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

Archive for August, 2012

Judyth’s Myanmar Memoir

I had heard of Judyth Gregory-Smith several years before I actually met her in person. Until that time, she was only known to me as “the trishaw lady” from Australia. I don’t think Judyth has ever pedaled a trishaw in her life (she can correct me if I’m wrong!), but her association with that most Burmese of transport options was due to the fact that she had purchased a couple of trishaws for a Burmese man to start a business in Mandalay. The appreciative young man then named one of the cute three-wheeled contraptions after Judyth.


When I finally met Judyth, it was totally by chance. I had gone to the Feel Restaurant in Yangon with Ma Thanegi for lunch one day. The place was busy as usual, but amidst the throng I recognized one man, Kyar Min sitting at a corner table. The odd thing, however, was that he was a trishaw driver in Mandalay and I’d never previously seen him outside of that city. What was he doing in Yangon, I wondered? It was at that moment that I noticed that he wasn’t sitting alone, but with a Western woman. He introduced her; this was the famous Judyth! It turned out that Ma Thanegi also knew Judyth — both of them being travel writers who had trod similar paths —- but she had not met Kyar Min before. More introductions were made.


Fast forward to this year and Judyth’s fascinating new book, Myanmar: a Memoir of Loss and Recovery, has just been published. In this book she writes about her various experiences traveling alone around Myanmar, while gradually coming to terms with the illness and subsequent death of her husband. The book, Judyth says, traces two journeys: a geographical journey and an inner journey. The Pansodan Art Gallery in Yangon recently wrote a short review of the book on its blog, calling Myanmar: a Memoir of Loss and Recovery “a well-observed account of places and people, and her deeper involvement over the course of several years of visits. This is a great book as a gift to people who want to know more about life in Myanmar in those years, whether they have been here or not, and (aside from its sobering prologue) a highly amusing and well-written book which freshens our sense of why we love this country so much, even now during the crashing monsoon and heavy weather.”!/2012/06/last-decade-before.html


In between her country hopping (she was in Vietnam earlier this month, before making plans for another return to Myanmar) I asked Judyth about her new book and her experiences in Myanmar.

When did you visit Myanmar for the first time? And what were your initial impressions of the country?

I first visited Myanmar in 1987 with my late husband, Richard. He was on leave from his Australian government position in the embassy in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. He asked his counterpart in the embassy in Myanmar to do an itinerary for us and we visited Bagan, Mandalay, Bago and many other “must see” destinations in the two weeks’ visa that was allowed in those days. We both loved Myanmar — especially the people — and vowed to return, but over the years we went on to work in other countries and to other places on holidays. In 2003 I did return, but alone: Richard died in 2001.


At what point did you decide: “I’m going to write a book about my experiences in Myanmar”?

The first journey I took on my own, with five words of Burmese, was by train to Mawlamyine. An hour or two into the journey the train stopped. When it had been stationary more than an hour, the engine driver came to tell me why we couldn’t proceed: a train in front had tipped its load all over the track. I left the train and eventually found a truck going to Kinpun, so I visited Kyaiktiyo and the Golden Rock Pagoda and then found a way to get to Mawlamyine by bus. So many funny things happened on these journeys, that I thought they could be the beginning of a book on travel in Myanmar.


How long did it take you to write the book? Did you agonize over re-writes or did it flow quickly?

The book took more than seven years to write. It started life as a travel narrative, as I am a travel writer, but because of sanctions against Myanmar, no publisher was interested. Eventually, a Sydney publisher suggested I should rewrite the manuscript as a memoir. This took me 18 months. I turned my journey around Myanmar into two journeys — my geographical journey, and my interior journey as I tried to come to terms with the illness and death of Richard.


One of the people you write about in your book, Kyar Min, is someone I know also. Tell us about meeting him for the first time.

On my first overnight bus trip to Mandalay my daughter, Fiona, working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Yangon, asked me to telephone to tell her I’d arrived safely. This I did, but the man with the telephone on the street spoke even less English than I spoke Burmese. He hailed a trishaw man across the street who spoke English and he took me to a cyber cafe so I could work on my manuscript. The trishaw man, Kyar Min, had supported his invalid father, his mother and three siblings for ten years when I met him. I decided it was time for someone to give him some support. So he came on holiday to Australia and my generous friends helped him with cash, which he used to buy some secondhand trishaws for him to rent out. This has not been a great success, but a little sewing business that we started has done better and is growing. Kyar Min is the manager and quality control manager of the little project.


Obviously, you aren’t the typical tourist who visits Myanmar one time, says “That was nice”, and never returns. Like me, you return again and again. What keeps you going back?

The book is now published, but I return to Myanmar on my tourist visa three times a year. I go to the market with Kyar Min and the seamstresses and we buy fabric for which I pay. Then the seamstresses go off to sew. Kyar Min monitors them daily, going from house to house on his trishaw, checking that they have all they need and improving the standard of their work and. Just before my visa expires I return to each woman, collect what she has made and ask how much I owe her. I pay whatever she asks, so if my plane crashes on my way home they have at least been paid for their labor. Fortunately for them (and me!) my plane has not yet crashed! Kyar Min and the seamstresses know that whatever I sell for them when I go back to Malaysia (where I have a base) or Australia (which I visit for six weeks a year) I will take the profit (or helping money as they call it) back to them. As one person humorously pointed out I am a one-person, not-for-profit, NGO!


Things are changing quickly this year in Myanmar, perhaps too quickly. Are you optimistic about positive changes happening in the country, or do you fear the deluge of greedy developers and investors will have a negative impact?

I am optimistic about change in Myanmar as long as developers and investors employ Myanmar staff and ensure part of the profit of their endeavors goes to the people of Myanmar. I believe Myanmar cultural norms, particularly where family is concerned, will go some way to prevent negative exploitation, for example in the tourist industry.


For someone going to Myanmar for the first time, what are five “must” things they should either see or do?

They must visit the three most important Buddhist shrines in Myanmar: the Shwedagon in Yangon, the Mahamuni in Mandalay and the Golden Rock Pagoda in Kyaiktiyo. Bagan is, of course, a must, as is Mandalay.


What are some of your other favorite travel destinations? Are there any other countries that you would still like to visit?

I’ve enjoyed time in UK, Europe, Nepal, Sudan, Kenya, and Malaysia. I’d like to visit Egypt because my mother was born there. I’d like to re-visit Rome, Paris and Athens with my grandchildren, as I took my children there when they were young.


What are some other books about Myanmar, either fiction or non-fiction, that would you recommend?

Aung San Suu Kyi – Freedom from Fear

Andrew Marshall – The Trouser People

James Mawdsley – The Heart Must Break: The Fight for Democracy and Truth in Burma

George Orwell – Burmese Days

Inge Sargent – Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess

Sir James George Scott (Shway Yoe) – The Burman: His Life and Notions

V.C. Scott O’Connor – Mandalay and other cities of the past in Burma

F. Tennyson Jesse – The Lacquer Lady

Thant Myint-U – The River of Lost Footsteps

U Toke Gale – Burmese Timber Elephant

Donovan Webster – The Burma Road

Lt. Col. J.H. Williams – Elephant Bill


How can interested readers get your book?

I chose to publish Myanmar: A Memoir of Loss and Recovery through Lulu Publishers in the USA. It can be bought online from Lulu, from, or from Barnes and Noble. There is also a Facebook page for the book:



Teaching in a Shan State Village School

I enjoyed my one-day teaching gig last year at the Tat Ein village primary school so much that I volunteered to teach multiple times during my most recent visit. In between field trips and side trips, I squeezed three teaching days into this trip. Once again, the children were delightful and the other teachers very helpful. The school’s principal wasn’t around this time — he was visiting his family in Mandalay — so he couldn’t help me translate anything, further putting the burden on me to explain things in my fractured Burmese. But hey, it was good practice, and the kids seemed to understand everything I asked or told them to do.


I taught English in Thai public schools, and also at a private language institute, back in the late 1990s, so I’ve got some experience with teaching the language to foreign learners. The biggest challenge teaching in Thai schools was the class sizes; sometimes there were 40 or 50 students in a class. I found it very hard to teach effectively with that many kids in a class. But at the school in Shan State, the biggest obstacle was the decibel level. It got very, very loud. Grades one through five are packed into a single room, with only thin wooden partitions dividing the classes. It cuts down on the visual distractions, but not the noise. The Myanmar teachers urge the kids to shout their answers in unison, so whenever I was trying to teach something or conduct an activity, I had to work around the rumble on the other side of the room. Instead of shouting, I just waited for a break in the noise.


As I noted in a recent post, the book Go, Dog. Go! was very popular with the students. They also enjoyed the animal jigsaw puzzles that I brought with me. Take your pick: Elephant, Tiger, Lion, Giraffe, or Zebra (the latter two being totally unknown to these kids). Whenever I had time to kill, or wanted to perk up their interest level, the animal jigsaws were a perfect activity. Apparently, they had never had to put jigsaw puzzles together before, so they found the activity both fascinating and frustrating. They were relatively simple puzzles (expect for those darn zebras!), yet some of these kids took a long time to figure them out.


Another activity using animals also went over very well. I brought about two dozen graphic drawings of various animals, ones that I thought these village kids would recognize, and pasted them on 3 x 5 cards. I explained to the students that I would show a card to one of them, and then without speaking they would have to “be that animal” by making appropriate sounds or miming the actions of the animal. The novice monk that picked the frog picture, for example, ended up hopping around the room. The girl that got the cat picture had to make meow sounds. The boy that got the snake pic, had to either hiss or shimmy. Anyone that got the crocodile had to snap their jaws or use their arms to imitate the croc snout. In any case, they loved it. Even though they weren’t supposed to say the name of the animal, half of them blurted it out prematurely anyway. Typically, they would see the picture, giggle at what they would need to do, and then tell their friend in the next row which animal it was. I had to gently remind them not to blurt out the name before they went into action.  Of course they all knew the Burmese name for the animals, but other than dog and cat, they didn’t know many of the names in English. But that gave me the chance to actually teach them some new words, which was one of the objects of this silly activity.


The other teachers kept bringing me snacks and either coffee or tea — or sometimes both — almost every hour. The lunches were another treat: very tasty vegetarian dishes prepared the same cooks that made meals for the monks and teachers each day. Really, those meals were as good as anything I had at fancier restaurants back in Nyaungshwe. Such hospitality! The school doesn’t have any electricity, so needless to say, the rooms aren’t air-conditioned, nor are their ceiling fans. But that’s not such a big hardship in this part of Shan State. Due to the higher elevation, the temperatures are usually milder than the rest of Myanmar, so I wasn’t sweating like I would have been in Yangon or Mandalay.


By the end of the three days — teaching third, fourth, and fifth grade classes — I had exhausted most of the teaching materials I had brought. I was tired, but it was one of those good feelings of exhaustion, when you felt like you had really accomplished something. Talking to the head monk, U Sandi Mar, the final day I was in town, he told me that the children had found the lessons “interesting and enjoyable.” That was one of my goals, so such feedback pleased me. I really didn’t expect them to learn a lot in three days, but hopefully a few things sunk in and they’ll be happy to have me back again. I’m sure looking forward to returning.



Listening List: August 2012

Back in Bangkok this month, I’ve resumed my heavy diet of listening to music. All day, all night, the music never stops. When I’m at my bookshop, the tunes are always playing, and after closing my shop each night, I trot home listening to tunes on my portable player. Then, once I’m home, I resume the tunes. No TV, no movies, no chatting on the phone, no night out on the town; only music. What can I say; it’s my drug. Here are the CDs getting played the most this month.


Buddy Miles – Them Changes

Cut Copy – In Ghost Colours

Bobbi Gentry – An American Quilt: 1967-74

Freddie Hubbard – Red Clay

Miike Snow – Happy to You


Saint Etienne – Words and Music

Mickey Newbury – American Trilogy

Rufus Wainwright – Out of the Game

Eddi Reader – Love is the Way

Paul Weller – Sonik Kicks


Jim Boggia – Misadventures in Stereo

Clarence Gatemouth Brown – Down South in the Bayou Country

Bob Mould – Life and Times

Black Heat – No Time To Burn

J.C. Brooks & the Uptown Sound – Want More


Various Artists – So Blue, So Funky: Heroes of the Hammond (Vol. 2)

Sun Kil Moon – Tiny Cities

M83 – Saturday Youth

Roland Kirk – In Copenhagen

Dr. Feelgood – Singles: The U.A. Years


Charles Mingus – Tijuana Moods

Stanley Turrentine – Return of the Prodigal Son

George Jackson – Don’t Count Me Out

Garland Jeffreys – Guts for Love

Phil Oakey & Georgio Moroder – Phil Oakey & Georgio Moroder


Nada Surf – The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy

Bonnie Raitt – Slipstream

Lonnie Smith – Mama Wailer

Michael Kiwanuka – Home Again

Cotton Mather – Kon Tiki (Deluxe Edition)


Ashford & Simpson – Hits, Remixes & Rarities

Cowboy Junkies – Early 21st Century Blues

Blue Nile – Walk Across the Rooftops

The Naked and the Famous – Passive Me, Aggressive You

Wild Swans – Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years


Horace Silver – United States of Mind

America – Back Pages

Jim Sullivan – U.F.O.

Charles Kynard – Legends of Acid Jazz

Richard Thompson – Front Parlour Ballads


Crime Spree

I read a lot of books, trying to balance my literary diet with a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. That said, the bulk of what I read leans heavily towards crime fiction. Call the genre crime fiction, or even mystery (sometimes, though, there is no actual “mystery” involved in the plot), but I really detest the term “thriller.” Such a flippant categorization just cheapens the novel, in my opinion. Sure, some books in this genre may not qualify as “serious” literature, and will most likely never be nominated for a Booker Prize (then again, most of those picks are total head scratchers), but that doesn’t make the book disposable fluff either.


In any case, I’ve been on a real crime reading spree lately, more than usual. I even set aside a couple of non-fiction books that I had been reading (John Man’s book about Genghis Khan, and a biography about the intrepid early 20th century explorer Gertrude Bell), so that I could buzz through a few new novels. During my recent trip to Myanmar I read City of Fire by Robert Ellis, Dance for the Dead by Thomas Perry, and Three Doors to Death by Rex Stout (okay, that one wasn’t exactly “new”, but I’d never read it).


There was a blurb by Michael Connelly on the cover of City of Fire, raving about the book. I was wary, though. Some of those glowing reviews don’t always translate to an impressive read. The Ellis novel, however, turned out to be as good as advertised. A tense, taught mystery with an engaging female protagonist in Detective Lena Gamble, the necessary shady characters, some interesting music references (like Connelly’s Harry Bosch character, Lena is a jazz fan), some absolutely horrific crime scenes, a few surprising plot twists, and plenty of lively dialogue. Since I returned to Bangkok I also devoured The Lost Witness, the sequel to City of Fire, which once again features Lena Gamble. Another excellent read, reaffirming my belief that this Ellis is about to join the elite ranks of crime fiction writers.


I had read two of Thomas Perry’s older novels, both featuring the “Butcher’s Boy” hit man character and enjoyed those very much. Dance for the Dead, however, features an entirely different protagonist, Jane Whitefield, a young Native American woman who protects deserving people in trouble, often helping them “disappear” from the bad guys. Very interesting premise and Jane Whitefield is a most unique character. The only knock against this novel was the lame dialogue. It just didn’t have the ring of authenticity that I associate with top tier mystery writers. Plus, each character tended to sound the same: the 8-year old boy, the 21-year old gang-banger, the middle-aged judge, the senior citizen neighbor, and even Jane herself, all used the same vocabulary and had the same speech patterns. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book enough that I plan to read others in the series.


Three Doors to Death is a collection of three Nero Wolf “short mysteries”. I love this series, especially the colorful characters; the delightfully acerbic and eccentric Wolfe; and Archie Goodwin, his womanizing, witty, and clever assistant. Fine dining, orchids, sparkling dialogue, and dead bodies galore. What’s not to like? It always amazes me that these books were written so many years ago (the late 1940s in the case of these short stories) yet they still thrill and fascinate.


Once I was back in Bangkok, my mystery addiction only intensified. I paid a visit to the Kinokuniya branch in the Emporium and picked up the new novels from John Sandford and Barry Eisler. The Sandford book, Stolen Prey, is the latest in his series featuring the sharp-dressed Minnesota crime investigator Lucas Davenport. His goofy sidekick, Virgil Flowers (the star of another series by Sandford) also pops up several times in this tale. Like the other books in the Prey series, this one has multiple plots, witty dialogue, grisly murders, and is a delight to read.


Eisler’s The Detachment marks the return of his popular John Rain character, his colorful — and lethal — cohort Dox, and a couple of characters from the previous two non-Rain novels. These four hired assassins are lured into taking a most challenging assignment, but it soon become apparent that this “mission” isn’t all what they thought it would be. Have they become targets themselves? Eisler injects a bit of political intrigue into the plot, further ratcheting up the page-turning factor. Some scary cyber scenarios are presented, most of which are entirely plausible in this technology-driven age.


At my own bookshop I was thrilled to find the new novels from Daniel Suarez and T. Jefferson Parker. I had read the first two books by Suarez (Daemon and Freedom) and enjoyed them very much, so I was quite happy to find an “Advance Reading Copy” of his new novel, Kill Decision. This could be his best book yet, a riveting tale of high-tech warfare and political manipulation, featuring deadly drones and creepy military characters. Like Eisler’s book, a lot of disturbing “it could really happen” elements figure in the plot. At the end of their books, both Eisler and Suarez offer lists of recommended reading, based on the controversial topics covers in their novels. Much appreciated! But you may want to throw away your cell phone and go into hiding after reading those two particular books. Orwell was prophetic: Big Brother is now watching — and tracking — our every move.


The Parker book, Iron River, is another novel featuring the Deputy Charlie Hood character. This was as good as expected, but it took me a while to get into the flow of the story. Parker uses a couple of different narratives, including one that’s oddly in the first person, plus the story switches from California to Mexico and back again, as Hood and cohorts attempt to rescue a colleague who has been kidnapped by a ruthless drug gang. Despite the odd plot, I credit Parker with “stretching out” and trying something a bit different. There is plenty of action and plenty of twisted characters, propelled by Parker’s flair for writing believable and colorful dialogue, along with telling an interesting story.  


Country Side of Life

One of many great songs by the band Wet Willie was a tune called “Country Side of Life.” The song reverberated in my head — okay, it was actually playing on my MP3 player at the time — as I was cycling around the countryside outside of Nyaungshwe in Shan State one day last month. 

“You can have your buildings and your heavy arithmetic
I don’t need no crowded streets or city slicker tricks
I just need to be someplace where I can move around
Look down at my toes and I can still see the ground
Gimme that country side of life … “


I had budgeted a full week in Nyaungshwe, but between teaching classes at Tat Ein village, taking the students on a field trip to Pindaya, cycling over to Shwe Yan Pyay monastery several times, and visiting my friends Htein Linn and Ma Pu Su,  I came to the realization that I didn’t have a whole lot of free time at my leisure. But during one of those rare free afternoons, one when it wasn’t raining, I cycled over the little bridge west of the big canal and just meandered around the countryside for a couple of hours.


Some other cyclists and a few pedestrians were on the same dirt road, but thankfully I didn’t encounter many motorized vehicles; certainly no clunky trucks or gaudy SUVs. A few children were walking back home after school, one young man was dribbling a soccer ball down a narrow path cut between rice fields, a couple of monks were chatting outside their monastery, and a herd of cattle was making the dusty journey home. Lush green fields framed by craggy green mountains, intersected by little canals and creeks. A quiet, scenic, rain-free, and altogether blissful afternoon.


And I can’t let that initial reference to Wet Willie slide on by without rambling a bit more about how wonderful a band they were. They had a huge hit single with “Keep On Smilin’’ back in 1974, and enjoyed moderate success with other singles and albums during the rest of that decade, but to my mind they never really received the proper acclaim that they so justly deserved. Wet Willie was much more than a country-rock band or some sort of one-hit wonder. Perhaps their main “problem” was that they were musically diverse and their sound was too hard to pigeonhole. They fused elements of country, soul, rock, and blues to create an intoxicating brand of music. When the keyboards, guitars, drums and bass converged, the musical stew got steaming hot, and came close to boiling over when lead singer Jimmy Hall started wailing on his saxophone or harmonica. Shout Bamalama!


I was lucky to see Wet Willie in concert at the Great Southern Music Hall in Orlando back in the late 70s, where they played two spectacular shows. Jimmy Hall was one of those naturally gifted lead singers, capable of keeping the audience spellbound throughout his energetic performance. One of their “hits” compilations will turn you on to a representative selection of their best songs, as would one of their steamy live albums, Left Coast Live (the CD contains a bunch of bonus material that wasn’t on the original vinyl release) and Drippin’ Wet. The wetter the better indeed!



Finding Zin Ko at a Burmese Teashop

Today’s guest photographer is Zin Ko (pictured above), a 10-year-old student in Mandalay. Dig the amazing thanaka design on his face, skillfully applied by his artistic mother! Zin Ko is one of the regulars from the 90th Street neighborhood that I visit each time I’m in town, in particular the little teashop owned by U Tin Chit.


Except for the first photo that I took of him, Zin Ko took the rest of the shots in today’s post by himself. Each time after he takes a shot, he’ll trot over and show the image to me, as if seeking my approval. I usually reassure him that it was indeed good — gaun ba de! — or sometimes I’ll offer a suggestion on how he might make the composition even better, or how to use the flash. He’s a quick learner, and has also figured out the video function on the camera. Unfortunately, he has the habit of turning the camera upside down when he’s filming, making for a slightly bizarre viewing experience afterwards.


U Tin Chit’s teashop is a very basic little joint. It’s an open-air building with no AC or ceiling fans. Yes, it gets hot! For those toasty times, they have little hand fans for the customers, and maybe you can coerce one of the kids to stand there and fan you. Other than a big screen TV that was added last year, there aren’t many other amenities at the teashop. They don’t have any wi-fi service, and there aren’t any comfy chairs and sofas to lounge on; just the ubiquitous tiny plastic stools and a few wooden planks to perch your posterior.


The teashop never closes; it’s open 24 hours a day, rain or shine, holidays or hot days. U Tin Chit never seems to mind the steady stream of kids flowing in and out of the teashop, especially when someone is taking photos. Besides the kids and other regulars, I often see monks dropping by to sit and shoot the breeze, housewives hunting for their stray husbands, plus legions of betel nut spitting patrons. For me, this human tapestry is all part of what makes the teashop so colorful and pleasurable.


On the subject of wi-fi, I actually noticed a sign posted in a larger Mandalay teashop this trip, trumpeting the fact that they offered wi-fi service. Words cannot express my shock and dismay. I think this could be the end of the civilized world as we know it. Wi-fi in a Burmese teahop? Is nothing sacred? Really, it’s a totally perverse notion. Teashops in Myanmar are places to hang out and sip tea, eat a tasty meal (noodle and rice dishes are favorites, as are snacks such as nan and samosa) and socialize, gossip, read a newspaper, or maybe watch a football match on TV. Teashops are communal places. I can’t imagine some geek sitting down, pulling out a laptop and tapping away while they sip their tea and ignoring everyone around them. I shudder to think of such a depressing sight happening at the teashop on 90th Street. What would the neighbors think?


Go, Dog. Go! in Shan State

When I was in Nyaungshwe I did a three-day teaching stint at the primary school in Shan State’s Tat Ein village. I taught English to the third, fourth, and fifth grade classes during morning and afternoon sessions,. I’ll write more about that incredible experience in an additional post in the next week or so. But today I just wanted to highlight one of the books that I used during the lessons; Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman. It’s very much in the style of Dr. Seuss, and some people assume it actually is Dr. Seuss due to the similar colorful illustrations and zany characters.


I wasn’t sure how this book would connect with the kids at Tat Ein. They all have English lessons during their regular classes, but their language skills are very, very basic and they can’t read very well. They can count to ten and spell d-o-g and c-a-t, but not much more than that. Anyway, I’m pleased to report that Go, Dog. Go! was a hit, a huge hit. The kids really loved it, marveling at the wild characters and cracking up at the funny bits. Clearly, the children enjoyed the story, thanks mainly to those colorful illustrations.


It helped that the vocabulary in the book was easy, and also easy enough for me to translate most parts in Burmese. It didn’t matter which class I read it to, they all huddled around me and urged me to turn the pages faster. They wanted to know what was going on at the top of that tree! I’d also ask them questions about what was happening on each page. How many dogs are there? What color is his hat? What color is the car? What game are they playing? Really, reading this book was one of the highlights of the lessons. I didn’t have the heart to take the book back with me when I was finished, so I left it with one of the other teachers, hoping she can get some mileage out of it too.


Shan Shopping Channel

The largest town near Inle Lake in Shan State is Nyaungshwe. This is where most of the hotels and guesthouses in the area are located, although more lakeside resorts have been opening in recent years. The appeal of those resorts escapes me. Yes, they’re all quite comfortable and attractive, and with their lakeside location, the scenery looking out your window may be lovely. But with all that tranquility you sacrifice atmosphere. The location is so far from town and so isolated, that visitors never get to truly experience the unique vibe of daily Shan State life. Nyaungshwe is a sleepy little town, but it’s quite scenic in its own right, and offers a variety of charming experiences for the visitor.  Walk around town and discover the quaint wooden bridges, monasteries, canals, stupa ruins, kids flying kites, and so much more. It’s damn cool.


One of those simple charms is the local outdoor market. It’s not an extremely large market, but it’s always bustling with activity — a heady mix of vendors and shoppers — and bursting with color. I never get tired of roaming the aisles and snapping photos. As long as keep my distance from the aromatic fresh fish section, it makes for a refreshing stroll. I just have to be careful and remember to watch out where I’m walking. Inevitably, I have to swerve and duck whenever I approach the many low-hanging ropes and wires; don’t want any messy decapitations.


I go to the market to buy fruit each morning when I’m in town. The fruit is not for me — although I’ve been known to nibble on a mango now and then — but to take to the monks at Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung later in the morning. I patronize the same fruit seller every time, a lovely young woman who always presents me “presents” in the form of extra pieces of fruit. Depending on the season, it might be mangoes, oranges, apples, watermelon, pineapples, dragon fruit, or avocadoes.


There are no supermarkets or grocery stores in Nyaungshwe, only this single market. Even in the larger nearby town of Taunggyi — a one-hour drive up the road and over the mountain — the only shopping option is an outdoor market. These people living in Shan State don’t have the luxury of owning fridges, so they can’t store and hoard food products for later consumption. Even if they could afford an appliance, unless they also owned a generator, they are at the mercy of the frequent power cuts — the power outages in the area can last several hours per day, or all day — and refrigerated food would likely spoil. Thus, whatever you buy today, you eat today. And frankly, I think that’s a healthier approach to eating anyway.


Idiot Bag

The Bangkok Post has a letters-to-the-editor section called “Postbag” every day. Like in other English language newspapers around the world, the letters that are published can be interesting, informative, infuriating, or just plain idiotic. One wonders what the criteria is for publication. The Bangkok Post appears to have their own stable of favorite contributors; letters from the same people appearing often — sometimes several times each week. And some of those regulars write on the same subject, rehashing the same points, every time. Other letters are so bizarre that they skirt the fringes of sanity.


In yesterday’s “Postbag” there was a letter from someone in Pattaya (that should have been a dead giveaway right there; anyone choosing to live in the creepy confines of Pattaya has no credibility to be dispensing advice) writing as “Charlie Brown” (it’s rare that letter writers in “Postbag” use their real name), praising the Bangkok police for their “professional handling” of bag searches. Old Charlie was responding to a previous letter that had also commended the local police for doing a good job searching bags. That particular letter had been prompted by an initial letter criticizing the police for their arbitrary and intrusive practice of stopping foreigners for random bag searches. All part of Thailand’s most recent “war on drugs.”


This Charlie Brown character went on to “add some advice to foreigners.” “Please consider the police are doing what they need to suppress the drug problems in Thailand. If you insist on running around the streets of Bangkok with a backpack, then cooperate. Don’t give the police a hard time when they stop you for a check. Best to leave your backpack in your hotel or home.”


What I can say, except: Idiot! What sort of moronic advice is that? “Insist” on running around with a backpack? The way he phrases that, it’s as if carrying a backpack is a reckless or rebellious act that is bound to get you into trouble sooner or later. But how does carrying a backpack, or a bag of any sort, make you suspicious enough to profile you as a drug dealer or user?  What about that Mercedes driver with the suspiciously large trunk? I either have a shoulder bag or backpack with me every day of the year. Inside I have an umbrella, my Burmese phrasebook, coins, a raincoat (I keep that bulky item in the backpack), an MP3 player, and a book or two. I’m not one of the privileged motorists who zoom around town in the comfort of a luxury vehicle or an oversized SUV, so I’m always on foot or taking motorcycle taxis. Rainy season gets longer every year, and I’m always prepared for it. Without my “suspicious” bags, I wouldn’t be able to carry my assortment of necessities.


I would definitely side with the first letter writer, the guy who took affront at being stopped by the police for no reason whatsoever. I think the Bangkok police are overstepping the bounds of law enforcement with these bag checks and what they are doing is nothing more than sheer harassment. It’s also sometimes an attempt at “scaring” the foreigner into paying a bribe (“You’ll have to come down to the station while we sort out the problem of you not having an ID … unless of course you want to make a financial contribution to our police fund. Sorry, we don’t give receipts.”).


I think the whole idea of searching bags as a way of cracking down on the “problem” of drugs is woefully ineffective. I’d much rather see the local police channel their efforts into more pressing problems, such as stopping speeding motorcycles that drive on the sidewalk (this is a very common, and dangerous, practice in Bangkok; I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me they were knocked down or hit), preventing taxis from parking in the street (stroll up Silom Road — or try to — any night of the week and marvel at the packs of parked taxis, forcing other motorists to use the single lane that is remaining), or do something to stop the gangs of vocational school students who are shooting, knifing, terrorizing, and beating up one another every week (yet another disturbing and very common occurrence).


But instead the police focus on searching foreigners with backpacks, fining foreigners for throwing cigarettes on the ground (in fairness to the smokers, there isn’t any place to throw away a cigarette, not since all waste bins were removed for “security” reasons a few years ago), or stopping motorcycles (ironically, only the ones that drive in the street!) and shaking them down for some cash (another oddity: I never see them pull over a rich Mercedes driver and demand cash for some imagined traffic offense, only the ones driving cheaper vehicles).


I could paraphrase Charlie Brown’s ludicrous statement and say something far more logical: If you insist on driving your car around Bangkok, don’t complain about air pollution and traffic jams!


House of Pain

As strange and nasty as politics is nowadays in the USA, especially with another presidential election rearing its ugly head, it’s hard to top some of the utter foolishness and political shenanigans that occur on a regular basis here in Thailand. Take an incident that was reported in the Bangkok Post yesterday, the headline on Page 2 telling us:

                                       Senator kills aide with Uzi in eatery

Naturally, the reader is going to want to know more about such a fascinatingly bizarre incident, so I read the read of the rest of the rather short article.  Here are the highlights:

Mae Hong Son Senator Boonsong Kowawisarat accidentally shot and killed his personal secretary with a gun in a restaurant in Phrae province, police said. Sen Boonsong, 55, and his personal assistant Chanakarn Detkard, 46, were travelling to Bangkok in the senator’s car and stopped for dinner at a restaurant in tambon Mae Keng.

While waiting for their meal, Mr Boonsong took out the weapon. He told police the gun accidentally discharged and his secretary was shot in the stomach. Sen Boonsong said he was so shocked by what happened that he was unable to take Chanakarn to hospital himself. The owner of the restaurant had to take her, where she was pronounced dead from her injuries. Police have yet to arrest or charge the senator as he is protected by parliamentary privilege while the House is in session.

I can just picture the scene; the senator is impatiently waiting for his dish of grilled squid to arrive, when he decides to take out his trusty uzi (Question: Did he keep it in a case of some sort or tucked into his trousers?) and make sure it’s functioning properly. Oops … what was that noise?


I think it’s safe to say that this qualifies as a major news story. If something like this had happened back in the US, or any Western country, I dare say if would be front page news. For many days. But here in Thailand it’s relegated to the second page of the newspaper, and in today’s edition, not a single followup article at all. Suspicious by its absence, don’t you think? Instead, we are treated to a crime roundup with articles about six students being arrested for a shooting the previous week; two men charged with killing and robbing a taxi driver; and a Cambodia worker accused of slashing the throat of an infant child. America may be a cesspool of gun-toting thugs and religious lunatics, but we have our share of violent nut-jobs here too. Welcome to paradise!


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