Monday, February 28, 2011


A quick end-of-February note, just before I fly off to Toronto. At this time of year there are so many markers, reminding me of people past and present, anniversaries of all kinds:

Today is February 28th, and if she were alive my mother-in-law Ann Hegewald Alford would be celebrating her ninetieth birthday today. She was a wonderful woman with a big heart, who loved books and meeting new people and thinking about the wider world.
My father was born on February 29, one of those special people who have a big birthday every four years and in between just a flicker at midnight for a birthday. He would be turning ninety-one tonight. A friend, Helen is another "29-er" who will have no day for her birthday this year.
Tomorrow the wonderful Evelyn turns five, and Michael, another child of friends and a gifted and lively musician I've known since he was born, is turning twenty-four.
The next day, March 2, was my grandmother's birthday. Since she was born in 1889, this day marks 122 years since her birth. It's amazing to think that we can span such a long time within the web of our family and friends. She was 25 when the first war started, an unimaginably long time ago in some contexts, and a mere yesterday in others..

And so it goes, the intensely peopled days of late February and early March.

It's great to be flying at this time of year: While spanning the globe and seeing things from different physical points of view, I also get to time-travel in my mind's-eye and view the world and events from different temporal locations.

Do you ever do this? It's a rich way of getting a new perspective on things, rather like drawing a map of the world with the south pole on top, or any other switching of normal orientation or perspective.

I'm feeling a little mediative right now, a familiar pre-departure state for me. It may also have to do with our visit to the monk at Wat Don Chang in Ban Chan, this morning. He is another "muscular buddhist", like the Sitagu Sayadaw I mentioned two posts ago. He is putting his energies into providing accessible high quality schooling to hilltribe children. He now accommodates 700 of them in dorms and classrooms, by his wat just south-east of Chiang Mai. I went today with Fern and Noi and new friends J and A, to get a blessing and just touch base. It's like getting a firm footing on the months to come, and I do feel blessed. He's quite a guy.

(And it turns out that A knows all about the Sitagu Sayadaw. She says that all Burmese know about him and that he has a large and growing international following. Good. We need more of this, so that the world connects to Burma and those in need can be helped directly.)

After the monk's blessing we were hungry (of course!). We went for khao soi at Mae Jam Paa - their fish version is especially wonderful - food for the body, now that the heart and soul were well taken care of.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


Here it is nearly the end of February, and nearly the end of my time in Southeast Asia. I catch a plane Tuesday morning in Chiang Mai, change in Bangkok, then Hong Kong, and from there it’s over the pole to Toronto. Amazing.

This week was originally going to be a time to consolidate and reflect on what I learned in Burma on my last trip, to see friends, and generally to enjoy Chiang Mai. But a Toronto friend turned up, a friend with a long connection to Burma and pro-democracy-in-Burma advocacy, who had been refused a visa by the Burmese embassy in Bangkok. No fun. So I proposed that we try taking a little trip north to Kengtung, also known as Chiang Tung. It’s one of the old Tai city states, the capital of the Eastern Shan State, and lies directly north of Mae Sai and the so-called Golden Triangle area.

The thing is, even though it’s in Burma, the Burmese government treats it separately for the purposes of tourism. You can go in to that area by leaving your passport at the border and agreeing to take a “guide” with you. It feels restrictive, yes, but better than not going. There’s no cross-checking of information, so we made it in, no problem.

Kengtung the town is about four hours by car from the border. At the moment foreigners aren’t allowed to go any farther north; the next major town after Kengtung is Mengla, near the Yunnanese border, a town known for its wild-west casinos and drug smuggling, etc.

Kengtung is charming, set up in the mountians, surrounded by mountains and built on rolling hills around a manmade lake. The streets bend and undulate with the landscape, and everything is low-rise and human scale.

The people are mostly not Burman but predominantly either Shan (Tai Yai) or Tai Koen, speaking a language like the northern Tai spoken in Chiang Mai. There are also hill people, Akha and Lahu, living in town and in villages nearby. We had all kinds of encounters, in tea shops and at markets, as well as in temples and out on the street; we learned a lot and wallked a lot!

It felt like time travel to be there, as if we were in Thailand about forty years ago. There were motorcycles but few cars, and no electric lighting except by generators in individual houses, so the place was pretty dark and quiet by 9.30 every night. A small market by the guest house we stayed at came to life every morning at dawn and was finished before 9 am. Women there sold prepared foods as well as vegetables, including dishes I had never seen before. I was thrilled. And even better was that the women were very helpful, ready to explain how a partcular dish was made, or what a vegetable or herb was used for.

I loved the fresh rice noodles, called kao swe there (what in Thailand would be called guay tio). They’re eaten in a broth with blanched pea tendrils and a meat sauce, and lots of condiments, just as they are in northern Laos and in southern Yunnan. The regional cross-connections are thrilling. But in Kengtung there was also a kind of steamed rice crepe that was made using a noodle batter and flavourings. I can’t wait to try it at home, for it’s a delicious and inventive dish, a great addition to my Burma v=book, I’m thinking!

At the market the women gave me samples of everything to taste, from head cheese (wonderful) to silken tofu with ginger-sugar syrup to pickled greens to fermented bean paste (an essential and delicious flavouring, great for vegetarians). They were so generous.

These are people who live on very little, who make and grow their own food and their own luck, dare I say it. And they do it with warmth and grace. Once again, there’s that lesson of travel: travel teaches me a lot, and it’s not about the food as much as it is about the way people live day to day.

After a six hour bus ride back to the border and after paying off our guide, it was great to get our passports back and cross into Thailand. Getting back a full sense of autonomy, after being constrained by rules and checkpoints and a slight anxiety about transgressing unknown rules was a reminder that people living in Burma live with constraints much more binding and onerous than the ones we’d wilfully accepted when we’d chosen to travel to Kengtung.


There was a stack of letters in my inbox when I finally checked my mail once back in Chiang Mai (internet is slow to non-existant in Kengtung). Among them was a note from my cousin Psyche, a wonderful woman, telling me that our aunt, Wendy, my mother’s identical twin sister, who lives in British Columbia, had fallen and broken her pelvis. She has a ninetieth birthday coming up in August, but there’s a strong feeling in the family that she won’t live that long.

Last spring she broke her hip when the horse she was grooming moved over and she lost her balance and fell. In other words, she’s been very much a going concern until recently. The hip healed fine and she moved back into her house in the summer.

When I spoke to her in January, before leaving to come here, she sounded clear, a little frailer, but with energy and decisiveness still, and of course an uncanny echo of my mother, who died over thirty years ago. I’ve had a slightly difficult time with that since my mother died, getting reminded of my loss, of who is gone and who survived.

But now the last trace of that reminder, that echo, may vanish before I have a chance to see her again. I don’t want her to suffer endlessly, so it’s selfish for me to want her to recover from this. She’s been in her own house until now, thanks to support from her son who lives nearby, and from friends. But even if she recovers it seems as if she won’t be able to live on her own...

And what will that be like for her, living in a facility of some kind? Not what she wants. Not what any of us wants.

None of these questions are easy, none of these situations lend themselves to comfortable solutions. And the descent into less-than-autonomous living conditions lies ahead for most of us. What to do?

Perhaps my aunt will be able to let herself go. On the other hand there’s a toughness in her, a toughness inherited from both her parents, my grandparents, so I wouldn’t put money on her just lying back and letting go. Maybe instead she’ll manage to will herself to be gone...

I’ll keep you posted.

Monday, February 21, 2011


I'm feeling full-to-bursting, as we used to say after a huge meal when I was growing up. But at the moment it's not my gut that's full but my head and my mind's eye and perhaps my heart too. I'm just back from Burma. It's a pleasure to be back in the ease of Chiang Mai, but I feel a pang too. I'm missing the complexities and textures of my days in Burma.

I think iit's a good sign when I'm not ready to leave a place. That means I've dug in and found a comfort zone, taken local patterns into myself and in some small way become immersed and part of it all. What a luxury to be able to do that, in even a small way, in another country and culture. I've made friends in Burma, in Rangoon in particular, and learned my way around the city, especially many of the markets and small restaurants. It's hard to remember how little I knew and how intimidating Rangoon felt to me two and a half years ago.

Of course, on the other hand, as I've said before, the more I learn about Burma and the food cultures and other aspects of culture and daily life there, the more I realise I don't know. And that's healthy too, if sometimes unsettling!

On one front I've made some very slow progress: I've been slowly working on my literacy in Burmese. Because I'm an on again-off again kind of student of language, on this last trip I found myself sometimes sitting down for several hours practicing Burmese letters, and other times not being able to make myself open my notebook. But always there was a pleasure in trying to decipher, syllable by syllable, the street signs and menus and other writing I came across each day. The letters in the Burmese alphabet are beautiful, rounded and curving with the occasional squared off line, just fascinating to the eye.

The advantage of this nibbling away at the alphabet is that now I understand why Burmese is transcribed into English in the way it is. For example, the word for the currency is written "kyat" in our (Roman) aphabet and is pronounced "chat", approximately. It doesn't seem to make sense, until you learn that the combination of the Burmese letters that are pronounced "k" and "y", when written together in Burmese, becomes the sound "ch" (roughly). Aha! It's just like the English combo's "ch" and "sh". There's no rule that says that an h sound after an s should produce the English "she"; it's just a convention.

And all this leads me to think about our conventions and assumptions about ourselves and others. We assume before we know other languages that "sh" is always pronounced as we pronounce it in English. We don't understand why "ky" should mean "ch". SImilarly we don't understand why we shoud take our shoes off in the house or at the temple, when we are in say Thailand or Burma or India. From the other side, people from those countries are horrified at the idea that we DON'T take our shoes off. How dirty! they think (and I agree... but that's another topic, street dirt in the house...).

We also assume things about other people, all the time.. and often we don't get to find out how wrong we are. Today I had the pleasure of meeting a remarkable person (he would not characterize himself this way I'm sure) who is not "categorizable." I met him at the Irawaddy, the newspaper of Burmese people in exile, where he works as a writer and editor. He was imprisoned as a very young man, a student, for eight years. I can't imagine what it's like to be in prison, let alone to lose eight years of your life, at a young age. Yet here he is, doing productive work, not wearing bitterness on his sleeve but instead conducting himself with grace and humour and dignity. He has not lost his self-respect.

While I was in Dawei, a town in southern Burma that is sleepy now but about to have a deep-sea port developed nearby, I had another encounter with a remarkable person. In fact, I could say that I met a number of interesting people who are all connected to this amazing man, a monk who is a "muscular buddhist", you might say. What I mean is that rather than study and meditate only, he also believes that he should engage with trying to alleviate suffering. So on the one hand he gives public talks on the dharma almost every evening, and on the other he works to build schools and hos[pitals in underserved areas of Burma. He's also managed to connect to gifted doctors living in other countries; they donate weeks of their time and of their students' time, to working at the hospitals, treating patients and training local staff.

It's a brilliant strategy, for he is doing good not by being a political or elected person, but just by taking direct action, acting as a force for good in the country.

The organization is called Sitagu, and the monk, as a teacher and leader, is known as the Sitagu Sayadaw. Do go have a look at a website about it all, at

Full-to-bursting is how I started this blogpost, and writing about just a fraction of the thoughts this trip has given me makes me feel even fuller. More later. For now, as I head north for a couple of days with a friend to try to visit the part of Shan State immediately north of Mae Sai, in particular the old trading town and Shan principality of Chiang Tung (often written Kengtung in Burmese contexts), I'll go on trying to digest this richness... And I will remind myself again of how lucky I am to be able to engage with this part of the world, with all its complexities.

AND ON A FOOD NOTE: I went to Dawei for many reasons, one of them to taste Dawei mohinga, a uite different take on the dish. There the soup is much thicker than in Rangoon, more chile hot, with large pieces of lovely fresh fish in it, and some galangal too. One of the people with Sayadaw was a man from Rangoon who gave me the names and locations of several mohinga restaurants/stalls in Rangoon, as well as of a place called Osaka that makes a brilliant noodle dish called Shwe Taung Khao Swe. Delish! Now to figure it out for the Burma book!

Saturday, February 5, 2011


Went off this morning at nine with Fern and Robyn and Dave and Mizuho to visit a remarkable monk south of town. This is the third year we’ve been to see him, to ask for help and receive a blessing. Each time I’m struck by his earthiness and penetrating attentiveness. And each time I feel buoyed by his blessing and the sense that I have been well launched into the new year. How lucky.

I’m due to catch a plane tomorrow afternoon, the direct flight from Chiang Mai to Rangoon. In that forty-five minutes the plane flies over the steep green treed ridges of mountains that mark the Thai-Burma border, over the Salween River and its tributaries, and finally over the flat rich rice-growing lands of the Irrawaddy Delta, before descending into Rangoon.

I’m booked into a different hotel, in a different part of town this time, slightly west of Sule Pagoda, the landmark that is the point of reference at the centre of downtown. Until now I’ve been staying east of Sule, about a mile east, and have come to know the area. I’m trying to take myself in hand by breaking pattern and getting familiar with a part of town I know less well.

I’ve got two weeks in Burma this time. What to do? Apart from seeing friends in Rangoon, I want to get out to somewhere, and haven’t figured out where. I may end up back where I started, on my first trip in Burma more than thirty years ago, in the summer of 1980. That would mean flying into Heho in order to spend time around Inle Lake. When I was there first there was only one place for travellers to stay. Now there are guest houses and hotels galore, and it’s a very popular tourist destination.

So why go there? you ask. Well, it’s beautiful, and it’s also relatively rural, so there’s a chance to be out in fields and to see daily village life and foodways. And there’s something rather wonderful about returning to a place, even if the return is disappointing often...

Until recently I had hoped to get to Dawei this trip, but I’ve been told that flights there are scarce. It’s on the coast well south of Rangoon. Road access by car or bus, as well as train travel into the Dawei region, are forbidden to foreigners. And why Dawei? Well, the food culture in southern Burma is quite different from that of the centre or of districts further north. Also, I’d just love to see that Andaman Sea coast and taste the different takes on mohinga and other dishes that I’ve been told there are in that region, known as Tenasserim. The name alone is enough to entice the traveller!

Tonight I headed out with Robyn and Dave (of EatingAsia) to eat Teochiuw rice soup with delish side dishes/accompaniments (pork various ways, greens, delicious pickly things that were a cross between vegetable and condiment) and then go on to listen to music. We went to Boy’s Blues Bar, on a side soi in the Night Market. Boy plays guitar and for a long time his band was the opener at the Brasserie. Now he’s got his own small bar, a pleasant place that is open-air at the back and cosy, with good acoustics and un-deafening sound. A nice place to check out if you find yourself in Chiang Mai. I pooped out at midnight, but the others were planning to head on over to the Rock Palace, upstairs above a Pizza Pizza in the Night Market, where a local band that does a great job on covers, a band called Nyok, was due on at 1 pm.

I have run out of steam; I don’t have much stamina when it comes to waiting around for a set to start! Instead I’m sitting here in the cool night air writing this blogpost. I’ll find some wi-fi tomorrow and post it up before I go to catch my plane.

In between, other visitors, Jacob and Tanu, are planning to turn up in time to have lunch... Not sure where we’ll head, but perhaps to the woman who sets up her grill until a tree at the southern end of the plant market. She makes astonishing grilled pork and grilled chicken, as well as great som tam (green papaya salad). It’s all best eaten with sticky rice, with good friends, under the shade of the giant tree, as motorcycles and trucks and tuk-tuks pass by on their way to and from the plant market, often carrying stacks of plants, or trailing trees.

And yikes! one more thing to cram into tomorrow: I haven’t got enough books to read for my Burma trip. A friend has lent me The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Will I like it? Hope so. Everyone else seems to find it very engaging. But apart from that and my basic “Learn Burmese” book, I have no other reading material to take. Backstreet Books, a great huge used bookstore few blocks away, is the solution. The only trick is going to be finding a moment to get there.

That’s tomorrow’s problem. For tonight, I need to get to bed. And I’m heading there happy that this year’s immersethrough group was wonderful, and that the whole week went well, with good energy. Everything is cleaned up and bare again in the kitchen apartment, so that it’s hard to remember how full of food and conversation and life it was just yesterday. Thanks everyone!