Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Here it is at last, the day I get back into Burma. I have tried not to get too attached to the idea of getting a visa, but of course the hope was there, always, and the worry that I wouldn't. And in the meantime I've been reading my way through stack of books of travel and history, mostly history, of Burma and area. I sometimes feel I'm drowning in it, but that's the only way I can understand things, by immersing in a rather over-the-top way.

The visa came through a couple of days ago and this afternoon I have a ticket for the direct Chiang Mai to Rangoon flight.

Among all the other blockages the totalitarian regime in Burma imposes is a block on many websites, including blogger (though the New York Times etc is all available, at least until they start charging for online access; that business decision will be very harmful for people who need the oxygen of outside news and ideas and have only the internet sporadically for access) . So I won't be writing here again until after my return to Chiang Mai on December 9. And even then, there will be lots that I cannot say.

The important thing in travelling in a place like Burma is to try to do no harm to people there. That means not asking people political questions unless you are in private and they have raised the issue first, not writing about indiscreet things that people tell you (at least, not in a way that can identify your source), etc. The fact is that all of us who travel in Burma are affected by the regime, work around it, try to avoid direct trouble, censor ourselves. These small infringements on my freedom, limitations that I am asking for, in fact, at some level that I am choosing to take on, by travelling there, are nothing compared to the restrictions on people who live in Burma and have no choice in the matter. Yet despite the fear and tightness and limitations of life, people in Burma are of course still human beings with hopes and ambitions and the normal cares about doing well for their children and coming through on their family and religious obligations.

And that's why I think it's important to go there, and to bring back news of the everyday there. What is more "everyday" than food and cooking? And so that's why this project of mine, to learn what I can about food traditions in various places in Burma and to write about them. I hope that through the book people outside the country can connect in an immediate way with the humanity of people living there. It's a small effort, this, compared to the heroism of political activism and on-the-ground aid work with refugees and Internally Displaced Persons. Still, as my mother used to say (she was a physio who worked with disabled children all her adult life), even a small contribution can make a difference.

This trip I am hoping to spend time in Rangoon and then up in and around Bagan, where I've never been. it is the site of an ancient capital, full of stupas and other ruins, a magnificent site especially before the devastating 1975 earthquake, and now diminished further by ham-handed reconstructions and bad lighting etc etc imposed by the regime. Yes, that's why I've not gone until now. It is a heartland symbol of the country, and also in the Irrawaddy valley south of Mandalay, rice country. I am still a beginner with Burmese food, despite the recipes i now have under my belt. I'm hoping to emerge from this trip with more from the villages and small markets...

Since the rainy season went on late in the region, the countryside is still green and lush. And that's another reason for heading to central Burma, for last time I was there, in February and March of this year, it was the middle and end of dry season, and the landscape was parched and fairly bare.

Wish me luck and good judgement, please!

Saturday, November 20, 2010


In the end I did go down to the river last night, along with a cast of thousands. Tonight is the big night, the actual full moon night that is Loy Kratong, but everyone likes to stretch the fun quotient so the festival in Chiang Mai always starts way ahead with early fireworks and partying. Lots of streets were closed and filled with people, mostly young people, eating, and walking, and buying fireworks...

I was headed to the Brasserie to hear Tuk and other musicians (and they were stunningly wonderful, but that's another story). But first I had to get there, a easy ten minute walk normally (the Brasserie is on the other bank of the river across from Wararot Market), but an elaborate and slow dance in the crush of people.

On the footbridge over the river, packed with people standing and watching and with others, like me, trying to thread their way through the crowd to cross to the other side, in both directions, the view was wonderful. The other bridges are outlined in lights that reflected beautifully in the river's smooth water. Occasionally a small long-tailed boat would come through, rippling the pattern with its wake for a moment. In the sky was an endless moving and shifting set of new constellations, warm dots of light in the darkness. Yes there was a full moon, but its light seemd cold and remote compared to the warm glow of the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of fire-heated paper lanterns that drifted up and up high into the sky and sideways in air currents and eddies, making ever-shifting patterns.

On the ground by the river and on balconies and streetside were small groups of people busy unfolding and lighting yet more lanterns. They are four to six feet tall, paper cylinders held open at the bottom by a metal frame that supports a container of some kind of gas. You light it, hold the cylinder on the ground as the hot air from the flame gradually inflates it, and eventually starts to lift it. (And if you are like most of the young people I saw, you pause and pose holding the lit lantern, the flame burning bright in the paper(!!), while you each snap photos of the scene.) A further refinement, really fabulous when it works, is that just before you let it go, you hook a streamer of extra fireworks on the frame, then touch the end to the fire. As the lantern lifts and sways its way up into the sky, the firework sputters colourful sparks and then about a minute later, higher in the sky, erupts to leave a shining trail of glitter. Fabulous!

All that light and energy directed upward felt so optimistic, a moment to forget anxieties or tomorrow's cares.

And below, the traditional Loy Kratong was also happening, fire and light and hope the main ingredients there too, but in the form of lit incense sticks and small candles set into flower-decorated leaf rafts that each of us set afloat on the river. That stream of little flickering lights, carrying away our cares and expressing our hopes for tomorrow was a lovely sight, less glamorous perhaps than the lanterns, but touching... Eventually the candles flicker out or get dowsed with water somewhere on their way down the river. But the moment that you set your kratong afloat is pure hope and feeling, untarnished by thoughts of later flickering or decay.

And so once again a ritual festival embodies the arc of life and gives us a chance to think about how we are living it. This year as I watched the kratongs flicker and bob in a delicate fragile stream down the river, I thought a lot about my friend Wendy who died very recently of a swift and unrelenting cancer. Her weakened voice on the telephone ten days ago, just before I left, told me it was our last conversation. I had to strain to hear her, but her thinking was clear and sharp, and her humour too, despite her failing body, a flickering light buffeted by forces that were soon going to extinguish her. But until that moment, she was alight, alive, aware.

So that's the challenge: to keep our awareness bright, our energies focussed, our appreciativeness full and engaged, as long as there's light and life in us.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


The air was clear this morning, the huge bulk of Doi Sutep etched grey-blue against the paler western sky, and the breeze cool. I love the early hours here in Chiang Mai. The sun gives light but doesn’t bake, and that light is glowing and optimistic somehow.

No I’m not out for a run in the early mornings here, I am bicycling. I found a “lady’s bike”, an inelegant Chinese-made Raleigh one-speed with a black metal basket on the front and a black padded cushion on a rack over the back tire (handy for carrying a passenger). I’ve had it for two days now. So that means I’ve had two mornings of exploring routes I don’t know and places I haven’t been, or just rarely.

Yesterday I pedalled up the river, roughly northward, for about 10 km, then crossed a small bridge and headed back toward town with all the morning traffic. No, it wasn’t awful (well apart from the extra exhaust), because Thai drivers yield and are aware, rather than self-righteous. They give way for me, in that unbelievable road dance that is the norm here, in the same way as they do for a streetvendor pushing a cart, or as they would have for an oxcart not many years ago.

About this time last year I wrote about the yielding suppleness of the street traffic in Muang Mai Market here, the amazingness of no yelling or anger at the complications of getting a large truck unloaded while others are trying to get past, etc. And now I’m enjoying that same suppleness in the drivers I’m with on the roads as I pedal along, much more slowly than almost any of the traffic. It helps that there are slow scooters and people on small motorcycles loaded with schoolkids. Everyone is in it together, in the process of trying to move forward in traffic, and noone seems to be insisting on having the right of way.

What a welcome contrast with North American-style driving! There is no angry tooting of horns for example, just a rare horn in the case where a driver is tooting a warning,

Today I rode up Thapae road and across the old city and then into what I think of as the “uptown” part of Chiang Mai, with more modern shops and big two-way roads. I was looking for a Burmese restaurant I’d glimpsed a few days ago off Neimenhamen Road. It was there, but not yet open, so I had a plate of rice with two toppings: sliced squash tossed with a little egg; and ground pork fried with chopped long beans in a kind of red curry gravy enhanced greatly by fine slivers of lime leaf. It was a great start to my day. I headed back through Chiang Mai University’s leafy roads and through the old city to Chiang Mai Gate, where I stopped for a Thai coffee, “kafe ron” hot coffeee with a little sweetened condensed milk. It always comes with a second glass, this one filled with clear green tea, a chaser for the coffee. The same woman I went to all last winter is in the same place by the gate,. She greeted me with a smile (I haven’t been here for eight months) and poured my coffee before I’d asked for it.

It’s a luxury, this returning to the familiar. And it’s wonderful to, at the same time, be engaging differently with the city, thanks to the bicycle that extends my ambit, and to new and evolving friendships that warm my landscape.

This weekend is Loy Kratong, a huge festival at the November full moon each year. I haven’t been here for Loy Kratong since Dom was two, which is twenty-one years, yikes! “Kratongs” are small round floats, maybe dinner plate size, originally made of folded banana leaves or other leaves, with a candle and maybe some flowers as offerings. At dusk on the day, people traditionally take their kratong to the river or to a stream or down to the sea, light the candle, then set the kratong afloat. It carries away anything bad from the previous year and brings good luck for the coming months.

Loy Kratong has now become a huge elaborate affair here in Chiang Mai. Businesses and other organizations make huge kratongs, and lazy individuals can buy pre-made ones of course. There’s a big parade too, at some point.

I remember from years ago being frightened by the bang-bang-bang of strings of friecrackers tossed into the street everywhere, mostly by young guys of course. That noise and scariness is now hugely magnified, I’ve been told. So the best place for me in the evening this weekend is not going to be on one of the bridges or down by the water, with crowds and firecrackers and wildness, but up high. From here, in the apartment with friends, I’ll watch the fire-heated paper lanterns ascend into the dark sky....well, not so dark, because that moon will be fat and full!

I hope your full moon is rich with pleasure, and with anticipation too.

Friday, November 12, 2010


I promise this won't become a blow-by-blow of my travels, but I feel I have to write about the feelings of ridiculous lightness and pleasure that have been tickling through me since I reached my neighbourhood in Chiang Mai. It's not just the running into people whom I haven't seen since the spring, nor the softness of the air, nor the loveliness of the apartment with its views of Doi Sutep, the mountain that floats on the western horizon. No, somehow it's the feeling that I am pulling on the familiarity of this place, clothing myself in it like a well worn familiar cardigan that warms and strokes me, and also transforms me in ways I am only occasionally aware of.

The transformations that travel effects in us are special. They take place as we are unmoored from our normal context, so it's hard sometimes to know what is just changed perspective and what is transformation. And perhaps it's a distinction without a difference, because there's a continuum, from the shifting perspective as we move into new places and contexts, and the changes inside us caused by that shifting and uprooting, and then the perhaps more gradual evolutions of our attitudes and thinking as we adapt to a new place and shed some of the anxieties and expectations of the place we left.

Is this too convoluted? It is a complex and interconnected set of issues, but they're intuitively commonsense "insights" I think. And it's fun to have the time to reflect on them at this very moment of transition. There will be more...

I promised last time that there'd be some food in this, my next post. My first Thai food was early this morning, a home-cooked streetfood plate of rice with two dishes on it: stir-fried ground pork with long beans, medium hot and succulent; and beansprouts cooked with slices of firm tofu and some air-dried pork. It was a great start to the day. I sat eating, with the cook's family and a couple of other customers, by a busy lane where children of all shapes and sizes were heading to school in their uniforms, looking shiny-clean and fresh.

But then as I strolled down another lane a little later and reminded myself that I had taxi and airport and a flight to Chiang Mai ahead, I bought a second breakfast: two skewers of grilled pork (moo ping) and a small bag of sticky rice, irresistable. The whole lot came to 15 baht, or about 50 cents (the plate of rice with two dishes had cost the same). The pork was tender and succulent, slightly sweet, and aromatic with a little lemongrass. Now I've really arrived here, I thought as I sat in the sun eating.

And we'll see what comes next, but for now there's a feeling of infinite possibility, and also a contentment with the here and now. So I bask in the transformations of travel.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


The sun is still fairly high in the sky, misty humid sky, here at the airport in Hong Kong. I've come in on a direct flight (completely full too) from Toronto, thank-you Air Canada, (over the pole and into Asia just like that, with no US stop, so great) and am waiting the three hours until my Thai Airways flight to Bangkok starts boarding.

I still find these transitions wonderful and exciting, from Toronto, all polyglot, but with announcements at the airport in English and French mostly, to the plane where announcements were in the two official languages plus Cantonese, to Hong Kong, where Cantonese is no longer a public address language, just English and a pure clear Beijing-style Mandarin. I've shed a continent, and also my socks and cardigan and wool shawl, as I slowly move into the subtropics.

I've heard from a travel agent in Burma that I will have to go to the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok to get a visa; the prearranged visas on arrival have been cancelled for now. So I am in my usual state of having a general idea of what I'd like to do and where I want to go, but with no plans. One possibility is to try to go to Kengtung, an old Tai capital (like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Jing Hong, etc) that is due north of the so=called Golden Triangle and the Thai border town of Mae Sai. It's been possible, the last few years, to go in there, to that part of the Shan States, by getting a permit at the border, usually for one week. You can't fly or travel by land to the rest of Burma from there... I'll see how things unfold.

Enough, for now, to do this amazing thing of travelling around the world and yet staying connected: Extraordinary to be able to write this blog at a small laptop in an international airport; I've changed the time on my computer to the Hong Kong time zone; And also, as I slowly move closer to being a cosmopolitan modern traveller: I just switched my Fido SIM card out of my phone and replaced it with my Thai one. If I were truly international, of course, I'd have a HongKong SIM card, and others too (one for each country in SE Asia for example...

I'm looking forward to seeing a Thai friend, Kook, in Bangkok, overnight tonight, and then to getting to Chiang Mai, and re-entering that world of friends and food and markets and southeast Asian news and wrapping it around me.

I have a few things to report though, meantime: A friend is blogging about her cancer diagnosis and treatment, with all is lows and hardships, and also insights, here. I think it's remarkable for its clarity and lack of sentimentality. And having just been to a Wellspring event in London Ontario, I appreciate even more the need for cancer patient support that is non-medical, personal and as clear-eyed and undemanding as possible. Do have a look at the work that Wellspring (all volunteer money and a lot of volunteer labour) does with and for cancer patients and their families, here.

My next post here will probably be from Chiang Mai, with some food rather than these travelling thoughts, I expect. Meantime, back in Toronto, the guys are managing the house and all that it entails. I did get the place vacuumed and my wool sweaters washed and stored in plastic bags in the chest freezer (my latest tactic for moth prevention) and a certain amount of order established in the office. Now I can let it all go for awhile, for when that airplane takes off, even if I'm connected with the internet and phone, I do feel free of a lot of those entangling details. Now to enjoy that freedom!

Friday, November 5, 2010


Just surfacing from an afternoon nap, a little disoriented from deep intense sleeping. What a treat, that kind of sleep!

I just spent three hours at the Royal Winter Fair, partly checking out the cattle and goats and pigs etc with a friend and her wonderful four year old, and partly attending a couple of Cuisine Canada events: the annual cookbook awards (top English cookbook the elegant latest by Laura Calder; top french language a great looking book on Desserts out of Montreal); and also a young-chef cooking event.

They'll be doing this young-chef thing all day tomorrow and Sunday: a team of two makes two dishes from a Canadian-published cookbook (they made Pakistani spicy beef patties and Potatoes with Greens from Mangoes and Curry Leaves this afternoon) and their work gets tasted and awarded marks by a panel of three judges. The teams with the top marks get prizes, awarded on Sunday. It all takes place in front of an audience at the Home Stage in Hall A at the Ex grounds.

I was impressed with how well the two young guys, Michael and Luis, worked today, seemingly unfussed by the short time they had, and by our questions to them as they worked. If you get a chance, do go have a look this weekend. At each session there's a book given out to someone in the audience, and three audience members get to taste the chefs' food too. And also check out the beef cattle (dairy is later next week and weekend) in all their groomed sleekness, Charolais, Simmenthal, Shorthorns, several kinds of Hereford, Galloways, Angus, and more.

It's chilly to downright cold outside now. I ran this morning in a light rain, the leaves going sloosh sloosh underfoot, rather than scattering with a light crisp crackle as they were doing before the rain started. Colours popped in the dull overcast, rich and glowing, but still at this time of year I'd rather have warming golden sunshine, thank-you!

Silky the cat, to follow up on my last post, now has a shaved neck and foreleg on the left, and a neat row of seven stitches where her lumpy chin growth used to be. She's on a pain med that tranquilizes her slightly, so that so far she hasn't clawed out the stitches. I'm not big on spending lots of money or effort on pets' health. I mean, yes, feed them right, give them access to the outdoors, and let them stay healthy. I guess what I'm saying is that I don't plan to be back at the vet's anytime soon with Silky (except that she needs to go in to have the stitches out in ten days or so). The only excuse I have for even this vet intervention is that Silky is also a worker: she is a mouser and has been very effective. So I did feel that we owed her the vet visit and the subsequent surgery.

I saw a disturbing and important film this week, about Omar Khadr. If I had had any doubts before (I didn't), this film provided convincing evidence, as it showed a declassified video of his interrogation at Guantanamo by CSIS and another Canadian agent, that Harper's government (our government!) has behaved disgracefully, and that he is innocent in every possible way. I mean, yes, he was only fifteen, a child. But apart from that, he could NOT possibly have thrown the grenade that killed the US soldier (since he had bullet wounds in his chest and elsewhere and shrapnel all over and was flat on his chest when they found him. Even if he had done, it was not murder, since the soldier was not there as a medic but as a killing machine, part of an elite crew called Delta Force, that attacked the house Omar Khadr was in. It's so disgraceful that he's now been cornered into pleading guilty, just in order to get clear, at the cost of his name being permanently blackened and of many more years of jail.

In the film it's pathetic to see how pleased Khadr is on day one to have Canadians talking to him. Then as he realises they don't have his interests at heart, he breaks down and cries for his mother... He tells his questioners that they don't want to hear the truth from him, that they don't like the truth.

If the government can pick and choose which Canadians it provides protection to and which it leaves to hang out to dry, then next time it could be you or me, or anyone, who is left to rot in a jail or be tortured or vilified. The film is called You Don't Like the Truth and is by Cote and Henriquez, from Montreal.

Now it's later Friday evening. The new moon brings Diwali, the Festival of lights, the start of a new year in the Hindu calendar. All over south Asia and elsewhere, houses are swept clean, lamps are lit, prayers are said... a focussed effort to lift everyone to new heights of clarity and in-tuneness for the passage into the new year.

A long time ago, thirty-four years ago, at this time of year, my mother was lying in her bed in the Gatineau outside Ottawa dying of cancer. She was lucid, just tired, as the breast cancer sat in her lungs, encumbering them and making breathing an effort. She had the energy and curiosity to have visitors, to take pleasure in the fading autumn colours, in the cat and the dogs and horses that lived on her farm. It was such an intense time, that slow passage of the days as she faded into leaving. It was a privilege to be able to live through that with her.

And now every year at this time the slanting shadows and fading colours and chill winds and patchy rain showers, and the scent of wet leaves, all of these things remind me of that intensely lived time of her dying. And that's good. it keeps me grounded and appreciative.

We're all going to end there eventually, on a deathbed of some kind. So let's live fully in the meantime, and hope that we're lucky enough to have clear heads and loving company for our full span.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


A quick note, here on this third day of November, sunny and bright and cold! to say that I'll be talking and cooking in London Ontario this weekend. There's a writers' conference and a lot of events and workshops, all to benefit Wellspring, the remarkable and helpful cancer support organization. Here's the link to the website about all the events: . I hope that if you're in the area you can make it.

I'm feeling a little out of rhythm, for this morning I took Silky- a beautiful ten year old tabby we have as a housemate for the year while her family is in NYC -to the vet for a check-up. She has a longstanding large fleshy lump under her jaw, which doesn't seem to bother her at all. A friend was over for supper on Monday and was appalled that I hadn't had it checked. Well, I said, her family said it was just a fat deposit. "That's not good enough, it needs to be looked at!" was the reply.

And indeed she was right. The vet said it looks like cancer and in any case should come off. So Silky's there being anaesthetized and cut open right now. I hope she recovers, but I doubt she'll be feeling warm and fuzzy and forgiving of me anytime soon!

There was a thick white layer of frost on the grass this morning as I ran through campus, and a smell of cold in the air, that smell that blocks out all the delicate scents of autumn and tells us that we're headed for cold and snow soon. It's beautiful though, morning frost on the ground, with brighter green showing where it has melted, and under trees, where the air has been kept a little warmer (or is it just that the dew doesn't set there, so there's nothing to freeze white?).

I'm slowly getting prepared for my trip (I leave for Chiang Mai on Wednesday). I'm assembling my camera paraphernalia, such as it is, and also my travelling clothes, lightweight comfortable layers of easy-to-wash garments. I've ordered some US dollars, in perfect condition, for in Burma, where I'm hoping to spend three weeks, nothing less than perfect bills are accepted. It's not sensible, just paranoid and superstitious; not the people's doing, but the rule of the government-run central bank. And of course there are no ATM machines or credit card facilities, so if you don't have enough money, there's nothing to do but spend less or leave. It's a reminder of what travel used to be like, and the constraints can be fine, until they corner you, and then you remember what constraints people are living with every day in Burma and elsewhere, and you stop complaining and feeling sorry for yourself.

We don't even know what freedom feels like, we have so much of it. Only when we run into constraints can we take stock of how few of them there actually are for most of us.

The people who are out of work and pissed off in the US and voted against Obama, thinking that somehow the Republicans, the party of big money, will take better care of them. How crazy is that? Why would a person lower on the economic ladder think health care was a bad thing? I just don't get it.

And with that last snarky comment, this scrappy blogpost is done! I'll be more coherent next time, and will hopefully have good news about Silky, too.