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

Archive for April, 2012

Signs of Siem Reap

Here are a few more shots I took in Siem Reap last month. When I wasn’t touring the ruins at Angkor, or eating meals at Hawaii Restaurant, I spent time walking around town and looking at funny signs. One day I went with a group of friends to West Baray for a long overdue swim. Maybe not the cleanest water around, but it felt mighty refreshing in the middle of a hot afternoon.



Music for Hot Weather

Everyone in Bangkok is dripping with sweat this month, complaining about the high temperatures and sticky humidity, and looking for air-conditioned sanctuary whenever and wherever possible. My solution: remove most of my clothing, stay inside with my ceiling fan, and listen to more music! These are the albums that are keeping me happy — and keeping me cool — this month:


Joan Armatrading – This Charming Life

Rahsaan Roland Kirk – Blacknuss

Wilco – The Whole Love

Tangerine Dream – Dream Sequence

The Move – The Very Best Of


Various Artists – Enjoy Every Sandwich: The Songs of Warren Zevon

Arthur Russell – World of Echo

Lee Fields – My World

Freddie Hubbard – Hub Tones

Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley – Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley


Dobie Gray – Drift Away/Loving Arms

Texas Tornados – Live from Austin, TX

Wayne Shorter – The Classic Blue Note Recordings

Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

Jackie Leven – Shining Brother Shining Sister


Jerry Butler – The Philadelphia Sessions

Milt Jackson – Sunflower

Nada Surf – Lucky

The Feelies – Here Before

Eddi Reader – Simple Soul


The Derek Trucks Band – Joyful Noise

Coleman Hawkins – The Hawk Flies High

The Roots – Things Fall Apart

Jellyfish – Spilt Milk

Aretha Franklin – Spirit in the Dark


Various Artists – Change is Gonna Come: the Voice of Black America 1963-1973

Father’s Children – Who’s Gonna Save the World

The JB’s – Funky Good Time: The Anthology

Crusaders – Crusaders 1

Little Feat and Friends – Join the Band


Beach Boys – Smile

Counting Crows – Underwater Sunshine

Cal Tjader & Eddie Palmieri – El Sonido Nuevo

Mekons – Ancient & Modern

World Party – Egyptology


Various Artists – This One’s for Him: a Tribute to Guy Clark

Maceo Parker – All the King’s Men

Terry Reid – River

Steely Dan – Aja

Amnesty – Free Your Mind: the 700 West Sessions


Edwin Starr – Hell Up in Harlem

Sloan – 4 Nights at the Palais Royale

Shuggie Otis – Here Comes Shuggie Otis/Freedom Flight

Charles Bradley – No Time for Dreaming

The Waterboys – An Appointment with Mr. Yeats


Walk Among the Ruins

Another day in Cambodia, back at Angkor Thom, wandering around the ruins, dodging the annoying tour groups, the weather hot as blistering asphalt, wishing for rain. A quick visit to the Elephant Terrace and the Leper King Terrace — yes, it’s all a blur — and then a short walk to the majestic confines of Bayon. Faces, faces, and more faces. Always amazing. Just in case you get lost or disoriented there are plenty of helpful signs — annoying may be the more accurate word — directing you where to go.



John Straley’s Alaska

One of the more unusual yet compelling crime fiction series that I’ve read is John Straley’s Alaskan mysteries, featuring private investigator Cecil Younger. I just finished reading The Curious Eat Themselves, a novel that Straley wrote in 1993. Straley’s strong, descriptive prose reminds me at times of James Lee Burke, although his storytelling is not quite as sharp and agile as Burke’s. But like Burke, Straley has an atmospheric, almost poetic writing style. Straley writes such vivid descriptions that the reader can virtually see and smell the rustic towns and Alaskan wilderness where the stories are taking place. This is definitely not your usual gumshoe whodunit fare. Here is one paragraph from The Curious Eat Themselves that will give you an example:


If I had ever seen a fiery angel in my dreams it would have looked like this because the whale burned my eyes like flame but I was not asleep and this wasn’t a dream. Where there had been coarse sand and white crushed shell was not a twenty-ton male orca. His black-and-white hide sparkled with water sheeting down his sides. The six-foot dorsal fin draped loosely to one side and flopped slightly as the whale struggled in the sand, beating his small pectoral fins against the beach. Puffs of breath burst from his blow-hole and he flailed the sand with his flukes. Then as the next swell came, his truck-sized body lunged twice, took the injured sea lion in his jaws, and disappeared into the surf.


The Cecil Younger character is one of the more complex and fascinating ones that I’ve come across in crime fiction. He’s a hapless, bumbling investigator with all sorts of character flaws, yet fiercely intelligent and persistent. Cecil also seems to be a chick magnet of sorts. In addition to his romantic dalliances, he has an autistic roommate named Todd, one of many colorful characters that pop up in this book. In one of the later chapters in The Curious Eat Themselves, Cecil does a bit of self reflection:


I have waited for ecstasy all of my life, the pure joy of being, and I have never felt it. For each and every moment of my happiness has been tinged with sorrow. Like the swallow of water from the mountain stream that has two tastes — one living, and one dead — my life has been a sorry confluence of wonder and pity.


As you can tell from that description, Cecil is not your typical all-confident private eye. The titles of Straley’s books are also unusual and intriguing: The Woman Who Married a Bear … The Angels Will Not Care … Death and the Language of Happiness ... The Music of What Happens. The only negative aspect that I found with The Curious Eat Themselves was that the plot jumped around in a confusing manner, so much so that there times when I wondered if I had missed something. Maybe I shouldn’t mix drinking and reading. Whatever the case, this is definitely not conventional storytelling, but that’s also the beauty of these books. Straley is well worth checking out.


Don’t Do It!

Around the temples of Angkor nowadays, you can’t miss them. Everywhere you turn there are signs telling you not to do something, or to be careful. Watch Your Step … Don’t Touch … Don’t Litter. No Writing. Don’t Breathe Heavily. Ah, I miss the glory days of the old “hands on” Angkor, before the hordes of visor-wearing tour groups descended like locusts upon the temples. Such is “progress” in this new millennium.

Wet Wet Wet

It’s Songkran weekend here in Thailand, the annual water festival that’s held to celebrate the Thai New Year. Similar watery celebrations are also going on this week in the neighboring countries of Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. The basic goal of them all: the wetter the better!


I attended my very first Songkran in Thailand exactly 20 years ago. I spent the festival days up in Chiang Mai that year, immersing myself in the water mayhem and Thai culture. I had a blast. One of the most enjoyable cultural festivals I had ever attended. I was hooked and returned for Songkran again the following year, and the year after, and again. In 1996 I finally moved here for good. I don’t go out and do it in the road like in the “old days,” but I still enjoy the Songkran spirit, celebrating it nowadays as more of an observer. It’s the biggest holiday of the year in Thailand and Thais are always in a happy, buoyant mood. And despite all the trucks and motorcycles you see on the streets, actively engaged in water warfare, there is still more to the holiday than squirting water at other people.


While I get a kick of Songkran, many foreign residents here seem to feel the opposite; they are annoyed — or even angered — by the constant water silliness, and do their best to either stay indoors or leave town during the holiday. But for those that do hang around town, Songkran week in Bangkok is blissful and peaceful. I won’t say that Bangkok is exactly a ghost town, but because so many locals and expats leave town, the streets are virtually free of traffic jams and the resultant chaos.  

The photos today are NOT from any Songkran celebrations, but were taken two weeks ago at Kbal Spean in Cambodia. My Cambodian friends were apparently eager to get a head start on the water festival and dashed in and out of the small waterfall at Kbal Spean for a good half hour. I hadn’t been to Kbal Spean in about six years, but it remains my favorite side trip in the Siem Reap area near Angkor. I always enjoy the trek up the mountain, climbing over huge rocks and boulders, being one with nature, and marveling at the rock carvings near the top — or at least the ones that haven’t been defaced or stolen by temple bandits. And that waterfall can make for a very welcome and refreshing break after the long, hard climb, especially in the toasty weather we have at this time of year.


Happy New Year — again — to you all!


Horslips at Home

Horse Lips? No, Horslips! The pronunciation is the same either way, and it still sounds like a silly name to some, but the music of Horslips is nothing to snicker about. During their relatively brief recording career, this Irish band produced some vital, influential music.


Horslips were one of the very first bands to combine traditional Irish folk music with contemporary rock sounds. Imagine the Chieftains meeting Thin Lizzy, with perhaps some Byrds and Jethro Tull thrown in for good measure. They were that eclectic, that different. Horslips utilized guitar, flute, keyboards, fiddle, and drums to produce a unique, thrilling sound. Studio albums, such as The Book of Invasions, Aliens, Dancehall Sweethearts, and Happy to Meet … Sorry to Part were wonderful examples of this heady fusion of musical styles. By the late 70s, when they released The Man who Built America, Horslips had shed most of their folk trappings and were veering towards a more rock style, albeit with their Irish roots still showing.


The band’s last studio album, Short Stories/Tall Tales, was released in 1979, and followed by the live album The Belfast Gigs in 1980. And after that … nothing. After ten years together, Horslips had broken up. A strangely quiet end to a most wonderful band. They got back together temporarily in 2004 to release a new studio album, Roll Back, but rather than recording new compositions, the album was comprised of acoustic “reworkings” of some of their more popular songs. But then in 2009, after a nearly 30 year hiatus, Horslips reformed for a series of concerts.

A live recording of some of those shows, Live at the O2, was released in 2010. I recently bought a copy of that live album, a 2-CD set, and have been enjoying it for the past month. This is a musical feast for Horslips fans to savor and appreciate; a Celtic hoedown with all the trimmings. The band members are all now in their sixties, but on this live recording they sound absolutely on top of their game, spinning reels and jigs with rock and roll fervor. Most all of the old favorites are included here: “Mad Pat” … “Power and the Glory” … “The Man Who Built America” … “I’ll Be Waiting” … “Sword of Light” … “Trouble with a Capitol T” … “Sideways to the Sun” …. “Ghosts” … “High Reel” … and many more. They end the album with a rousing version of “Shakin’ All Over,” I’m sure that after hearing this tremendous concert document, many Horslips fans felt the same bliss that I did. You can’t help but be very impressed. They are still a great band!


I was lucky to have seen Horslips in concert one time, during their 1980 US tour at the Great Southern Music Hall in Orlando. We had front row seats, but few of were sitting during the wildly energetic show, cheering on the band as they dished out an incredible variety of musical fireworks. Great, great show by a great, great band. If you want to know what all the fuss was about, and why so many listeners still adore them, listening to live recordings such as Live at the O2 or The Belfast Gigs would be a good way to discover the magic.


Back in the Jungle

Ta Prohm is best known as Angkor’s “jungle temple,” categorized as such due to all the trees — particularly the massive roots — that have become intertwined with the ancient architecture over the course of the past several centuries. To say that it’s an awesome sight would be an understatement.

I’ve visited Ta Prohm at least a half-dozen times over the past twelve years, but the last time I went there was seven or eight years ago, so I figured I was due for a return, which is what happened last week. It wasn’t any less magnificent, but a lot of that jungle vibe and magical atmosphere has now been lost; suffocated by the hordes of tourists who now descend on the site each day. Plus, there is a lot of renovation taking place, so much so that you can spot cranes and scaffolding in several parts of the area. Not surprisingly, parts of the temple complex are now roped off, to prevent the “curious” from pawing the sculptures and damaging the fragile structures even further. I realize that these architectural treasures need to be preserved, but it still saddens me to see Ta Prohm in this altered state.




Immigration Men

There has been a lot of negative press in recent months about the long delays getting through immigration at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport. In some cases, passengers arriving at the airport have had to wait nearly two hours to get processed by the understaffed and overworked immigration officers. I’ve never had to endure nearly that long a wait upon arrival at the airport in the past year, but I have noticed a much longer wait to get OUT of the country; crazy, alarmingly long lines that test the patience of even the most hardened traveler.


But when I took a flight from Bangkok to Phnom Penh last week, I was startled to show up at immigration and find myself stepping right up to the desk, no waiting whatsoever. And no, it wasn’t April Fool’s Day. After all the complaints they were getting recently, the authorities reportedly hired a bunch of new immigration officers, or in some cases reassigned some warm bodies, to immigration. Whether this is a temporary fix — just in time for the Thai New Year water festival the middle of this month — or a sign that they have finally decided to get matters organized properly is uncertain at this point.


After that pleasant immigration processing when exiting the kingdom, I had a totally opposite experience when returning later in the week. The lines at the immigration arrival desks were as long as usual, but they’ve initiated a new “snake line” system that supposedly makes the waiting time more equitable for everyone. They have also hired “document checkers,” young women who make sure you have completed the arrival form properly before you reach the immigration desk. The biggest problem with the new system seems to be the recently hired immigration officers. I have no idea what sort of training they received, but two officers that I observed were taking a very long time to process passports, and one of them had to call over a supervisor twice while I was waiting in line. And of course that’s the guy I got. Once I got to the desk, it took only slightly longer than normal to get my passport back, with a rare smile no less! But on a hunch, I looked at the new expiration stamp inside the passport. As I had feared, this guy had totally screwed up: he had given me a 30-day tourist visa instead of using the 1-year non-immigrant visa that was already stamped inside the passport. Instead of expiring in October, my visa was now only good until late April. I brought this matter to his attention and he apologized. But he clearly didn’t know what to do at this point, so once again a supervisor was called to the scene. Instead of giving me a new stamp, he took a pen, changed the date, and initialed it. I asked him in Thai if there would be any problem the next time I left and re-entered the country, but he assured me that everything would be kosher. Except he obviously didn’t use the word “kosher.”


Once I had finally made it through that immigration maze of hell, I rushed over to the baggage carousel, only to discover that none of the bags from my flight had started coming out yet! Upon landing, we had to wait nearly 15 minutes before disembarking because a bus had not arrived to take us to the terminal, and now there more delays! If this had been someone’s first trip to Thailand, I can only imagine they would be wondering what sort of inept place they were visiting. Not exactly a favorable first impression of a normally delightful country.  But hey, at least it’s not as awful as the United States of Agony, where redneck immigration and customs officials would detain you — deciding that you fit the profile of a sex tourist, drug dealer, and/or terrorist — take you into a room, and subject you to more interrogation and humiliation. You know, on second thought, maybe having to wait in line for an hour or two isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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