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Kodiak backyard hikes: An autumn morning in North End Park

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After a week of stormy weather that brought heavy rain and gale-force winds to Kodiak, the first Saturday in October dawned bright and clear. My wife and I were keen to get out of the house and enjoy the crisp fall weather.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Kodiak is the amount of exploration that can be done without the need to get into a car and drive somewhere. Forest trails and beaches abound within a 3-mile radius of our apartment.

On this day, we headed for North End Park, just 1 mile from our front door on Near Island, which is accessible by bridge. With the previous week’s storms now passed, as we crossed the bridge, we were able to catch our first view in many days of the mountains to the west.


We entered the park the back way on Channelside Trail, which at the start is lined with salmonberry bushes that bear fruit in the summertime but whose leaves were just beginning to show the discoloration of approaching winter. Farther along, Sitka spruces and some deciduous trees started appearing. The mossy forest ticked with water droplets from the all-night rain that had tapered off shortly before we left our apartment.

Channelside led us to the Northend Trail system. We followed the path to a set of wooden stairs that descended to a rocky beach. The tide was low, and the shoreline was strewn with seaweed, tangles of bull kelp, and other debris washed up by the previous week’s high waves. At one end of the beach, a small, temporary waterfall cascaded down the rocks.

Re-entering the forest on the other side of the beach, we picked up a trail that took us to land’s end, providing a clifftop view of the ocean and local fishing boats heading to and from Kodiak’s two harbors.


From there, we followed the forested coast, where mushrooms sprouted in the shade beneath the trees and, on one occasion, an unseen but vocal squirrel bombarded us with pinecones from high up in a Sitka spruce tree.

We stopped at another small beach, drenched in sunshine and caressed by the cool wind blowing off the ocean. The calm was occasionally broken by small aircraft landing at the Near Island floatplane base.

We later happened across another interruption in the natural splendor of the forest in the form of a rusted vehicle dating back to World War II – a remnant of the U.S. military forced deployed on Kodiak to defend Alaska from invasion from Japan.


We eventually made our way back to the first beach, where the tide was reaching its highest point and the morning’s waterfall was now silent.


We climbed back up the stairs and followed the forest path through the tunnel of trees to exit the park at the main parking lot. A short walk back across the bridge to Kodiak Island had us home before noon.

Written by latefornowhere

October 17, 2020 at 4:46 pm

Around Inle Lake in 18 days

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Leg-rowers rule Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival


Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, located on the western end of Myanmar’s Inle Lake, is considered the holiest Buddhist site in southern Shan State. The ornate, two-story structure sits on the water like a sacred island, and each day, a steady stream of boats loaded with pilgrims arrives and departs from the dock near the stairs that lead up to the inner sanctum.

The focus of devotion at the pagoda is a group of five oddly shaped relics displayed on a pedestal in the middle of the main room. Upon close inspection, the objects look like roughly textured lumps of gold, one of them vaguely spherical, three of them taking the form of a pair of misshapen eggs – one sitting on top of the other – and the fifth like two stacked eggs with a small spire protruding from the top.


Studying these objects, few who did not know the story behind them would guess that they were originally statues with human form, but that have lost their shapes as the result of many, many years of gold leaf application.

While the statues are, as a group, often referred to as Buddha images, some say that only three represent the Buddha while the other two are arahats, or disciples of the Buddha who have reached the highest level of spiritual achievement before entering nibbana. The statues are commonly believed to have been cast during the reign of Bagan King Alaungsithu (1112-1167 CE), and one can easily imagine that in another 900 years of gold leaf application, they will take on the appearance of perfectly spherical, golden bowling balls.

The pilgrims who flock to the pagoda often rub strips of red cloth against the figures. These bits of cloth are then tied to cars, trucks or motorcycles in the belief that the drivers and passengers will be protected from accidents and other forms of bad luck.


The golden statues are also the focal point of the annual Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival, which occurs from the first waxing day to the third waning day of the lunar month of Thadingyut – this year from September 21 to October 8.

The festival is the biggest event of the year at Inle Lake, a shallow body of water located at an altitude of 880 meters (2900 feet) above sea level and surrounded by low mountains. Home to numerous ethnic Intha and Shan villages – some of which lie along the shore, while others rise out of the water on wooden stilts – the lake is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Myanmar.

During the festival, four of the five statues are placed on a decorative barge shaped like a karaweik (mythical bird) and taken on an 18-day tour around the lake, stopping at each village for a night or longer so residents can pay homage.


According to legend, the tour originally included all five statues, but one year a storm capsized the barge, dumping the relics into the lake. Divers recovered four of them but were unable to locate the fifth. Upon returning to the pagoda, however, pilgrims found the last statue mysteriously restored to its proper place on the pedestal, dripping wet and covered with algae from the lake. That image has remained there ever since, standing guard over the pagoda while the other four statues embark on the annual festival tour.

The slow-moving procession around the lake is one of the more spectacular annual rites in Myanmar. The karaweik barge is propelled from village to village by Inle Lake’s famous leg rowers, who stand on one leg while using the other to push their oar through the water. Dressed in traditional costumes, they row in unison to the beat of a huge drum.

The barge is escorted by dozens of boats, which are also steered by costumed leg rowers. Some ceremonial boats also carry dancers and martial artists who showcase their skills to the thousands of people who gather by the lakeshore to celebrate the event.

The scene at each village is a combination of devotion and carnival-like revelry, and visiting Inle Lake during the festival provides a great opportunity to see gatherings of different ethnic groups, including Shan, Intha, Danu, Palaung, Pa-O and Taung-Yo.

Devout Buddhists eagerly await the arrival of the procession in their villages, offering food and fresh flowers when it appears. Meanwhile, the villages take on the atmosphere of a country fair, with vendors selling food, drinks, toys, clothing and other consumer goods, and entertainers offering magic shows, marionette performances and dance dramas.

Among the highlights of the festival are the boat races, in which teams of leg rowers wearing traditional costumes compete against groups representing villages around the lake. The races normally occur on two specific dates during the festival period – this year on September 27 at Nyaung Shwe, and on October 8 at Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda – and these are the best times for visitors to take part in the celebration in all its dynamic and colorful grandeur.




Treasure Island: Geocaching by bicycle on Pulau Ubin

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During the week or so that the Pokemon Go craze lasted, people around the world could be observed shamelessly engaged in capturing virtual monsters that “existed” only insofar as players were willing to keep their eyes glued to their mobile phones.

While I have never played Pokemon Go, I have occasionally indulged in geocaching, which similarly involves relying on a phone app – or a GPS unit – to navigate real-world locations while on the hunt for a particular objective.

The key difference with geocaching is that the goal of the pursuit is not an imaginary creature but an actual object – usually a “cache” of small trinkets or a log book stashed inside a plastic container and hidden from the sight of casual passersby.

This tangible aspect means that geocaching, which has quietly persisted since its founding in 2000, is a more subtle pursuit than Pokemon Go: The actual existence of geocaches means that they are subject to thievery or disposal by anyone who discovers them accidentally. As a rule, therefore, these GPS treasure hunters seek to avoid being observed as they remove the containers from their hiding places.

So it was that on a recent trip to Singapore, I found myself milling about a picnic area on Pulau Ubin awaiting the departure of a large group of hikers who had decided to enjoy their lunches and tick a few boxes off their bird-watching lists a mere 5 meters from where, unbeknownst to them, one of these geocaches had been concealed.


In an effort to loiter uncreepily in the vicinity, I feigned interest in the local flora, but I could only maintain my nonchalance for so long while staring at tree bark and sun-bleached leaves. The bird-watchers seemed to have hunkered down for the duration, and I eventually lost patience, remounted my rented mountain bike and pedaled away, silently vowing to return later in the day.

Pulau Ubin – an island that lies off Singapore’s northeast coast – is an undeveloped haven of traffic-free paved roads and dirt pathways that provides an easy, inexpensive escape from the commotion of the rest of the country. The forests and wetlands are best explored on foot or by bicycle, the latter of which can be rented on the island at prices ranging from S$5 to S$15 (US3.5 to US$10.5), depending on various factors such as how rusted they are and whether the gears and brakes actually work.


Bumboats to Pulau Ubin can be caught at Changi Point Ferry Terminal. The 10-minute ride costs S$3 a person, with boats leaving as soon as there are 12 passengers. Once on the island, I splurged on a workable S$15 mountain bike and cruised inland for a day of exploration.


Geocaches are each given a unique name once they’re placed and once their locations are uploaded onto the website, and I started by heading north to the far side of the island to find one called Orchid Garden. While a pedaled down a lonely, tree-shaded road, I occasionally glanced at the map on my phone to confirm that I was steadily closing the distance to my target.

Unfortunately, once I was within 0.1 miles of the cache, my Singapore SIM card conked out and I started receiving SMS’s from a telecoms operator in Malaysia – Pulau Ubin is close enough to the border, and remote enough from the center of Singapore, that my phone thought I had entered another country.

Unable to access the geocaching app, I continued on nonetheless, soon reaching an oceanfront campsite with mainland Malaysia visible across the briny strait. A hand-painted sign reading “Orchid Garden” pointed me to a dirt trail tunneling through the jungle.


A few minutes later I arrived at the “garden”, where I found a modest shack, storage shed and boat dock on a property strewn with plant pots, ceramic sculptures, rusting motorcycles, torn fishing nets and other detritus. A makeshift “Cold Drinks Sold Here” sign promised the undeliverable as it pointed to a phantom business venture.



Without the app to help me narrow the search, there were an infinite number of places where a small plastic box could be hidden among the clutter. After poking around for about 20 minutes I was no wiser about where it might be located. There were other caches to find, so I grabbed my bike and continued riding down the jungle trail, eventually spilling back onto pavement.

My Singapore SIM card soon returned from the dead, and I followed a network of winding roads to the western end of the island to find the Lady Gold cache hidden in Ketam Mountain Bike Park. Once inside the park, I followed the beginner-level “blue” trail to Pipit Hut, a rest area for hikers and cyclists.



I had the shelter to myself, and my phone app indicated that the cache was hidden somewhere in the forest about 100 meters away. I plunged into the trees on foot but soon found my progress waylaid by a chain-link fence meant to keep people away from one of the long-abandoned quarries that in the 1960s had supplied Singapore’s construction industry and given Pulau Ubin (Granite Island) its name.


Returning to the hut, I tried following a hiking trail in hopes that it would curve around and lead me in the right diction, but the longer I walked, the farther I moved from the cache. The sky darkened and the trees started swaying in a tempestuous wind, so I backtracked to the shelter and ate crackers while enjoying the spectacle of a brief, violent thunderstorm.



The sun returned as the storm raged southwestward, but I remained flummoxed over the location of Lady Gold. Well, there were other caches to find, so I rode away empty-handed and followed the GPS signal to Recovery and Rest, where the aforementioned gaggle of lunch-eating, bird-watching miscreants stopped me dead in my nerdily frustrated geocaching tracks.

I was zero for three. Moving glumly onward, I aimed myself north in search of Not Too Deep, located in the forest along a nondescript stretch of pavement. I parked my bike as close to the cache as I could get on the road, and once again dove into the jungle. The trees were widely spaced, making for easy walking, but the ground was strewn with deep layers of huge leaves.

A GPS signal will normally bring searchers within 5 to 10 meters of the treasure, but actually finding it requires good, old-fashioned digging and snooping about. So many hiding places, so little time. Just as I was beginning to despair about my fourth failure, I kicked over a pile of leaves and there it was – a green ammunition can nestled among the roots at the base of a large banyan tree. I fell to my knees and howled lusty praise to the gods of geocaching. A group of cyclists who happened to be passing by on the road glanced nervously into the jungle and started pedaling faster.


Flush with success, I took a break from the hunt and rode to the east side of the island to check out the Chek Jawa Wetlands, the flagship wildlife sanctuary on Pulau Ubin. A 1.1-kilometer boardwalk takes hikers through mangrove forests and along the coast, skirting an ancient coral reef, mud flats and sand banks that emerge only during low tide. There was also a 20-meter-high viewing tower, which, not surprisingly, had been commandeered by another group of bird-watchers.




The afternoon was waning, so I abandoned plans to return to Recovery and Rest, and instead resolved to find two geocaches stashed not far from the boat jetty. The first, named Treasure Island, was hidden along a beautiful stretch of trail between two freshwater creeks. There were plenty of hikers around, but a quick, efficient search among the trees during a lull in the foot traffic revealed the hiding place of the small plastic box. Two for five. I was on a roll.


My last destination was U-bin Tricked – the name refers to Japan’s invasion of Singapore in February 1942, when the Japanese duped the Allies into believing the assault would come from the northeast. The Allies, falling for the ruse, deployed their freshest troops on Pulau Ubin, leaving the northwest coast of Singapore virtually undefended against the actual attack.

I’d like to be able to report that my last geocache search was successful, but I’d be fibbing. I did find the location – an old concrete bunker cleverly concealed inside a banyan tree – but upon entering the dark, enclosed space was confronted by a foul odor and a swarm of buzzing wasps.

I didn’t stick around long enough to determine the source of the smell or to assess precisely how angry the wasps might be at my intrusion. Rather, I beat a hasty retreat while wondering whether Pokemon Go might be an easier, less hazardous hobby to pursue.


Written by latefornowhere

December 13, 2016 at 1:53 pm

Return to Kyaukme

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Eight months after the conflict in Kyaukme township made international news, convincing visitors to return hasn’t been easy – but there are many reasons to visit this picturesque region of Shan State


Kyaukme township in northern Shan State has been a frequent presence in news headlines this year, and for all the wrong reasons.

Longstanding peace in the region was disrupted in February when fighting broke out between two previously allied ethnic armed groups: the Restoration Council for Shan State (RCSS), which had signed the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2015, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which had been excluded from the peace deal.

The fighting has continued throughout 2016, further complicated by frequent clashes between the Myanmar army and the TNLA. Allegations of rights violations have been made against all three sides, and thousands of refugees have fled to Kyaukme town to escape the war zone.

The conflict made international news in April when two German travelers and their local guide were wounded by shrapnel from an explosive device as they neared Kyaukme at the end of a three-day trek from Hsipaw – an incident that brought tourism to a virtual standstill in Kyaukme township.

The conflict has been an unfortunate turn of events for a town that my wife and I have visited a number of times over the past decade. We had always enjoyed the non-touristy atmosphere, the silent nights, the aimless walks around town in search of food and beer, and the long treks through the bewitchingly tranquil Shan countryside. Despite the reports of war, we decided to return during last month’s full moon of Thadingyut to see for ourselves whether tourists were justified in giving the town a wide berth.

On previous visits to Kyaukme, we had stayed at A Yone Oo guesthouse, which up until a few years ago was the only place in town licensed to accept foreigners. While not exactly cozy, A Yone Oo does offer the advantage of cheap rooms and a central location near Kyaukme’s main market.

This time we sprang for accommodation at Hotel Kawli, which opened in June 2015. The location isn’t great – a couple miles outside of town along the Mandalay-Lashio highway – but the US$45 rooms are big, bright and comfortable, with small balconies overlooking green hills and farmland. We were also enticed by the hotel’s facilities – specifically, by the prospect of going for a swim and getting a massage after a day of trekking.

Hotel staff arranged two Shan trekking guides, Kyaw Hlaing and Aik Dar, who showed up promptly at 8am just as my wife and I were finishing our breakfast of Shan noodles. We climbed onto the back of their motorcycles and headed west from Kyaukme, bumping along a rocky dirt track for a few miles until we picked up the narrow, roughly paved road that, had we followed it to the end, would have taken us all the way to Mogok in Mandalay Region.


After about 45 minutes of cruising past lush, monsoon-nourished paddy fields, we began climbing out of the Kyaukme valley, the road snaking its way higher and higher into the mountains. After another half-hour, high altitude pines started appearing in clusters among the deciduous trees, and each bend in the road revealed increasingly spectacular vistas of deep ravines and knife-edge ridgelines. We passed Shan, Palaung, Lisu and Gurkha villages, and finally stopped for a rest at a roadside shop for green tea and kao moon hodong – sticky rice and sugar wrapped in banana leaf.

We had hired Kyaw Hlaing and Aik Dar to take us on a half-day trek in an area unaffected by the region’s ongoing skirmishes. They assured us that the conflict zone was located to the north and east of Kyaukme, and that the road heading west toward Mogok was “safe and peaceful” enough to accommodate motorcycle tours and treks of up to three days in length.


“The German tourists [injured by the explosive] were on a three-day trek from Hsipaw [east of Kyaukme] to Kyaukme. But the incident happened closer to Kyaukme, so everyone thinks the whole area around our town is dangerous,” Kyaw Hlaing said. “Now tour companies in Yangon don’t send tourists to Kyaukme anymore. We tell them the place where we trek is safe, but they don’t believe us.”

But other, far less dire hazards lurk along the way. Shortly after departing the snack shop, Aik Dar, who was carrying my wife on his motorcycle, suffered a rear flat when he sped over a small rock that tumbled from the cliff bordering the road. While he set about repairing the blown tire, Kyaw Hlaing flagged down a passing Shan motorcyclist and recruited him to take my wife to the starting point of the trek.


It was a fine demonstration of the sort of spontaneous selflessness common throughout Myanmar, except the motorcyclist explained that he was unable to travel all the way to our destination – it was his girlfriend’s native village, and it just so happened that his parents would be visiting her home the following day to arrange the young couple’s marriage and dowry. If the motorcyclist passed her house beforehand, it would be bad luck for their relationship – as Kyaw Hlaing explained, the couple would “miss” each other and the engagement would be off. I image it would not have helped matters had the boy’s fiancée seen him flying through town with a strange woman sitting on the back of his motorcycle.

This local custom necessitated the minor inconvenience of Kyaw Hlaing depositing me at a small general store near the trek’s starting point, then doubling back a mile or so pick up my wife where the Shan motorcyclist had dropped her off at the edge of the village.

While I awaited Kyaw Hlaing’s return, the elderly owner of the store produced a small chess set and challenged me to a game. I smiled and politely declined, as I have been known to lose matches in fewer than 10 turns against even moderately competent opponents – and elderly men who keep chess boards within easy reach are usually better than moderately competent. My intuition was confirmed when Kyaw Hlaing told me the man was a chess master who had won tournaments around the country, earning the nickname U Palaung among his rivals.



My humiliation averted, we started walking. Kyaw Hlaing led my wife and me down a dirt path that descended steeply away from the paved road. After 20 minutes we turned left onto a narrower track that followed the contour of the hillside, with tea plantations above and below, and a dramatic view of the mountains and sky unfolding before us.


The tea plantations were cultivated by the Silver Palaung residents of the interconnected villages of Ban Lin and Naung Sin, our trekking destination for the day. Ban Lin was the quieter of the two, and few people were out and about as we walked through. We visited a home where five Palaung women were sitting and talking, and most were wearing traditional dress, including longyis whose colorful stripes represent the scales of the mother dragon from which all Palaung are believed to be descended. One woman with a big, toothy smile practiced the only English phrase she knew – “Be my guest” – as she served us soft drinks.



We ate lunch at a breezy hillside shop staffed by a cook young enough to be a contestant on Master Chef Junior. Upon our arrival, she set to work whipping up multiple servings of fried eggs with onions and chilies, pickled mustard leaves, sautéed pumpkin and mountain rice.



Naung Sin was only a 10-minute walk away, and the atmosphere was far more festive than Ban Lin. Most of the locals had gathered at the village monastery for an end-of-lent donation ceremony. When we arrived, a monk was delivering a sermon that was being broadcast over a loudspeaker at ear-damaging volume, which led to inevitable jokes about the repercussions of unplugging amplifiers or snipping speaker wires.


We quickly left the din of Naung Sin behind and climbed a steep track back to the paved road, where Aik Dar was waiting with our motorcycles. By this time the sun had reached its zenith, but the alpine air remained crisp and pleasant. We stood beside a road sign bidding us a friendly adieu from the “lush and green tea regions”, and watched isolated thunderstorms drift across the valley.


Before we departed, Kyaw Hlaing pointed to some nearby hills, which he said were occupied by RCSS troops living in jungle encampments. “This area is peaceful because the RCSS won’t let the TNLA come near, and they [the RCSS] let the Palaung live their lives,” Kyaw Hlaing said. “Nobody likes it when soldiers, whether they’re Shan or Palaung, come into their village.”

Indeed, the residents of Ban Lin we spoke with betrayed no sense of unease about the proximity of the RCSS encampments. As one of the Palaung women we had visited said, “We don’t see the soldiers near our homes. We’re happy they stay away.”

Perhaps under the gaze of RCSS sentries, we rode our motorcycles out of the mountains and down into the stifling valley, where visions of pool plunges and foot massages began dancing through my head.

But shortly after our arrival at Hotel Kawli, we learned that even as we were out walking through the idyllic countryside and sharing soft drinks with smiling Palaung women, fighting had occurred that morning between the Myanmar army and the TNLA in a remote highland area 50 kilometers north of Kyaukme.

It was hard to unwind when we knew that people might be getting shot or bombed a shorter distance away than we had travelled by motorcycle to go trekking.

This story was originally published in the November 25-December 1 issue of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.


Arlein Nga Sint: The dream pagoda

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As a Buddhist monk living in the Ayeyarwady delta in the mid-20th century, U Thuri Ya had a dream – three dreams, in fact, of a strangely fanciful pagoda rising out of the jungle in Yangon’s northern outskirts.


With these nocturnal visions, U Thuri Ya was carrying on a family tradition of sorts: When his mother had been pregnant with him, she had dreamed that she was bearing a white elephant in her womb, a harbinger of her son’s dedication and contribution to Buddhism.

U Thuri Ya, an ethnic Karen, happily complied with this omen. At the age of six he began his monastic education, at 12 he became a novice and at 19 he entered the Sangha as a monk. After dreaming his own pagoda dreams, he moved to Yangon to make his visions reality.


Later becoming known as Maha Saywingaba Sayadaw, he found land in Insein township, about 10 miles (16 kilometres) north of downtown’s Sule Pagoda. Now dominated by the busy confluence of Pyay, Lanthit and Insein Butaryon roads, 70 years ago the area was heavily forested and home to leopards and other wildlife. He paid K25,000 for a 5-acre compound and got to work raising funds by accepting donations from well-wishers throughout the country.

Construction on the Arlein Nga Sint Pagoda compound began in 1954, with the first bricks laid by Prime Minister U Nu and Mahn Win Maung, an ethnic Karen politician who served in various ministerial positions during the decade leading up to his appointment as president of Burma in 1957.

Among the structures that were completed during U Thuri Ya’s lifetime was Aung Dhamma Yone Monastery, as well as the central Arlein Nga Sint Pagoda, a uniquely baroque seven-tiered structure symbolizing the seven levels of paradise and coated with 100 viss (360 pounds or 160 kilograms) of gold. The pagoda is surrounded by a low-walled labyrinth; an onion-domed tower with a staircase winds around the outside, completed the phantasmagorical picture. It remains one of the more unusual pagodas in Myanmar.


U Thuri Ya was aided in his project by a monk named U Agga Dhamma, who traveled to Lalti Monastery in Monywa township, where he had stayed before moving to Yangon, to hire a well-known carpenter from the region to build the pagoda.

After U Thuri Ya’s passing, U Agga Dhamma carried on with the work, and another round of visions provided further guidance: On three consecutive days, he dreamed during afternoon naps of a man dressed in white advising him to place a large green-colored Buddha inside the pagoda. The apparition helpfully added that the monk could find a small statue nearby, which he was to use as the model for the bigger image.

U Agga Dhamma was unsure whether to believe the dream, but in Myanmar Buddhism white-clad men are assumed to be good spirits, so he started searching for the model image. To his surprise he found a small green Buddha in a cupboard in the monastery. Even more astonishingly, when he returned to Monywa to consult about building the larger statue, the artisan he had hired was holding an identical small green Buddha in his possession.

The resulting 5-metre-tall (16.5-foot) green Buddha statue – with a Bamar-style body and Thai-style head – was placed in the pagoda around 1970, along with 1 viss of gold and a collection of Buddhist scriptures. The compound as a whole is now home to 108 Buddha statues, 108 shrines and a pond whose water is believed to possess healing powers.



Since its founding, Arlein Nga Sint Pagoda has played an important role in the Karen community, and continues to do so by hosting Yangon’s biggest Karen New Year festival every December and January. Construction of a new three-storey monastery, Bo Daw San Kyaung, is also under way in the compound, which will be designed to accommodate monks aged 75 years and older.


In one quiet corner of the compound is a room where U Thuri Ya’s gold-covered body is on display in a glass coffin. U Agga Dhamma, now 81 years old and still presiding over the pagoda, is quick to debunk myths about any supernatural qualities attributed to the corpse.


“Please don’t believe rumors that the hair and fingernails on the body have kept growing long after [U Thuri Ya’s] death. How can a dead body still be alive?” U Agga Dhamma told The Myanmar Times. “People respected him so much that they believe he is great and different from others, so they have invented these stories.”

U Agga Dhamma also said that Arlein Nga Sint, despite its unique appearance, does not really stand out among other pagodas.

“There’s no significant difference between one pagoda and another, just as there is no difference between a Buddha statue in your house and one at Shwedagon or any other pagoda. They all have the same power because there is only one Buddha in the world,” he said.



Hidden looms and drunken nats

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Kyaung Dawgyi Monastery, Pakhangyi

Bagan is beautiful, but after two days of touring ancient Buddhist temples I was ready for something different. A staff member at my hotel suggested a daytrip to Pakokku, located just 26 kilometers (16 miles) north of Nyaung Oo and on the other side of the Ayeyarwady River – easily accessible in less than an hour by car since the opening of a new bridge across the river on December 31, 2011.

The name “Pakokku” might sound familiar to anyone who has been following events in Myanmar in recent years: It was here in early September 2007 that hundreds of Buddhist monks from Myoma Ahle Monastery held a peaceful march in support of activists who had been arrested the previous month protesting government cuts in fuel subsidies.

The Pakokku march was blocked by soldiers, and three monks were tied to lampposts and bludgeoned with rifle butts and bamboo sticks. The government failed to apologize for the incident, and in mid-September thousands of monks registered their discontent by organizing protests in Yangon, Mandalay and other cities.

As has long been its habit, Myanmar’s army – known as the Tatmadaw – responded with more violence. They raided monasteries and swarmed the streets of Yangon, gunning down unarmed Buddhist monks, laypeople and even a Japanese journalist. The government claimed 13 people died, while Democratic Voice of Burma reported 138 fatalities. The truth likely lay somewhere in between.

In calmer days, Pakokku is famous for its production of tobacco, the traditional cosmetic thanakha and cotton textiles. I was traveling with my wife, and we decided to seek out the latter – the local weavers who use traditional looms to create blankets, shawls and other cotton products.

This was more easily said than done, and our ensuing travails make a good argument for the advantages of hiring a guide when visiting unfamiliar territory with a specific goal in mind. As it turned out, many of the good citizens of Pakokku – or at least the dozen or so random passersby we asked – were entirely ignorant of the location of the looms.

Not that they didn’t try to be “helpful”. Many locals responded to our queries with what seemed to be definitive knowledge about the cottage-weaving industries we sought: “Go three blocks south and two blocks west,” was a typical example of the responses, with the directions leading us to yet another loomless location. After an hour-long wild-goose chase, we finally homed in on our goal when, wandering aimlessly down a nondescript backstreet, we suddenly heard the telltale “clickety-clack” of a weaver at work.

Following the sound, we were happily invited into a modest house where, out in back, a young woman was using her hands and feet to deftly manipulate a complicated weaving apparatus with lightning speed, magically transforming spools of naturally dyed cotton thread into a small, colorful blanket. While most of these blankets – which take about two hours to make – are then sold through local shops, the family who ran this particular “factory” allowed us to buy several freshly made samples straight from the source.


Having already had our fill of Pakokku proper, we headed up the road to Pakhangyi, located 28 kilometers (17 miles) northeast along the road to Monywa. This village is a virtual open-air museum, with pagodas, archaeological sites and, although it never served as a royal capital, even a well-preserved portion of a fortified wall dating back hundreds of years.


Surviving section of Pakhangyi’s fortified wall

Pakhangyi is traditionally thought to have been established as an outpost by King Anawrahta of Bagan (ruled 1044 to 1077), but some inscriptions suggest that it was not founded until the 13th century, near the end of the Bagan period. We hoped to get additional information about the history of the place at the Pakhangyi Archaeological Museum, but it turned out that the staff were there only to collect money and turn on the lights – they were woefully uninformed about the historical details of the region.


That’s not to say the museum is not worth a visit; it’s full of interesting artifacts discovered throughout the town, including Buddha images and ornate wooden reliquaries once used to store sacred texts. One example of the museum’s holdings is a Buddha “footprint” thought to date back to the Inwa period in the 16th century. It had been found broken into fragments at Sithushin Pagoda – established outside the walled city by King Aluangsithu of Bagan (ruled 1113 to 1167) – but in 1997 it was moved to the museum and restored to ensure its preservation and allow it to be studied by scholars.

The most famous site in Pakhangyi is Kyaung Dawgyi, a teak monastery on brick foundations built in 1868 by Minister Phone Tote during the reign of King Mindon, who had established Mandalay as the last royal capital. Among the largest wooden monasteries in the country, the dark-hued structure stands on 254 teak pillars. The doors and some elements of the interior are decorated with beautiful, hand-carved wooden sculptures depicting previous lives of the Buddha.



There are also two special pillars at the monastery, one made of sandalwood and the other of scented wood. They are believed by locals to hold the power to evoke love and affection, which has made them the target of desperate, lovelorn individuals who, feeling the need for more romance in their lives, have chipped off pieces of the wood. Such poor behavior, along with more than a century of harsh weathering, took a heavy toll on the structure, and it was restored in 1992, with additional work done within the past year. In 1996 Myanmar applied for UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the monastery, but the honor has not yet been granted.

Despite its beauty, Kyaung Dawgyi is rarely visited by tourists, and my wife and I had the site entirely to ourselves. It was a nice experience to walk the dim hallways, lit only by shafts of sunlight filtering through the narrow windows and doorways, without jostling with other tourists or souvenir sellers. We stayed for quite a long time, enjoying the silence, tranquility and sacredness of the space.


Our next stop was another monastery named Pakhanngeh Kyaung, this one in complete ruins except for its 332 teak pillars. Most of the posts are still standing, but some lie on the ground and others lean precariously. The floor, roof and walls of the structure, built in 1864, are almost completely gone. The government is considering whether to restore the monastery, but it would be a massive undertaking. Pakhanngeh Kyaung is located about 5 kilometers (3 miles) east of Pakhangyi and just a few hundred meters from the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River. The journey there passes through some lovely wetland scenery on a narrow, raised road.


Pakhanngeh Kyaung


A bicycle path passes through the center of Pakhanngeh Kyaung

Pakhangyi has one more claim to fame: It is the legendary home of U Min Kyaw (also known as Ko Gyi Kyaw and Min Kyawzwa), a powerful nat (spirit) who is the patron saint of drunkards and gamblers. Nats are the spirits of humans who died violently and who remain caught in limbo between one incarnation and the next, and they can grant favors to those who show the proper respect, or make life difficult for those who do not.

There are several versions of U Min Kyaw’s life and death as a human, but according to one of the more popular he was a drunkard, a cock fighter and an excellent horseman who was killed by the spirits of two men he murdered, Khun Cho and Khun Thar. As such, shrines to U Min Kyaw normally depict him riding a dark horse, which is festooned by devotees with offerings of rum and whiskey.

The main festival for U Min Kyaw is held in Pakhangyi every March, but smaller ceremonies are held throughout the year. These are normally organized by worshiper who consult mediums to ask the powerful spirit for favors with the promise that an offering ceremony will be held if the wish is granted. These usually last for three to seven days and are open to the public.

One of these happened to be occurring on the afternoon of our visit to Pakhangyi. A temporary red pavilion had been erected alongside the main road, and the chaotic clanging of live traditional Myanmar orchestral music could be heard from across town. Drawing nearer, we saw a crowd gathered around a nat kadaw (spirit medium) who, as is usually the case, was a transvestite who was dancing wildly to the music, pausing occasionally to spend 30 seconds or so telling the fortune of a lucky bystander before spinning into motion once again. Appreciative devotees pinned money to the medium’s clothing, while the ceremony’s patrons made sure everyone was well-supplied with food and drink – sustenance for the body, even as U Min Kyaw’s worshipers sought salve for their souls.


The road to Pakhanngeh Kyaung ends at the Ayeyarwady River



After-hours in Myeik Archipelago

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Myeik nights.04

Humanity is engaged in an ongoing war against darkness – not in the metaphorical good-versus-evil sense, in which pure-hearted Hobbits drop magic rings into volcanoes to banish the forces of shadow, but in the literal sense of wiring the world with power lines, flipping the switch and pretending the sun never sets on civilisation.

This mania for poking artificial illumination into all corners of the planet has, since the discovery of electricity in the late 19th century, become one of the enduring hallmarks of human progress.

To a certain extent this is all well and good – it would be callous and absurd to begrudge anyone the right to enjoy the benefits of electricity – but I am also not afraid to admit that there are times when I find myself sympathising with the darkness, in all its mystery and ambiguity.

At such times I feel an overwhelming urge to turn my back to the light and retreat to those ever-shrinking zones where the power lines have not yet reached, and where the stars and planets have not yet been smothered by the electric glow of the city.

Living in Myanmar has provided some good opportunities to escape The Glow and become one with the night – often without the need to even leave my apartment, and usually at times that were unexpected and unwanted.

The best moments, however, have occurred during trips outside the city: spending the night in off-the-grid monasteries while trekking in Shan State; starting a daylong push for the 3091-metre summit of Natmataung in Chin State at 3:30am under an intensely twinkling, unpolluted sky; and venturing out for a nocturnal amble around Mrauk Oo, where fireflies vied with the stars as the main source of illumination.

But trumping all these was my experience in Myeik Archipelago in Myanmar’s southern Tanintharyi Region.

My previous trips, however active, had all involved sleeping indoors, but in the southern islands my wife and I effectively lived outside over the course of the six-day trip: eating, drinking, relaxing and sleeping on the open-air upper deck of the live-aboard boat that took us from Myeik to Kawthoung.

With no walls around us, and only a sun-shading tarp over our heads, there was no impediment to watching every sunrise and sunset from beginning to end, nor was there any distraction from experiencing the night-time hours in all their quiet glory.

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We knew from the start that our journey would be different from anything we had done before. On the first day our boat Ayer Princess left Myeik jetty at 5pm, just in time to watch the sun go down as we wove our way through the islands lying just off the coast.

We were the only two guests on the boat (along with five crew members), and despite the presence of three double-occupancy cabins below deck, we opted to settle in on the top deck, which was equipped with rattan chairs, a table, a reasonably comfortable bed, and a cooler full of water, soft drinks and beer.

We poured some drinks and basked in the smell and taste of the salty air, the feel of the wind, and the sight of the blue water and incandescent clouds. As day disappeared, the stars took their place in the indigo sky, a transition we witnessed as the crew brought us a feast of fresh food for dinner: chicken with cashew nuts, fried watercress and mushrooms, sweet and sour fish, and prawn tempura.

Our boat stopped for the night around 9:30pm, and our generator and lights stayed on for another 30 minutes as we prepared for sleep. Only when the electricity was switched off did the atmosphere take on an even more magical quality: light breeze, swaying boat, sparkling stars. A line of squid boats floated on the distant horizon, their banks of lights not enough to ruin our view of the sky.

Myeik nights.06

I woke several times that first night. The fact that I was not accustomed to sleeping on a boat probably contributed to the sense of unease I felt whenever I drifted toward wakefulness, but each time I opened my eyes the disquiet was replaced by silent, appreciative awe.

The first time I woke, I noticed the wind had died down but the stars still decorated the sky in glittering abundance. Strangely, hypnotically, the water seemed to shimmer with an eerie green luminescence, as if while we slept our boat had drifted across some invisible divide between worlds and into an alien ocean.

Waking later, I found that the wind had returned and a sickle moon had risen, sending the dimmest stars into retreat and casting a silver streak across the water. Later still, during the darkest hours before dawn, we were approached by another boat, whose crew used our vessel to anchor their fishing net, returning at daybreak to retrieve their catch.

Myeik nights.07

And so it went throughout the journey, the days spent exploring islands, coves and coral reefs by foot, kayak and flipper, and the evenings descending like an enchanted curtain over the Andaman Sea and the islands of the archipelago. Each night brought new surprises.

On our last night in the archipelago we anchored in a small bay between two low islands with names straight out of a Scooby-Doo episode: Myauk Pyu (White Monkey) and Thay Yae (Ghost). There was no village in sight, but three or four small fishing boats floated nearby. We were sheltered from the wind by the twin islands, and the atmosphere was calm and quiet.

My wife and I watched the sun go down as we ate our usual multi-course meal with fresh seafood, washed down with red wine and beer. As had been typical throughout the trip – during which we had been waking before dawn and spending many hours each day swimming, snorkelling and kayaking – we were asleep by 10:30pm.

On this night I slept through until 4:30am, at which time my wife and I both woke up. We didn’t try to go back to sleep. Instead we lay on our bed watching the stars in the western sky, where Ursa Major and Ursa Minor were clearly visible. We saw a few blinking satellites crossing the heavens, as well as a handful of falling meteors – I counted four, my wife seven.

We also glimpsed some peculiar sights, including what looked like another shooting star, except that as it streaked across the sky it followed a horizontal, rather than a downward, trajectory until it flared out. We both considered it too strange to add to our meteor count.

Odder still was a star-like light that we watched for many minutes as it moved quickly and erratically – up, down, sideways, diagonally – its bizarre dance confined to a small area of the sky. My wife and I both saw it and we were both baffled.

I tend to think it actually was a star, its apparent movement an optical illusion caused by the movement of our boat on the waves, coupled with the lack of a fixed visual reference on the ground. (The moon was new, and the night was so dark we couldn’t see the outlines of the nearby islands.)

My wife, on the other hand, calmly explained it away as an unidentified flying object whose pilot was clearly whacked out on space-yaba.

Eventually the lights in the sky, and their accompanying mysteries, faded with the inevitable rising of the sun over the trees of White Monkey Island. END

Myeik nights.01


This story was published in the May 1-7 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine. Layout below:

Blog.Weekend_May_01 __ 14-15

Written by latefornowhere

May 3, 2015 at 6:49 am

Trekking into the future in eastern Shan State

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Ethnic Loi children.

Kengtung in eastern Shan State is one of the more remote regions in Myanmar, but like popular destinations such as Bagan and Inle, the town has seen an increase in tourism in recent years as more foreigners visit the country.

Just 10 years ago, trekking around Pintauk 15 kilometers (9 miles) north of Kengtung was like stepping off the grid and into a different world: Strangers were greeted at the entrance to the nearby ethnic Eng village by growling dogs and frowning children, and wary residents regarded cameras with great suspicion. The general dress code for kids was clothing-optional, and the villagers had no idea about selling crafts to the tourists who had come so far to see how they lived.

During high season, the residents of Pintauk and adjacent villages now see foreigners on a daily basis, and the Eng are much more welcoming: A squadron of entrepreneurial women springs into action at the approach of trekkers, surrounding and persistently following visitors with armloads of hats and bracelets whose designs they have largely borrowed from the Akha. The men, meanwhile, are not shy about offering powerful rice wine to weary walkers.

Of course it should be considered a positive development that the residents of this region have found a means of benefitting financially from tourism, but the atmosphere in this particular village now seems more circus-like than a decade ago, when my guide and I had to seek out the local headman and ask how we could help: He suggested that I contribute to their fund for buying the village’s first generator, and when I did so he celebrated by calling the residents together, performing traditional music on a handmade, two-stringed banjo called a song, and inviting me to attend a full-moon ceremony to appease the local spirits.

During a more recent visit to this same village, we walked around in the midst of our escort of handicraft sellers – yes, we did buy a few trinkets – and dropped by a couple of houses, but we did not feel as if we were being granted any great insight into how the locals really lived behind the spectacle. We had a similar experience at Wansai, another easily accessible tourist magnet where it was difficult to glimpse the actual village beyond the tight circle of traditional products offered by the ethnic Akhe handicraft mafia – a sea of women who wagged their fingers in warning against taking photos unless we bought their beads and bamboo pipes.

We had a better experience at some of the less-visited towns farther afield from Kengtung. Akha handicrafts were available for purchase in the homes of a few residents of the Hokyin village cluster, but there were no hard-sell tactics and the women continued going about their daily business when we arrived; when they did take notice of us, they were more concerned about explaining their culture and offering us green tea than pushing us to buy their beaded hats. In one of these villages, we spent some time talking to a woman who was weaving cotton fabric on a back-strap loom. She taught us a great deal about Akha weaving and dyeing techniques, but she insisted that she had nothing to sell when my wife asked how much she would charge us for a length of white fabric.

My favourite trek on this trip was the walk to the ethnic Loi villages of Wan Nyet and Wan Seng, during which we encountered no merchants or performers awaiting our arrival. Getting there involved a two-hour drive toward the Chinese border on a narrow road that wound through high, misty mountains. About 30 kilometers short of the border town of Mongla, we turned onto a rough dirt lane and climbed for about 2 kilometers before the driver parked under a shady tree, and then we started walking just as the sun broke through the fog. The appearance of clear skies didn’t matter much: The mountain air remained cool, and the wild, unlogged jungle provided adequate shade along the trail.

Our first stop was Wan Nyet Monastery, a group of atmospheric, 300-year-old structures that displayed a unique combination of Thai, Chinese and Himalayan architecture and artwork. It was unlike anything I had ever seen in Myanmar, and the more we looked, the more we discovered: gold-painted doorways, colorful murals of scenes from the life of the Buddha, Tibetan-style mandalas, fluttering prayer flags, mirrored mosaics and hand-painted wooden cutouts set into the ceiling, huge drums and gongs, and of course Buddha images of all sizes. Every surface was covered with some kind of artwork. We must have spent an hour looking around, and as we were preparing to leave, the head monk pointed out something else we had not noticed: ancient wooden Buddha statues stored up in the rafters for safe-keeping.

Wan Nyet village is home to the ethnic Loi, whom my guide explained were actually Wa people who had converted from animism to Buddhism and established their own settlements. This begs the question: If this particular group was able to distinguish itself as a discrete ethnicity merely by changing religion and moving to a different location, why is Myanmar so reluctant to accept that ethnogenesis might similarly apply to other groups, such as the Muslims living in northern Rakhine State? As the Loi example shows, ethnicity has never been the monolithic concept that many politicians in Nay Pyi Taw like to pretend. Indeed, the Buddha’s teachings are based on the idea that nothing in this world remains forever unchanged.

In any case, the Wa-speaking Loi are known for living in longhouses that support eight or nine families. These buildings are structured around a large, dimly lit central hall where each family has its own space and kitchen, with the bedrooms in separate areas off to the side. According to our guide, the families don’t share their meat with other families, even though their kitchens might be only a couple of feet apart. This could be due to the dearth of protein sources: When we visited one of the longhouses, we sat and talked to a man who was cooking a tiny wild bird that he had, with no small amount of difficulty, caught in a homemade snare.

We continued walking, enjoying a series of increasingly impressive mountain vistas as we gained elevation. About 5km from where we had parked, we reached Wan Seng, another Loi village consisting of longhouses and a monastery similar in basic design to the one in Wan Nyet, but newer, less elaborately decorated, and less singular.

Like Wan Nyet, few residents took notice of our arrival. We ducked into the dark interior of a longhouse and had tea with one of the families, and then toured the monastery under the watchful eyes of a cluster of curious children. Outside the monastery, two monks struggled to change the tire on their motorcycle, while inside we saw no signs of life aside from two or three sleepy kittens.

During our walk back down the mountain, we met a hunter carrying a long, front-loading musket; he was on his way into the jungle for a few days of hunting. Later, we saw a riderless horse trotting toward us up the path; upon spotting us, she ducked into a tea plantation and tried to hide until we passed, and then she continued on her way. Near Wan Nyet, I spotted a snake on the trail and asked our guide whether it was poisonous. “You’re lucky you saw it before you stepped on it,” he said.

When we passed Wan Nyet Monastery again, we couldn’t help but pause to take a few more photos, even though our SD cards were already overloaded with images we had taken on the way up. As we enjoyed one last look at the exceptional artistic details, I remembered something else the elderly monk had happily informed us about during our earlier visit: He was planning to use donations collected from the growing number of visitors to renovate the monastery, a plan that would include replacing the attractive but fragile traditional clay tiles with new roofing.

The repairs will surely make the place more comfortable for those who live there, but when our guide translated the monk’s news about the project, he added, “The monastery will soon look very different.” I confess to feeling more than a little sad about the prospect of something unique and beautiful disappearing from this world, but then who are any of us to begrudge the sort of change that will improve the lives of others?

This article was published in the April 2015 edition of My Magical Myanmar magazine. For images from the trek, see my blog posts here and here.

Written by latefornowhere

April 29, 2015 at 5:35 am

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Happy Buddhist New Year 1377 from Ngwe Saung Beach

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April is the hottest time of the year in Myanmar, which means it’s the perfect time for the biggest holiday of the year: Thingyan Water Festival, during which the entire country closes down for10 days. Despite the length of the break, the festival itself is only four days long (depending on the year), followed by Buddhist New Year’s Day, which this year fell on April 17.

During my first couple of years in Myanmar, I submitted to the chaos of Thingyan in Yangon, where a significant portion of the populace takes to the streets to toss water on each other using water pistols, buckets, and even garden hoses powered by portable generators. Huge wooden stages are set up from which music is blared and revelers soak the steady stream of passersby who line up for the express purpose of getting doused by the turbo-charged hoses. If you’re in the city, there’s no escape unless you stay locked up in your house: If you show your face outside, you (and everything you are carrying) will get drenched.

Ostensibly, the watering is meant to symbolize the washing away of the misdeeds of the past year; mythically, Thingyan is the time during which Thagyamin, the King of the Celestials, descends to earth and inscribes everyone’s name in one of two books: the golden one for the nice, and the dog-skinned one for the naughty. In reality the holiday inspires plenty of sketchy behavior of its own, most notably four consecutive days of massive alcohol consumption and its attendant idiocy. But not everyone partakes in the water splashing. Many Buddhists use the long holiday as an excuse to spend time meditating in a monastery or nunnery. Others stay home with their families making Thingyan snacks and catching up on their backlog of books and DVDs.

However people choose to spend the water festival, New Year’s Day (April 17) is one of Myanmar’s quietest days. Buddhists flock to pagodas to make offerings, and they also visit elders, parents, and teachers to give thanks.

For me, the attraction of being drowned in water by inebriated Burmese teenagers wore off a few years ago, and now I use the annual holiday as an excuse to get as far away from Yangon as possible. Sometimes this means fleeing the country altogether, but more often it means heading to other parts of Myanmar where Thingyan is generally celebrated in a more low-key, gentler fashion than in Yangon.

This year we headed for Ngwe Saung Beach, located on the Bay of Bengal about 150 miles west of Yangon.


The view from our room.

Our days consisted of morning bike rides, mid-morning swims in the ocean, lunch, afternoon siestas, late afternoon swims in the ocean, dinner, nocturnal beach walks, beer and wine on the patio of our room, and then sleep. Repeat for five days. Our only really excursion was hiring a local boat to take us out to some islands off the coast for swimming and snorkeling.

A few photos from the boat trip:






Blitzkrieg: A lightning-fast tour of Myanmar’s Defence Services Museum

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Years ago when it was located in Yangon, the Defence Services Museum was second only to the Drug Elimination Museum in weirdness.

A posted sign requested a US$50 camera fee from foreigners, and an old army helicopter on display in the compound had been turned into a grimy, miniature shantytown with museum employees living inside and tattered laundry hanging from the rotor blades. Bored gallery attendants sometimes caught afternoon naps in the back seat of the Rolls Royce Phantom that had belonged to Sao Shwe Thaik, the first president of Burma (1948-1952). One friend of mine who visited was told that if he brought his own can of petrol, he could start the car and take it for a quick spin.

More alarmingly, a young expat acquaintance who ventured to the museum alone in 2005 was pulled into the gatehouse by a female security guard and subjected to a hostile interrogation, with questions ranging from why she wanted to visit the museum to whether she was a virgin.

Alas, the day finally came when the government announced that the museum would be relocated to Nay Pyi Taw, thereby depriving Yangon of one of its greatest wonders.

Construction on the Nay Pyi Taw venue started in May 2010, and the new Defence Services Museum was opened to the public on March 18, 2012, “to hail the 67th Anniversary [of] Armed Forces Day”, The New Light of Myanmar reported at the time. At the ceremony, Commander-in Chief of Defence Services General Min Aung Hlaing “pressed the button to unveil the stone inscription of the Defence Services Museum and sprinkled scented water on it” before touring the sprawling 603.68-acre compound, which included separate buildings dedicated to the Army, Navy and Air Force “with encouraging exhibition”.

I was unable to make it to Nay Pyi Taw for the opening, as much as I longed to be there. But last month I finally visited with a local friend to see how Defence Services Museum version 2.0 compares with the original.

Outside, a work crew was cleaning and repainting the numerous helicopters and airplanes on display. Two uniformed guides who met us upon arrival explained that the aircraft are maintained once a year, a process that takes about one month. Everything looked new and clean, and while we saw a few workers taking lunch breaks in the shade of jet fighters, no one appeared to be using the cockpits as a permanent dwelling.




I had been warned ahead of time that seeing everything at the museum would require more than a day. With only about three hours to spare, our first choice was the monolithic Army building. Our car was the only vehicle in the large parking lot. My Myanmar friend remarked, “All the buildings look impressive, but no one comes to see. It’s a waste.”


The empty parking lot.

In direct opposition to the old museum, the new one is sparkling clean, with adequate lighting and galleries staffed by attendants in military uniform. The exhibits are well-labeled in Myanmar and English, and the section on Myanmar’s ancient kingdoms is particularly informative: A large wall chart lays out the accession of kings, and detailed maps illustrate the extent of various kingdoms throughout history. There are diagrams of ancient battle formations and displays of armor and weapons.

The purpose of the museum, however, is to create and cement historicizing myths of Myanmar’s military might, and as we advanced chronologically through the “encouraging exhibition”, the information gaps became increasingly obvious.

This first became apparent to me while viewing two huge paintings depicting a couple of battles the British lost to the Burmese in 1824 and 1825. Nothing wrong with highlighting a few rare victories, but there is a noticeable lack of context: in particular, the fact that although these skirmishes were won by the Burmese, they were part of a larger war that was ultimately lost, as were the two wars that followed against the same opponents.


Painting depicting the British defeat at the Battle of Wettigan (1825).

The sections on the Burma Independence Army and the Burma Defence Army include maps of marching routes and impressive displays of weapons and other equipment, but the role that the British and US armies played in driving the Japanese out of the country is unacknowledged. World War II was won, it appears, solely through the efforts of Burmese freedom fighters.


An odd shift occurs in the post-1962 era, where display cases detail Tatmadaw (armed forces) operations against Communists and ethnic minority groups year-by-year: While the Myanmar-language labels are significantly longer and more detailed than elsewhere in the museum, English translations are suddenly nowhere to be seen. Foreign visitors are therefore kept in the dark concerning the Army’s take on subjects such as “The 1988 Affair”, “Internal Peace Negotiations” and “Ceremony of Cadet Passing Out Parade”.

We spent more than two hours in this first gallery, and with time running out we practically sprinted through rooms dedicated to engineering (displays included road and bridge projects, knot-tying techniques and landmine-clearing technology), ordnance and psychological warfare. Other galleries in the Army building were left unexplored, and we didn’t even think about entering the Air Force and Navy buildings.


A wonder of engineering courtesy of the Myanmar Army.


Tatmadaw-approved knots.

In virtually every aspect but quirkiness, the Nay Pyi Taw Defence Services Museum is vastly superior to the old one in Yangon, but one thing has not changed: the paranoia that comes with wondering whether one is being baited by gallery attendants.

One friend who visited the Yangon museum in 2009 was followed around by an in-house guide who made jokes about the decrepit state of Myanmar’s naval armada, and also commented sarcastically on the fact that all photographs of former Prime Minister U Khin Nyunt had been removed from the galleries following his arrest in 2004.

I had a similar experience in Nay Pyi Taw. One gallery attendant, indicating the long series of displays recounting “Tatmadaw operations”, commented, “Some of these photos are just for show. They’re a little different from what really happened.”

Another attendant, resplendent in his freshly pressed Army uniform, told us that he felt bad for the Tatmadaw soldiers who died fighting in Kokang, but that he was not proud of what was occurring in that region.

“The Kokang leader is just a drug dealer, but our army started the fight in the name of self-defence so we could get popular support from the people. The fighting is not necessary,” he said.

Me and my Myanmar friend listened politely, nodding but keeping our comments to ourselves. Like many things in this country, where obfuscation so often trumps transparency, it was impossible to know where our conspirators really stood. END


A long hallway between galleries.


The Tatmadaw: Defender of the country, manufacturer of balls.


Written by latefornowhere

April 5, 2015 at 5:21 am