Wednesday, February 27, 2013


The gecko in the corner of my room high up near the ceiling has just given another chik-chik-chik-chik-chik, loud and percussive in the predawn quiet. He’s interrupted the silence several times in the last hour, as I’ve been lying half-awake here in my corner room in Yaunshwe. When I first woke, it was just after four. I looked out my  window and saw the almost-full moon in the western sky, red from the smoke-haze of the season, like a planet from another world. And then it slipped behind the high hills that rim this valley, and was gone.

Now it’s 6 am and in the distance I can here the putting purr of boats, the early ones heading down the river to Inle Lake. They’re going to pick people up and bring them back to town and dry land. Or  else they’re heading early to Indein, the place where today’s largest five-day-market takes place. Tomorrow the market is here in Yaunshwe. I’m sorry to have to miss it: we leave by plane tomorrow morning to get back to Rangoon.

Yesterday’s market was by the five buddha temple in the lake, so everyone who was there had come by boat: the P-O from their hillside villages (down to the shore by ox-cart or on foot, or in a crowded open-backed truck, then onto long black wooden boats); the Intha from their houses in/on the lake, houses on stilts or on small carefully built islets of hard-earned dirt. The market was large and airy. 

I’d been before, in 1998 with my kids, but at that time part of the market was a “floating market” with people on boats selling soups and snacks and trinkets. There’s a photo in Hot Sour Salty Sweet that I took there, a man’s tattooed hand holding a bowl of soup…  But when I arrived and saw no floating market I started to doubt my memory. Was I losing it? Was this the same place? But then where was the floating market?

When that kind of memory-doubt strikes, it’s always a relief when I learn I am not crazy…things do change after all, and in this case they have. Too bad. The floating market was lovely.

The above was written while I was in Burma, at Inle Lake. Now it’s a couple of days later and I’ve flown, via a night in Rangoon and a last dinner there with my lovely Burma food tour group, back to Chiang Mai. Here there is more reliable internet, and an easy space to get rested and re-organised. Travelling with a group of people, and moving every two or three days, leaves little time for reflection. And so once again there has been a long gap between posts here on my blog, for which I apologise.

Full moon day on Monday ws a big deal in both Rangoon and here in Thailand, maha budjia day. I went to Shwedagon early on Monday morning with three other people, walking east from our hotel for about ten minutes. Our destination gleamed gold in the dawn light high on a hill ahead of us. Up the long set of steep steps we went, after leaving our shoes at the bottom, expecting to find the calm atmosphere of an early Monday morning at the top.

Wrong. It was intense, peopled, celebratory up there. There was a buddha procession all lined up on a red carpet with fantastic musical accompaniment, a sequence of cymbal, deep conch horn, louder blare and drum that was oddly compelling. The buddha was gold and calm looking, being carried on a small palanquin by white-clad young men. Troupes of nuns were standing watching in their pale pink and vivid orange robes, shaved heads smooth and rounded. And monks of all shapes and sizes in dark red were walking or standing, crowds of them.

I crossed through the procession as it stood there, then joined the clutter of people who were walking slowly around the giant gold chedi. Behind me I heard the procession start moving. What a wild morning scene it was.

I stopped at the dragon (Saturday-born people’s) shrine to make offerings of water (pouring cupfuls on the buddha and on the dragon) and to drape onto the buddha the jasmine flower garland I’d bought on the way up. And then I rejoined the crowd, slowly walking on the cool marble, looking and wondering at it all.

Every time I am at Shwedagon I notice at least one new-to-my-eyes thing; the place is so full and complex that one can only take it in a bit at a time. On this last visit I “saw” for the first time a standing buddha, slender, atop a platform. The statue was gold, graceful and very pleasing. But that appreciative response made me pause.

For each thing I look at at Shwedagon I see with my western foreign eyes, not with the eyes of a “believer”. And so my first and primary response is an aesthetic one. I am drawn to a statue or drawing or mural or tilework, or I’m not. But if I were a simple believing buddhist, surely my first reflex on seeing that buddha statue would be one of awe and worship; would aesthetic judgement enter my reaction at all? It’s the same question that arises in Europe, when we see a, say, medieval wooden carving of the Virgin. We make a judgement about its beauty, its line and feel, and are also impressed by its antiquity, however it looks. Surely the peasants and others from the era in which it was created would have had little or no aesthetic response, but instead one of worshipfulness…

And this brings me to the article that came out about a week ago concerning the repair and renovation of a temple/gompa complex in Nepal’s remote Mustang region. There’s a controversy about the work that is being done (funded by foreign donors). The foreigner who is in charge began with an attitude from his training, which was to preserve what was there, in however dilapidated a state. But he changed once he had spent a lot of time with the villagers and monks. They wanted frescoes repainted and brightened, renewed and restored, not just conserved.

There’s been a large dispute. The man in charge said his view had changed because he had come to realise that the villagers’ needs and point of view should come first. He had decided that the western art-conservation approach was not appropriate to the situation, which involved a living much-used place of belief and worship, not a museum piece.

And so when I see bright neon lights sparkling behind a buddha figure at Shwedagon, or garish new paint at Wat Bupparam near my place here in Chiang Mai, I try to put my head in the place of the worshippers, rather than staying locked in my place of aesthetic judgement. It’s especially when the judgement is negative (“why did they make this so ugly?”) that I feel I need to put my imagination elsewhere, to try to understand another point of view, another way of seeing and relating.

When my aesthetic response is positive - that excited appreciation of something lovely - it cannot be repressed, nor should it be I think. It’s the feeling I had when I first saw the charming marble reclining buddha in a temple at Sagar, in southern Inle Lake. There’s a sense of delight and wonder. Time stops. And that response is not far from religious, is it?

Saturday, February 16, 2013


It’s Saturday evening in Rangoon. People are out and about drinking and doing karaoke, eating hotpot out on the sidewalk, or just strolling in the warm air. What then am I doing sitting inside typing on this keyboard?

Well I think I’ll move to a small café nearby, so I can have a snack and a beer as I write this. But I do need to be writing, for life is about to get a whole lot busier in less than twelve hours. A good friend named Min is coming by for breakfast at 8 tomorrow morning, then I have some further research for an article to do mid-morning. And after that there’s the move to the Summit Parkviw Hotel, where I will meet the Burma immersethrough food group tomorrow afternoon and head out with them before sunset to Shwedagon and then to supper.

It’s strange to be here as a tourist and yet at the same time have a rather full work agenda. For over three  years I made regular trips to Burma to do work for the BURMA book. And during that time I was rather single-minded, with a sense of urgency, on every one of those trips. I avoided local ex-pats and also anyone who was “connected”, not wanting to lean on anyone, or be a parasite. I needed and wanted to find things out for myself (for better or for worse!).

Now that work is done. I have the tour work coming up of course, but I have also had almost a week of hanging around in Rangoon. And that has produced all kinds of interesting encounters with ex-pats, Burma specialists, and others. I have learned a lot of gossip, and heard about deeply interesting Burma-based research in linguistics, agriculture, and more. I’ve also seen an incubator kitchen in action and heard other food-related projects being explored in talk.

Some of this stuff is entirely new, a product of the changed political and social landscape here. Some of it has been going on in one form or another for while, but I have not known about it because of my wilful avoidance of ex-pats and connected Burmese. I have no regrets, I have to say. Hearing now about exciting ideas and projects in Burma is like watching the desert bloom after never dreaming it could rain a drop.

And at the same time of course, this energy and forward movement is happening in a fragile place and space. There’s still fighting in Kachin State, and huge perhaps never-resolvable tensions and hatreds in Rakhine State. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was at the photo exhibit I went to late this afternoon after the book launch party. She was there as its patron and as a judge in a photo competition. The press of people wanting to see her, photograph her, get a whiff of her fairy dust, was a little dismaying. It’s natural I suppose, this elevation of a remarkable person to icon status.

But it can’t really be doing her any good, can it? Like everyone else, she is only human, and the strengths that saw her through isolation, harsh choices, and house arrest, may not be ideal attributes for a leader who needs to build a strong political party. Do people dare to disagree and argue with her? Is she getting tough talk form anyone?

I sure hope so. For the isolation of a person who is idolised is a dangerous thing, and it must also be so lonely in some ways.

Here I am coming to the end of these thoughts. I never made it out to a café. Instead I am sitting in the charmless lobby of the Eastern Hotel, sipping beer between sentences, and listening to the casual chat of the guys on staff. I love the sound of human voices speaking a language that I don’t understand. There’s the comfort of voice without the intrusion of meaning. What more can a tired person ask for?

The sound of other humans reminds us that we are not alone. And the absence of comprehension leaves me free to think my own thoughts, shape my own sentences. What a pleasure.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


The sky is limpid, pale blue with touches of pink-tangerine. Sunset was half an hour ago.  Once the sun had disappeared the sky to the west was a glowing orange - not red, not pink, orange – bordered with the purple-blue line of the steep Shan hills that run north-south and frame this lovely Inle Lake world. 

I wrote that short paragraph a few days ago, when I was staying by Inle Lake for three days with the valiant group of people who came on my first immersethrough food tour to Burma.

But we were busy, engrossed with travelling on the lake, exploring around, cooking, talking…and so I did not manage to write anything more. My apologies for the long gaps between postings here. I last posted at the full moon, and since then the old lunar year has ended with the arrival of the new moon.

Of course in all this time I’ve had many thoughts and ideas, things I have for a moment looked at in my mind’s eye as I thought, aha, that would be a good thing to talk about in my next blogpost. But unless I write ideas down or act on them fairly quickly, they vanish into the ether. All I’m saying I guess is that this long gap does NOT mean that I have more to say right now. It may be somewhere in my head, that messy stack of undeveloped thoughts and ideas, but they are not retrievable at will. When they choose to surface or show themselves, as I hope they do, at least some of them, then I’ll have more to work with.

For now, sitting here in Rangoon, in the charmless but confortably familiar lobby of the Eastern Hotel (the place I stay when I’m here on my own; with the group we stay at the Summit Park View near Shwedagon), with the familiar faces and voices of the long time staff around, I’m happy to be sipping a Myanmar beer and eating a ripe avocado spoonful by spoonful. My only seasonings are salt and a squeeze of lime juice. It’s part of my renewing and recharging day. After a week of large convivial meals, I needed a break in the pattern. That meant a simple nan-piar with black coffee this morning, a rice with chickpeas in it and fried egg on top for late lunch, and now this green supper.

Today is a holiday in Burma, “Union Day”. There are many closed shops, and a wonderful shortage of traffic on the streets. They’re even less busy than on a Sunday. And people are out walking with their little kids, strolling through the local markets and visiting temples.

At around noon I walked up to Osaka, a little noodle shop that makes fabulous Shwe daung khao swe (noodles topped with a light coconut milk and pork dressing, with a good broth and plenty of interesting condiments and pickles), only to find it closed for the holiday. I can’t blame them. After all, usually they are open seven days a week, from 5 am to 5 pm. On the walk back, I strolled through Yegyaw Market, quiet today but still open for business, bought some laphet thoke makings (fermented tea leaves in two forms, plus the nuts and crunchies mixture that goes with them), then started across Bogyoke Road.

But there was a large crowd gathered on the side of the road, clearly waiting for something to happen, so I walked over to have a look. It was like a medieval or village festival in feel, as the crowd stood quietly and expectantly waiting in the shape of a large hollow rectangle. In the centre were 16 or 20 poles, in pairs , some about three feet tall, some more than five feet, each topped with a small flat metal surface. A supple coordinated-looking young guy was walking on them, stepping from one to the next, then pausing, testing its stability. Sitting on the ground, holding onto each pole to keep it steady, was a crowd of young men, all in red king-fu club tee-shirts and loose pants.

Aha! Suddenly I understood. This was prep for a lion dance. With all of the poles tested, the guy and his partner, each wearing pink-and-silver-patterned leggings, picked up the fluffy fluncy lion dance lion costume, pulling on the head so that its long-lashed eyelids fluttered, and swishing the body as they settled under the “body” covering.

The drum started, first enticing, then exciting, as the lion twitched and glanced around, the crowd still, attentive, unmoving. Then suddenly the lion leapt up onto the poles, one leg on each, swayed, nodded and rolled its head, then leapt again. It  crouched, wiggled, looked back over its shoulder…  And so it went on, as the drum intensified in volume, then paused, shifting the pace, then picked it up again: all artistry and willing suspension of disbelief. It was magic and enthralling, not just the lion, but the complete engagement of the adults and kids watching.

Chinese New Year has never looked so good to me. And the about-to-vanish-in-modernity charm of Rangoon still lingers… There may be traffic jams now, and SIM cards for cell phones (I just bought my first Burmese one today), and money-change emporia, and ATMs (all very recent changes, in the last few months), but people are not yet jaded, and they don’t take pleasures and treats for granted.

It’s all a reminder that we can all do with a pause to appreciate whatever treat or privilege or pleasure we receive in a day. Often in my rush to move on to the next thing, I forget to take that moment to savour things.

The lion dance moment.

Happy year of the snake. May it help us all shed our old skin of stale dry habits and see life and people and the world generally with fresh vulnerable eyes.