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Faces and Phases of Pyapon

May 15, 2018


 
Immediately after finishing my undergrad in 2008, I became a part of the first group of ASEAN volunteers deployed to Myanmar’s Delta region following the wrath of Nargis.

The small rural village of Thaleikgyi in Pyapon became our temporary home. During our stay, the villagers—still reeling from the cyclone’s devastation—treated us like family. It was especially heartwarming seeing villagers actively participating in meetings, visiting our house early in the morning just to say hi, inviting us to their houses to taste their home-cooked mohinga and lah pa toat (tea leaf salad), and the village kids looking for us after school asking us to play games. The wide smiles on the villagers’ faces, despite what they went through, proved how resilient Myanmar people are.

Saying goodbye to them wasn’t easy either. The prevailing mood on our last meeting with village leaders was a mixture of sadness and hope. We were sad because we were about to leave our home for five memorable months. But we were also hopeful that the things we’ve accomplished would truly be sustainable and beneficial to many. Our only wish when the project ended was that in some little ways we brought about change in the lives of the Thaleikgyi villagers, because they surely changed ours.

Fast forward to 2018, I visited Thaleikgyi exactly a decade after Nargis. My rusty Burmese was put into test as I figured out how to reach Pyapon on my own.

Once I entered Thaleikgyi, a local recognized me and volunteered to tour me around the village I once called home. As in many small villages, the news of an odd-looking man roaming around with a large backpack spread fast. Soon after, the oo gor tah (village head) during our stay trailed behind and invited us to his home for tea. “Ko gyi pilipain ga, weh thar chaw achaik zoun kaung deh (the Filipino boy who likes fried pork)” was how he remembered me.

He shared that nothing much has changed in Thaleikgyi. The village still has no access to electricity and many continue to struggle to earn a daily living. Paddy farming remains to be the village’s main source of income. But many farmers, he continued, have sold their lands to large investors from Yangon.

He also fondly recalled some of our group’s (mis)adventures, including the time Kyi Phyu and Ruby hit a buffalo while riding a motorbike at night and how Shamrock once drove straight to a canal. He said he liked inviting our group to village pwe (festivals) because we like to eat a lot!

Leaving the village once again was difficult. The oo gor tah insisted for me to stay in his house for the night. It took me a few more rounds of tea before he finally allowed me to go—together with a bag full of fruits and bazun chaung (dried shrimp).

It was a cathartic homecoming—for me, to say the least. Pyapon will always have a very special place in my heart. A huge portion of what I know now about development work came from this Thaleikgyi experience.

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Thaleikgyi, the village I once called home almost a decade ago

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Entrance to Thaleikgyi village

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The team’s house/office inside the village

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U Htin Lwin, the village head during our stay in Thaleikgyi

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U Htoo Lwin’s family in Thaleikkalay; the guy on the hammock was among the kids who would usually play with the team after school

 

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Faces and Phases of Colombo

April 16, 2018

Imagine this: the spicy goodness of your choice of curry, fresh-off-the-boat seafood, and a wide variety of fruity drinks, all in one meal.

That’s Sri Lanka—the vibrant flair of South Asia meshed with a tropical island vibe.

Add in to the potpourri is the strong influence of early colonial mariners. The capital city of Colombo, for one, hosts a number of heritage buildings. The country also produces some of the world’s best tea, owing it to the time when the British transformed the central hilly region to large tea plantations.

What’s the best way to explore this pear-shaped gem of South Asia? Take the train! Bask into the salty breeze coming from the Indian Ocean on your way to the coastal city of Galle or enjoy the green views toward the hills of Kandy.

Sri Lanka also has the highest concentration of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Among the definite must-sees are the imposing rock wonder of Sigiriya and the cultural capital of Kandy, where you’ll find a temple that houses a fabled tooth relic of Buddha.

0012Seema Malakaya

0009.jpgBuddha statues of Gangaramaya

0027.jpgTrain to Galle

0031.jpgGalle Lighthourse ovelooking the Indian Ocean

0038.jpgRoyal Palace of Kandy

0040.jpgTemple of the Sacred Tooth Relic

0042Sigiriya

0044On top of Sigiriya

More photos here.

Random notes from an expat’s tuktuk diary

March 27, 2018

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Today marks my 1,095th day in Thailand!

Aside from the hundreds of 50 satangs and 7-Eleven stamps I’ve collected ever since I first set foot in Suvarnabhumi, here’s a rundown of random things that continue to amuse/baffle me in this so-called Land of Smiles.

Let’s start with food. You’ve been in this country way too long if you know that the best somtam is somtam gung sod poo ma (green papaya salad with brined shrimp and crab). Plus points if it includes a good serving of pla ra (fermented fish sauce).

Also, pad thai and tom yum are for beginners. Spending a few years here would open your palate to guai tiao ruea (rice noodle soup with pork innards) and tom sep gap khaduk moo le hed (spicy soup with pork ribs and mushrooms).

One pet peeve with Thai cuisine: Putting corn in random dishes. Corn in pizza, corn in noodles, corn in moo kratha. Why?!

Second, most Thais I know hate to walk. I’m not sure why, but the thought of walking a few blocks makes most Thais cringe. They’ll find a way to drive, take Uber, hail a songthaew or mo-sai, or have someone carry them just to avoid walking.

One thing I love about this country though is its efficient public transpo system. Strong public investments in the infrastructure sector make it very convenient to go around the country.

Next, there’s something that needs to be done with Thais’ overuse of plastics. A trip to a local supermarket or convenience store means hoarding a criminal number of plastic bags. I remember a friend buying bottled water, cup noodles, and a single banana (already wrapped in plastic) and the 7-Eleven cashier putting each in three separate bags. With two plastic straws.

Learning Thai is fun and—most of the time—frustrating. Case in point, why the hell do the polar opposites ‘near/far’ almost sound the same (transliterated as ‘glâi/glai’)? The greatest obstacle in learning this language is mastering the tones. It took me weeks before I could perfect ‘who sells chicken egg’ (in Thai, ‘krai khaăi kài gài’). It’ll probably take me a few more months before I could watch an episode of Bhuppae Sunniwat without subtitles.

Lastly, three years in and I still don’t understand Thais’ obsession with the LINE app. In fact, I’ve lost track of the number of LINE groups I’m in. My grad school prof (already in her 60s) would even send random stickers and GIFs once in a while. One time at work, a university bigwig insisted that I send important docs via LINE instead of e-mail.

Three years, dozens of wats and beaches, 27 provinces (so far), hundreds of friends, one amazing country.

Here’s to more plates of spicy somtam, more time perfecting ‘măa gap máa gamlang maa’, and more 7-Eleven stamps to collect.

2017

December 31, 2017

Ours is a generation of sleep-deprived over-caffeinated whiners. Our inability to find contentment (and other traits synonymous to being restless and entitled) has come to define this millennial generation.

My biggest takeaway this 2017? Learning to live a life of gratitude.

Be grateful to those who chose and continue to choose to be behind your back. Surround yourself with people who push you to your limits and at the same time those who keep you grounded. Be thankful for the gift of life.

Here’s to a meaningful 2018!

Also, someone once told me that the best stories are found not in novels but between the pages of a passport. Here is my #best12, one from each country I visited this year!

2017

Faces and Phases of Chengdu

October 30, 2017

Chengdu’s gloomy skies and chilly temperate climate will welcome you once you’ve stepped out of the airport. The eastern edges of the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau give this Sichuanese capital its daily sweater weather.

The city hosts the highest concentration of giant white pandas in the world. A visit to the main breeding center of China’s cuddly national icon will surely warm your frozen fingers and toes (and probably even your ex’s cold heart).

If that’s not enough, try the fiery Chengdu hotpot, where you dip mushrooms and pork or chicken innards in boiling chili- and Sichuan pepper-infused broth.

Also not to be missed is Chengdu’s pride, the mesmerizing Sichuan opera. It’s Cirque de Soleil, traditional dance, and martial arts performances on steroids.

The city also serves as the gateway to Tibet. So it’s not surprising to see Tibetan pilgrims and traders roaming around.

A few hours south of the city is the Le Shan Giant Buddha. Chiseled right off the cliff overlooking three large rivers, this magnificent man-made wonder is considered as the world’s largest ancient Buddha structure.

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Le Shan Giant Buddha

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Giant pandas

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Wenshu Monastery

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Sichuan opera prep

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Chengdu delicacies: Spicy rabbit or duck head

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New Century Global Center, the world’s largest building

More photos here.

Faces and Phases of Kansai

June 13, 2017

Considered as Japan’s heritage hub, the Kansai region offers something quintessentially Japanese—the seamless fusion of traditions and modernity. Among the region’s major cities are the port town of Kobe and the ancient capital of Kyoto.

Lining the northern coastline of Osaka Bay, Kobe served as one of the archipelago’s first gateways to the world, playing a key role in the exchange of ideas and goods with nearby nations.

Kyoto, on the other hand, was once the seat of imperial Japan. Often tagged as the country’s cultural heartland, the city hosts some of the finest Shinto shrines and Buddhist temple complexes in the country.

2.jpgPort of Kobe

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Torii of Ikuta-jinja

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Nunobiki Falls

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Minatogawa-jinja

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Grandpas of Kyoto

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Kinkaku-ji

More photos here.

Faces and Phases of Ho Chi Minh and the Mekong Delta

June 8, 2017

No other city in Viet Nam can best depict the country’s post-war renaissance than in Ho Chi Minh. The city, more popularly known as Saigon, is also the gateway to the Mekong Delta, the country’s most agro-productive region.

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Early morning pho

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Notre Dame Cathedral

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Saigon Central Post Office

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Granite mountains of An Giang

More photos here.

Faces and Phases of Luang Prabang

May 31, 2017

At the heart of Lao PDR’s mountainous north is the sleepy town of Luang Prabang. The mighty Mekong and its small tributaries—the lifeblood of this landlocked nation—pass through this ancient city. Roughly an hour boat ride away from the city are the blue-green pools of Tat Kuang Si waterfalls and the Buddha-filled caves of Pak Ou.

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Wat Xieng Thong complex

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Mekong x Nam Khan sunset

20.jpgTat Kuang Si

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Cascading turquoise pools of Tat Kuang Si

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Tham Ting Cave

More photos here.

Faces and Phases of Bandar Seri Begawan

April 18, 2017

The coastal city of Bandar Seri Begawan is the capital of Brunei Darussalam. Heavily reliant on its oil and gas industries, this tiny sultanate on the northern part of Borneo is among the world’s richest. The country is also known for its generous welfare system. Education and healthcare, for instance, are subsidized. Residents are also not required to pay taxes while public transportation is almost non-existent since almost everyone owns a car.

Most Bruneians—if not all—are devout Muslims. In fact, travel guides usually include a footnote that strict sharia laws are implemented. Alcohol is absolutely banned and, to some extent, so is the consumption of non-halal food.

Brunei also has the most elegant mosques in the region. But the country’s most important landmark is the floating village of Kampong Ayer. This water city covers thousands of houses, markets, schools, and even mosques on concrete and wooden stilts—a stark contrast to the grandiose opulence expected of a petro-kingdom.

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Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

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Jame’asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque.

6Kampong Ayer

16The gilded royal chariot of Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah

19Pasar Malam Gadong

More photos here.

Faces and Phases of Singapore

April 18, 2017

One can easily be overwhelmed by the fast-paced cosmopolitan life in one of the world’s most affluent cities. But there’s more to Singapore than the urban sprawl.

This island city-state was once a key port in the region’s most important merchant route bringing in the best of both the East and West. A random stroll beyond the glitzy malls and high-rises, for example, will treat your senses to a variety of smells and tastes—be it the faint smell of durian or burning incense in Chinatown, pooja flowers in Little India, or sizzling satays and newly brewed teh tarik along Arab Street.

Singapore’s well-planned urbanization is evident in the city’s efficient transportation system and creative use of public spaces. Separated by a few subway stops are the green Singapore Botanic Gardens, manmade beaches of Sentosa, and massive biodomes of Gardens by the Bay.

1Chinatown

3Sri Mariamman

8Little India

12Marina Bay Sands x Merlion

33Gardens by the Bay’s Cloud Forest

39Supertree Grove

30Tanjong Beach

More photos here.