musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

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Looking at the calendar, it’s suddenly obvious that this month is almost finished! Damn, another manic, whirlwind thirty days. Business has very brisk at my bookshop in Bangkok, so busy that I rarely have time to even sit down read a book myself when I’m in the shop most days. When it’s time to close up, all I want to do is go home and drink a couple of cold beers and try to unwind after another stressful day.

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Traditionally, the year-end holidays are always busy for us, but that heightened period of retail activity extends to the Chinese New Year — or Lunar New Year — period in late January or early February, depending on the lunar cycle. This year has been no exception, with regular customers combined with hordes of tourists passing through Bangkok, either spending time in Thailand or in transit to a neighboring country.  And it’s not, as you might assume, a lot of Chinese. Yes, there are indeed many tourists from Mainland China and even Hong Kong and Taiwan, but this holiday period is also observed in countries in the region such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and even Vietnam and residents of those countries also travel during this time. And it’s not just natives of those countries, but foreigners working in those countries that are getting a long holiday break and many are spending it in Thailand.

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This time of year I also see the usual throngs of Western tourists, many of them who are making an annual visit to Thailand. It’s fun to see these once-a-year regulars and catch up on how they are doing. Holidays or not, the trend I’ve noticed in the past year is a noticeable increase in the number of Asian customers in my bookshop. And it’s interesting to note that many of these Asians are reading and buying English language books. And in these dark days of Trumpovich and his evil regime, the fact that people in other countries — yes, Muslims included! — are looking for English language books and reading them and buying them, is a very encouraging sign.

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The seemingly illiterate Trump and his evil cronies might be intent on cutting themselves off from the rest of the world, and trying to make America white again (that is what he means, right?), but the rest of us — those with working brains — will carry on, trying to pursue our hopes and dreams, and reading good books!

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One of my favorite things to do when I’m in the Shan State town of Nyaung Shwe is just hop on my bike and pedal around town, or more often out of town, hitting the dusty and bumpy country roads.

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Some roads in the area are paved, and some are not, and some might better be called lanes or paths, as they meander through rice fields and up hills. Wherever I wander, however, the scenery is invariably splendid. Not many people in these parts, at least it’s not congested like back in Bangkok, but there are always friendly, smiling children out playing and waving, monks making their alms rounds (or you might see the younger novice monks also out playing), and sometimes a stubborn farm animal camped out on the road.

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On my last trip I had Ye Man Oo from Mandalay with me, and thankfully he proved to be a good cycling companion, keeping pace with me no matter where I decided to venture, although, admittedly, we both had to dismount and walk our bikes up the big hill leading to Tat Ein village! But there is a “refueling” rest spot at the top of the hill, halfway to the village, complete with free drinking water, so that made the trek easier.

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We rented our bikes from Aye Aye Travel Services in Nyaung Shwe, located in the same building as Chinlone Books. No flat tires and the brakes were good too; what more can you ask for!

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Back in the hills of Shan State, in the village of Tat Ein near Nyaung Shwe, it’s a bit chilly this month. It was also chilly last month, and the month before. Sure, it’s “that time of year”, but this area is also at a much higher elevation than other parts of Myanmar, helping to ensure that the cold lingers longer.

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On the suggestion of my friend Ma Pu Sue, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaung Shwe, I bought several dozen pairs of socks for the novice monks — and the senior monks — at Tat Ein’s monastery. We figured the socks would help keep their feet warm during those cold winter nights.

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Ye Man Oo, a friend from Mandalay who is helping me organize the books at Chinlone Books in Nyaung Shwe, and I carried the load of socks to the monastery, along with a football, a volleyball, cane balls used for playing chinlone, and some kites for the monks. Our bags were full during the bike ride to the village, but upon arrival, we were able to quickly distribute the bounty to the eager novices.

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Warm feet and happy hearts; the perfect combination!

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New Year Reflections

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Another New Year is here, which inevitably leads to reflection, resolutions, setting goals, and all those sorts of “start-the-year-anew” things. I’m just glad the idiotic Christmas season is finally over. Even here in Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, you can’t escape the people wishing you a “Merry Christmas.” Okay, I realize that most of them mean well, but don’t they have working brains? Why do they I assume that I’m a Christian and/or that I celebrate Christmas simply because I’m a Westerner? I can forgive the Thais, who seem to think that Christmas is nothing more than another festive Western tradition, but I have to wonder about the mentality of the Westerners who so blithely assault you with their inane Christmas cheer. Enough already!

This past year has been a difficult one for me, at least in terms of enjoying life in Thailand. I’ve lived in Bangkok for almost 21 years, but the charm and appeal of day-to-life has definitely faded. Maybe the “honeymoon” is finally over, or perhaps my tolerance for Thais and their “mai pen rai” way of living has finally been exhausted.

Having to “manage” Thai employees has been the real test, a particularly exhausting exercise in patience. Most days I feel like a glorified babysitter, having to monitor these people and dealing with their habitual tardiness, inefficiency, and immature behavior. Turn my back for a single minute and they are playing with their “smart” phone or engaged in idle chatter. I’m not sure how  much longer I can put up with it all.

Actually, I still like Thai people. They are a pleasant, fun, laidback bunch of people — it’s just that I don’t especially like working with them! But I have to remind myself that it’s not all bad — and they aren’t all bad. I see nice people doing nice things every day, and it puts a smile on my face. And I also have to remind myself that I’m living in a city where the cost of living is still relatively low, there aren’t serious safety concerns, and there are a plethora of inexpensive transportation options available. Yes, for all is faults and warts, chaos and congestion, Bangkok remains a very nice place to live. I doubt I would be saying that if I was still living in the USA.

And so I remain in the sanctuary of my bookshop, enjoying the parade of interesting and genuinely kind customers who pass through each day. Just in the past few days, I’ve had nice conversations with regulars such as Phra Ratha (the book-buying monk with a burgeoning library), Sam the Thai Neil Young fan, Jim from Nashville, the nice Canadian lady (then again, aren’t all people from Canada nice?) who will buy a dozen books at a time, Robert from South Dakota, Daniel from New Zealand, Christopher G. Moore the writer, John from Sheffield, Kenny the Walter Mosley fan, Pumas from India, and many other nice but nameless customers. Some days are stressful and it can get insanely busy, but the cool customers help to make the occasional chaos tolerable.

I’m also thankful for the mails or phone calls from old friends that I’ve received this past week: my old boss Richard (who is now in the Philippines), Richard in Dallas, Linda in California, Hach and Pov in Cambodia, Janet in Seattle, Ye Man Oo and Hein Yar Zar in Mandalay, Chiet in Nontaburi (by way of Cambodia), Khin Nwe Lwin in Japan, Keith in London (who was in Istanbul this past week, but luckily not in harm’s way), Thay in Siem Reap, Mar Mar Aye in Nyaung Shwe, and my dependable Florida friends Tony, Dave, and Stan. Suddenly the year ahead — facing the frightening prospect of Donald Trump leading the world’s most powerful nation — doesn’t seem quite so depressing. Then again, buckle up and prepare for the worst!

This morning I was pleasantly surprised to see my old friend Bay at the motorcycle taxi stand near my apartment. He’d been “missing” for the past six months — gone back to his home province, presumably — and I was getting worried, so having him back in town and working as usual was a sign that things are perhaps back to normal.

Normal? I’m not even sure what this is anymore, but here’s hoping for a year that is decidedly less cruel, violent, and heartbreaking.

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I recently picked up a compilation of 1960s recordings by Betty Harris titled The Lost Queen of New Orleans Soul. That’s a bold claim, considering all of the great music that has come from that musically-endowed city, but Harris is so good that she does indeed deserve such a moniker. All of the songs on this 17-song collection were written and produced by Allen Toussaint, the legendary singer-songwriter and pianist-producer who sadly passed away about this time last year (a few songs are credited to Naomi Neville, but that’s an alias that Toussaint used for a few years when he was in legal limbo. That was also his mother’s maiden name!).

In addition to Toussaint’s magic touch, the other special ingredient on these songs — recorded from 1965 to 1969 — is the backup band; none other than another legend of New Orleans music, the mighty Meters. But the real highlight is Betty Harris herself. She was a bold soul sister before such a classification even existed. Imagine a sassy, sultry, funky cross between Tina Turner and Irma Thomas, and that’s close to what Betty Harris sounds like. Good for your soul, indeed!

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Oddly, Betty Harris never released a full album all those years ago. Most of these songs were released as singles on the Sansu label, but none were ever big hits, and her career stalled. After a national tour with Otis Redding and Joe Simon — curtailed by the tragic plane crash that killed Otis — in 1967, Harris recorded a few more songs with Toussaint but in 1970 she decided to retire from the music business and start a family. But the story doesn’t end there. Betty Harris is still alive and singing, and since 2005 she has resumed performing again.

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Also on the subject of the Crescent City, I’ve been listening to The Domino Effect, an album from veteran New Orleans musician, Herb Hardesty. For many years Hardesty was the saxophone player in Fats Domino’s band. He also played sessions and went on tours with many other recording artists, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and even Tom Waits. He recorded a solo album himself, back in 1958, but that album was never released … that is until four years ago, when Ace Records finally put out that album along with some other sessions that Hardesty recorded in the early 1960s. The Domino Effect is a mostly instrumental collection that showcases Hardesty’s vibrant sax playing. With song titles such as “Sassy”, “Rumba Rockin’ With Coleman”, “Herb’s in the Doghouse”, “Feelin’ Good”, “Bouncing Ball”, “Beatin’ and Blowin’”, and “The Chicken Twist” you can pretty much guess that this is one very upbeat and fun set of songs. Plenty of rockin’ R&B with some nifty jazz and blues flourishes.

Herbert Hardesty acknowledges the audience in the Blues Tent during his set at the New Orleans Jazz Fest Saturday, April 27, 2013.(Photo by David Grunfeld, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune)

Herbert Hardesty acknowledges the audience in the Blues Tent during his set at the New Orleans Jazz Fest Saturday, April 27, 2013.(Photo by David Grunfeld, Nola.com | The Times-Picayune)

In an earlier version of this story I was going to mention that, like Betty Harris, Herb Hardesty is also still alive and still playing shows, but sadly he passed away earlier this month, on December 3, at the age of 91. But even in his advancing years, Hardesty was still playing live shows around New Orleans, including an enthusiastically received set at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. They say that music keeps you young and I’m a strong believer in that adage.

Meanwhile, here are the other albums I’ve been playing on a daily basis and keeping me company on those lonely nights lately:

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Various Artists – Urgent Jumping: East African Classics

Wilco – Alpha Mike Foxtrot: Rare Tracsk 1994-2014

Ramones – Too Tough To Die

4th Coming – Strange Things 1970-1974

Dan Penn – Close To Me: More Fame Recordings

 

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The Monkees – Good Times!

Cannonball Adderley – What Is This Thing Called Soul: Live in Europe

Parquet Courts – Human Performance

Various Artists –Come Back Strong: Hotlanta Soul 4

Sneaky Feelings – Positively George Street

 

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Milk ‘N’ Cookies – Milk ‘N’ Cookies

Jimbo Mathus – Dark Night of the Soul

Baby Huey – Living Legend

Michael Carpenter – Hopefulness

Jimmy Eat World – Integrity Blues

 

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John Prine – For Better or Worse

The Edge of Darkness – Eyes of Love

The Fantastic Four – The Lost Motown Album

Sunburst – Ave Africa

David Crosby – Lighthouse

 

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Dieuf-Dieul de Thies – Aw Sa Yone Vol. 2

Various Artists – Celestial Blues

The Independents – Just As Long: The Complete Wand Recordings 1972-74

Santana – Santana IV

Dexter Johnson – Live At Letoile

 

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The Flat Five – It’s a World of Love and Hope

Robert Ellis – The Lights From the Chemical Plant

Waco Brothers – Freedom and Weep

Various Artists – Super Funk Volume 4

Various Artists – Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Dancers: Vol. 2

 

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Various Artists – The Afrosound of Colombia: Vol. 1

Car Seat Headrest – Teens of Denial

Songs: Ohia – Magnolia Electric Company (Deluxe Edition)

Hank Ballard – You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down

Bill Lloyd – Lloyd-ering

 

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Various Artists – Afterschool Special: The 123s of Kid Soul

Arthur Alexander – The Monument Years

Danny & the Champions of the World – Danny & the Champions of the World

Close Lobsters – Firestation Towers 1986-1989

Stiff Little Fingers – Original Album Series (5-CD Box)

 

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Orlando Julius – Super Afro Soul

Johnny Clarke – Ruffer Version

Black Heat – Black Heat

Nada Surf – Live in Brussels

Various Artists – Senegal 70

 

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No trip to Mandalay would be complete without a visit to Aye Myit Tar restaurant. Located on 81st Street, between 37th and 38th Street, the long-running restaurant has expanded to a 5-floor building and serves traditional Myanmar (Burmese) food from late morning until 9:30 pm each day.

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While the food is always tasty, and served in very generous portions, the outstanding service is what makes each visit to Aye Myit Tar so special. The young waiters are a friendly, cheerful and observant bunch, quick to refill drinks or ensure that you have extra helpings of rice or any of the soup and vegetable dishes that accompany each meal. Personable waiters such as Hein  Yar Zar and Soe Min Maung will help to ensure that your dining experience is a memorable one —-and memorable in a very good way!

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While the majority of customers at Aye Myit Tar are locals, you will always find a few foreigners and tourists dining there too. I was with a group of friends from Mandalay’s 90th Street neighborhood recently when we struck up a conversation with a couple sitting at a nearby table. They told us that they were visiting from Chile.

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“They speak Spanish in Chile,” I mentioned to my friend Ye Man Oo, who was sitting next to me. His eyes lit up. Ye Man Oo has visited me three times in Bangkok this past year and is not only a keen student of English but other languages too. When we weren’t practicing English, Thai, or even Cambodian, I would drill him on some occasional Spanish phrases. Thus, he was able to ask the young lady from Chile: “Como se llama usted?”

 

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The woman squealed with delight, clapping her hands. “This Burmese boy can speak Spanish!” That sealed the friendship, and after more conversation and a round of photos we finally said our goodbyes and headed home, leaving Hein Yar Zar and his friends the unenviable task of cleaning up the restaurant, a chore that needed to be done before they could finally sit down and have dinner themselves.

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It was another fine night of good food and good times with good friends — both old and new — at one of Mandalay’s most enjoyable restaurants. If you are in town don’t miss it! And if you finish your meal early enough, there is time to see the Moustache Brothers show just two blocks down the street.

 

 

 

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When I was in Myanmar last month I paid a visit to New Bagan — the small town just the road from “Old Bagan” and the famous ancient temples — where my friend Nine Nine has just opened up his own shop. Originally, Nine Nine planned to open a small shop and sell souvenirs as well as offering services like ticketing (plane, bus, boat, even balloon rides!) and massage. Well, he is in fact doing all that, but I also talked him into selling some books too. The result is the awkwardly named: 99 Chinlone Books Bagan Myanmar & Souvenir Shop.

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That may be more than a mouthful to say, but the shop itself is starting to look very nice and is a very comfortable place to spend some time. Nine Nine had some bookshelves paid, put some nice paintings on the walls, and we’re doing our best to stock those shelves. Thanks to my Mandalay friend Ye Man Oo and his father, U Khin Maung Lwin, we delivered another big batch of books for Nine Nine’s shop about two weeks ago.

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The only problem I found with his shop was that many of the books he already had in stock were priced much too high. If you want to sell more books, I advised, you need to make the prices more affordable. But hey, it’s a learning experience. Nine Nine is new to the book business and he hasn’t quite got the hang of pricing things yet. And to be honest, trying to determine the “best” price truly is confusing, especially factoring in all the different types of books he’s selling. Looking at the publisher’s list prices on the back cover, you are faced with US dollars, Canadian or Australian dollars, some prices in Euros, and others in UK pounds. Older books might have no prices listed at all, or perhaps an older currency that was used in Germany, Italy, or France. And don’t even try to correctly figure out the value of books published in Scandinavian countries. When in doubt, I told Nine Nine, just wing it!

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Thankfully, he’s taken my advice and is now pricing the books lower and getting the hang of which language is which. In addition to English language books he is selling books in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese and more. I even brought him a Jimi Hendrix biography in Polish!

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Nine Nine is also a musician and keeps a guitar at the shop, happily strumming away when  no customers are around, but also more than willing to play visitors a few songs. Ask him to play some tunes by popular Myanmar singer-guitarists such as Linn Linn or Wei La. I may be biased, but I think Nine Nine does a fantastic job of covering those songs. Deft guitar playing and he’s got a good voice too!

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99 Chinlone Books is located a few doors down from the popular Ostello Bello Hostel in New Bagan, and it’s right on the main road (Kayay Street) not far from popular restaurants such as Silver House. The shop is open every day of the week, usually from late morning until 9 pm or so. Nine Nine is running the shop himself while his wife stays home to take care of their young daughter, plus he’s sometimes called to do  some last-minute waiter duty at his friend’s new  restaurant nearby, so it’s possible that you might arrive and find nobody around, but you can USUALLY find him at the shop most days and nights.

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http://www.chinlonebooks.com

 

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