Notes on August in Myanmar



  • I started the month giving my poetry classes reflection questions. When I was a student in Ateneo I found answering reflection questions boring and useless, but now I realize how much they shaped me outside the classroom.


  • For all the dreadful experiences I’ve had teaching in the Philippines, the four years worth of quizzes, lessons, exams, and Powerpoint presentations I accumulated is proving to be very useful.

    Eindra Nwe’s translation of Alvin Pang’s Candles, in a mix of English and Hindi


    I’m the only teacher I know who does this

  • I celebrated Buwan ng Wika in Myanmar! Not just with Facebook statuses, I continued my lessons on language, encouraging the kids to translate from Singlish to their hybrid tongues, and making them report publication venues for texts in their languages. I also translated some Cebuano poems to English. I think I’m succeeding in the cultural exchange so far.

They also started writing their own poetry, and they’re turning out to be more introspective than Filipinos

  • The Burmese term for people of mixed ethnicity is ‘kabya.’ The word for poem is ‘gabya.’ I see so much possibility in the homonymy.


    I’ve owned this notebook since I was 10, and I learned to write Korean and Greek with it. Now I’m learning the Burmese script with it too.

  • And I’m starting to learn Burmese! The letters, like many variations of plums as the writer Aung Thinn describes them, are difficult because the letters look too similar with each other and the spelling is often very different from the pronunciation. But I’m learning, and now I can pronounce my students’ names better because they write down their names for me in Burmese script.


  • My first Burmese sentence: ‘nananbe matharbu,’ ‘don’t put any coriander.’


    Nananbe sometimes tastes like black bug!

  • The nearby noodle shop is getting used to me, and I’ve explored much of their menu. Even if we could hardly understand each other, I was able to order tofu nwey (chickpea pudding noodles), yi sein (vermicelli), shan khao swe (sticky rice noodles), hpet thoke (dumplings) and pauk si (vegetarian steamed buns), specify if I wanted the noodles a-yih (literally ‘watered,’ or with soup) or a-thoke (‘salad,’ or served without soup), and throw in a thankful ‘chezu be kamya.’

The place serves the best Yi sein thoke I’ve had around


  • I first found Burmese tea – on its own – grassy and wild. But teacher Yiyi San explained that tea in Myanmar is often home roasted, and often mixed with Lahpet Hmwe. I cannot find any resources on the internet, English or Burmese (because the best way to learn a language is to use it!), that explains what Lahpet Hmwe is, but it’s a dried leaf with a creamy, pandan-like fragrance. For teacher Yi, who is Intha, the tea is roasted with the Hmwe and some sesame seeds.

The mysterious lahpet hmwe, smelling distinctly like creamy pandan. If you have any idea what it’s called in English or Latin tell me.


Like the tea, the lahpet hmwe is also lightly roasted.


You know the tea is done roasting when the stalks turn slightly silvery white


The tea roasted with hmwe has a more reddish liqueur


And it makes  lovely milk tea


  • As a tea fanboy, I am thoroughly enjoying Myanmar
  • The legacies I can leave behind are starting to emerge. First among them is tortang talong. I cooked some of my family’s version (mixed with minced garlic and served with garlic and vinegar dip) for the students one weekend, and the resident cook, Daw Benedetta, loved it. She will probably cook it herself.
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    I carve my name in egged aubergine!

  • But there are more serious projects of course. I began work on a website for English translations of Myanmar literature (the output of literature students), and by the end of the month talk already began of a student publication for SAG.
  • I have never been under an administrator like Father Paul before. I throw him an idea I think is ambitious, he thinks about it for a bit, and when he gives it back to me it’s an even bigger possibility. It can be daunting, but this is a mountain I have to climb if I am to reach the heights I know I was meant to be in.

The blurriness of the shot foreshadows my impending loss of breath and failure

  • Goddamn mountain will not let itself be climbed easily. I joined the third years one day going up the many peaked mountain overlooking Taunggyi. I barely made it halfway. No matter the excuses (I had just woken up, I lacked sleep, I hadn’t had breakfast yet, I hadn’t worked out much since then), I failed, and nothing stings more than failure.


    Even the humiliating way down is picturesque, with the Buddha altar on the tree growing on the bend.

  • So I vowed to not only climb that mountain alone – when you have to prove yourself you won’t be satisfied fully until you prove yourself alone – I vowed to do it every weekend.


  • Nope, no climactic moments of Atonement with the Father or Apotheosis – I overcame that hurdle soon enough. Life’s issues do not get resolved dramatically as they do in fiction, you just learn from your mistakes, think of better ways to deal with the situation, and just climb that mountain.

But damn the resolution (not just the camera) is breathtaking (not just from the climbing)!

  • Though the first time I did I overdid it (typical Atenista). When you climb the flight of steps on the side of Taunggyi Mountain, you will reach Naga Kankyaung, or the Naga Pond Temple. There’s a pond fed by a spring in the shape of a naga snake, a few small shrines dedicated to Nat spirits, an intricately gilded pagoda, a large Buddha statue overlooking Taunggyi, a clingy cat and an oversized goat. Most hikes end here, but I went on and tried to go to another pagoda on an even higher level of this peak, one of this ridge’s many summits. But because I misunderstood a sign, I ended up making a wrong turn and reaching another peak, far away from the pagoda I intended to go to, farther than even many locals have reached, and practically on the other side of the mountain already. I was told when I got back that the Pagoda I did end up reaching, Shwe Hkyamtha Pagoda, could only be reached by car or motorbike. I walked to it and back alone.
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    Entrance to the Naga Kankyaung


    The eponymous pond


    The naga spouts that feed the pond


The clingy cat


The diva goat


The temple compound also has a pagoda. this is the gilded gate leading to it


The pagoda


The naga motif is all over the temple gounds


It’s even inside the pagoda


But perhaps Naga Kankyaung’s most prominent feature is this huge Buddha statue, visible from Taunggyi below


Panorama of Naga Kankyaung


See how high up the place is


About an hour’s walk ahead later, I found this sign. I misunderstood it and turned left when it obviously had a white arrow pointing forward.


Over an hour’s walk later, I came to this. the sign says ‘Shwe Hkyamtha Pagoda.’ Locals have rarely even gone here.


Serendipity could be so gorgeous. The Pagoda complex has three large pagodas, two standing on different peaks

  • While taking that long hike, I did not know where I was heading, what was up ahead, or if anything was even up ahead for me to discover. But I kept on going because I decided I’d go and I’d go to that direction. I feel like if I turned back I’d lose. And yet I was hounded by constant fear that the long, tiring hike – like most of the things I’ve worked hard on in my life – will all be for nothing.
  • But mountains are not life, and unlike life’s failures, dead ends and detours are just as much a part of the journey’s fun as reaching the destination. Just the wonder of discovering things, even if by accident, makes the journey worth it. Or maybe life can be like mountains after all.

Look at how beautiful that moss is!

  • Going down the mountain though somehow feels sad – ‘Numerous indeed are the heroes fabled to have taken up residence forever in the blessed isle of the un-aging Goddess of Immortal Being,’ as Joseph Campbell colourfully puts it. I think it prudent to know this early on: my adventure as volunteer in this wonderfully strange land will not last forever.
  • But I have a Penelope waiting for my Odyssey back to Davao, and while I’m here to make an impact in a foreign land, she’s back home, rising meteorically as a young literary star. She wrote a poem about our distance, which she often performs in the poetry readings she is invited to. Two months on and the exposure has already given her two suitors, but I hope they do not reach Penelope’s hundred and eight. I am put in a dilemma: I am jealous of the life she is living there, but I don’t want her to just wait for me and unravel the shroud she is weaving.

My Penelope, performing a poem about me


  • But to quote from her poem, ‘She is her. And she has her life. And I am me, and I have my own life. But when you know you’ve met the cliched “The One,” the slow merge begins, and out emerge the sacrifices, the waiting, the hoping. The pain, the momentary regrets, the blaming, the hour and a half.’
  • I am here trying to be a lotus in this fertile faraway mud that so needs to learn how to blossom, threading silk from possibilities, and she is there in Mindanao, weaving dreams in South Cotabato and Davao. And when I return what a colourful hybrid shroud we will be able to loom for the death of our distance.

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