Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Upside of Food Poisoning in Bagan, Myanmar (Pagan, Burma)

A Wandering Food Vendor and Customer in Pagan Myothit


Our Yangon Airways ATR-700 turboprop has just left the runway to begin our roughly 1-hour flight from Rangoon (as it was still called in late December of 2001) to Pagan (presently called Bagan), and I was just coming to the realization that the odd and now hauntingly-familiar sensation in my stomach would more than likely evolve into a full-blown case of food poisoning within the next, say, four to six hours. The morning sky is shrouded in a veil of salmon-colored hazy and thin clouds that holds the promise of a glorious sunrise out the left-side window as we ascend. Unfortunately, my anticipation of the event is dampened by the prospect of maybe spending a good portion of my anxiously-awaited second visit to Bagan sitting in my hotel room anticipating when I might next have to quickly run to the toilet to pray to a 'Porcelain Goddess' instead of being out in the rustic countryside bowing three times to pay homage before majestic Buddha statues housed in myriad ancient red brick temples and pagodas (with select ones restored, white-washed and gilded) that make up the Bagan Archaeological Zone (Myanmar's equivalent to Cambodia's Angkor Wat / Angkor Thom temple complex).

My first bout of food/drink-related poisoning (that is, not associated with an over-indulgence of alcohol, which had occurred years earlier by happenstance one evening at a bar in Tokyo's Ikebukedo district, and that ended with me on all fours and vigorously emptying my stomach into a ceramic squatty-potty as a highly-irritated waitress pounded on the bathroom door and yelled something at me in Japanese...) while traveling, which would wake me in the early am and have me on all fours over the toilet and retching loud enough to wake my wife and daughter (if not those in the surrounding units of the apartment block), had occurred back in March of 2000 during my first trip to Burma, and just a bit over a day after returning to Rangoon from a wholly-unplanned, spur of the moment two-day first visit to Pagan. The likely cause of that bout was attributed to my inadvertent ingestion of local non-purified tap water, if not local well water, during that second day in Pagan. 

On that fateful day, we had returned to the Kaytumadi Dynasty hotel after a morning of touring old temples and, following lunch, were about to head out to tour and old teak monastery. Our dear friend and gracious host for our first visit to Pagan, Auntie Sally (though no familial relation per se, in most Asian cultures any older female - relative, acquaintance or one encountered in a market or randomly on the street, for that matter - will generally be addressed as ‘Auntie’), who spends a lot of time in the area and possesses an in-depth knowledge of it and the history of its temples, major sites of interest and local culture, had serviced as our guide and fixer. The local driver that she secured the services of for our brief stay had pulled up out front and we got into the car to start an excursion that would include a stop to tour an old teak monastery on the outskirts of Pagan. I took my now-customary spot in the right-hand drive car's front-left 'shotgun' seat, placing my bottle of locally-produced 'Chinthe' (a mythical lion whose statue likeness often appears in pairs at the base of the stairways leading up to the pagodas, as they are believed to provide protection to the pagodas, the replica contained within and any spirits or celestial beings that might inhabit the pagoda's compound) brand ultra-violet light purified drinking water into the passenger-side cup holder recess of the front center console. As it would turn out, our driver also favored Chinthe brand purified drinking water, sold in a frosted white semi-opaque bottle with the stylized chinthe image and brand name silk-screened in medium blue, or at least refill and reuse said bottle which sat next to mine.
Old School Water Coolers in Pagan

Some distance down the road, distracted by the passing view of old red brick temples, laden ox carts and their drivers lumbering slowly along the side of the dirt road, and the occasional rural wood and thatched palm hut, I reached for my water bottle as I gazed out the rolled-down window, unscrewed the thin plastic cap and brought it to my mouth to take a substantial pull from it without looking, noticing that the heft of the bottle was slightly lighter than anticipated. As I looked down at the bottle to recap it, I was suddenly taken aback to see that the neck of the frosted white plastic bottle had an accumulation of dust on it that mine lacked, and came to the realization that I had over-reached when grasping blindly for the familiar shape of my water bottle, and grabbed the driver's bottle by mistake. This was independently confirmed when our daughter commented in a low voice just barely louder than a whisper, "Phay ('Father', in the Burmese language), you just drank the driver's water." The only response I could muster in a similarly low voice as I leaned to glance back at her was, "Oops. Oh, well..." I had to assume that I, at best, had just taken a sip of Pagan tap water that had processed just enough to be potable and drinkable enough without boiling for the local residents whose systems were acclimated to any residual indigenous minor water-borne pathogens of the region (or, those who 'have the enzyme', as our daughter likes to say), or of water drawn from one of the local communal wells (either by hand-levered pump or buckets lowered at the end of a rope), that may or may not have been boiled then transferred to ceramic water pots with shallow conical lids that are seen in abundance through rural Burma/Myanmar (and whose interiors are likely seasoned with a tad bit of local algae); to the delicate digestive tract of a Westerner who 'lacks the enzyme', the options are 'same-same, but different' regarding the potential outcomes of taking a long, healthy(?) sip. 

I still felt fine that late afternoon and early evening as we drove to the Nyaung U Airport (a town adjacent to Pagan) for our return to Rangoon, catching a final glimpse of the majestic temples silhouetted on the horizon with the approaching sunset. The next morning I was still okay, though by afternoon I was starting to feel the effects of the brewing tummy trouble, which may have been exasperated by the horrible dim sum had at the Rangoon Boat Club. The scenic backdrop of Inya Lake could by no means compensate for the poor quality (or, the entire lack thereof) of the ambient temperature, drying and borderline stale offerings brought to our table (and don't get me started on their dim sum plate incorporating Vienna sausage!). The sensation only got worse as we spent time in the stifling heat inside the non-air conditioned main hall of Scott Market (a.k.a., 'Bogyoke Zei'), where I lost all interest in taking photos of the myriad vendor stalls, or even the always intriguing and photogenic open-air food vendors setup along the alleys and sidewalk surrounding the market (yeah, it was getting that bad). By evening, I had virtually no appetite and had to struggle to get through dinner back home, as Auntie (this one actually related by marriage) had made her famous 'shwedaung khauk swe' and was anxious to have me try it (and it was very good, despite my lack of appetite). By 2 am the next morning I was hugging the porcelain and retching so loudly that my wife and daughter woke up startled and said it sounded like I was dying in there, and that I was making as much noise as the stray dog fight outside of the apartment we were staying in that abruptly woken us up in the middle of our first night in-country. It would take me all of the next day to begin feeling normal again, and I had to avoid any spicy dishes when we had dinner with relatives later than night in Singapore before flying back to The States the next day.

Fast-forward to the present, where we have just exited the plane and are walking across the tarmac in the still pleasantly cool but promising to warm up soon morning air to the quaint and now-familiar Nyaung U Airport terminal. We pay our Pagan Archaeological Zone fees and meet up with our hired driver, who is holding up a placard with my wife's name on it. Carry-on luggage in hand, we walk out to the front and load into the white 8-person van (in lieu of the traditional horse carriage that Auntie Sally had arranged to meet us at the airport for our first visit to Pagan) that will take us around to tour Pagan. After two days in Pagan hosted by what we were told was considered the best and most knowledgeable guide in the region (and also a personal friend of Auntie Sally's), we would then go by van from Pagan to Nyaungshwe, located in Burma's Shan State, to tour Inle Lake, famous leg-rowing fisherman, floating crop fields, stilted homes and rustic handicraft workshops, by boat before flying back to Rangoon from the nearby city of Heho. Our group is comprised of my wife, daughter, sister-in-law and myself, our two friends that we had invited to come along as traveling companions on this second trip to Burma as a family, plus our driver and soon to be acquainted travel guide.

The friends a
ccompanying us on our trip, which included a few days in Singapore prior to our arrival in Rangoon, are Phil and Tina, highly-esteemed professors and top-level faculty members that our daughter had come to know and take classes from who, out of the infinite kindness and generosity of their large hearts, took her under their wings to both help her out during her first year away from home at college, and also stand in as surrogate parents and confidants during her time at the university. From the time that we first met them during New Student Orientation, we immediately hit it off and soon became good friends. Being very adventurous and having traveled widely around the world, including parts of Southeast Asia, Phil and Tina became intrigued with Burma after our daughter had shared pictures that I had taken during my first trip there, and asked to be able to join us on our upcoming trip to Singapore and Burma. As we prepared to board the Singapore Airlines Flight SQ15 from SFO to Seoul, followed by a connecting flight to Singapore and later an affiliated Silk Air flight to Rangoon, they both expressed their excitement at getting to experience Burma with us, despite a bit of background concern given that we were traveling not long after the 9/11 terror attacks. They also joked that traveling long distances with friends for the first time in their experience can get interesting, and that even with the minor inconveniences and mishaps that are bound to occur when traveling (especially in the Third or Developing World), the attendant stress involved with traveling long distances, and how each person reacts to it in their own way, can often lead to situations where we get to see the other sides of one another.
Making Sure that We are Aware of the People's Desire

At the junction of Nyaung U - Kyaukpadaung Road, which leads  south towards Mount Popa and connects with the route that leads into Myanmar’s Shan State and our future destination of Nyaungshwe/Inle Lake, we pass another one of those cautionary yet quirky red and white “People’s Desire” signs to gently yet firmly remind the visiting tourist that they are presently in a Socialist country run by a military government, and that careless words and/or actions may have undesired and/or unpleasant consequences; granted, the incorporation of the word ‘stooges’ likely invokes a chuckle in said visiting tourists, and alternately calls to mind an image of a skinny and shirtless Iggy Pop, or a black and white one of Moe, Larry and Curly. We continue on paved road beyond the junction and begin seeing distant temple ruins dotting the arid plain as our vista widens, with some smaller ruins in the near-foreground close enough to make their individual red-orange stone bricks and details on the carved ornamental elements discernible. We divert onto a dirt road that forks off of the paved one, and shortly enter the village of Myinkaba and arrive at the red-bricked perimeter wall of the first stop on our tour of Pagan, the Royal Golden Tortoise Myanmar Traditional Lacquer Factory and Shop (referred to simply as 'Shwe Leiht Min' - Burmese for Royal Golden Tortoise - by the locals), which is owned and run by a close friend of Auntie Sally’s. This had also been the initial stop after arriving at the Nyaung-U airport for our daughter and I during our first visit to Pagan accompanied by Auntie Sally, and one of the highlights of that trip was being able to later that day witness a spectacular sunset from the deck of an old river boat called the Phwa Saw (which Auntie Sally's lacquer factory-owning friend also happened to own) with a cold can of Myanmar Beer in hand while cruising along the mighty Ayeyarwady River. We exit the van and enter the redbrick building that the driver has parked next to; across the dirt road from the factory sits the weathered remains of a old reddish-brown stone pagoda referred to as a stupa, or zedi, reminiscent of a pawn chess piece in form.

The room we enter is sizable and contains a number of standing shelves lined with traditional hand-made Burmese lacquer pieces in various stages of completion. A middle-aged Burmese man in the traditional men's sarong, or 'longyi', and an open button-down shirt over a Tee shirt enters the room, whom I recognize as the owner of the lacquer factory and the Phwa Saw riverboat. He introduces himself and then begins to lay out the general itinerary for our stay in Pagan, adding that we will be lead by a very reputable and knowledgeable local guide; the sights and activities would be basically the same as those of the first trip that our daughter and I had made to Pagan in 2000. The morning would begin with a tour of the Shwe Leiht Min lacquer factory, where we would be walked through the various steps in the Burmese traditional hand-made lacquer process. After the tour of the factory, we would check into the hotel and grab some breakfast at a local restaurant, and then be met by our local guide to begin touring some of the more famous temple and pagoda ruins of 'Old Pagan', which is the heart of the Pagan Archaeological Zone flanked by a bend of the Ayeyarwady River. Following lunch, more temples would be visited, as well as a visit to the Pagan central market in the town of New Pagan ('Pagan Myothit') and a few artisan workshops that produce some of the other traditional handicrafts that Pagan is known for. Pagan Myothit evolved into its current state in 1990, when the government relocated the majority of the 'Old Pagan' residents to 'New Pagan' in order to preserve the temple and pagoda ruins, and it is where all the new hotel and restaurant construction has occurred; despite this growth, Pagan Myothit still retains a laid-back, semi-rural feeling owing to the the presence of rustic thatch-walled homes and both horse and ox carts sharing the roads with bicycle and vehicle traffic. The highlight of the late afternoon and early evening would be a brief cruise on the Ayeyarwady River to view the sunset aboard the Phwa Saw, with the dinner to follow served on a sandbar island located in the middle of the river from which the moon rise could later be enjoyed.  

The following day's itinerary would include a trip to Mount Popa, a sacred pilgrimage site roughly 55 km south of Nyaung U known as the Abode of the Nat Spirits and a popular tourist destination for its Taung Kalat, a tall, sheer-sided volcanic plug topped with a monastery and housing many Nat spirit shrines, not to mention a lot of mischievous long-tailed macaque monkeys looking for hand-outs willingly or otherwise. My daughter and I had been to Mount Popa and the monastery-crowned Taung Kalat volcanic plug during our first trip to Pagan with Auntie Sally, though given our scheduled itinerary and limited time during the visit, I was only able to briskly take the stairs part of the way up before having to turn around and head back, and given the high temperatures and time of day during the visit, the monkeys had all long since bedded down and were nowhere to be seen. The excursion would include a stop in Salay to visit an old teakwood monastery and a nearby Burmese Buddhist nunnery, followed by...

Instead of feeling excitement about the planned itinerary summarized, I'm feeling an increase in queasiness and that unsettling sensation in my stomach, and now a little bit feverish. I excuse myself from the group and walk over to the small bathroom to see if splashing a bit of water on my face might perk me up a bit, though as I turn the handle of the old and corroded faucet, the meager trickle of water issued from the spout is preceded by a short stream of tiny gnat-like flying insects that briefly swarm about the sink before dispersing. I dap a bit of water on my already clammy forehead to no effect, then rejoin the group. I mention to my wife that I really am not feeling well, and that though I will attempt to keep up with the group through the planned itinerary, at some point I will very likely have to be dropped off at the hotel and that they will have to continue on without me. Shortly thereafter, our host tells us that the tour of the lacquer factory will now begin.







Fabricating Traditional Burmese 'Yun-De' Lacquerware at the Shwe Leiht Min Factory
Burmese lacquerware, or 'yun-de', is made using the sap tapped from the Melanorrhoea Usitata, or 'Thitsee', tree that grows wild in the forests of Burma. The straw-colored sap turns black upon exposure to air, and when brushed in or coated on a base material forms a hard varnish-like surface that is moderately resistant to moisture and heat. The process of making lacquerware was introduced into Burma via artisans brought back in the later 1500's as the result of Burmese conquest and subjugation of territories near China's southern Yunnan province and Thailand's Chiang Mai region. Lacquerware items such as vessels, boxes and trays have a coiled or woven bamboo-strip base (sometimes the base is purposely made thin and mixed with horsetail hair to yield a finished lacquer cup or bowl that is somewhat flexible around the rim), and the thitsee sap may be mixed with ashes or sawdust to form a putty-like substance called thayo which can be sculpted. The object is coated layer upon layer with thitsee sap and thayo to make a smooth surface, polished and engraved with intricate designs, commonly using red, green and yellow colors on a red or black background. After each lacquer layer application, the piece is placed in an underground brick cellar to dry and harden for up to 10 days. Another distinctive form of lacquerware is 'shwezawa', which uses gold leaf to fill in the designs on a black background.

Phil and Tina appear to be thoroughly intrigued with the detailed explanation and demonstration of the lacquerware fabrication process, and had I been feeling up to the mark, I would be snapping a lot more pictures of said process, but I am increasingly convinced that the day, if not the late morning or early afternoon, would not end well for me. Our tour of the lacquer factory now complete, we get back into our van and are taken to the Power Pagan hotel so we can check in and take the luggage to our rooms. The hotel is located near the southeast corner of the town of Pagan Myothit, and but a brief stroll from the Kaytumadi Dynasty hotel that we had stayed at during our first visit to Pagan. We check in and deposit our luggage. The fringes of Pagan Myothit convey an almost rural vibe, with the weather and dusty paved road in front of our hotel soon giving way to a parched dirt strip that leads out into a semi-arid open plain dotted with palms, acacia trees and brush that extends out to a ridge of mountains in the distance. The village-like neighborhood that brackets the far end of the open field across the road from the hotel is made up predominantly of rustic, wooden-framed houses with thatched palm walls interspersed with more contemporary houses with white-washed stucco walls. We enter the hotel lobby and check in at the front desk, and after dropping off our luggage in the assigned rooms get back into the van to grab breakfast at a local restaurant, where we will meet up with our esteemed guide and afterwards tour a few of the more well-known temples prior to lunch.



A Pagan-Style Convenience Store




We take a seat in the front portion of the restaurant, which extends forward of the main building and has accordion-style retractable wall panels that have been open to create an open-air patio. The set-menu breakfast is soon brought out to us, comprised of scrambled eggs that appear to have been prepared in a well-seasoned wok (or skillet) given the patches of light reddish-brown toasting and the smoky essence of 'wok breath' (what the Chinese refer to as 'wok hay'), grill top-toasted bread with a bit of attendant charring, and strong Burmese coffee (of which I generally take black, but most Burmese would add a healthy dose of condensed milk, or 'noh-zee', if not a bit of sugar, similar to what the Vietnamese prefer). Given the current condition of my stomach, I have very little appetite and can only get a portion of my breakfast down. We finish our meal and walk out to the van which is parked between the restaurant and rustic version of a convenience mart, where our local guide is now waiting, and introductions are exchanged. As we get in the car and begin the drive north towards the Pagan Archeological Zone’s Central Plain to the first temple, my wife asks how I'm feeling. I tell her that I'm feeling pretty lousy, but when she next asks I want to be taken back to the hotel now, I tell her that I will see how long I can hold out before I really need to go back and call it a day, hoping that I can at least see a few temples before things go south and the vomiting starts.


Sulamani Temple

Wall Frescoes at Sulamani Temple

Our first stop is Sulamani Temple, which was built in 1183 by King Narapatisithu and restored after the 1975 after a magnitude 6.5 earthquake struck Pagan, is one of the most frequently-visited in part due to the colorful frescoes that embellish its interior; the area was again shaken more recently by a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in August 2016, which damaged at least 185 temples and pagodas including Sulamani. The temple has four entrances aligned with the cardinal directions, with one open to visitors and the other three fenced off. Per standard procedure when visiting temples and pagodas in Burma, we remove our sandals (or shoes and socks, if that is what the visitor is wearing) prior to entering the temple or pagoda's bricked or marble tiled portion of the compound. One of the drawbacks of this procedure is that most of the regions of Burma that comprise the main tourist circuit (Rangoon, Pagan, the Mandalay/Sagaing/Amarapura region, Inle Lake, Taungyi, Ngapali) can get quite hot, with the temperature of the sun-beaten brick and marble tiles feeling much higher than that of ambient temperature on bare feet - and painfully so. One benefit of the marble tiles is that when a temple or pagoda compound so constructed is visited around sunset and the early evening, the smooth marble seems to quickly cool to below ambient temperature, which is very soothing and refreshing to the feet after a busy day of temple touring. As is typical, the open temples are inhabited by bats, and perhaps because of my worsening physical condition, the smell of bat urine and feces seems particularly strong and adds to me nausea, though at least the air within the stone walls of the temple’s interior is pleasantly cooler than the gradually increasing outside temperature. I’m decidedly off on my photography game and shooting far viewer pictures than I normally would, being more concerned about the churning in my stomach than how to frame the best composition of things that catch my eye. We are about 180 degrees opposite of the only viable exit when the stomach churning rises to its crescendo, and I quickly put my camera-free hand to my mouth and make a B-line for the exit in a mad dash.

Once outside, the acrid smell of bat droppings gives way to the baseline scent of dust sweetened with a faint hint of wood smoke from a food vendor amid the ever-present souvenir stalls somewhere beyond the temple compound walls, which somewhat clears my head and slightly diminishes the sense of urgency to toss my breakfast. I retrieve my sandals from the edge of the compound's brick tiling and slip them on before walking in the direction of the van. Off to the right near the corner of the Sulamani Temple compound wall, I see what looks to be a rustic bamboo and thatched palm frond outhouse, and decide to walk over so that I can have a bit of privacy to vomit when the time comes. The door to the shanty sh*tter pulls open with a hollow creak, and as I take one step inside I am hit full-on with an awful stench that burns both my nostrils and the back of my throat. I glance down to see an open pit circular squatty-potty about three feet in diameter and about four feet deep (at least to the fly-swarmed surface of the dark brown sludge and liquid), sans any blue, minty-fresh liquid to entrap and suppress the strong, foul odor. I immediately retch and quickly turn to make it about five long steps before stopping to assume a forward-leaning squat and vomit heavily and loudly. As I convulse and spew forth like a garden waterfall, I feel a pair of hands supportively apply pressure to my lower back, and realize that our driver had seen me hightail it out of the temple and head for the outhouse, and followed me to make sure I was okay. I quickly felt better after losing the contents of my stomach and made my way back to the van, which was parked near the temple vendor stalls just outside of the compound wall. The others shortly exited the temple and offer their sympathies, asking if I wanted to go straight back to the hotel. As I feel a bit better now, I say that I would stick with the group and hope for the best.   


Buddha Statues inside Dhammayangyi Temple
The next temple on the itinerary is Dhammayangyi Temple, which lies about a kilometer to the southwest of Sulamani via the patchwork of interconnecting dirt roads that makes bicycles (and, as of late, ebike electric motor scooters for rent) a viable and popular alternative to hired cars for temple touring,  and can be recognized at a long distance across the plains given its size (the largest of all the temples in Pagan) and somewhat pyramidal shape. It was built during the reign of King Narathu (1167-1170), and it was said that he was so fastidious about the level of craftsmanship in fitting the adjacent stones during construction, he would randomly inspect the joints and if he could fit the tip of a pin in the joint, he would have the offending craftsman executed. The temple’s interior is bricked up, so visitors can only visit the four porches and the outer corridors, which contain a number of Buddha statues. Though still not feeling well, I am at least able to stick with the other for the entire tour this time.

A Couple of Pictures of Ananda Temple's Interior
We next drive due northwest to the vicinity of aged and weathered red brick city wall and flanking moat that surrounds Old Pagan on three sides (the western side of the former city occupying the bank of the Ayeyarwady River) to visit Ananda Temple. The temple was built in 1105 during the reign of King Kyanzittha (1084–1113) of the Pagan Dynasty. One of the four surviving temples in Old Pagan, its structure reflects a mix of Indian and ethnic Mon architectural styles (Burma’s Mon State lies southeast of Rangoon, bordered by Burma’s Kayin State on the east and the Andaman Sea on the west), and houses four large standing Buddha statues facing the four cardinal direction. It is a short drive, but by the time we arrive I am already beginning to feel worse, much worse. Stepping through the main entrance, our guide begins his discourse on the temple’s history, though after about 5 minutes and a few pictures taken, I have to take my leave and head outside before the next bout of vomiting. I walk around the courtyard to the right of the main entrance hoping that the fresh, albeit now quite warm and dry, air will make me feel a bit more comfortable, but soon begin to feel weak and decide to sit in the left front passenger seat of our van with the door open for ventilation. As I lie back, locals making their approach to the temple pause to look in at me, no doubt seeing the discomfort on my face. I try to make a bit of conversation with my limited Burmese vocabulary, telling them in somewhat broken Burmese that I am sick (‘neh ma kaun boo’), have already vomited once (‘a-koo ti-kah un thwah bee’), and that I think that it is due to food poisoning (‘ah-sah ma thant boo, tin deh…’). I get a mix of sympathetic aw’s, commentaries to other locals marginally within ear shot about my condition, and a few innocent giggles from some of the younger local kids upon seeing this hairy Caucasian guy speaking Burmese. When the sudden urge to vomit finally comes, I hurriedly get out of the car and half-jog just beyond the gate of the temple compound to some nearby open ground in front of a rustic house, where I drop down on all fours and hardily vomit into the dirt. After I finish, one of the locals comes over to check on me, and supportively follows me as I walk unsteadily back to the car. As our group returns, it’s decided that I will be promptly taken back to the hotel to rest and ride out the upper gastrointestinal tract storm that has yet to pass as the rest of the group continues with the day's itinerary.

Before getting into bed for some much-need rest, I take a Cipro antibiotic tablet and mix a packet of electrolyte powder with bottled water and begin to take some small sips; back then, the food and water-borne pathogens in Southeast Asia and elsewhere had not yet become resident to the Ciprofloxin fluoroquinolone-type antibiotic, whereas today a 'rescue dose' of four Zithromax antibiotic tablets, together with an electrolyte replenishment solution, is the preferred approach to contend with one of the unfortunate inconveniences of traveling far from home in the Developing World. I'm still feeling feverish despite the room's air conditioner running, but with my essential mineral levels brought up a bit and a bit of sugar from the electrolyte powder mix, I feel a bit more comfortable and dose off to sleep.

What seems like a rather short period of time passes when I suddenly awake with bad nausea and stomach cramps, and realize that the gastrointestinal storm has now risen to a Category Number Two, with my lower G.I. tract entering the fray to tag-team, or rather double-team, with my upper G.I. tract. Thankfully, the bathroom waste basket is lined with a plastic bag and I hurriedly ascend the throne (a commoner's 'throne', not the elaborate-carved and gilded type sat upon by King's Narapatisithu, Narathu and Kyanzittha) and double-up with my head buried in the tightly-gripped waste basket as I purge with reckless, noisy abandon. I stagger back to bed and manage a bit more sleep that includes some weird fever-dream whose details I can't recall. I awake to my wife standing over me and asking me how I feel, as the others have returned to the hotel for a brief rest prior to heading back out to view more temples, followed by their sunset Ayeyarwady River cruise. As I speak with her, I again get the imperative urge to purge and rush back to the throne, garbage can tightly in hand.

Memories of Our First Ayeyarwady Sunset from the Deck of the Phwa Saw



After Round Two of the G.I. tag-team event, I get back into bed and perhaps a few hours later awake, thankfully on my own accord instead of at the urging of bad body sensations. I'm feeling a little bit better, and decide to get up and get outside for a bit of fresh air. Through the ground-level hotel room blinds, I can see that the band of sky above the roof line of the adjacent bungalow is an artist's pallet of pastel orange, pink and red, and that I am missing one of Pagan's gorgeous sunsets that likely results from the airborne dust of the plains, the minor contributions of smoke from cook fires and burning leaves, and perhaps the humidity-induced haze from the Ayeyarwady River. Remembering back to my prior visit to Pagan and watching the sunset over the river from the deck of the Phwa Saw, I'm bummed out that I missed out on the experience this time around. I walk outside a ways but am still too weak to walk to the southern edge of town to get an unencumbered view of the western horizon, so I just stand outside for a while before heading back to the room for more rest.
I turn on the TV and flip through the State-run channels, catching passing glimpses from the foot of the bed of the local culture as conveyed by a random sample of the programming provided to the general public: an evening news broadcast which seems to show a lot of footage of Burmese Generals and their entourages touring some new State-run factory, bridge or hydroelectric dam being built; a Burmese movie (which always come off as low-budget, poor recording quality and, if a comedy, very cheesy) or Chinese movie subtitled in Burmese; a Burmese drama or comedic TV series of similar or lesser quality as their movies; a lame karaoke commercial for some shampoo or toothpaste with Burmese lyrics set to a ripped off melody (during our first trip to Pagan, there was a karaoke commercial featuring Kid Rock's "I Got One For Ya" off his Devil Without a Cause album with alternate Burmese lyrics promoting a brand of mouthwash). At last I happen across the channel allocated for MTV Asia, which I became introduced to days earlier back at our room in Rangoon's Winner Inn Hotel. One of the songs that was quite popular at the time and getting a lot of air play was "My Sacrifice" by the band Creed (which, for some reason, many feel is as lame as the Nickleback despite both bands putting out some rather catchy tunes), and unsurprisingly the song plays again not long after I tune in.

I lay back on the bed to get a bit more rest, and then some time later awake to the sound of the door opening. The other have returned for their afternoon and evening itinerary, and they all come by the room check in on how I'm doing and hope I'm feeling better soon. I'm next filled in on the sights and activities that I missed out on, which included a trip to the photogenic Pagan general market, group photos from the upper level of one of the temples, with myriad other temple and pagoda bathed in the warm hues of the late afternoon sun in the background, viewing the sunset from the deck of the Phwa Saw and, finally, docking the old riverboat on a sandbar island in the middle of the Ayeyarwady to watch the full moon rise and enjoying a dinner of grilled fresh fish from the river (with the meal delayed as it took longer than expected to catch the required quantity of fish). It sounds like they had a good time and I again regret that I wasn't able to partake in the activities because of getting food poisoning. My wife mentions that the kitchen had prepared some rice porridge, which would give me something easy on the stomach if I'm up to it. We head over to the hotel's dining room, which is located above the lobby, and the other have a light snack while I have a bit of rice porridge and a bit of Burmese roasted green tea, with the calories combined with a little caffeine perking me up. I'm still weak, but my stomach is settled enough that I manage to get some much-needed uninterrupted sleep.

The next morning I'm feeling a bit better, but still weak and decide it would be better to take it easy today and not join the others for the day's itinerary afield. Early the next morning we will travel by van some 7+ hours from Pagan to the town of Nyaungshwe, located near the north end of Inle Lake in Burma's Shan State, and a portion of the journey would be along rough roads winding through the mountains and could get tough at times. I have a very light breakfast with the others, except for our daughter who has yet to join us, during which I tell the group of my plan to stay local and continue my recuperation, perhaps exploring a little of our corner of Pagan Myothit on foot or hiring a pedal cab to take me to some of the nearer temples and pagodas, depending on how I feel as the day progresses. I leave the table as the other continue their breakfast while waiting for the van to arrive out front, and head back to the room to rest a bit and let my food digest for a while, fairly confident that everything will stay down at this point in my recovery

My scrambled eggs, toast and coffee are settling well enough in my stomach that I pick up my camera and small knapsack with bottled water and a couple of cereal breakfast bars and venture out to do some exploring and take some photos (because of my illness, I am very behind schedule regarding the number of photos I should have snapped by this point in our visit to Pagan). The morning is already warm and the afternoon promises to be more so, though the 'pasoe' (Burmese men's sarong, or 'longyi', with my preference being the thin, Indian-style 'pa-leh khut' pasoe) provides more cooling ventilation than the Western shorts or pants. The pasoe or longyi is a tube of cotton fabric (or silk for fancy occasions) that is commonly secured with a not-so-simple twisting and tucking of one of the ends into the center of the now-tightened band formed around the waist in the case of a male wearer. It should be noted that I DO break with Burmese tradition and wear underwear, which makes the inevitable loosening and potential dropping of the pasoe in public less embarrassing. It is not uncommon to see older Burmese gentlemen, particularly those with large stomachs (referred to in Burmese as 'bai shwe', or 'golden stomach') to wear a belt around the waist of the pasoe to mitigate unwanted slippage in public, as it is locally considered crass to adjust or re-tie one's pasoe in front of others - especially strangers.  The Burmese pasoe is quite comfortable to wear, and soon after marriage to my Burmese wife I began wearing them around the house, and over the years have assembled quite a collection of pasoes as gifts from family members visiting from Burma, or as gifts sent from family members via other extended family members or friends thereof that are traveling to The States (this practice is referred to as 'loo-gyone' in Burmese). The pasoe is very practical as it is light weight and compact when folded, thus making it very easy to pack, and in a pinch can be utilized for other purposes; when staying in a very budget guest house on Bangkok's Khaosan Road, I learned that not only did my cheap room lack a bathroom sink to enable me to do laundry in my room (given that my minimalist bathroom consisted only of a small shower stall with a Western toilet in the center and a hose with shower head attached to the hot and cold water taps), but also did not come with a bath towel, in which case I used my pasoe for both sleeping and drying off after showering.

Me in a Burmese Men's Pasoe at the Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda (Shown for Reference)
The proper technique for donning a men's pasoe is to step into it while gripping the upper edge and bring it to the level of the waist, and then with the right and left hands pinch a thumbs' length worth of the upper portion of the pasoe between the respective thumbs and index fingers, rotate the forearms outward to extend the right and left hands out to the side while keeping the elbows down at your side, while at the same time also rotating the palms further outward to pull the edges of the cloth tube tightly against the belly button and the spine. The next part gets a bit tricky, as you first quickly rotate your right forearm into the body centerline so that the right wrist comes to rest just above the belly button, which should form a pleaded fold down the pasoe aligned with the body centerline; next, do the same with the left forearm so that the left wrist comes to rest just below the belly button and the right palm, which should form a pleaded fold angled downward to the left (it does this with me, at least), and leave both thumbs tightly shrouded by the fabric of the pasoe still pinched by the index fingers. The final steps in the process is to push both hands to pull the gripped cloth ends tightly to maximize the length of free cloth ends that extends beyond the cross-point, then trap the cross-point and the free ends with the inside of the left forearm near the wrist. Next, bundle and pull upward on the free right end with the right hand, and bundle and pull downward on the free left end with the left hand. Finally, twist the base of the right end tightly around the base of the left end, and tuck the free right end into the thus-created snug waistband of the pasoe. I had been shown this established technique on several occasions, but would omit or confuse a step and over time develop my own technique out of necessity to yield something functional, yet very odd-looking in the eyes of the locals in-country, which resulted in some surprised giggles from onlookers on the streets of Rangoon and, in one case, a well-meaning, on-the-spot pasoe knot-tying tutorial on Inya Road in front of the local market courtesy of a bemused pedal cab driver.

Getting to Know the Locals in Pagan Myothit

From the driveway of the Power Pagan Hotel, I walk across the dusty tarmac of Myat Lay Road to the edge of the open field and the village-like neighborhood that lies beyond. A small group of locals made up of women and children, some holding large, round woven shifting trays used in the Developing World for separating grains or seeds from their outer husks, are congregated and talking at the near edge of the field. as I raise the camera to take a shot, they turn to look at me, perhaps with bemusement as I am a Caucasian wearing a pasoe. I greet them in Burmese, which prompts smiles all around and some giggles from the kids. Noting their surprise, I continue in Burmese, telling them that my wife is Burmese and that I learned the language from her, although my limited abilities with the language has also benefitted from hearing Burmese spoken by extended family members, friends, monks and nuns, and also brief encounters native speakers at local Burmese Theravada Buddhist monasteries, Burmese cultural festivals and events, weddings, birthday parties and house blessings, or even hearing it at random in one of the local Asian markets.

My exchanging of pleasantries in Burmese with the locals is suddenly interrupted by the loud, urgent bleating of a goat and the snarling growls and barks of a dog accompanied by the frantic clatter of hooves, paws and claws on the tarmac behind me. I quickly turn my head to the right and see a desperate goat running balls to the wall up the dusty street with a stray dog on its tail perhaps a few feet behind it in hot pursuit. On the opposite side on the street a short distance ahead, a stocky Burmese woman in the typical rural Burmese attire of a ladies' longyi sarong, a T-shirt topped with an unbuttoned and untucked flannel shirt and sandals, quickly immerges from a building with an Asian-styled straw whisk broom in hand and joins the chase, yelling something in Burmese to the animals ahead of her. The local kids giggled at the sight of the threesome now heading off into the distance, as the adults exchanged some comments in Burmese.

Aung Pyay Sone, My Impromptu Guide in Pagan Myothit
At this point, we are joined by another one of the locals who walks over to us from a house at the left end of the open field while wheeling an old and well-worn bicycle whose caliper brakes are missing their rubber pads by the handlebars on his right side. I greet him in Burmese and in return he greets me and introduces himself in English, of which he has a decent command of. His name is Aung Pyay Sone, a local artisan 15 years of age that lives in the rustic neighborhood across from our hotel, which apparently is home to a number of artisan and small, home-based handicraft factories and artist studios. As we begin to chat, the other assembled locals disperse to get on with their day, and our conversation is continued over the course of a leisurely stroll towards the end of the paved road and the start of the dirt road that leads south out onto the plain. 

His mother and step-father own and run a small handmade lacquer factory from the small workshops adjoining the family home, and some of his relatives also live nearby and are similarly involved in art and the home handicrafts industry. Beyond the bridge spanning a dry wash, we walk for a short distance along the dirt road, and as I fill him in on my backstory of learning my limited command of the Burmese language (of which he seems quite impressed), my prior experiences during my first trip to Burma and yesterday's bout of food poisoning, he stops to crouch down and point out some faint sets of tracks produced by some of the local potentially nasty creepy-crawlies, namely centipedes ('kim chee myah') and scorpions ('kim mee kouht'). As we head back in the direction of the hotel I tell him of my plans to pretty much take it easy today so as to recover before the long drive to Nyaungshwe tomorrow, and just check out the sights in the immediate area and take photos, and maybe check out one of the nearby temples if it's within a doable walking distance. He graciously offers to serve as my guide to check out his corner of Pagan Myothit to check out the cottage industries and artist studios of his extended family and friends, and later check out a cluster of smaller pagodas that lies within a reasonable walking distance. Seeing this to be the silver lining in yesterday's dark cloud of G.I. upheaval, I whole-heartedly accept his kind and generous offer, with the caveat that I would likely need to interrupt the touring with occasional rest breaks back at the hotel.

A Glimpse at Aung Pyay Sone's Family's Lacquer Factory
We first head to his house to walk through the family's home-based lacquer business. The scale is much smaller than that of the Shwe Leiht Min lacquer factory that we toured upon our arrival in Pagan, but the elements are the same and now quite familiar, with the covered workshop nearest to the open field decidedly rustic with thatched walls on three sides to form a covered patio. The staff working at the moment are all women ranging in age from late teens to perhaps mid-thirties. After walking through the work areas of the cottage factory, he takes me around the side of the family home to show me a water-filled congrete trough and some adjacent tanks where he raises fish as both a hobby and also for eating, and also introduces me to his sister and cousin, both of whom I recognize from seeing earlier that morning. 

Touring Aung Pyay Sone's Neighborhood in Pagan Myothit
A Typical Scene Encountered in Rural Southeast Asian
A Sculptor at Work
Forming the Understructure for a Lacquer Shrine Offering Bowl
We next walk across the dirt road in front of his house that separates two long rows of rustic houses to visit the workshops and homes of some of his nearby friends and relatives. The first stop is the home compound of a neighbor that operates an old and colorfully-painted two-wheeled horse cart for hire. As we enter, Aung Pyay Sone (henceforth, referred to simply as 'Aung' for economy of typing, ironically) greets the owner/occupants in Burmese and presumably explains who I am and a thumbnail sketch of my backstory as survey the scene and take photos. I notice that one of the curious local kids, perhaps four or five years of age, has followed me over from Aung's place, and I get the feeling that my presence here off the beaten tourist track is a bit of a novelty in this neighborhood. We spend about five minutes or so there, at which time Aung gestures to me with a slight upward nod and raising of an eyebrow that it's time to take our leave and move onto the next stop, to which I offer my thanks and farewells to our hosts. As we walk, I am treated to glimpses of local color and simple everyday life seen in the more rural environments throughout Southeast Asia, which hold a particular charm for me, such as a mom and child bathing 'old school' from a large ceramic water storage pot.

We stop at the workshop of a sculptor that makes items such as ceramic animals, Buddha heads, figures that presumably depict Nat spirits, female royal court dancers (perhaps similar to Cambodia's 'apsara' celestial nymphs?) and such to sell to visiting tourist. As I watch the artisan sculpt a clay elephant, an elderly Burmese man emerges from the house and offers me a small glass of hot 'laphet kyauht', the traditional Burmese green tea that is grown in the higher elevations of Burma's Shan State and normally roasted to yield a distinctive nutty, smoky flavor. I thank him and sip the tea while browsing among some completed, though as-yet unglazed, pieces that are drying on a table in the sun, and also some examples of the glazed finished products that are on display. We move onto a workshop that makes the woven bamboo-strip bases for lacquerware stemmed shrine offering bowls. The proprietor motions me to sit by him and hands me some prepared bamboo stripes that have had V-shaped notches cut into them, then demonstrates how to form, interlock and assemble then into the bottom portion of an offering bowl, then indicates that it's my turn to try. The process looks pretty straight-forward, but I soon find that it is much easier seen than done, and thank him for letting me try my hand at it before we move on.

A Stone Carver's Open-air Workshop
After stopping to visit the workshop of a stone carver, APS tells me that he has something that he needs to do, and that he will meet up with me in about an hour or so. I tell him that will work out about right, as I am ready to head back to the hotel to rest for a bit before continuing with the day, which so far is proving to be much more rewarding than pretty much revisiting the same sights that I had seen during our first trip to Pagan. As he leaves, I follow one of the dirt roads perpendicular to the one we've been walking down to take some photos.
A Game of Chin Lone
A Neighborhood Convenience Store
Oxen in the Field Across from the Hotel


During my stroll through the neighborhood, a slender Burmese girl, possibly in her very early teens if not a bit younger, approaches carrying two sizeable pails of water suspended from a wooden yoke across her shoulder. Our paths cross in the vicinity of a group of five young Burmese guys arranged in a tight circle playing 'chin lone' (a hacky sack-type Burmese game traditionally played with a small woven cane ball). As we meet, she stops to briefly put down her load to rest her shoulder and wipe her brow. I stop and ask in Burmese if I can feel how heavy the load she's carrying, and she agrees. I assume a low awkward crouch to attempt to get beneath the yoke to heft its weight with my shoulder, but given the length of the heavy wire joining the yoke with the heavy nearly-full pails of water, I can't achieve the proper lifting position to hoist the load without possibly wrenching my back as I'm just beginning to feel halfway normal after the food poisoning. Suffice it to say, the load is definitely heavy, especially for a girl of her age and stature to have to lug who knows how far. I continue my walk through the village-like environs past numerous rustic thatched wall homes (and in one instance, a similarly-constructed general market with a open storefront)with large ceramic water pots out front and property lines demarcated by sun-bleached fences of spindly bamboo poles and loosely-woven bamboo thatch.

I walk back to the hotel to snack on some cereal bars and rest for a while, perhaps with a bit of MTV Asia at low volume. I see a white van parked outside the hotel lobby, and when I open the door to the room I am surprised to see my wife there, assuming that they would be out touring the whole day. She says that they opted to swing by the hotel to allow the group to freshen up as the route connecting the morning itinerary with that of the afternoon passed back through our section of Pagan Myothit. I am further surprised to learn that our daughter was back at her room sleeping as she had a bad headache in the morning and also decided to skip the day's activities; my wife further suggested that I let her rest for now and check in on her a bit later.

As the time to meet up with Aung approached, I replenish my daypack with snacks and bottled water, confirm that I have a sufficient length of folded toilet paper packed (just in case), and head back across the open field to Aung's house. He's not out front when I arrive so I knock on the front door, though nobody answers. I wait out front for a while but he still does not show. Thankfully, I see a familiar Burmese man that I recall seeing at one of the houses or workshops that we had visited earlier in the day slowly approaching on a somewhat compact, small-displacement motorcycle. I wave at him and he gives me a nod of recognition as he rolls at a sputtering idle to a stop. I ask in Burmese if he knows where Aung is, and he responses that Aung is currently at a house down the street, and offers to give me a ride there on the back of his motorcycle. I gratefully accept and get on to the back portion of the motorcycle seat, searching for some available recesses or features where I can get some finger holds to help keep me securely in place before we start rolling; when we do get underway, it is at a low speed with no abrupt accelerations or decelerations requiring the firm grip I was able to achieve.

(Some days later back in Rangoon, I would develop a very nasty red rash with oozing pustules on my right forearm a little ways up from my wrist, rather like a bad poison oak reaction on steroids - pun intended. As the rash progressed to its full extent, I realized that the affected region matched where my forearm had come into contact with the frame of the motorcycle during that brief tandem ride in Pagan Myothit. There's a distinct possibility that at some point the motorcycle may have come into contact with a poison oak-type plant and became contaminated with the offending protein-rich oils from said plant; one such plant indigenous to Burma is known as 'kway lei yah thee' - literally 'dog penis itching fruit' - which affects dogs with an itchy rash when they lift their legs in their penis inadvertently comes into contact with the plant. My rash was exceedingly itchy and quite annoying, and not helped much by the topical anti-itch cream my wife had brought along, but what really helped the itching and speed up the drying of the rash was liberal application of the same yellow thanaka wood powder used in abundance by the women and children of Burma. The rash went away, but left a scar to this day that, along with fond memories and scanned photos, serves as an everlasting souvenir of my second visit to Pagan.)


Aung Pyay Sone at His Artisan Relative's House
We arrive in front of a two-story thatched wall house on the left side of the dirt street. I thank my driver for the short lift and knock on the door, removing my sandals as I await a reply. I hear footfalls on creaking floorboards and stairs, then the door opens and Aung welcomes me into the rustic home of his relative (a teenaged boy who is also an artisan) and gestures me to follow him across the main/living room to the set of thin wooden stairs (sans hand railing) leading up to the second floor loft. I step carefully with trepidation on the center bottom wooden step, which creaks and flexes under my weight. I glance back to Aung, who chuckles upon seeing my expression. The stairs seemed like enough of a challenge, but the upper level is more of a challenge as the not so substantial-looking floor beams are spanned by a matrix of bamboo slats that creak and flex considerably more than the wooden stairs, instilling in me the fear of falling through the floor and make each step all the more tentative, again to the gleeful amusement of Aung.

We walk over to where his cousin and another extended family member are seated on a woven tatami-style straw mat placed before an open sliding wall panel that casts sunlight on a piece of white cloth that Aung's cousin is drawing outlined images on, presumably for a cloth painting or a piece of Burmese Batik-type decorative fabric. Aung watches his cousin work in near silence save for a light breeze rustling through the trees and the cawing of some nearby crows (something that seems to be heard quite often in Burma), though at once point picks up some paper and a pencil and does a quick sketch of me standing in my pasoe and T-shirt, which he then shows me with a chuckle shared by the three of us. I mention that our daughter, who in Burmese is named after the Gantgaw flower, would be interested in finding a painting of her namesake flower while in Pagan, and Aung replies that he knows a quite famous local artist who works predominantly in watercolor that might have a few such pieces available for sale. He says it's a bit over a mile away by foot, by that it is an easy hike and will take us past a group of small temples that we can stop and check out, plus he has a few more stops that we can make along the way.


A Lacquer Factory Owner Prepares Chicken Rice Porridge for Local Village Kids

We leave Aung's cousin's house and head back to Myat Lay Road in front of the hotel, and follow it northward to our next stop, which is yet another lacquer belonging to a family friend. As we enter the compound, Aung tells me that the owner of the factory is a very generous man, and that as a weekly meritorious deed, he and some of his staff prepare a large batch of chicken rice porridge ('kyet-tha san byor') to offer to the local school children from Pagan Myothit and the smaller surrounding villages. In the corner of the compound, four large steaming woks and one large pot are licked by flames rising up from long, narrow fire pit dug into the ground as they are stirred by long, flat wooded spoons reminiscent of narrow canoe oars. It is mid afternoon and the children will not be bused in for the food offering until late afternoon, which according to Aung will give us time to swing by to talk with his famous artist friend and see what gantgaw flower paintings he may have available for sale and make a couple of other stops, with some time to spare before the kids arrive. I tell Aung that, as I was earlier unaware, our daughter had stayed back at the hotel because of a headache, but that if she was feeling up to it, I would want to have her meet him and his extended family, and also come to watch the chicken rice porridge offering. We tell the lacquer factory owner that we will return, and that I would bring some money at that time to make a donation to put towards purchasing chicken and other ingredients for future batches of porridge.



Aung Pyay Sone in Front of the Lok Nat Temple Group
A Buddha Statue in One of the Loka Nat Temples
We continue a ways up Myat Lay Road, then hang a left and after a while come to the group of small temples and stupas that Aung had mentioned. He says that the temple group is called Loka Nat, with the small temples each containing a small Buddha statues within its open interior shrine chamber. After I shoot some photos, we resume our dirt road urban hike, which takes us through a break in a lengthy section of woven bamboo slat fencing that extends out in both directions as if demarcating some sort of town or village boundary, a short distance beyond which a youthful-looking vendor woman has a wok placed atop bricks to span a small cook fire. She stokes the flames by adding small sections of cut dried branches as squares of tofu bubble on the surface of the wok's hot oil. The smell of wood smoke is something that I have come to associate with travel in Burma (and other destinations in developing Southeast Asia, for that matter), not only in rural and semi-rural environs such as Pagan, but even in suburban Rangoon where monks and attendants will dispose of raked leaves and fallen twigs swept up from the monastery grounds by burning them in small piles.

Curious Local Kids Encountered During Our Stroll Through Pagan Myothit
Visiting a Jeweler's Shop
We divert onto a paved side street and stroll through a neighborhood that looks and feels a bit more like suburban Rangoon with its predominantly modern wood and stucco homes to visit the shop house of a family friend who is a jeweler. The house has accordion wall panel in the front which are open to allow passersby to see inside the living room-cum-showroom, with a small display case, a lighted jeweler's loop on a moveable mount and a counter balance-type jeweler's scale shrouded in a glass cabinet on a combined desk and cabinet unit (the top shelf of which serves as the family's Buddhist shrine) located against the back wall sharing the space with the couch-styled wooden bench, some chairs and a color TV. A VCR is hooked up to the TV that is presently playing a Michael Jackson concert video that is being watched by the extended family, with the mother (or perhaps the eldest daughter?) and a toddler whose face is heavily adorned with large circles of thanaka powder together with a rectangular patch along the bridge of the nose, and some older kids sitting on the floor in front of the TV. I am immediately and warmly welcomed in to have a seat that has been made available for me and watch the video for a while, as a ceramic cup of hot Burmese roasted green tea is graciously handed to me. Burma is known for its high-quality rubies, sapphires, emeralds and jade, and the jeweler shows me some samples of his work, mostly set in white gold (platinum), as I sip my tea. We briefly sit with the family as Michael Jacksons sings and dances on screen, then continue on our way to the painter's studio to check out his work. We are back onto dirt roads amid rustic houses for a while, with curious local, both kids and adults, coming up to greet us and chat briefly with Aung.

We finally arrive at the artist's home-based studio, with Aung heading into the back to summon the artist while I browse through his completed work in the front. His work is quite good, with his subject matter displayed being predominantly scenes of rural life, the temples of Pagan, landscapes, and some flowers in close-up or as part of still life compositions. I didn't see any gantgaw flowers in the finished works displayed. When Aung and the artist emerge from the back, we exchange greetings and I inquire about and gantgaw flower painting he might have in the back that I could look at, as our daughter was named after that flower and she wanted to purchase a gantgaw flower painting while visiting Pagan. He says that he currently did not have any in his stock, but that he could paint one for us if we wanted. His command of English is quite good, so I tell him that I would prefer that our daughter come here later this evening to view his work and decide if she wanted him to do a gantgaw flower painting for her, and that we cold always have him do the painting and mail it to family in Rangoon, as my wife and I would not be leaving Rangoon for Singapore and the return flight to California for another 6 days. Aung and the artist begin a conversation in Burmese that I am not able to follow, and assume that Aung is just repeating what I had said in Burmese so that there is no confusion. After some back and forth, they seem to reach some agreeable conclusion, and the artist say that, yes, you can bring your daughter back to the studio later in the evening. With that, we say our goodbyes and retrace our route back to the hotel, as if our daughter feels up to it, we would have time to take her around Aung's corner of Pagan Myothit for a while and still head back to the lacquer factory in time for the chicken rice porridge offering to the village kids. As we again pass the fried tofu vendor girl and are just about to pass between the two sections of thatched bamboo fencing that brackets the dirt road, a very large and loudly-squealing domestic darts right out in front of us from behind the fence, startling the Hell ('Nga'yeh') out of Aung and I but causing us to laugh as it runs off in the distance trailing dust behind it. 

The Kids' Chicken Rice Porridge Offering at the Lacquer Factory


The Lacquer Factory Staff and Some of the Village Kids



I return to the hotel and check on our daughter. She is awake and feeling better but still resting in the room. I fill her in on my activities over the course of the day and about the chicken rice porridge offering that will be happening at a lacquer factory up the road in a while that we're going to check out if she would like to come along. She does and quickly freshens up, and as we head out to Myat Lay Road Aung, his sister and one of his cousins are already waiting there for us. Our daughter begins speaking with them in Burmese, switching back and forth to English to translate what they're talking about. They seem to be immediate smitten with her, impressed that she was born in Burma but speaks fluent American English. Aung leads us over to his home so she can get a quick look at their small-scale lacquer factory and a glimpse of the rustic neighborhood, then we walk up the road to the family friend's lacquer factory to watch the porridge offering.

Not long after we arrive, a school bus with curvalinear Burmese characters (the written language having been derived from Sanskrit) printed on the side pulls up to the entrance of the factory compound, and as the door opens a large group of village kids, dressed in longyi sarongs and the cheeks of many adorned with yellow thanaka powder, exit the bus and make their way over to squatting tables comprised of crosscut sections of logs and circular sheets of plywood that have been set out in the open grounds of the factory. Short steel bowls of chicken rice porridge and Asian-style soup spoons are then place before each of the children, and they all heartily dig in with expressions of appreciation on their faces; there are enough kids that it appears they may have to be fed in two shifts. As the they eat, the factory owner comes over and beckons us to follow him into a whitewashed stucco building where more kids are enjoying their rice porridge, and directs our daughter and I to take up some open positions at one of the tables. He then brings us bowls of porridge to sample, and though I have a bit of hesitation given that I am still on the mend from food poison, I eat a little bit and find that it is quite good. I offer a USD $10 bill that I have with me to the owner and tell him in Burmese that the funds can go towards buying chickens for the next batch of porridge, acknowledge his meritorious act of 'dana' (making an offering, of food in this case) in the Pali language that is used in Theravada Buddhism  for chants and such ("Thadu, thadu, thadu"), and thank him for his kindness and generosity. 


Hiking Out on the Plain to Watch the Sunset
Village Woman with Child Still Working at Sunset
Sunset Over the Temples in Pagan



The sun will be going down in not too long, so we decide to follow Myat San Road to the south end of town and continue along the dirt road that leads out onto the open plain that lies beyond so that we can watch it descend into the haze on the horizon with perhaps a temple or two in the foreground. By the time we leave the paved road we have picked up a small entourage of curious village kids that follow us out to watch the sun go down. The plain is quite peaceful, with the only sound beyond that of the gritty patting of our sandals against the trail and a bit of muted conversation being the hollow metallic clanking of collared bells as a local boy shepherds a herd of goats out to graze, and the dry swishing sound as we pass a village woman sifting some type of grain or seeds with a woven tray as her young son watches on. When sunset comes, it pales in comparison to others that I've seen in Pagan, but I enjoy it all the same. As we head back into town to meet up with the wife and others, who have no doubt returned from the day of sightseeing, Aung tells us that there will be a festival at one of the pagodas that we might be interested in checking out. I agree that sounds like a great idea, and tell him that after dinner I want him to meet the others in our group, and perhaps see a bit of the village followed by us going out together with he and his sister to the pagoda festival and, of course, stop by his artist friend's studio so our daughter can see samples of his work.  


Some of the workers at Aung Pyay Sone's Family's Lacquer Factory
Meeting with Aung Pyay Sone's Family Before the Pagoda Festival
After finishing dinner with the other at the hotel, we head out front where Aung and his sister are waiting to escort us across the field to his house. As we approach the house we walk past the home factory's thatched semi-enclosed workshop and are surprised to see some women still at work inscribing designs into some lacquer bowls. We enter the house and are introduced to his mother, stepfather, younger brother and his auntie. I greet them in Burmese and they seemed to be impressed with the rather limited command of the language I have. As introductions are exchanged all around, we immediately hit it off with one another. Aung's mother brings in a tray of small glasses of hot laphet roasted green tea and hands them out as we chat, in English to the extend possible though as they speak with my wife and sister-in-law, they switch to conversing in colloquial Burmese, of which I can only pick up bits and pieces of. Sometime during the Burmese portion of the conversation, it comes out that our daughter has somewhat become the talk of the town, or at least this particular neighborhood of Pagan Myothit, as the locals have been beginning to hear about the beautiful Burmese girl who was born in Burma, yet speaks perfect English. We continue to get to know each other over sips of tea for a while, during which Aung's stepfather and mother give us some small lacquerware items as a memento of our visit to Pagan. As the time comes to leave, we thank them for their hospitality and bid them farewell, then walk back across to the front of the hotel where our van is waiting to drive us to the pagoda festival; given some extra available seats, Aung's sister and cousin will come along with us to the festival.

Buddha Statue Inside the Pagoda Hosting the Festival
Aung Pyay Sone's Sister and Cousin at the Pagoda Festival
Longyi (Sarong) Vendors at the Pagoda Festival



We drive up Myat Lay Road and make a left on some darkened street (owing to the lack of street lights) lined with more rustic thatched-walled houses illuminated only in passing by our headlights than wood and stucco homes with porch and outdoor lighting, though after a few more turns the roadside houses become few and far between. At one point, the monotony of quick passing glimpses of trees and scrub brushes bathed in the fringes of the headlights' beam along the shoulder is suddenly broken up by the fleeting apparition-like appearance of an old temple in a clearing next to the road, dramatically rendered in muted monochrome tones that gives it a somewhat eerie quality.

More houses begin to appear along the road as we approach a village, and soon the vague image of the upper portion of a pagoda lit from below by a few spotlights and the glow produced by hanging strings of incandescent bulbs ahead and to the right indicates that we've reached our destination. We find parking among the other cars near the pagoda compound and the roped-off field around its perimeter, where rows of vendor stalls have been set up. There are a lot of people, the overwhelming majority - if not all - at first glance appearing to be local Burmese from the village and the surrounding area. The mood is festival, with the sound traditional Burmese music being played over a loudspeaker (as usual, with what I consider to be an excessive amount of reverb added to the dry signal, or maybe it was just recorded that way to mask any off notes, as is often done at the karaoke parties we've attended.) 

We head first to the pagoda compound, where there is a line formed to enter the interior of the pagoda, and a lot of pair of shoes, sandals and flip-flops at the entrance to the compound in the slots of the wooden shoe rack provided for the devotees and visitors. We file our footwear in the available cubby holes and get into the slowly-moving line of people filing into the red brick pagoda, whose structure is larger than the temples of Loka Nat seen earlier in the day on the hike to the artist's studio, but not large enough to accommodate a lot of visitors at one time. Once inside, we walk in the customary clockwise direction around the narrow corridor that encircles the perimeter of the pagoda's central column-like structure that contains two Buddha statues within recessed nooks, one facing the entrance and the other facing the exit to the pagoda.

After seeing the pagoda's Buddha statues, we retrieve our sandals and go to check out the rest of the festival. There are a number of food stalls set up, one of which has a hand-painted sign of the stall's name on the wall behind the counter, which surprisingly is the same as our daughter's: Gantgaw A'kyaw ('Gantgaw Fried Food'); the stall sells the more popular of the Burmese battered and fried snacks that often accompany a meal, with the top two being 'boo-thee kyaw' (fried opo gourd) and 'kyet-thun kyaw' (fried yellow onion fritter) if the main course of the meal is to be 'mohingar' fish chowder. There are other stalls selling things like clothing, toys and such, with one stall selling longyis, both the men's and ladies' version of the sarong in the ready-made form sold in packages, and also bolts of cloth for making longyis to order based on one's measurements while you wait.

My wife suggests that a custom-tailored pasoe from the pagoda festival would be a nice souvenir to have from my second trip to Pagan, and as I haven't bought anything yet I agree. She picks out a color and pattern of cotton cloth that she thinks would be nice and waves over the vendor, a Burmese guy in perhaps his mid-forties with a scraggly beard and moustache, to take my waist and leg length measurements. As he comes over, his gate is unsteady and his eyes are a bit red and glazed, and from a couple of steps away we pick up the sweet, pungent smell of alcohol on his breath indicating that he is pretty drunk. My wife tells him what we need and points to the cloth she has chosen; I can't make out his response to her in Burmese, but can tell that it is definitely slurred. He retrieves the bolt of cloth and unrolls to loosen about three outstretched arm's lengths worth of the cloth. He hold the top end of the freed cloth to my waist to confirm that is will be long enough for me when I tie it on, then he moves in close to reach around me and wrap the loosened cloth around my waist to judge how much fabric to cut, adding the reek of alcohol sweat to the already strong smell of alcohol breath (the profile of the scent making me wonder if Mandalay Rum or the local toddy palm moonshine was his drink of choice this evening). He marks off the required length of cloth and tells my wife that we can come back in about 15 minutes to pick up the finished product.

We explore more of the pagoda festival grounds as we kill time while waiting for my pasoe to be sewn. Perhaps offered up as a form of entertainment for the festival goers, a exhibition game of 'chin lone' volleyball, whereby an open-weave cane or rattan ball is used and only feet, knees, chests and heads are allowed to be used (save for the serving of the ball), is being staged in a roped-off rectangular court lit by flood lights atop poles in the vicinity of the vendor stalls. Whereas chin lone is mainly played for fun or exhibition purposes in Burma with the players positioned in a loose circle (as in the earlier photo taken on the unpaved streets of Pagan Myothit), the three-man per side competitive game being played here is closer to 'sepak takraw', a game that is native to Southeast Asia that is very popular in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, and an official medal event in the pancontinental multi-sport Asian Games. The sound system that we heard upon our arrival at the festival is also located near the chin lone-cum-sepak takraw court, nearly masking the sound of the on-court action that we take in as the clock winds down on my pasoe-tailoring wait. When it is at least completed, we swing by the vendor stall to pick it up, paying for in the Burmese Kyat currency, and then drive back to Pagan Myothit to swing by the artist's studio so our daughter could examine his work and perhaps commission a painting. (It would only be later after our return to Rangoon that I would try the pasoe on and realize that it was made too small due to TWI - Tailoring While Intoxicated.)

We pull up to the studio and enter the front gallery area as Aung announces our presence, and introductions are exchanged. I reiterate that our daughter is looking for a watercolor of her namesake flower, I that we are here so that she can see examples of your work before ordering a piece to be painted. He tells us to wait a moment and briefly heads in the back, returning with a nice still life painting of gantgaw flowers in a vase. We all agree that it is indeed a nice painting, and when I comment that I didn't think he had one in stock, he remarks that I said we were looking for a gantgaw flower painting, and that we should be careful with it as he had just finished the piece earlier in the evening and that is still needed a bit of time to dry completely. Sensing that there had been some confusion, I tell him that, while the painting is good, I had really want our daughter to first see his work and then be the one to make the call as to if we should request him to do the work, a statement that invokes some furtive glances among us implying the question of whether this was just a somewhat embarrassing misunderstanding or if we were in some small way being played.

The artist's face conveys a bit more confusion than embarrassment that Aung has also tuned into, as he slides up next to the artist and begin to say something to him in Burmese with a low voice as we watch on in suspense. The artist then raises an eyebrow and gives Aung both a sideways glance and perhaps a bit of a chiding, followed by a chuckling smirk (mirrored by Aung) and a small, playful backhanded flick to the ear as if to say, "Ah, now see what you've got us into..." The humor display between the two seems to somewhat lighten the palpable sense of tension sprinkled with suspicion in the room, and in the spirit of that old 'love for sale' joke punchline "Now that we've established what you are, we can haggle about the price...", we come to the proverbial 'money shot': "Okay, how much for the painting?" He quotes us a price that, to my wife, daughter and sister-in-law, seems higher than what you purchase a similar painting for from the vendors at Rangoon's Scott Market (a name that was coined during the British colonial period, also known as 'Bogyoke Zei' or General's Market), but our daughter does like the painting and after a period of consideration, the asking price is accepted.

One of the Parting Gifts from Aung Pyay Sone's Artist Friend


The artist seems to sense that we may have felt a bit backed into a corner with regards to the price but felt obligated to accept it, despite not having commissioned the painting prior to its creation as was intended, but we were too 'annah deh' to haggle about the price, or refuse to purchase it, because of the time and effort he had put into the piece on short notice. The Burmese concept of 'annah deh' relates to the desire of not wanting to put a person on the spot, or make them feel either obligated, uncomfortable, embarrassed, 'put out', guilty, greedy, or to potentially make them 'loose face' as a result of situational interactions one has with them that could potential have negative or unfavorable outcomes that may reflect poorly on either of the individuals involved. Perhaps as a way of mitigating or minimizing the inadvertent 'annah deh' condition that has been created, the artist again briefly retreats to the back and returns with an assortment of blank, hand-painted watercolor greeting carts featuring rural scenes and temples of Pagan that would be suitable for small mattes and framing as parting gifts. With that, we bid him goodbye and drive back to the hotel. Before heading to our rooms to pack and get some sleep ahead tomorrow's early breakfast and 5am departure for the long road trip to Nyaungshwe, I thank Aung for his generous hospitality and acting as my local guide and fixer for a very memorable day, and now evening, in Pagan Myothit, and give him something to compensate him for his time, of which he had given me much (and hopefully some will be put towards new brake pads for his bike). The experiences I have and the kind locals that welcomed me into their homes and workshops have more than made up for the time lost to illness the prior day. As we begin to say our goodbyes, Aung asks what time we will be leaving in the morning, as he will be sure to come by to see us off.

Aung Pyay Sone, His Sister and Cousin with Our Daughter Prior to Leaving Pagan
Public Transportation Seen on the Drive from Pagan to Nyaungshwe

We finish our breakfast and head downstairs to complete our checkout at the front desk and wheel our staged carry-ons out to the van that should be arriving anytime, if not already there. We exit the lobby and step out into the pleasantly cool morning air, where we see Aung Pyay Sone, his sister (wearing one of her finer longyis and his cousin dressed in layers and patiently waiting for us to come outside. I again thank him for his time and the introductions to his extended family members and friends, and for accompanying us to the pagoda festival. Aung hands me a bag with some gifts for us, among which is the sketch that he had done of me while I was watching his cousin draw at his home, and a clay relief of a boy playing a flute and riding on the back of a water buffalo. We thank him for the kind gifts and I take a photo of our daughter with them as our van pulls up. We say our final farewells and shortly get on the road as the dawn sky continues to brighten with the approaching sunrise.

In 2006, we made another trip to Southeast Asia, with the itinerary including Singapore, Burma (then officially Myanmar) and Phuket, Thailand. During our stay in Burma, I did a solo three-day excursion from Yangon that included Mandalay, Sagaing, Amarapura, Mingun and Maymyo. Our daughter and her husband (this was his first trip to the country) opted to head to Pagan (then Bagan) for three days while I was further north. They made it a point to swing by the southeast corner of Bagan Myothit to see if they could meet up with Aung Pyay Sone, but apparently he no longer lived there and had moved on presumably to bigger and better things. Wherever he is now, we hope he's doing well and wish him the best of luck.

Samples of Aung Pyay Sone's Work Given as a Parting Gift
Update: While recently going through some boxing in the garage, I came upon some mementos of my travels in Southeast Asia which included some of Aung Pyay Sone's art work (including the quick sketch that he had done of me) that he had giving me as a gift in front of the hotel before our early morning departure by van to Nyaungshwe and Inle Lake. I hadn't seen these in years and was pleasantly surprised to find them again. 


My additional blog posts on Burma/Myanmar:

Outdoor Vendors near Mandalay’s Zeigyo Central Market

Rangoon’s (Yangon's) Central Fish Wholesale Market