and found ourselves on a network of trails lacing through a peaceful bamboo forest.

Despite asking several people for directions to the cave, we had a tough time finding it. I don’t remember singing or dropping the F-bomb, but we spent quite a long time walking back and forth on the same trails before we finally spotted a concrete stairway tucked behind an old monastery that took us in the right direction.

The walkway ended at a small building and a collection of shrines shaded by a huge bodhi tree. We were met by a man with long hair and a wispy beard who was dressed all in white and who introduced himself as U Phone Shwe. He told us he was from Ayeyarwady Region but had been living alone on Daysompar Hill for 20 years.

Daysompar Pagoda pic 14

U Phone Shwe displays a magical staff.

“Most people can’t stay here very long, but for me it’s a really tranquil place,” he said, adding that he was the caretaker of a shrine dedicated to Sayadaw Bar Mei, who lived during the Inwa period, more than 500 years ago.

“He was highly respected by many generations of kings, including Bayinnaung and Dhammazedi. He meditated here, and he predicted that someday this place would be swarming with pilgrims and that Buddhism would flourish here,” he said.

U Phone Shwe said Bar Mei found this place with the help of Sakka (Thagyamin), the king of the celestials.

“While living here, sayadaw limited his diet to vegetables and fruits, and people who visit still need to be vegetarians,” he said. “This was one of the things that helped him through a series of spiritual advancements. He had supernatural skills that lie beyond a layman’s conception. He could bring down Sakka from heaven and he could make things emerge out of nowhere.”

He told us that Bar Mei was a bodaw whose pupils included Inwa Min Gaung and Dhammazedi Min Gaung. Among their spiritual kin is Bo Min Gaung, a layman who passed away about 50 years ago but who, through his powers, became ashinhtwet, or reincarnated into another life without experiencing physical death.

Daysompar Pagoda pic 12

Bo Min Gaung

These beings, also known as weizza, continue to wander the earth using their power to help people in trouble and perform good deeds as they wait for the arrival of the next incarnation of the Buddha. Among their powers are the ability to see

previous lives; to hear distant sounds and see objects that are far away; to know the minds of others; and to fly in the air, dive into the earth, walk on water, create multiple bodies and be many places at once.

All of this was fine, but what about the cave?

Yes, the cave. The entrance was just on the other side of the shrine, U Phone Shwe said, and it was where Bar Mei spent his time meditating. He explained that the tunnel passed through the hill, from where we were sitting all the way to Daysompar Pagoda about 500 meters away.

“Bar Mei always enters the cave from this side,” U Phone Shwe said, speaking as if the ancient bodaw were still alive. “I recently repaired the cave, but we closed it down due to people’s greed. Some visitors were stealing the sayadaw’s relics.”

He could have been referring to Bar Mei’s belongings, but he might also have meant the bodaw’s physical remains, in the same way people might talk about tooth relics of the Buddha or bone-and-flesh relics of Catholic saints.

Whatever the thieves had taken, and for whatever purpose, we were disappointed that we were not able to see the cave, but we were also happy to return from our day-trip unscathed – secure in the knowledge we were unlikely to be osa zaunt living on time borrowed from a thaik buried somewhere on the slopes of Daysompar Hill.

Daysompar Pagoda pic 11


Three films to curdle your blood

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These film reviews are another one of my contributions to the supernatural-themed issue of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine:

Nosferatu the Vampyr (1979)

It might be hard to believe, but there was a time when vampires were depicted not as hipster teens with glittery skin but as frightening, degenerate denizens of blasted heaths and crumbling castles beyond the margins of human civilization.

Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyr offers just such old-school creepiness combined with stunning cinematography: from the unsettling documentary footage of mummified corpses at the beginning; to the ominous arrival in Wismar of a coffin-laden ship, the crew missing and the dead captain lashed to the wheel; to the juxtaposition of Count Dracula’s tortured grotesqueness (played by über-oddball Klaus Kinski) and the ethereal beauty of fang-magnet Lucy Harker.

The basic narrative is based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897), and the film pays homage to WF Murnau’s 1922 silent movie Nosferatu.

But Herzog – who also wrote the script – injects his own hefty dose of mystery into the story, creating a film that examines the enigmatic interface between reason and superstitious belief.

Toward the end of the film, as Lucy stands alone in her conviction that a vampire is responsible for the eerie occurrences in Wismar, Enlightenment guru Dr Van Helsing pronounces that “science has refuted the superstitions you’re talking about”.

Lucy, girding herself to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to rid the city of darkness, retorts, “Faith is the faculty in men which enables us to believe things we know to be untrue.”

It’s a brainteaser for which the smug Van Helsing has no response.


Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Set in Spain in 1944 during the early years of the fascist regime, Pan’s Labyrinth tells the story of Ofelia, a young girl who tries to shut out the horrors unfolding around her in favor of focusing on a quest – perhaps real, perhaps imagined – to return to her previous incarnation as the princess of an ancient underground city.

It is tempting to dismiss Ofelia’s obsession with fairy tales as simple escapism, but the film’s theme might more accurately be described as the search for varied versions of utopia: The brutal Captain Vidal seeks a “new, clean Spain” where everything runs according to his personal stopwatch, while guerrillas in the forest fight for a world where everyone is treated equally. Ofelia’s mother Carmen, meanwhile, seeks refuge in the notion of family.

These ideals collapse under the pesky, corrupting influence of reality, and Ofelia finds that the obstacles she faces in her quest are not so different from those offered by the world of adults. One of her tasks, for example, is to destroy a monstrous frog who – in the proud tradition of tyrants around the world – shamelessly grows fat while leeching off the dying tree where it lives.

Later, a pile of shoes in the vault of the child-eating Pale Man evokes the heaps of discarded belongings found in Nazi death camps at the end of World War II. Even Faun, the mythical Pan sent to help Ofelia return to her kingdom, reveals a fascist streak when he demands that the girl “do everything I say, without question”.

Like Nosferatu, Pan’s Labyrinth delves into questions about loss of faith, particularly as we grow older, and wonders whether something might still exist even when nonbelievers are unable to see it. An insect in the forest might just be an insect – unless it’s a fairy.


The Babadook (2014)

It might be impossible to convince anyone unfamiliar with goofy-sounding Australian words that they could get the heebie-jeebies from watching a movie called The Babadook. But there’s menace aplenty in this film, whose title is actually more onomatopoeia than Oz-ism.

In the tradition of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, the story works as both horror and psychological thriller. Protagonist Sam is a troubled boy whose obsession with monsters prompts him to build weapons with which he breaks windows and threatens other children, eventually resulting in his removal from school.

Meanwhile, Sam’s disturbing pleas to his mother Amelia – “I don’t want you to die”– can be seen as foreshadowing the appearance of the long-dreaded monster, but might also be a manifestation of the fear of abandonment not uncommon in children who have lost a parent at an early age. Sam’s father, you see, died in an accident while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to their son …

Sam has difficulty sleeping, and Amelia reads fairy tales to him at bedtime in an effort to soothe his mind. But then an ominous book titled Mister Babadook appears on the shelf. Alongside the scary drawings of a top-hatted devil, the poetic text invites readers to “come, come see what’s underneath” and promises, “the more you deny, the stronger I’ll get”.

Once Sam can label his fears with the name “Babadook”, the simmering tension builds steadily and relentlessly until, as the saying goes, all hell breaks loose in the household.

Having isolated themselves, mother and son must face the man in the shadows on their own, and of course no one outside the house believes in Mister Babadook. When a doctor treating Sam for anxiety assures Amelia that “all children see monsters”, she shakes her head and, in an almost comical understatement, deadpans, “Not like this.”


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March 19, 2015 at 3:50 am