Tuesday, November 29, 2011


It’s a late Tuesday morning here in Rangoon, and one of the two days that lie between the birthdays of my two lovely now-grown kids. I’m away for both their birthdays, as I have been for three years now. This year Dom turns 24 and Tashi 21, significant birthdays in different cultures: Of course in the west 21 signifies majority, and there’s still an echo of that importance, even though voting and drinking ages are both 18; while in Chinese and related cultures the zodiac has twelve creatures and twelve years, thus the birthdays that are for years divisible by twelve fall in the same sign as your birth year and always mark the start of another “cycle”. Dom is about to enter his third cycle.

As you know if youve been reading this blog for awhile, I like dates and markers of time and place generally. They’re a kind of geography and context for everything else. And so, with Dom and Tashi both born in late November, this time of year, never particularly significant until twenty-four years ago, has become full of meaning and a good memory marker, as in my question to one of my kids, where were we on your tenth birthday?

This time, this year, is marked by very public significance, the huge positive change in the political climate in Burma. With the loosening of censorship, including the unblocking of many websites, the freeing of some political prisoners (though many remain), the new rules that have permitted and even invited Daw Aung San Su Kyi to engage in the political process along with her party the NLD, and the government’s suspension of the huge Chinese dam project on the upper Irrawaddy - all of these being changes effected in the last three months - it feels as if a logjam has broken and that Burma may genuinely be moving forward into a new more positive era.

In the weekly English language paper the Myanmar Times last week there was an article about a couple of guys who are trying to talk about reconciliation. They have formed a group called Metta for that purpose. One of them was quoted as saying that until now there has been a kind of chess game between the authorities and the opposition which operated in a series of stalemates. But now each side seems to have taken some steps toward flexibility. And now, said this man, the game being played is not chess, with its possibilities for stasis and deadlock, but instead the national game, chinlon.

It’s a great image, for chinlon is a game where a loose number of players keep a woven rattan ball in the air by kicking it with their feet or butting it with their heads, no hands allowed. The goal is to keep it in the air, to keep it moving. If the ball comes to you, you try your best to hit it up and send it on. That’s the point: everyone has a responsbility, everyone is a player, and everyone tries to keep it going.

It’s a lovely metaphor. Chinlon is difficult if you have little or no experience. And we know from our own experience in the west that even with years or centuries of practice we can still make a big mess of democracy. Often we find its complications frustrating, especially when we don’t get what we want. How much more difficult is it for a place where free speech and democratic openness has been outlawed for almost exactly fifty years? Add to that the fact that many people in Burma have paid a huge price in pain and suffering, prison time, and more during these last repressive oppressive years, and it’s easy to see that reconciliation and flexibility will be difficult, and necessary too.

As these weighty and vital-for-the-future-of-Burma questions roll around in my head, and in the hearts and minds of the millions of Burmese who are feeling bouyed by these optimistic changes, we all have to hope that progress continues and doesn’t get high-jacked by conservative elements in the army.

I used the phrase “roll around in my head” just now because an hour ago my head was being pushed and turned and massaged by the knowing iron fingers of a quirky-looking young woman. A friend had told me that one of the best things to do in Rangoon is to have your hair washed in one of the many beauty parlors/hairdressing shops. I’d never tried. So in I went this morning, into a shop in the neighbourhood of my hotel here in the east end. What great advice, thank-you Kyle!

The hairwashing happens as you are lying down on your back, all comfy. After the first warm water, there’s a lathering of the hair and then the massage really starts. She put pressure hard at various points on my scalp then moved to others, then rubbed and stroked, then more pressure. It was fabulous. She also did some work on my neck and shoulders. The arm and hand work, when she pulled on fingers and then squeezed and compressed my hand left me feeling invigorated and smoothed out.

I feel newly minted. And my hair looks so much better that it’s unrecognisable. The total cost was 3000 kyat (pronounced “chat”, for the “ky” combo denotes “ch”), which at 790 to the dollar is less than four dollars. Of course I gave her more...

All this is a reminder that engaging with a place at the level of basic needs and services is a great way to learn new things. I like coming without toothpaste for example, or soap. That way I have an excuse to go into a drugstore and look for what I need, see what’s availabe (and what’s not). But the haridresser was a new idea for me, one that I’ll keep trying in other places too.

In less than two days Hilary Clinton is due in Burma to meet with the current government, and also with Aung San Su Kyi. There will be a huge number of jurnalists covering this trip, a kind of circus is how I imagine the scene. For those of us who are not journalists, we’ll know it’s going on but will only know the details from reading the papers and perhaps watching the news or YouTube. Even though I have no expectation of seeing any of it, I want to stay in Rangoon until after the visit is over. There’s something about the intensity of people’s expectations, and the apparent significance of the visit, that makes me want to stay attentive, to not miss whatever crumbs come my way.

Meantime these days in Rangoon are filled with eating. I am going back to restaurants I know from before, as well as to ones new to me that friends tell me about. There’s always more to learn. And I’m happy to have another chance to compare the recipes in Rivers of Flavor with what I'm eating here. Writing about other cultures, other people’s food, is a responsibility I worry about. I’m sure that despite my best efforts, I will get some things that people in Burma will or would disagree with. I can’t worry about that, only hope that there’s not much to quibble about.

What I do know is that the food in Burma is good, delicious, and that it’s time the rest of the world tuned in to its pleasures and its distinctiveness.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


It's late on a Wednesday evening here in Chang Mai. By this time tomorrow I should be in a (rather charmless) hotel room in Rangoon. I'm booked into my usual hotel, the Eastern, not far from the Botataung temple. I'm not really packed yet of course, but I think I have most of what I need assembled, including books to read, books for a friend, and my Burmese language book. Perhaps I should take a bigger bag, just to not feel squeezed? That's always the question. I like to try to get away with having just hand-carry, but it's a pretty silly objective when flying a short distance into an airport that's not big and not really busy. If these are the small things I'm wondering about, you'll say, then clearly I'm fine.

I agree.

Today I went with a friend to a talk/seminar at Chiang Mai University, CMU as it's known. It's a good bicycle ride away. In the morning rush hour it can be a slow trip in a rot daeng (shared taxi) or a car, but on bicycles, weaving in and out of the cars, we got there easily. The last part of the ride was through the leafy airy campus grounds, with a cool breeze blowing. The talk was about the Karen in the camps and other places along the Thai-Burma border, about their networks of relationship based on religion, and on how humanitarian aid is affected by and affects those networks and connections. Dry stuff you mght think, but the speaker, an academic from Germany who works in Mahidol University in Bangkok named Alex Horstman, had very interesting findings and analysis to share.

He linked his research, which is primarily with the Christian networks (his colleague is focussed on the networks and relations of the buddhist Karen), with the early conversion of Karen by missionaries in the nineteenth century. There's still very active missionary work going on amongst the Karen in Burma and in the camps, but the missionaries are Karen themselves. And much of the leadership of the KNU, the Karen army that is battling the Burmese, is also Christian. The speaker suggested that there's an increased militarisation happening amongst the Karen along the border, those who have come to believe that theirs is a struggle of good versus evil. He suggested to us all, but especially to the KNU guys who were there, that they think about changing the model, perhaps giving up their arms, and trying to work another way.

It's the old old problem of exile and the ongoing struggle of the persecuted: attitudes harden and it's hard to see another path. Meantime there's been sixty years of struggle and suffering and still there are refugees, and attacks by the Burmese army and a seemingly dead-end fruitless struggle.

All the more reason to be impressed by the willingness of the opposition in Burma to be flexible, to agree to participate in elections and engage with the current government. It's very difficult to step back from a hard-line position, even when the other side gives a little. For they never give all that one wants, just a little. Instead of holding out for the moon, Aung San Su Kyi and her party have engaged in dialogue (while asking for more openness, a stop to bloodshed, etc) rather than digging in their heels and refusing to be at all flexible.

How can we ask people who have suffered a lot to move on and compromise? Well we do ask it all the time. In South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission didn't end people's pain. It did allow the victims to face the aggressors and murderers, but that's all. And for some it must have been excruciating and unfair and impossible. But they did it. And somehow that country has managed to move forward rather than staying locked in the past.

I know all this is simplistic talk in some ways. But it seems important to acknowledge how difficult, almost impossible, it can be for people to move past old pains and grievances. (Look at how divorcing couples can stay angry and bitter for years, even when it damages their children and their mental and physical health to stay so angry and stuck.) And how much more difficut to move forward when the conflict has been going on for three generations, as it has with the Karen, and when people on both sides are so committed to their version of the story?

Human beings are creative and have a great capacity for problem-solving. But when the emotions are engaged so deeply, it takes a huge effort of will, personal and political, to move forward beyond the patterns of thinking and reflexes of the past. it hasn't happened in israel-Palestine; it hasn't yet hapened in Burma; it has happened in Ireland and in South Africa.

So there is hope, at least conceptually, for us all.

And meantime, to get down to the level of basic human pleasures, I have been eating very well these last days, especially because I've been out with Eating Asia - Robyn Eckhrdt and Dave Hagerman - several times, and in between I've been frequenting some of my favorite roadside/streetside stands. Last night with Robyn and Dave I was at a small place at the edge of town that specialises in fish laap. We had that, and a brilliant village-style northern tom yum with chicken, a plate of pla som (soured fish patties that had been fried), and some pak kana, Chinese kale, stir-fried with crispy pieces of pork belly. Yum.

And now I'm headed to the land of brilliant noodles and fab lunchtiime rice meals featuring lots of condiments, as well as curries and salads, etc. I probably won't be able to post here while I'm gone, though occasionally I've been able to break through the firewalls or whatever they're called, while in Burma. If I don't find a way around, I won't be posting again until after I fly back to Chiang Mai on December 11...

Happy Thanksgiving to the Americans among you (I admit to being thrilled at not having to eat turkey at all this year). Let's hope that we all get better at compromise and at reconciling ourselves to a less than perfect relationship with our more difficult neighbours.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


They’ve been of biblical proportion, the floods in Thailand, and they’re far from over. A friend here in Chiang Mai had saved newspaper clippings for me about the floods. They start in October, more than a month ago, and give snapshots of the hardships and horrors faced by millions, not hundreds, or thousands, but millions of people in central Thailand. Although the water is receding in places around the north and east of Bangkok, on the west side of the Chao Praya River there’s no sign of relief: the land is so low that it’s still below the river’s height.

Until I got to Bangkok I hadn’t understood what the floods were. I had in my mind a swollen river breaking out. But this 2011 flood of the century is far bigger than that.

My overnight stay at a small hotel near the airport gave me a first insight into the flooding. The hotel is in a small village, a few streets that run between a canal and a busy road. All the buildings were buttressed with sandbag walls; some were encircled with low cement walls reinforced with sandbags. Near the entranceways there’d be a stepped stack of sandbags, each layer topped with a plank. They were like sandbag stiles, a place to step up and over the buttressing.

Pumps churned monotonously, pulling water from under the ground into large flexible piping and out into the canal. The canal flowed swiftly and was within an inch of the edge. Water seeped up through cement in a few places. It was those pumps, and the seeping water, that straightened out my understanding of the flooding. It’s not that the river overflowed its banks (it did in places too of course) but that everywhere there was so much water in the ground that there was no way it could drain away.

Bangkok is built on a swamp and used to be laced with canals. The pressures of the growing city, and a lack of planning, and lots of greed, led to those canals being filled in and turned into roads. Hydrologists gave warnings, but no-one paid much heed.

With all thse canals in place, the water that saturated the ground would have had a place to drain to,. Those canals might occasionally have overflowed, but they’d have done the job of draining the water out to sea. Without them, the water could only end up on top of the ground, flooding every piece of low-lying land.

And so the call as I read the newspapers about all this, apart from for more help for victims, is still for more pumps. The water is being pumped out of the gorund into waterways including the Chao Praya, anything to get it moving toward the sea.

Looking out the airplane window as we slowly ascended I could see water everywhere, blurring the edges of the human geometries, from roads to canals to fields. It was one giant grey-beige reflecting surface, with occasioanl solid-ground interruptions: rooftops, a raised highway ramp, power lines...as far as the eye could see to the north. As we crossed the Chao Praya the picture grew even more dire. You couldn’t tell where the riverbanks had been on the west side; the river water just flowed right over the land. There was stillness, not the movement of small-ant-sized cars and people down below that is the usual sight out the window as you fly over Bangkok.

The newspaper clippings give the on-the-ground and in-the-water close-up view day by day and it’s shocking in places. Yes, there are kids having fun in boats, and the army is looking friendly and helpful as it rescues people and animals, but the reality is that houses and small businesses are wrecked, many of them irreparably, and people have been exposed to unknown toxic chemicals that were washed out of factories upstream as the waters rose. The death toll is at around 600 now.

Thai manufacturing and exports have taken a hit and that will go on. A lot of the rice crop, estimates are 40%, in the central regions has been lost to the floods. (In October-November the rice crop is drying out and ripening and then gets harvested; with inundated fields the plants rot, and/or fail to ripen, and of course no machinery, and often not even human harvesters, can get on the fields to harvest what grain remains.)

The biggest hit may be to people’s mental health. When you see your home wrecked by water and are helpless, and when the situation goes on and on, drearily, and when it puts your children at risk of disease, and threatens you with financial disaster, I imagine that people crumble. Not now, in mid-crisis, but once the intense time is over. it takes energy and optimism to rebuild and move forward. Thais are resilient, they’ve ived through social and political and economic disasters and upheavals, and come to laugh about them, but this huge calamity is going to exact more pain before it’s over.

Meantime, up here in Chiang Mai, where there was some flooding near the river in September because of heavy rains, everyone is now dry and gateful to be.

As I rode along a small road near the river yesterday, I was dodging water grates every ten metres or so, and pedalling past houses built up on stilts, all a reminder that water, and flooding, and monsoon deluges, are part of life in Thailand, giving life to people and rice and this rich culture, and from time to time, as if to embody the Buddhist idea of impermanence, wreaking havoc in unimaginable ways.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


It’s the middle of November already. Yikes. I’ve been in Thailand nearly a week (I got to Chiang Mai six days ago) and already I feel settled. I’ve found a Raleigh to rent, too small for me, but so upright that my knees are nicely clear of the handlebars. The tires are good and the pedals on straight, more than I could say of the bicycle I rented last time I was here.

Today I headed north up the Ping River. It was late, after rush hour, so there was little traffic. The disadvantage of setting out after 9 am is of course that the sun is higher. But I never got really hot and sweaty, because of that lovely cyclist’s breeze that cools even as you work at pedalling in the sun. Coming back down the western bank of the river I was in shade a lot of the way, and that too was a treat.

I was remnded as I sailed along by the moat towards the end of my outing that each time I start into something new I have moments of apprehension: Will this work? or, Can I do it? or, Will I goof badly and hurt myself or someone else? The fears or doubts may take different forms, but they all spring from the same place of anxiety... And so it was this morning. I got worried because I don’t have a helmet, wondered about being too hot at the later hour, wondered if the bicycle was any good. And yet in my first minute, not more, of pedalling, all that fell away and I was truly rolling.

The same kind of thing happened with my travels in Burma. Yes, I’d been before, but still on my first trip three years ago for the cookbook I felt oppressed and a little fearful. I was under no illusions that the junta was paying me any special heed or that I mattered to them. I admit that the oppressive totalitarian-ness of the regime is enough to oppress and to create anxiety, just the mere thought of it, of course, but that wasn’t it.

I don’t think my anticipatory mild dread had much to do with those realities. Rather, it was just exactly that: anticipatory anxiety/dread/doubt/self-doubt. And once I had landed and found my way into Rangoon, it all vanished in a puff of smoke. I was there, I was still putting one foot in front of the other, and even though I was no more enlightened or clued in about what I was going to do, or how I was going to proceed to learn what I needed to learn to do the cookbook, the anxiety was gone.

Perhaps there’s a useful biological basis to anticipatory anxiety. Maybe it stops us from taking too many risks? But I think it’s just a trick, a way of making us uncomfortable, a kind of mean thing that some people suffer from way more than I do. I am lucky that mine goes away quickly, once I’m embarked. For some, every day, every dawn or perhaps every waking moment, is filled with a dread or anxiety of what comes next.

I feel for people in that state. Even the minor worry that I have felt at the start of something new, whether relatively major (Burma) or quite minor(getting back on a bicycle in Chiang Mai) can weigh on me. But it lasts only a short while. A more substantial worry is truly paralysing. People who feel that way a lot have to be brave just to get up in the morning. And they must get so exhausted pushing back the dread enough to function.

I’m not sure why I’m writing this right now. Perhaps it’s because I’ve just come through my small bicycle worry and am exhilarated to be on the other side of it, pedalling freely through the small lanes and busier roads of this complicated animated place. I don’t plan to bicycle at night, but I now feel freed up to head out in the morning for explorations in and out of town, sitting upright on my Raleigh, with my floppy sunhat on, looking somewhat ridiculous!

FOOD AFTERWARD: I’ve been eating a lot of grilled pork here in Chiang Mai, succulent and irresistable, and som tam too, and sticky rice, but I have to say that at the moment my mouth is remembering the taste of the perfectly ripe papaya I ate today. It wasn’t big, a nine- or ten-inch-long cylinder, with dark red flesh and mottled yellow skin. I cut it crosswise, then scooped out the seeds of one half, to make a deep cup. I squeezed half a juicy small lime into it and then slowly spooned out the flesh, each mouthful with a little of the lime juice from the bottom. What I was left with when I’d finished was the hollowed out cup of fine skin, thin enough that light passed through it in a stained-glass kind of way. I saved the other half for later. Yum.

Friday, November 11, 2011


I’m sitting in a cool breeze, the trickle of a small fountain in the background, with poppings and small bangs and muted whizings from the fireworks, rockets, roman candles and every other kind of pyrotechnic large and small being set off on this full moon night in Chiang Mai. The dark sky is dotted with floating gently moving lights, the fire-heated paper lanterns that are being set off by the hundreds here this evening. They hang in the sky, moved by small breezes, drifting and eddying, making a shifting pattern of constellations that is mesmerising and enchanting all at once.

It’s Loy Kratong in Thailand, the full moon festival in November that marks the start of dry season. Kratongs are tiny rafts, decorated with flowers and banana leaves, and lit with candles, that are set afloat in rivers and streams, sent off with a wish for the future and the job also of carrying away the bad things from the previous year as they float down towards the sea.

This year, with the flooding that afflicted not just Bangkok but much of central Thailand, and is still going on, the idea that water is everywhere and needs to be acknowledged is even more potent. To put a kratong in the water you need to kneel on the bank and reach out and place it carefully on the surface. You want it to float and be carried off by the current, so you give it a little push, and perhaps also splash the water to make waves that will carry it away from the shore.

Yesterday I went to Warorot Market to shop for kratong-making supplies. The base is round, made of a short length of banana stem, about 2 inches thick and anything from 5 to 15 inches in diameter, like a round cutting-board in shape. (People had started to use styrofoam instead of banana stem these last years, but not a concern over pollution and trashing the river has led people back to banana stem.) I also bought several large bundles of banana leaves, long folded-green and supple, as well as small pins and finishing nails to use as attachers. Then what about flowers? I bought some orchids (magenta ones and white ones) and a bag full of marigolds, large full orange ones. Then I needed sparklers and incense, a bag of small clay and wax candles, and a box of matches, and the shopping was done.

Today I sat on the floor with three friends and we figured our way into kratong decoration, starting with wrapping the whole banana stem platforms banana leaf (so the banana stem absorbs water less quickly and lasts longer). Then came the decisions about which flowers? and arranged how? Symmetrically the Thai way? or not? We each decorated two or three. Each had personality and was a reflection of the moment and of the person who made it.

Then in the late afternoon we put each in a plastic bag for easier carrying (taking care not to crush the flowers around the edge or to knock over the incense batons etc), and set off for the river. I knew the crowds would get dense and intense, so I was happy to set out just as the fat moon was rising over the trees in a limpid sky.

We headed down Thapae Road to the river, then across the bridge and north. The place I had in mind for us to float our kratongs was the riverbank at the Brasserie, best known for its bluesy jazz in the late night. We sat sipping lime juice and other easy drinks, watching the light fade, with the big blue mound of Doi Sutep against the western sky, and meantime too, a stream of flickering-lights - kratongs - was already floating down the far side of the river.

As darkness fell we carried our kratongs to the wet post-floods-smelling river bank and one by one we lit the candles, the incense sticks, the sparklers, and knelt and placed them on the water, then gave a push to encourage them out into the deeper water where the current could catch them And one by one they made it: tippy-teetery, carrying their toppings of marigolds and orchids, their spikes of incense and their flickering candles, they valiantly headed out to join their colleagues, then floated quickly off down the river.

They carried wishes with them, and hopefully carried off all the negatives and difficulties and regrets from the last twelve months, leaving us free and fresh to begin another cycle of life and hope.

Later we walked along the river banks, the dark water now alive with lit kratongs and with the reflected dots of light from the hundreds of paper lanterns floating aloft. And everywhere there were people lighting candles, holding lit paper lanterns as they waited for the hot air to build up and carry them away, eating and drinking, laughing and living in the now.

How lovely. How special.

AFTERWARD: I wrote all that last night, and now it is once again evening, and there are again firecrackers banging and popping and in the distance I can hear a marching band playing loud ly and rhythmically as it makes its way down Thapae Road. This is the third parade in as many evenings! Ah well. I kind of feel sorry for the police who vow endlessly on their whistles as they try to redirect traffic from blocked-off roads.

This morning was the Haw market, as it is every Friday here. There were custard apples, and heaps of pickles and Shan tou, and creamy Shan soup, and Burmese sweets, and dried meat, and vegetables and greens of every description, and people with faces from the hills and valleys of many parts of SOutheast Asia, as well as the odd foreigner. I had a thick creamy Shan soup and then an hour or more later a noodle soup with a meat sauce heightened by chile paste. Yum, and YUM!

Oh, and the big fat glowing full moon has just come up from behind the eastern hills...;Happy full moon day everyone.