Making lists

A Yangon picnic has finally happened! This is another activity from my list.

That is, from my very long list that shall forever be dubbed as May’s Millennium Development Goals or MDGs.

Millennium Development Goals

Lists are great! Only my fellow obsessed list makers will know this: we cannot get anything done unless it is written down somewhere. Lists are a vision statement. A concrete reminder. Secular prayer.

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Hpaan Retreating

I am utterly exhausted.


Journeying against the encroaching dark rain clouds

Across a field of Buddhas

Across a field of Buddhas

On a motorbike

On a motorbike

But not altogether all alone.

But not altogether all alone.

In times of stress and pressure, people have different coping mechanisms.

The most effective way to reconnect with myself almost always comes down to two venues: (1) retreat into nature and (2) cooking something really hearty like pork chops. These along with support from my good friends and word of advice from mentors get me through the worst moments, helping me re-align myself.

This time, my way of restoring sanity came in the form of a hike up to Mt. Zwekabin in Hpaan, Karen State of Myanmar.

Still considered part of the “brown zone,” Hpaan is only recently open to tourists.  Downtown Hpaan was under grenade attacks just some two years ago.  Today, the city is under the jurisdiction of two administrations.  You will see grand offices of rebel forces and government offices, right next to a UNDP branch office, along the main road.

The caves in Hpaan are amazing.  Kaw-Kon Cave seems the most spectacular, for it still has the largest collection of original murals from the 12th century.  The hike up to Mt. Zwekabin, the view of 1,000 Buddhas planted at the base of the mountain, narrow steep steps that are slippery from rain; Hpaan humbles me and fills me with a sense of curiosity and wonder for larger things in life.  It is good to be reminded to live for something larger, deeper and more meaningful, out there, even if we do not exactly know what different things mean.

Hpaan is a bizarre little town.  And we did lots of bizarre little things.  Here is why Hpaan is so awesome and sad at the same time:

  • The name “Hpaan” literally means “vomited frog” or “frog vomit” based on the myth of an enraged mother dragon chasing after a frog for swallowing one of the baby dragon eggs. What a gangster frog!


  • My travel buddy – an American traveling to the newly peaceful region of Myanmar – LEFT HER PASSPORT! Look at us living our lives on edge.


  • Drank red wine at a tea shop. Out of those white tea cups they always have.


  • Hpaan’s most popular landmark and the most sacred site in the state, Mt. Zwekabin is said to be under the guardianship of a celestial pair of siblings because the mountain surface, texture and shape looks like a man and a woman.  Which makes me think that in Myanmar, people do not consider romantic love sacred at all. If this were in Latin America, a large protruding stone mountain shaped in the form of a man and a woman would be dedicated to romantic love.  The myth will be about a couple whose undying love turned them into stones to stay together forever even at the face of misery on earth, or something cheesy like that.  You know the spiel.  But in Myanmar, it’s platonic love that is treated with more respect.


  • In a country with world’s highest snack bite deaths, I cannot comprehend how a lot of people can be casually wading into knee-deep water in dark ancient caves of Hpaan, without any electricity.  I just do not get Hpaan people.

A little bit of light here, a little light there.

Clearly, here I am, Eat-Pray-Loving in Hpaan.  Boy troubles, like any other twentysomethings.  I made a mistake.  But isn’t now the time we are supposed to be making mistakes?  The earlier, the better.

Earlier this year, on a work trip, I got a chance to share a long car ride with Michael Joseph, then CEO of Vodafone and an incredibly wise man.  He commented that you are already doing really well if you are getting only 80% right.  The more important thing is not to keep repeating the same mistake.  All our perceptions of relationship and love will be colored by our parents’ experience.  But you live up to your life and things happen for a reason.  He then went on telling me about how a mistake and a loss in personal life led to a gain in career which then allowed him to be who he is today.  Smart life and love advice from wise business people.

Cheers to that.  And remember the 80-20 rule.

Powering through

Narrow path


Investing in your twenties

There were two or three new people on my surprise birthday party recently. Upon introduction, they asked me as usual: “So what do you do in Yangon?” I turned 24 that day and had left my old job the day before without having anything lined up yet. So I wasn’t quite mentally prepared to admit that I was as they say “transitioning.”

During my two years out of college, I have held two jobs (which is quite normal) and now I have decided to totally jump into an unfamiliar industry, which is also normal but remains a mystery to my Burmese parents. My mom was even more appalled to learn that the beau I brought home just a few months earlier is no longer my romantic partner. You see, she and most of her friends are currently still married to their first ever boyfriend.

But I am comfortable with my decisions, whether or not my parents wholeheartedly support them. After all, I have consulted with several trusted mentors and friends, drawn up elaborate pros and cons lists, and entertained different options for months now. The day I was preparing my letter of resignation, a friend rushed to find me in a bar and patiently went through my pros and cons list with me. One great mentor told me rather bluntly, “May, you are being over-analytical. Leave your job. Go explore.” She also took my colleagues and me out for an Italian dinner to tell us that there are three things every young professional should bear in mind: (1) always set goals, (2) reflect them, and (3) remember you will sometimes have to do things you dislike along the way. Aren’t they great?

Then, some friends directed me to this great Ted talk by the clinical psychologist Dr. Meg Jay, who is an advocate of twenty-somethings. She is known for arguing that twenty is the defining decade in one’s life. Her Ted talk is called “Thirty is not the new twenty.” Go look it up. Make sure you listen to her talk.

Of course her target audience is an average American in his/her twenties. Young adults in developing countries do not have the luxury of prolonged adolescence or a post-graduation college-like life. But I have definitely seen that my American peers from upper middle class families have things easy. I am not in the position to judge anyone’s lifestyle or values but Dr. Meg Jay will have something to say.

These are her main takeaways:

1. Forget about identity crisis and get some identity capital. Do something that adds value to who you are. Invest in what you might want to be next. Identity capital begets identity capital. Procrastination is not exploration.

2. The urban tribe is overrated. Don’t huddle together with like-minded people. New things come from outside of the inner circle. Reach out.

3. Be intentional with love, as you are with work. Constantly choose who and what you want, rather than just making it work or killing time with whoever happens to be choosing you…basically, stop sleeping around mindlessly. Date smart.

Just some food for thought.