Oneway East

Sunday, July 30, 2006


One little tidbit about the State PEeace and Development council's policies: July 19 is Martyr's Day, a memorial for Bogyoke Aung San, the power-player who managed the use the japanese to kick out the brits, then bring the brits back to kick out the japanese, all while keeping the 109 ethnicities of Myanmar united. He was assasinated shortly after he achieved independence and consolidated the country. In any case, July 19, the anniversary of his assassination, is the only day of the year that his mausoleum is open for viewing. My cabbie and I pulled up at noon on the 19th, but lo, there we beheld a barbed-wire barrier accompanied by guards who told us, "No, this is closed today."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Out in the hills somewhere between Kalaw and Nyaungshwe, we spent the night in a monastery in a little Pa-O (Black Karen) village. Said monastery seemed to be the social heart of the village, and at night people would gather there because there as nothing else to do and there was a TV and limited electricity there. Unfortunately for us, since we'd been hiking for about eight hours that day and we were beat and just wanted to sleep. Lucky for us, the World Cup came on at half past midnight, so in come the people, on comes the TV, loud is the volume. It was all in the one great hall of the monastery. There was no escaping the volume. No why was the volume even important? I believe it was being broadcast in English, which no one in the village speaks. Hm... Also strange because rural Myanmar people are completely diurnal. Farming and no electricity does dictate that. I guess it was a special occasion.


Not to go on about it, but Yangon is really the filthiest city I've ever been in. There's a layer of scum on the floor and mold on the walls and nothing's been fixed in forty years.

I'm currently in Bangkok getting one of my lenses repaired and getting some visas to go to Laos and Vietnam. All is well. Bangkok is incredibly cosmopolitan compared to Yangon.

Monday, July 24, 2006


A few quotes from a book I finished recently

"Unaware that their mother city was dying, the living still sat there in the open street,like caryatids supporting the darkness, the pains of futurity upon their very eyelids."

"there is no pain compared to that of loving a woman who makes her body accessible to one and yet who is incapableof delivering her true self-becaues she does not know where to find it."

"...and gradually his voice ran down likea time-piece overcome by the weight of seconds."

"a graceful silver-haired man whose austere features had always seemed to me to demand a violin under them in order to set them off."

"I feel as if heaven lay close upon the earth and I between them both, breathing through the eye of a needle."

"By the way, she's not a Marxist as yet, simply a work-mystic..."

all from "Justine", one quarter of "The Alexandria Quartet", by Lawrence Durrell.


When you're in a strange place making friends and meeting people, much of your activities end up revolving around food. It's some of the essential glue of human social interaction. And when you don't know what else to do, you can always snack. A charming little bit of Myanmar society is the teashop. You sit down at a little table on a little kindergarten-sized stool. There is always a pitcher of weak Chinese tea on the table and a few little cups in a bowl of water when you sit, and then shortly after you sit and order a cup of myanmar tea (strong black tea with sweetened condensed milk), several plates of little snacks appear at your table. Little somosas, bits of fried dough that resemble crullers, small cubes of sweetened and flavored sticky rice, discs of fried dough stuffed with sweetened black beans, sometimes packaged pastries, oily fried springrolls, squares of eggy custard, things like that. It varies from place to place. At first your reaction is what the christ am I going to do with all this food, but then you get used to the idea that you don't pay for what you don't eat. It's easy to meet people in the teashops, especially because you stick out like a fart in an elevator. I drew a few portraits of strangers in some, men playing chess or watching television being good subjects. (The hand as gotten very rusty!) It's a nicer way to approach someone and record their image than simply taking a picture. Plus, if you've put in the effort already, they're usually happy to have you shoot their picture. The teashops and the temples are the centers of Myanmar social life. There are bars here and there, but as far as I can tell, the only people who can afford to drink beer are tourists, soldiers, and a some businessmen. In addition, the whole country turns into a pumpkin around ten at night. It's as silent as the basement of a morgue at night. All the bustle of the street evaporates, the umbrellas and fry stalls and betel-nut sellers and trishaw drivers, the cheroot hawkers and the shouting garbage collectors and girls with platters of fruit on their heads, all of what makes the streets a congested muddy swirl in the day, it's all gone by around nine-thirty.

What food you find in the teashops reflects the influences of how many different people have lived there. Chinese and Indian snacks accompanying Nepali-style tea, all of it with a Burmese twist. It's a huge country, as big as Texas with a population of sixty million. Indians, Nepalis, Bamar, Mon, Chinese, Chins, Kachins, Shan, Kayin, so many groups. This place used to be a bigger deal than Thailand. You see the cracked and charred husks of several empires here. The older one, which left all the temples and stupas behind, was the kingdom of the Bamar kings. More recently and briefly, but still relatively visible, is the Empire of the British. You don't see too much British colonial architecture outside of Yangon, but the presence is still there. Roads, railways, those things that the Brits are good at. I met a batty old woman who was still pining for the days of the British. Apparently that's not so uncommon among people who predate the second world war. They got stuff done a whole lot better than the current assholes.

But overall, I'm thrilled to be back in Thailand, foodwise. Much of the food in Myanmar does not have the richly layered flavors of Thai food. A lot of fried carby stuff. Fried rice, fried noodles. Those are the staples. Gloppy curries without the delicacy of flavor that you find in some Thai and Indian curries. The Indian food was the best food that I had there. I had one meal at a north Indian restaurant in Bagan that was to die for. It was sort of a splashout expensive meal, mutton curry for 2500 kyat, almost two dollars! But it was unbelievably good after that horrendous minibus ride from Meiktila. A mutton curry with Chapatis and five different little pickled accompaniments to make each bite taste different. Fried onions and garlic, pickled mango, tamarind paste, maybe pickled bamboo shoots, and a different amarind paste. It was spectacular.

A staple of the Shan diet is wheat noodles, and one of their staple crops is tomatoes. So not surprisingly, in Shan state you can get a really good plate of homemade Italian pasta. Wheat, tomatoes, garlic, onions. Those are all native.

Note to future travelers: It's a "don't finish the whole plate" country, not a "clean your plate country". If you empty a plate, it gets refilled. And people are constantly handing their dishes back to the server or cook for further modifications and additions. You get used to it.


One of the ways that the complete and utter dysfunctionality of the government of Myanmar can be seen is in their public transit. There are nowhere near enough buses. They're in horrible shape. People packed in like fish in a net. A mix of re-re-re-rebuilt 1940's Chevy army trucks, rebuilt 1980's Toyota vans, and other vehicular palimpsests. If you spend most of your time in transit in horrible vehicles, your quality of life will certainly suffer. In addition, the roads are really lousy. Four lanes, two in each direction, but only the two in the middle are really paved. Those are the routes between the cities. One exception is the road from Yangon to Pyay, because Ne Win, the original leader of the junta, grew up in Pyay.

Sunday, July 16, 2006


Movements in the Union of Myanmar, briefly-

Seventeen hours through the pouring rain walked from Kalaw to Nyaungshwe, took 3 days. Inle lake, a place where the farmers build islands of dirt out of decaying plants dredged friom the lake bottom and piled into small islands. A ride on the roof of a sardine-packed pickup truck for seven hours. Meiktila, a crossroad city where everyone behaved as if they'd never seen a foreigner, or at least not in a long time. It was a bit intense, the stares and giggles, but my anxiety was alleviated by the hospitality of the son of a watch repairman and his family. My femur was longer than the ditance between the back of my seat and the back of the one in front of me on the ride to the parched plains of Bagan. The temples out number the tourists here by several thousand, although there are more palefaces here than anywhere else I've been lately. Thailand, to where I return in two days time, will feel like Chicago.

Probably just a mild warmup for the foreignness I'll feel in rural China.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Rainy in Rangoon.

Hey folks. Happy fourth. Silly me, this morning I took a stroll over to the US embassy (they do have one here even though it's a rather ungentle place) and the guards out front told me, "Come back tomorrow." And I said, "How come?" And they said, "It's independence day." I said, "Whose? Myanmar?" They said, "No, yours." Uh... Ok so I lose track of stuff like dates sometimes. Not that I have anyone to celebrate it with, since there are absolutely no foreigners here. None. I had a beer with three Bamar sailors who all had fond memories of Bourbon Street, but that's the closest I got. Yesterday, visiting three of the biggest tourist attractions in Myanmar, I saw a total of ten foreigners. All day today, not even one. And I was out all day. I guess the guys with epaulets aren't really doing their country's tourism industry any favors.

Terms like that are the way you talk about current affairs with locals. Or that's what they do when they're talking to me. Makes sense. Gestures like brushing one's hands at one's shoulders or pointing upwards get the point across quite well. I'm operating through a proxy server, but nonetheless, I'm going to euphemize about any loaded topics since the deleter-guys are probably using search engines to sort through all of the incoming and outgoing traffic looking for specific hot-button words.

One of the sailors actually said her name out loud(quietly) in the bar this afternoon. The others and I urged him to shush.

Everyone hates them. Everyone. Hates. Them. Despite the law and the real danger to them, people are eager to talk to me about the topic. It only happens in a car or inside an apartment, in safe places.

Don't worry, I'm just chatting, not joining any kind of movement. I'm very careful to avoid attracting any kind of attention from anyone with anything like a uniform.

I've heard of the first, second, and third worlds. I think I might be in the fourth. Okay, I'm exaggerating, but I've never been any place like this. Parts of rural Mexico were desperately poor, Morocco wasn't super-rich, some villages in rural Laos were pretty far down the ladder, but this is the downtown of the first city of the nation that I'm talking about. Squalid, decaying, mouldering, crumbling, those words all work well. People are kind of okay though. They're really nice. I instinctively trust them so much more than I do the Thais, never mind the Moroccans or Mexicans. They're nicer. The folks in Laos were similar, but they're developing really quickly. Exposure to the idea that You Can Get Really Rich and Buy All this Stuff!! Egads! Stuff! I'm not saying economic development is bad, and folks here would love to get a taste of it, but there are drawbacks. And I will say that greed is categorically bad. Pollutes your priorities. Some of the young Thais closely attached to the tourist industry, like the gangsters at the Drop In in Haad Rin, have done very well financially, but they're so hard. Like New Yorkers? One salient element is that this country is heavily Buddhist. As you all probably know, one of the core elements of Buddhism is that much of the suffering in life comes from material desire, and that all material things are transitory and impermanent. If this is one of the beliefs that you and everyone around you has been brought up with, perhaps you're less inclined to get worked up about the new car that the Joneses bought that you don't have. Be that as it may, there is still such thing as Not Enough Stuff. Like when you're hungry and cold and wet and your kids are crying and there's nothing you can do about it. (Not speaking from personal experience)

Anyway blah blah blah. I think I'm just in the mood to chat and think out loud. Not many opportunities for a frank chat here. I'm starting to understand better some of the aspects of the colonial mindset that I've read about. I'm not agreeing with the nasty racism and exceptionalism of those years, but I understand some of the feeling that could move in those directions. In "Burmese Days" by George Orwell, an important part of the protagonist's personality was a feeling of isolation and loneliness, feeling cut off from all that is familiar and comfortable. As a result, he spent a fair amount of time at the European Club with men he hated, just for lack of anywhere else to go. I'm even considering watching a World Cup game. Flory spoke Burmese, and knew lots of people, but there is a certain ache for what you grew up with. It's been over a month since I've met an American, I'm pretty sure. Canadians and Brits have stood in a bit for that spot in my brain, as well as numerous other Europeans. Homesick is a strong word, but I do find myself looking for the familiar where I can. Like I wrote the other day, I couldn't help myself but watch when "Sex in the City" came on TV on the bus the other day.

I don't think the epaulets are very good Buddhists.

A quote from a Buddhist text:
"Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression,
I am committed to cultivating loving kindness and learning ways to work for the well-being
of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I will practice generosity by sharing my time,
energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to
steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property
of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering
of other species on Earth."

Mom, if you ever come here, I found a bookshop that you'd love. It was like a mouldering cave filled with stacks of books bundled in twine, dirty glass cabinets of old periodicals, worm-eaten textbooks, and five little old men. The owner, Pho Thin Naing, erally loves books. He's a collector of old english-language texts from all sorts of provenances. It was like being in a wizard's laboratory, opening book after book, finding the wierdest stuff. It felt like a cabinet of secrets. I even found an original copy of book I read last week, but the copy I read was homemade with a photocopier and then bound, but this one was an original printing, and the pages were riddled with little holes from some kind of burrowing insect, dare I suggest 'bookworms'? There was a manual for running Burmese jails, archaeological scholarly texts from the fifties about the ruins in Bagan, agricultural training manuals, books on the observation of occult phenomena, lots of buddhist stuff, "the Glass Palace" by Amitav Ghosh (an author who is on my Ipod), and I don't even know what else. One of the gentlemen, U San Lwin, spoke nearly perfect English. Shocking to discover he had never been outside the borders of Myanmar(Burma in his youth), given his excellent grammar and accent. He runs someplace called the English Language institute when he's not at the Book Cave.

Everything is always damp. It is indeed the rainy season. It rains all the time. Almost. I smell. I can't make all the smells go away at the same time. It's a little bit of a drag. But some of you snarks out there have been telling me I smell my whole life. Well piss off. I'm doing the best I can, being quite hygienic, but when nothing really dries ever, what can you do?

Ok I'm going to do some translation now for a friend. Reading his French friend's travel diary, but she alas wrote it in French.

Monday, July 03, 2006


Hey hey, what do you know. Apparently there is limited and censored internet available in Yangon. Which is no longer even the capital city of Myanmar, since those guys got crafty and moved their capital to out in the weeds a few years back.

So this place completely does my head in. Who knew that a border could be so big. The differences between Thailand and Myanmar are dramatic.

Here's a little sampler for you of some prices, which I found quite illustrative.
exchange rate this afternoon: 100$ US = 130000 kyat
Noodles for two on the street: 800 kyat (pronounced "chat")
Tea for two with two baked banana thingys, two samosas, one full paratha, one little fried sweet ball thingy, and all the green tea you could drink: 1000 kyat
Hotel room in a decent place with aircon, minibar, hot+cold water, and no windows: 10$ US
1991 Toyota Corolla in acceptable condition(exactly what I've got back in the states): 30,000$ US
Cellphone with simcard that has it work on the myanmar network: 4000$ US
My camera package complete (Canon EOS 20D, pretty high end digital SLR with a couple lenses etc.): 30,000 $ US
Brand-new Toyota Land Cruiser: 400,000$ US (of which only about 40,000 is the car, the rest in getting it here)
new stainless-steel watchband, including adjustment and installation: 700 kyat
Passport and visa to go somewhere else: 10,000-12,000$ US
Brand-new Shan Star Jeep(the house brand, apparently an unmitigated piece of shit): 6,500 $
Gasoline: 3$ a gallon. Six months ago it was half that. Sound familiar? Thanks Dubya.

There are no new cars here. With a few exceptions, owned by those you would logically assume would. There are stacks of mid-eighties Toyotas, lovingly beaten back into shape again and again, made to work with some low-budget wizardry. It's astonishing how well my guide's Toyota worked, given what's working against it. Even all the electronics work, which is more than I can say for most beaters back in the states. Many of the city buses are 1940's model Chevrolets. I just can't figure out how they work. I don't think the cars here have the charm of the cars in Cuba, which I think are all old curvy 50's models. It's more like an 80's timewarp crossed with a stiff shot of squalor with no chaser. Its fairly grim here. The people are devout Buddhists, eschewing most of their material desires. They don't seem to have many other options.

So the pagodas are amazing, blowing most of the stuff in Thailand and Laos out of the water. Glittering gold-and-diamond spires rising off of great gold mounds surrounded by intricately carved teak pavilions and double-bodied Sphinxes, Nagas, and buddhas. By the thousand. One I saw today was unbelievably huge. I think the word is that it's a little over 180 feet (55 meters) long, and probably a quarter of that high. I think it's the biggest thing I've ever seen. Okay not, but the massive glittering glass eyes transfix you as you enter the pavilion.

Really almost nothing is new here, except for some low-end consumer stuff from China, like necessary plastic housewares. The lack of massive public advertising punches you in the face with its absence.

There is a romance to the imposing moss-covered ruins-in-training that the British left behind and have mostly been taken over as government buildings. Hundred-years old colonials abound, defined by swaying columns and algae-covered brick. The glories of the British Empire faded almost beyond recognition.

Talking to folks and looking around really makes me see what a major tragedy was the assassination in 1947 of the man who navigated this country to independence, the chap whose daughter has been in hot water with the fat cats for quite awhile now. It' been a world of hurt ever since. It's such a cliche to say, "and it's so terrible that it's happening to such nice kindhearted people!" Well, maybe there's some relationship between the national personality and the current situation.

So folks, I think I'll be able to log on again tomorrow, but after that maybe not for quite some time.

Saturday, July 01, 2006


This writer has finally left fantasy island. It was high time. And my visa was expiring. Looking forward to a more outward-looking, less hedonistic period of my travels, which is about to begin. It was funny on the bus back to Bangkok, I was forced to endure about eight episodes of "Sex in the City". I was trapped. too load and present to concentrate on my book or to sleep, so I surrendered. I couldn't help but watch. It was New York, it was America, it was my craft, and in some ways, it's a decent show. In some ways it made me want to be stoned to death with overripe bananas rather than continue watching but still, that's not the point. The point was in one episode the lives of thirtysomethings were being contrasted with those of twentysomethings. And it made me glad that I'm about to resume a more thirtysomething pattern of behavior wuite shortly. I started talking and thinking about my Laos photobook project again after a conversation with my seatmate. I've had enough of Haad Rin for quite awhile. I don't regret anything I've done, I'm just saying I'm glad I'm in motion again. Ko Pha Ngan was wonderful, and it's now the closest thing I have to a home in Asia. But I'm onward now.

New photos uploaded to my smugmug photo site ( Mostly pix of my people there.

So I'm leaving Thailand early in the morning, catching a flight to Yangon, once known as Rangoon before the SLORC took over Burma and renamed in Myanmar. I am eager to see what kind of shape this poor tortured country is in. I've been reading up on their history, and it's not atypically awful for the region, it just happens to be awful to live there now under the curent government. Or that's what I would assume. I am going there tomorrow morning and I'll report back in about three weeks. There's no internet there and international phone calls are prohibitively expensive, but I'll try to find a way to keep in touch. Telegrams are what is recommended by Lonely Planet.

until I return to Thailand or someplace with internet



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