It`s HUGE!!!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Strand Hotel

In 2003, a book was published by Andreas Augustin simply called "The Strand Yangon". At the newly renovated bar he asked me what it was like staying there at the faded beauty years ago. The opening of the Suez Canal  in 1869 made travel to Asia far easier and thousands of miles shorter. It was the age of opulent travel, steamer trunks and servants. The Sarkis brothers had already opened the Raffles in Singapore and the Eastern-Oriental in Penang. They were to open the Strand in Rangoon 1901.
When I first stayed  there in the early 1980's the Strand was entered through a thick beat-up side door just down the street from the Military Intelligence building.  A well worn check-in desk polished by the historical elbows of the wealthy welcomed me. A telephone operator in a tight patterned sarong sat behind pulling out and plugging in red and black wires from the antique switchboard. The lobby was paved with black and white marble squares, all that was missing were the chessmen. Overhead fans swirled with wooden blades the size of which flew Lindburg over the Atlantic. At the long solid mahogany bar with local rum and gin, Mandalay Beer was served by dark Indian waiters in frayed collars and waxy scented oiled hair. You could feel the ghosts of gentlemen and elegantly dressed women from bygone era. Across the empty lobby was an Otis elevator made of polished brass piloted by a smiling midget, standing well below the levers, controlling by hand where the car stopped , sliding the grate open and closed, usually a foot higher or lower than the actual floor you intended. Legions of arrogant bats flew down the hallways and the occasional rat lurked in the shadows watching which room you were checked into for further reference.
The room itself had a Victorian desk and chair. Each of the legs on your bed stood in a powdery mound of deathly bug killer to insure the creepy crawlies didn't scurry up and sleep with you. On one wall a framed mirror hung with a spiderweb of black, missing the reflective silver, in front of which you swiveled your head enabling you to see only portions of your whole face. The bathroom had a rain shower as big as a dinner plate, where if the water by chance did flow it was intermittently either cold or scalding hot but always without fail, a rusty orange. The toilet had a pull cord with a tank of water overhead. A room was about $25 dollars and the sheets smelled of tropical mold and the last sweat drenched occupants. The best food in town was served downstairs. The restaurant cooked huge lobster thermidor whose tails and legs spilled over the edges of your dish for $3 dollars.

Some of the most intense days of my occupancy were during the uprising of March1988. Sitting in my recessed window sill looking through the old swirly glass on to Strand Road below, across from the jetty and the Rangoon River, tanks occasionally rolled by and dozens of canvas covered trucks carrying young soldiers hefting ancient machine guns, G-2's and G-3's, jumped from the back and fired down the street at protesters who scrambled through clouds of tear gas to avoid getting shot. Many were shot. Here at night was a major capital city in a country the size of France, standing silent, no movement, vacated, deserted, eerie.
In the morning, I was greeted by the leathery doorman, "Good morning sir", as if all were just peaches and walked out into the street which was congested with hustlers, skimmers, scammers and shammers. The only market as usual was the black market.There were gem dealers, antique steelers, pineapple peelers, and money changers all desperate, hovering around watching, waiting, steeped in crimes and intrigue. More violence was expected, people were in the streets, angry. Spies were everywhere, who was who? Who was watching you? I don't know, I would never know, but the eyes would burn like lasers. I hit the streets with discretion and tried to avoid the expected uprising.
Shortly after this any foreigners still in the country left voluntarily or were dispelled. Martial law and the curfew would be declared in June 1988. Soon Burma closed its doors to the world. The Grande Dame was left completely vacant of guests until 1989 when I along with a trickle of foreigners on group tours were once again allowed into the country and into the hotel to breathe her musty history.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Year of the Headhunters

While compiling photos and stories of unexplored areas of Burma to complete my book which would become titled "The Vanishing Tribes of Burma", I knew that there was still one very important area in the north-west to visit. Nagaland.
Nagaland had been off limits for 50 years, and the last comprehensive book on the Nagas, "The Naked Nagas", by Christoher Von Furer Heimendorf  had been published in 1939. The Naga, confirmed headhunters, were, and probably still are, in the remote Patkai Bum range of mountains. Naga tribes live in both India and Burma and travel back and forth as they wish. Nothing is more troublesome to central governments than groups of nomadic hill tribes who pack up and move at will. Porous borders, far away from any government control mean nothing to the Naga since they have no national identity, only that of kinship with their own tribe or clan.
I had been in contact with the Naga Cultural Committee since March 1996 through my friend the Bishop of Myitkyina, Bishop Paul Grawng, I  had received word that they were expecting me to join them for Naga New Year in January 1997.
Getting an air ticket issued in Rangoon to Singkaling Hkamti the closest airport to the Naga Hills was impossible. As time was beginning to run out, I flew to Mandalay and with a bit of help, and a new crisp $100 dollar bill, I was issued a ticket. The land route was not possible and even on modern maps Singkaling Hkamti was shown without the airstrip at which I would be landing. As far as I knew, I would be the first foreigner to ever witness the New Year event. In Mandalay, two immigration officials and one military intelligence man in dark Ray Ban's joined me and said that they would "help me to get aboard".
The flight was 1 hour and 20 minutes and we touched down in the small plane on a dirt runway raising clouds of dust behind us.
Singkaling Hkamti is on the Chindwin River just a few days hike to India. By now it became clear that the immigration guys had been assigned to me, to follow me where ever I went and to make sure I didn't just wander away in to the hills and disappear. I accepted the arrangement and told them that if they were going to follow me that they should at least carry my heavy camera bag and they did. Hell I was older than them, I'd been at this a long time.
We checked in at a guesthouse in town where I had my first glimpse of Naga girls, each with several vertical tattoos from their lower lip to their chin, and a hooked diamond shaped tattoo on their foreheads. The immigration guys were at the guesthouse napping, so I gestured to the curious girls and invited them to join me in a beer bar down the road. It was a dark place where we took a wooden booth and pulled the curtains shut. The waitress brought 3 chilled beers and pulled the red curtains closed. These Naga girls lived in town and were sweet and playful. I traced the ink in their tattoos with my fingers and we laughed and drank beers.
After frolicking with them for some time, I gave one of them my cheap watch, and stumbled back to the guesthouse.
The next morning I woke up my escorts, immigration who camped outside my door, and we walked up a hill to a Naga Morung or men's house, with totems lined with animal skulls. Only a short time before these skulls would have been human. 
As we walked higher up the path to the west, there was in the distance a low monotonous sound of grunting punctuated by high pitched screaming and rhythmic singing. As the sounds became louder we sensed that they were coming our way, so we stood frozen at the side of the trail. Over a crest of the hill came about 60 Naga warriors running with ox-leather shields and long spears covered in dyed red goat fur which they raised in unison. They wore woven-rattan hats, some with designs in red and yellow, circled with black monkey fur draped with wild boar tusks hanging over their eyebrows. Each hat was topped with long black and white hornbill feathers rising up from the center. Some warriors had their chins and jaws ringed in tiger claws. Around their necks they wore red beads and tiger teeth. These men were elegant and lithe, with the finely carved muscles of athletes. As they ran past, singing and screaming, I thought that the last time any foreingers had seen such an amazing spectacle, had their ears singed by these war chants, they were about to ceremonously lose their heads. The Naga were coming down from the hills.
All through the day and into the evening, hundreds of men and women from Kuki, Layshi, Lahe and distant mountains came in all directions.
I spent the rest of the day with the Naga Cultural Committee and photographed. The committee members told me that there were to be sacrifices beginning at 3a.m as a necessary cleansing ceremony for the ground on which the festival would be held, and that I would be the first foreigner to ever witness the event. Shortly before 3a.m, the committee leaders came to wake me and my immigration men and we all walked uphill toward the festival grounds in the cold January darkness.
At the festival ground a blazing fire was fed by whole logs. The Naga led a docile buffalo with enormous horns, several squealing pigs and many chickens. The buffalo was tied in place , and wedged his legs into a bamboo lattice with a rope over his head, and through his nostrils which were belching steam. The Naga began to sing and chant, dancing around the rising flames and punctuated the silent night with screams. As the animal's chest began to heave in fear, a Naga chief in a black and red robe whispered into the buffalo's ear, asking him to die willingly and peacefully, and blessed him with kongye, a milky rice beer. One warrior silently removed his dah, a long knife with sharpened edges and with one swift stroke chopped through the tendons at the back of the animals legs so he could not jump. the buffalo's shock and agony were short-lived as another warrior plunged a long spear into his heart.
I was asked by the committee members  to don a hat and black and red blanket with cowry shells and give a testimonial  to the Naga for their New Years celebration. In a short speech which was translated I thanked them for their invitation and hospitality and we toasted with my scotch and their kongye.
Early the next morning at the festival ground the kongye began to flow again and I was given a chair a the front table with the Naga councillors.
I remembered a story that one of the priests from Myitkyina had told me about the time he had brought a group of Konyak Naga girls to Mandalay.
"You must wear T-shirts", he had told them. "You cannot go in to town naked".
"But the T-shirts itch", they protested. "We cannot wear them".
"You must wear them when we are in town", the priest insisted.
The next day, the priest went to collect the girls for the sightseeing trip around Mandalay. They were wearing the T-shirts he had given them with a picture of Pope John II on the front, but they had cut holes for their breasts to poke through on each side of the pontiff's head.
At the celebration, Naga girls who were not topless continually poured kongye into the hollow lenghts of bamboo we were given as cups. By now all of the Naga groups had arrived, the Hunimya, the Makhury, the Naukawe, the Kuki, and the Lai Nawg. The Tanghkul and Kohyak Naga were absent, perhaps in the case of the Konyak, because of the government's requirement for them to wear clothes, as they would never do.
The Naga assembled and danced, some in monkey fur leggings and black blankets with red squares. Some had thick ivory bands from elephant tusks worn around their arms. Hundreds marched around shouting,
"Wow wah, wow wah" while beating their leather shields against their legs and screaming shrill war cries. Some shouted "Ah hay" which was high praise. Girls served pork, chicken and beef with wild mushrooms and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves.
The feasing and drinking, dancing and singing continued all day and into the night, with different groups performing. Some of the girls were flirtatious, while other were shy. Girls of the Kuki Naga wore huge tufts of white fur in their ears, with strands of dyed-red goat fur nearly touching their shoulders. Some of the songs and dances were of war and triumph, when the villagers would welcome the warriors back home with the trophies of human heads they had taken in raids on other clans. Several of the warriors now dancing around the fire wore long strands of human hair from their ears.
This practice had supposedly been stopped, but I had heard of heads being taken in raids as little as three years before. And now, in the Patkai Bum range and the Angpawng Bum northwest of here, who really knew?

There seemed to be no taboos regarding sexual relations between boys and girls and many wandered off into the bushes. Late at night, when everyone had drunk their share of kongye, fist-fights broke out, and some of the girls could be seen carrying their drunken menfolk away on their backs, not really struggling under the weight, but staggering nonetheless, silhouetted against the moonlight.
Unfortunately something this good could not last. It didn't. Naga New Year today is a correographed  stage show with tour guides in Rangoon charging $1,500 U.S.Dollars per person to a throng of tourists probably outnumbering the Naga, who are allowed to attend for only one day, and take pictures of the backs of each others heads.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Phantom of the Apocalypse

With the death this week of General Vang Pao I was reminded of another warrior who I knew and photographed in the early 1990's. Tony Poshepny aka Tony Poe worked together with Vang Pao as an advisor and was dropped behind enemy lines to conduct a secret war and stop the North Vietnamese march in to Laos. Poe who was a marine in 1942 fought on Iwo Jima recieving two purple hearts. He would earn five in his lifetime. In 1951 he joined what was to become the C.I.A and won the C.I.A Star twice. He ran sabotage teams  behind enemy lines in Korea while smuggling weapons and training Chiang Kai-Shek's Chinese Nationalist Army which was attempting to overthrow the communists in Peking.
In 1958 Poe and fellow C.I.A operative Pat Landry tried to overthrow President Sukarno in Indonesia. Outgunned and trapped on the island of Sumatra, they fled 150 kilometers through the jungle to escape, caught a fishing trawler and were rescued by a U.S submarine.
He then trained  the fierce Tibetan Khamba tribesmen to help the Dalai Lama flee Lhasa which was being surrounded by communist Chinese in 1959.
 In 1961 he began C.I.A work in Laos during America's "secret war" against communist North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao. Liaising with General Vang Pao he was able to recruit thousands of Hmong tribal warriors who he rewarded for bringing in enemy ears. He put human heads on stakes around his encampment to terrify the enemy along with strings of ears on his porch.
In the capital of Laos, Vientiane, the U.S Ambassador doubted his body count so Poe sent and envelop with human ears stapled inside making a young secretary who opened it vomit. he hurled human heads from low flying aircraft on to his communist enemies one of which was known to have bounced in the guy's front door.
Tony Poe became a jungle warlord revered by thousands of Hmong warriors. Against all C.I.A protocol he married a local Hmong princess with hair down to her ankles named Seng La who was the niece of Touby Lyfoung one of the kings of opium. According to Jack Shirley he sent a cable to the C.I.A, "I'm married...she's mean as hell...speaks no language...doesn't smell too good...but she's mine now"..
In one aborted attempt to kill Poe two of his fingers were blown up, they could have been saved but he tore them off and threw them in the bushes.
During the entire "secret war" in Laos 2.5 million tons of bombs were dropped making Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world.
Poe may have been the inspiration for Col. Kurtz played by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's film "Apocalypse Now". He was a hard drinking renegade who drank a quart of Lao Kao, homemade whisky every morning before emerging from his hut to launch assaults on the Chinese. At night he would hurl drunken abuse about the C.I.A and the U.S Ambassador on a radio link.
After ten years in the jungle Poe refused to go home. In the early 1970's the North Vietnamese, the Pathet Lao, the Chinese, and the Americans all wanted him dead. Everyone wanted and tried according to Jack Shirley to terminate his command. After the stapled ears incident the Ambassador ordered him out. "Come up and get me you big prick:, said Poe
The C.I.A finally pulled him out of Laos in 1970. The U.S were withdrawing and a frustrated and raving drunk Poe showed up at the Ambassador's office in Vientiane with a rifle in one hand and a machete in the other. In 1973 his base at Nam Yu was bombed completely off the map by B-52' piloted by the C.I.A. In 1975 Poe disappeared but wound up on the Thai-Lao border town of Udon Thani sometimes venturing to Bangkok where I first met him. In the early 1980's he swaggered around Udon Thani with his pistols and brawled. Because of the  respect he had earned in Laos, the Thai police tolerated him but fearing his violent drunken outbursts, he was escorted to the airport in Bangkok and in early 1990's given a one way ticket out.
I took this photo of Tony Poe  in his house on Wawona St. in San Francisco. Inside the frame he is holding is the C.I.A insignia with two of his purple hearts and medals from foreign kings.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Gem Freak

And now for something completely different. What I want to show you is a very rare geological freak of nature.
The photos are of a natural, unheated, untreated  sapphire from Mogok, Burma. I bought this stone some years ago and keep it in my collection. Gem photography is notoriously difficult dealing with the effects of light in a 3 dimensional object. Reflection, refraction, dispersion, saturation and angle of incidence. Mogok produces the finest Ruby and Sapphire in the world. Always has. Gems have been mined there since antiquity and were mentioned by Marco Polo in his "Travels" 800 years ago. Paleolithic tools have been found there. A natural untreated Mogok Ruby of 7.04 carats just sold in Hong Hong for $2,979,128 U.S Dollars, or 430,000 Dollars per carat. Whoa.

There are stones which change in color in different sources of light. Royal blue in florescent daylight changing to a reddish violet under incandescent electric light. These stones are known as change of color Sapphires. This stone however is 2 colors in any light. It is properly called a bi-colored Sapphire. The stone was bought in Mogok by a gem dealer friend of mine in the rough directly from the muddy earth. He is an expert cutter and cut this stone in a cushion shape to exhibit the rich blue edges with a pinkish purple stripe down the center. It is as you can see from the certificate 3.62 carats. Gem dealers who have seen this stone say that in all of their years in the gem business they have never come across such a rare stone as this, half Sapphire and half Ruby. A true gemological freak.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Visiting Khao Yai

Happy New Year everyone. We just returned from Kao Yai National Park only about a 2 hour drive from Bangkok. New places to eat have sprung up with excellent international food. One place called Vino had a great wine list and outside the open air area grew huge ripe tomatoes which they use in the dishes. The park itself  is huge and we went on a 5 hour hike seeing bat caves with the leathery winged critters blackening the sky at sunset, damp guano hollows filled with tarantulas and scorpions. The jungle in which we walked hummed with hornbills high in the trees who competed with gibbons for fruit. There were macaque monkeys baring their teeth looking quite intimidating and one wild tusker elephant at a salt lick. We rode elephants up green streams, 2 people to an elephant and a mahoot, the elephant master on their neck. One elephant enjoying the cool water loved to blow his trumpet.