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19 Apr 2018

A strange paradise.


Definitely the strangest place I visited in Myanmar on my recent trip was Ngwe Saung Beach. It was 2 hours by bus from the city of Pathein. The road is narrow and winding and progress was slow. It was not a fun journey.The very long white sandy beach and is attractive enough but nothing really special compared with most Aussie beaches.
Behind a short section of the beach there is a small village strung out along a road with the usual seaside mixture of restaurants and shops selling beach stuff.
The strangeness comes from the fact there is one absolutely immaculate resort complex right on the beachside guarded by large security gates and in a field opposite the entrance is a helipad. Ngwe Saung Beach is the General's playground and the resort is the ruling military junta's resort. Vacationing military personnel whose rank does not qualify them for helicopter transport come down from Yangon in their black,Toyota Land Cruisers with very heavily tinted windows. I saw two of them on the road to the resort and some others in the village. They have a very menacing air and seeing them made my stomach churn.
There are other hotels but most are very run down or abandoned -reminders of Myanmar's recent hard times and strife.
The place had the feel of Bali when I visited it 40 years ago before the overdevelopment and the cheap airfares. There was a solitary beachside bar blaring out the sort of music you would expect from a bar in a tropical resort-see photo.
I went into the very warm sea- the Bay of Bengal. The beach was almost deserted apart from a couple of European backpackers playing beach volleyball. I hope they were appreciating the atmosphere as surely soon it will be gone. Chinese hotels will line the beach and a nearby newly constucted airport will be full of Chinese charter flights jetting in Chinese tourists in their thousands.  Another paradise will be lost.

16 Apr 2018

Public transport


Spotted in Pathein on the Irrawaddy Delta, Myanmar, a pick-up truck loaded with young women just about to start on the trip back to their village. It was sweltering hot and they were packed tightly into the back of the truck sitting on the hard metal deck.  They look as if they have had a hard day already. A different world.

11 Apr 2018

The last swagman?


When I was in Port Douglas, Far North Queensland, last November I spotted this character reciting bush poetry in the market. At the time I had my doubts as to whether he really was a genuine swagman. Wikipedia defines a swagman as a transient labourer who travelled by foot from farm to farm carrying his belongings in a swag (bedroll). The term originated in Australia in the 19th-century and was later used in New Zealand.
An article in last weekend's Sydney paper confirms that he really is the genuine article.Read on-extract from Sydney Morning Herald to which I do have a digital subscription.

 Meet Campbell, a ‘living walking storybook’, and the embodiment of bush ballads and poems. Words  by Justin McManus.

‘I’m living and breathing the words; Lawson’s words, Paterson’s words . . .’ Campbell

The old year went, and the new returned and so had Campbell the swaggie. It was one year before in a chance encounter that I had made the swagman’s acquaintance.

Through various friends, and via the bush telegraph, as the swaggie has no phone, we had arranged to meet by the Java Cafe in Yackandandah, a small town in north-east Victoria.

The swaggie had come around to favour the folk with his poems and country ballads – his last festival in the highlands of the south before heading back north, to warmer lands.

‘‘ I’ll take you out the back roads of Yack,” he said after a coffee and scone, ‘‘ And you can see the life of a swagman up close, and how he came to be.’’

So as the sun set on a dusty old track, out back of Yack, the raggedy old sundowner shared his story. ‘‘ Initially I was captivated by Australian bush music after seeing the Aussie bush band the Bushwackers perform in New Zealand in the early ‘70s.’’

Campbell is a Maori who became strangely fascinated by Australian folklore and cultural heritage. “I fell for the cultural history of this country , and the characters the Bushwackers sang about: The shearers, drovers and the swagman. I wanted to immerse myself in that heritage, so I just followed in the spirit of Waltzing Matilda.

‘‘ One of my favourite Australian poems and songs is ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s classic, Waltzing Matilda. It should be the national anthem you know, the other song has no relevance . It drew me to the swaggie’s life, got me tramping the back roads and stock routes of Australia waltzing my Matilda, living life on the hoof and I’ve been doing it for 40 years.’’

Campbell came to Australia in 1975 and worked as a storeman in Sydney, then Melbourne, for Coleman foods. ‘‘ But I was retrenched, and then I ran into the Bushwackers at a gig in Ferntree Gully in ‘79, and I just started following them around Victoria to bush dances,’’ he says.

‘‘ The swagman grew out of this experience, hoofing around with them, on the back roads of Victoria. I was in my early 20s and was discovering the stories of the landscape, the people, and coming to love the country. There’s something in me that makes me want to spread my wings and breathe the fresh air.’’

Much has been written about swagmen and their traits and ideals. The popular Australian ethos grew out of the ways of the swagman, and the miners of the Eureka stockade, the shearers and the strikes of the 1890s, and the Diggers of the great wars. Ideals of anti-establishment , a fair go and mateship became central values to the Australian character.

Henry Lawson writes in The Romance of the Swag, ‘‘ The Australian swag was born of Australia and no other land— of the Great Lone Land of magnificent distances and bright heat; the land of Self-reliance , and Never-give-in , and Help-your-mate .’’

Campbell suggests that some of these noble traits have been lost in recent times. ‘‘ Attitudes have changed and I’m still living the old ways. I’ve always been closer to the dreamtime than the computer age. The storytelling is being lost and people are becoming more selfobsessed ; they’re not interested in the true stories of the country.

“After Victoria, I tramped up to Longreach, to a drovers’ reunion, and it was the poetry around the campfires that really got me hooked.

‘‘ So I continued to travel and learn the poetry; out the Diamantina River and Coppers Creek in far west Queensland, learning the swaggie game; Paterson’s country out Winton way, and around Dagworth station, where Waltzing Matilda was written.

‘‘ Getting dusty, thirsty and covered in flies , walking about 15 to 20 kilometres a day, sleeping in creek beds or under a bridge, making billy tea and cooking up the damper.’’

After sunset we head back into town. Campbell’s camping down at a friend’s house tonight. He says he mostly gets put up by friends whereever he goes these days, but still enjoys a night camped out under the stars sometimes.

I suggest a quick beer at the Star Hotel in Yack. His eyes light up. ‘‘ Sounds good! The AFL kicks off tonight and I love a beer and watching the game.’’

He’s a big AFL fan, Collingwood supporter would you believe; just when I’m getting to like him. He philosophises that Australia has the Diggers and AFL, and that Waltzing Matilda sits fair in the middle, as the bond that ties it all together.

Over a beer at the bar, people from all over swing by to greet the swaggie , as you would an old mate. They aren’t surprised to see him, they see him everywhere, but their delight is obvious and heart felt.

I ask him about home, if he has one, and in a prompt and selfsatisfied reply he says, ‘‘ I’m home here. Yackandandah is home right now, Australia is my home, home is wherever I am at that moment.’’

As I discover later, he does have a caravan at a place called Cameron’s Pocket in Queensland, where he stores what he refers to as his bookwork . It’s his collection of diaries, or more accurately, his observations, musings, and poetry, as there are no dates to his prose. Time and dates seem to be a largely irrelevant concept in Campbell’s life, save for making it to the next festival.

He visits the caravan once a year, drops off the latest instalment of bookwork, dusts the place down and is back out.

Over the weekend, I am told many stories of his uncanny ability to almost teleport between festivals and around the country. Good friend Chris Smith relates one such occasion as we all sit on the verandah of the festival green room. ‘‘ We left Mount Beauty on a Monday morning and drove to Wintermoon Festival near Mackay, and he beat us there! We didn’t stop, we drove straight through and still he was there before us; he’s got wings,’’ he says.

‘‘ He’s unique, he’s a walking storybook , and a living walking storybook, he’s quoting life and his experience.’’

Campbell chips in, “I’m living and breathing the words; Lawson’s words, Paterson’s words, keeping them alive.’’

Chris finishes : ‘‘ He’s not just quoting Henry Lawson or Paterson, he’s been to where they wrote and lived the poems. He’s lived Waltzing Matilda.’’


Copyright © 2018 The Sydney Morning Herald

9 Apr 2018

Dawn at Blueys Beach.





Since I came out of hospital last year I have been working to get fit again. This means that wherever I am my early morning walk is conducted at a faster pace than previously. So when I was visiting a friend in beautiful Blueys Beach on the mid-coast of NSW, a few days ago I crept out of the apartment just as the sun was coming up and set off up the stunning surf beach at a very brisk pace. I had only gone about 100 metres when I realised that I had not picked up my camera. I though "no worries" I'll give it a miss this time. Then I looked along the beach and saw the surf rolling in and the sun breaking through the mist and the rocky outcrop of Seal Rocks outlined on the horizon and decided that there could be a photo there. So I turned tail and crept back into the apartment and picked up my X1. And I am glad I did. I took just a couple of photos and this is one of them. It is a big crop and the colour original was very blue- because the scene was very blue. I spent some time trying to dial out the blueness but in the end took out so much colour that it was black and white and I decided that it actually looked better in black and white. So I did it properly and converted the file to black and white in Silver EFex.

5 Apr 2018

Parasols of Pathein


I visited  relatively prosperous Pathein, Myanmar's fourth biggest city, on the Irrawaddy Delta expedition. Pathein is one of three cities in Myanmar where parasols are made commercially and a visit to the workshops all situated in one little street was fascinating. The Pathein parasols are used for traditional dance and religious processions as well as being sold to tourists in shops across Myanmar and even exported to Europe.





28 Mar 2018

Oh Myanmar



Earlier this month I spent 10 glorious days In Myanmar (formerly Burma). I'll pause the narrative there. I know-why would I go to Myanmar when the Burmese have committed such appalling acts against the Rohingya people?  Allow me to explain. I went to Myanmar in 2012 and loved the country and the people. My boycotting it at this time would not impact the bad guys carrying out the atrocities-the military and their agents-but it would impact people who are dependant on tourism and who are unaware of what is going on in the north west of the country. The expedition I went on was the first tourist boat trip into the Irrawaddy Delta. I booked it a year ago when it was announced, I paid a substantial deposit and I really wanted to go. Note the Irrawaddy River is the main river in Myanmar and is also known as the Ayeyarwady

And what about Aung San Suu Ki, "The Lady", who has let us all down so badly apparently? She is the State Counsellor which in reality means that she has no real authority. Confusingly there is also a President with limited power. The military clique did a quick window dressing job back in 2015 when the last elections were held but nothing has fundamentally changed. The same bad guys who have run the country for the last 70 years are still calling the shots and milking the country dry.
Aung San Suu Ki was just 2 years old when her father, the newly installed PM, and six of his cabinet ministers were assassinated. Aung San Suu Ki's National League for Democracy party overwhelmingly won the general election held in 1999. The military refused to hand over power. There were riots in Yangon-formerly Rangoon.The army shot and killed 3000 protestors and put Aung San Suu Ki under house arrest where she stayed for the next 20 years. She was not allowed to go and visit her dying English husband in England. She was not even allowed to go to his funeral. She was released in 2010 when international sanctions against the country were lifted. Her party won the majority of civilian seats in the 2015 election but the military have reserved the balance of parliamentary seats for themselves. The military governing clique are now so enmeshed with the administration and the economy and so used to enjoying the benefits of corruption it's difficult to see how they will finally be displaced.
The military changed the constitution so that someone who was married or had been married to a foreigner or had foreign children could not become president. How very convenient. So they made Aung San Suu Ki State Counsellor.
She may well trying to do the best for the people of Myanmar but she is between a rock and a very hard place. She has had a terrible life. She is 76 years old. It is very likely that if she speaks out against the military they will ruthlessly deal with her as they have done in the past and the gains she has made in terms of planting some green shoots of democracy will be lost.
When Aung San Suu Ki came to Sydney for the Asean meeting two weeks ago  the activists and a very hostile media were all out to damn her. Sad, very sad. She must feel wretched yet she cannot speak out which is a real pity as the atrocities against the Rohingya are genocide and reflect on all Burmese people including the innocent.
 I have no inside knowledge in postulating this scenario but other more informed commentators than me are saying the same.
Of course it may indeed be as her detractors are saying and she may have had another side all along and she really is an enormous disappointment. We may never know.

Myanmar has had a very turbulent history since gaining independence from Britain in 1948. There has been rampant ethnic strife and long running civil wars for the past 70 years. Only since 2010 when the US, the EU and Australia and Canada lifted sanctions has the economy started to improve and even then much of the improvement is down to Chinese infrastructure investment-the new imperialism.

Myanmar is a resource rich country with massive oil, gas, gem, jade and timber reserves however most of the economy is controlled by the military and they have plundered the wealth. It is one of the most corrupt countries on the planet-marginally better than Somalia at the bottom of the corruption league table.




So it's not your usual feel good tourist destination but it is a country with an amazing culture and very resilient people who despite their poverty seem always to manage to smile. Can you really blame me for going?





I flew into Yangon Airport from Hong Kong the afternoon before our morning sailing from Yangon port. Back on my previous trip in 2012 Yangon Airport International terminal was a small, tired and very inadequate building. Now it is a very modern building. After that the surprises kept coming. The journey into the city on the late Friday afternoon took 90 mins. It should normally take 20 mins out of the rush hour. Yangon traffic is now on par with Jakarta and Bangkok and far worse than Sydney. In 2012 the traffic was very light. Now there are over half a million vehicles in Yangon. The skyline is crowded with cranes. Chinese and to a lesser extent Japanese money is fuelling a construction boom. The economy is growing rapidly but it is off a very low base.  Even in the smallest and poorest villages we visited there were mobile phones and the networks are all 4G. Samsung and Chinese mobile phone brands dominate the market. No signs of Apple-way too expensive for Myanmar.






This trip was on a small ship, the RV Katha Pandaw, operated by a British Company, Pandaw, aka as the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. It was very much an expedition as the huge Irrawaddy Delta is not an area usually seen by tourists and this was the first trip by Pandaw into the Delta.
There were just 19 passsengers on the ship-7 Australians, 2 Norwegians and 10 British and they were an interesting and very well travelled senior group.



The Delta consists of nine main channels and a capillary system of smaller creeks and waterways. It is heavily populated with 3.5m people living there. This waterlogged maze has played a critical role in Myanmar's history. In the heyday of the Raj in India the Delta produced much of the rice for the British Empire and it is still a major rice producing region. It was rice harvest time during the trip and bags of rice were on the move everywhere on heavily overloaded boats.
As well as harvest time it was one of the hottest times of the year ahead of the monsoon and even the locals were complaining about the heat. As we walked through very quiet towns in the heat of the day I was frequently reminded of the old saying about mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the midday sun.




The ship meandered through the channels with bamboo huts on the banks and we looked out on kilometre after kilometre of napa palms fringing rice fields and stopped once or twice a day to go walkabout through a small village or town. Apart from the charming and very lively city of Pathein we were visiting small towns and villages where tourists and white people were unknown and often I felt that I was in a reverse zoo. Everywhere we went the people were so friendly. We disembarked at one small village mid morning and it seemed as if the whole village came out to greet the strange old white people.

The biggest challenge for the captain of the ship was navigating through the fishing nets fishermen -and fisherwomen -strung out across the channels and creeks not expecting such a largish ship to come sailing along.
In all the towns we visited the two central features were always the pagoda and its statue of buddha and the market. Everywhere there were lively markets selling everything from dried fish-a local and very pungent favourite-to plastic buckets.




With so many friendly and curious people and markets it was a people photographer's dream location. In fact I took no photos of tourist sights because well there were no tourist sights because there were no tourists-apart from us. I took only one camera with me, my Leica Q and as is my practice I took very few photos but I am very pleased with those few which you can see here MYANMAR PHOTOS
Again, as usual, I always tried to gain approval from my subjects before photographing them and employed my never fail photographic device-a broad and genuine smile. If I had to get down to be eye level with my subjects -and the Burmese are great for squatting down-I got down on one knee. Wearing shorts helps with this process but being 71years old does not. I invairably came back from a shore excursion with a dirty right knee. I suffer for my art.

24 Mar 2018

"Salt and vinegar or smokey bacon?"


Seen at Yangon Central Railway Station early last Sunday morning. Before coming to Myanmar I had toyed with the idea of taking the circle train for a 3 hour trip around Yangon. The guidebooks say it is a unique experience and provides great people photo opportunities. My plan was abandoned when I realised that I was only in Yangon on the Sunday and secondly it was so hot and humid that even the locals were complaining about the heat. I already had prickly heat as it was without frying some more.
I took my usual early morning walk and went for a look at the station anyway and found it just a short distance from my hotel. It all looked very rundown and there was little activity at the early hour until these two novice monks fronted up without their usual alms bowls apparently intent on treating themselves to some bags of crisps/chips.
I had to move fast to get this crucial moment so I did not have an opportunity to get close and this is a big crop from the fullframe jpeg Leica Q file.

21 Mar 2018

Goodbye old Hong Kong.


I first went to Hong Kong on a business trip back in 1974. It was in August-typhoon season-and I was marooned for a few days in my hotel whilst a typhoon swept through. I remember Hong Kong from that time as a very exciting place. It was literally where east met west. It was exotic. The amazing flight path approach to the airport set the scene. The streets seethed with activity - handpulled carts and British cars and vans and traders everywhere. Rickshaws waited at the Star Ferry terminal to take workers to their offices. It was very British. I was taken lunch at the Hong Kong Club where it was dark suits and white shirts and hushed voices.
Since that visit I have been back to Hong Kong many times and I have seen it change over the years but when I visited two weeks ago I was surprised how much it had changed in four years since my previous visit. Sadly Hong Kong is rapidly becoming just another big Chinese city. The mainland Chinese sinification of Hong Kong is proceeding very rapidly. Forget the Chinese pledge at the time of the British handover to maintain two systems. Now they are even talking about changing British place names such as Victoria Park to local names and taking down colonial era statues.
Other changes are inevitable. Many of the tiny shops such as the ones above are disappearing fast to be replaced by modern shops. Supermarkets are replacing street stalls. The wonderful Star Ferries which once were the sole means of crossing from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon have long been replaced by three road tunnel crossings and the MTR- one of the most efficient mass transit systems in the world-although the ferries still linger on just as a tourist attraction.
Landfill has reduced the width of the harbour significantly and the high rises just keep on going up. The British expats who once ran the administration have all gone and so have most of the expat bankers and financiers and the expat directors of the old trading houses and shipping lines. The old airport was replaced by the new airport in 1999 and it is now the busiest airport in the world. Soon to be completed will be the world's longest road bridge connecting Hong Kong to Macau and then the Macau ferries will be gone too.
Somethings never change. The bustle I observed back in 1974 is still there - even more so-but now stand on the street in central Hong Kong and play spot the westerner. It is the Asian century
.
Photo below by me-the Star Ferries in their heyday.



12 Mar 2018

By 356 to Bathurst

Friend Justin drove down from Sydney to Bathurst in the family 356 for the 12 hour race. That's the way it should be done. Not like wimps like Warren and myself in an airconditioned modern car.
Photo taken in the old gold mining town of Lucknor on the way back to Orange where we stayed.

10 Mar 2018

Beautiful

 

I know she is featured frequently but our 18 year old Himalayan, Phoebe, is just such a beautiful cat. She is so affectionate and she is still very photogenic. I really dread the day she is no longer with us.
Photo taken last week. She is in the cattery at the present time whilst I am away overseas. I hope that she is not missing me too much. I am missing her.

9 Mar 2018

Breakfast at Bathurst

There are times when traditional race circuit food-a bacon and egg roll for breakfast -goes down a treat and this was definitely the case at this year's Bathurst 12 hours. Supplies ready at dawn.