Wednesday, February 28, 2007

More Fire (Pig)!

In between all the Myanmaresque musings, I just thought it would be appropriate to enlighten all those who don't know that this is not just the year of the pig, my Chinese Zodiac sign and the last in the 12-sign Zodiac, but in fact the year of the fire pig.

Now this dude who claims to be a mystic, shaman type sangoma dude (who was in fact just a shady old berg with BO) at the Shwe Dagon Paya in Yangon already read my future (for one kyat - about $0.8) and said "This year, my friend, you're going to be 100% lucky", but for a skeptic like myself I thought I'd just double-check. So I checked a Chinese horoscope website, which gave my rating as 49%, thus now I have empirical evidence that, without an iota of doubt, I am 74.5% lucky this year.

So as my friends The Rudimentals always say: "Yo yo, hog diggidly dog piglet, show us MORE FIRE!"


Tuesday, February 27, 2007

It's only just Bagan...

I don't know where to begin on Bagan so I think the photos should do the talking...

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Yangon Days

I don’t know how the Lonely Planet manage to do it. Actually, I think I have an idea: They plough a lot of resources – these being money and patience - into other resources – these being the human capital of travel journalists – who in turn ply their trade by visiting and living in countries for a number of years and therefore, in the kind of shorthand you would use when interviewing a slick tongued politician, manage to encapsulate a country in a book. I’m not implying that this is at all entirely possible, but in a broad-based manner they do a pretty good job with their travel guidebooks.

I wish those resources were available to me, instead I have in my possession, a lot of torn and tacky hotel brochures and business cards, a weathered, Vietnamese $5 copy of Lonely Planet: Myanmar, a lot of photos, a few souvenirs – some with more meaning than others but all with their own distinct story attached - a couple of Ironcross CDs, an “I-am-a-tourist-for-damn-sure” Mandalay Hill t-shirt, a Moustache Brothers T-shirt and DVD and a scattered head full of memories of dust and temples, blood-red stained teeth and smiling children. So I’ll have to make due with what Sarah and I have but I wouldn’t swop it for anything.

I still don’t know where to kick off this story so lets begin at the start. Yangon. There will be no space in this post for Bagan or Mandalay which will have to wait until tomorrow or Tuesday.

Yangon, or Rangoon, as it was known in the Burmese days (the actually colonial time in history, not George Orwell’s 1934 novel) is way past post-colonial, and a long way short of developed infrastructure. Mildewed, gothic architecture holds hands with shantied establishments, all sporting the upside-down, iron umbrella haircut which comes with thousands of satellite dishes beaming in BBC and HBO even though the government urges the people, by means of large billboards and newspaper entries to “oppose those relying on external elements, acting as stooges, holding negative views” and “crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy” (propoganda of which we made signs only to be nearly dispossessed of them, but that's for another day). These colonial façades bake gloriously in the wide-laned main roads and the ramshackled, burned shell of empty buildings throw cool shadows across the beehived alleyways where longyi-wearing men and women squat in the shade, sipping on tea, chew on betel nuts or smoke cheroots.

The motorbikeless roads (another government decree) are badly tarred hobbled affairs – except the one to the international airport which is immaculate –lined by large tropical trees and canalled sidewalks bustling with the trade and furor of the everyday: street markets, food stalls, hawkers, the inevitable tea-shops and betel-nut stalls, all vying for your attention as you traverse the various obstacles that follow in the wake of a people forgotten and oppressed and a city lost despairingly in disrepair: shopkeepers digging the grey, sludgy gunk out of the blocked canals crossing their shopfronts, uneven blocks of cracked concrete haphazardly laid down as if by an ancient, drunk stonemason, decaying litter and stray dogs lazing in the sun.

Yangon has a certain, distinct smell – not unlike Saigon. It is one of those smells you don’t recognise until you leave and return, which is when your olfactory senses light the spark in your neurons. By no means pleasant, it is still reassuring, like home baking or, the comforting sights and sounds of everyday activities that you are used to. It would be audacious and highly ignorant of me to say it’s the smell of hope, but it is intertwined with life of the common Yangon residents. Figuratively, there’s the sharp, sour smell of fear brought about by years of oppression; it mingles with short gasps and jerky, nervous body language and flickering eyes as a troupe of confident police officers straddle through the market. There’s the religious smell of austerity and age-old tradition in the form of musky, incense drifting from shrines and payas (pagodas) blown across the city to settle with the haze of dust and pollution like a smoky, tortoiseshell blanket across Yangon. There’s the smell of business, the musty smell of new and old money exchanging hands for similarly new and used clothes and bolts of cloth accompanied by the constant chatter of merchants and children laughing and crying. Everything in Yangon belies the history of the country and none more so then the people and food. Amidst the noonday bustle Indian faces melt in with lighter, smoother Chinese looks and rounder Burmese faces, and street-stalls selling hin (Burmese curry), noodles, chapattis and Indian curries, whilst a musallee call Muslims to prayer and Buddhist monks in maroon robes trail piously through the streets, creating a smorgasbord of sensory overload.

Yet, despite the melting pot of sights and sounds, the underlying religious principles of Buddhism rule not only the spiritual but also the common, working day lives of the people of Myanmar and Yangon. Perhaps it is partly due to the ever-present payas, with their intricately designed statues, steps and shrines that stand as sentinels and watch solemnly as the golden hue of their roof reflects brilliantly in the midday sun for all to see and is lit up magnificently at night. None more so then the massive and noble, jewel and gold encrusted Shwe Dagon Paya that stands as out of place as a magnificently polished, antique centrepiece would stand on an unvarnished, weathered table that has only three legs. Perhaps the ever presence of the omnipotent is what causes the Burmese to practise their religion so devoutly and live life with such simple austerity and sincerity, perhaps it is tradition suffused in this sea of mental well-being and future freedom from suffering, that is one of the primary practises of Therevada Buddhism, that causes the Burmese to have what seems to be such ease and acceptance with their situation.

Ironically, it is perhaps partly these principles of Therevada which allow the government to maintain such power and domination over the country – besides the everpresent fear of being thrown in prison for a unforeseeable amount of time or, worse, lugged off to a forced labour camp in the northern rural provinces of a country for no reason other than having the entrepreneurial spirit to show a tourist around town, that is. This actually happened to the brother of Kin Se Be, a young girl we met. At age 14 he was taken to prison and three years later he is still in prison while she now took up the reigns where he left off to make some extra money after to school to buy food and necessities to take to her brother.

I’ll harp on about this point often but this country truly is one of contradictions. It is baffling to think how such beauty and serenity which can be found everywhere in a city and people that is so stifled by the white-knuckled grip of a government that knows no other way than to force their autocratic, tyrannical priniciples upon those beneath them to the point of strangling. The contradiction of a broad-faced face split in half with a smile, showing a mouthful of betel-nut-stained teeth and a cheerful “Mingalaba!” (Hello!), only to recognise the trepidation and well-hidden panic in the eyes behind. This is truly a country where serenity and beauty can sit hand in hand at the same table as fear and hopelessness.

Friday, February 09, 2007

I've packed my bags...

Everything's sorted; the couriered visas arrived today, dong has been changed to dollars, valiums have been purchased and still don't have a clue where or what we're going to do in Myanmar. We're flying in about an hour so have a good Tet holiday everyone and I'll post again in about 2 weeks! Chuc Mung Nam Moi! (Happy New Year)!
PS: If you don't hear from me again, phone your nearest Amnesty International office and set up a petition to put pressure on the Burmese government for the release of the two young political prisoners from SA and Oz who, suprisingly, have been detained due to inciting riot and propoganda against the Burmese biter monkeys in north Mandalay. Much obliged.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


This post is for the faithless flock who never believed a word I said when I mentioned that I’d entered the world of cocaine, chain-smoking, who’s-who parties, modelling, glossy magazines and photo shoots (okay, maybe some of you believed the first three). A big “BLEH” to all of you. Faithful Loesil was the only one who didn’t blink an eye when I posted about it back in August, obviously seeing natural talent for what it is.

I recently read on Uno’s blog that it’s not unusual to walk around foreign countries and see your friends’ faces blown up on billboards, due to the cheap cost of production film and advertising in South Africa. The same can be said of Vietnam. This place is a production mecca bursting at the seams with potential, especially for foreigners, who for some strange reason attract the undivided attention of much of Vietnam’s population – or at least the advertising industry seems to think so.
I did another shoot today for a photo production company who sets up photo libraries for Getty Images. Here are some from the shoot in August. I’m not really sure if I can get in trouble for posting these, but I think it should be okay – but just in case: These photos are all under the copyright of Getty Images and may by no means be used, or reproduced. There, I said it. Don’t laugh too much!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

"Uncle and we are still operating together"

Some randomness from Saturday night. About 20 friends and anonymous stragglers headed over to Com Nieu – the “Rice Throwing” restaurant on Tu Xuong Street, District 3. This is the more informal an popular “street” brother of the sophisticated one on Ho Xuan Huong Street which we went to two weeks ago. What makes this place unique is the circus-like antics the waiters get up to when you order com nieu: The rice is cooked on a charcoal grill in clay pots, which are then whirled in the air to cool down, smashed and the disk of rice inside is tossed across the restaurant and caught by another waiter on a plate which, more often than not is met by appreciative applause from the diners. It's not as hard as it seems, though; I tried it two weeks ago at the other restaurant and managed to keep the hard, ricy UFO on the plate, much to the suprise of my faithless friends and other diners.

By magical appearance, a bottle of Tequila had also hitched a ride with a xe om, scrambled up my leg and onto the table to ensure a memorable and unrememberable evening which passed in hazy green blurs and the faint, fresh, minty aroma of mojitos being drunk at Berlin and the more heady odour of a late night bun munchie behind Benh Thanh Market. Lets just say this morning I was very glad that they had razed our football fields where we usually play on Sunday mornings making practise a no-no. Chi also bought me the awesome and much desired Dogma book Morales from the Ministry which has fantastic and quirky propaganda murals and slogans. Enlighten you? Sure: “Nong Dan Co Dang Doi Doi Am No” or “The peasants and the Party – always warm and fed”. Brilliant stuff.

Little did the snuggly claypots know that soon they would meet their doom at the willing hands of the "riceman"

The infamous "riceman" tosses the charcoaled disk of rice high in the air to his brother in arms

"Check out my moves, fool!" 8/10 for execution, 10/10 for elegance

Oh, how the snuggly ones have fallen!

Tofu munchies

Brian Molko from Placebo popped round to Berlin for a quick pint or 10.

And so did Lemmy from Motörhead

This is funny because Wi-Fi is Vietnamese slang for gay, something which that little question-mark of a boy certainly doesn't seem to be

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Caution: Anti-determinism rant follows...

Is it wrong to feel good when others around you are feeling bad? Is it wrong to be free and happy when those around you are shackled with grief and turmoil? Are we supposed to be doomed to longing for inner peace for everyone we love and cherish for the rest of our life and forsake our own in this altruistic crusade, and is it a selfish notion to believe we should first settle the cold stone of sadness and doubt in our own heart-lake?

I just finished reading Shantaram – which Nat gave me. The book itseld deserves a complete post on its own – and Gregory David Roberts writes that “Luck is what happens to you when fate gets tired of waiting”. It’s a notion that struck home, especially during this last month as I’ve been philosophising – something which I never ever do, no matter how many bottles of Tassenberg I’ve seen the green, glassy, murky bottom of – about karma and fortune. I was having this conversation with someone two nights ago after fetching a friend from the hospital: Basically, some things tend to fall apart, to quote Achebe, but depending on the nature of their demise and the will of the victim, they can glue themselves back together.

That will is partly the sum of experiences garnered and shared by others, gained by yourself and acted upon through time, either over the course of a few minutes of immense pain or a lifetime of slowly applied heart shattering torture. In other words, that will is yours to do with and use as you feel free and feel capable of. Will, I believe also shapes your fate and not, as I tended to contrarily believe, fate shaping your will. Thus luck, as an offshoot of the whole “divine decree” plane of thinking, is also not purely coincidental or serendipital and is in some part influenced by your will. Your kismet, mate, is positive thinking and positive exuberance in all you do. So as far as love is partly the passionate search for acceptance in others, so fate is partly the passionate search for good in others.

With all the problems the preamble to the Lunar New Year and the rise of Aquarius, my star sign, have brought for those around me here in Vietnam, it’s unnervingly strange that it is not I who is first surrounded, slowly transfixed and sucked in by the smoky tendrils and siren call of ill-fortune. I am truly blessed. I’m heading to Myanmar in exactly one week tomorrow; a country I still don’t have a clue about because I still haven’t opened my Lonely Planet. I have great friends and family, a pretty interesting job in a pretty interesting country, health and a tumbler of whisky in my hand. Fate must have gotten tired of waiting as luck flits its glorious wings through my life. I thought I’d share that with you. Just to be sure not to jinx myself, though, I’m heading off the burn some incense sticks at the pagoda tomorrow.

On a lighter note: Suzy Q’s blog is up and running and is bound to bust a move of the most preposterous proportions if her reputation as the Ho Chi Harlot (sorry Susan, but come on it does sorta roll off the tongue! Much love!) is anything to go by ;)