Friday 24 January 2020

Exploring the lanes of Mawlamyine

Mawlamyine is one of Myanmar's larger cities with a population of around 300,000 people. It was chosen by the British as the first capital of colonial Burma, a status it held between 1826 and 1852 and became an important centre for commerce in the late part of the 20th century. This was in large part due to the arrival significant numbers of Indian merchants and workers. By the late 1880's, they had formed the largest ethnic group in the city living and working alongside Burmans, Chinese, Malays, Armenians and even a handful of Jewish merchants. 

Preparing a new well, lanes of Mawlamyine
During the colonial period, the city was called Moulmein and gained mention in the writings of both George Orwell in Shooting An Elephant and Rudyard Kipling in his poem Mandalay. The streets are lined with some very fine examples of architecture dating from that period although much of it is now crumbling. There are also many buildings that show the strong influence of Indian design, particularly those with wooden facades carved in intricate patterns and of course in the numerous mosques and Hindu temples that can be found across the city.  There are also several important churches and pagodas including the spectacular hilltop Seindon Mibaya Kyaung which is under the care of a single, famously grumpy elderly monk. All of this should attract visitors in significant numbers but Mawlamyine does not receive the number of guests that other cities can boast. It is usually seen as a one or at most two nights stay over and a base for visiting other places. As regular readers may expect, I am about to disagree with this.

Indian influenced architecture
Red shutters, Seindon Mibaya Kyaung pagoda
Shop houses
The cosy, chaos of Mawlamyine's back lanes
I spent three days there and realised that this was not enough to see some of the big ticket items but more importantly to explore in detail the cramped, crowded, chaotic back lanes of the city or to exhaust the busy, sprawling markets. Hidden from the main streets and easily missed the lanes are noisy, dirty and sometimes hazardous to walk in yet I was drawn back to them several times. In these hidden alleyways life has not much changed in a hundred years and a warm welcome is given to those who venture into them. Living conditions are challenging and many of the homes have problems with accessing electricity and a regular clean water supply. Many people use the open wells that are scattered around the city, drawing water to wash clothes or to clean the home despite the fact that some of them contain rubbish and in some cases free roaming chickens, ducks and other fowl deposit their droppings in them. New wells are established to serve the demand for water. I witnessed several workers detailed on this work including the one pictured at the top of this post.

Despite this, there is an easy atmosphere in here. People sit outside their houses talking to their friends and neighbours whilst their children play in the street. They are curious about visitors as not many venture off the main tourist trail of churches, temples, mosques and pagodas. It is amazing how much goodwill a simple "Mingalabar" (hello in Myanmar) can win for you and how quickly it will be followed up with questions about where you come from, what your work is and where are your family. This is often accompanied by offers of tea or snacks, reminding me of the warmth of the people living in the lanes of North Kolkata.

Abdul and his grandson
Waiting for the tutor
The gang, back lane, Mawlamyine
In one of the lanes I noticed an elderly man crouched on the floor and using a hammer to work on a sheet of metal. Abdul is 87 years old. In fact it happened to be his birthday on the day I met him. He is a little deaf and one of his daughters came across to help us communicate. Despite being retired, Abdul likes to keep busy and he makes metal boxes to earn a little money. He confessed that he has few customers these days but he still enjoys working. His daughter was holding one of his grandchildren. I asked him how many he had. He wasn't sure and said  "I have grandchildren and great grandchildren. About 20 I think". He stood for a picture, proudly holding one of the twenty.

In the same alley I noticed three small children looking down from a first floor balcony. Others were arriving at the building carrying satchels and books. It was too late in the afternoon for them to be going to school and I asked a woman standing outside the building what was happening. She explained that children came here after school for private tuition. Competition for jobs is very tough in Myanmar and parents who can afford it send their children to these places in order to improve their chances. Many children do not get the chance to complete their formal education as the family needs them to work and help pay for food and a place to live. How humbling that parents in one of Mawlamyine's poorest neighbourhoods had prioritised education and the hope of a better future. At the same time other, poorly dressed children played in the alley amongst bags of cement. We sometimes forget how fortunate we are.

A little further on I met U Aung Khaing, also 87 years old. He was born in Kayin state but is from the Mon ethnic group, once rulers of a mighty empire and the predominant group in Mon State of which Mawlamyine is a part. They are now numerically in decline, to some extent due to inter-marriage with other groups. The Mon language is also in danger and work is being done in local schools to preserve it. Each ethnic group in Myanmar has its own customs and dress and U Aung Khaing was wearing the red lungyi of the Mon.

U Aung Khaing
Maulana in a Pashtun cap
As in India, drinking tea is a bit of a national pastime in Myanmar and there are teashops on every corner. I met Maulana sitting outside of of one of them. I was struck by his appearance, particularly by his wearing of a Pashtun cap, usually associated with Afghanistan and Pakistan and an unusual sight in Myanmar. I was keen to photograph him and was a little surprised when he immediately and enthusiastically agreed. He told me that he understands Urdu as well as Myanmar and invited me to sit and take tea for a while. A woman wearing the hijab sat at the next table and helped translate for us. I realised that she was his wife. It would be interesting to know more about their story.

In another lane I spotted a small shop with two sides open to the street. The customers were mainly elderly Chinese men. Myanmar has a significant Chinese minority and Yangon has a vibrant Chinatown. I stopped to talk to the two old men sitting in a corner facing the street and asked them if the tea was good. They told me that it was and that it was the best tea shop in Mawlamyine. I asked if they come every day and one of them confirmed that he did. I also asked about the name of the shop but was told it is nameless. A few minutes later his friend told me that the man who came every day was the owner. That might explain the regularity of his visits and the claim to it being the best tea shop in town. I haven't tried them all so I can't say.

As well as the ubiquitous tea shops, the city streets are filled with vendors offering various delights. In the lanes I came across a man selling tamarind from two containers held together on a yoke, allowing him to operate a "mobile" service and a woman selling thick, sticky jams from a street corner stall. And then there are the city's two large markets offer fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, huge bags of rice and salt, spices, household goods, electrical items.clothes, children's toys and more. Most of the vendors and shoppers are women. Shopping is a serious business here and it is educational to stand back and watch the expert hagglers reduce the price of a cauliflower using perfectly honed methods - cajoling, scowling, smiling and pretending to walk away before the deal is secured.

The best teashop in town?
The tamarind seller
Street corner jam vendor
Shopping is a serious business
In the Lower Market, I met the utterly charming Tin Ohn. Aged 67, he was born in Hpa An but his family fled to Mawlamyine when he was a child due to a period of inter-communal strife. He has never married and used the English word "Batchelor" to describe himself and also his two sisters who share a home with him. He is one of seven siblings, three of whom have already died. He spoke affectionately about his school days when he studied at an English medium Catholic school. He recalled the priests being strict disciplinarians "to drop litter was a very serious matter, we even had to be careful with the shavings from sharpening our pencils. Not like today". He especially remembered Father Francis who he said was a very good teacher. Tin makes his living by selling metal boxes but says that business is not so good these days. The family originally came from India but he does not know exactly where. His Indian name is Nadul Chowdhury which may (or may not) indicate that they came from Bengal.

I thought about this conversation a little later the same day. Away from the markets and the lanes and whilst admiring the city's largest mosque, I saw a small boy eating pieces of fruit from a plastic bag whilst maintaining a serious expression. "What are you eating" my friend asked him. "Pineapple" he replied. "Sour or sweet" we asked. "Sour. I like sour" he said. "Why aren't you at school?" I asked him. "I don't live here. I'm visiting" he replied. "Does your teacher know?" I asked. "No" he said and laughed. I felt sure Father Francis would not have approved.

Tin Ohn
The pineapple boy
A welcome smile
I look forward to returning to Mawlamyine before too long, to spend more time in the lanes and the markets, to test the theory of the best tea shop, to admire the eclectic architecture and to hear more stories of its friendly citizens. And perhaps to again meet the lovely friendly lady pictured above, one of the first people I met on arrival in the city and who welcomed me with her wonderful smile.

You can see more pictures from Myanmar here.

Monday 20 January 2020

Meeting the Kayan Women of Myanmar

Myanmar, formerly Burma is a country about which relatively little is known in the west. The city of Mandalay is familiar to us due to Kipling's now problematic poem of the same name and also perhaps because it is mentioned in the children's song Nellie The Elephant familiar to those of us who grew up in the 1960's. There is also a widely held (although inaccurate) belief that Road To Mandalay was a title in the famous Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movie series. Initially there had been a plan for a film of this name but the final title replaced Mandalay with Singapore. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell also wrote about their experiences in the country but offer insights from a relatively narrow point of view. However, there is a particular image that many people associate with Myanmar, that of the Kayan women who wear brass coils around their necks and legs. I recall seeing pictures of these women in a set of encyclopaedias purchased by my grandparents from a traveling salesman in the 1960's. I never thought that I would get to meet them but during my recent time in Myanmar I was able to visit the village of Kasae Kum and meet some of the women who continue to wear the coils. 

Best friends, Bilot and Bilone
Muthan aged 71 welcomed me into her home with a glass of tea and invited me to sit down. Both she and her husband are artisans. Muthan spins cotton and makes and sells scarves whilst he is a woodcarver, producing small figures of Kayan women for sale to tourists. Together they had eight children, five of whom have already died, some in childhood. She explained that until fairly recently there was no access to modern medicine here and that it was difficult to reach the nearest town with no easy roads out of the village. This was a story I was to hear several times over the course of the morning. Despite this, they have 20 grandchildren, all of whom live within walking distance. One of them spent some time peeping at me from the upper level of the house before deciding that going outside was a more interesting option. 

I asked Muthan how long she has worn the coils. She told me that she first put them on at the age of five and that initially it was very painful as her muscles had not developed sufficiently to support their weight. Whilst explaining this, she lifted the coils slightly to show me a heavy dark bruise on her shoulder. They are rarely removed other than for renewing perhaps every five years or to undergo a medical examination. In recent years some women have stopped wearing them altogether. This is said to result in pain which subsides after a few days but which leaves permanent discolouration. 


Muthan's grandson
Muthan's daughters and granddaughters do not wear the coils. She has mixed feelings about this and said that she respects their decision but is sad that the tradition is being lost. This was to be something common to the families of each of the women I met in Kasae Kum.  I asked her about the origin of the custom and how it began. There are various stories relating to this but she produced one that neither I nor my guide and interpreter had previously heard. She said that the Kayan women were told to wear them in case they should be scattered from their homeland, dispersed and unable to find each other. The coils were to be relied on as a means of identification. 

One explanation given is that they were meant to protect the women from enslavement by other ethnic groups, making them less attractive to other tribes. At the same time there is also a widespread belief that the coils enhance the beauty of the wearer, emphasising their slender necks, whilst a third explanation compares the appearance of the wearers to a dragon, a key figure in Kayan folklore as well as that of other tribes.

She also had questions for me, questions that were asked by each of the women I was to meet. They were focused mainly on my family, marital status and how many children I have. All of them were surprised that I travel alone and told me I should come again and bring my family next time. She offered me home made rice wine, the drink of choice amongst the Kayan and other communities and was a little surprised when I declined, explaining that I don't drink alcohol. She poured more tea instead and told me that she also likes beer but that it is bloating and can make you very fat! Before leaving I bought one of the scarves she makes. She placed the money inside the coils before thanking me for visiting.

Mutayant's busy granddaughter!
Mutayant lives a short distance from Muthan's home. She is 78 years old and a widow, She was not born in Kasae Kum but came there from her mountain village when she married a local man. The marriage produced ten children, six of whom have already died for reasons similar to those of Nuthan's. Like her neighbour she has 20 grandchildren and four great grandchildren some of whom were playing in her compound. Both Mutayant and Muthan are Animists as are many Kayans. There are also significant numbers of Christians amongst the community as well as Buddhists and people who mix Animism with another faith. Choice of religion appears to have no impact on maintaining Kayan traditions.

Mutayant put on the coils at the age of 10. She said that her daughters and granddaughters do not wear them as they "don't want to face discrimination when going out of the village to study or work". She said that she would never try to force the younger generation to wear them but had been angry with one of her daughters who had worn hers at a conference and sold them to a Chinese delegate. One of her granddaughters, two years old, was very busy playing outside the house, pulling faces, saying a few words of English, pretending to be working and generally entertaining us. It seems that her life will be very different to that of her grandmother. 

Bilot aged 73 and Bilone, 82 are best friends. Both of them widows, they spend most of their day together, talking, helping each other and enjoying the taste of rice wine. Bilot said "ask anyone in the village, everyone knows us, Bilot and Bilone". Both women had ten children. Bilot says that this is not considered excessive within the community and adds with a mischievous laugh "fortunately my husband died 32 years ago or I am sure I would be nursing another baby even today". Bilone joins her in laughing as do I, perhaps surprised at her candour. Both women put on the coils in their early teens and both wanted to wear them. Bilot said that the coils should be worn because "girls are more naughty than boys. They run around more so their parents say they need to wear them to prevent them from doing this. I used to climb trees and misbehave". Bilot is the only one of the women to give this explanation.

As with the other women none of their daughters or granddaughters wear the coils. I asked them how they feel about this and in response they said that if young women don't wish to wear them it is their choice. Earlier I had seen a group of eight young girls in the centre of the village, all of them wearing coils but later learned that these are not the same as those worn by the older women and are easily removed. It may be that they are being worn for the tourists. I asked the two friends what they think about people coming to see them. They said that they enjoy it. "We can't travel so people come to us. We like to hear about the outside world". They wanted to know how far I had traveled to meet them but had no concept of where I might be from. The interpreter told me that they have little knowledge of the world outside the village and would not really know where Yangon is or what it might be like.

Kayan girl, Kasae Kum village
Kayan girl, Kasae Kum village
Bilot and Bilone had several questions for me, most of them the same as those asked by their neighbours - why do you travel alone? how many children do you have? how old are you? They enjoy rice wine and drank it from a special bowl throughout the time I spent with them. They wanted to know if people drink rice wine in the UK and if I would like to try it myself. Bilot also enjoys chewing the betel nut, known as paan in India and this too was offered to me. Unfortunately I had to decline both as I don't drink and don't chew betel. She told me she chews it in order to keep her mouth fresh and laughed when I asked her if she was worried about the negative impacts it can have on the mouth and teeth, not least dyeing them bright red. She seemed genuinely happy as did Bilone whose grand children came in and out of the house as we spoke, one of them stopping for a quick cuddle with his grandma.

I enjoyed my time in the village and learned a lot not just about the lives and customs of the Kayan women but once again about how similar our ambitions are despite the differences between us. All of the women I spoke to wanted whatever was best for their children and grandchildren even if it meant abandoning some of their cherished traditions. I liked their curiosity about the outside world and their willingness to be open with outsiders. As I left I realised that they may well be the last generation of Kayan women to wear the coils and that many of their traditions will end with them.

A cuddle with grandma
Please note I refer to the women throughout as Kayan rather than the other term sometimes used - Padaung. I am advised that this is considered to be pejorative despite being used throughout Pascal Khoo Thwe's 2002 book From The Land Of Green Ghosts. I also met two women in the main market at Loikaw who used the term to describe themselves although they did not wear the coils.

You can see more pictures from Myanmar here

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Travels With My Camera 2019 - The Best Pictures

In 2019 I visited Cuba for the first time as well as making return visits to some of my favourite places including India, Myanmar and Israel. As ever, I spent my time exploring the streets of towns and cities with a camera in my hand, attempting to capture a little of their character by photographing the the daily lives of "ordinary" people, although many of them are extraordinary. Whenever I can, I try to spend time talking to people, often with the help of someone who can interpret and who can help ease the way to some, hopefully, authentic pictures. Capturing the stories of the people I meet is as important to me as taking their pictures. It helps to give context to a photograph, hearing the stories as well as seeing them in their faces.

During 2019 I was privileged to meet many new people. Anthony lives in Melbourne. He became homeless through no fault of his own and now sits outside the Hill of Content book shop in Bourke Street each day, reading or doing the crossword. He loves talking to passers by and also has a strong liking for the capuccino sold at the  iconic  Pellegrini's Espresso Bar, a few steps from where he sits. I was able to post his picture to friends in Melbourne who took it to him, together with a pastry from South Melbourne Market. If you see him, stop to talk and buy him a coffee.

In Hong Kong I met a delightful woman in her eighties. Born in Shanghai she had memories of the Japanese occupation of her home city and then the terror that followed with the Communist takeover. She now spends her days pushing a trolley around the streets of her neighbourhood, collecting waste cardboard for sale to recyclers. She said that she does not need to do this for money, but enjoys being outside and talking to people.  Some of the shopkeepers and vendors place a small stool outside their shops so she can rest from time to time.

At the younger end of the age range I took perhaps my favourite picture of the year in Nan Hu, northern Myanmar. When walking through a village I hear someone calling out "hello hello". I turned to look and saw first one child, then two, then several standing in the window of their school room shouting and laughing. I especially like this picture for the expression of hope and joy the children wear. I hope to see them again during my current time in Myanmar.

Central market, Mandalay, Myanmar
School children, Nan Hu, Myanmar
Monks doing the morning round, Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar
Modern communication, Hong Kong
I staged my first, small exhibitions during 2019. My first show was held in the Maison Bertaux Gallery in Soho, combining two of my passions - photography and cake. I was both astonished and grateful that so many people came to my opening and this led to further shows in public libraries in Canning Town, Hornchurch and Romford, bringing my pictures to different types of audience. I also exhibited in the Fry's Gallery in Hornchurch where again I was encouraged by the response and feedback which included a double page spread and interview in the local newspaper. I am especially grateful to Havering's Libraries and Arts services for being so supportive and for giving me the chance to take part in the annual Havering Literary festival in November. The festival features dozens of events including appearances from top authors. My contribution was to run two workshops for Year 6 students involving a tour of my exhibition, discussion with the children about what they had seen and about their own travels as well as a small creative writing exercise afterwards. I must admit I was extremely nervous beforehand as it is several years since I last did anything of this nature but I thoroughly enjoyed it and the children were extremely engaging. The pictures featured in this post are amongst my best received works from various social media and from feedback from the exhibitions.

Woman in purple, Hong Kong
Luisa with cigar, Trinidad-de-Cuba, Cuba
Boy with new fan, Trinidad-de-Cuba, Cuba
Anthony with capuccino, Melbourne, Australia
Woman with red hair, ShukHaTalpiot, Haifa, Israel
In 2020 I have an exhibition planned for the Queen's Theatre in Hornchurch during July and am in discussion about shows with another library service and possibly an independent gallery in south London. Thank you if you came to any of my shows during the year, or for following me on various social media. I hope to see you again in 2020.

See more at @adrianyekkes and at flickr

If you are interested in any of these pictures please contact me at

The samosa boy, Daryaganj market, Delhi, India
Waiting for customers, Kolkata, India
Flood water, Patan, India
Please note: All rights reserved. None of these images may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without my prior written permission.