Tuesday 12 February 2019

Great Coffee, A Long Bike Ride and A Face Full Of Stories - More From Myanmar

School children, Nan Hu village, Inle
Two years ago I had a memorable journey from Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin when I spent  two and a half hours on the back of a motorcycle in order to visit this former hill station. That's two and a half hours each way, so five hours in all. I enjoyed the great views from the motorcycle but not the saddle-soreness the next day. This time I arrived by car and spent two days exploring the city in more detail. After wandering around the market and surrounding streets I was craving coffee. The town centre has many old style cafes that serve good tea but I was in need of good strong coffee. Not sure where to go, I asked for advice in Parami, an excellent Indian sweet shop and was directed to Cafe May Myo. I was not disappointed. The cafe is small enough to be cosy but designed to give a feeling of space. It also has outside seating. There are books and magazines to browse and old pictures of the city line the walls. The coffee used here is grown locally and customers can buy packs to take home. Perhaps best of all is the service provided by the very friendly, attentive and knowledgeable young staff one of whom made my French Press at my table using the latest technology. Regular readers know that I have a sweet tooth. Cafe May Myo also has a good range of fresh cakes and pastries including a fabulous fresh banana bread, an excellent accompaniment to the best coffee in town (and possibly the best in Myanmar). It is the kind of place where you can linger, use the wi-fi, relax or chat with friends.

Cafe May Myo, best coffee in town!
One of the best things about Myanmar is the hospitality and friendliness of the people. Pakoku is a market town, a short drive from Bagan. After visiting the market I noticed a large monastery and looking through the gates I saw hundreds of young monks. Some of them were chatting to each other, others were earnestly studying. An official noticed me and invited me in, explaining that there were indeed lots of monks there - 1334 to be exact, all of whom were about to sit a written examination. Before the exam they would be given lunch, seated at separate small, numbered tables bearing the name of an individual monk. An hour after lunch they would return to these tables for the more serious business. To my surprise I was invited to walk around, photograph anything I wanted to and to return once things got underway. I cannot imagine anywhere else that would have allowed such access without prior arrangements. 

Monks waiting to take an examination, Pakoku
Inle Lake is one of Myanmar's most popular tourist attractions. Most visitors spend time on the lake, visiting the homes on stilts, the floating gardens and pagodas and photographing the famous fishermen. As this was my second time in Myanmar I chose to do something a little different and cycled a round trip of almost 20 kilometres along narrow tracks in order to reach a remote farmers' market. Cycling through breath taking scenery I stopped several times to watch the workers in the fields and to chat briefly with people on their way to and from the market, women weeding a garlic field and a family that grows and harvests sugar cane for use in making molasses in their small factory.

Weeding the garlic, Inle
Molasses factory, Inle
The market itself was large, busy and full of interesting people buying fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, household goods and of course the ubiquitous betel leaf. Many of the people are members of the Pa-O ethnic group, easily spotted by their black clothing and brightly coloured head coverings - usually orange or red. This wearing of dark clothes began in the reign of King Anawratha in about 1000 BCE when the Pa-O were enslaved and forced to give up their previously colourful clothing. Their tradition holds that they originate from a relationship between an alchemist and a female dragon.

As well as the many stalls, the market has a pub frequented mainly by agricultural workers, all of them men. I spent a little time sitting with a small group enjoying their day off. Significant amounts of rice wine were being consumed accompanied by a variety of meat based snacks, cheroots and of course, much chewing of the betel leaf. They were interested to know about life in London, my family, home and other everyday matters. I disappointed them a little when confessing that football is not one of my passions as they included keen supporters of Arsenal and Manchester United! It seems that wherever one travels, even in the least likely places, people are followers of English football. I am reminded of two small boys playing football in the courtyard of a Yangon temple, pretending to be the same two teams and calling out the scores in English. I restored my credibility in the pub by buying a few more bottles for my new friends before I left.

When leaving the market, I noticed an elderly man with an interesting face. He told me that he makes and sells herbal medicines that can be sued to relieve muscle pain, headaches and other ailments. As he spoke he used his hands to express himself, smiling and looking more thoughtful depending on my question. I wanted to give him something and so offered him some sweets I had purchased in the market. He accepted them but insisted I take a small sample of his medicine "in exchange".

Traditional medicine maker, Inle
Pa-O woman with cheroot, Inle
The man who looked after my bicycle, Nyaungshwe
Pa-O woman, fruit and vegetable vendor, Nyaungshwe market
Nyaungshwe is a busy town adjacent to Inle Lake. It is used as a base from which to explore the water and the surrounding area. However, it is an interesting place in its own right with several very good cafes and restaurants and a number of temples. I cycled into the centre of town at 6.30 one morning to look for the monks leaving one of the monasteries for the daily collection of rice and other donations. It was cold, grey and misty and yet still they walked barefoot in single file stopping only when people stepped forward to make an offering. Several of them were very young as were the nuns I had seen earlier who were so cold that they pulled their robes over their shaved heads in an attempt to warm up a little.  After photographing the monks, I stopped off at the central market where the usual range of goods are sold and where many of the traders are Pa-O. Not wanting to take the bicycle into the narrow lanes of the market I asked a young man if he would keep an eye on it for me. When I went back to collect it I he refused to accept anything from me in return. I eventually managed to persuade him to take a single orange to give to his small child, carried on his back and wrapped up against the cold in thick woollen clothing.

Monks collecting the rice, Nyaungshwe
Nuns on a cold morning in Nyaungshwe
This young man was yet another example of the generosity and openness of I encountered in Myanmar. Time and time again people offered to share food with me or gave me extra fruit after I'd paid for my purchases - steadfastly refusing to accept further payment. Many of them were also happy to talk about their lives, sharing both success stories and misfortunes. Several women who had spent their lives working in the fields or selling in the market had been able to send one or two of their children to university and rightly expressed a quiet pride in this. One woman in Kalaw told me that after graduating her daughter had secured a job in Japan and that she had been there to visit her. The life of another woman in Kalaw had been less happy. She had suffered for many years at the hands of her husband who was both an alcoholic and prone to violence but assured me that her life was better now as the husband had died a few years previously. She said that had been the happiest day of her life. This openness can sometimes come as a surprise but seems  refreshing compared to the very different approach to life in Europe.

A face full of stories
Vegetable vendor, Kalaw
Pa-O woman, Kalaw market. her daughter works in Japan.
Danau woman, vegetables vendor, Kalaw
This openness generally includes a willingness to be photographed. This applies to people of all ages who happily stood for pictures or smiled when realising I had taken a more candid picture. It is almost impossible to choose but perhaps my favourite character was an elderly man I met who holds the keys for a temple a few kilometres from Pakoku. My first sight of him was as he stood on the banks of the river Ayeyarwady, wearing a crisp white shirt, lungyi and a patterned head covering whilst smoking a cheroot. At 82 years of age he walks five kilometres to and from the temple every morning in order to open it for visitors. Despite his age he is very fit and it was difficult to keep up with him as he led me from the river to the temple. He has a wonderful, heavily lined face, full of stories and framing a wonderful smile. At the other end of the age range I photographed a young mother and her baby through the window of a train traveling from Kalaw to Shwenyaung. Standing on the platform I noticed the child's worried expression as he  looked out of the window, perhaps wondering where he was. His mother nodded assent to a picture and was delighted when I showed her the results before I jumped back on the train to continue my journey.

Have we missed our station?
Myanmar is a wonderful place for photography and for anyone interested in people. Showing even a little interest in someone here can bring the most surprising rewards with life stories shared, friendships formed and memories created. I cannot wait to make a third visit, to again wander the streets of Yangon, to tease and be teased by the vendors in the markets of Mandalay, Pakoku and Nyaungshwe, to make new friends and to capture it all on my camera. The photograph at the top of this post illustrates everything I love about Myanmar and its people - the colours, the smiles, the open window on the lives of the people and most of all, despite all of their problems and difficulties, the joy of being alive.

I can't finish without including a picture of an Inle fisherman. Sure, it has become a bit of a cliche and some of these men might now earn more from posing for the tourists than they do from fishing but it's still a terrific scene and I can't resist it. I'm off to make myself a cup of coffee, purchased in Cafe May Myo...

Photogenic fisherman, Inle Lake
You might also like Mandalay Mandalay and Return To Yangon.

You can see more pictures of Myanmar here.


  1. Vegetable selling in Myanmar looked like hard work, but your photos were very sensitive. When my family arrived in Australia, the men went into fruit and vegetable selling in the market :)

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