merdeka day in kuala lumpur

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“ At this solemn moment therefore I call upon you all to dedicate yourselves to the service of the new Malaya: to work and strive with hand and brain to create a new nation, inspired by the ideals of justice and liberty – a beacon of light in a disturbed and distracted world.”

Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first prime minister, Speech on the Proclamation of Independence, 31 August 1957

Merdeka (independence) Day on 31 August is Malaysia’s national day. This year it marks the country’s 56 years of independence from Great Britain in 1957. A few leading radio stations in Kuala Lumpur got together to organise a charity event in support of orphanages in the city.

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All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng 31 August 2013

myanmar 2013: running with longyi

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Copyright Kerk Boon Leng July 2013

One hundred and fifteen years after Rudyard Kipling famously described it as a land quite unlike any other you know about, Myanmar in July 2013 is still by any standard a surprising and extraordinary place. Nowhere else will you see, especially not in cities, men with red-stained teeth like vampires going to work in skirts and women coat their faces all day with whitish yellow ground bark. On streets, along dusty country lanes and everywhere where there is a beaten track, barefooted monks in maroon robes walk cradling big black glazed bowls in the blazing sun. In the country’s biggest city, Yangon, the tallest building glows like gold looking neither like a hindu temple, orthodox church, chinese pagoda nor mosque but all four combined.

Myanmar a land of a dozen and more major ethnic groups with partial Tibetan origin is on the fringe of Hindustan but shares mountains, plateaus and rivers with Yunnan province. It is a land where India and China meet exchanging not only ideas and merchandise but also genes.

These days it is a nation running with its longyi ( Burmese styled sarong) into the 21st century. When I first saw Burma a few years ago most people had no access to a phone and a trunk call could only be made in specialist telephone shops paying in US dollar. Today, it seems that almost every adult owns a mobile phone and the only shopping to be had at night in Mandalay is to check out the latest phone gadgets at the rows of brightly lit emporium type stores on the main street. At the traffic lights on our way from Yangon airport into the city a man approached our car window clutching copies of the government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar ” Foreign Investment Rules ” for sale. As the traffic began to move we paid him and took two copies.

Myanmar is on the cusp of change. Better days are coming soon for its people who for now are the poorest in Asia with a GDP per person lower than even that of Bangladesh and only half of Pakistan’s. But no matter how normal Myanmar eventually becomes it will always be different from any country you know.

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A pensive moment in the kitchen, Pyay

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Approaching rain clouds over Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

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Doing the buddhist thing by loving all beings big and small, Yangon

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Boats on the Irrawaddy River at Mandalay

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Hats are optional but not the sunglasses in up and coming Yangon

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Free concert in the park, Yangon

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In the late evening after the rain Yangon flaunts its brand of tranquility and beauty

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Fast food kiosk, Yangon

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Waiting outside a clinic in the old city, Yangon

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friendship and umbrellas in the drizzle, Yangon

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A senior staff from the auditors office during morning tea break in Yangon

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Outside the Sagaing hill top pagoda

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Relaxing monks on the U Bein Bridge

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With friends on the U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

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Quail eggs snack vendor in Letpadan a town in south central Myanmar

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Cyclist and fisherman on the U Bein Bridge in Mandalay

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In front of a factory in north Yangon

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Mother and child at their street side stall in Yangon

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Colourful longyis next to garlands of white flowers, Yangon

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Yangon has a historic chinese community

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The British when they ruled merged the country with India in 1886 and made Yangon (Rangoon) the capital of Burma. As a province of India, Burma saw a huge influx of migrants making the newcomers the majority race and Hindustani-Urdu their lingua franca in pre war Rangoon.

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A bashful plantain seller outside a market in Yangon

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motorcyclist beside the moat of the Mandalay palace

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Shopping for clothes at a morning bazaar in Okkan, a dusty market town some 110 km north of Yangon

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Sitting outside a meal shop in suburban Yangon

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Sprigs as shade against the fierce afternoon sun in Mingun, Upper Myanmar

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The temple in Mingun bearing its iconic earthquake scars

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Well-dressed devotees at the steps of the hill pagoda in Sagaing

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Bathing in the Irrawaddy at Mingun

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Bathing monks at Amarapura

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Files of novice monks at meal time, Mahagandayon Monastery in Amarapura, Upper Myanmar

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The much photographed U Bein Bridge near Mandalay – at 1.2 km the longest teak wood bridge in the world

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The Irrawaddy River near Mingun

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Fishing in the Irrawaddy near Mingun

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Mandalay

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All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng 2013

yangon to mandalay by train

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All images copyright Kerk Boon Leng July 2013

I rode this train about eight years ago on my first trip to Burma and have since yearned to indulge in a bit of masochistic nostalgia. I had my chance last month. This time I got my friend there to book me a sleeping berth on an overnighter, departing at 3 pm from Yangon’s atmospheric central station and arriving the next morning in Mandalay at around 6.30 am – an almost 17 hour-journey to cover a distance of 432 miles.  It is not the cheapest ( and certainly not the easiest)  way to travel between the two main cities but for the chance to take in  a voyeuristic view of Burma at 40 km/h from a bum-banging and metal-clanging seat a train journey is the only way to go. I can now say I have done it twice and the third time would only happen if Burma bans all domestic flights over its airspace.

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Sleeping with Monk : my bedside companion giving me the Clint Eastwood look as the train rolls slowly out of Yangon

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One of the few main stops on the journey north. This one is at Bago (Pegu) where we arrived about half hour before sundown.

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Little boy at the platform kiosk in Bago

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The best place on the train – my seat and table in the dining car

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The rice fields look deliciously lush even in dull monsoon weather

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At dinner time it can be hard to find a free table in the dining car.

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A train attendant taking his meals at Taungoo a former royal town of some size situated at about one third of our journey to Mandalay

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Some things are better in Burma in the bad old days. 3 in 1 coffee and tea, known as coffee mix and tea mix, have replaced universally the original and traditional brews.

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Someone’s backyard in the outskirts of Mandalay

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All photographs copyright Kerk Boon Leng July 2013