China Exploration & Research Society


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“If you cannot change the situation, change your attitude.” That’s something I have shared with students many times before. So here I am, back in Mandalay, where CERS has our boat and houses. Sanctions? That’s a game the big guys play on the little kids. Remember Theodore Roosevelt; “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” his oft-repeated foreign policy message. And that remark is now over a hundred years old, and repeatedly acted upon, though not always successful anymore.

Kids are still kids here, playing after school into the evening, even into the darkness of night when supply of electricity is at times sporadic with blackouts. Our village, Thapatetann, is a weaving and pottery village at a confluence with the Irrawaddy. The weaving machines are running its “clicking clicking” sound all day, the potter’s wheels are still turning. Autumn dragonflies flapping their wings and little squirrels bounce among late season mango fruits on the tree. But intellectuals and educated people, or those pretending to be so, are angry and troubled. Angry with both nature and humankind, angry that Covid should descend upon us and troubled by an untimely military coup.


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In attitude, I too have changed, hiding my frustration as I went through two swab tests, one in Bangkok Airport in order to check in for my flight and a second one upon landing in Mandalay. As to post-coup measures, there is curfew by 8:00 PM and I must cross the Irrawaddy Bridge and be in my hotel before dark. Though we have our boat and house-base by the river, it is advised not to stay there during turbulent times.

Neither are we welcome by some villagers, who may be paranoid of outsiders during Covid and politically testing times, be it nature- or human-imposed. And during troubled times, there are always those who enjoy reporting on others to gain the little merit they could muster. In times of peace and stability, those are usually the most insignificant vermin and scum of a society.

Business as usual? Not quite, as tourism, which many developing countries and emerging markets depended heavily on, has dried up over the last two and a half years. The only consolation is that this time it is global, sparing no one, be it a country in the first or third world, Orient or Occident, North or South hemisphere.

Enough intellectual and smart blurb from your writer here.

After one night in a hotel with my colleagues across the Irrawaddy in Sagaing, I decided to risk the curse of the vermin, and stayed for the night in my tiny upstairs room in our house. Nothing happened, and I had a sound sleep. Come morning, I spent time decorating our meeting room with new paintings we recently acquired before my colleagues rejoined me to embark on a cruise in a small wooden boat upriver for a little birdwatching. That had been my routine over the years.

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While having my hot chocolate sitting at our balcony, I observed for over an hour our boatman trying to start our long-tailed engine for the boat. It has not been used for over two years and the inside must be rusted. Su, our field biologist, arrives in time to offer an engine she has bought recently, second hand. She paid one Lakh (US$32) in order to help a family in need. A new engine would have cost three times as much. The old engine kicks up upon the first pull, better than our rather new but unused one. An ironic lesson for those of us who keep plenty of money, or branded luxuries, unused.

Not many birds are sighted as winter has not set in yet and migrating flocks have not yet arrived. I spot two common kingfishers, as their blue turquoise coat is easy to distinguish. One Little Cormorant, three kites and three Vinous-breasted Starlings make up my list for the morning. As usual, egrets are so common I never count them as sightings.


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As fuel become of shortage and more pricey, more boats are going retro, being rowed rather than running with the long-tail motor. We stop beside a boat as two men are pulling up the net. No catch this round, but earlier in the morning, they caught a palm-length Short-headed Catfish and a half-kilo carp, locally called nga-net-pya. We bought both for our lunch at 7000 Kyat; barely US$2 at current black market exchange rate but over US$5 at bank rate. I ask the fisherman Aung Myo Oo (46) how the yield has been in recent years. “Much fewer than two years ago,” he answers. His son Yae Tshan is 18 and helping his father on the boat, since not much work is available anywhere these days.

Inflation has hit hard, and prices are escalating by the day. Starting a year ago in September, CERS regularly dispatches rice and cooking oil within the village we set up as base. For five months, we have given out each month 13 bags of rice, each bag weighing 24 byi or 31 kilos, at a cost of 35,000 kyat (US$25) per bag. Our budget for giving is only US$500 per month. Today, the same bag of rice is more than double, costing 75,000 kyat. Our carpenter Tin Aung reflects that teak has gone up from 12 Lakh (US$900) per ton to now 18 Lakh, a 50% hike. Since our contract with him was made before Covid, his labor charges remain at 10,000 Kyat per day than the current rate of 15,000. Enough numbers crunching from your pseudo-economist.


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I receive a daily report from an international security outfit regarding Myanmar. In report #675 yesterday evening, formerly peaceful and tranquil Ma Sein village by the Chindwin River where we had picked up a cat and have a pagoda built nearby at the Tropic of Cancer is making the long list of places to avoid. It was in 2014 that the CERS newsletter ran a cover story on Ma Sein. On 18 September 2022, around 05:00 Hrs, in Kalewa Township (Sagaing Region), an unknown group attacked and set fire to a police outpost in Ma Sein Village; 7 police officers and a police chief's son were reportedly killed, some arms and ammunition were seized. An explorer is not a war or frontline correspondent. My team have to manage risk and avoid the countryside for a while to come. Our HM Explorer boat, with seven cabins, would likewise be moored to our premises for a while to come.

Like the fish that is becoming less abundant, the trash that used to float down the river all day long is also becoming less, as far as I could see. That, perhaps because money is tight and less refuse is generated. But I must give credit also to our own CERS team members who have used the pandemic to work closely with their immediate community by providing bamboo- woven trash bins to villages along the river. They have also started a campaign to educate children and parents to stop them throwing their trash into the river. Such small projects may also be yielding some results.


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For lunch, we have the cat fish steamed. It is delicious and fresh. While eating, I ponder, as everything is becoming less, what about the monks who go from household to household each morning to collect alms in the form of food. Are they too receiving less? But perhaps such a question, in a country where monks are highly respected, would be better left unanswered.


And respect and etiquette I must learn and maintain. Momentarily, Sandra our Country Manager passes me the paper napkin box, reminding me that I should stop pulling up my longyi, the traditional Myanmar men’s skirt, to wipe my mouth at the table. But old habits are hard to change, not unlike the sunrise and sunset each day I can view from our Mandalay House.


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HM at table with longyi


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