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

Archive for September, 2012

Andy Williams in a Winnebago

Many of you probably heard the news that legendary singer Andy Williams passed away this week at the age of 84. Most people would associate Williams with his huge hit 1960s “Moon River,” but when I think about Andy Williams the image of a dusty Winnebago motor home springs to mind.

 

To the best of my knowledge Andy Williams never sung about driving a Winnebago or recorded any odes to motor home romance, so I should probably explain such a seemingly bizarre association. During the early 1970s my parents owned a Winnebago and every summer they would pile me and my sisters into the vehicle for long distance trips around the Southeastern US (from our home in Florida), or further west to Colorado. During those road trips we had 8-track tapes constantly playing music from the likes of Jim Croce, the Carpenters, Elvis Presley, Glen Campbell, the Platters, and a few glorious K-Tel collections of recent Top 40 hits. And there was also a healthy amount of Andy Williams on board too. No trip would have been complete without Andy crooning the theme songs from “Love Story” or “The Godfather,” or his renditions of “Your Song” or “We’ve Only Just Begun.” Something about that voice of his was just very, very soothing.

 

“Moon River,” of course, was his most famous song, and you got to admit, his version was a classic. In addition to that chestnut, he recorded a considerable amount of standards and middle of the road ballads such as “Danny Boy” and “Dear Heart”, so his recording output was not all exhilarating stuff. But he (or his producers) also had the knack for picking out cool contemporary cover songs to record, 70s gems like Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”, Stevie Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour”, Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” and many more.  And Andy Williams did those songs justice.

 

A few years ago, I saw a compilation of his “groovier” 60s and 70s material, In the Lounge With … Andy Williams on sale at a Bangkok CD shop. I just couldn’t resist buying that one. This album contained some percolating tunes like “Music to Watch Girls By” … “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” … “Windy” … “Up, Up and Away” … and “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” Schmaltz never sounded so good. I later supplemented that CD with a more extensive collection of hits, The Essential Andy Williams. But that was enough for me: I bypassed getting any of his many Christmas music collections. I’m not that much of a masochist!

 

In 2009 Andy Williams published an autobiography, Moon River and Me. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve got a secondhand hardcover edition sitting on the shelf at my bookshop, and if nobody buys it in the next week or so (I’ve got it displayed in the window right now, between Fifty Shades of Grey and an old Alfred Hitchcock paperback), I just may have a go at that one. Hell, if nothing else, I need some more non-fiction to break up my heavy diet of mystery novels.

 

Kim Fay’s Map of Lost Memories

At the far end of the apartment, a row of shutters opened onto a balcony overlooking the swayback roofs of Shanghai. Beyond the low buildings and down a crooked street, the Whangpoo River shushed against the wharves. A heavy, velvet humidity pressed down on this dark belt of water, a perpetual tension that caused a wilted draft, lifting fumes of jasmine and sewage, coal and rotting river weed, into thick night air.

That’s the opening paragraph of The Map of Lost Memories, the impressive debut novel by Kim Fay that has just been published. That evocative passage is just one of many that are peppered through the thrilling historical novel, set in Asia in 1925. Fay takes the reader along with her characters, deftly describing the sights, smells, and vibes of each exotic locale they visit. From the back alleys of Shanghai and Saigon, to humid jungles and magnificent temple ruins in Cambodia, Fay’s vivid, atmospheric prose enables the reader to see and smell and feel the surroundings.

The main character in The Map of Lost Memories is Irene Blum, a young museum curator from Seattle. She has been sent to Asia on an unusual mission by her dying, and somewhat mysterious, mentor. In Shanghai she is introduced to Simone, “a mercurial French woman” and experienced Asia hand, who Irene hopes will help her find a legendary set of copper scrolls that detail the history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization, an area of particular interest to both women. After joining forces in Shanghai, and dealing with Simone’s dangerous husband, the two women sail to Vietnam, where they rendezvous with two men in Saigon. From that point, their journey takes on added intrigue — and even more participants — when they enter Cambodia and travel from the ruins of Angkor to Phnom Penh, and then into the unforgiving Cambodia jungles in search of a mysterious temple and the scrolls.

 

Kim Fay spent fourteen long years — from inspiration to publication — writing, researching, and rewriting her novel. That sounds like an unbelievably tedious and frustrating ordeal, but she should be quite happy with the end result. Only published a few weeks ago, The Map of Lost Memories is already receiving raves. A review in Publishers Weekly called the book “Atmospheric, lyrical, and written in almost painfully beautiful prose, this historical novel sings like a coloratura soprano performing in a gorgeous opera.” The Historical Novel Society also recommended the book, saying: “We expect a female Indiana Jones and an expedition filled with adventure and excitement, but while there are exciting moments, the focus is more on character, and the whole expedition is more of a journey of self-discovery … an intriguing read that takes different paths to those expected.”

Other authors have also been effusive with praise. Gail Tsukiyama said: “With deftness and clarity, Fay brings her world to life and gives us a captivating read.” Nicole Mones added: “Kim Fay breathes new and original life into the Westerner-in-Asia novel with The Map of Lost Memories. An enchanting, absorbing first novel, all the more remarkable for its effortless portrayal of a bygone world, now nearly forgotten.”

I played e-mail ping pong with Kim recently, asking her about the new novel and its source of inspiration, her other writing projects, and a few questions about food. Needless to say, she’s a very busy woman these days!

You must be very excited to see your first novel finally published and in bookshops. What sort of emotions are you experiencing now that it’s out?

If I had the words to draw a picture of me doing a happy dance, I would. This truly is the best feeling in the world. I’ve wanted to be a published novelist since I was ten, so to say that this is a dream come true is an understatement. I plan to enjoy every second of it, except for those when I’m anxiously worrying that no one will buy my book! Fortunately, these moments pass. Also, along with exhilaration, there is some sadness. I spent fourteen years with my characters. Now I have to let them go. Fortunately, readers are starting to discuss them. It’s a bit like when a kid goes off to college. The parent still hears about what they’re up to and even talks about them with family and friends, but ultimately the parent is no longer in control and the child has gone off to live her own life.

You lived in Vietnam for several years, but most of this novel takes place in Cambodia and is about ancient Khmer temples. What inspired you to pick this topic for your book?

Not long after I moved to Vietnam, I read a book called Silk Roads. It’s the true story of Andre and Clara Malraux, a young French couple who lost their small fortune and came up with the idea of looting a Cambodian temple and living off the sale of a few choice artifacts. In 1923, they set sail to Cambodia, and with the help of local laborers, they pried a seven-piece, 1,000-pound bas relief from the abandoned temple of Banteay Srei. They were caught almost immediately and put under house arrest in Phnom Penh. While there they witnessed the injustices of colonialism. This experience launched their involvement in the revolutionary politics of the region, and their overall experience inspired me to start writing The Map of Lost Memories.

This novel took several years for you to write. Like any good fiction, you had to create memorable characters, write believable dialogue, develop atmosphere, and mix in a page-turning plot. Which aspects to writing the novel were the most difficult for you? And which parts were easiest?  

The first books I read on my own when I was young were mysteries such as Nancy Drew. Because of this, I’ve always been drawn to plot. I love mapping out a story and creating an intricate web that needs to be unraveled. This comes easily to me, as does creating a setting that draws readers in. I think the latter is due to my love of travel writing. I’m grateful to the skills I’ve honed as a travel writer, since they give me the ability to create a strong sense of place. What is toughest for me is character. I don’t have a problem coming up with characters, but once they emerge, I often have no idea who they are. And I will find myself trying to force my characters to go against their nature and behave in ways that will serve the plot I’ve created—this is always a mistake! Fortunately, characters usually have minds of their own, and if you give them their space, they will develop in incredible ways. I also write in layers, with one draft layered over another draft layered over the top of another. By doing this I allow my characters to develop organically, and I spend time getting to know them better and understanding who they are in the context of the story I’m trying to tell.

You have quite a cast of interesting characters of various nationalities in your book. Once you had the idea for the novel, did you also have the roster of characters pretty much set, or did they evolve during the course of writing?

I think I answered part of this question in my response above, but to elaborate on it, Roger and Simone Merlin were loosely inspired by Andre and Clara Malraux, and like most of the characters—Irene, Marc, Mr. Simms, Anne—they existed from the very start. The big surprise was Clothilde. She did not exist in the early drafts of the book, and when she first appeared, she was simply Mr. Simms’s nurse. But the more I wrote, the more she demanded a life and story of her own. I think she was protesting the lack of local characters in the book. I don’t blame her, but I was wary of including a local cast of characters, because I felt that I had to stay true to the Western viewpoint in Asia in the 1920s, and that viewpoint was so awful most of the time. Even Irene, who loves Cambodia and its culture, has a pretty terrible attitude toward the local population. Also, when it came to local women and their role in Western expatriate society at that time period, they were generally confined to being servants, mistresses or prostitutes. While Clothilde is indeed Mr. Simms’s mistress, I hope that her reasons for this are sympathetic justified in the story and that her individuality comes through. I wish I would have developed Clothilde further, but she has recently informed me that she will have a significant role in the sequel!

I recall your last trip to Asia a few years ago when you went to Cambodia and took the boat from Phnom Penh up the river to Kratie. At that point, you must have been close to finishing the book. What specific contribution did that trip make to the novel?

In 2009, as I neared the end of the writing the novel, I hadn’t been to Cambodia for four years. The plot of the novel had evolved drastically during that time, and I felt the need to return and immerse myself in the country, so that I could undertake the home stretch with Cambodia’s sights, sounds and smells fresh in my mind. I spent days in the National Museum in Phnom Penh (one of my favorite places in Cambodia and the scene of a major encounter with Irene and Simone), just sitting in the shadows, sipping iced tea and studying the artifacts. And I traveled to Kratie, on the Mekong River between Phnom Penh and Stung Treng. There, I pedaled out into the countryside and let my mind wander as I inhaled the dank, omnipresent scent of the river and reminded myself how such intense heat and humidity can make a person feel so alive. I was able to return the States and steep my final work on the novel in the immediacy of my experiences.

You’re a former bookseller. In this era of e-books and online sales, many bookshops are closing. Do you think that brick and mortal retail shops can still play an important role in selling books, or will they soon go the way of the dinosaur?

I think brick and mortar retail shops play an incredibly crucial role—creating a sense of community and offering a place where discussion and ideas can take root and grow. There is no substitute for an independent bookseller hand-selling a customer his favorite book, or for a conversation that breaks out among the shelves when two people discover they love the same book. I understand why people shop online, and I understand why they read e-books, but I think in both instances they are missing out on what is my favorite thing about independent bookshops: human connection. The more our lives our consumed by our online worlds, the more we need bookshops to keep us connected to one another. Every time I walk into an independent bookstore, I feel a sense of possibility. Of course I would love to say that because of their importance, bookstores will be around forever, but sadly I’m not sure. I’m just grateful to people like you for investing your lives in places where people can gather and share their love of the written word.

What about your next novel; a sequel to this one, or something entirely different?

There will definitely be a sequel to The Map of Lost Memories, although it’s difficult to talk about without revealing spoilers. But that’s not my next book. I’m about 100 pages into a new novel that takes place in Vietnam between 1937 and 1975. It’s the story of an American woman born in Vietnam who goes on to become a culinary anthropologist. Along with studying the country’s imperial cuisine, she also feeds homesick soldiers. I want to use the book to explore the domestic side of Vietnamese life during an era associated solely with war. I also want it to be a love song to the country. But because of my affection for Nancy Drew, I can’t help myself—there will also be a murder and a mystery to be solved.

You are editor of the marvelous To Asia with Love series, and also wrote the excellent food travel memoir Communion. Do you have any ideas for other travel or non-fiction books that you’d like to write, or will you stick to novels at this point?

I feel fortunate to have edited the To Asia With Love guidebooks and to have written a food memoir about Vietnam; and although I truly enjoy writing nonfiction, my first love is fiction. Now that I have an opportunity to pursue it, that’s where my main focus is. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write more nonfiction in the future. One idea I’d really like to pursue is a Vietnamese imperial cuisine cookbook to pair with my new novel. But it would contain more than just recipes. It would also be a history book and incorporate stories from Vietnam’s imperial era and unique tidbits, such as translations of a cookbook from the imperial city of Hue that was written in 1915 entirely in verse.

You’re an unabashed foodie; you’ve written about Asian cuisine and cook a lot at home. What are some of the best dishes you’ve eaten in Cambodia?

On my last trip to Cambodia, I became addicted to green mango salad. I was blazing hot all the time, and it was so refreshing—especially since mangos were in season, hanging by the hundreds in the trees and piled high at every roadside stand. It was also more flavorful than similar salads I’d had in surrounding countries, mainly because, as I wrote in my travel diary, it was so “shrimpy.” I also ate a lot of pleah, the cold beef salad made with lime, roasted rice powder and peanuts. While I like many of the soups, as well, I was definitely drawn to dishes that revived me with their coolness and light flavors.

Were you brave enough to try any of the more “challenging” treats over there, such as tarantula or field rat?

I’m not opposed to such treats in theory, but to be honest, I’m not sure if I could stomach a whole tarantula. And for the most part, I didn’t come across such dishes. In any case, I figure Anthony Bourdain has the adventure dining market covered—I think I’ll do best leaving the creepy crawlies to the experts!!

You will do some book signings and interviews in the US for the launch of this novel. Are you planning on any trips to Asia to promote the book too?

In the spring of 2013, I’ll be accompanying a food tour group through Vietnam; at the end of this trip, we’ll visit Cambodia where we plan to hold a book group for The Map of Lost Memories right at the temples. While there, I hope to do an event at Monument Books, which already has my novel on sale, front and center. If it works into my schedule, I’d love to come to Thailand as well, but I’m not yet sure if that will happen.

http://www.kimfay.net/

 

 

Shan Lunch Break!

The students at Tat Ein’s primary school get a two-hour lunch break each day. Classes stop at eleven each morning and resume at one in the afternoon. The novice monks in class, however, get to leave earlier, around 10:45, so that they can walk up the hill to their monastery for lunch.

 

When I’m teaching at the school, I’m invited to eat lunch with the other teachers and volunteers that help out at the monastery. The meals, a bounty of freshly prepared vegetarian dishes, are always delicious; stir-fried dishes, soups, and salads are the usual fare. They don’t serve any of the oily curries that so many people associate with Burmese food. Then again, this is Shan State and the cuisine is a bit different, my favorite in all of Myanmar, vegetarian or not.

 

After I’ve finished my lunch and one of the teachers has brought me coffee (on top of all the tea I’ve already consumed) and some fresh fruit, I feel the need to walk it off. Some days I might stroll up to the monastery and talk with the monks, or visit the head monk, U Sandi Mar, in his cave, but usually I just walk around the school yard and watch the children playing games, snapping a few photos in the process. What you see in today’s post are some of the typical lunch break activities at the school; children scampering down the slides and see-saw, playing football or dodge ball, picking flowers, or playing card games. They certainly know how to entertain themselves.

 

But, sadly, some of them don’t get to eat lunch every day. At least the novice monks are assured of a meal at their monastery, but that’s not the case with all the children. Tat Ein is a very poor village and some of the children don’t go home for lunch. It might be because their parents are working in the fields and don’t have time — or the money — to fix a midday meal for their children. U Sandi Mar and his crew try to feed as many kids as they can each day, but there isn’t always enough food for everyone. It definitely makes me think twice when they offer me second helpings. Politeness dictates that you accept what is offered, but I often beg off and tell them that I had a huge breakfast and I’ll already full.

 

On the other side of the mountain, a few kilometers away, the village of Loi Kin has a small primary school and many students there also go without lunch each day. My friend Htein Linn, at Golden Bowl Travel in Nyaungshwe, is concerned about this problem and wants to start a program where tourists can donate money to provide lunches for these poor students. I think that’s an excellent idea. If you are interested in helping, and are passing through Nyaunghshwe (“on the shores of famous Inle Lake”), stop by Golden Bowl Travel and talk to Htein Linn. If has time, he’ll even take you to one of the schools. You can reach Tat Ein by bike or a very long walk, but Loi Kin is further away, and accessible by only steep, rutted paths, so a motorcycle is the better option. Golden Bowl Travel is located on Nyaungshwe’s main street, between the market and Golden Kite Restaurant (good pizza and pasta there!). Htein Linn also has a good selection of secondhand books at his shop!

 

 

 

Rumer Has It

In case, you haven’t heard Rumer, get ready to meet the ghost of Karen Carpenter. Really, it’s almost eerie how much that Rumer sounds like Carpenter, the late, beloved singer of “We’ve Only Just Begun”, “Close to You,” and other 1970s pop hits. Listening to Rumer (whose real name is Sarah Joyce) sing, the warm timbre or her voice, the phrasing; it’s like Karen Carpenter all over again. That comparison side, Rumer is not some sort of lame impersonator whose songs all sound like rehashes of Carpenters classics, but her music certainly does invoke a pleasant feeling of pop nostalgia.

 

Earlier this year Rumer released her second album, Boys Don’t Cry, a fantastic collection of covers of songs all written and originally performed by male artists in the 1970s. I was pleasantly surprised to find the CD at the Gram shop in Bangkok’s Siam Paragon mall earlier this month. Boys Don’t Cry features fairly well known tunes, such as Daryl Hall & John Oates’ “Sara Smile” and Bob Marley’s “Soul Rebel”, balanced with more obscure compositions from big names such as Leon Russell, Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Isaac Hayes, and others. Impressively, Rumer didn’t select the “obvious hits” by these artists, but instead sought out album tracks that are less known. Clearly, Rumer did her homework in picking songs that were not only suitable for her voice, but ones that really meant something to her. Hearing her sings these songs, the passion is evident. Perhaps the biggest surprise is the album’s closing number, her cover of Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid.” That may strike many as an odd song for a woman to sing, but Rumer manages to put a new twist on those lyrics and transform the song into something less maudlin.

 

Besides fine music, another plus to the CD edition of Boys Don’t Cry is the accompanying booklet. In addition to the songwriting credits, each track listing has a cover photo of the album that the original song came from. Very cool touch! Hopefully, this might inspire a listener to seek out the original versions, songs by cool characters such as Townes Van Zandt, Terry Reid, and other fine singer-songwriters from that special era.

 

Rumer’s 2010 debut album, Seasons of My Soul, was a refreshing and striking blend of original compositions and a handful of covers. Her vocal style had that Karen Carpenter vibe, of course, plus the song arrangements brought to mind the classic Burt Bacharach-penned songs from the 60s and 70s. No annoyingly clunky hip-hop production or other unnecessary contemporary flourishes, just quality pop songs wrapped around a luscious voice with uncluttered arrangements.

 

Rumer has received lots of favorable press in the UK during the past two years, but sadly, she remains virtually unknown in the USA. Part of that is due to the tardy release of her albums in the states. For some odd reason, her American label has delayed the release of both albums, waiting several months after they’ve been available in the UK to finally make them available. But that practice seems to be par for the course for the clueless corporate clones that make such decisions. That’s a shame, because Rumer is a supremely talented vocalist and deserves to be much better known.

http://www.rumer.co.uk/

 

Religious Loony Season

Here in Thailand we’re in the midst of our annual rainy season — a wet period that seems to last longer each year — but judging from the news around the world lately, we could also call this Religious Loony Season. Personally, I fear this destructive deluge as much as any floods or rain storms.

In the USA they are preparing to elect a president once again. This time around it’s the incumbent, Barack “I’ve got a Valid Birth Certificate” Obama versus Mitt “I Love my Car Elevator” Romney. Despite Obama’s disappointing performance during his first term (and a lot of that ineffectiveness can be chalked up to the vicious obstruction that’s been thrown at him by Republicans in congress), I think he’s by far the better choice for president. Based on everything Mitt Romney has said and done — not only during this campaign, but during his entire political and “business” career — he’s clearly an aloof and clueless character who has no clear or consistent policies. But hey, rich white guys love him, so he’s in the race.

 It would seem, even though the US economy continues to fart and sputter, Romney is so inept that Obama stands a very good chance of winning. But by no means is his re-election assured. Why? Because of the Religious Loony factor. The loony religious right wingers in the US are dubious of not only Obama’s performance in office, but also his birth origins and religious affiliation. A shockingly high percentage of these nutters fervently believe he is a Muslim and was born outside of the US. Obviously, facts confuse these people. But even church-going Black Americans who voted for Obama the first time around, are having second thoughts about the President. Why? Because Obama belatedly endorsed gay marriage. Oh, the horror! And yet, they aren’t comfortable with Romney, a card-carrying, one-wife Mormon, either. What will they do? It appears they are being urged by their Loony Religious Leaders not to even bother voting! Here’s what one online news story told us this week:  

Some black clergy see no good presidential choice between a Mormon candidate and one who supports gay marriage, so they are telling their flocks to stay home on Election Day. The pastors say their congregants are asking how a true Christian could back same-sex marriage, as President Barack Obama did in May. As for Republican Mitt Romney, the first Mormon nominee from a major party, congregants are questioning the theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its former ban on men of African descent in the priesthood.

“When President Obama made the public statement on gay marriage, I think it put a question in our minds as to what direction he’s taking the nation,” said the Rev. A.R. Bernard, founder of the predominantly African-American Christian Cultural Center in New York. Bernard, whose endorsement is much sought-after in New York and beyond, voted for Obama in 2008. He said he’s unsure how he’ll vote this year.

Bernard is among the traditional Christians who voted for Obama in 2008 and are now undecided because of the president’s support for gay marriage. But Bernard is also troubled by Romney’s faith. “To say you have a value for human life and exclude African-American human life, that’s problematic,” Bernard said, about the Mormon’s previous priesthood ban.

The Rev. Dwight McKissic, a prominent Southern Baptist and black preacher, describes himself as a political independent who didn’t support Obama in 2008 because of his position on social issues. McKissic said Obama’s support for same-gender marriage “betrayed the Bible and the black church.” On Election Day, McKissic said, “I plan to go fishing.”

http://news.yahoo.com/african-american-christians-waver-over-vote-120333681–election.html

While the Religious Loonies “pray for guidance” and “forgiveness” for their (many) sins, as well as engage in their beloved pastimes of hunting and fishing, Romney continues to put his foot his mouth with totally absurd comments, further proving that he has no clue as to what the average American wants or thinks. You may have heard about the “leaked” speech that Romney gave to some of his rich donator buddies earlier this year. Here a few choice excerpts:

Romney, on Obama and his supporters:

“There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that they are the victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, you name it, that that’s an entitlement and they will vote for this president no matter what… These are people who pay no income tax … I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

It’s interesting that he would talk about people who pay no income tax. I’m sure his fan club of rich white guys paid special attention to that quote, since most of them endeavor to pay as little tax as possible. To that crowd, “tax” is a four-letter word, and they wince in pain whenever the subject is mentioned. It doesn’t seem to matter which political or social issue is being discussed, the one dearest to their hearts is paying less taxes. Pathetic.

Meanwhile, here in the relatively calm environs of Southeast Asia, we have our share of religious loonies. But instead of deluded Christians we have befuddled Muslims. South of the border, in Malaysia, Muslim authorities are fretting over their children turning into raving homosexuals! Here’s what one wire service article had to say last week:

The Malaysian government has begun holding seminars aiming to help teachers and parents spot signs of homosexuality in children, underscoring a rise in religious conservatism in the country. The federal government said in March that it is working to curb the “problem” of homosexuality, especially among Muslims who make up over 60% of Malaysia’s population of 29 million people. According to a handout issued at a recent seminar, signs of homosexuality in boys may include preferences for tight, light-colored clothes and large handbags, local media reported. For girls, the details were less clear. Girls with lesbian tendencies have no affection for men and like to hang out and sleep in the company of women, the reports said.

Words fail me. Despite the clear absurdity of what these nuts are saying, the fact that so many people with power believe these things and are intent on passing laws is very worrying. And if the Muslims aren’t upset about “unnatural” gay activity, they are all worked over this ridiculous independent film about Mohammed that was leaked on YouTube last week. Instead of wisely ignoring such an amateur cinematic atrocity, some of the religion’s more fervent fanatics have taken grave offense at the film’s content and have resorted to violence in various spots around the world.

We’ve all seen or read about these horrific incidents in the past week.  But the protests have even spread to Bangkok, where yesterday a group of “500 angry Thai Muslims” gathered at the US Embassy to protest the film. It was also quite possibly the largest gathering of facial hair ever seen on the streets of the city. These bewildered loonies apparently had nothing better to do than block a public street and force the US embassy to shut down its services for half the day, all so that they could declare their “love for the prophet” and scream “Death to America” until they were hoarse and needed to walk over to 7-Eleven  and quench their thirst with Coke (oops …  more symbols of American imperialism!). At least there wasn’t any violence and the crowd dispersed after about two hours. I guess I better not tell them that I carry Salman Rushdie novels at my bookshop! Satanic Verses, baby, come and get it!

 

English Classes in Mandalay

Back in Mandalay, on my favorite little dirt road, 90th Street, I keep discovering interesting little places each time I visit. Taking walks with Maw Hsi and the kids from the neighborhood has introduced me to fun little shops, home factories (everything from shoes to jade), monasteries, and even language schools. On this trip I found two places in the neighborhood that were offering free English classes in the afternoons and evenings. The teachers were university students or recent graduates, one of whom was Maw Hsi’s daughter. I was very impressed to see so many kids attending these classes, especially after they’ve already had a long day in their regular school. Clearly, they have a thirst for knowledge … or perhaps their mother has threatened them. You know how that goes!

 

At one little makeshift class — located outside someone’s home — I saw Yan Aung Myo, a boy I knew from previous field trips with the kids, grinning at me from the front row. I always knew he could spell well, and this was evidence that he’s worked hard at developing such skills. At a nearby monastery school the next day I ran into the shy Hein Htet Zaw and his fellow students, all of them furiously scribbling notes in their books. It struck me that there was a lot of writing and rote learning in these classes. Write a sentence, repeat after me, write the sentence again. Blah, blah, blah. Not an ideal learning environment, but better than nothing.

 

It was good to see these youngsters studying English, and diligently copying everything that was written on the board (even if there were spelling or grammatical errors!), but I yearned to get up there and try and few more interesting speaking activities with the class. But, I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to say or do anything in such a situation, so I just nodded my head and smiled. I chatted with Maw Hsi later in the week and volunteered my services for the next time I return to Mandalay. He seemed excited at the idea, so I think we’ll work something out. I look forward to teaching these kids.

 

Welcome to Changing Myanmar!

Every time I return from a trip to Myanmar, especially during the past two years, friends and customers at my shop will ask me: “Do you see any changes happening there?”

 

Normally I shrug my shoulders and say: “Not really.” And that’s the truth. Any changes in the past have either been non-existent or very subtle ones. But this year the changes are more readily apparent and, for the most part, positive ones. If you follow the news, you obviously know that Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest last year, ran for a seat in parliament this year and was elected. She also seems to have finally accepted the fact that allowing tourists to visit her country is not such an evil thing. As I noted in a post last month, her once-banned image can now be seen everywhere around the country, and her name is in all the papers. Citizens can also now express themselves more openly when talking politics — in public, in newspapers, on radio, and on the Internet.  Things still aren’t as “free” as they are in Western countries (or, shall we say, “appear” to be in those countries) but the changes are for the better.

 

Two things of note have become much cheaper in Myanmar this year: cars and cell phones. The price to buy a new car has suddenly become affordable for many, so drivers are ditching their old clunkers and buying new Japanese models. The downside to this is a lot more traffic. Yangon is increasingly becoming paralyzed by Bangkok-like traffic jams in some areas. The ability to buy a cell phone is also now within the budget of more people, and access to wireless Internet is also becoming more common. I’m already annoyed by all the loud, chatty morons I see — and hear — in local restaurants. I mentioned in a post last month about seeing the “Free Wi-Fi” sign at a teashop. The gadget revolution in Myanmar has begun. And credit cards and ATMs — yet more common conveniences that Myanmar never had — are now on their way too. Changes, changes, and more changes.

 

As expected, after Aung San Suu Kyi was freed and the government engaged on a vigorous series of reforms, Myanmar started making the news and more foreigners became curious visiting the country. And since “The Lady” no longer forbids such excursions, tourists are now descending on Myanmar like the proverbial locusts. But this increase in arrivals is offering a mixed bag of results. Hotels are raising their rates to alarming new heights. A room in Yangon that cost me $18 a year ago is now $32 … and will probably be even more before the end of the year. At “nicer” hotels, I’m sure the rates are outrageous. The price of air tickets is also going up (even though there are more domestic airlines this year) and other transport options are also more expensive due to the cost of petrol and the increased demand.

 

The influx of more tourists will certainly offer more economic perks for the locals, but the extra demands from some overly picky western travelers — many of whom are used to being pampered in more traditional tourist havens — are creating headaches for local guides and tour operators. People working in the Myanmar tourism industry have become used to dealing with laid back, knowledgeable, and very reliable travelers; people who did their homework before visiting Myanmar and knew what to expect. They weren’t so demanding or prone to changing their minds or breaking commitments. The “new breed” of curious tourists, locals tell me, are proving to be much more difficult to deal with.

 

Myanmar is now seen as a “hot” new investment opportunity by many businesses. But I fear that this bevy of greedy developers and investors will do more harm than good. I look at what’s happened in Cambodia — where the rich are getting richer and the poor are as desperate as ever — and I fear the same fate will befall Myanmar. In the past several years, many poor people in Cambodia have been forced out of their old neighborhoods and “relocated” by the government, who use the seized land for new developments such as condos, office buildings, and shopping centers. Other residents can no longer to afford to live or operate small businesses in these prime locations and are also forced to move. And that’s what I fear is going to happen in Yangon and Mandalay, and even in small towns like Nyaungshwe. When the big cats come to town, how much longer can my friend Htein Linn afford to rent a shop on the main street in town? Say goodbye to lovely old neighborhoods, rich with tradition and a sense of community, and welcome another ugly high rise building or mall. Maybe that’s progress in the eyes of some of these greedy creeps, but not in mine.


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