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

Archive for January, 2012

Daryl Hall

A new Daryl Hall album, Laughing Down Crying, his first solo effort in 14 years, was recently released. Okay, I can almost hear the collective yawns out there. Daryl Hall? The guy from Hall and Oates? Who cares? Well, those of us who appreciated the music of Hall and Oates certainly care, and frankly, this new Daryl Hall album is so good that it bears raving about.

In these days of hip-hop hits, “free” downloads, and file sharing, this album will no doubt fail to sell and sink into obscurity very quickly. But if the time machine was set back twenty years or so, Laughing Down Crying would certainly yield several hit singles. In other words, the “formula” is still there, but it’s augmented by Hall’s songwriting creativity, and damn, those vocals are still flawless; it doesn’t sound like he’s aged a bit after all these decades.

 

As recording duos go, Daryl Hall and John Oates rank as one of the most successful of the rock era, and also one of the most unfairly maligned. They sold tons of singles and oodles of albums, and not surprisingly that led to a critical backlash and complaints that their music was too commercial and shallow. While some of those 80s records were indeed very “pop and polished,” the duo’s lovely harmonies always lifted the songs to a higher plateau. If only all mainstream music sounded so good.

Many people assume that Hall and Oates were always a steady hit-making machine, but that’s not the case. During the 1970s they had their share of ups and downs before starting that hot streak in the 1980s. Starting with Whole Oates in 1972, their first three albums on the Atlantic label had plenty of great songs but were all commercial flops. Abandoned Luncheonette, released in 1973, is widely acknowledged as the best of the bunch, and boasted the classic “She’s Gone” — although that tune didn’t become a hit for Hall and Oates until it was reissued several years later — and there were also high expectations for 1974’s War Babies, produced by Todd Rundgren, but those albums failed to sell as well as hoped. The next year Hall and Oates moved on to the RCA label and almost immediately found success with the single “Sara Smile” from the album Daryl Hall and John Oates, often called “The Silver Album” because of its shiny cover art. They followed that in 1976 with Bigger Than Both of Us, another solid album that included the number one hit “Rich Girl.”

But during the late 70s their popularity took a strange downturn. They released three very good albums, Beauty on a Back Street, Along the Red Ledge and X-Static, and while those albums all charted, for some odd reason the duo didn’t receive nearly as much airplay as they had in previous years, or would in the following decade. It appeared that Hall and Oates had become another victim of disco fever. Along the Red Ledge in particular was a superb collection of songs and included some of the hardest rocking material (“Alley Katz”) of their career. It also didn’t hurt that they were backed by a stellar band that included studio vets Kenny Passarelli and Caleb Quaye, and featured guest appearances by George Harrison, Todd Rundgren, and Robert Fripp. I saw Hall & Oates in concert at the Lakeland Civic Center in Florida during the Along the Red Ledge tour. The touring band included Passarelli and Quaye and they were on fire that night; a great performance. It was actually fortunate that this tour came during a lull in their career . Because they weren’t such a hot commodity at the time, they played a smaller  hall in Lakeland instead of the bigger arena that hosted megastars such as the Moody Blues, Bruce Springsteen, and Lynyrd Skynyrd. That more intimate setting let to a fierce show.

An excellent overview of the early Hall and Oates material can be found on a UK compilation album titled The Atlantic Collection. With the exception of “She’s Gone,” most of these songs are virtually unknown to fans of the later Hall and Oates albums, but these tunes are considered by many, including me, to be among their best. That first album for RCA, Daryl Hall and John Oates, also still sounds great after all these years.

No-Fi, iZombies, and other notes

Business at my bookshop in Bangkok was very good in December and has continued to be strong so far this month, which is a big relief after the extremely slow days during the flooding mayhem in October and November. The Lunar New Year (“Chinese New Year”) holiday hasn’t officially started — that’s later this month — but we’re already seeing lots of travelers from the Asia region, taking their long holidays in Thailand or passing through Bangkok. And many Western tourists are finally trickling back into Thailand too. Maybe this year’s high season won’t be so dismal after all.

Not all people walking into my bookshop come to buy books. Inevitably, we get some laptop-lugging geek asking if we have wi-fi, the answer to which is a resounding “NO!” But the fact that we are wi-fi-less doesn’t stop many of the laptop slackers, or those with some other trendy iDevice that will be obsolete in six months, from laying claim to a seat at our front counter and “hanging out” for several hours, blissfully unfazed by the fact that they are monopolizing one of the few seats in the shop. They seem to think that ordering one cup of coffee entitles them to such privileges. Oh, if I had a grenade. What is it with the new generation and the bizarre sense of entitlement that so many of them flaunt?

Speaking of clueless, I continue to be amazed by the legions of electro-zombies stumbling around town — on sidewalks, in malls, on public transport — transfixed by their shiny new iDevices, totally oblivious to what’s transpiring around them. They are blissfully mesmerized by that little screen, furiously texting, or poking away at the screen of their iWanker. I find this e-addiction both humorous and frightening; a “perfect storm” of social engineering that I think will have a negative effect on civilized society. Well hell, it already has had a negative effect, but I think it’s only going get worse. But hey, as long as these folks have the latest shiny gadget in hand, they won’t care that their freedoms are quickly eroding, or that around-the-clock Big Brother surveillance is nearly here. You want “social networking,” well you got it, baby! It only confirms a long-held belief: most people are sheep.

I made my weekly trip to the Sizzler restaurant on Thonglor for dinner last Thursday night. After I had finished eating, one of the waiters told me that they would be closing down next week. That’s closing as in “for good”. Well, that threw me for a loop. I’ve been going to that particular branch of Sizzler on nearly a weekly basis for most of the past decade. For me, the big draw is their well-stocked soup and salad bar. It’s a chance for me to get a good balanced meal instead of just eating noodles or rice for dinner, or getting lazy and ordering a pizza. Anyway, it looks like I’ll now to find another substitute for my Thursday night meal. I suppose I could go to the Sizzler in Central World Plaza instead, but that’s a little out of my way.

Speaking of Central World, I did go there earlier this week and walked around the B2S branch, browsing the CD selection. I managed to not buy a single CD, remarkable restraint for me. But then again, they weren’t having a sale and I didn’t find anything on my wish list in stock. The B2S shop aside, Central World remains a baffling maze of shops, department stores, escalators, and obstacles — they even have a small ice skating rink. There is no logical pattern to the layout, a bit like Bangkok itself! After all these years, I still manage to get lost or turned around when I visit this retail monstrosity. But one thing I did notice at Central World — as well at other malls and restaurants I have visited this month — is that they STILL have those gaudy Christmas decorations on display. I’m tempted to borrow a wrecking ball from one of the nearby construction sites and initiate a bit of creative demolition. I’ll deck their fucking halls!

When leaving Central World, I debated on how to get home. I could walk back to the BTS Skytrain station at Chidlom, take the Skytrain to Ekkamai, and then get a motorcycle taxi the rest of the way home. Or I could walk across the street to the Pratunam Pier and take a water taxi on Klong Saen Saeb, the big canal that intersects the city. I opted for the boat and took it to the Thonglor Pier, whereupon I walked the rest of the way home. Easy. I hadn’t taken the water taxi in several months, and using this mode of transportation reminded me of how much I enjoy it. I used to be a regular boat commuter in the mid to late 1990s, those traffic-jammed days before the Skytrain or Subway systems were in operation and Bangkok commuters had more limited options. Despite the fact that the black klong water is horribly polluted, smells bad, and boat’s engines are loud as hell, I find the ride on the water is very relaxing. I don’t have to worry about being sideswiped by a passing motorcycle or breathing toxic bus fumes. And naturally there are no traffic jams — or even boat jams — on the klong!

One of the supremely cool customers at my shop — one that doesn’t sit at the counter and play with his laptop — is an American named David, just back from his first trip to Myanmar. Even though he’s from Philadelphia, and a Phillies fan, David’s a good guy, and I was happy to give him lots of pre-trip advice about traveling around the country. He reports that he enjoyed Myanmar very much and is already planning a return trip for later in the year. He made the usual circuit — Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, and Nyaunghswe/Inle Lake — as well as heading west to the beach town of Ngwe Saung. He found a huge bungalow right on the beach for only $15 per night. Yes, bargains can be found over there, even during the high season.

Tony Joe White

On the Sweet Inspiration: The Songs of Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham album that I wrote about recently, one of my favorite tracks is Tony Joe White’s powerful cover of “Watching the Trains Go By.” Tony Joe White, is one of those singer-songwriters who is revered by his peers (no doubt there will be, or should be, a Tony Joe White tribute album someday), but woefully neglected by the listening public.

Listening to Tony Joe White’s songs, you can’t help but think of the swamps and bayous of his native Louisiana: muddy blues and funky country soul that are practically oozing with thick backwoods muck. White has been compared to the guitar troubadour J.J. Cale, and while that’s not a bad comparison, it doesn’t begin to adequately describe what White is all about either. For that, you really just have to listen to the songs, and let those swampy grooves sink into your brain.

Tony Joe White gained fame as the writer of “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which was a big hit for Brook Benton way back in 1970. White himself had a minor hit with “Polk Salad Annie” the previous year, but he never capitalized on that early success and pretty much evaporated from the music industry a few short years later. I have a Best of Tony Joe White CD, containing 20 songs from 1969-1973, that I found a few years ago at a shop here in Bangkok. After recording those early albums, he virtually disappeared from the music industry for many years until resurfacing in the early 1990s. In the past decade he has been especially active, releasing several critically acclaimed albums. When I was in Kuala Lumpur last year, I was pleasantly surprised to find one of his recent albums, The Heroines at the Rock Corner shop in Mid-Valley MegaMall. Released in 2004, it’s a very solid batch of songs, many of them duets with female singers such as Emmylou Harris, Shelby Lynne, Jessi Colter, Lucinda Williams, and his daughter Michelle White. Listening to these songs, it’s clear that White has lost none of his verve and vigor.

A live recording he did in 1980 for the Austin City Limits TV show was released on CD in 2006 as Live from Austin, TX. This album includes favorites such as “Rainy Night in Georgia” and “Polk Salad Annie,” along with cleverly titled tunes like “Mama Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to be Babies.” In 2010, White released a new album, The Shine, on the appropriately named Swamp Records label. I haven’t heard this one yet, but it’s getting good reviews. If I don’t find a copy during my next trip to KL, I may end up ordering it online.

Trip Notes: November 2011

Some notes from my last trip, plus another excuse to post more photos, some of which have no correlation to the text.

 

Justin Bieber rules Myanmar! We all know how massively popular the teen singer is in many countries around the world nowadays, but I was surprised to find that he’s also huge in Myanmar. People were listening to him in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and even Tat Ein village in Shan State. I had dinner one night with a family in New Bagan, and our evening’s entertainment consisted of watching an endless loop of Justin Bieber videos on their new TV (I have an unsettling feeling that the money I had left for their children’s education the previous year was diverted to buy this TV set). The Bieber-thon could be construed as form of torture for most people, but these folks all loved Justin’s videos and songs. Get ready for that Shan State tour next year.

 

I’ve mentioned the “maverick monk” at Tat Ein village in Shan State, U San Di Mar. His nickname among the locals is Phone Phone (pronounced “Pone Pone” as opposed to the annoying device you talk on). Four years ago, Tat Ein was a fairly isolated village, even though it’s only a scant few kilometers from the tourist town of Nyaungshwe. There was no road into the village, at least not one that a four-wheel vehicle could navigate. They didn’t have a school, temple, or monastery. But then Phone Phone showed up, taking up residence in a nearby cave, an abode from which he never leaves. Originally from the Monywa area, he apparently is a highly regarded monk with devoted followers around the country. He used his network (a Buddhist version of Facebook?) to gather donations and work out a plan to build a school, monastery, and road for Tat Ein. Donations were also used to hire teachers and a principal for the school. The school had their three year anniversary last year. Even though they have managed to do a lot so far, it still remains a poor school with many needs. Phone Phone is a very personable and curious monk, eager to both dispense advice (he maintains that swimming is bad for your health!) and ask questions of his visitors. During one of our conversations he wanted to know about Native American “Indians” and if they still lived in the US. He requested some DVDs (I assume he has a DVD player —and electricity — in that cave!) of cultural or nature themes (from Thailand or the US) the next time I visit.

 

In Nyaungshwe I had dinner one night at the home of Ma Pu Sue, a friend who is a freelance tour guide. Sue cooked up a fantastic meal, and her two daughters and a niece joined us. Later that week, I ran into Sue with a couple from France that she was showing around Shwe Yan Pyay monastery. A day after that we crossed paths yet again outside the cave in Tat Ein where U San Di Mar greets visitors. It was good to Sue and other guides busy during the start of the high tourist season. It looks to be the best ever for those in the local tourism industry; foreigners are all over the place this season.

 

At the monastery in Tat Ein I showed the novice monks how to use the movie feature on my camera. Both Kaw Wi Da and Pyin Na Thiri took turns making fairly hilarious videos. When those novice monks get in front of a camera they just get goofy! During one filming, Pyin Na Thiri twirled around in a circle to make a panoramic film of his monastery and fellow monks. It’s a wonder he didn’t get dizzy and fall down after making multiple revolutions!

 

One of the “little delights” that I enjoy when in Nyaungshwe is the singing cyclists. People in this country love to sing, and in Shan State the musical urge seems especially strong and robust. In the evening, when I’m having dinner at great little family-run restaurant such as the Unique Superb Food House, I can almost always hear groups of cyclists passing by and singing their hearts out. Such a lovely vibe.

 

I adore the kids at Tat Ein village, but another reason for my repeated visits there this time was the delicious vegetarian lunches that they serve at the school. U San Di Mar has a dedicated crew of volunteers that prepare lunches for the monks and teachers each day; all vegetarian dishes and all very, very tasty. One of the cooks in Tat Ein used to work in an area hotel. Really, these meals were as good, or better, than ones I had in local restaurants, and those were very tasty too. The cuisine in Shan State — including home-cooked delights at Ma Pu Sue and Htein Linn’s houses — has become my favorite in the entire country. Everyone associates curry or fried rice with Burmese food, but the soups and salads and veggie dishes are incredibly good.

 

When in Mandalay I rode a bicycle everywhere as usual. But the traffic in the city is now so congested that cycling has become a very heads-up activity. Pedal slow and steady, look both ways when entering an intersection, and look both ways again. The roads are clogged with a dizzying mix of cars, trucks, motorcycles, trishaws, bicycles, carts, pedestrians, and even farm animals. And once in a while some old lady will throw a bucket of water on the dusty dirt road I’m travelling one, and then I have to swerve to avoid getting splashed. I got sideswiped by a motorcycle once doing just that. And in the city there are almost no traffic lights whatsoever. Needless to say, when approaching an intersection with no stop signs or lights, you need to be very cautious. And at night, that caution increases ten-fold due to the dearth of street lights. You want adventure? Cycling in Mandalay is for you!

When I arrived in Mandalay, I almost didn’t even find a bike to rent the first day. It was the full moon day of Tazaungmon and many shops were closed, including that of Mr. Jerry, where I normally get my wheels. As I was trudging down 83rd Street, looking for another place that had bikes, I saw a familiar face; an old man who drives a trishaw. He’s also the father of Mr. Htoo, another guy who used to rent bikes on the same street, but who now drives a motorcycle taxi for tourists. Mr. Htoo’s father said he’d take me to a nearby place that had bikes, and would not charge me. The place he took me was also closed, but he found a small hotel on the next street that has some bikes for rent, one of which had a seat that was high enough for my long legs. Success! We hadn’t gone very far, but I really appreciate “Papa Htoo” taking the time to find a bike for me, so, against his protests, I gave him some money.

 

During one of my many visits to Shwe Yan Pyay monastery, the Saya Daw gave me a hand-written note that someone had left for me. At first I was puzzled: who knew I would be coming to this monastery, and coming at this time? The note was from Marlar Htun, a Pa-O guide from Taunggyi who I used the year before to tour the ruins in Kakku, and whom I correspond with by e-mail. On that previous trip I had taken four monks from Shwe Yan Pyay, so she knew I’d no doubt be going to the monastery when I was in town. During another trip to Taunggyi earlier last year, with yet more monks in tow, I dropped by the Golden Island Cottages office where Marlar Htun and guides are based. Marlar Htun is a voracious reader and I had some books to give her, but she wasn’t around that day, so I left the books and a note. A month later I got an e-mail from her, thanking me for the books. This time around, we met while she was meeting some clients in Nyaungshwe one day. She surprised me by taking me to lunch at Daw Nyunt Yee, a very nice little restaurant in town that is run by friends of hers. “They are like my family,” she told me. Good friends. Good food. A good day.

 

One of my friends in Yangon, Thant Myo Aung, works as a waiter at Feel Restaurant, right in the middle of Yangon’s “embassy row” (France, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.). At least once when I’m in town we’ll meet for dinner. Our usual favorite place, Sandy’s Myanmar Cuisine, closed last year, so on Ma Thanegi’s recommendation (when it comes to food in Myanmar, she knows everything!), we tried a new restaurant across the street from the Summit Parkview Hotel. I can’t remember the name of this place, but the food was indeed very good, a mixture of Burmese and Chinese dishes … and they showed English Premiership Football matches on TV screen, which is a big plus for local diners. After dinner, we took a walk down Pyay Road to the shopping center adjacent to City Mart. Thant Myo Aung knows that I like to listen to Burmese music, particularly the band Iron Cross, so he popped into a small CD shop and asked the clerk if they had the new album from Myo Gyi. Indeed they did, so he bought it … and then gave it to me. I tried to pay him for the disc, but he waved off the money. A very nice gesture from someone who I know doesn’t earn much money.  

 

Speaking of music, when I was in Bagan, my friend Nine Nine serenaded some of us one night with an acoustic guitar set. Nine Nine is a pretty good guitar strummer, but what surprised me was how good his voice sounds. “Keep practicing,” I told him. “You could be a star one day!” Two of the songs he has learned, ones which caught my ear, were by a musician named Lin Lin. They didn’t have any Lin Lin CDs for sale in Bagan but in Mandalay I found his new live album, and in Yangon, at a shop in Bogyoke market, I got a copy of the album that had Sin Za (“Think About It”), one of the songs that Nine Nine played for me.

In addition to the wonderful Myanmar natives that I encountered this trip, I also met some interesting foreign tourists. At Shwe Yan Pyay one day, I talked to an interesting American woman who just returned from a trip to Papua New Guinea. At my hotel in Nyaungshwe, I met Susanna from Austria. She is also a frequent visitor to Myanmar and knows both Htein Linn and the owner of the Golden Kite Restaurant. When she heard that I was doing some teaching at the school in Tat Ein village, she gave me some pencils to pass out to the students. Much more useful than candy, which some tourists like to give.

 

In the line at Myanmar immigration, waiting to get my passport stamped and exit the country, the woman in front of me told the officer: “We had a very nice time here. It’s a lovely country.” He thanked her and added: “You are welcome to come again.” And I bet she will. Most people who visit this amazing country come away very impressed. Make plans to join us, but do it soon before Myanmar (or “Burma”) becomes the next hip travel destination and the tour bus contingent overwhelms the place.

RuPaul vs. Ron Paul

Over on the other side of the world — at least the opposite side from where I’m living — the Republican Presidential primaries in the US continue to provide political junkies with a delightfully bizarre brand of entertainment. And who do we find on the winding campaign trail in New Hampshire last week? None another than drag superstar RuPaul, there to declare to confused voters that he was definitely NOT Ron Paul. I read a column by Chris Moody, posted on Yahoo News yesterday, detailing RuPaul’s visit  to an apparently famous local diner. This excerpt contains one of the best quotes from the campaign thus far:

Eventually, RuPaul wrapped up inside and stepped back out into the frosty morning. “You betta vote!” he whooped at the cheering crowd. “Remember, this country was founded by a bunch of men wearing wigs!”

“And heels!” a voice hollers from the scrum.

 

I always got a kick out of Ru Paul and his outrageous stage presence. Long before he was nationally known, knew RuPaul from his infamous club shows in Atlanta in the early 1980s. The guy was always performing somewhere in town, often appearing with a band called the Now Explosion. A few years later, I couldn’t help but smile when he scored a nationwide hit with “Supermodel (You Better Work)”. A drag queen hits the Top Forty? Who woulda thunk it? But a drag queen in the White House? Hmm, maybe that day is still a long way off. Then again, judging from the recent occupants of the Oval Office, a cross-dresser might do a better job, especially when dealing with all of those closeted and confused Republicans!

http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/ticket/rupaul-hampshire-country-founded-bunch-men-wearing-wigs-000641848.html

 

NRBQ

I was browsing the racks of CDs at the Gram shop in Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping center last week when I came upon something that made me smile big time: At Yankee Stadium by NRBQ. I don’t know who thought to order that gem of a disc, but they deserve a raise. I only hope that some lucky soul will realize what a great album this is and snatch it up and savor it. You might assume from the title that this is a live concert recording, but no, it’s only a mere studio album, although one that ranks as one of my most treasured discs. At Yankee Stadium contains a rambunctious batch of rockin’ rhythm and blues, tempered with sweet pop tunes. Songs so seductively tuneful, you wonder why, oh why, did this band never dominate the airwaves? But NRBQ (New Rhythm & Blues Quartet) were never about guitar solos, vocal gymnastics, or deep lyrical content; their music was just joyous, toe tappin’, butt shakin’ fun.

At Yankee Stadium was released in 1978 and almost immediately disappeared from retail shelves. Or maybe the LPs just never found their way out of the dusty warehouses. Radio airplay? Not a chance during those disco-fied times. I found my beloved first copy in the cut-out bins of a record store in Orlando the following year, taking a chance on it just because of the baseball theme on the cover. Once I got home and listened to it, the reaction was immediate; Wow, this was great stuff! Terry Adams and “Big Al” Anderson were a mighty songwriting combination in those days, and this album is testament to their brilliance. Originals like “Green Lights,” “It Comes to Me Naturally,” and the delicious “I Want You Bad” were interspersed with frisky covers of “Get Rhythm” and “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” If you weren’t either smiling or dancing by the time the album was over, you were definitely a candidate for the priesthood.

For several decades, NRBQ had the well-deserved reputation as being one of the very best live bands around. Seeing as how they were never a big name, their shows were played in bars and small halls as opposed to arenas and stadiums (thus, the irony of the At Yankee Stadium cover). No matter what the venue, however, they would play wild and vivacious sets, showing off their considerable musical chops, and throwing in weird cover versions (Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” being just one suprise) to spice things up even further. NRBQ fans swore by the band’s dynamic performances and were as dedicated a bunch as the “Dead Heads” who follow the Grateful Dead. I missed a chance to see NRBQ when they performed in Orlando in the early 80s, but finally got a chance to see the almighty Q when they played at a bar in San Francisco a decade later. It was, as expected, a thoroughly exuberant show, but what I remember most about that night was one of the people in the crowd: a gentleman by the name of Todd Rundgren. And to make that night even more special, after NRBQ had finished playing, my friend Tom and I high-tailed it to another bar to see Chris Isaak and his band play a show. Ah, those heady days of seeing great live music, and not paying a fortune for the experience.

The Orlando show by NRBQ that I missed was actually performed in the nearby suburb of Longwood at a barn-like club called Joint in the Woods. The show was broadcast live on a local radio station, so at least I got the chance to hear most of it that night. And one of the songs from that show, an impromptu ditty called “Welcome to Orlando,” ended up as a bonus track on another excellent NRBQ album, Kick Me Hard.

If you are a newcomer to NRBQ, besides At Yankee Stadium, another good starting point is the double disc compilation Peek-A-Boo: the Best of NRBQ 1969-1989 on Rhino; 35 tracks of groovy goodness. Their early albums, back in the late 60s and early 70s with guitarist Steve Ferguson are also very good, but with a looser and sometimes jazzier flavor. A great live recording from that period that was released on CD recently is Ludlow Garage 1970, an 18-track set recorded live at a club in Cincinnati. Lots of creative originals that take off and wiggle, plus some offbeat covers of tunes by Sun Ra, Carla Bley, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. They have several other live albums too, including the excellent Al Anderson-era recording Diggin’ Uncle Q. Fun stuff.

The Loneliest Monk

It may be the equivalent of an urban myth, but as the story goes, during the 1992 US presidential campaign, an MTV News reporter asked the Democratic candidate, a dude named Bill Clinton, about his favorite musicians. The ex-governor, sometimes sax player, and future president replied that he was a big fan of Thelonious Monk. This answer apparently stumped the young woman doing the interview, who reportedly then asked: “Well, Mr. Clinton, who is the loneliest monk?”

 

True or not, you gotta love the story. Of course we can laugh at the idea of a befuddled journalist having no idea who Thelonious Monk was, but then again, about 99.9% of the general public nowadays would have no idea that Thelonious Monk is a jazz legend. He’s not the sort of artist whose music can easily be downloaded as singles, so the current digital generation will no doubt remain clueless. But I digress. When I was in Bagan two months ago, I was reminded of the reporter’s “monk” confusion when I met someone who could indeed qualify as the Loneliest Monk: he is the only monk in residence at his monastery.

 

I’d been out riding my bike around the pagoda ruins of the Bagan area, confining myself to the area between Myinkaba and New Bagan. I was taking new trails and seeing new ruins and having a thoroughly wonderful time all by myself. On the off-the-beaten paths, there was nary a tourist in sight. At one point I came across the funky looking ruins pictured in this post. I wandered around the area for about ten minutes, offering a “Mingalaba” to some workers doing repair work to one of the buildings before I finally met this monk. He introduced himself (and I can’t for the life of me remember his name!) and took the time to show me an interesting old pagoda in one of the nearby fields. I followed him inside the small structure and then up a dark and narrow stairway until we emerged at the top, whereupon we were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the surrounding area: lush green fields intersected by old pagodas, big and small. And still, not a tourist around. It was one of those magical, unplanned moments that can be the highlight of a trip. And it was.

 

Afterwards, we walked back to his monastery, which is indeed under renovation. The monk offered me tea; no surprise in this country where the hospitality is incredible. I felt like a donation was deserved, so I asked him if it would be okay for me to give some money to his monastery. He nodded yes, brought over an empty glass and set it down on a table. I put some bank notes in the glass and the donation was complete. The loneliest monk said a prayer and I took my leave. Off in search of more magical moments.

 

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