Myanmar Diary – Part 3 – Yangon to Pyin Oo Lwin

7 November 15 – Saturday 

After Snore Bear’s ordeal, I was awake, no matter what time it was.  The sun began to rise at about six or so, and I watched out the window as we started up the winding mountain road towards Pyin Oo Lwin.   The bus creaked around a myriad network of hairpin turns and cliffside mountain roads, sometimes grinding gears as the driver downshifted to get traction.  I’d had worse – the tour bus in Korea, in the 90s, practically careening off the side of a sheer cliff multiple times and barreling down old wartime tank bridges. This was easier than that.  Still, it made you wonder where the center of gravity was on this vehicle.

Purcell Tower, Pyin Oo Lwin

Before we knew it, we were seeing signs of civilization, notably a series of lean-tos outside of town that people seemed to live in.  The lean-tos gave way to shacks, which finally give way to proper houses.  The road seemed to spiral in towards the center of town.  I strained in my seat, looking for a glimpse of the iconic Purcell tower, symbol of Pyin Oo Lwin and the center of town.  I did not know then that it is actually not very tall, and I probably could not have seen it from where I was.

Ask for it by name. Via Google

The bus unceremoniously came to a halt and Gavin was there waiting, with Hae-Jin and other people I did not know.  We collected our luggage, still miraculously not exploded from Lithium Ion batteries, and were whisked away in a van to the Win Unity Hotel, our new home for the next month.

Courtesy Win Unity – The Exterior

The Win Unity, as it turns out, was selected almost entirely for its wifi service.  Gavin claimed it was the best in town.  Gavin has also not been to Myanmar for a few years, and we strongly suspect the Win Unity may have been less than the best in town with respect to any category.  The sign out front proudly proclaims two stars.

Courtesy Win Unity – The Lobby

This is not to slag the Win Unity.  The last thing any of us needed is a luxury hotel.  I know that sounds odd – most people want to bask in the decadence of their accommodations.  But we were there to work, and none of us are fancy people.  Did the hotel have hot water and toilets?  Check.  Wifi works?  Check.  Free Hotel Breakfast?  Ooh, a bonus.  We wanted a box to sleep in that was not a lean-to and provided better protection from roaming animals, so the Win Unity was more than enough for us.

We did all right. This is the Production Office, aka where I slept.

I digress because Pyin Oo Lwin actually does have more luxurious accommodations, and they are suitably far more expensive.  Whereas those prices fit well with many Westerners’ travel budgets, it would shock the locals, such is the disparity in wealth between our two countries.


Gavin rushed us to shower, eat, and unpack all the gear. Our overnight bus was late, thus he was late with his call time to the set.  We were going right to work as soon as we stepped off.

We wolfed down a quick breakfast, which at the Win Unity usually meant fried rice, omelet slices, potatoes, and fruit.  We are told to steer clear of the fried noodle, but only because it came from the market and Eric was concerned about the lack of sanitary requirements at the market.  This turned out to be an unnecessary precaution, but at the time we followed his advice to the letter.

Cortesy Win Unity – The Dining Room

I grabbed the sound kit I carefully packed before leaving and headed back to the van.  It was kind of a baptism of fire, because Minshi and I were still a little dopey from the bus ride and the last two days of traveling.

Within the hour we were on the streets of Pyin Oo Lwin and shooting before a mildly amused populace.  Gavin had scouted the location a few days earlier and had chosen a particular street to shoot a scene of children coming home from school.  I jumped out of the van and begin wiring up our actors.  In the preceding weeks not only had Gavin scouted locations, but he had cast the film.  I was looking at several kids from the Sacred Heart Orphanage, a Catholic institution with ties to Gavin’s family.  Sister Caroline was introduced to me, as were several of the kids we would be using in the film.

The kids were amazing from the start.  Of course we could not understand each other, but I fell in love with our star, Tinmar Aung, the moment I wired her up on mic #1.  She already stood out from the crowd, that one.  I knew then that she was going to be perfect for this film – something Gavin and Cecilia had already known for a few days before I even got there.

Kids from the orphanage. Tinmar Aung is second from the left.  Gavin provided the hats.

I was using a set of Sennheiser G2s.  They are lavalier mics, which is to say very small capsules, usually hidden underneath clothing or clipped to the inside of lapels and collars.  The mic is connected to a wireless radio which beams the signal to the receiver, connected to my recorder.  They are powered by AA batteries, and with the right ones can last up to 12 hours before they need to be changed.  Thus I was counting on wiring up my charges, getting the mics to transmit properly, and then being able to rely on signals coming through without too much effort.

My recorder only has four channels, so I could run Tinmar Aung and two kids on the first three while operating a boom on channel 4, a pattern I continued throughout the shoot.  This gave me four usable signals for later editing, and would give me control in post production so that important dialogue will always be heard.  The boom picks up ambience more often than not, and sometimes the closer mics are preferred.  It was also equipped with a wireless transmitter on the end of the boom, so that I did not have to wrangle cable.

The shots were all composed with extremely wide angles of view, and Gavin began shooting all the way down long streets, such that we were often a block of two away from the kids as they walked toward us.  Sadly my G2s have a decent, but not great range. At half a block away they get staticky.   There would often be 30 seconds to a minute of white noise before the kids walked in range and I got a signal.  I began hiding behind buildings and in doorways, always in the shot (although hidden from camera) so that I could split the difference and cover as much of the kids’ range as I can.  Even so, this first day was full of static.

Crazy Gavin is also not the best at slating or script supervision.  Sometimes I heard him call for camera, but never for sound.  So from half a block away I had to know they were starting, which required a lot of guesswork and quite a few false starts.   I never missed a slate, but I came close.

The children from the orphanage were brilliant and beautiful, and though static pierced my ears at regular intervals from four different sources, I still liked hearing them laugh and sing. We were doing easy stuff, just walking shots and B roll, but spirits were high – we liked what we were doing and the results were good.

Minshi was so on top of things he was almost scary. He was super pro about assisting and hyper-vigilant about details. He and I both jumped right in at full speed, so Gavin was pleased everything was working well so quickly.  It was a good tight little crew already, and I’m pleased to say it never stopped being so.

Lunch break. Eric in upper right.

Certainly all was well until Eric, Gavin’s dad, took a sudden fall. No one quite knows what happened, but he tripped and slammed his forehead against a concrete corner, maybe a sidewalk?  His head swelled up with a lump just like a cartoon. He said it did not hurt. How could it not? It was the size of a ping pong ball; as if someone slipped one under his skin and let it stick out just above his left eye.  Gavin stopped everything and we made sure Hae-Jin took Eric to a hospital – we hoped we could continue shooting.

By her account, Hae-Jin took Eric to the regular Myanmar State Hospital and not one of the expensive private ones.  She said it looked like it had not changed since the 1950s.  The shelves held giant brown bottles of iodine, and nurses used forceps to daub gauze in it. But the X-ray machine was top notch, and Eric’s skull showed no sign of damage.  This was just an extremely uncomfortable lump.

We had been warned, quite rightly, that all medicines in Myanmar were either totally bogus or cut with something.  It would be best to avoid them entirely.  We had stocked up on cold remedies, aspirin, and band aids, but nothing like antibiotics or major pain relievers.  The hospital gave Eric a few different medicines, but he declined them all.

Eric is built like a tank, apparently. Two weeks before we left for Myanmar he was minding his own business when a 400 pound refrigerator fell on him.  Fortunately, he was moving that refrigerator in a hospital. A simple elevator ride got him to the right place and to people who could look at him. There were three pelvic fractures, but none of them were any big deal, they say. He jumped up and down in the doctor’s office, unable to get so much as a twinge of pain from any of them.  So we’re all pretty sure he’ll do fine with the lump.

It was otherwise a full day with a lot of running around.  We ended up in the marketplace, doing a complicated and fairly long shot that required us to follow Tinmar Aung through the aisles as she did all the shopping.  It was a seven to eight minute shot, made more complicated by the fact that we were just walking through a busy, open market that had not been blocked off for us – it was just business as usual on a Saturday.  We got funny looks, and we hoped not too many people were talking about the shoot on camera.  Holding the mic above Tinmar Aung’s head while I walked about eight feet behind her, the camera, Minshi, and the director, was kind of tough on the shoulders, due to issues of fulcrums, etc.  I did not relish doing the shot again and again, but we only went through it about five times.  Certainly not as many as we could have.

We walked the market over and over, either for rehearsal or for practice.  Each time I passed one particular stall a young girl of about 13 or 14 was invariably telling a funny story to another girl at an adjacent stall.  As I passed, her head would be turned from me and I would catch her just as she was either making a goofy face or doing a funny voice for her friend.  The friend would see me coming and a look of embarrassment and horror would cross her face each time.  When the silly girl saw this look from her friend, she would turn around, and I would be right there.  This happened four or five times, and it was hilarious every single time – for everyone involved.  It was because I was carrying the mic and boom that I did not snap her picture – I wish I could remember her face now.

And so, we finished the first day having put everything in the can that we wanted to.

Colonial leftovers

That night, at a hot pot dinner, I accidentally bit clear through my own tongue – from fatigue?  General clumsiness?  There was an actual flap of skin I had to tear off the tip. The bleeding eventually stopped, but I had to cut the meal short, which I was quite unhappy to do.  That hot pot was quite good.

We went back to the hotel to watch dailies that night.  We would do this every night, having set up the TV in the room Hae-Jin and I shared.  It was a central location for the shoot since it was on the first level of the hotel.  This also meant that our room was planning central, and that Hae-Jin and I got very little privacy for the duration of the project.  Not that we were needing any particularly.  But whereas others could retreat to their rooms for some down time, we would always be in the middle of things.

After the travel, the bad night of sleep, Snore Bear, and everything else, I could barely stay awake for the dailies.  They looked great, though, and I somehow managed to watch every frame.  Gavin and Sean had done well in their choices of equipment and aesthetics.  We all liked the look of the movie, and we were all excited to keep working.

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