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Pankam, a Palong Hilltown

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I took a two day trek to a Palong village above Hsipaw. It was a steady up hill grind along a recently widened dirt track, and took about five hot hours to get to the village. The only traffic was the occasional motor-bike or ox cart.


My guide was JoJo or Basel, as he was called in the missionary school. He spoke English well, was around my age, and was able and willing to talk on many subjects from Burmese politics to the Beatles, who used to be his favorite group before the military took over in the 60's. He is married to a woman who is 1/2 Burmese and 1/2 British, whose father was a British soldier in 1947. Apparently while her mother was pregnant with her, he returned to England and she knows very little about him.

JoJo in Downtown Hsipaw

The village, a cluster of bamboo and mostly thatched roofed houses, is the largest of many hamlets in the area. Upon arrival, we were taken to the chief's house where we would spend the night. It was not noticeably different than the other houses, though it had a corrugated tin roof. Hotter in the dry season and noisier when it rains, the chief said to us.


We dropped our packs, and then I hobbled off to the town's only water source, a well built with UN funds. Pankam used to have a small river, now dry, a victim of deforestation and global warming. With my blistered feet the 1/2 mile walk seemed much longer.


There was really no way to bathe, so I washed as best as I could, and then walked back. We were served a lunch of banyon leaf soup, rice, pieces of fried sticky rice with ginger as well as a "Palong omelette," prepared by the chief's wife. Not bad.

And No, That's Not a Rat, but a Puppy

After that, the chief's daughter, all of about 5 or 6, decided she would show us around. The other guests, besides JoJo, were a German couple, and so we made a spectacle of ourselves parading around, sometimes with a dozen children in tow. It didn't hurt that the Germans had brought plastic dolls to give away, but we would have been a noticeable attraction anyway. There were no other farangs.

Chief's Daughter First on Left


Most people seemed pleased that we were there, some even eager to have their photographs taken.

"Kham Cha," they said. Hello in Palong which is different than Shan and Burmese. JoJo spoke all three. They were not completely unused to foreigners here. Once every two weeks or so, another small group came and stayed with the chief and made a donation of $4 to bring in a little extra cash.





Our tour would not have been complete without seeing the nearby tea fields. This is how the village sustains itself, by trading tea for rice. It is run as a cooperative with everyone working in the fields. Not long ago, they used to carry the tea into town on their backs, but now that the road is wider, thanks to the chief's efforts, they can bring it by truck.


On the way back, we stopped to buy some warm beer since there were no refrigerators, and sat outside the house drinking in the fading afternoon light. It actually began to get cool, and I put on a fleece jacket that had seen no use since we left home. Chickens and dogs competed for who could make the most noise, but it was not unpleasant. The chief seemed to be immersed in several meetings with villagers from other hill towns. Dinner was eventually served, similar to lunch, by battery powered lights and candles. I was beginning to develop a taste for banyon leaf soup.

Later in the evening, his meetings finally over, I finally got to talk him over endless cups of the local rice hooch, and Burmese whiskey that JoJo brought. This was the highlight of the day.

I asked how he became chief. He said that his father had more or less retired from the position after 17 years. He was the oldest son and was next in line, but also that the people had decided that they wanted him to do it. The fact that he was college educated in another part of Shan State and spoke English, probably had something to do with it. At the time, two years ago, he was 26 and was not sure he was old enough for the job. Being chief was far from easy he explained. He had to solve many different kind of problems from marital issues to land disputes, and although there was a council of four elders to help if he needed advice, the final decision was always up to him. He wanted to try and improve the education level of the other villagers and had many ideas about how to improve the economy as well. With the burdens of his office, he said he really likes it when tourists come because he can learn from them, and also teach them something about his own culture. When he heard that I was a psychologist he was very interested, since dealing with relationship problems is a significant part of his job.

He told me that the Palongs have grown tea cooperatively for many years, although JoJo indicated they used to grow opium until the government put a stop to it. The fields produce no less than 14 different harvests from which they produce green and black tea, tea pickles and other tea products. Most of it is sold or traded for rice and then shipped to China. There is no electricity in the village and so farming methods are primitive and labor intensive. No one is hungry, but the villagers have few things, and lead hard lives working in the tea fields under the hot Burmese sun. Being chief does not exempt him from working there just like them.

I liked him immensely, and felt that his people were lucky to have him. It was also obvious that this was not a job which would make him rich, except in responsibility. After a few hours of drinking and talking we bid each other good night, and I retired to the hard sleeping platform above the earth floor. The German couple, JoJo and I slept side by side, while the chief and his family went upstairs. At around 4 AM I had to use the facilities, a somewhat dangerous proposition as I had to clamor around some big rocks to get to the outhouse. Unfortunately, I must have awakened the first rooster who immediately began crowing, and was soon joined by others, making further sleep difficult.

After breakfast we set off for the return hike which was shorter, though my sore feet did not make things easier.

The Chief and His Family

Posted by jonshapiro 09:33 Archived in Myanmar Tagged postcards Comments (9)

Hsipaw: Shan State, Burma

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We are finally on our own here in the small town of Hispaw, which is modestly cooler than sweltering Yangon and Mandalay. It has been wonderful to meet and greet the relatives of our students, but everyone has been so concerned for our welfare that it has been overwhelming at times. We are staying at The Lonely Planet recommended, Mr. Charles' Guesthouse, seemingly THE PLACE, since nothing else comes close to being as nice. Mr Charles is half Chinese, extremely personable, and seemingly as interested in talking to us as we are to him. He has obviously made the hotel successful, as we are in the relatively upscale and newly completed addition. There are younger European backpackers, as well as older tour groups, primarily French and German, arriving daily. The town, on a plateau and surrounded by higher mountains, is not especially attractive. With concrete and wooden buildings, hot tin roofs, and scooters buzzing like flies, it is dry and dusty this time of year. There is less truck traffic than usual, thanks to Chinese New Year, but still some. Curiously, there appears to be more electricity here than in the big cities thanks to our proximity to the power lines going to nearby China.


The marketplace, as always, is colorful, and the nearby family run noodle and oil factories are interesting.


Nuns in the Market

The Noodle Factory

Despite their very limited English, with help from our guide JoJo, we got into a deep conversation with the oil factory owners about aging and the joys and difficulties of a long marital relationship. I guess they weren't used to seeing people of our age roaming about. Their openness was astonishing.

Factory Owner

His Wife and Grandson

The bucolic countryside, in contrast to town, is green, full of verdant fruit, vegetable, and rice fields, as well as incredibly friendly people.



We took several walks through the fields and a villages, including one to a small, undeveloped hot springs. Walking along the river past bamboo houses and field workers, we were greeted by children and adults, saying H E L L O O H, B Y E, B Y E, and smiling broadly. We responded by saying Mingalaba, in Burmese, not realizing that for many, Shan was their primary language.




Tourists in significant numbers have only recently begun to make it out here, and so we are still something of a novelty. There will no doubt be more as time goes on, unless political unrest prevents it. At the springs, some of the young Euros, French, Finnish, Swiss, and Dutch, were there, as well as a couple of Burmese families, bathing in the warm stream water.


It was a delightful and relaxing way to spend the day.

Between a Rock and a Water Buffalo

So far at least, rural village life has seemingly not changed that much from the way it is described in Twilight in Burma, Memoirs of a Shan Princess. (I should qualify this by saying that a considerable amount of the farmers' income is now generated by growing watermelons that are shipped to China). This fascinating book was written by an Austrian woman who married a Shan Prince, shortly before the Tatmadow, Burmese Army, took over. Several years ago it was still possible to visit the palace described in the book, though now it is off-limits to visitors, following the imprisonment of the last of the Prince's relatives. Rumor has it that he has recently been released after many years, and is back living in seclusion in the palace.

The Shan are quite separate and distinct from ethnic Burmese, and to put it mildly, have not always seen eye to eye. There are still pockets of violent resistance in a few places in Shan State, and in other border areas as well, in what may be one of the longest civil wars in the world. Some of this is probably related to skirmishes over control of the drug trade between the central military government, factions of the Shan, Was, Wa and drug lords in Yunnan, China. According to one of our contacts, the possibility of a larger war preceding the upcoming election cannot be discounted.

Posted by jonshapiro 12:31 Archived in Myanmar Tagged postcards Comments (2)

The Road to Mandalay

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We took the overnight bus to Mandalay. The long and COLD bus. As Mark Twain said about San Francisco in the summer, I was never as cold as in an ac bus here in the tropics. And we weren't the only ones. Everyone was wearing coats and hats, but of course we, like the other farangs, had left our warm clothes in the luggage compartment underneath.

All of the buses stopped in the same place for "dinner" at about midnight. It was quite a scene.


The bumpy ride over what is supposedly the best road in Burma, was uneventful. At one point in the middle of the night, we passed a series of roads and roundabouts going to a pagoda and continuing on to points unknown. There was enough neon to make it look like a Chinese city, strikingly bright, especially given the grossly inadequate power in most of the country. We later found out it was built by the government to increase their merit, and to provide secure housing for the generals.

At 5AM, a beaming U Biminida was waiting for us with his driver in the cool predawn air of the hectic bus station. He was accompanied by a young betel chewing monk who had the same name as one of the monks in Albany. Unlike U Biminida, he spoke a few words of English. Not long after, our monk friends at home called on U Biminida's cell to make sure we had arrived safely. Strange to talk to them here.

We went directly to the home of a small donor, obviously very poor, where U Biminida gave a speech and breakfast was served. We returned to the monastery where we were shown to our "room," actually a small section of a large hall that had been partitioned off with makeshift curtains. The first thing I did was to hang our mosquito net, lugged from home, to deal with the whine of the hungry bugs dive bombing my legs. We tried to sleep for a few hours, hopeless in my case, and then spent time exploring the grounds.

Study Hall

Monastery Grounds

Entrance to Monastery

Nanette, U Biminida and his Mother

Everyone, monks, novitiates and assorted visitors, all seemed to get an enormous kick out of our being here. They are obviously not used to westerners. That night they prepared a special dinner for us. Any dinner is special at the monastery since the monks don't eat in the afternoon. One of the donors asked what we liked, and then prepared ALL of what we mentioned.

The next day I went off to see some of the sights of Mandalay with Ni Ley, a young monk we met at breakfast who spoke English fairly well.


They were interesting, various payas, or pagodas, an old teak building (Shwe In Bin) that had been a monastery until the government shut it down for political reasons.

One of Many Nats or Spirits at Shwe In Bin

Of even more interest to me, was talking to Ni Ley. He told me how much he would like to leave Burma because there are so few opportunities, even as a monk. He wants to go to university, but can't afford it unless his family pays and it is way beyond their means. He lives in the oldest building at the edge of the monastery grounds, and doesn't know U Biminida well. The monastery is divided into two parts and his section is quite separate. I wonder about the politics of monastic life.

Nanette spent most of her day teaching English to a large crowd of monks. Late afternoon, we went to visit Dr. Min Te Jo, a former medical doctor and now Burmese scholar and puppet master. A fascinating man, we got his name from Aung Myint in Rangoon. He whispered to us not to mention the name of our student, Aung's brother, as he thought his house was being bugged by the government. Hmmm, would we have a visit from the other Myint?

Government Sign

We sat outside on the concrete veranda while Dr. Min Te, in his 70's, told us about being part of a group of Burmese intellectuals trying to keep the culture alive. This was to counter the efforts of the military to dumb down the population. Being part of this discussion group was considered subversive by the government, and so they couldn't be too public about their efforts. Their daughter, who had a masters in international relations from a German University, but no job, was considering starting a bakery in Mandalay to cater to tourists. The only income in the family came from their son, who was an architect designing housing for rich Chinese businessmen.

It is heartbreaking to see the level of desperation in this country. Unlike previous travels, we feel a part of things because we know so many people. It is in part through us, that those who remain here and those living in exile can communicate. We are the link between their relatives and friends who they have not seen for many years, and just by seeing and talking to us, they can maintain a connection to them. It is an unusual position to be in. We are not just travelers here, but cultural intermediaries.

Posted by jonshapiro 10:01 Archived in Myanmar Tagged postcards Comments (4)

Washcloths and Other Presents

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Today we met with Sue Wei Wei, the very pregnant niece of one of Nanette's students. She came to The Panda with a friend, Aung Ko, who is an English and engineering student. She spoke some Engish, but was shy, and Aung Ko spoke well, and looked to be the half Chinese that he is, with spiky and dyed hair. Her husband was working.

The ritual exchange of presents took place in the empty lobby. Nanette had been given a large bag of watches and electronic gadgets from Sue Wei Wei's uncle in the states, ridiculously expensive here, as well as some US cash for Sue Wei Wei to distribute to relatives. There is a story to this. When Nanette first spoke to the uncle about these gifts, he told her that he wanted us to bring some "wash cloths" for their family. Why would anyone want to send wash cloths to Burma as a present?

Nanette went over to the house to pick them up, and spoke to his wife about the gifts. "What is it that you want me to bring?"



"You know," and pointed to her watch. "Watchclocks."

"Ohhhhh. You mean watches."

Sar Ney nodded vigorously. "Watchclocks, that's right."

It is always an adventure trying to figure out Burmese pronunciation.

They wanted to give us many more things to bring over, not understanding that the weight was an issue. Nanette begged off on some, but in addition to the washcloths, MP3 players, and cell phones, I also carried a heavy bag of chocolate and several big bottles of fish oil tablets, presents for the Sayadow in Mandalay, whittled down to about a third of the original amount. Despite these weight reducing efforts, Sue Wei Wei now gave presents to us, longyis, a handbag, a shirt, fliip flops, even a sweater. I'm afraid that I wasn't exactly gracious as I tried to explain that it would be very hard to carry them. We insisted on returning the handbag, which she reluctantly took back.

We then took a cab to one of nicer city parks to walk and drink beer with Aung Ko. Sue Wei Wei went home, unable to walk in the heat with her pregnant belly. What did we discuss? Politics.

In mid-day we returned to the hotel to get out of the sun, and an hour later, much earlier than we expected, the mother of one of my students showed up.

The White Stuff on her Face is Thanaka, a Natural Suncreen
and Beauty Aide Made From the Bark of a Tree


This had been arranged, sort of, through the translation efforts of hotel staff. I thought that she would be accompanied by one of her sons, or was it her son-in-law who spoke English, as she spoke none. On the phone, Yu Yu's mother seemed to indicate that she wanted us to meet a particular monk, and give him an English lesson at his monastery. Okay, I thought, a bit of a strange request, but okay. Naturally she also came bearing gifts, a framed picture of The Golden Rock Pagoda, among other things. We didn't even bother trying to explain the weight problem to her. Impossible. We piled into the cab she had waiting outside, and were whisked off to a monastery not far from Shwedagon. The monk, also a Sayadow, head of the monastery, seemed to recognize me instantly. It took a while, but then the neurons starting firing. I had given him one English lesson with YuYu a few months back, when he was visiting the US. He wasn't expecting an English lesson now of course, he just wanted to see me and say hello. And he was expecting us. YuYu must have arranged it all in advance. We waited while Ashin and the other monks ate lunch, as is the custom, and then they served us. Ashin's English is so so at best, but he managed to ask where we were going, and where we would stay next. When we told him the name of the Sayadow in Mandalay, who he knew, he immediately got on his cell and made sure that U Diminiba knew exactly when we would arrive so that he could meet us. Ashin then took out both a still and digital camcorder, and took pictures of us. Things might be simple at the monastery, but the monks love their gadgets, in Burma and in the US. I reciprocated with my camera.


He gave us an enormous, five pounds at least, sack of tea. With some difficulty, I managed to get one of the young monks to take half back, saying it was far too much for us.

Finally we were given another tour of Shwedagon, though we tried to explain that we had already been. Probably not understanding this, the young monk took us there anyway, through the monks' entrance, so we wouldn't have to pay. Yu Yu's bent over mother insisted on carrying our sandals, despite our protests. Though I wasn't looking forward to it in the heat, we were taken to places we hadn't seen the first time, including temples with hand painted scenes of the life of Buddha, full of ornate gold and silver ritual objects. Without our monk, we had completely overlooked them.


Posted by jonshapiro 13:24 Archived in Myanmar Tagged postcards Comments (1)

Yangon or is Rangoon?

Show me the Money

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We arrived in Burma/Myanmar a couple of days ago after a short and cheap flight. The mysterious Dr. Myint, who we met at the monastery in Bangkok, was on our AirAsia flight. A bit of coincidence you say. He then called our hotel, Panda, and left a message that the phone number he had given us was no longer valid because he wasn't staying with his wife. He left another number and suggested we get together. We returned his call, but couldn't reach him. The next day he showed up unannounced, early in the morning, just as we were headed for the hotel breakfast. Okay, so we invited him to come with us, and in a rather untypical fashion, for the Burmese, he let us pay. The conversation at breakfast was innocent enough. Where were we going? What did we want to see? etc., but the whole thing struck me as a bit odd. The coincidence of the plane, just showing up at our hotel, the wrong phone number. What did it all mean? I wasn't sure, but I began to have doubts that Dr. Myint was who he said he was. We had been warned not to discuss politics, but of course we figured we were among friends in the monastery, and we had not been the ones to bring it up.

Later in the day we met with another Myint, which happens to be a very common name in Burma. I'll explain later. Aung Myint is the brother of one of our English students. He is 33, single, and ekes out a living as a one man publisher, historian and photographer. He came with his 70 year old uncle, whose English was much better. In Burma it is often the older folks who speak English, partly because Burma used to be a British colony, but also because there were a number of good missionary schools that taught English, most of which are long gone. Although English is now taught in school, generally the schools are really bad, deliberately kept that way by the military government. They want to keep people as uninformed as possible so that no one questions what they do.

Aung gave us a whirlwind tour of the city. First stop, a moderately upscale Burmese restaurant where we ordered far too much, not knowing that rice and other side dishes were served along with prawns, spicy meat, beans, dumplings etc. All was spread out buffet style, though it still wasn't easy to tell what everything was. Tasty, but not exactly the same Burmese food we were used to being served by our students at home. From there it was on to the used books stalls on the side streets of downtown. Most of the books were propaganda or well worn and ancient comic books. There were not many customers. The buildings of the city were dilapidated and moldy, concrete, with the occasional ornate, red brick, British Raj structure, for the most part, equally dilapidated.


Some were still in use, the Justice Department for example, or should I say, Injustice Department, but the old Rolex building was empty and obviously not in the best of shape.


The streets were crowded with ancient cars and people, some in longyis, including Aung and his uncle, and others in western attire. You had to watch where you placed your feet if you didn't want to fall into the man eating cracks on the uneven sidewalks, or the occasional open sewers on the sides of the road.


We went to some nearby art galleries, difficult to see because of the very spotty electricity. A mix of styles, some abstract, along with portraits of ethnic peoples. The owner was a friend of Aung's, and was very friendly to us. He spoke English well, and got into a lengthy conversation with Nanette about the work.

After a while, we stopped for coffee while Aung went to trade some of our dolllars for Burmese kyat, pronouced chat. The official exchange rate is 6.5 kyat to the dollar, but on the black market it is more like 1000. Of course, everyone uses the black market. Who control's that? Anyone's guess, but mine would be the government. On the black market, they only accept perfect US dollars, unfolded and uncreased, and for that matter only certain serial numbers. We knew this ahead of time, luckily. We figured we better cash $1500 US, because we planned to be in the country several weeks, and Rangoon seemed like the place with the best rate. No only that, tourists are often cheated, so we thought that it would be better to have Aung do it for us, and he was happy to oblige. Perhaps 15 minutes later he came back with a big, heavy sack of dirty money. We had to give them clean, new money, and they gave us back dirty (literally) money. I guess that fits. What did I expect? The largest bill is 1000 kyat, so Aung handed me a lot of them.

" Did you count them?" I asked.

"No, no way to do that. Too many of them."

Is there honor among thieves? I doubt it, but the bills were stacked in 15 piles held together by rubber bands. Well it looks right I thought, and heaved the money into my backpack. We were also carrying another $2500 US in cash. There are no ATM's in Burma. The good news is that there is very little street crime, thanks to the repressive government.

Shortly thereafter, the uncle, who was understandably tired after walking around in the heat, took his leave. Did I mention the heat? Sweat, sweat, sweat, all day long. Sun like the proverbial knife. And this was only the beginning of the trip. Did I get used to it? Hell no. The best time to go is November through mid January, their "winter." I can't say that the monks in the US didn't warn us, but we wanted to go during the worst part of our winter.

Before uncle left, Nanette had spotted an English copy of Lord of the Flies, that had somehow been overlooked by the censors. Probably they couldn't read it. She gave it to him for a present. It was cheap, but something he could never afford on his pittance of a pension. He seemed quite pleased, and said he would read it and then translate it.

Needing a break, we stopped off at one of the ubiquitous street side tea houses, which sell snacks and samosas, served on tiny plastic tables and chairs, just the right size for a two or three year old. It was here that Aung explained Burmese names to us. It was an interesting conversation since his spoken English is quite poor, but after a few cups of tea, we finally got it. It seemed to us that people from the same family had different surnames. As it turns out nobody has a last name in Burma, and most people are named for the day of the week they are born, not unlike the Sherpas in Nepal. So Aung is Sunday, and Myint is Thursday, but Aung also means success. Neither of these is a surname. So how does anyone know who is related to whom? There is no way to know from their names. Things are made more complex by the fact that each day of the week has several names. There are perhaps 20 or 30 combinations of names that almost everyone in the country has, male and female. No wonder they all sounded similar to us.

Then it was on to Sule Pagoda. Of indeterminate age, though not terribly old, it is a peaceful oasis in the middle of the din of downtown. It contains some interesting Buddha images and pictures of "power men," as Aung put it, princes and politicians from ancient times.

Looking Out Over the City Toward Sule in the Distance

Nanette and Aung at Sule

Masks at Sule

Posted by jonshapiro 09:30 Archived in Myanmar Tagged postcards Comments (3)

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