Archive: Backyard temples, and an especially auspicious field


The bus journey to Bagan ranks among the worst I’ve ever taken, although at 8 hours it is mercifully short. Yes, this is what they mean by “poor infrastructure”, and the locals cope with this by hawking, spitting and vomiting. Usually into plastic bags, but sometimes nature creeps up on them. We stop every ten yards or so to ingest or disgorge rice, people, boxes, etc. I distract myself by eating random things – spicy noodles, doughballs stuffed with coconut, wobbly things in broth – until we arrive at Nyaung U, the low-budget traveller’s gateway to the temples of Bagan.

Shwezigon Pagoda front door

The front door of Shwezigon Pagoda

Having checked in to my budget accommodation of choice, I wave myself under a trickle of cold water in an attempt to freshen up, then meander down the main road and round the back of Schwezigon Pagoda. I feel a bit like I’m prying, as I wander among the laundry and skirt an energetic game of chinlon (rattan ball keepy-uppy) right in the back yard of the gold-domed stupa. The stupa appeals for its quietness, and its freedom from tourists – and touts, which I will soon discover is not true in much of Bagan. I’m left to wander, contentedly, and tempted as I am to snap the kids’ game from an artistic angle it feels far too intrusive. The camera stays away.

This real-life going on among the temples is all the nicer to see, as residents of what is now “Old Bagan” were all relocated – a cynic would say forcibly – in 1990. Better to preserve temples for tourists than have citizens live among them and worship in them, clearly. 

The government is fond of moving people. In 2005 the junta announced that the capital was moving from Yangon (Rangoon), home to some 5 million people, to an as yet unnamed site that had previously been nothing but fields. The process of moving ministries to the new site began on 6 November at the “auspicious” time of 6:37am; family members were initially prohibited from joining officials until some infrastructure could be built. In March 2006, on Burmese Armed Forces Day, the name of the new capital was officially announced: Naypyidaw, the abode of kings.

Reports suggest that the infrastructure is still being built, and visitors say that this is happening more by muscle than machinery. Once again, allegations of forced and underage labour have, as if by magic, attached themselves to the regime. Rare photographs such as those here show an uncanny clash of candy-coloured modern prefabs – supposedly colour-coded by ministry – with the ragged low roofs of slums. The generals themselves are zoned 11km away from other employees in a heavily restricted zone which, according to this Time report, appears on the map as a blank space. 

It’s this kind of distance from ordinary people which is necessary to maintain the kind of visionary thinking that boldly forges ahead in moving nearly a million people to a half-imagined city in the scrub, forcing them to leave their families behind, at immense cost to an impoverished and starving nation, but still has the courage to prioritise the completion of a selection of golf courses, a game the generals are allegedly rather partial to. Seriously, even China criticised the generals on this one. Given their complicity in supporting the junta, drawing their censure is quite an achievement.

Shwezigon Pagoda

Shwezigon Pagoda: the sweet pre-sunset no-tourist spot

From here on June 8th 2011.

Archive: Dirt roads around Mandalay


The real reason to stay in Mandalay is not the city itself, but the surrounding area. Here I was faced with a dilemma – what to do? A whistlestop tour of everything by taxi? A share taxi up to Pyin U Lwin, the former British hill station? A stay in Sagaing and a leisurely stroll around its faded but not forgotten glory? Or – and here I had a flash of trademark Caroline brand genius – hire a rickety bicycle with two shopping baskets and no suspension, and do a 20-mile round-trip to Amarapura, a former royal capital comprising temples and an evocative teak bridge. Consider that boneshaker hired.

Elephants near Mandalay

Ah. Hence the traffic jam.

So clatter-clatter off I go southwards on 84th street, after a few false starts and an impromptu visit to a family’s backyard (very friendly chickens). The traffic is easy to deal with, although complicated slightly by the need to reply to everyone shouting “Hello!”, and sometimes also “Good morning!” I pootle happily along for some distance, stopping only to buy more water from a very polite man in a turban, when suddenly I hit mayhem – we’re mired in hazy beeping pick-ups as far as the eye can see. Using my narrow bicycularity to my advantage, I edge forward, and diagnose the cause of the problem: elephants. Donkeys too, and a large procession of people in sparkly clothes and tinsly head-pieces, but there’s no doubt: we’re caught in an elephant jam.

As I’ve very little idea where I am, I decide to follow the elephants as they turn off down a loopy-signposted side road (guy who romanised Vietnamese, thank you, I never realised how much easier you make my life). I double-check directions with a man standing by the side of the road, who confirms that I’m going in the right direction, and tells me that he’s an Arsenal fan for good measure. 

A paya pwe, or pagoda festival

Turns out I’d arrived in the middle of a paya pwe, or pagoda festival. Everyone was very excited.

Shortly, the elephants and I arrive at the temple complex of Somewhere, and I sit in the shade eating banana chips and watching the human participants fussing and faffing, posing for pictures and reapplying makeup in readiness for whatever important thing it is that they’ll be doing. Rested (and trying not to stare too hard), I head inside. It’s a massive complex, and clearly of some importance as there are bus-loads of foreign monks visiting (and me). The devotion is palpable – no snoozing in the pew here – but I do wish I had more idea what everything meant. 

After a suitable wander, I explore the other wonders of the region. I clatter my way down narrow alleys and stumble upon the world’s most languid train station, its sign all askew and showing no signs of life apart from three lads playing with a plastic bag. Then I set off for U-Bein’s bridge, and proceed to get hopelessly lost, ending up halfway towards Sagaing and meeting a fair number of chickens en route. There seems to be absolute consensus that the bridge can be reached by going in all of seventeen different directions. I do catch a glimpse of it, but only from behind a big scary no entry sign. It’s getting dark, and my bottom hurts. Dejected, but pleased to have found what I did find, and to have experienced such warm and friendly misdirection, I creak off home.

A railway station near Mandalay

Turns out I could have gone by train.

From here on June 8th 2011.

Archive: Mandalay, moral dilemmas and mosquitos


I wake up the next morning with a strange throbbing sensation down the left side of my face. I look in the mirror and an ogre looks back. I’ve been bitten on the lip and the eyelid, which have swelled alarmingly. I spend the next fifteen minutes rearranging my face so as not to scare the children, then hide the eye behind sunglasses. I will have to be a film star for the day.

Quiet streets in Mandalay

In retrospect, perhaps we didn’t need three lanes.

After breakfast I head out to wander the streets of Mandalay. The Lonely Planet does its best to suggest that the city is disappointing, and while it’s true that it’s a bit less steeped in history than the imagination might suggest, it’s also quiet. Much as this is a wonderful break from the chaos of Hanoi, it’s also a clear sign that there’s not much industry going on. Bicycles outnumber cars, and the cars are cheap and old. 

This means that basking in serenity comes with a touch of guilt. Is this peacefulness a choice? Or it it the result of government kleptocracy and economic sanctions? Manic and strained about the edges as life in Hanoi often is, and opaque as government often cough allegedly is, there is a feeling that people are going places and making money, that they are richer and have more opportunities than their parents. Here there is a sense that things are only just about ticking over.

Tatmadaw (national army) sign

All national army signs have kindly been translated into rather chilling English

I stroll alongside the palace moat, wondering whether I should go in. Eventually I decide against it – $10 to the junta for a structure allegedly reconstructed using slave labour, using such high quality building materials as corrugated iron for the roofing. There’s plenty to see from ground level, including a giant red sign over the east gate proclaiming “The Tatmadaw (state army) shall never betray the national cause”. Which is pretty reassuring when you consider that a recent government publication announced that 23.6% of the 2011 national budget spending will be on defence, and that the regime has also been harshly criticised by organisations such as Human Rights Watch for the forced drafting of children as young as 11. There are a fair number of these unsettling signs around, and I can’t help wondering what purpose the English translation serves – “Visit Myanmar – it’s just as Orwellian as you’d imagined!”

After lunch I launch an assault on Mandalay Hill. The climb is not too challenging – certainly not the 2 ½ hours it was billed as being. The temple at the top is nice enough; done out in mirrors, it scores double points for being both sparkly and economical. What’s really exciting, though, is that once you’ve taken your shoes off and entered The Holy Place, you’re greeted by a series of escalators. It feels kind of naughty, being barefoot on an escalator. Thesis forthcoming: “The Role of Escalators in South-East Asian Religious Life”.

Sunset’s a bit rubbish, as it often is. I lose my accomplices in the scrum and am somewhat concerned that the light is fading (there are no streetlights. Anywhere.) I accidentally start talking prices with what turns out to be a tour group, so they let me hitch a ride down the hill. The guide tries to talk me into rejoining them the next day but several of the others start to look miffed and I say my farewells. Point-and-pick curry from Shan State, then zzz.

From here on June 5th 2011.

Archive: Two planes to nowhere (and a fistful of kyat)

Air Mandalay check-in desk

The hi-tech Air Mandalay check-in desk, complete with big red weighing scales.

Work backwards from a 7am flight. And the time taken to check in and… and the journey to the airport… Ow.

By the time my brain engages, we’ve flown the 50 minutes to Yangon, at which point we turn around and fly right back to Bangkok, land, hang around for another 2 hours, and then fly to Yangon again. This time we land. And disembark. Baby steps.

I race off to check in for my onward flight to Mandalay, only to discover that a) it’s also been delayed, and b) they have no record of me booking. I rebook, and find a woman to squat behind a pot plant with exchanging money illegally. The official rate of 6.5 kyat to the dollar turns out to be a complete fiction; I get 840. This rate makes Myanmar slightly more expensive than Vietnam, at least as a traveller. Replete with kyat, I eat a long overdue lunch, relieved that it doesn’t, in fact, cost $140.

My flight with Air Mandalay is endearingly low-tech. My bag is weighed on a big red standalone scale, before being taken away for loading by A Man. Flights are announced by – well, you can hear them land. The staff, however, are charm itself, and are quite happy to keep pumping me full of coffee. 

After the plane has flown to all the major tourist destinations that have an airport, we arrive in Mandalay to be met by a scrum of, well, nobody. It’s completely deserted. I get in even more of a lather when I discover that something soapy has exploded in my bag, but fortunately there are about 8 people on hand to help mop up the mess. Afterwards one of them apologises, although I’m not quite sure what for. All very civilised.

Back to the non-existent taxi scrum (of nobody). Normally this would be a relief, but it’s dark and we appear to have landed in a ricefield. Bothering a few people, it turns out that there’s a free bus being laid on, possibly, although nobody knows where and when until it drives past and I have to run after it yelling. Safely on board, we bump off down a dirt road composed mostly of potholes, scattering small children on bicycles into the fields as we go. I’m starting to worry that I’ve nowhere booked and no idea where I’m going, so I bother some random people until I at least have a direction in mind. We share a tuk-tuk there and I succeed in finding myself a place to sleep. All that remains is to have a chicken curry in the only place open this ‘late’ (9pm), a bones-on-the-floor, dog’ll-eat-’em kind of whiskey joint, before crashing. Zzzzz.

From here on June 5th 2011

Archive: An unnamed land

Bagan; around every corner a temple.

Around every corner a temple.

It’s hard to know where to start when talking about a country that you don’t know what to call. In February 2011, during the Vietnamese Tet holiday, I visited the country known to some as Burma and to others as Myanmar. 

While both names refer to the majority Bamar ethnic group, “Burma” remains associated with the British colonial era, a troubled era and one that I, a thoroughly reconstructed sort of Brit, have no great desire to associate myself with. Burma was something of a sideshow to the British; governed as a province of India, its civil service was largely drawn from India and from other non-Burmese, preventing local people from benefitting from the country’s prosperity. The country never seized the British imagination in the way India did, and there was little attempt to conform to its customs. A particular sticking point was the “Shoe Question”, the refusal of the interlopers to take their shoes off when entering Buddhist temples and other holy sites. Spotless as the colonial socks may have remained, this had the side-effect of focussing nascent Burmese nationalism on Buddhism, a focus that remains today.

So what of Myanmar? The country’s name was officially changed in 1989 by the reassuringly-named
SLORC (State Law and Order Committee), the ruling military junta perhaps best known for keeping opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and overturning her party’s election victory in 1990. Despite a move from Soviet-style central planning in the ’60s and ’70s to a capitalist model, the junta has been in place since 1962 and shows little sign of going away. It is considered to be one of the world’s most repressive and abusive regimes, and its mismanagement has seen the country become one of the poorest and most corrupt in the region. Despite continued unrest, the junta rolls on, its access to natural resources and the willingness of neighbours to buy them allowing a ‘select’ few to line their pockets as the poor become poorer.

“Perhaps a million dead, millions more displaced, an economy in ruins, and a robust military machine designed to fight the enemy within have been the main stuff of Burma’s postindependence history”
Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps

Eating lunch in Bangkok airport before the flight to Yangon, a man asked me where I was flying on to. Hearing the answer, he asked, shocked, “Why on earth would you want to go there?” It is true that there are challenges to travelling in such a place – no ATMs, no official currency exchange, creaking (if any) infrastructure, limited press and internet, and the difficulties of travelling ethically and giving money where it is most needed and most deserved (which is to say, not to the government). But it’s also true that with a people so warm and welcoming, a history so diverse, and a country so breathtakingly beautiful, the current regime is selling its people very, very short indeed.

British surveying pagoda, 1825

The British survey their latest acquisition.

From here on June 2nd 2011.

Archive: Diary of an Easy Rider

A xe om driver waiting for customers

Hello madam. Motobye?

He awaits me beneath a spreading tree, today’s dashing knight on a Honda. His eyes pierce me, unwavering. I take in his manly raisin face, his rakish yellow hard hat. Huskily, he whispers: “Hello madam, motobye?” 

We dance around the price, back and forth, but we both know where this is leading. Soon enough, I’ve hitched up my skirt and clambered on board. We ease into the traffic, and, with all the speed and precision of an inadequately maintained lawnmower, he takes me to where I want and need to be.

I’ve been here before, and I know I’ll be here again. A different guy, for sure, a different tree. 

But still the same old sordid xe ôm story.

From Diary of an easy rider on 13th January 2011.

Archive: Enthusiasm makes my day

Student sleeping on desk

Teach. Inspire.

Asked to reflect on his school days, one student ushered in a new course together by writing “I wasn’t a good student in school because I am my personality are very lazy and I miss school for 6 months. I didn’t have any favourite subject because I didn’t like study and or also teacher because I don’t didn’t like school”.

Nice to feel needed, is it not?

From here on October 14th 2010.

Archive: Notes from the cliff face

Portrait of Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh, good at using the internet even before it was invented

Teacher: Does anyone know any older people who can use new technology?

Students (in unison): Alcohol!

Teacher: Alcohol?

Students: Yes, do you know alcohol? Alcohol is known in Vietnam, always use new technology! All Vietnam peoples are know him!

And then the penny dropped.

The moral of the story? Never underestimate Vietnamese students’ ability to turn any given conversation to Uncle Ho.

From here on October 5th 2010.

Archive: Xin chao Viet Nam

Busy Hanoi streets

Ha Noi’s 1000th anniversary – let’s all go for a drive at once!

It’s 8pm, and I am sitting on a wooden “sofa” marking 16 discursive essays on the benefits of online learning. On the fifth floor of an apartment block, on an unnamed lane at the end of a windy street left from the petrol station past the school and under the big tree, Hanoi, Vietnam. Someone downstairs is playing loud patriotic music, and across the dirty dribble that passes for a summertime river, it’s the festival of hitting bins. The local canine population is protesting vigorously. My ears, eyes and bottom are all protesting vigorously.

My living room is, comparatively speaking, an oasis of calm. Outside there’s the aerobics in the park, and beyond that and the maze of winding streets there’s the non-stop onrush of mopeds, motorbikes, and – new since I was last here – cars. Beyond that, somewhere, the city is flocking to yet another 1000th birthday Hanoi celebration, merrily blocking streets until the small hours. 

I think now I understand why I failed to write anything meaningful during my first months in Japan. I’ve long kicked myself for letting such an opportunity pass me by, but perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. I’d forgotten how draining it is when nothing is for certain, when every conversation is an elaborate mime, when you’re not certain to be able to find your own house again without tying a piece of string to your wrist. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting – but one hell of a buzz nonetheless. And I sure would never have had a gecko if I’d stayed at home.

From here on October 5th 2010.

Archive: Why we should and why we don’t

A boy studying

“Hurry up and invent Google Translate, world…”

A different language is a different vision of life ~ Federico Fellini

It bothers me that we Brits are becoming more and more monolingual, almost without a second thought. Not only have we long failed to teach languages in school – my French teacher had clearly modelled her pronunciation of la belle langue on John Major – we’ve given up even trying beyond a token three years, and are now seeing the knock-on effects as universities close language departments

Why might this be? The whole world speaks English? Nothing is forever, and that’s certainly not the point. I can just run it through Google? Don’t make me laugh. Or is it, perhaps, that we don’t really like leaving our comfort zones? 

Confession time. I’m a language teacher. I always tell my students to have a go and not worry about getting it wrong. But deep down I understand how they feel, because I hate hate hate to look less clever than I am. 

However. Something I believe to be true: learning another language is a profoundly humbling, yet hugely enriching experience, because it involves questioning every facet of your understanding of the world, and redefining who you are in response to a different set of wisdoms. 

At 21 I had some right to feel pretty smug, a bright lass fresh from swanning around Oxford’s dreaming spires. Crash! Japan took me right back to zero. With time and a lot of hard graft I became a gurgling two-year-old, then learned to toddle, falling over less and less, then after a year the floodgates opened and I could hold a conversation. But then came the polishing: learning what to say, what not to, when, how. Wrestling with social levels, distance, seniority. Trying to act my age, to express myself fully, persuasively, to truly own my words.

I became someone else for a while, in that process. I cut-and-pasted so much that I lost my voice somewhat. When I tried to put it all back together, though, I felt that there was more of me, more insights and ideas, more perspectives, more understanding of the drives and desires of human beings. 

Isn’t that something we should be teaching our children?

From here on August 25th 2010.