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

Archive for May, 2013

Graham Gouldman Hits Again


His name might not ring a bell for most people, but if you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s and listened to the radio, you’ve probably heard a few songs by Graham Gouldman. To say that Graham Gouldman is a songwriting genius would be an understatement. Gouldman has been a mainstay in the rock and pop music industry since the mid-1960s, penning classic tunes such as “For Your Love” and “Heart Full of Soul” (both hits for the Yardbirds), “Bus Stop” and “Look Through Any Window” (both hits for the Hollies), as well as songs for the likes of Herman’s Hermits, Jeff Beck, and even Cher.



But Gouldman’s greatest fame came as a member of the British band 10cc, whose string of hits in the 70s included “I’m Not in Love”, “Dreadlock Holiday”, “Art For Art’s Sake”, and “The Things We Do For Love.” 10cc’s endearing style of eccentric pop was adored by both critics and record buyers, and decades later it remains beloved by music fans all over the world. In fact, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the band last year, a boxed set of 10cc music was released by Universal Music. Tenology, includes five discs; four music CDs (the usual mix of singles, album cuts, and B-sides) and a DVD (with concert footage of the band). The attractively designed box also includes a thin hardcover book that features song lyrics and an essay with a short history of the band.



During the long hiatus that 10cc took during most of the 80s and 90s, Gouldman teamed up with pop singer-songwriter Andrew Gold to form a duo they dubbed Wax. As Wax, Gouldman and Gold released four acclaimed studio albums. Unfortunately, their record label didn’t a great job of marketing the albums, nor were they able to convince enough fans of the albums’ existence, thus it sold in rather underwhelming quantities. During that “lost decade” Gouldman also produced the album Pleasant Dreams by the legendary Ramones. Clearly, he’s a guy that isn’t afraid to try something different.



Late last year Gouldman released a new solo album, Love and Work, a remarkably strong collection of material. Even in his mid-sixties, it’s obvious that Gouldman can still write devastatingly catchy tunes. And what’s more, he sounds good too. His vocals were always an underrated component of 10cc and on this solo album he more than holds his own. Most of the songs on the new album sound like the more mainstream pop tunes he was recording with Wax rather than the quirkier style he pioneered with 10cc. Among the very memorable tunes on the new album is an instrumental, “Black Gold,” that sounds like it would be right at home on a James Bond soundtrack. The album is dedicated to the memory of Andrew Gold, who passed away in 2011. As excellent as this album is, however, I fear that like what happened with the Wax albums, this new one by Graham Gouldman will also be ignored by the masses. It’s a shame that such high quality music isn’t appreciated — let alone acknowledged — in this age of disposable digital downloads.


Buddhist Holiday



Today is a Buddhist holiday here in Thailand and it’s a big one: Visakha Bucha (also spelled as Visaka Puja). This day, according to Buddhist belief, celebrates the birth, enlightenment and entry into nirvana of the Buddha. Think of it as a three-in-one bonus: all of this stuff happened on the same day! Hey, I can’t help it, I love poking fun at ALL religions, and Buddhism doesn’t get a free pass either. But I have to say that I do have much more respect for Buddhism — and interest in the way that it’s linked to the fabric of daily of life in Southeast Asia — than I have in the fanatical belief systems that are found in Western countries.






Seeing as how it’s Visakha Bucha today — and also a holiday under other names in Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar — I thought it fitting to post some Buddhist-themed photos, all taken during my recent trip to Myanmar.









Mid-Week Blues

It’s Wednesday night in Bangkok and it’s raining again, although very, very lightly. Just finished listening to a World Party CD and now I have an old James Gang live album playing. “Just turn your pretty head … and walk away.” Coming up next: a compilation by The The. And if you have to ask; “The what? … well, forget it.

And I’m stumped as to what to write about tonight. It’s been a few days since I posted anything and I feel like I should write something or post some photos, but I just don’t feel inspired. Must be the mid-week blues.  blues01

I could write about the latest rash of bombings in South Thailand; the violence that just won’t stop. Or I could write about the historic visit of Myanmar President Thein Sein to the US, where he’s meeting with Barack “O’Burma” Obama. Or to take that story a step further, I could mention the misguided protesters who think Thein Sein is some sort of heinous villain because he hasn’t been able to stop the sectarian violence between Muslim and Buddhists in Myanmar this year. Or the idiots who think that Obama should not have invited Thein Sein at all, reasoning that it’s “too early” to lift sanctions and “encourage” Myanmar without the government releasing all political prisoners, and blah blah blah. I tell you, nothing pleases these so-called “Free Burma” groups, and it would kill them to acknowledge, much less praise, any improvements or changes that the Myanmar government makes. Hell, it would kill them just to say the word “Myanmar.” I’m certainly not in the pro-junta camp, but some of these so-called human rights groups need to put things in perspective. I think some of their “policies” have done more harm than good in the past decade. I think “democratic” changes will take time to fully mature in Myanmar, but things are on the right track and Thein Sein should be encouraged and supported rather than criticized and condemned.

What else? Oh yeah, there was the efficient transvestite nurse that waited on me at Bangkok Hospital last week, or the Thai doctor who they sent me to at that same hospital. He had a very American-sounding accent, so I asked him if he had spent time studying in the states. “Well,” he said, “I grew up near Cincinnati, but I attended university here in Bangkok.” And the good news: they couldn’t find anything wrong with me!

Or I could write about some of the cool customers in my bookshop this week: David the 75-year-old pot-smoking fan of Louis L’Amour novels; the guy from Sweden who admitted to being “old school” and preferring real books over digital ones; the guy from Prachin Buri who bought the entire series of Gabriel Allon novels by Daniel Silva; the sweet expat lady from Poland who is reading anything we get by Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, or Graham Greene; or the female Thai customer who regaled us with tales of spitting on the feet of Red Shirt protesters last week; or the street guy who likes to “drop his drawers” to passing cars in front of our shop. Oh yeah, it’s a colorful neighborhood!

Or could write about the two nice guys from France that treated me to dinner at a Thai restaurant on Monday night. Good food, pleasant company, and they introduced me to a wicked-good drink that they say is popular in Brazil. I just wish I could remember the name of the drink! Yeah, it was that good. They were departing the next day on a trip to Myanmar and will be back in Bangkok in early May.

Then there were the phone calls from friends in Cambodia, e-mails from friends in Myanmar, and requests for money from friends in Thailand. In the case of my Thai friend Tam, his wife just gave birth to their third child and he needed money to buy some essentials … like food, so I was inclined to help him out.

But alas, I don’t have the energy or inclination to write about any of these things with any additional depth. All in all, it was just another weird and wonderful, and perfectly normal, week here in Bangkok. Let it rain!


The Middle of Nowhere: 90th Street on the Road (Pt. 3)


The last stop on my trip within a trip with the crew from 90th Street in Mandalay was a remote place called Shwe Set Taw. We left from Bagan and passed Chauk and Salay and Yenangyaung, stopping briefly at a large pagoda in Magwe before crossing the Ayeyarwaddy River and continuing past the town of Minbu. That was the last real town of note, and still we kept driving, and driving, and driving. I’d never seen such dry, desolate looking landscape in all of Myanmar. No large trees and no signs of habitation. Just flat, ugly stretches of no-man’s land Where were they taking me?!



I’d never heard of Shwe Set Taw before this trip, but Maw Hsi and the truck driver, along with the kids, decided that this “side trip” was what they wanted to do, so I gave it my blessing, not knowing at the time what a long journey it was going to be. From Bagan, the one-way driving time was nearly six hours! And that’s six hours driving on roads that weren’t always paved, sitting in the back of flatbed truck. My ass is still sore.






When we finally arrived, I saw a sign proclaiming “Shwe Set Taw Wildlife Sanctuary.” Huh? I had assumed that this was going to be some sort of grand sacred golden pagoda. A wildlife park? Well, I learned more about the place quickly from Maw Hsi. Shwe Set Taw certainly is an official government wildlife sanctuary, but it’s also the site of a very sacred pagoda, hosting what are reputed to be a set of the Buddha’s footprints. Maw Hsi told me that the history of this site goes back nearly two thousand years! Many people from Bagan and around the region come to visit and spend the night, and with the confluence of two large streams it makes for a nice swimming hole too. But it’s only open about six months out of the year, most of the low-lying area become flood-prone during the rainy season.





I have to say that I wasn’t blown away by the visit to Shwe Set Taw; it was sort of a ho-hum destination from my perspective. A lot of traveling on bad roads just to go swimming and gaze at a set of footprints. Once was enough! But for Maw Hsi and the kids it was one of those possible once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimages that they can tell their family and friends about. And for their sake, I’m glad we went. Plus, the kids got to buy cheap, silly sunglasses and eat more junk food, so they were quite happy!




Hpone Thant (or “Harry”, as he’s called) has a nice write-up about Shwe Set Taw on his informative blog:



Janet Brown’s Search for Home

Janet Brown’s new book, a travelogue/memoir titled Almost Home, has just been published by Things Asian Press. I was so enchanted and mesmerized by this book that it took me less than two days to gobble up the 210 pages. In all honesty, I think this is one of the finest books ever written by a westerner about what it’s like to be an expat resident in Asia, searching for “home” or just searching period.


Almost Home takes the reader on a whirlwind journey through the cities where Janet takes up residence during her multi-year stay in Asia: Bangkok, Hong Kong, Beijing, Penang, and back again to the chaotic comforts of Bangkok. While reading this book, the places where Janet resides come bursting to life: you can smell the spicy food that the outdoor vendors are cooking around her neighborhood in Bangkok; you can imagine the long line of mixed nationalities waiting for the elevators at Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong; you can picture the ballroom dancers strutting their stuff in a Beijing park; you can hear the cacophony of a Chinese opera troupe, and perhaps you can feel those bedbugs biting you at the cheap hotel in Penang. Despite the allure of all things Asian, Janet remains conflicted: just where is “home”? Eventually it’s the unshakeable bond of family that lures her back to the United States where her two sons are living.


Janet Brown is able to pique our interest, and sustain it, in this book not only because of her keen eye for detail and observation, but also because she is such a good writer. She’s truly a master of her craft and it shows in her fluid, honest, vivid, and sometimes very funny writing. It also helps that as a middle-aged woman she has a much different perspective of Asia than the typical male westerner. She’s not following the backpacker circuit or attending full moon parties; she’s not bar-hopping with badly-dressed white dudes; and she’s not hanging out with a clique of wealthy expats discussing the stock market or how much they pay their maid. Instead, she’s rambling down backstreets and alleys, taking local transport, living in low-rent neighborhoods with the locals, and sampling the delights of street food. A kindred soul!


Many travelers and expat residents are seduced by the exotic nature and charms of various cities in Asia and many of them have written books on the subject. Few writers, however, are able to accurately — or skillfully — describe the dizzying barrage of odd new sights, sounds, smells, experiences, and feelings that overwhelm them. But in Almost Home Janet Brown accomplishes this task most impressively. Whether the experience she writes about is charming, life-affirming, amusing, or threatening to her health and sanity (her stay in Penang was beyond miserable!), Janet Brown turns it into something that is fascinating to read about. And to me that’s the mark of great writing.



Soccer Monks


I’m back in Shan State today (at least in my cyber state of mind) with the novice monks from the Tat Ein Monastery. Like most men and boys in Myanmar, these guys are total football fanatics. When not studying their Buddhist texts, they are more than willing to kick around a football — what’s called a soccer ball back in the USA — either inside or outside the monastery. Unlike at some more well-to-do monasteries in Myanmar, the monks at Tat Ein don’t have access to a TV, their football cravings are confined to actually playing the game.





Before I arrived in Nyaungshwe this time, I bought the monks a new football in Yangon. It wasn’t that expensive but it was certainly of much better quality than the beat-up ball they had been using. They might be novice monks, but that shouldn’t prevent them from playing a little football once in a while. And as you can see from these photos, they certainly get a kick out of doing just that!




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Expat Exodus = Book Avalanche

It’s that time of year in Thailand; the annual exodus of expats leaving the country. Even without a calendar I can always tell it’s the month of May because my bookshop is inundated with foreigners coming in to sell their books. It’s usually the same old refrain (“I’m moving back to my home country”), or a variation (“We’re moving to another house” … “My husband is relocating to Africa”) of such.


So why does this book avalanche happen in May, you ask? For many expats living and working in Bangkok, particularly those with school-age children, this month marks the end of the school year, at least for International schools (Thai public schools, however, usually end their school year in early March). And of course summer is almost here so many families or individuals are taking trips back to their home country. Whatever their reasons for leaving town, we are once again being bombarded with people selling books.

Not that I’m complaining. I like to have more books. I need to have more books. Sure it hurts having to shell out so much cash, but my inventory is important to me and I never want to turn down good titles because I’m on a budget. Late last year,  two hotels in the Phuket area made large book purchases for libraries they were stocking at their resorts, thus the stock at my own shop was starting to thin out. But now we’re back over 16,000 books again … and I still want more! As far as I’m concerned you can never have too many books (that holds true for personal collections as well as store stock) and I want my inventory to keep expanding, to become more diversified. I’m just as thrilled to have more Children’s books and Poetry volumes as much as stocking more Crime Fiction, Travel, and History. I want it all!

Some customers, as you might suspect, are sad to part with their books. But when they start to think about how much it’s going to cost in shipping fees or excess baggage charges to send all those heavy titles back home, well, it doesn’t feel quite so bad to sell them after all. It’s also interesting to compare people’s reactions when we total up the books and tell them how much we’ll pay for them. Some people are pleasantly surprised at how much cash we’ll pay; others are just grateful, if not thrilled to get anything for their books; and then there are the ones who act offended, as if they think we’re cheating them and not offering enough money. What can you do? I try to be fair, but you can’t please everyone and I’m not going to stand there and negotiate with some disgruntled cheapskate. Take it or leave it. You’re not happy with how much we’re offering you? Try another dealer in town … and good luck finding one that is willing to give you a fair price, much less pay any cash at all.


Meanwhile I sit at the computer and update our database of titles as more books arrive. Today was a fun day with several hundred new arrivals, a real mixed bag of titles that included Evelyn Waugh, Dr. Seuss, Jan Morris, Ross Macdonald, a slew of cool history books, nearly the entire “Magic Tree House” series for kids, some much needed Spanish and Italian novels, a few old Hemingway books, some old espionage paperbacks, the stray Harry Potter and Nancy Drew title … and on and on it went. Damn, I love these books!


Guest Photographer: Zin Ko



He’s back! One of my guest photographers from last year, Zin Ko, has returned with more photos that he took with my camera. Except for the photo at the very top, what’s posted here today is a collection of shots that Zin Ko took around the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay, in Bagan, and at Mt. Popa during our recent trip. And of course, while playing with the camera, he had to take a photo of himself, which you can see above.






Zin Ko is an 11-year-old student in Mandalay. During the current summer school break (“summer” being the period from March through May here in Southeast Asia) he is working part-time at one of the neighborhood gem shops, polishing jade stones. An only child, Zin Ko lives with his parents in a small house a couple of doors down from U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay. He likes to dance the gangnam style and is a supporter of the Manchester United football team.













Here is a link to see some of the shots that Zin Ko took last year.

Boppin’ around Bagan: 90th Street on the Road (Pt. 2)


After Mt. Popa, the next stop on my journey with the crew from 90th Street in Mandalay was Bagan. We arrived in Bagan early in the afternoon of the first day. I stayed at a hotel in New Bagan, but Maw Hsi and the kids opted to stay at a monastery closer to Old Bagan. I’d offered to put everyone up at the same hotel (a place I’ve stayed at many times over the years,  and was assured of a discount with a group this big), but Maw Hsi seemed very concerned that I’d been spending too much money on these trips and didn’t want me splurging more than needed.




After a short afternoon siesta the truck picked me up around five that afternoon and we headed over to the nearby Lawkananda Pagoda, perched on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River. The pagoda was under repair, with bamboo scaffolding covering most of the dome, so other than some nice views of the river there wasn’t much to see there. I suggested that we visit a smaller group of pagodas closer to Myinkaba where we could watch the sunset, and more importantly not be run over by any tour groups. There are several pagodas in Old Bagan that serve as popular sunset spots, but most of those are horribly crowded nowadays.






The kids managed to find a few temple caves in the area and made mad dashes through the dark interior and back outside, screaming happily the whole time. Good, silly fun. After that short sightseeing stint we headed back to New Bagan and had dinner at the outdoor Shwe Lan Thit Restaurant, just down the dirt road from the Thazin Garden Hotel. I knew the owner when he managed the nearby Mi San Restaurant, so I make it a point to patronize his place when I’m in town. It’s not expensive by any means — most dishes cost around two to three US dollars — but I sensed that Maw Hsi was a bit uncomfortable with ordering from the menu, so we settled on fried rice for everyone, plus pork with black bean sauce (a Bagan specialty that I crave) for me. The owner threw in free plates of French fries as appetizers, adding to the very good meal. The kids, especially Zin Ko, also had fun playing with the cloth napkins and making hats out of them!




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We did some more Bagan sightseeing on our final morning before returning to Mandalay (I’ll have a separate post about our long Day 2 trip later), stopping to visit most of the more popular pagodas in the area around Old Bagan. I’ve been to these sites numerous times before, but just like Angkor in Cambodia, I never get tired of marveling at these ancient wonders. At Bagan, the plain of ancient pagodas dotting the horizon — no matter which direction you are facing — is positively spellbinding. But the children, being the silly youngsters that they are, seemed more interested in buying snacks or posing for photos than admiring the architecture. Ah well, what can you do?






Before leaving Bagan, we stopped at the monastery where the group had stayed for two nights and had lunch there. As with most monasteries where I’ve eaten in Myanmar, the meal was very tasty and second helpings were offered. And also, as usual, because I’m a foreigner, they plied me with instant coffee and little cakes afterwards. Enough already! I asked Maw Hsi how much I should give to the monastery, some sort of donation to thank them for their hospitality, and as is usually the case when I ask “how much,” I was given a non-committal answer. So I just came up with a figure that I thought was fair and left it at that.






After lunch we were back on the road for the final dusty leg of the journey back to Mandalay. Frankly, it had been an exhausting three days, but other than a few minor arguments amongst themselves, the kids behaved well and it was truly a pleasure travelling with them, Maw Hsi and the two other parents (who took turns driving). Once we were in Mandalay and rumbling down the narrow stretch of 90th Street near Ko Tin Chit’s teashop, the kids broke into a song and started clapping their hands, big smiles all around. It’s those sorts of spontaneous acts of genuine happiness that endear me this country, and these people. Can’t wait for the next trip!






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