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

Archive for December, 2012

Smiles for the New Year

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Another year passes, marred by shocking accounts of sadness and cruelty, violence and misery. We are bombarded by so many horrific events and disasters in the media each day that it’s easy to get overwhelmed and depressed by it all. And yet, despite this plethora of negativity, I lean on the side of optimism. I believe that the bad crap can be overcome, or at least counteracted, by love and kindness, hope and dreams, determination and perseverance … and lots of smiles.

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Wishing everyone lots of happiness, good health, and prosperity in 2013!

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Year End Listening

With this year almost wrapped up and ready for tossing away, I was tempted to compile a “Best Of” list, albums that I enjoyed listening to the most in 2012. But as much as I’ve tried to keep up with “worthwhile” new releases, I feel like I haven’t properly sampled enough of the cream of the crop. I haven’t, for example, listened to a fraction of the many CDs that I bought in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, and there are more than a few other notable 2012 releases that I’m still aiming to buy. Plus, I keep going back and discovering new “old” albums that I like. Thus, any attempt to compile an annual “Best” list would be woefully incomplete. So, in place of a yearly roundup, here is another one of my regular lists, CDs that I’ve been playing the most often the past two months.

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Neil Young – Americana

Patterson Hood – Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance

Calexico – Algiers

Dexys – One Day I’m Going to Soar

Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: The Capsoul Label

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Various Artists – Lost Soul Gems from the Sound of Memphis

Ben Folds Five – The Sound of the Life of the Mind

Electric Light Orchestra – El Dorado

Marshall Crenshaw – Jaggedland

The Wallflowers – Glad All Over

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Chris Difford – I Didn’t Get Where I Am

Rick James – Urban Rhapsody

Dylan LeBlanc – Cast the Same Old Shadow

Dyke and the Blazers – We Got More Soul

Ben Kweller – Changing Horses

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Freddie Hubbard – Open Sesame

Jackie McLean – Capuchin Swing

Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself

Donald Fagen – Sunken Condos

4 Way Street – Pretzel Park

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Wondermints – Bali

Milt Jackson & John Coltrane – Bags & Trane

Cass McCombs – Dropping the Writ

Band of Horses – Infinite Sums

Lee Morgan – Tom Cat

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David Ruffin – David (Unreleased LP and More)

Joe Bataan – Anthology

Two Door Cinema Club – Beacon

Elliott Smith – Figure 8

XTC – Apple Venus

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Iain Archer – Magnetic North

Shack – H.M.S. Fable

BoDeans – Joe Dirt Car

Barclay James Harvest – Gone to Earth

Joe Henderson – Mode for Joe

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The Explorer’s Club – The Grand Hotel

Kenny Dorham – Afro-Cuban

Frankie Miller – That’s Who!

Cut Copy – Bright Live Neon Love

Durocs – Durocs

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Carolina Chocolate Drops – Leaving Eden

I See Hawks in L.A. – Shoulda Been Gold 2001-2007

Leon Spencer – Legends of Acid Jazz

Jimmy Buffett – Havana Daydreamin’

The Vapors – Vaporized

 

Air Bagan Crash in Heho

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Like many people who have visited Myanmar, I was particularly interested in the details of Tuesday’s Air Bagan plane crash landing near Heho Airport in Shan State. I’ve landed at Heho’s airport dozens of times, and I’ve used Air Bagan many times for the flight from Mandalay to Heho (there are also a handful of other domestic carriers that fly that same route)  and even though I wouldn’t know a Fokker from a Fudgesicle, I have to assume that I’ve been on that same plane.

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The first details that I read online on Tuesday afternoon were sketchy. The initial news reports said that all passengers were evacuated from the airplane safely. Within an hour, however, updates said that an 11-year-old child died on the plane. Or was the child a passenger on the motorcycle that was hit by the plane while landing on a road near the airport? Or did the plane actually land in a rice field? Another hour or two later, it was reported that a tour guide, a Burmese woman, was the fatality on board. Did they mistake this woman for a child or did two people onboard perish? How many people were on the motorcycle that was hit? As usual with Internet “news”, there was a lot of rumor and disinformation. Did the plane hit a power line while trying to land? Was the fog so heavy that it caused the pilot to mistake a road for the runway? Did the fire start before or after the plane landed?  Whatever the cause, looking at photos of the aftermath, it’s a minor miracle that nearly all passengers were able to evacuate safely. Apparently, the crew did an outstanding job of getting nearly everyone off the plane quickly.

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The tour guide who died was Nwe Linn Shein. But in every online account that I’ve read of the accident, she is only referred to as a “local tour guide.” You can bet that if a foreign tourist had been killed, they would print the name, nationality, and other details of the person before you can shout “bamalama.” But in the eyes of the international media, because Nwe Linn Shein comes from Myanmar, she’s not considered important enough to have her name listed. She’s “just a local.” This is one of many media practices that I detest. Nwe Linn Shein was a real person, one with a family that loved her. Give her the same respect you would a foreign casualty.

 

In an online forum mainly comprised of local people working in Myanmar’s travel industry, they have already started collecting donations for Nwe Linn Shein’s family. In fact, one of the first questions some of the posters posed after the accident was how they could contact the woman’s family, and in turn do what they could to console them and help them. That’s typical of the people who I have met in Myanmar; they are a very concerned, generous, and caring community.

 

The airport in Heho is tiny, the terminal not much bigger than a suburban three-bedroom house. The choice of Heho for an airport seems puzzling at first glance. Heho is nothing more than a tiny provincial town out in the middle of nowhere with nothing for tourists to see or do. But it’s centrally located in Shan State. From Heho, it’s only a one-hour car ride to Nyaunghswe, the town known as “the gateway” to popular Inle Lake. Heho is also an hour from the biggest town in the region, the hill station of Taunggyi, and not far away is Kalaw, a popular base for trekking in the area. Earlier this year they expanded the departure area by knocking down a wall to create an area for more seating, but otherwise there’s been no other construction or expansion to the main building. With the huge spike in tourism, the days of Heho having a quaint little airport may soon be a thing of the past.

 

Meanwhile, I’ll be interested in how this accident affects both the short-term and long-term situation of the burgeoning travel industry in Myanmar. Already, domestic airlines are stretched thin in trying to handle the current tidal wave of tourists arriving to visit the country. I would assume that the number of tourists visiting the country this month is the highest ever recorded in Myanmar. Losing one plane on a popular route is going to create havoc for those passengers trying to book tickets in the coming months. But will other planes be grounded for safety inspections, creating more of a logjam? And will there be an increase in trip cancellations, tourists fearing that Myanmar is an unsafe destination? I’ve never felt unsafe anywhere in Myanmar; not on planes or boats, in hotels or walking the streets. It’s an incredibly hospitable and pleasant country. I hope the accident doesn’t adversely affect the country’s reputation.

 

Stumbling around Kuala Lumpur

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When I wasn’t book shopping or rummaging through the CD stores in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month, I was content to just stroll around town and soak up the local atmosphere. I stayed in a colorful area between Central Market and Masjid Jamek, conveniently close to the subway/train line and the Chinatown and Little India districts, plus there is noticeable Burmese presence on one street (more about that in a future post).

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From either the Pasar Seni or Masjid Jamek LRT stations, I could take a train to nearly any part of town my heart desired. At nearby KL Sentral, there is also a link to the monorail, KL Kommuter trains, and the KLIA Airport Express. Very handy system they have. Once I arrived at my station of choice, I’d either head straight to a mall for more shopping or eating, or just walk around the neighborhood to kill time. There is not much in the way of historical sites to see in the city, but I do like looking at the modern architecture, street graffiti, mosques, Hindu temples, and shops.

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The only thing that bothered me this time was all the Christmas decorations I saw, littering the local malls, restaurants, and department stores. And what is it with store employees gleefully wearing Santa Claus caps? Urrgghh! Yeah, I’m a seasonal Grinch, and proud of it. When I moved to Thailand 16 years ago, I thought I would be able to escape the Xmas idiocy, but no such luck. But even in a predominately Muslim country like Malaysia, the Christmas decorations are just out of control. Jingle Hell once again.

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I was also disappointed that one of my favorite restaurants, Yut Kee (in Dang Wangi) was closed for some sort of multi-day break during the time I was in town. But there are plenty of good dining options in KL, so it wasn’t like I was going to go without eating for four days.  I found another nearby kopitiam for breakfast, dined a few times at a Burmese restaurant, went to the funky The Ship in Bukit Bintang, and of course made a pilgrimage to the mighty Coliseum (more about that legendary restaurant in a later post also) for a sizzling steak with fried tofu on the side. Really. Weird combination, but along with a couple of Tiger beers it made my night.

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CD Shopping in Kuala Lumpur

In addition to buying books, one of the joys of visiting Kuala Lumpur — at least for me — is browsing the CD bins in the various music shops around town. Unlike in Bangkok, where CD shops with a decent selection of titles are becoming very scarce, KL boasts dozens of well-stocked shops, most of them located in shopping malls in Central KL or nearby Petaling Jaya.

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The best chain in operation, by far, is Rock Corner. They have branches at KLCC (next to the famous Petronas Twin Towers), Mid Valley Mega Mall, Bangsar Village, The Curve, 1 Utama Shopping Center, The Gardens, and Subang Parade. I’ve visited six of these branches over the past three years and they all are very well stocked, but my favorite is the one in Bangsar Village. It’s only a short walk from the Bangsar LRT station, the woman who manages the shop is very pleasant (and she plays good music, unlike the heavy metal dudes in some branches), and most importantly it has the best selection. They seem to be particularly on top of most important new releases, plus the back catalog they stock runs very deep, putting the woeful selection in Bangkok shops to shame.

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Thus, you can safely assume that I get a bit carried away when shopping at the Rock Corner stores, sometimes buying a dozen or more discs at a time. When I visited earlier this month, I found lots of new releases that were on my want list at the Bangsar branch, along with some cool unexpected oldies, titles I assumed that I’d have to order online if I wanted them. Because of the haphazard filing system, artists aren’t always where you would expect them to be, so I’ve discovered, it pays to thumb through the entire stock. It can be a tiring process, especially when they shelve the CDs with the spine out, like you see some bookshops do with paperbacks, but I’ve found some real jewels by being persistent.

 

Another smaller chain, Victoria Music, has branches worth visiting in the Amcorp Mall and BB Plaza. There is also a single Tower Records outlet still in business, recently relocated to the Times Square shopping center. But sadly, it looks like this Tower branch is running on fumes and may not be around too much longer. Their stock keeps shrinking and so has the number of employees. When I dropped by on a Saturday evening, only one guy was working. Nevertheless, I managed to find a half-dozen CDs amidst their dregs. But both Rock Corner and Victoria Music appear to be doing thriving business, judging from the number of customers that I see in their stores each time I visit. It puzzles me that KL has so many good CD shops, while in Bangkok it’s become very difficult to find a store with any depth in selection.

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I realize that more people are downloading music nowadays, but for me nothing beats the experience of perusing the selections in a well-stocked shop and talking music with a knowledgeable clerk. More power to retail, I say. I hope these stores can survive the digital onslaught and continue to profitably run their operations. If you enjoy buying CDs, even half as much as I do, it’s worth your while to visit Kuala Lumpur, especially the Rock Corner branches.

 

Book Bonanza in Kuala Lumpur

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There is still time; one week left for the Big Bad Wolf Book Sale being held at the Malaysia International Exhibition and Convention Centre (MIECC) in the Seri Kembangan area of Kuala Lumpur. I realize that hopping over to KL won’t be possible for most readers, but if you ARE in Malaysia, or passing through the region, you might to think about hitting this sale. It’s a pretty mammoth event.

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This sale is being touted as the biggest in the world; over three million books, all with discounts of 75-95 percent off the publisher’s list price. The sale will end on December 23. Last weekend the book sale never stopped, staying open from 9 am on Friday until 6 pm on Saturday. Imagine shopping for books at three in the morning and enjoying free food and drinks in the process. Both mind boggling and eyesight tiring. The MIECC is located in the MINES Resort City, Selangor Darul Ehsan. Seri Kembangan. One fellow book lover in KL suggested that I should “take a box” if I was planning on attending. If nothing else, anyone planning to go there should bring several sturdy bags or a dependable set of luggage. You’ll be tempted by the bargains.

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I was in Kuala Lumpur about two weeks ago, too soon to take advantage of this sale, but I did make my usual stop at the BookXcess outlet at the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya. They had an outstanding selection of affordable remainder titles as usual, everything from trade size paperback novels to hardcover titles, and books in a wide array of categories, including travel, sports, photography, biography, science, business, music, history, cooking, and romance. I bought a few books for myself, a couple of big bags full of assorted titles for my shop in Bangkok, and several children’s books, flashcards, and puzzles to use for teaching the next time I’m Shan State. They also had a pretty cool selection of Dr. Seuss jigsaw puzzles. Tempting, but at that point I was pushing the weight limit of my baggage allowance, so I didn’t get any.

BookXcess only has this one branch in town, but it makes for a very worthwhile visit if you are a book fiend. And it’s easy to get to from anywhere in the KL area. Just hop on the LRT train and take it to the Tama Jaya station. From there, it’s a short walk across the parking lot (just past the vintage A&W drive-through restaurant) to the mall. BookXcess is located on the third floor. They are open daily from 10:30 am till 9:30 pm.

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Myanmar’s Tourism Dilemma

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It’s often said, “Be careful what you wish for,” and in the case of Myanmar’s burgeoning tourism industry, no truer words were ever spoken.

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In the past year or so, there have been incredible changes in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest, ran for election and won a seat in Myanmar’s parliament; the country’s president has engaged in various reforms and freed political prisoners; media restrictions have been lifted … and well, the world was watching all of these amazing developments, and all of a sudden many travelers want to visit the country. Perhaps too many.

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Due to this sudden spike in tourist arrivals, the country’s tourism industry is fraying at the seams. You can safely assume that all hotels in Myanmar have raised their rates compared to a year ago, but many have gone beyond simple seasonal rate hikes and have doubled or tripled the cost of a night’s stay. One reason for this rate ugliness is the simple fact that there is a shortage of hotel rooms. Supply and demand, don’t you know. If you are planning on visiting in the next month or two, but haven’t booked a room yet, well … good luck. You’re gonna need it. There may be no room at the inn for you, your spouse, and 2.5 kids.

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And it’s not only hotel rooms that are at a premium. Airplane flights, seats on boats, buses, and trains may also be hard to come by … and more expensive. Thinking of hiring a private car and driver to get from one town to another, or maybe the services of a tour guide who can speak your language with some competency? Once again, if you haven’t made those arrangements already, it’s probably too late. If nothing else, the good ones are taken.

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And what about, uh, eating? Most people have to do that at least a couple of times each day. But where will you eat? And much will it cost? I was talking to a woman who owns a restaurant in Yangon earlier this week and I mentioned that business must be very good lately. She let out a big sigh, and confirmed that yes, her place was very busy, but because there were so many tour groups descending on her place, it was placing extra demands on her staff; from cooks to waiters and managers. When you are used to serving a certain number of customers each night and all of a sudden that number triples, how will you handle it? Plus, the fact that tour groups comprise the majority of customers at her restaurant, many independent travelers found themselves either being turned away or having to wait a very long time to be served. Such is the price of success.

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Thus, I fear that anyone visiting Myanmar for the first time this year, or in the coming months, but not come away with the most positive of impressions. I’m sure they will be pleased by the friendliness and politeness of the locals, plus the fact that it’s an extremely safe country to visit, but it’s no longer a particularly affordable travel destination, and the quality of lodging and meals may not live up the standards of many veteran travelers. Also, there are still troublesome money issues: credit cards are not widely accepted, ATMs are just in the planning stages, and any US bank notes you wish to exchange must be in immaculate condition or they will be refused.

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Hopefully, this new wave of tourists will be very patient and considerate, realizing that they are visiting a country that is still getting its sea legs. But if they give Myanmar a chance, they may end up loving it.

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