Saving a Cultural Treasure: Htwe Oo Myanmar

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Saving a Cultural Treasure: Htwe Oo Myanmar

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Category : Myanmar

The evening air was warm and sticky as we climbed the narrow stairs to Htwe Oo Myanmar Puppet Theatre. Honking traffic and pedestrian chatter fell away we were ushered into the cool, dark theatre. Dressed in a crisp maroon shirt and black longyi, Mr Htwe’s wide grin gave me a sense of his infectious energy and desire to preserve this cultural gem of Myanmar. 

Mr Htwe spoke with so much passion for his craft. He explained that while working aboard a ship, he realised that the pursuit of money would never end, and decided to follow his heart. After battling political instability, money troubles due to a crumbling tourism industry, and the after effects of Cyclone Nagis, Mr Htwe and his wife Mrs Oo finally opened the theatre. 

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The Performance

Htwe Oo Myanmar has cherry picked the best parts of traditional Burmese stories and opera for their shows. Mr Htee explained that Burmese opera can go for many hours, involving an enormous cast of both puppets and puppeteers. The story is engaging and action packed, and Mr Htwe ensures that all sections are translated or explained to his foreign audience. 

Told in traditional Burmese style, this classic tale of princes, princesses, villains and heroes also picks up on themes from Burmese and Buddhist mythology.  Brightly coloured sets and loud, powerful Burmese music complete the experience.

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The Puppets

Each puppet used by Htwe Oo Myanmar is hand made using local materials and local artists. Costumes are brightly coloured and incredibly intricate, often closely mimicking the costumes worn by Burmese royals and depicted in murals splashed across temples. 

Even more intricate is the system of strings and hand movements required to make the puppets move. The puppeteers make these characters come alive in the opera. From amazingly deft small movements to convey a thought or emotion, to acrobatics that would leave my attempts in knots. Watch for the moment in the show… you’ll know it – it took my breath away!

At the end of the show, the puppeteers bring out puppets for audience members to try their hand at. I discovered I am not destined for the puppeteer life. While I managed to get a few dance moves out of the marionette, they were far too jerky and static – much to the amusement of the Htwe Oo puppeteers. 

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The Passion

Htwe Oo Myanmar is overwhelmingly passionate about preserving and promoting the art of traditional Burmese puppetry. Mr Htwe and his troupe haven’t just travel the length and breadth of their home country. They’ve even traveled overseas to perform at cultural exhibitions and puppetry competitions. While supporting puppetry masters around the country, the company also aims to engage and educate a younger breed of puppeteers. Mr Htwe and Mrs Oo’s own children also participate in the shows as part-time puppeteers, picking up secrets from the company’s own master puppeteers. 

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Details – Htwe Oo Myanmar 

This show is an absolute must see when you’re in Yangon, Myanmar. Bookings are essential, and Htwe Oo ask that you book at least one day in advance. The theatre only holds a small number, so audiences are small and intimate. We booked our spot by emailing Htwe Oo – details below.

Htwe Oo Myanmar has moved to new premises at Ahlone Township, about a 15 minute drive from the Sule Pagoda.

No. 12, First floor
Yama Street
Ahlone Township, Yangon. 

Mobile: (959) 512 7271
Email: booking@htweoomyanmar.com

Website: http://www.htweoomyanmar.com/
Facebook: www.facebook.com/htweoomyanmarpuppetryhome

It’s about a 15 minute drive from the Sule Pagoda to Htwe Oo Myanmar’s new theatre in Ahlone Township.


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How to mildly annoy your work mates

I was nominated by my boss to write a piece for the office newsletter about my global gallivanting… 

I work with a phenomenal team, really. The amount of work they churn out in a short period is truly astonishing. They love a good morning tea and appreciate tolerate my bad jokes. But I’m pretty sure they’re losing patience with me. I’ve discovered, accidentally, how to mildly annoy my work mates.

Turns out I just need to travel, and count some days.

In March, I hit Yangon, Myanmar. Having visited a few years ago while the country was still under the rule of its military dictator, I loved seeing how much the country had changed with its new found freedom. The people were so beautiful, and now so talkative. Great discussions about politics, religion and the Burmese economy raged around me in eateries and restaurants. I trawled through markets and museums, visited temples, palaces and mosques, and ate more barbequed seafood than I’d care to admit.

Standing in front of the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon, Myanmar.

Standing in front of the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda. Yangon, Myanmar.

When I returned to work, I started The Countdown. How many working days until I was off on my next adventure? I thought it was great! A motivating factor for Mondays and my university studies. My work mates weren’t as thrilled, and declared they would be living vicariously through me. No worries, I can take one for the team!

After a while, I announced it was zero working days until my next holiday, and flew to the Torres Strait to camp on Cape York with my family. It was fantastic. I spent the week four wheel driving and bush walking, amongst other things like roasting marshmallows, fishing and checking the under the dunny seat for frogs and/or spiders. My family and I climbed the headland and stood on the very pointy northern bit of Queensland, which was kind of surreal and emotional. It was a trip my parents had planned for a long time.

Spectacular views from the helicopter over Cape York. Queensland.

Spectacular views from the helicopter over Cape York. Queensland.

But then, it was back to work. Only 15 working days on The Countdown this time and I was off to Queenstown. To be honest, this probably wasn’t very fair and my incessant chattering about the New Zealand adventure hardly did me any favours. This is what happens when you make friends with people who have a penchant for destination weddings.

New Zealand was perfect! Amazing! Breath-taking! Queenstown, in case you were curious, is a great place to eat and bar-hop. Craft beer fans, look no further! The wedding was glorious, and I managed to ski for the first time ever without breaking any limbs or causing any calamitous collisions on the beginners run. Hashtag winning. I cruised Milford Sound in absolute blazing sunshine, and spotted penguins, dolphins and fur seals. It could not have been any better (except maybe minus the blizzard that closed the ski fields for a day).

Blizzard fun at Cardrona. Queenstown, New Zealand.

Blizzard fun at Cardrona. Queenstown, New Zealand.

So now I’m back, and my wonderful work mates have moved my desk to its new location in the Magistrates Court. They’re training me in my new role and have been nothing but supportive. I told you, they’re amazing!

… but in case anyone is curious, its 21 working days until I jet off to Bangkok!


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Lessons on life in Yangon

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Category : Myanmar

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things” – Henry Miller

They say travel will change your life. They’re not lying. Travel will also change you. It will challenge all of your preconceived ideas, teach you about yourself, break your heart and mend it again. Some experiences you won’t forget, and others you’ll never stop thinking about.

We’d been kicking back in the shaded courtyard of Zawgyi House in Yangon, when a small girl’s face popped up over the wall.

“Hello, miss! Postcard for you? Where are you from?”
This tiny thing, with shining eyes and brilliant smile, was clutching a plastic wallet full of painted cards in one hand and the hand of a small boy in the other.
“Hello, miss! Would you like a postcard? Thank you for coming to my country! What do you think of Myanmar?” she chirped, like rapid fire.
“Mingalaba!” I called back, “I love your country – you are all so friendly and happy.”
She flashed me a dazzling grin as I bought one of her postcards and she skipped off down the footpath, the small boy in tow. I didn’t think much of it until a few days later when Patrick and I got separated from our mate John inside the maze of Bogyoke Market.

Maudreyou and her little brother, Ngenge.

Maudreyou and her little brother, Ngenge.

While we were trying to work out which direction we should head to search, the small girl appeared at Patrick’s side, tugging on his hand.
“Mister, I know your friend! I will help you!”
We waited by the main entrance and watched in awe as she took off back into the market and returned a minute later with John in tow. She introduced herself as Maudreyou – well, that’s my best guess at the English spelling – and her brothers Ngenge, the small boy from a few days before, and Keto, slightly older and cautious. After a whirlwind shopping trip through Bogyoke Market, where the children chatted non-stop and bargained fiercely for us, we offered to buy them dinner as a thank you, and they shyly accepted.

John shopping with Maudreyou and Keto.

John shopping with Maudreyou and Keto.

While we waited for the food, Keto and Maudreyou told us about their family and what life was like for them. It wasn’t a happy story. The family lived at the nearby Yangon train station, bribing the staff and police to let them stay. Their father was an army officer, who had been injured in conflict and promptly booted out by the junta. He couldn’t stand for long or walk long distances, and relied on the children’s mother to take care of him.  By day, the kids sold postcards and bamboo fans (and cigarettes in Keto’s case) to make the money they needed.

We all sat silent in a state of shock and sadness, as these three beautiful children devoured the noodles and rice they had chosen. John asked what we were all thinking – do mum and dad to have enough money to feed you? Keto looked embarassed and continued slurping down noodles. Maudreyou answered carefully – “we have food, but not as nice as this”. She beamed. I simply could not believe the happiness that radiated from this tiny being. After life had thrown at her, she was still so cheery and lovely. She wanted to go to school, to be a nurse, “or maybe a tourist person!” (tour guide, I think). She explained she liked talking to tourists, it helped her with her English. I was filled with hope and hopelessness; I wanted to help.

This sweet girl was so full of happiness, it was infectious.

This sweet girl was so full of happiness, it was infectious.

We ordered ice cream for them to share, and they stared at it in complete confusion. They had absolutely no idea what to do with ice cream… but I had never seen children eat ice cream as fast as they did once Patrick showed them. I realised at that moment, that I had unknowingly taken every single thing in my life for granted until that point. At the risk of sounding cliched, I had a bed and a nice inner city apartment, a good education, plenty of food and I was so incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to travel. I wasn’t naive enough to think that people did not live in poverty, however it was the first time I had been confronted with it in such a raw and physical form. What Maudreyou and her siblings did have though, was a loving family. Half way through our dinner, Mum and Dad arrived in a panic because the children hadn’t made their way home. They were incredibly grateful to find them sitting up at the table with us, chowing down on noodles and chicken.

Mum, Dad and their kids.

Mum, Dad and their kids. Keto had borrowed our camera and took lots of photos.

Truth be told, I was ready to adopt those children then and there. I wanted to take them home with me, give them a proper bed and send them to school. I wanted to sell everything I owned and move to Yangon, to do something – start a school, start a program to help Maudreyou, Keto and Ngenge. The situation these children were in, the exhaustion and despair written into the faces of their parents broke my heart. I was also angry that in a world where I could book flights on a mobile phone, there were kids like these three selling postcards to make a measly living. It’s hard for me to accurately put into words; I knew this occurred all over the world, but this was the first time the issue had been given a face, and a giggle, and a smile… and hopes and dreams. Since leaving Yangon, I have thought often of Maudreyou, Keto and Ngenge. I wonder what has happened to them, if they still live at the train station, or if they have gone to school. I am forever thankful to fate/karma/your preferred deity that I met them. Our encounter changed my life and my outlook on it, and I feel guilty that I didn’t do more for them.  When we return to Yangon later this year, I have all the hope in the world their situation has improved and the kids are happy and healthy.

Maudreyou, Ngenge and Keto.

Maudreyou, Ngenge and Keto.

The experience served as a reminder to me of what can happen if you are open while you travel. Talk to the locals, share in their culture, listen to their stories, maybe even share a meal with them. I can guarantee you’ll walk away with a different sense of the world, and at the very least, some amazing memories.


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Shwedagon Pagoda.

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Category : Myanmar

When we decided to visit Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda was at the top of my list. All the photos I poured over looked breathtaking, and I must admit I was not disappointed when I finally got to visit it in the flesh.

IMG_2838 The glorious Shwedagon Pagoda.

Our guide, Mr Oong, had a smooth dark skinned face and a beautiful wide grin. He greeted us in the Burmese way – traditional yet excited, with sentences like rapid fire – “Mingalaba! Thank you for visiting my country! What do you think? Today we will see the most important temple in Burma!”. As we walked from the visitor entry to the complex, he waved his arms and gestured to Patrick and John’s longyis.

“Longyis, yes! Very comfortable!”

Upon entering the pagoda itself, I was instantly overwhelmed. The stupa rose up before us, a mountain of dazzling gold, with maroon-clad monks and nun in light pink padding barefoot across the marble. People swarmed around the pagoda, edging past us effortlessly, making offering at different planetary posts (your planetary post is based on what day you were born on, thus also determining your animal, colour and planet), lighting incense and praying. Some applied gold leaf to Buddha images or twirled prayer beads through their hands. Men and women in longyis sat gracefully on the floor, praying, eating or talking to each other. The air was thick with incense smoke, and the sound of temple bells echoed gently around the stupa. It was so quiet, and yet so overwhelming at the same time.

IMG_2783 Locals pray at the pagoda.

The Shwedagon Pagoda is one the most beautiful places I have been. Everywhere you look, there is a Buddha figure or something glinting in the light. The stupa itself is crowned with a golden hti, an umbrella shaped crown, embellished with over 7000 gem stones, including rubies and diamonds. Oong explained that the hti is topped by an enormous diamond, around 70 carats. “You need binoculars to see it, but it is there! It was put there to catch the best light at sunset!” he grinned, making ‘binoculars’ from his hands.

This is a place which commands respect, which means you must follow all rules set by authorities. Men and women must wear longyis and shirts with sleeves. If you don’t have either, you will handed some when you arrive at the entrance hall. As with all temples in SE Asia, you must remove your shoes and leave them in the racks at the entrance. Socks are also forbidden – you must be barefoot. For this reason, it is best to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda in the early morning or late afternoon; the marble floor will become too hot underfoot in the sun otherwise. Entry will cost you $USD5 each, and is valid for multiple entries the entire day, including at night time when the pagoda is illuminated and seems to sparkle more than in the day time, if that were even possible.

IMG_2853 One of my favourite shots from the Pagoda tour. Our guide, Mr Oong is to the left.

Getting a guide is highly recommended, as they will be able to translate signs for you and explain the significance of each piece of the complex. They will also do their best to answer any questions you might have about the complex, Buddhist religion or Burmese culture. Our guide cost us 5000 kyat each and was well worth it.

Taxi drivers will know exactly where to take you if you ask them to take you to the Shwedagon Pagoda. Alternatively, you could take the number 43 or number 204 bus (learn Burmese numbers however, not much is in English!). Information and prices were current as at April, 2013.