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

Archive for June, 2013

Rod Stewart makes a good album again and other shocking musical tales

For many years Rod Stewart was rock and roll royalty, ranking right up there with the best recording artists of the 1970s. He cuts his teeth with the Jeff Beck Group and then became the lead singer of another influential band, the Faces. After releasing a series of excellent solo albums, the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle — not to mention a couple of high profile marriages and divorces — took its toll and the quality of his recordings became somewhat spotty. Those albums weren’t awful, but nothing remotely captured the magic of classic albums such as Every Picture Tells a Story and Never a Dull Moment, or even solid sets such as Atlantic Crossing and A Night on the Town. In recent years Rod has resorted to releasing a series of schlock-filled albums of “standards” to maintain his musical profile. Maybe those albums were of interest to somebody, but rock and roll they weren’t. So imagine the shock to hear his new album, Time, a very strong collection of rock and pop songs that evoke his magical 1970s heydays. Okay, so maybe Time won’t rank with his very best albums or conjure up flashbacks of “Lost Paraguayos”, but there are enough truly great songs on here, brimming with energy and melody (hey, it sounds like old Rod is having fun again!), that it will go a long way towards restoring Rod’s tarnished reputation.

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In the past year we’ve also seen the publication of Rod: The Autobiography. There has been an avalanche of rock memoirs in recent years, so many that one is tempted to roll the eyes and dismiss yet another “titillating” addition to the pile, but Rod’s book has garnered very favorable reviews and looks like it just might be worth reading. The blurb on the front cover of the new paperback edition calls it; “An entertaining romp through fifty years of bad behavior.” Can Rod Stewart become fashionable again? It may be too late for that, but at least it will be very enjoyable listening to his music once more.

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In addition to the new Rod Stewart, here are the other CDs that I’ve been playing frequently lately, rocking the floorboards and shaking the rafters at my ninth-floor hacienda:

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Various Artists – Hall of Fame: Rare and Unissued Gems from the Fame Vaults

Phoenix – Bankrupt

J. Tillman – Vacilando Territory Blues

Jeff Lynne – Armchair Theatre

Mike Viola – Electro De Perfecto

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Steve Forbert – Jackrabbit Slim/Alive on Arrival

Aimee Mann – Bachelor No. 2

Frank Zappa – Sheikyerbouti

Raspberries – Live on Sunset Strip

Steve Earle – The Low Highway

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Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: The Bandit Label

Kim Richey – Thorn in My Heart

Richard Thompson – Electric

Phospherescent – Muchacho

Kurt Vile – Walkin’ On a Pretty Daze

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Tandyn Almer – Along Comes Tandyn

David Bowie – The Next Day

Sam Samdio – Hard and Heavy

Stanley Turrentine – Hustlin’

Tom Jans – Tom Jans/Take Heart (with Mimi Farina)

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Various Artists – Twinight’s Lunar Rotation

Humble Pie – The Very Best of: The Immediate Recordings

Jack McDuff & Kenny Burrell – Crash!

Jules Shear & Pal Shazar – Shear/Shazar

Jimmie Dale Gilmore – One Endless Night

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Various Artists – Those Shocking Shaking Days (1970s rock music from Indonesia)

Iain Archer – Flood the Tanks

Glenn Tilbrook – The Incomplete Glenn Tilbrook

Outlaws – It’s About Pride

Jackie McLean – Demon’s Dance

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Lee Fields – Let’s Talk It Over

Dwight Twilley – Soundtrack

Waylon Jennings – The Complete MCA Recordings

Francis Dunnery – Man

Oliver Nelson – The Blues and the Abstract Truth

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A.J. Croce – That’s Me in the Bar

Kaleidoscope – Pulsating Dreams: The Epic Recordings

John Cale – Black Acetate

Los Lobos – Kiko Live

Eels – Daisies of the Galaxy

 

Mandalay River Tragedy

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I was checking e-mail at my shop on Saturday night when I noticed one from my friend Khin Nwe Lwin in Mandalay. I get notes from her on a fairly frequent basis, but the subject heading in this e-mail instantly made me frown with concern: Bad News

I clicked the message and read what she wrote:

“I have to say to you bad news. Today at 11:00 Hein Htet Zaw’s brother, Baw Ga and Zin Ko go to Irrawaddy river to swim. Their parents didn’t know that. Now, Hein Htet Zaw’s brother was drowned about 12:00. Baw Ga and Zin Ko talked to my aunt about 2:00.”

This was like one of the punches to the gut that leave you gasping for breath. A child dead. But my mind raced: who was it? She said that it was Hein Htet Zaw’s brother, but  I didn’t know that he had a brother. I knew of at least two cousins. Was it one of those boys? When I’m in Mandalay, I always take a group of these kids on a trip somewhere in the area. Baw Ga and Zin Ko are two regulars, both of whom I know very well, so I assumed this “brother” was one of the crew too. But who was the boy who drowned?

I wrote back to Khin Nwe Lwin, expressing my condolences, and asked her the name of this child. She wrote back a couple of hours later and told me:

“His name is Aung Phyo Zaw and he is eleven years old. He is attending six standard in this year. I can’t suffer this feeling, but this is his fate.”

She also attached a photo of her and Aung Phyo Zaw, which I’m posting below. I remember him now. He wasn’t one of the regulars who go on trips with us, but he was one of the kids that I saw around the neighborhood. He’s also one of the bunch that I bought school uniforms for last month.

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I can almost picture the scenario. It’s a hot June afternoon. It’s a Saturday, so there is no school to worry about. Someone, maybe Baw Ga or Zin Ko, suggests a swim in the river to break the monotony and beat the heat. They’ve done it so many times before. What’s the big deal? Every time I come to town, these kids want to go swimming somewhere; in the river, a lake, a public swimming pool. It doesn’t matter where; they love to swim. But this time the swimming session turns tragic. I still don’t know all the details. Did the other two boys witness their friend going under the water? If so, did they try and help him? Did Aung Phyo Zaw yell for help? Was there a strong current in the river? I don’t know. All that Khin Nwe Lwin added was one horrifying fact; as of Sunday morning they still had not found the body.

My heart goes out to his family. Is there anything as tragic as the death of a child? I can’t even imagine what these people are feeling. But in addition to his grieving relatives I am especially worried about Baw Ga and Zin Ko. What are they feeling right now? They just witnessed the death of their friend. Are they blaming themselves for their friend’s death? Are other people in the community blaming them? Are they wondering how they could have prevented this from happening? Another image flashes through my mind: Baw Ga and little Zin Ko, shaking with grief, scared and crying, and then having to go to Aung Phyo Zaw’s house and break the news to his mother. And so I really worry about Baw Ga and Zin Ko. They are sweet, sensitive kids and I don’t want this tragedy to devastate them more than normal.

Death is a difficult thing to accept. I certainly don’t deal with it very well. But when I hear things like “it was his fate” or “karma,” or the even more ridiculous “it was God’s will” or “he’s in a better place now” … I just want to scream at such absurd religious nonsense. I know, I know; people take solace in their faith and that helps them to cope with things like death. But to say that such a death is all part of the creator’s master plan or that you should just accept it as fate strikes me as the wrong way to deal with it.

Meanwhile, tonight I will be thinking about my friends on 90th Street in Mandalay. I won’t be muttering any nonsensical prayers, but I will worry about them, and hope they have the strength and support of family and friends to deal with this tragedy.

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Welcome to Cambodia!

“Welcome to Cambodia!” said my Cambodian friend. “Don’t believe anything here.”

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With that utterance we clinked beer glasses and took hearty sips. My friend smiled and shook his head. “In Cambodia, you can’t believe anything the government says.”

“Join the club,” I replied. “What you say is true about almost every country on earth. You can’t trust any government.” And keep in mind, we were having this conversation last month, before the latest privacy controversy erupted in the USA.

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We toasted glasses again and decided that we needed to order more beer. Just another night in Siem Reap with friends. My Cambodian friends impress the hell out of me. Whether they are working or still studying in school, they don’t take things for granted. They take their duties seriously, diligently doing what they need to do. But it’s a hard life in Cambodia if you are not wealthy, and none of my friends would remotely qualify as well off. They’re just trying to keep their heads above the economic water, raising families or trying to help younger siblings and/or parents by working, or trying to stay in school. Two of the Try brothers are in their early twenties and still trying to finish high school. But that’s what happens when you drop out in the sixth grade and work for a few years to help earn money for your family.  

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roadwork 

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Talking to my friends this time, it was obvious that some of them have become quite disillusioned and frustrated with the government’s many promises, most of which have not come to fruition. Despite an obscene amount of foreign aid pouring in each year, not to mention an increase in tourism in the past decade, Cambodia remains a very poor country. One of my friends dreams of going to the United States to work, thinking it to be some sort of economic paradise. I didn’t want to burst his bubble too harshly, but told him that life there is also “very difficult” for many people.

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We talked, we laughed, we drank more beer; talking about good times in the past and contemplating the uncertain future.

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jawbone

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The World needs Swamp Dogg!

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Jerry Williams is Swamp Dogg, one of the most unsung recording artists and producers in the last half-century. All Music.com had a great description, calling Swamp Dogg “Raunchy, satirical, political, and profane … one of the great cult figures of 20th century American music.” I’d rank Swamp Dogg up there with great soul and jazz artists/producers like Curtis Mayfield and Quincy Jones. Really, this guy is that good and his recording output that voluminous. But Swamp Dogg was also more than a bit unconventional when it came to the topics of some of his own songs, not to mention his outrageous and hilarious album covers. Based on his stage name, the funny album covers, and his “I don’t give a shit, I’ll record whatever I like” attitude, I think he got a bum rap as “too weird”, which pigeonholed him and forced his music underground. It was unlikely, for instance, that you’d find Swamp Dogg records for sale in suburban shopping malls in the 1970s or 80s.

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But the scarcity of Swamp Dogg albums has been rectified in recent years thanks to compilations of his music released on CD by Kent and Ace Records, as well as reissues on his own label, SDEG (Swamp Dogg Entertainment Group). And just this year there have been several more vintage Swamp Dogg albums reissued on the Alive Records label. All of those recordings show the world what they’ve been missing; an artist with the ability to write catchy tunes, but also songs that addressed political, racial, societal, and environmental issues. Ahead of his time, or too damn timely? The soul version of Frank Zappa? Whatever the case, it’s never too late to discover this amazing artist, a man who is still alive and well and recording music in his seventies. The world needs Swamp Dogg!

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My introduction to Swamp Dogg was a vinyl copy of I’m Not Selling Out, I’m Buying In that I discovered in the early 1980s. I couldn’t resist an album cover like this one; the mighty Swamp Dogg, dressed head-to-toe in white (complete with top hat and cane), and standing on top of a table in a boardroom, surrounded by grumpy looking white businessmen. The songs had gloriously goofy titles such as “The Love We Got Ain’t Worth Two Dead Flies”, “Low Friends in High Places”, and “California is Drowning and I Live Down By the River.” But beneath those silly song titles, were songs with grooves and hooks. Soul music with some kick to it. From that point on, I was hooked; a Swamp Dogg fan for life.

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Williams may have gained initial fame in the soul and R&B, but he acknowledges a debt to country music too. In an interview with NPR he talked about how much country music influenced him in his youth, when he listened to the radio at night: “Black music didn’t start ’til 10 at night until 4 in the morning and I was in bed by then … if you strip my tracks, take away all the horns and guitar licks, what you have is a country song.”  In addition to his own recordings, Williams has produced singles and entire albums for the likes of Gary “US” Bonds, Johnny Paycheck, Doris Duke, Irma Thomas, Z.Z. Hill, and Arthur Conley. The album he wrote and produced for Duke, I’m A Loser, is widely considered by “Deep Soul” fans to be one of the very finest albums of that genre ever recorded. Another one of his productions, In Between Tears by Irma Thomas, was finally released on CD earlier this year. This 1973 recording was considered somewhat of a radical departure for the soul singer at the time, offering songs with more lyrical bite than she had previously recorded. I haven’t heard that album yet, but I have a copy on order.

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Last month I picked up one of the new reissues, the very first album as Swamp Dogg, 1970’s Total Destruction To Your Mind.  If I had to compare his style to anyone, the closest I can think of is Joe Tex, particularly the way that Swamp Dogg fuses elements of melodic yet funky soul and country in his songs. In addition to the original compositions, Swamp Dogg co-wrote three songs with Gary “US” Bonds, recorded two Joe South tunes (including the classic “Redneck”) and also one by Bobby Goldsboro. Seemingly still suffering an identity crisis, Swamp Dogg credited Jerry Williams for the piano parts on the album. Besides his keyboard skills, and organ contributions from Paul Hornsby (any relation to Bruce?), some lively horn arrangements by the Maconites had to the funky groove factor. Many soul fans rate this album as a classic and I think the praise is justified.

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Another album that was reissued on CD this year was the equally adventurous Rat On, first released back in 1971. And check out that cover! The album was recorded at TK Studios in Florida and featured guests such as Betty Wright, Al Kooper, Lonnie Mack and a young employee at TK named Harry Wayne Casey, a guy who would gain fame a few years later as leader of his own band, KC & the Sunshine Band. Rat On included several Swamp Dogg originals, along with covers of songs by Joe South, Mickey Newbury, and even the Bee Gees. The most controversial song on the album was “God Bless America For What?”, a provocative tune that reportedly landed Swamp Dogg on Richard Nixon’s infamous “Enemies List.”

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It’s All Good, is a 24-track singles collection released by Kent/Ace Records that offers highlights of Swamp Dogg’s solo recording career from 1963 to 1989. If you want to immerse yourself in all facets of the Swamp Dogg experience, this is the one to start with. You get a total of 75 minutes of funky soul music, all of it garnished and spiced by Swamp Dogg’s trademark wit and wisdom. Another compilation, the 24-track Blame It On the Dog, was also released by Kent/Ace Records, and is billed as “The Swamp Dogg Anthology” but it consists mostly of artists that Williams produced, performing songs that he wrote, along with a few Swamp Dogg originals. The lineup includes artists such as Z.Z. Hill, Ruth Brown, Pattie Labelle & The Bluebelles, The Drifters, and Gary “US” Bonds.

http://www.swampdogg.net/

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Fast Food Freedom in Myanmar

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Thanks to various reforms that the Myanmar government has enacted in the past two years — not to mention the elimination of Western sanctions — many Western companies are now eager to do business in the long-isolated country. Yes, plane-loads of get-rich-quick capitalists are practically having orgasms at the thought of access to a new untapped market. Coca-Cola has opened a new bottling plant, car manufacturers are eyeing the country, there is a bidding war going on for lucrative telecommunications concessions, and credit card behemoths such as Visa and MasterCard are belatedly making their presence known. It’s all both exciting and frightening. How will the humble people in Myanmar deal with all these sudden big changes?

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As you would expect, in the wake of such new commerce, we will be sure to witness the arrival of Western fast food franchises. An article in the Myanmar Times last month announced that Kentucky Fried Chicken would be opening up outlets in Myanmar this year. Just think: Colonel Sanders rubbing shoulders with Aung San Suu Kyi. On second thought, let’s not think too much about that. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t rank KFC on any list of fine dining establishments. And yet, based on the write-up about KFC in the Myanmar Times, you would think they were reviewing an upscale restaurant. Here is what the very excited writer for the newspaper had to say: 

“This time it’s the real thing, not a lookalike like the place that recently sprang up in Dagon township. To set local mouths watering on May 11, KFC held a tasting session at Inya Lake Hotel.

My friends and I arrived at 4pm, which just happens to be the time we normally stop work for a snack. So after listening to the welcoming speech of the vice president and chief marketing officer of Yum Restaurants International, Vipul Chawla, we were ready to sample the goods.

First I went for the original recipe: attractively aromatic, crispy without excess oil. From my first bite I found it pleasingly crunchy on the outside and juicy and moist within. But it was quite salty, so I think it will go well with rice.

Then I turned to the hot and spicy version. I believe many Myanmar will find this most palatable, along with other similar dishes on the menu, though perhaps the original recipe is preferable for children.

In other countries, KFC adapts its fare to local taste. In Thailand, for instance, you can get chicken with rice and green sauce. Here in Myanmar, they are already busily researching local eating habits to craft a product aimed at Myanmar taste buds.

When KFC does officially open, their menu will feature fried chicken, sandwiches and salads, along with various drinks.

This month’s tasting session represents KFC’s first attempt to survey local demand and assess consumer needs in Myanmar. Now they are going to decide where, when and how many KFC outlets they will open.”

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Well, obviously someone is excited about the advent of KFC coming to town. And I suppose when you’ve been denied such treats your entire life, discovering the Colonel and his buckets of crispy chicken breasts must seem terribly unique and exotic. This news brings back memories of the KFCC outlet that opened in Mandalay about three or four years ago. Yes, K, F and a double C. As you would suspect, it was a total KFC ripoff, complete with a Colonel Sanders logo on their sign. Alas, it didn’t last more than a year or so. Perhaps the pizza they were plugging didn’t captivate the local diners.

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I have no doubt that the younger generation of Myanmar consumers will be drawn to Western fast food franchises like KFC, judging by the popularity of donut shops and local attempts at fast food that have sprung up in shopping malls in Yangon and Mandalay in the past decade. Who needs Kentucky Fried Chicken when you have Tokyo Fried Chicken!  But I can see the younger generation in Myanmar forsaking local institutions such as the Burmese teashop, in favor of shiny and mesmerizing fast food joints. Some people would say that it’s all about choice — freedom to choose, baby! — and that you can’t deny people the right to eat where they want. Yeah, that’s true. But in a country that has gone for so many decades without the blight of Western fast food franchises, it saddens me to see such “progress” spoiling things. Then again if Pizza Hut opens and offers a Pickled Tea Leaf topping, I’ll be first in line to try it.

http://www.mmtimes.com/index.php/lifestyle/dining/6829-kentucky-fried-chicken-comes-to-town.html

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Siem Reap once again

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I was in Cambodia late last month, just a three-day trip to see friends in Siem Reap. It many have been a short trip but it was a very expensive one, thanks to the outrageous airfare that Bangkok Airways charges (the continue to hold a virtual monopoly on that route, being the only Thai carrier that flies to Siem Reap), plus all the money that I gave to the four Try brothers, friends of mine that I’ve been helping (school and family expenses) for the past decade. Another friend is going through a divorce and having a bit of financial trouble dealing with the aftermath, so I helped him out a bit too. But hey, it’s only money, and the bottom line was that it was really great to see everyone again. I met them all when I was working in Siem Reap a decade ago (2002-2004), but I think we’ve become even closer in the years since I moved back to Bangkok.

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I also had a chance to visit with Dave and Den at Peace of Angkor Photo Tours on Wat Bo Road. Dave showed me some live music videos that he’s been shooting around town. Apparently the live music scene in Siem Reap is growing along with the rest of the once sleepy town. Dave was also excited about going to Phnom Penh to see the band Dengue Fever perform a show the following week. His assistant, Den, announced that he and his wife are expecting their first child later this year. I asked him if he was excited or scared, and his answer was “both!” Den is always very helpful and this time around he booked a hotel room for me, along with arranging for airport pickup, and dispensing advice on a variety of subjects. Dave’s lucky to have someone so dependable, knowledgeable and personable working for him. At the airport I was greeted by my old friend Chamrong, who works with the ground crew there. Always nice to see a smile face waving at you when you step off the plane.

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For most of the three days, I just relaxed; taking naps, reading books, listening to music on my MP3 player, and chatting with friends. We ate most of our meals at the nearby Hawaii Restaurant, run by a sweet family that I’ve known for many years. They always serve tasty fun and their pool table gets a serious workout when we’re camped out there. Each night my friend So Pengthay would also join us for dinner … and more than a few beers. He also brought his wife and two children along one night, lamenting the fact that his kids didn’t like sharing toys, so he ends up having to buy two of everything. He was now worried about his four-year-old daughters increasing fascination with his iPhone. She already is able to navigate several features, from looking at photos to singing along with the recording of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Which is sort of cool, but Thay realizes that his one-year-old son is going to want to share in that joy soon too. Ah, the joys of raising children!

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The only real outing we took this time was a half-day trip to Phnom Kulen, a popular sightseeing spot about an hour outside of town. It boasts some ancient Khmer rock carvings on a shallow river bed, and many locals go there to swim or have picnics. There is also a very sacred Buddha shrine at the top. I’ve been there several times over the years, and wasn’t that eager to go back again, but I was outvoted by the Try Brothers. Hach especially wanted to go, and he invited two of his friends to join us. Thay got us a good deal on a van, so we all packed into that for a fairly comfortable, although the road leading to the top of Phnom Kulen was pretty rough and bumpy. At least nobody puked this time around!

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Monday Smiles

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Another day — and night — with sporadic rain showers here in Bangkok. I think we can safely say that the rainy season is now officially here. But even the wet weather didn’t stop a surprising number of customers from flocking to my bookshop to sell, exchange, and buy more books today. No matter what you hear, not everybody is tethered to e-readers just yet, and for that I’m grateful. It wasn’t an official Monday holiday (of which there were two last month in Thailand), but it was so busy that it felt like one, or at least an extension of the weekend. I’m too exhausted from buying and organizing books to think about writing anything of substance today, so these photos that I took recently in Myanmar will have to suffice for now. But hey, more smiles on a Monday is a good thing, right?

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