Back, back, back in November 2014, while up in Shan State for the Balloon/Firework Festival of Flames, I took a day trip over to Pindaya where the Shwe Oo Min Cave Pagoda houses some 8,094 statues. I’ve been to a handful of caves housing Buddha statues, but I was not prepared for the sheer density of statues in Pindaya and the multiple labyrinth-like levels of this cave. There’s a lot going on with Buddhism in Myanmar from the revolutionary role monks played during the junta; the current role monks play in shaping in/tolerance towards other religions; the everyday spiritualism of Myanmar Buddhists that still use Shwedagon Pagoda and Bagan as local places of prayer, meditation, and pilgrimage; and even this particular incidence with the December arrest and current detainment of a Kiwi co-owner of a Yangon bar that posted a promotional with a Buddha wearing headphones. Even with the country closed off for years it has apparently always been a center internationally for Buddhist practice. The cave held statues donated within the past few decades from families, groups and business from all over the world including Singapore, Germany, the US, the Netherlands, Australia, Thailand, etc.
It seems that every month there’s a public holiday or a festival in accordance with a full moon holding special significance with the Buddhist calendar. In a short vipassana meditation retreat we took recently, we were there on a day where about 30 older ladies in white tops and brown longyis were spending the whole day meditating. We were told they come four times a month in accordance to the phases of the moon. As an aside, a longyi is the Myanmar sarong, but the women wear it in a style similar to the tailored Lao and Thai sinh while the men just have it as a tube that they wrap and tuck (continuously throughout the day). Although it seems that there is a perpetual celebration around full moons, according to the public calendar there are only five full moons that are taken off as holidays and have large festivities. One of these is the Tazaungmone Festival that is nationwide, but in Shan State is also associated with the Balloon Festival mentioned here and here.
I found this description of the Tazaungmone Festival: “This is supposed to be the time when the sky is totally clear and the Tazaungmon Festival is usually held on the fullmoon day. This is usually in November. After the rains the monks would need new robes and on the fullmoon day the offering of new robes for the monks are held. It is called the Kha htein ceremony. The fullmoon day of Tazaungmone is the last day that this ceremony can be held. People light up their houses for this ceremony. One interesting event is that people light candles on all items they use as a sign of paying homage to the guardian nats of that particular item. Also young people try to steal every movable item from any household and set them up at such improbable places as merry pranks on the first night after the fullmoon day. They belief that the “thieves planet” dominate this night and they play this prank on others. Also many older people belief that the herbs and other natural plants posses special potency on the fullmoon night of Tazaungmone and they prepare a special salad of “mezali buds ( Cassia siamea )” to be eaten that night.”
However, what I witnessed was a lot more raucous than described. Since we weren’t staying in anyone’s home, we didn’t see any merry antics of thieving children or candle lighting, and the monastery donations went far above and beyond robes. Citizen groups and businesses form fundraising committees where they then go and buy literally anything the monks might need. As you can see from the photos this included stationary and pens, soaps and detergent, plates and utensils, blankets and towels, large pieces of furniture, straight up cash, etc. The donations are first placed on floats that are led through the town in a parade and then brought to a central collection point. The monasteries then take turns drawing lots to divide the donations, and anything not needed (because there are only so many blankets and dishware sets the community monasteries can absorb after all) is then sold to pay for infrastructure repairs.
I was able to attend the daytime parade in Kalaw and the nighttime parade in Aung Ban. Since Kalaw is about a 15 minute motorcycle taxi ride from Aung Ban and is much more set up for tourists with better internet (the 3-day treks down to Inle Lake start there), I had gone down there to do some work at the Everest Nepali Food Centre (I highly recommend the “dry salad” that is off the menu, but is delicious and is chopped up paratha cooked in gravy, so it’s actually wet). In any case, when I went down there the restaurant was closed and I was told it would reopen after the parade. There was no internet anyway, because the electricity is shut off for the entire city with very good reason. The floats are tall enough, or the electricity lines short enough, or both, that the tops of the floats run into the lines. It’s the same thing with the Aung Ban parade.
However, the floats in Kalaw were more often carried on the shoulders of very drunk people careening down the street while the floats in Aung Ban were mostly put on trucks followed by a procession of very drunk people. The Kalaw floats generally had small groups of musicians playing drums, gongs and cymbals following them, while mostly the Aung Ban floats had techno and discotec music playing with some fancy nighttime party lights. Both parades had really deafening fire crackers and poppers thrown down; always good to watch out to see if your parade viewing neighbors suddenly put their hands to their ears. However, unlike parades in the US that includes lots of audience hooting and hollering and woo-ing, while the parade participants are really throwing down, dancing in the streets, drinking and throwing fire crackers, the audience just stands or sits still silently and watching rather somberly.
On the afternoon of the festival’s last day, we met a friend who had been able to book herself a hotel room well over a month in advance in Taunggyi. I had a goal of seeing the candle balloons as well as the daytime animal-shaped balloons that need much less ceremony and are let of in larger numbers. Our friend showed videos and photos of the animal balloons from the day before. There was a trio of ducks that gently floated up into the sky, a duo of chubby zebra released, and a single large bat whose wings appeared to be flapping in the breeze. This was all not meant to be for us, because it rained all day and into the night up until we had to leave at 10pm to make it back to Aung Ban by midnight.
We made it to the festival grounds in the drizzling rain in time to see a swan balloon nearly lost in the mist burst into flames and come back down as a single, giant piece of ash. The next group had a giant woodpecker. In order to get the torch lit in the drizzle, they held an umbrella over it and then wrapped Styrofoam pieces to give it that extra flammability. The balloon launch was all looking very promising despite the odds until a gust of wind blew and a big hole tore in the side of the balloon. The people frantically tried to tape it up while refilling it with hot air, and that looked promising until a giant hole appeared at the top of the bird. It was all over then. They tore out the flaming core of the balloon and stamped it out, but, fiddle-dee-dee, they all came out with musical instruments and began dancing and singing anyway. That was the end of animal balloons for the day.
We grabbed some food and came back to the balloon field once it was dark to see what would happen with the candle balloons. Oh my hopes were raised when we saw a frenzied group of people playing music and dancing and slapping plastic inflatable noise makers. The pattern to these balloon launches seems to be the group that has constructed the balloon makes a grand entrance into the field; takes about 10 minutes of energetic singing, dancing and playing music to build up the momentum; the balloon is let off; and finished with more energetic singing, dancing and playing music.The drinking, singing, dancing and balloon launching are a man’s activity. There were women industriously working away in the meantime getting the little paper candle lanterns ready in the back of a truck. But the strange thing was that only to a small degree did spectators join the frenzy and start singing and dancing; mostly people stood on the sidelines watching intently and very seriously. Unlike the first day we went, this evening the police set up a barrier to the main field where the balloons were let off. The funny thing though was that if you happened to already be in the main field before the balloons started, you could stay, so not a terribly strong public safety measure. As well, the barrier was about as porous as the US-Canada border; pretty easy to step over the fences or ropes if the policy weren’t standing directly in front of you. Alas, the crowd soon disappeared, and it was just an empty misty field with hazy shapes of people periodically crossing the field. We asked the group with the balloon if it was going to fly, and they simply said, “No – weather.” So we went off to enjoy the other sites and sounds of the balloon festival, which includes a full-scale carnival with rides and games and a big outdoor performance stage. Definitely not in the US can you play carnival games where knocking down a tiny, pink owl figurine with a snapped rubber band wins you a pack of cigarettes. We played another game off ball toss where you win whatever drink you are able to knock down; after a few rounds we collectively won about eight beers of various brands. We were all pretty good at throwing darts at balloons and won packs of laundry detergent, packs of ramen, and many packs of chewing gum. We spied one game where you have to roll a bicycle tire and hit drinks laid out on the ground where one of the prizes was an entire bottle of whiskey.
We finally made it over to the performance stage just as the performance took an interlude to announce raffle prizes. They were holding a giant cardboard car key, so we guessed they were raffling off an entire car. They were shouting out the winning raffle number in Burmese, English and Thai. I can only assume they had Thai sponsors to the event. Well, then it turned 10pm, and Matt and I had to go. We got a text message the next morning from his coworker saying that they finally lit off the first balloon at 2:30am, and it was amazing and they were close enough to even help light one of the balloons. Sigh. My only consolation was that they were apparently only the fireworks balloons and not the candle balloons. I highly recommend clicking here to read this person’s up-close and jealousy-inducing account and pictures of lighting the candle balloons.
Back in the day the head of the Shan State declared that a balloon festival would be held in conjunction with Tazaungdaing Festival held to celebrate the full moon at the end of Buddhist Lent and the end of the rainy season. This year it is being reviewed for inclusion on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage events, but I’m sure it is has changed somewhat from its origins in the 1890s with the addition of fireworks and crazy carnival rides and lights and a massive soundstage for pop and rap singers to perform. Still the highlight of the event are the night-time 15-20 feet tall paper hot air balloons that either have a 10-15 foot long tail of lit candles or a massive cage of fireworks. The balloons are released as an offering to the “Sulamani cetiya (a physical reminder of Buddha) in Tavitisma, a heaven in Buddhist cosmology and home of the devas, or as a way to drive away evil spirits” – yes this is from Wikipedia, but it was confirmed as correct by Matt’s Myanmar coworkers.
This year, the festival was held on Nov 3-6, which happened to be dates that Matt was required to be up in Aung Ban, Shan State anyway for work. I joined him and we both staid in the company guest house located on the second floor of the office (all hotels in Taunggyi being fully booked that week anyway). Aung Ban is about a two-hour drive from Taunggyi, and given the craziness and expense of getting to and from Taunggyi, we only made it for the first and last day of the festival.
The first day we went with three of Matt’s coworkers and got there in time to see the big balloons with lit candles carefully placed on them float on up into the sky. I was determined that on the last day we would get there early enough to see the assembly and figure out the crazy logistics of placing hundreds of tiny candles on a giant balloon (this was sadly not to be…). There are only five balloons per night that have the candles on them, the rest are balloons with giant cages of fireworks hanging off them, which we were just in time for.
We’d heard from many sources that the festival can be quite dangerous with a handful of people injured and sometimes killed each year due to the fireworks going off too soon or balloons exploding into fiery balls rushing back down to earth (this year there were 2 deaths and 12 injuries). So, armed with this knowledge we thought we were sufficiently away from the first balloon with fireworks, sponsored by Novotel, but we definitely were not.
Essentially, as soon as the balloon was let go there was less than a minute before the fireworks starting raining down. There were still some men (I think the ones who let off the balloon) still dancing around ecstatically, but most everyone crowded around the balloon ran for cover. Two of Matt’s coworkers huddled next to a car for cover and got separated from us as we ran up a hill. I momentarily got lost in the crowd of dancing men and shooting fire, but luckily Matt spotted me and grabbed me. It was all good fun. We were surprised that the Novotel, such a large international brand, would sponsor such a dangerous balloon, but joked that they probably reasoned they’d just hire some lawyers. There were so many fireworks that they probably were going for about 15 minutes after the balloon was sent up. You can see the giant fireworks cage attached to the fully inflated balloon already starting to smoke just above the crowd.
Matt used a method called being the tall, white guy standing in the middle of a field to locate his two coworkers, who did in fact spot him after a few minutes and rejoined the group. We had time for one more balloon, and then had to head back through the dark, mountainous highway to Aung Ban.
Well, this is what happens when one leaves a blog alone for 2 years. You find a post written but never posted on Aceh’s 2012 gubernatorial election. I think I was waiting to try and find photos before posting. In any case, since it was a public holiday on election day, my boss decided to have us go around and be informal election “monitors” at various polling stations in and around Banda Aceh. It was really interesting to see what observations should be made to determine fair and transparent elections, and if it seems like your cup of tea please continue. For some context please jump a little further back in time to this earlier post on the crazy tensions before the elections.
Monday, 9 April 2012
multiple voting areas within one station.
bring voter registration letter, but no need to show ID. Is this because the village is so small that everyone knows one another?
Blue ink on pinky finger to show voted. However, one monitor noted women were reluctant to put whole finger in to stain the nail, but it is easy to wipe off if just on skin. There was no checking of fingers either when handing in voter registration letter.
Some people who did not have letters or IDs were still able to get checked off the list.
Process: arrive, hand in registration letter that got send by the Geucik (village head), wait in outside waiting area for name to be called, name called and have name crossed off registration list, wait in an inside waiting area, receive ballots, go to a table with partitions on it making at least 3 polling “booths” (most booths did not have any cover on the entrance for privacy), stick a nail through the candidate you liked for Bupati/Mayor and for Governor, put ballots in their respective padlocked (but not sealed) ballot box, get ink on finger.
Some discussion in the evening on whether it was worrisome that ballot box padlocks weren’t sealed during the vote. Some saw that it was more important to seal the locks at night while being stored at the Camat’s (sub-district head) office, because during the day there are so many eyes that the chances of tampering with the locks are very small. However, everyone was very open about who had the key – it was always a police officer.
Each party was able to bring at least two election observers. In some neighborhoods it was a method of informally getting an exit poll, because the observers would already know someone’s political affiliation in the village and be able to count their vote as they came and left. The monitors noted that every site they went to there was always a Partai Aceh (PA) observer, most often two. There wasn’t always an Irwandi observer, and it is predicted this was due to intimidation.
At many polling stations observed there were groups of men hanging around the polling booths for no good reason. Although they did not seem to outright be intimidating people, it was curious as to why they were there.
The polls were staffed with local volunteers of the Independent Election Commission (KIP). One requirement was they had to be politically neutral, but they still were able to vote.
There was nearly 100% turnout in most places visited. A lot of the polling places only had 60-100 people on their registration based upon the size of the village. The polls were open from 8-2pm, but by the time 11am came around many of the people had already voted. In one place they only had two people not come to vote, and they closed the polls early, because they knew those two people were in hospital.
Mobile polling station. KIP volunteers went from home-to-home to make sure the sick and elderly were able to vote. This is good in theory to get maximum participation, but transparency and accountability drop sharply.
One monitor pointed out that elderly that arrived to polling station might have been assisted too much within the polling booth, but no way to know. Otherwise all very respectful and facilitating. Made one recommendation to provide a variety of reading glasses at each polling place; had done that in a previous election monitor and it made a whole world of difference in terms of empowering the elderly to actually see their ballot.
Each polling place had at least two police and security. No incidence reported though; only some incidents the day before with intimidation.
After lunch traveled to Lhong in Aceh Besar sub-district, but near the mountains so a PA stronghold. It was generally thought that communities near the mountains are PA supporters, because during the conflict the PA hid in the mountains. There were two polling places near each other. Went to the larger one (perhaps 200 people) to see the count. The KIP volunteers opened the ballot box with the key from the police. There were official large sheets to tally the votes that would get sent to the Camat’s office along with the sealed ballot boxes. The tallied votes were cross-checked by tallies kept by the party observers and the police. Very transparent process. Anyone could come in and watch the votes being counted. One person takes out ballots and unfolds them. Another holds it up to the light and calls out the number of who was voted for. Each candidate has a number associated with them. The voter can punch a hole with a ten-penny nail anywhere within the square that has the candidates picture and number.
Ballots that had more than one candidate punched for were tallied as “Invalid.” The observers were quite active in ensuring that the votes were counted correctly. If the person calling out the numbers missed that there were two punched, they spoke up quickly, etc.
When votes were finished counting the box was shook out and showed to the crowd to be empty. Polling stations were all very open spaces, which made for an unexpected level of transparency. The only party that was able to get a comprehensive early voting score was PA, because they had people EVERYWHERE. Ended up talking to someone who turned out to be the head of GAM in the area, and he had people in all 26 polling stations in his little area report in the scores as soon as they were counted.
Guess who won – PA.
Sometimes when you try to ignore leaks in the bathroom and chalk it up to living in Myanmar, you end with a real sewage problem and lots of flies hanging around the toilet. A problem that had to be fixed four times because all of the plumbing was encased in cement and tile and partially hidden under the tub – for easy access. Since the plumbers had to chip away at cement for the better part of the day just to get to the pipes, as soon as they found a leak they would quickly patch it up, seal it back up, and call it a day. As well, OSHA standards being what they are, all the men were in loungyis (Myanmar version of the sarong), barefoot, no goggles, and standing around in sewage.
We tried to convince the landlord not to use cement. This was ignored a couple times with the logic being that cement was necessary to stabilize and protect the pipes from damage. Yes, clearly. By the time the fourth leak was found, the landlord was convinced. No more cement. Also, if only I’d recognized these flies weren’t just harmless little critters, but are called sewer flies or drain moths, I would have realized sooner that we had a real problem going on.
One amazing thing about this story is that we were dealing with our landlord; a very response and extremely nice man who is in fact a building contractor as his day job. As in other countries, Myanmar rent is required to be paid in cash upfront for the entire year, which results in great big bricks of money being handed over in plastic shopping bags. This creates a system where landlords don’t really have an incentive to maintain the building, and tenants are on their own when it comes to fixing things inside the apartment.
In any case, one of our landlord’s initial responses to the bathroom woes was, “You know, construction in Myanmar is… not so good.” And is there ever construction going on in Yangon with a double-digit growth rate in the building industry over the past few years – investors dream or construction bubble? The result of last month’s national census was 10 million people less than expected (note that the Rohingya people in Rakhine State were not allowed to be counted in the census, but that is part of a much, much, much, much bigger issue), so investment speculations are supposedly being reassessed. In any case, I wish all those tenants the best of luck, and hope they have a landlord half as good as ours.
August 17, 2014 I landed in Yangon, Myanmar to start a new life. Well, not really. It was actually so I could continue with a major component of my former life. After a year with Matt in Myanmar (or “Mattamar” as a former colleague of mine called him) and me in DC, we’re under the same roof again. Considering it’s been over two years since I last posted to this blog, it was only through the sweet and effective guilt trips of My Favorite Aunt Nancy that I’m taking it up again. I’ll try my best with it, even though I won’t be able to give the level of craft and humor Guy Delisle delivers in his graphic novel Burma Chronicles.
But, I’m not going to beat myself up about not presenting the same type of “infotainment” as a professional cartoonist and animator that has his own Wikipedia page. The book contains fantastic snapshots of life and times in Burma/Myanmar, such as the snapshot below on Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, in getting approval to open a clinic (hint: it’s not very straight forward).
His knowledge on MSF trials and tribulations in the country comes from his wife’s position as an MSF program manager. This puts Guy in the position that has become known as the “trailing spouse.” The term was coined back in the 80’s to describe the spouse who either gives up their career or finds one that allows the other person with the international career to relocate the family as needed. This is inherently denigrating to the “trailer,” because it implies a high degree of passivity. It’s often also been attributed to the woman in the relationship
Anyway, the internet is just brimming with people who have already put in their two cents, so I’ll just say that it’s good to see a man that is putting himself front and center in the fray. Clearly his career fits perfectly in the opportunities he is afforded as a “trailing spouse.” As well, no offense to people in this situation, I am very glad not to be a typical “trailer,” since my work has just shifted my HR category from a home office staff to a global telecommuter. We’ve got what’s considered really good internet in these parts and a view of Inya Lake, so not a shabby spot for a home office. There are a small handful of coffee shops with internet for me to rotate through when cabin fever sets in after full days at home that are only then followed up by nights in (usually with more work). So, it’s strange to live someplace and not work in it (our one project in Myanmar that was starting up fell through, but that’s another story); and I’m stuck inside working all day instead of out exploring this new city in-depth; and half the time so far I’ve actually been working in Indonesia… but by god, I’m not a trailing spouse… in the full sense of the word anyway, maybe. In any case, I’m back on the blog, but not (as you can tell from the number of times I used the word “work” just now) due to any increase in luxury time.