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

Archive for July, 2011

More Mandalay Monks

Owing to the fact that I went a little wild and took several hundred photos at this monastery on 90th Street in Mandalay, I couldn’t resist posting some more of them. Actually, I’ll blame the novice monks for the high photo total: when I returned for the second time they bombarded me with requests for more photos, and of course I couldn’t say no. But these kids were just so naturally sweet and funny, that I didn’t mind whatsoever. And I still laugh out loud when I look back at these shots. Hopefully, the next time I return to Mandalay — when I return with prints of the photos for each monk — I’ll think to ask them to tell me the name of the monastery!




Road to Ruins

There is something about old temple ruins that holds a magnetic attraction for me. I can wander around these atmospheric sites for hours on end, marveling at the carvings, bas reliefs, cracked walls, and even the shards of broken antiquity lying on the ground. I’ve visited Angkor in Cambodia dozens of times and never get tired of its special splendor, nor do I ever get bored touring Bagan and its thousand-plus pagodas, even though they haven’t been “properly” restored according to some observers.


In recent years it has become somewhat of a chore to admire the temples at Angkor due to the onslaught of tourists who have descended upon the archaeological park. Gone are the days when you could wander around Bayon and not be run over by busloads of loud tourists. Ten years ago it was the Japanese and Thais who were most noticeable, but they’ve been supplanted by Chinese and Koreans. Meanwhile, in Myanmar — even in the famous ancient town of Bagan — the tourist numbers are scant and you can still roam around the ruins without hearing someone yell “Hey Dude”. You MAY stumble across a few stray tourists at some of the bigger pagodas during high season, especially around sunset time, but even when Bagan does get busy, the numbers pale in comparison to Angkor.

While they don’t boast the elevated splendor of Bagan’s numerous pagodas, the ruins in Shan State’s Nyaungshwe vicinity are also quite interesting in their own way. Many people are familiar with the magnificent Intha stupas in nearby Indein, on the shores of Inle Lake, but right in the heart of Nyaungshwe are smaller groves of old beauties, begging to be admired. Take a walk around town or cycle down some of the dirt lanes in the area and be prepared to “discover” some very cool ruins. Here are some photos from both Bagan and Nyaungshwe that I took recently.

Road Food

Here are some observations, opinions, recollections, and comments, culled from notes I took during my recent trip to Myanmar:


It rained a lot during the trip, which isn’t a shock because it was indeed rainy season. One taxi driver in Yangon did not have working windshield wipers, but he did keep one stray wiper on the dashboard of his vehicle, and when it rained he grabbed the blade, stuck his right arm out of the open window and wiped off the windshield that way. Hey, whatever works!


Many locals that I talked to are not fully convinced that tourist arrivals have increased as much as has been claimed. At the very least the money from those hordes of tourists has not trickled down to them. In the case of package tour groups, many of them come on pre-paid deals and don’t spend much once they are in the country. Other high-end tourists often cocoon themselves in their swank hotels and never venture out into the dusty streets of the cities and towns of Myanmar, thus depriving local merchants of extra income. And then there are the backpackers, a notoriously stingy lot who insist on bargaining for the cheapest deals or just plain don’t spend any more money than absolutely necessary … except when it comes to beer.


The Inwa bookshop in Yangon — the one that used to be located across the street from the Traders Hotel — has moved to Pansodan Road. It was at Inwa where I finally — after checking a dozen shops in Mandalay and several more in Yangon — found a Burmese language edition of “Organic Farming” by Cho Han Kyu that a friend had asked me to buy for Daw Tin Tin Nu at the Maing Thauk Orphange. At first, the clerks at Inwa denied having the book until I told them that a friend in Taunggyi, May Hnin Kyaw, had bought a copy at this same store the previous month. With the help of my Yangon buddy Aung Zay, we located the book and then Aung Zay arranged to have it sent to Daw Tin Tin Nu. Adventures in book buying!


In Nyaungshwe I saw two boys walking down a road riddled with mud puddles, arms around one another, huddled close together … so they could both share the same set of ear buds and listen to music.


Wandering through an atmospheric grove of old stupas and temple ruins on the outskirts of Nyaungshwe that I had stumbled upon last year, I was saddened to see that a head had been decapitated from one particularly lovely statue. Reminds me of the depressing temple vandalism that’s robbed Angkor of some of its precious artifacts.


I re-stocked the first aid kits at two schools in Nyaungshwe, and also brought more medicine for the novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay monastery. The most “popular” medicine was anti-fungal cream used to treat head lice and other skin problems. There was such a demand from the monks, both at the school and at the monastery, that I had to go to two more pharmacies to buy enough for everyone.


One of the things I like best about Mandalay is the variety of teashops all over town. But these are not places you go just to sip a cup of tea. Teashops are where many locals go for breakfast and lunch, or just to shoot the bull with friends over a cup of tea … or juice or even coffee. There are plenty of big, shiny teashops where the waiters all wear uniforms and the menus are extensive, but there are also some smaller and funkier joints too. One of the little teashops I like to visit is near the railway station. It’s open 24 hours, looks a bit grimy, and the waiters are a rag-tag bunch of kids who aren’t lucky enough to have uniforms. But they have very tasty monhinga and every time I leave them a tip the waiters take turns shaking my hand. Politeness and appreciation are rampant over here. I like it.


One time at Minthiha, one of the “big and shiny” Mandalay teashops, I was asking Yan Naing Soe, one of the waiters, to help me pronounce a word in my Burmese dictionary. Another customer, walking by my table, stopped and asked if he could help me. No, but thank you anyway, I replied. These people are just so nice.


As much as I love the noodle dishes and other food at teashops in Mandalay, my favorite food is in Nyaungshwe. The Unique Superb Food House was excellent as always, but the best meals I had were at the homes of friends like Htein Linn and Ma Pu Su. Fabulous soups, salads, and curry dishes. And the vegetarian feast that we were served at the school ceremony at Tat Ein village was the best of them all.


In Mandalay I had to diplomatically juggle trishaw drivers, even though I didn’t really need their services very often because I had a bicycle. But when you hear tales of woe such as “I haven’t had any customers in 4 days,” you feel like you need to throw a little business their way. The guy that normally hangs outside my hotel, Maung Lwin, wasn’t around the night I arrived, so I used Hashim, a fellow I met about six years ago, to take me to Aye Myit Tar for dinner. I used him once more before Maung Lwin turned up again. He’s been meditating. I also bumped into two more guys I’ve used many times in the past: Myint Shin and Mr. Htoo. Myint Shin excitedly told me about the trip he’d taken two months previously: a Canadian couple hired him to travel with them around the country for three weeks. Not only was he paid well, Myint Shin got to experience air travel for the first time. And here I thought that giving monks a ride in an elevator was something special!


When I took the kids from 90th Street in Mandalay on the trip to Yankin Hill, they all brought along individual supplies of candy and gum, which they were more than willing to share with me. One of their favorite treats was packets of drink mix; the sort of instant sugary crap like Tang and Ovaltine that you mix with water. But these kids cut to the chase and just dumped the stuff into the palm of their hands and ate it that way. They also gave some to the monkeys at Yankin Hill.


In Bagan, I cycled to an isolated old pagoda to watch the sunset one day, accompanied by the young “Maung Maung Brothers” (Zin Maung Maung and Phyo Maung Maung) from New Bagan. They practiced their English with me in the form of a restaurant role play. I was the customer and they were the waiters. I would place orders such as; 2 plates of beef curry, 1 plate of tomato salad, and 2 bowls of vegetable soup. When I asked for 6 bottles of beer and 10 mangoes, they thought that was hilarious.


While in Nyaungshwe I went to the nearby village of Maing Thauk one day to visit the girls’ orphanage. A friend of mine from Hawaii had spent time last year at that orphanage, where she taught English classes and helped them start an organic farming project. When I told her I was going to visit, she sent me some DVDs and music CDs to take to the girls. The girls were positively thrilled with the gifts, but they also asked about my friend and wanted me to send their best wishes to her. It was obvious they missed her very much, and it was very heartwarming to see such gratitude and adoration from the kids. If my friend didn’t realize how much she is missed and cherished, she should by now!


At the airport in Bangkok I was struck by the hordes of badly dressed tourists parading around the terminal, some of them dressed more like they were taking a stroll on the beach rather than about to board an international flight. And of course there were a few of those befuddled “socks and sandals” characters in short-shorts wobbling around too.


This was a much more expensive trip than I had envisioned. Sure, there were unplanned expenses like buying all the school uniforms in Mandalay, but there were other complications too. The falling exchange rate was the biggest factor. Two years ago you got 1,200 kyat for one US dollar. Last year the rate had dropped into the 900s. This year the highest rate I got was 820 kyat in Yangon, and the lowest 750 kyat in Nyaungshwe. Rumors are that it may drop even further this year. At all hotels and guesthouses tourists must pay in US dollars, and those rates have also risen. Last year’s $20 hotel is now $25, for example. So much for bargain travel!


In between power cuts in Mandalay, I occasionally turned on the TV to catch up with world events on BBC. One day they had a feature on the “Digital Divide” and how various organizations are keen to give students in poorer countries free laptop computers, as well as trying to give them widespread online access, introduce them to cloud computing, and so on. Those sound like noble goals, but are they practical? I travel around some very poor regions in Southeast Asia and I see many towns and villages with not only no internet access, but no electricity, Free laptops for students? That will just give the kids another option for playing games. Honestly, people in the “developed” world are so obsessed with technology and gadgets, that they forgot that millions of other people around the world don’t have the luxury of playing with all these iThings, and quite frankly they don’t NEED all that crap. Before they start tackling the digital divide, perhaps these techno types might focus on more pressing issues in the third world: safe communities where children can play without stepping on landmines or being shot; roofs that don’t leak; schools with well-paid and properly trained teachers; dependable sources of healthy food and clean water. And keep your poisonous religion mumbo-jumbo out of the mix while you’re at it!


On my last night in the country I was in Yangon, and as I usually do, I had dinner alone at the Traders Hotel. Their dinner buffet is one of the best value-for-the-money meals in Asia. Not the most sumptuous of spreads, but more than good enough to justify the price. It used to be $16, but now it’s gone up to $20, which is still a very good deal. As I was dining, a middle-aged Burmese man approached my table and introduced himself: U Myint. He asked if I was enjoying my stay in Myanmar and of course I replied that indeed I was. Like so many locals that I’ve met here over the years, U Myint was sincerely happy that I was visiting his country, and expressed his appreciation for my visit.


The tax man is back! As of June 1, there is now a domestic departure tax at airports around the country. I discovered this new surcharge when taking a flight from Mandalay to Heho. I didn’t mind paying the 1,000 kyat (about US$1) tax so much, but the totally unorganized “system” they are using to pay the tax made me quite angry. In Mandalay, there is a tiny circular booth stuck in one corner of the terminal, staffed by three people who examine your ticket, take your money and painstakingly write out a receipt. This muddy process is slowed down even further by the fact that there is no queue system in place at this booth. It’s a total free-for-all; people pushing and jostling to slap down tickets and money on the counter, urging the overworked staffers to process them as quickly as possible. Chaotic? It’s beyond insane. This is the first time I’ve ever lost my temper in Myanmar. Really, I got so frustrated I started shouting. And then a funny thing happened after I started my crazy act; my ticket and tax were processed rather quickly.


Recent Reading

On the road, at home, and occasionally at work, here are some of the books that I’ve read in the past month or so. All real books with stained pages and no digital versions.


Graham Greene – Our Man in Havana

I went on a Greene spree about 20 years ago and read five or six novels, then didn’t read anything again until last year when I belatedly finished The Quiet American. I found a copy of Our Man in Havana while browsing the street book stalls in Yangon recently. This is a very gripping tale, and probably the funniest thing I’ve ever read by Greene.


T. Jefferson Parker – Renegades

Parker continues his run of strong mystery novels, this one featuring the ingratiating Charlie Hood character once again. Parker’s vividly real characters, sharp dialogue, and deft plotting have elevated him to the top tier of those currently purveying the crime fiction genre.


John Sandford – Buried Prey

The latest in Sandford’s addictive “Prey” series of mystery novels, featuring sharp-dressed crime-stopper Lucas Davenport, is another winner. Some truly hilarious moments amidst all the violence and suspense.


Norman Lewis – Naples ‘44

Lewis is best known as a travel writer, but this book is more of a memoir of the time he spent in Naples, Italy as a soldier during World War II. As always, Lewis graces the pages with descriptive prose, giving the reader a real feel for the place and time. And his fondness for the kind but beleaguered Italians he meets during his time in the city comes pouring off the pages.


Chester Himes – The Heat’s On

This is one of the novels in Himes’s acclaimed “Harlem Cycle” featuring police detectives Coffin Ed and Grave Digger Jones. In addition to being a highly entertaining work of crime fiction, this novel, like others that Himes wrote in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, sheds light on racial relations and tensions in the United States. It’s akin to exploring an entirely different world, far from that of mainstream white America. Realistic dialogue and absurd scenarios make this an entertaining read. For some bizarre reason, the novels of Himes remain more popular in France than in his native US. Himes died in 1984.


Jo Nesbo – The Leopard

Nesbo is the hottest new writer on the mystery circuit — hailed as the “next Stieg Larsson” due to his Scandinavian roots no doubt, although Nesbo is Norwegian and Larsson was Swedish. This is the newest of five novels that Nesbo has penned so far, and I liked it a lot. Much better writing than Larsson (or, at least, better translating) and an endearingly complex character in detective Harry Hole (yes, that’s his unfortunate name). I’ve already started reading The Snowman, figuring I’ll just go in reverse order until I get to the first one in the series.


David W. Moore – The Superpollsters

This is a fascinating insider’s tale about the history and “business” of opinion polls, particularly those involving politics in the USA. It’s a bit dated, having been written and published in the mid-1990s, but it’s still an important book and offers an illuminating look at polling and the mistakes that are often made by these “experts”. After Thailand’s recent polling debacle — in which all of the major opinion polls made huge miscalculations in their projections — this is a must read for anyone who has doubts and reservations about the accuracy and ramifications of polling.


Bill Pronzini – Boobytrap

Pronzini is one of America’s better, yet more unheralded mystery novelists. This novel, published in the late 1990s, is one in his “Nameless Detective” series set in San Francisco. Absolutely stellar stuff; sharp dialogue, memorable characters, and lots of tension.


Joseph Hansen – Early Graves

Hansen wrote many mystery novels featuring the Dave Brandstetter character, a whiskey-drinking insurance investigator who is also gay. Inevitably, Brandstetter ends up solving crimes that the police cannot. Early Graves is one of the better books in the series. A few troubled, if not screwed-up characters, along with Brandstetter’s sexuality and a turbulent relationship make for an absorbing novel.


Ed McBain – Lullaby

I can’t get enough of McBain’s wonderful 87th Precinct “police procedural” novels, and this ranks as one of the best of the bunch. And it’s certainly one of the longest in that series. Between the frenzied action, and colorful characters at the precinct, McBain shows that he is also a skilled writer who can move the reader.


Games Monks Play

It was late afternoon in Nyaungshwe, and no rainstorms had yet descended on the scenic Shan State town. Time to explore. I’d already cycled down to an isolated group of funky old temple ruins near the lake — grass and weeds growing out of control between the lovely ancient structures, giving it an endearingly neglected vibe — that I always like to visit. It was too early to return to my hotel, so I decided to drop by Shwe Yan Pyay monastery and see what the novice monks there were doing. Normally at this time of the day — but not always — they have finished their studies.

When I arrived at the monastery, I heard them before I saw them: squeals of delight and shrieks of happiness ringing through the air. To the left of the vihara, or main sanctuary, there was a group of novice monks running around and playing a game of tag. What they were running around, and jumping on and off of, was some sort of concrete cistern that had no water inside.

I stood around for a minute looking at the scene before me, mesmerized by the way these young monks swiftly ran around and jumped and practically flew through the air, landing on the edges of the concrete monstrosity effortlessly. They were a sure-footed crew and obviously had played this game before. During the 15 minutes that I watched, not a single one fell or tripped or bumped their head on anything. Nevertheless, I felt like an anxious parent while I watched, afraid that one of them would tumble, gash their knee, or hurt themselves somehow. But I didn’t shout out any warnings or try to stop them from playing their game. I didn’t feel it was my responsibility to stop them, plus they all appeared to be having a fantastic time.

At one point I remembered that I had my camera with me, and that maybe I should document this little game with some photos. So I did. And here they are. Ladies and gentlemen; the flying monks of Shwe Yan Pyay!

Fragments from the Road

Here are some photographic fragments; odds and ends from my recent trip to Myanmar:

Morning fishing at a canal in Nyaungshwe.

At the teashop on 90th Street, Khin Nwe Lwin demonstrates a traffic signaling program she designed for her master’s thesis at university.

High-class transportation in Mandalay.

Villagers on their way to the morning market in Nyaungshwe.

Bamboo balancing act at a building in Mandalay.

Mo Htet Aung and Mo Gyi in Mandalay.

Backpacking monks near Zeigyo market in Mandalay.

Gaw Soe and his infant son in New Bagan.

My regular fruit seller at the market in Nyaungshwe.

A “nat” tree ornament in Yangon.

Teachers and students at a rural school near Nyaungshwe.

Newspaper seller and waiter at Minthiha teashop in Mandalay.

A novice monk chops wood at Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe.

It’s mango season in Mandalay!

Ma Pu Su and her daughter in Nyaungshwe.

Young waiters at a teashop near the railway station in Mandalay.

Myatt Swe Oo in Bagan appears to a man of many talents!

Two university students at Yankin Hill near Mandalay.

Trishaw driver taking a nap in Mandalay.

Bike shop in Mandalay.

Students take a badminton break at a rural school near Nyaungshwe.

Kuala Lumpur Escape

I’m spending most of this week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Just a quick 4-day trip to buy a bunch of cheap books for my bookshop back in Bangkok, and lots of CDs (some not so cheap) for myself. And of course indulge in the variety of great food here. All in all, I like KL a lot, and enjoy spending time here in the city.

I left Bangkok on Sunday, which was the big national election day. I planned this trip many months  ago, so leaving on election day was pure coincidence. It’s not like I expect “problems” in Thailand in the wake of the election, particularly after the big Pheua Thai party win, but there is still a lot of uncertainty about how the transition to the new government will go, and how the results will be accepted by the so-called “elite” corridors of power.

And yes, I still use “Pheua Thai” when referring to the new ruling party, and not the ridiculous “Pheu Thai” they insist on using when spelling the name in English. Just another example of how clueless these politicians are. Why they decided to eliminate an entire vowel from the English spelling is very odd. And the mass media, being the sheep that they are, blindly go along with this bizarre spelling change without questioning it.


Meanwhile, get ready for the “Pheu Thai” era. Taking a look at the list of Pheua Thai executive members, you’ll see a veritable rogues gallery of unsavory characters. If that doesn’t frighten you, nothing will. It reminds me of the David Bowie song: “Scary Monsters and Super Creeps.”  But they won the election fair and square, so that’s what Thailand now has to look forward to. The Democrats screwed up their chance at the helm thanks to blatant incompetence and poor communication, plus they ran an uninspiring and dismal campaign, so it’s not a surprise to see Pheua Thai win so easily. But it’s still a mighty depressing scenario. The same Red Shirt thugs who held Bangkok hostage last year, the same deviants who instigated and provoked the entire confrontation, will now be running the government. And our new prime minister lists her experience working in real estate as evidence that she’ll be able to handle the job. Actually, the ability to pick the phone and take orders from her older brother on the phone is all she’ll need to do, right? Urrgghh!!!


I’ll be leaving KL just before they hold a political rally or their own here too. Yes, people are dissatisfied everywhere nowadays. I just watched BBC coverage of the House of Commons back in England, and all the shouting and hooting reminded me off a football match attended by hooligans. These are the people making laws in that country? No wonder the world is screwed up.


Right now my main concern is just getting to the airport with all the  heavy bags I have. After packing tonight I realized that these books not only take up lots of space, but they weigh a ton, too! But I found some good stuff, some fun stuff, and some stuff that should sell well. Books are a good thing. Factor in some pretty cool CD finds, and this was a very successful trip. Now I just have to brace myself for the red road ahead.

School Anniversary Ceremony

I was lucky to be in Nyaungshwe in early June, which was when the third anniversary of the opening of the primary school in Tat Ein village was held. It was one of those totally unplanned things that ended up being one of the highlights of my trip. I wrote about this school in a separate post last week, so I won’t repeat much more today. Needless to say, getting this school built was a wonderful — and very worthwhile — project, and one that is appreciated very much by the villagers in Tat Ein.


Htein Linn and I pedaled our bikes from Nyaungshwe to the school that morning, a journey that takes about 30 minutes, arriving to see a big welcoming committee of villagers and students standing in front of the school. There was also a little band playing traditional Shan music. Twenty minutes later, the big guest of honor arrived, a Japanese woman known to the locals as “Ma Zabei,” who is one of the biggest donors to the school.

I enjoyed meeting Ma Zabei, as well as two other donors: Jun from Japan and Pong from Thailand (a Phuket native). Our lunch together ended up being quite the linguistic ping-pong match: I spoke with Ma Zabei in Burmese, she spoke with Jun in Japanese, I spoke with Jun in English, Pong spoke with Jun in Thai, and Pong spoke with me in Thai. Whew! Representatives from the local school board were also there for the ceremony, along with the teachers, monks students, and parents … and of course those mischievous but adorable little novice monks, who begged me to take more photos of them. As you can tell from these photos, it was quite a colorful event and I feel very fortunate that I was invited to attend.


I wasn’t told beforehand, but I ended up being a participant in the ceremony too. It was nothing dramatic or traumatizing; I was one of several people selected to give gifts to various students and teachers. It was actually a lot of fun, even if I did screw up the part where I’m supposed to bow to the senior monk before I start giving out gifts. But those monks appeared to got a kick out of the football that I brought for the novice monks, so I think all was forgiven.


I’m starting to feel attached to this little school, and I hope to ramp up my donation efforts the next time I visit. So many things they need, that it’s hard to know what to prioritize. But even a little bit goes a long way and is very much appreciated by the students and teachers.


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