Laksa!

Laksa is one of the greatest inventions of mankind, the Malay world’s great contribution to world cuisine. Whether Lemak (with coconut gravy) or Assam (with sour soup), Laksa demonstrates the intensity that so pleases the Malay palate.

I’ve been to Singapore three times and to Malaysia four, and on each occasion I made it a point to try as many kinds of laksa as I can. Here are some of them.

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Geylang Laksa, the most typical form of the curry-style Lemak laksa, is touted as the best laksa in Singapore. It has an interesting history, dating back eighty years from an old man who sold laksa on the go along Geylang road.

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Penang Laksa is the most typical form of Assam laksa. This one is from a stall near Singapore’s Aljuneid station, and is the best Assam laksa I’ve had. The sour soup is rich and glorious with mackerel pulp

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The best curry laksa I’ve ever had is the Mee Kari from Nura Kasih, a stall in the food centre on the corner of Jalans Rajah Muda Abdul Aziz and Jalan Abdul Manan Nordin in Kuala Lumpur’s Kampung Bahru. What is known in Singapore as ‘laksa’ (curry laksa) is called ‘mee kari’ – curry noodles – in Malaysia, with the term ‘laksa’ being applied by default to some form of Assam laksa. In Malaysia too curry laksa is served with chicken, in contrast to Singapore’s seafood. The Mee Kari in Nurah Kasih is flavoured with star anise and cinnamon, with the whole spices served with the soup.

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Not all Lemak laksa has curry. Laksam, a kind of laksa distinct for its thick chunks of dough as noodles, does not have curry. Like most Malaysian laksa it’s served with slices of raw stringed beans, which can be unpleasant to the uninitiated.

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Johor laksa is a very particular kind of laksa. It is the most popular hybrid laksa, being both Lemak and Assam (with a sour coconut curry broth). But what makes it distinct is it uses spaghetti noodles.

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There’s a quirky stall along Singapore’s Balestier Road that sells Mee Hon Laksa, or laksa with rice vermicelli. It makes the rich coconut curry broth much more enjoyable because the thickness of the noodles is no obstruction. It’s almost like the broth was solidified.

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Katong Laksa is another uniquely Singaporean laksa. The chopsticks in this picture were never used, Katong laksa is distinct for having the noodles scissored into smaller pieces so the laksa can be eaten with only a spoon.

I hope to try all the kinds of Laksa out there, and as I try new ones this post will be updated!


The Yawnghwe Haw

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I finally got to go to the Yawnghwe Haw. I’ve always wanted to visit it.

in the city of Nyaungshwe in Myanmar’s Shan State, near the famous Inle lake, stands the Haw (Palace) that had once belonged to the Sawbwa – ‘sky lord,’ the Shan princely ruler of the area.

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Nyaungshwe was the core of what was once Yawnghwe, one of the most powerful of the many Shan States that proliferated in Northern Burma from medieval times up to the early days of Independence from the British in the late 1940s.

The military regimes of post-independence Myanmar were suspicious of the former royal families,  and many Sawbwa Haws were demolished – one of the little known cultural atrocities committed during the decades of military rule.

The Yawnghwe Haw is one few which remain standing.

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Probably part of the reason why it survived is the fact that Nyaungshwe was always a vibrant cosmopolitan city because of its proximity to Inle Lake – it continues to be so today because of the lake’s tourist market. It was too prominent to destroy, so the authorities might as well capitalize on it by keeping it as a tourist attraction: for much of its history after it was abandoned by the last Sawbwa, it was a Museum for Buddhist statues.

Another factor that led to its prominence was that last Sawbwa. Sao Shwe Thaik was Myanmar’s first president after the country gained independence. In the aftermath of Bogyoke Aung San’s assassination, the power vacuum had been filled by  U Nu, who would serve as prime minister, but the symbolic role of Aung San as face of the Union could not be filled. Why exactly Sao Shwe Thaik was chosen to take the  largely ceremonial but prestigious presidency is unclear , though I suspect that, as an influential figure in the Shan leadership around the time the Panglong agreement was being brokered, he was given the post to cement the union.

This of course is a tenuous reason – the former royal family of Yawnghwe was not spared from the military regimes’ brutality. When Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, his eldest son Hso Hom Fa, who was 15 years old, was shot dead. He himself was arrested and died in prison (yes, Myanmar killed its first President). His family is still in exile in Canada today, with a few relatives left in Nyaungshwe.

Some source say though, that the main reason why the military regime never razed the Haw down was because there was a curse placed on whoever destroyed it.

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The Throne of the Sawbwa of Kyaintaung, an even more powerful Shan State. As one of two museums ran by Shan State (the other being the State Museum in Taunggyi), The Yawnghwe Haw also contains artifacts from other Shan Sawbwa.

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The Haw is old and musty, but behind its stuffy abandoned feel you can still get a sense of the grandeur it once had. The basement, where many offices used to be, is dingy and empty. It is much less a museum and more an archeological site, and will not be fun to those who don’t like history. Pictures are not allowed inside, so many of these photos were taken by accident.

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The eye-catching seven tiered Pyathat of the Haw

It is the only Haw among the Shan states to have been allowed by the Burmese king to have a pyathat, the distinct Burmese tiered roof, with seven-tiers.

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Portrait of Sir Sao Shwe Maung, courtesy of Philip Klier

The privilege stems from the fact that Sao Shwe Thaik’s uncle, Sao Shwe Maung, was very close to King Mindon, the penultimate king of Burma. Sao Maung’s father, Sao Suu Deva, was the crown prince of Yawnghwe but was assassinated by a cousin, who subsequently usurped the throne. The young Sao Maung asked the powerful king Mindon, most famous for establishing Mandalay, to help him gain back the throne.

On his successful conquest of Yawnghwe Mindon granted Sao Maung the privilege of seven tiers. Sao Maung subsequently had the Haw built with the pyathat.

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The Throne of the Sawbwa of Yawnghwe, now topped with replicas of the five Hpaung Daw Oo buddha statues

The Haw once played a prominent role in the famous Hpaung Daw Oo festival. Every year, four of the five legendary Buddha statues from Hpaung Daw Oo Pagoda would be taken to different towns around Inle lake, ending with Nyaungshwe. Historically the statues would first be displayed in the Haw before being led to the town’s pagoda, but today this part is skipped.

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The Karawaik, which is used to transport the five Buddha statues across Inle from Hpaung Daw Oo pagoda. I was in Nyaungshwe during the festival last year. The President of Myanmar, U Htin Kyaw, is somewhere in that picture.

It would be nice if they revived that portion of the tradition.

But I doubt they will: with Myanmar’s new democracy still at its infancy the Haw has more pressing issues. The former Royal family is still alienated with its management, and there are plans to build the palace’s vast courtyard into a marketplace, presumably to cater to tourists.

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Though they’re alienated, the royal family still bothers to donate these water dispensers.

I like the idea of a tourist-oriented marketplace, but I am worried it might damage the building’s immeasurable historical value. And the royal family has to be consulted on this. they are after all part of the heritage.

Like the rest of newly open Myanmar, Shan State is facing the dilemma between culture and modernity. I just hope that, in its pursuit of global participation, it does not lose sight of what makes it a beautiful country.

 


The Hanoi Experience

(I and fellow Cardoner Volunteers Abdula Uka and Darl Undag went to Hanoi for three days for our regular visa renewal.Here are some thoughts on the City of the Ascending Dragon)

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  • Vietnam – which has been invaded by at least three different superpowers throughout its long history – shows what effect winning has on postcolonial culture. The country has lost almost all vestiges of its pre-Chinese identity, but what was imposed on it by the Chinese and the French it has owned with a vengeance.
  • Although using the Roman alphabet, written Vietnamese might as well be written in a different writing system. If you don’t know the constellation of diacritics you will have a hard time pronouncing what you read.
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I don’t even want to try pronouncing ‘Ho Chi Minh’ correctly

  • English in Vietnam is difficult, but the locals will struggle to help you.
  • Hanoi is ridiculously cheap. Entrance fees to most tourist attractions are at  30,000 Vietnamese Dong (around 67 Philippine Pesos). The money is dizzyingly small, so I have a million or two in my wallet at all times.
  • It’s a headache to hold the bills though, as the 10,000s are confusing with the 1000’s and the 100,000s.
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It doesn’t help that all of them have the same shades and all of them have Ho Chi Minh. Use your many great kings for a change.

  • The Somerset Grand Hanoi, located smack dab between the French Quarter and the Hoan Kiem environs, is a lovely hotel. The pick-up service from and to the airport has wifi, the hotel itself has a convenience store and several restaurants, the buffet is great for exploring Vietnamese food, and you even get to use the pool!
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Not to mention a  spectacular view. Hello Hanoi!

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The view at night. I guess because America couldn’t conquer the country all they could do is put this neon sign on its skyline

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One of the rooms in our unit. Of course I got the bed near the window!

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Our unit had  a kitchen with a washing machine

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The hotel also had restaurants and a convenience store on the ground floor

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The restaurant on the fourth floor had a great and cheap buffet

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Also on the fourth floor was the pool

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  • First thing I ever ate in Hanoi is Phở . On its own. this noodle soup is light and simple, but made beautifully complex by the wild combination of greens you put: two kinds of basil, coriander, peppermint, lettuce.

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  • Second thing I had in Hanoi: Trà sen (Vietnamese lotus tea). It is an extraordinary tea, I’ve never had anything like it before. Undag describes it as ‘pretty smelling tea.’ I expected having a hard time looking for it, but I found it just a few hours after I arrived in the city, cheap and readily available in the convenience store.
  • The next day for breakfast I had t sen with some Bánh khảo, short cake made with glutinous rice flour. There seems to be many variations of bánh khảo, but the one I had was plain white, flavoured with grapefruit blossom juice, and was slightly chewy while being powdery. It had a distinct aroma, similar to a candy sold in my elementary days in Kidapawan’s NDKC. It was beautifully nostalgic, but with t sen that nostalgia played out as a sub-note to a distinct symphony of aroma I will forever associate with Hanoi.
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of course it had to come with the view

  • It is a horrible thing to have achalasia. You’re right in the middle of enjoying something exotic, but then the food gets stuck in your food pipe. When you have no toilet available nearby you have to choose between drowning in your own spit or puking in public. I should write a book about this.
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Oh great Conqueror of Aberrant Peristalses!

  • No achalasia can spoil Bún chả, though. This national favourite originated in Hanoi, and even Obama knew it was good. Vermicelli served with grilled pork in a soup of vinegar, sugar, and fish sauce and eaten with Vietnam’s glorious herbs, bún chả is the most delicious thing I ever ate in Hanoi.

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  • Hanoi’s historical and cultural heart is the Hoan Kiem district, the area surrounding the Hoan Kiem lake. Just south of the lake is the French Quarter, where the French colonial government built many administrative buildings. The distinct European architecture extended to the lake’s West, where the Cathedral of St Joseph was.

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  • The Church is a gorgeous Gothic monolith jutting out of old-world townhouses and greenery. The adjacent plaza and road intersection are amusingly reminiscent of Davao’s San Pedro area.
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Interior is remarkably well maintained for its age

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The surrounding has lovely cafes. Here are the Cardoner volunteers in KOMO The Church

  • Two little-known tourist spots in the French quarter: the former Vatican embassy hall (now an open garden), and the National Library.
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The former Vatican embassy is now a library and public garden

  • The National Library of Vietnam has gorgeous neoclassical architecture. When we went there the books were scarce, perhaps due to ongoing renovations.
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The National Library’s facade is glorious

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The contents were pretty underwhelming for a National Library though. I suspect the bulk of the books are elsewhere, the place felt like it was under rennovation.

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I wasn’t able to explore this though. I don’t know if it has Filipino stuff.

  • Egg coffee, as the descriptions suggest, is like liquid tiramisu. What online articles rarely mention is that it’s usually served with a portable blow torch, so the top can be caramelized ala creme brûlée.
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And if you know where to have it, you can have it with a great view

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  • The Vietnamese have a way of serving balut (here called hột vịt lộn) that Filipinos should copy: served in noodles with a tomato and fish-based broth.Balut Udong anyone?
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That I’m eating it a stone’s throw away from St Joseph’s gives it the added spice of irony: I’m eating duck abortion near a Catholic church

  • I finally got to see Buddha’s Hand citruses in person.
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They look more like lemons cosplaying as squids

  • The Vietnamese mastery of paper cutout pop-ups is amazing. This should be listed as a cultural heritage.
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An unassuming card…

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… has a tower made of paper inside oh my gosh

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This shop, just west of St Joseph’s, has souvenirs you won’t find anywhere else in Hanoi and has a pretty owner

  • when in Vietnam you must try Bánh Đậu Xanh. Mung bean cakes often flavoured with lotus seed, this simple treat can be so classy, smooth and sweet in a way that is at once mellow and intense. I call it Vietnamese white chocolate.
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They even come in bars!

  • In Vietnamese, bánh means cake. But everything is ‘cake’: On top of the obvious sweet cakes, rice cakes, and pancakes, the word is also used for bread (bánh mì), dumplings (bánh bá trạng), rice paper (bánh tráng), the spring rolls you make out of it (bánh cuốn), noodles (bánh canh) and crackers (bánh phồng tôm). Marie Antoinette would have made more sense in Vietnam.
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‘Let them eat bánh’

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  • The Lake of the Returned Sword is one of the most beautiful places in the world. The heart of the only country that had defeated America in war is surrounded by buildings of neoclassical European and Chinese architecture, with banks adorned with flowers and willows and rain trees, and with one island with a temple with a gorgeous vermilion wooden bridge, and in another one of the most iconic buildings in the world, a French-Chinese tower built in honour of a legendary reptile and a magical sword. There are few places in the world for which I can write a description like that.
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The lake at night

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The Turtle Tower, one of the most beautiful buildings in the world

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I hope the tower redeems the ugliness

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When we walked along the lake there was a free open-air exhibit of lovely photos. They just add to how picturesque the place was.

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Along the lakeside was this temple, built to commemorate Lê Lợi, founder of Vietnam’s glorious Lê Dynasty and the human hero of the legend of the lake.

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The temple also contained a replica of a stone slab, where a poem in Chinese by Lê Lợi was carved. The poem glorifies him, so it kinda feels vain, but he did defeated the Ming Dynasty, so he deserves to praise himself a bit.

  • I first read about of the Hoan Kiem turtle when I was in early college, and it never would have occurred to me that I’d ever find myself in in its picturesque lake. It feels like a personal tragedy that, on the very same year I finally do get to visit Hanoi, the turtle went extinct. Extinction feels like a dull heartbreak.
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The legendary turtle receiving the sword, Heaven’s Will, depicted as a bas relief on the Temple of the Jade Mountain

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The specimen at the Temple of the Jade Mountain is the closest I’ll ever get to the turtle

  • But I believe, oh I believe. And when one believes it is difficult to lose hope. While only one old turtle has been verified for the past few decades (the lone turtle that died this year), locals report seeing at least two more. In the Temple of the Jade Mountain I paid more attention to the island’s banks than to the temple itself, looking for a turtle.  I walked around Hoan Kiem lake three times, and on the second time I saw a mass of bubbles surfacing near the Turtle Tower. Oh I want to believe.
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No turtle there. All the lake’s surrounding banks are cemented like this – how was the turtle supposed to lay eggs!

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  • The Temple of the Jade Mountain (Đền Ngọc Sơn), positioned on an island, feels like a fabulous sacred retreat from the mundane world, reachable only by the Bridge of Welcoming Morning sunlight, with dozens of karikomied bonsai serving as clouds in this lake paradise. Though seeing the turtle taxidermied only makes the sense of species loss sadder. Et in Đền Ngọc Sơn, ego…
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The Bridge of Welcoming Morning Sunlight

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Entrance fee is ridiculously cheap

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The Pavilion in front of the temple overlooking the lake

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Photobomber kid

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The view is gorgeous

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Some lovely bonsai

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The turtle motif is ubiquitous, as seen on the legs of this bonsai pot

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And in the intricate carved wooden latticework of the temple’s interior

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One of the temple’s many altars

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The Pen Tower, which stands at the entrance of the Temple, overlooks the lake

  • A couple of local shoe repair boys abused our tourist generosity by grabbing our otherwise okay shoes, repairing it before us, and charging us 650,000 VND (1,400 pesos). I wanted to be some Lê Lợi returning these swindlers to the turtle god, but that would be pollution. I don’t want to feed garbage to the turtles hiding in the lake.
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Scum

  • Vietnam has ingeniously marketed its communist propaganda materials – the famous propaganda that won them two wars against western superpowers – into tourist souvenirs.
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If we sell Duterte paraphernalia like this, it would have a market across Southeast Asia. Imagine statement shirts with his most controversial quotes!

  • Why can’t Filipinos think of putting snails in their noodles?
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Bún ốc is noodles with freshwater snails and clear tomato soup, served with the usual greens and quẩy (Chinese youtiao). 35,000 VND

  • North of the lake is the 35 famous streets (more really) of Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It is a wonderful maze of Phốs and Hàngs, each street full of shops that sell a particular product (usually after which the street is named). In between busy stores and restaurants is the occasional temple or the bird cage with a singing bird, and at some point you will reach the Dong Xuan Public market. At night a street, starting on the lake’s north fountain court and going on to have three different names as it reaches Dong Xuan, is a bustling night market closed to vehicles. Getting lost in the Old Quarter is a must for any tourist in the city.
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The fountain court north of the lake, where the Old Quarter began

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The start of the night market

  • I had such an adventure looking for Hanoi’s famous Bánh cốm. The rice cake, made with cốm (young green rice made into flakes flavoured with pandan) and stuffed with bean paste, is a Hanoi delicacy and is specially in season during Autumn. I had no idea where in the Old Quarter to find it. Equipped with nothing but a picture and its name in correct diacritics, I walked around showing it. The locals, with hardly any English pointed north. When I reached the lakeside edges of the Old Quarter, one local jotted down ‘Hàng Than’ and told me to go there. I enjoyed getting lost looking for this stret until I reached Phố Hàng Đường. When I showed a picture of bánh cốm they brought out a pile of little small boxes of it. I went back to the hotel grinning. Bánh cốm may just be like a cross between suman muron and pandan tikoy, but I owe to it my exploration of Hanoi’s cultural heart.
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Of course I had to have it with some t sen and a view of the French Quarter

  • Not entirely for the bánh cốm of course, I had other priorities too: I needed to look for a wallet for my Ilongga, and I wanted to buy a notebook and some Vietnamese books. For the latter excursion I was able to stray far enough to see the Opera House, and it was the occasion to go to Hiệu Sách Thang Long, a decently sized book store in Tràng Tiền street. It’s no books Kinokuniya, but I found what I wanted.
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The front of the book store along Trang Thien

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I bought this small book on Vietnamese folk tales. I couldn’t find any contemporary fiction in English, but this was a fun read.

  • Hanoi is a dog capital. There are dogs all over the street!
  • Folk religion in Vietnam is thriving, the dominant religion in fact. Vietnam is one of the few countries in the world which predominantly follows an ethnic religion.
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You can find little altars like this even in banks

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  • Contrary to what its name suggests, there is little literary about the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu). It is in fact a Confucian temple, and the name stems from Confucius’ emphasis on literacy and learning. This emphasis is evident in the fact that Hanoi’s Văn Miếu is also the site of Vietnam’s first university, the Imperial Academy.
  • Yup, schools should be as green and garden-filled as possible.
  • Vietnam is turtle country. Because the turtle is the only one among the four sacred beasts which is a real animal (the other three are the dragon, the phoenix, and the qilin), it holds a special place in Vietnamese symbolism.
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Vietnam is also Lotus country – the flower as a motif is as ubiquitous as the turtles

  • I am confusing the Ly and the Le dynasties with each other. I am a failure as a history nerd.
  • I may be stating the obvious, but the Vietnamese were really huge fans of Chinese culture.
  • Which is not to say that’s all there was to Hanoi: the charm of this city is how these Chinese-style buildings are just side by side with the old European structures the French left behind.
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One of the best photos I’d ever taken in Hanoi: a Chinese-style gate beside a French style building. Hybridity!

  • Thank goodness Uncle Ho was no madman like Mao, a China-style Cultural Revolution would have destroyed so much of Hanoi.

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  • The Palace of the President is a gorgeous yellow mansion. It was a shame we weren’t able to enter and see it, or Ho Chi Minh’s house.
  • But his Mausoleum is displayed in all its solid granite glory, overlooking Ba Dinh Square. I could almost imagine Voldemort blasting it open to take the Elder Wand from Uncle Ho’s crossed hands.
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Eat your (wax) heart out, Marcos!

  • There is little information online in English on the buildings surrounding Ba Dinh square, so just a run through, clockwise with the Mausoleum at 12 o’clock: The Mausoleum, the Presidential Palace (and a little beyond that to the right the Ho Chi Minh house), the headquarters of the Communist Part of Vietnam, the Ministry of Planning and Investment, the Vietnamese Assembly Hall, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Embassy of Poland, and some way behind the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the One Pillar Pagoda.
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Because they were wearing straw hats, the landscape maintenance personnel looked like they were planting rice

  • Be patient looking for the One Pillar Pagoda, and trust the locals when they point. Follow the tourists. The entrance is a bit of a long way from Ba Dinh Square.
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The one pillar pagoda

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Some electric post

  • There is a quiet beauty to the One Pillar Pagoda (Chùa Một Cột). It’s at once novel and ancient, a classic Chinese pagoda, only standing on a single stone pillar, jutting out from a pond like a lotus emerging from the water (apparently that’s the design’s intention). It is connected to the banks of the pond by a staircase, which should ruin the serenity of the  lone lotus in the water, but instead ends up having its own scenic charm.
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It’s one of those rare steps that make you feel important as you climb it

  • The current pagoda is very recent, rebuilt after the French destroyed it during the Indochina War. It demonstrates best how, in the absence of tangible ancientness, heritage is all a matter of continuity in spatial and cultural position.

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  • Seriously, mung bean as a flavour for ice cream is very underrated. You can never get wrong with mung bean ice cream.

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  • The Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long is an interesting historical site, with both Imperial, colonial, and revolutionary significance. As such it is an interesting mix of classical Chinese, French neoclassical, and 20th century military architecture.
  • And few tourists visit! Hanoi’s most important historical attraction is still underrated.

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  • Part of the Citadel’s charm is how they openly showcase the archeology going on.
  • The ceramic works they’ve unearthed in the site are impressively intricate. When I saw them I first thought they were made of wood.
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Could you imagine the attention to details it takes to mold something like this from clay?

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I want to be the kid who digs this up!

  • The building that now occupies the location of the destroyed Kính Thiên palace, the rather vainly named Dragon House, looks okay, but it’s depressing to know it wasn’t even a fraction of the original grandeur the site once had. The Vietnamese probably considered rebuilding the palace when they gained independence.
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The incense burner was more picturesque

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The altar inside the Dragon House. This really demonstrates Vietnamese anti-colonialism: make a temple of your folk religion out of a colonial building.

  • I can still imagine future restorations for the citadel: the northern area is still closed to the public, and the Eastern Clock Tower gate is poised for a refurbishing.
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The eastern gate, with the clock a gaping hole

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  • I noticed it first in Văn Miếu, but the Vietnamese knew how to make their stair partitions (I cannot find the right architectural term for it). In the Citadel, the stairs leading up the sacred dais of the palace site is made of dragons and, more beautifully. clouds.
  • If you’re adventurous enough, go down that inconspicuous flight of stairs behind the Dragon House and you’ll see the bunker used to hide generals from wartime shelling. it has an exit that leads out to the House D67
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This entrance

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Go down here

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yes, through that rusty bomb-proof door

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And you’ll see a cozy underground office

  • Do not let the unassuming name fool you, House D67 is a ridiculously important building: this is where the Vietnamese generals planned the Tet Offensive and the fall of Saigon – and ultimately the first time an alliance of western powers – led no less than the USA – was defeated by a still embryonic independent country.
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The table where they orchestrated it all, headed by Lê Duẩn, General secretary of the Communist party and Ho Chi Minh’s successor. Could they have planned Donald Trump too?

  •  For VND 50,000 (110 pesos), you get to wear historical costumes, from ladies-in-waiting to soldiers.

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  • Of course, I had to wear the heavily Chinese-inspired Emperor’s clothes: the mian guan crown with a curtain of beads to reflect the galaxy the Emperor rules over, lush imperial yellow, and a belt and boots ornately brocaded with the five-toed dragon.
  • And I look ridiculously good in Imperial clothes. The other tourists were having their pictures taken with me.
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Lord of Ten Thousand Years!

  • Standing from the Duan Mon gate you get a great view of the Hanoi Tower.

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  • Unfortunately by the time we finished exploring the Citadel the Hanoi Tower was closed. But because this was one of the symbols of Hanoi, we still got great pictures.
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The Hanoi tower

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Some chimney

  • There are squirrels in the Citadel! Watch your head, they drop the talisay seeds after they chew on them.
  • No, stupid millennial. Vladimir Lennin, who has a park in front of the Hanoi Tower, is not related to John Lennon.
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The Vietnamese must really be big Beatles’ fans

  • Almost everything I discovered in Hanoi, I discovered by accident: Bún chả, Bánh cốm, the pens and notebooks, the sites in the Citadel. If I had not made a turn at a particular juncture  I’d have never be able to see a site or buy a souvenir. And sure enough we missed out on many things in this wonderful Southeast Asian capital. At every turn we make we open up new worlds, but close our doors to others. Do we regret the possibilities we never encountered? Life is far too full of things to actually experience, we have no time to regret what we missed out on.
  • Thank goodness I suggested Hanoi when we were deciding where to go.
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Just go where the lotus lights lead you

(For more pictures, see my album on Facebook)


Myanmar’s Noodles

I will live a long life because of Myanmar.

I’m lucky to be in Shan State, where Myanmar sees the greatest diversity of noodles. Most noodles are served either a-yeh (with soup) or a-thoke (literally ‘salad,’ in dry form). The diversity comes in the kind of noodle (there is no specific word for noodles in general in Burmese, though ‘kauk swe‘ comes near), and how it is prepared.

Here are some of the many varieties of Myanmar’s noodles I’ve had.

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I’ve written enough about Tofu nwey (ထိုဖူးနွေ) already! This piece of culinary genius is unique to Shan state, and is served with Shan kauk swe

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Tofu nwey is actually very versatile. Here it’s served on ye sein thoke

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And here it is served with ye sein a-yeh

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Shan kauk swe (ရှမ်းခေါက်ဆွဲ): in Taunggyi the term is most often used for these sticky rice noodles with a rubber-band like springiness.

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Ye sein (ရေစိမ်): thin sticky rice noodles, here served a-thoke.

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I’ve written enough about Ohn no kauk swe (အုန်းနို့ခေါက်ဆွဲ) too!

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Nosein kauk swe (နို့စိမ်ခေါက်ဆွဲ), like ohn no kauk swe but with cow milk instead of coconut milk

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Shwe taung kauk swe (ရွှေတောင်ခေါက်ဆွဲ) : wheat noodles in rich coconut broth with chicken and some lime juice

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Malar hin (မာလာဟင္, flat glass noodles stirfried with lots of vegetables in a very spicy peanut sauce) and Me-Oh meeshay (clear rice noodles stir fried in a slightly similar way)

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Mohinga (မုန့်ဟင်းခါး): Myanmar’s touted national dish actually tastes like Filipino Palabok

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Meeshay (မြီးရှေ‌): thick and slippery rice noodles

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Si kyat (ဆီချ): Chinese stir fried wheat noodles, a peculiarity among Burmese Chinese

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Nan gyi thoke (နနး ၾကီးသုပ္): one way of preparing noodles, this meaty and spicy ‘noodle salad’ is often nicknamed ‘Burmese spaghetti’


Notes on September in Myanmar

(I forgot to give this introduction in the first of such posts: these Notes are monthly logs we Cardoner Volunteers here in Taunggyi have to turn in, and to make them more interesting I’ve been writing them in the Notes style this blog and Facebook have led me to develop over the years)

  • September – the month I traditionally call ‘my month’ – started with my Nal performing poetry for the first time in her native Marbel.
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As her former teacher, I felt like this was my triumph too

  • Her performance was punctuated with Inday Precious here in Taunggyi wailing in worry as news of the Davao blast reached us. The last thing anyone heard of her boyfriend before the blast was that he had gone to the Roxas night market – the site of the explosion. We would later find out that he was okay, but while no news came Undag was inconsolable.
  • Nal was supposed to have class on that day at that time, but she skipped it and went home to Marbel to perform. She may well have been injured if she was there (my girlfriend likes wandering around alone at night). It was hardly an exaggeration to say she had been saved by poetry.
  • Amidst Davao’s collective grief, I here in Taunggyi could only be thankful that, while many innocent bystanders died from the blast, my romantic interest was not one of them.
  • When news reached her, she shared to me how the fated escape from danger shook her. One of the victims, Kristel Decolongon, was around her age from Suralla, a town near Marbel. The blast made my girlfriend realize how it could have been her – it could always be her – and how fragile life was. That the victim felt so near her (in terms of age and origin) made her feel the blast more palpably.
  • Suffering, when it does not happen to you, elicits diverse but not altogether conflicting reactions: Thank goodness it did not involve me, but my goodness it could have been me.
  • The first semester was ending in SAG. Part of the requirements that the kids had to give were translations of poetry in their own languages to English. This was a requirement I thought of giving them even before I left the Philippines, and I knew from then on it was a good idea. The kids ended up turning in a rich assortment of Myanmar’s internationally underrated literature.
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The literary folios

  • They also had to submit poetry folios. All three sections gave three copies each (one for me, one for SAG, and one for Ateneo de Davao’s SALEM), but only one, first year section Stanislaus, printed copies for all its students.
  • I do not know how teachers of other subjects find fulfillment in their teaching, but it is always such a rewarding thing to see students of literature producing something from what you thought them. When you start seeing them sharing Kachin or Burmese poems on Facebook, you know you’ve succeeded as a teacher.
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It is particularly fulfilling when they begin espousing your advocacy: this is a poem by my young monk student, Noom, in a hybrid of Shan and Thai.

  • The third years had to defend their research proposals. This was the first time defences were held in SAG, and in spite of a few expected bumps the results were very satisfactory. I may have even unwittingly inspired Inday Precious (who sat in some defence panels) to do research and take up a Masters.
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Some of the third years during their defence

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It is a great irony that the calculator I used to total the panelist scores for the thesis defences was one I bought for high school Chemistry, whose teacher introduced me to research and made me hate it for years.

  • Before we gave the final exams though, we had to leave the country – the 70 days allowed for us to stay as non-Burmese was running out. And so, from Taunggyi we travelled for half a day by bus to Yangon, then from there took a flight to Malaysia, where we would stay for three days in Kuala Lumpur.
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Some of Yangon’s beautiful colonial buildings look neglected

  • Yangon felt like a badly managed museum, rich with historical and cultural sites but run down in many parts. The former capital was bustling with the sudden influx of tourism, and is it continues to burst I could see the seams. I only hope it doesn’t lose its wonderful ancient soul as it meets the demand for modernity and globalization. (more on Yangon in a later post!)

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  • I finally went to Shwedagon Pagoda. When I first saw it on television I was only in High School, and the metaphor that immediately came to mind was that it looked like a Mountain of Gold. I have since wanted to see it in person. The chance to be in it felt like a personal conquest.
  • In Myanmar, the mountains you climb can sometimes be gold.
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And can be visible from far away

  • By now I’ve gotten the hang of managing different timezones. That KL had the same time as Davao made it easier.
  • We were met in Kuala Lumpur’s airport by a Burmese, Alvin Aung Myint, one of SAG’s scholars and future teachers. The moment just made it palpable how international a situation I was in.

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  • In many ways Kuala Lumpur felt like a return to Singapore, it had the same Malay urban vibe about it, and in some areas even the same smell. I had once vowed to myself to return to Singapore when I went home from a summer there, and so far this is the closest I’ve been.(for more on KL, see my Kuala Lumpur Experience post!)
  • The internet is a wonderful thing. While the Malay Peninsula and the Celebes sea separated us, my Ilongga in Davao felt very close, and not a minute passed that I did not hear from her. Petronas Towers, Masjid Jamek, Merdeka Square, the Muzium Negara, Central Market, Petaling Street, Jalan Alor: wherever I was I was chatting her, and it felt like she was exploring KL with me. And it was a joyous thing that, for three days at least, we weren’t an hour and a half apart. In more practical terms that meant we had the same sleeping pattern.
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I was chatting her while I took this selfie, on the same phone

  • Back in Taunggyi, Abdula organized a Communication Arts Festival for his three sections. I was never too big on Speech Choirs but he got me to judge in a Speech Choir contest. The kids seemed to have enjoyed it, and to that extent it succeeded.
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With speech choir judges Brother Bosco and teacher Billy.

  • He also got me to judge the on the spot essay writing contest, and that I was very big on. This was not the first time I had judged such a contest (the last time I could remember was when I was still in Silliman and the National Youth Summit was held in Dumaguete), and since the first time I did it I’ve always adopted a policy when judging handwritten essays: pay no attention to handwriting. I will never forget that I did not win any place in the only Region-wide press conference I attended (when I was in High School) simply because my handwriting wasn’t pretty enough.
  • Which was hardly a problem among the student really: the elegant curves of the Burmese script were coming out of their Roman letters.
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And in all fairness, my handwriting can be difficult

  • Three months into the mission and I think I’ve determined what I can leave behind after a year here in Taunggyi: to help SAG move forward in terms of extracurricular involvement, and to give it a platform for tangible output for its project of giving English-language education.
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The SAG student Constitutional Convention with Inday Precious.

  • I had already helped in the former, by helping the students draft a Constitution for their student council. The experience drafting two student council charters (one of them, Silliman’s Graduate student’s organization, was actually ratified) finally proved to be useful.
  • But I want to aim to give my own contribution (the above was largely Undag’s accomplishment). I want to help set up a newsletter for the school. Talks with Father Paul already resulted in two benchmarks: to make releases monthly, and to include the international community of SAG’s donors, partners, and attached teachers in the target audience.
  • For the latter aim, I want to initiate the establishment of an Online Archive for translations of Myanmar’s literary works. It will be tied up with the output of students in literature classes, and it will hopefully not only provide the international readership with access to Myanmar’s literature, but also showcase works in the minority languages in the country, particularly those spoken in Taunggyi like Shan, Intha, and Pa’Oh.
  • A bible passage important to literary theory is also good for volunteers to contemplate upon: the Parable of the Sower. As a volunteer sent out on a mission, on one hand I may see myself as a seed, cast unto earth which may be shallow or full of brambles. I cannot accomplish anything if the earth I find myself in will not let me bear fruit.
  • And yet I may also see myself as the earth in question, and the seed cast upon me as opportunity. Will I throw the opportunity to the scavenging birds, let it shrivel up with the shallowness of my efforts, or let it be choked by the tares of my own self doubt? Or will I strive to be fertile earth?
  • One thing is for sure: vegetables, fruits and flowers grow very healthily here in Taunggyi.

 


Myanmar’s Tea

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As a tea lover, I find Myanmar to be one of the many forms of paradise. Tea is deeply ingrained in the country’s many cultures, and it is served in ways unique to the place.

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Some Shan rice tofu salad, served with free tea

Generally, tea is served for free in restaurants – it is so common it’s just called yeh nwe hkyin (ရေနွေးချမ်း, ‘hot water’). This tea is usually green, but it is also common for it to be roasted (making it redder) and mixed with some lahpet hmwe, a mysterious leaf whose English or Latin names still evade me and which has a distinct creamy pandan fragrance.

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Lahpet hmwe

Unlike the Japanese or the Chinese, Myanmar has no issues with exposing their tea leaves to sunlight, which means the tea can acquire a strong, grassy astringency. Here in Shan State it evokes for me the wildness of the mountains. Teapots are also often covered with a filter cork made of rattan to keep the leaves from coming out, but this also lends a woody taste to the resulting tea.

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The rattan filter cork

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Lahpet thoke, with beans, tomatoes, cabbage, and peanuts

Myanmar is also the only country where the leaves themselves are regularly eaten. Lahpet thoke, a salad made with picked tea leaves, is a common snack served in teashops as well as in homes, and has many variations.

There are also distinct ways of drinking tea for each ethnicity. So far I’ve encountered two: the Intha way of roasting tea, with Lahpet hmwe and sesame seeds, and the Akhar’s infusion.

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Some Mahkyipe (မိုက်ချီပဲ့) leaves

The Akhar would drink tea by boiling it with eight leaves of a fruit tree called Mahkyipe. It is regarded as a medicinal tonic, carried over from Chinese traditional medicine. That one must use eight leaves is fascinating – I’ve never encountered numerology in tea before.

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The resulting liqueur has a farmy, sweet potato-ish acridity

But one of the things I found remarkable about Myanmar’s tea culture is the milk tea. Actually a largely Indian influence, milk tea nevertheless plays an important part in Burmese socio-culinary culture. Teashops serving milk tea proliferate throughout the country, serving as meeting places for people where alcohol-serving bars would be in other cultures.

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The lane of teashops in Taunggyi’s Night Market

It is also in Myanmar that I have seen the greatest variety of milk teas. I had encountered a total of ten variations to milk tea, which is served after boiling for hours (making it perfectly strong) creamed with evaporated milk and sweetened with condensed milk.

Below are the variations:

pouman

Pouman (ပိုမှန်): literally ‘plain,’ this is the default ratio of tea to evaporated and condensed milk, not too sweet, not too creamy.

hkyopaw

Hkyopaw (ချိုပေါ): from pouman, this has less evaporated milk, giving it less richness

pawsein

Pawsein (ပေါဆိမ်): from pouman, this has less condensed milk, making it less sweet

kyasein

Kyasein (ကျဆိမ်):  this has no condensed milk and less evaporated, making it the strongest variation

hkyosein

Hkyosein (ချိုဆိမ်): this has the most amount of condensed milk, making it very sweet

kyasein-moutak

Moutak (မှိုတက်): with a light sprinkling of ground coffee beans. Usually for coffee, this way of serving can be for any of the above (this is Kyasein moutak). Because of the coffee this is the most stimulating form of milk tea you can find.

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Boukye (ဗိုကျဲ): with clotted cream, like moutak any of the above can be served this way (this is kyasein moutak)

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Moutak Boukye (မ်မှိုတက်ဗိုကျဲ): with clotted cream and coffee bean sprinkles, this is hkyosein moutak boukye 

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Kyauk pataung geit sone (ကျောက်ပတောင်းဂိတ်ဆုံး): the sweetest version of all (I’m told it translates to ‘the gate of sweetness’), it contains even more sweetener than hkyosein. It isn’t too common in city teashops, served mostly in villages.

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Thunyaunghkyey lahpet-ye (သုံးရောင်ခြယ်လက်ဖက်ရည်), three coloured milk tea. Just as strong as kyasein but as sweet as hkyosein, it’s the most photogenic tea I’ve had. I only ever had it in Yangon.


The Kuala Lumpur Experience

(Because Myanmar law allows foreigners to stay for only 70 days in the country, the Cardoner Volunteers here in Taunggyi have to go to another country from time to time. Our first such exit was to Kuala Lumpur, capital of the Federated States of Malaysia. SAG’s three scholars in KL, William, Alvin, and Pan Phyu, along with Fr Paul’s contact Mr. Nordin, served as our hosts. Here are some thoughts on our three days there.)

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  • Few things are more beautiful than a metropolis at night seen from the sky.

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  • Kuala Lumpur International Airport smells like Changi but looks like Hongkong
  • It seems to be a trend that airports are built far away from downtown. KLIA is so far away it is actually in an exclave of Kuala Lumpur within the adjacent state of Selangor.
  • Malaysia displays the best of Muslim culture I’ve seen so far. Women look so fashionable in their hijabs!
  • While Singapore may be very near, KL is infinitely cheaper.
  • Rubbing alcohol really seems to be a Filipino thing – we could not find it in Thailand and Myanmar, and we couldn’t find it in KL either.
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A replica of the throne of Perak

  • Malaysia also shows what a malay culture would look like if it conquered the ills of a colonial past, a good example for the Philippines to follow.

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  • Kuala Lumpur is somewhere between Singapore and Manila, clean and very urban with glistening high rising buildings, but also still quite neighbourhood-ly. Unlike Bangkok it may take some effort to get a glimpse of its history and culture.
  • One thing it has that few metropoleis have, though: genuine vegetation. In between imposing modernity are patches of what look like virgin overgrowth. Singapore’s greenery just feels artificial compared to KL.
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    Looks can be deceiving

  • As if to make up for their patches of urban void, the cars in KL drive ridiculously fast. Jaywalking is ten times scarier in Malaysia.
  • Laksa really comes close to being the best noodle dish in the world.
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I said it before: Laksa, glorious, glorious laksa

  • I wouldn’t give the same praise to Asam Laksa though: light but sour and fishy, it can be an acquired taste
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And I have not acquired it yet

  • Petaling Jaya, in Selangor, is lucky to have its own community museum!
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And it’s surrounded by a lovely park

  • It was unfortunately closed when we where there last time, though
  • Good luck trying to buy books in KL: the vast majority are in Bahasa. I guess it’s admirable how much literature exists in the language, but it makes literary tourism difficult!
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I had to daginot with Filipino writer

  • But English is thankfully common. As one of the world’s top tourist cities, KL is very friendly to foreigners.
  • Yup, Books Kinokuniya is still the most impressive bookstore chain I know. When I found out there was a branch in KL I knew I had to go there.
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I got some Malaysian literature though!

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Books Kinukoniya has prime location in KL

  • The Petronas Towers are a pair of huge diamond skyscrapers that glisten under the sun in the day and glow with office lights at night. The cylindrical shape of each tower makes it feel so solid and yet so ornamental compared to the soap bars surrounding it.
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The towers during day

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The towers at night

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The tower seen from one of the glass domes of Suria KLCC

  • There’s more to the Petronas than the towers: in front of Suria KLCC at the feet of the towers, there’s a fountain pond that has a fountain show every half hour. And there is a whole park just beyond that.
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If this were a video, you’d be seeing knots made of water

  • There is a strange pleasure – an urban luxury, if you were – to riding trains. I guess it’s the Kidapawan boy in me still thrilled at the artifacts of metropolis.
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Next station, crossing Lanao: interchange station to the Bartolaba line

  • Yup, the best way to enjoy a sexy metropolis like KL is to wander around alone. In lieu of having someone special wander with you, that is.
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A record breaking phallic symbol jutting out from bush – I miss my girlfriend

  • Roses have the taste of love, and I could not help missing her again while sipping Minuman Bandung. The Johor style of the drink though has a hint of lychee acidity to it.
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Love in a plastic glass

  • I think I just saw a snatcher running away in Suria KLCC!
  • The Malaysians deserve a reputation for having the most colourful sweets. Kuih never fails to impress whenever I see it.
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Edible jewels

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Clockwise from top: Pulut tai tai kaya, talam ubi, abok sagu, talam, lapis selatan, getuk getuk

  • It is a bad idea to visit KL’s historic center at high noon: Taunggyi’s cool sunlight made me forget how our latitude’s noons could be scorching.
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The higher the photo quality, the higher the risk of skin cancer

 

  • And we were equally unlucky to find Masjid Jamek – where KL’s most primitive beginnings could be traced – was under renovation and open only to muslims for the time being.
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I got a shot of its back though

  • Refreshing discovery by the confluence of the Klang and the Gombak rivers: Duterte is loved across Southeast Asia. Contrary to Western media coverage, the foulmouthed Philippine president really is becoming the poster boy of ASEAN independence. In Bangkok and Myanmar the case was similar. But the hat vendor outside Masjid Jamek was so much a fan of the man than when one of us mentioned Digong used to be our mayor, he gave us a free hat.

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  • The Muzium Negara just made me drool with envy: the Malaysians are proud of their history and culture, and they’re making money by showcasing them.

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Lovely, but I think it’s not Minangkabau enough

 

 

  • It is really in Malaysia that you see the richness and relevance of Mindanao history. The precolonial Moro polities were featured in the Muzium Negara. As a Mindanawon, Malaysia makes my heart bleed because it shows me what Mindanao could have been if it wasn’t so messed up by the Philippines
  • They have a separate section for the rubber industry. as a son of a rubber plantation family, it resonates to me. What is common between Kidapawan and Malaysia? Rubber.
  • It also has a section on the contribution of writers to Malay national consciousness.
  • Which just highlights one thing for the Filipino: Rizal is still the only writer to have contributed to National consciousness. The rest are victims of obscurity or are too busy squabbling with each other – irrelevant, to put it simply.
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The tiny selection of Filipino writers on the shelves in Books Kinokuniya is sobering

  • Malaysia’s elective monarchy never ceases to fascinate me!
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The royal headdresses of Malaysia’s nine federal monarchs

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The headdress of the Yang Di Pertuan Agong

  • KL minus the Petronas Towers is so much more: the Muzium, Central Market, Petaling Street, and Jalan Alor.

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  • Central Market makes me feel embarrassed at Davao’s Aldevinco.

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  • Petaling Street feels like a movie set – a more humid version of Hong Kong’s Temple Street.
  • Stay away from chestnuts being roasted!

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  • Jalan Alor, the longest food street I’ve ever seen, was where I finally reunited with my Singapore craving, Char Tow Kway, aka the carrot cake with no carrot.
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Hello sexy

  • Food brings the world together: also in Jalan Alor, there’s a restaurant with Filipino staff serving Filipino food. And when I bought Char Tow Kway, the waiter exclaimed in delight at seeing the Burmese kyats still in my wallet – it turned out he was Burmese.
  • When departing from KL, KLIA can be very badly managed, with queues taking over an hour. You must get there at least three hours before your flight. Even if you live nearby.
  • Unsurprisingly, having a relationship means wishing you were with her. Anywhere really, but most specially when exploring a new, wonderful place.
  • I obviously did not take enough pictures! See a bit more of them on my Facebook album!