Author Archives: Jeff C

Fresh Princes of Mingun (Myanmar)








The boys in these pictures are the ones with the gold trim on their tops.

One of the first things we saw in Mingun was a ten-year-old boy in heavy makeup and a purple satin outfit.


The Buddhist equivalent of a bar mitzvah is the novice ceremony. Almost all young Burmese Buddhist boys become monks – though they may only remain a monk for a few days. Buddha himself was a Hindu prince who became a monk, so the boys start the ceremony dressed as a prince (circa 500BC), then shave their heads and don the austere robes of a monk.


In the town of Mingun, we ran a across a boy in one of those prince costumes. We got a few pictures in front of the enormous never-finished temple there, then followed him to the pagoda where they were about to start the first phase of the ceremony initiating a couple of dozen boys as new monks. There was a live band playing as loud as any rock concert. As usual, they tried to share their food with us. The steps to the pagoda were lined with uniformed ladies handing each attendee a cigarette(?!).  I wasn’t exactly sure why there were a couple of dozen girls in costumes similar to the boys. Some girls do become nuns, but I don’t think that’s what was going on. But the boys were whisked away and the girls stayed around for a few more pictures.


Ordinarily, there’s more variety in the prince costumes. This ceremony was unusual because it was sponsored by a single family, who provided for costumes and monk-supplies for the whole group (I assumed maybe the others were from poor families). The two kids in yellow were – as best we could tell – the son and daughter of the couple financing the whole affair.





The boy in purple is about to start a ceremony where he’ll become a monk, too.




This big white pagoda in Mingun was built just 200 years ago by the then-King Bagyidaw in honor of his wife / cousin.


Chindwin River, Myanmar: PJs, ABCs, Face Paint & World War

  One last post (#7) from the Chindwin River in Burma.  The first was here.



Don’t let that knife scare you. This lady is making a mouthful of Burma’s version of chewing tobaccco: betel nut. It’s a big reason so many Burmese have terrible teeth. The house behind her was a WWII Red Cross outpost.




A couple of hundred people followed us around in the village of He Hlaw. I had a small parade trailing behind me when I spotted this eighty-something old man in his own front yard. That’s his very bashful wife hiding behind the balcony rail.

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Sponge Bob PJs at “church.”

I’m sure if I’d given it any thought, I’d have assumed that most cheap fuzzy pajamas were made in China or Thailand or Bangladesh or somewhere like that, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that folks in Burma’s rural Chindwin River region (surrounded by those nations) might have them. Still, I’d never have guessed that colorful fuzzy fleece PJs – some with characters like Sponge Bob, Angry Birds, and Hello Kitty –would be popular all-day everyday wear for school, church, chores and socializing.

Strangely, fuzzy polyester pajamas decorated with video game mascots were among the most modern things you’d see in a place where people cook on campfires and transport things around town by oxcart.  Life on the Chindwin mixes a handful of modern advances into a setting with a few elements of the early 1900s and several aspects not much different than they were hundreds of years before.  Several towns had an electric generator – but usually only for a few lights at the monastery and maybe a handful of houses (nobody seemed to have any sort of home appliances).  In some areas, there were motorbikes in town. Diesel motors chugged up and down the river constantly. Areas of the river that were near roads or big towns had cell phone service (alas: Burmese networks that did not communicate with my TMobile phone). Most towns had a small store of some sort – sometimes with a half dozen cans of warm Coke or Sprite (alas: not Diet Coke) in inventory.

If you look around, you actually see a lot of written English — presumably a holdover from 120 years of British occupation.  Several brands and logos (alcohol, packaged food, soap) were in English. We saw school kids reciting (for us) the English alphabet and even writing simple stories in English. Still, hardly anyone could speak more than a word or two (Hello, goodbye, thank you) of English. I made the mistake of trying to speak some English to a schoolteacher who I had just watched teaching the English alphabet to her kids – she understood nothing. Though we regularly saw English on the walls of schoolrooms all over the Chindwin, we met no more than a handful of people there who were at all conversant in English.


English ABCs, fuzzy PJs, and thanaka facepaint in the one-big-room grade school in the Shan village of Heinsun.

(Coincidentally, I read an article in the Economist this week on almost this exact topic.  It focused on Mexico and China, but the issue was that despite years of written classwork aimed at teaching English, very few students can actually speak any English, mostly because none of their teachers can actually speak English.)

One conspicuous remnant of ancient times in Burma is thanaka — a beige paste made from ground-up tree bark and worn as a face paint.  It can be a sunscreen spread over the entire face, or a decorative cosmetic applied in patterns.  It’s everyday wear for lots of women and kids, and young, unmarried men.



Some thanaka (and PJ) examples:



Yellow Angry Birds PJs. His grandma is wearing an inside-out green sweatshirt, and a pink towel as a fashion item.



Another outside force that changed the area was World War II. An elder in He Hlaw village showed us a Buddha statue that had been damaged in WWII bombing, and introduced us to this old fellow who had fought in the war. I had to ask: Who had bombed the village? And which side did the old guy fight for? The Allies bombed it, after Japan had invaded and taken over most of Burma. And the old man had fought on both sides, switching (maybe twice?) as control of the area shifted from British to Japanese to British.


What I saw on the Chindwin echoed what I’d seen before — in Bolivia, Guatemala, even rural Cuba.  People on the Chindwin live very modestly, in conditions that we as American would find impermissible. Their homes are made of sticks or bamboo; most have no lights and none have air conditioning or appliances.  I don’t recall seeing anyone with eyeglasses and none of the communities had doctors.  Many have no more than a couple of changes of clothes. They sleep mostly on very-thin mats on wooden floors.  If American children were growing up in such conditions, the State would probably put them into foster care.  If groups of American adults were living that way, they’d take to the streets in angry protest. But the people of the Chindwin are happy, proud, dignified and content with their lives.  Maybe it’s because they don’t know of anything different or better than their own world, but the fact remains that they surely seem happier than many of the people in far weathier or more advanced areas. They are not bitter; they are kind and welcoming to gawking strangers who arrive toting expensive cameras.  They work hard to take care of themselves, their families, and their communities. We tend to assume that these folks need to learn from us about all our great modern advancements; we should learn a few lessons from them instead.


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Most larger villages had a grid of wide, street-like paths with homes built along each side of the streets just like a suburban neighborhood.  This lady was cleaning up the “street” in front of her house. It’s just dirt, but they sweep it regularly to keep it neat and tidy.







I’m the reason those kids have their hands in the air in that last shot in the grid above.  One amusement of the trip was to teach groups of kids to do a “Clap, clap, whoop” — clap your hands twice, then hoist them overhead with a shout.  It was tough to get a picture while demonstrating that, but great fun in a situation where we didn’t share a language.


Buddha on the Chindwin

One of a series of posts from the Chindwin River in Burma (Myanmar).

Those statues of a fat, laughing Chinese Buddha are no part of Theravada Buddhism in Burma.


This tattooed monk lived at a hilltop monastery by the River in the Burmese (tribe) village of Ye Khar Tun.


Summarizing Buddhist beliefs and practices is like trying to summarize Christianity – recognizing that Christianity includes Mormons, Catholics, Amish, Presbyterians and Pentecostals.  You can’t assume that any specific beliefs and practices are widely or universally shared.   So the stories I got from our Yangon-based guide often differed from what we saw in the rural towns, and from what I learned as I tried to bone up on it.


My favorite monk of the trip. He used pink smartphone to take pictures of us Americans.

Burmese people generally follow Theravada Buddhistm – as distinct from the various branches of Mahayana Buddhism that dominate in China, Korea, Tibet and Japan.  Theravada Buddhists emphasize the older, original teachings of the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gotama, an actual human person who lived in India and died 2500 years ago. At least in theory, true Theravada Buddhists don’t think Buddha is (or was) a god; they don’t think he’s alive or that he (or anyone else) is immortal; they don’t think he (or anybody else) is up there answering prayers. They don’t believe in the Dalai Lama (that’s peculiar to Tibet, mostly); they don’t believe in that fat, laughing Buddha (that’s a more-recent Chinese invention). They believe in being good, doing good, and thinking good thoughts.  Nirvana isn’t a heaven; it’s a state of mind without suffering.*  In theory, they meditate over the philosophical teachings of the human they call Buddha, but in practice it sure looks like they’re praying to something that’s at least partly supernatural.


This lady is a yogi. It’s a little bit like a nun or monk, but as she explained it to us, yogis are more focused on helping people (especially the sick) and less involved in philosphical meditations.

Though the Theravadas reject deities and supernatural aspects of Buddhism, most Burmese people believe — to some extent — in an elaborate mix of “spirits” or “nats.”  These nats can be like demons or trolls, like guardian angels, or like patron saints. The nat concept seems to be partly a separate animist religion, partly an element of Burmese Buddhism, and partly a very powerful set of superstitions. Most towns had some sort of shrines to a various nats – often right next to (or even on the grounds of) a Buddhist temple or pagoda.



This shrine — on the site of a Buddhist stupa — is actually devoted to one of the spirits (“nats”) the Burmese people believe in: that statue is NOT Buddha.  The nats are sometimes akin to patron saints (of a town, for example); others are like little ‘gods’ of the seas or mountains.

Some of the nats are river spirits. Our boat (like most of the similar boats we saw on the river) had a couple of big bowls on top of the captain’s wheelhouse, each containing offerings (bananas, coconuts, flowers and water) to the river spirits, and a handful of flowers right on the bow. Despite the prevalence of domesticated pigs in the region, we never ate pork on the boat – because apparently the river spirits don’t allow it. The river spirits kept us from sinking, I guess. But they failed to keep us from getting stuck three times on sandbars.



Stupas like this are all over the place, and in virtually every village — large or small.



Whatever the specifics of the beliefs, Buddhist buildings, statues, monks, and customs are an enormous part of life in most Burmese towns. It seems there are stupas everywhere. When we arrived in a town, we would almost always be quickly shown (with pride) the local monks or monastery. Multiple villages we visited encouraged us to stay for ceremonies at their temples. We ran across events going on at the monasteries. Even though the monks were always quiet and understated, they were clearly respected leaders in the communities.

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In the grid above:  The huge group of kids that seem to be dancing is in a pagoda building on a weekend (non-school day).  We were told they were learning citizenship and patriotism and manners.  I swear they stood there chanting and gesturing to the same song for at least 30 minutes, and we were told they were there for four hours every week.  That group of five women had just left some sort of meditation class (led by a monk); they were apparently supposed to maintain their meditative state of mind (and keep their hands like that), so they were surprisingly tolerant of the group of photographers that swarmed them as they dispersed. That blue/yellow/red/white/pink thing is the flag of Theravada Buddhism.  Finally, as I took that last image in the grid, our guide was explaining that local Buddhists had — despite their modest means — generously donated those standing fans to cool the place off.  My joke, “Wow, they must be big ‘fans’ of Buddha!” got zero laughs and just one pair of eyes rolling. 



I wanted my picture with this guy.


* For God’s sake (pun-ish literality intended), don’t listen to me on matters of religion.  These are just my impressions from a few weeks in a Buddhist culture and from a  tiny bit of brushing up I did so I could better understand what I saw.

Chinlon on the Chindwin

#7 of several posts from Burma and the Chindwin River.  


About the only “sport” we saw being played along the Chindwin was Chinlon.  It can be played two ways, each using a woven bamboo ball about 7 inches in diameter.  The simpler form is a lot like hacky-sack — a single team stands in a circle and tries to keep the ball in the air, passing it around in sometimes elaborate ways.

The other form is sort of a hybrid of volleyball and soccer.  The basic play and court look like volleyball with a shorter net and that smallish bamboo ball.  Like soccer, you can’t use your hands: just your feet and your head.  But like volleyball, the ball can’t hit the ground:  it comes over the net from the opposing team at as fast as they’re able to deliver it.  It looks very difficult.

Also impressive:  Notice the guys in the picture just below — playing a very acrobatic game wearing those long skirt-like “longyis” that are the traditional attire of both men and women in Burma.

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In Bine village, the chinlon court sat right next to a pair of 500-year-old stupas.  You can see a group in the background playing the one-team hacky-sack version of the game.


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Making a Living on the Chindwin River

#6 in a series of posts from Burma (Myanmar).  The first Chindwin River post was here. 

Check out the Recent Posts (at right) for more –>

Even the northern Chindwin is just a few days’ boat trip down to Monywa — a good-sized commercial center — so there was quite a bit of commerce up and down the river.  Here’s how people fed themselves and made their livings.


A foggy morning at a huge riverside bamboo camp — set up on a sandbar in the non-rainy season.  


Bamboo loaded for a trip downriver. The rafts themselves are made of bamboo. Because they only go downstream, a few guide poles or a tiny handheld motor is all that’s needed to guide the raft in the channel.




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It took a while to convince this lady to take a break from harvesting sunflowers so she could pose for a few pictures.  They’re grown for the seeds; the flowers themselves seem to be discarded immediately.  

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This guy (and his sister, I think) were prospecting for gold. They shovel sandy gravel from the Chindwin’s sandbars into a simple sluice box that (hopefully) separates out any tiny grains of gold.  I wanted a picture of the gold they were finding, but it was so small I wasn’t even sure I could see it.  They said they’d sold about $35 worth the prior day.





Those are small pieces of teakwood, apparently pre-inspected (“OK”) for use in carvings. Export of teak has been recently and significantly restricted in an effort to preserve the species in Burma’s forests. Generally, it’s OK to export furniture and carvings made from teak, but exporting big, raw timber is prohibited.





That crazy looking thing isn’t there to scare away evil spirits — it’s a scarecrow! The fellow set it up to keep birds from swooping in while he was husking rice.






Of course, they lived on the river and there was also a lot of fishing, though (unlike at Inle Lake) I never got the feeling very many people fished as a full-time occupation.