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

Archive for July, 2013

The Fermented Tea Leaf Telegraph

I had to go to a branch of Western Union earlier this to pick up some money that a woman from Canada sent me. I’ve never met this woman in my life. So why is a mystery woman sending me money? Ah, wouldn’t you like to know! Actually, I had corresponded by e-mail with this woman a few times before she sent me the money. And the money was not for me at all, but for a friend of a friend, Ma Pu Sue, in Myanmar. Sue is helping sponsor various young girls in her neighborhood in Nyaungshwe. The money goes to pay for their educational expenses, ensuring the girls can continue their studies through high school, which is more of a luxury than a common practice in those parts.


Western Union recently launched money transfer services in Myanmar, but only in the major cities of Yangon and Mandalay. Where my Ma Pu Sue lives in Shan State, they don’t yet have a bank that is offering this service, so we must do this the old way, taking the money yourself and handing it over to the recipient in Myanmar. Jimmy Buffett may have had his Coconut Telegraph, but I’ll call this method of sending money to people in Myanmar “the Fermented Tea Leaf Telegraph”. I’ve sent money this way several times before, either asking friends or relative strangers to deliver funds to someone I know in Myanmar, or acting as a courier myself to deliver money to friends of friends. Call it crazy, call it trust, but it always gets there.


This Canadian woman is one of many kind people I’ve met in the past decade who have gone out of their way to help locals they’ve met in Myanmar. She and some of her friends pooled their money together to help sponsor more children in Sue’s neighborhood. And I have full faith in Sue’s ability to put that money to good use.  Another couple I know in Bangkok, Peter and Lyle, have travelled to Myanmar many times and have done a lot to help people they’ve met in the Bagan area. They also employ a Burmese maid in Bangkok and have gone the extra mile by helping her to pursue her education. In addition to that, they are also paying for their maid’s nephew, Zin Maung Maung (who is also my Burmese tutor) to attend classes at Ramkamhaeng University. Peter and Lyle are moving back to the US this month, after over a decade in Bangkok, but they have made arrangements to take their maid — better to call her a friend, I think — with them, and to enroll her in a university in the states. Now that’s what I call support!


In other Myanmar news, I received an e-mail over the weekend from Khin Nwe Lwin in Mandalay, telling me about the service that was held in for Aung Phyo Zaw, the young boy who drowned last month, to mark 30 days since his passing. Aung Phyo Zaw’s mother cooked food and offered it to some of the neighbors that morning. This practice, Khin Nwe Lwin told me, is “intended to get merit for Aung Phyo Zaw.” Above is a photo that Khin Nwe Lwin sent me, with Hein Htet Zaw and Zin Ko partaking in bowls of monhinga. I wish I had been there with everyone for this event, but I’m looking forward to seeing my friends again soon: I’m planning a visit to Mandalay in late August. This time I’ll fly directly to Mandalay, a relatively new option for air travelers, and bypass Yangon altogether. That’s going to save me both time and money, especially considering the outrageous rates for hotels in Yangon this year.

Rains Retreat


Tomorrow marks Khao Phansa, another Buddhist holiday in Thailand. As with most Buddhist events, this day is also observed under different names in other Southeast Asian countries. Khao Phansa marks the start of the annual “Rains Retreat”, a period when Buddhist monks are — supposedly — confined to their monasteries and cannot venture out into public. This period has also been dubbed “Buddhist Lent” due to the fact that monks must abstain from habits such as eating meat and smoking (yes, it may shock many Westerners, but some monks in this region can often be seen smoking cigarettes and chewing betel nut). I would assume that karaoke is a no-no also.


In Thailand the shocking behavior of one famous monk has been in the news all month. Actually, the offending fellow has now been defrocked and is no longer a monk. He was visiting France when the scandal broke and now is supposedly in the USA. I believe his passport has been revoked and there is also a warrant out for his arrest. Why is this man wanted? Something to do with embezzling money from donations to his monastery, not paying taxes on his fleet of luxury automobiles (yes, he had about a dozen, with more on order!), and fathering a child with a 14-year-old girl. Anything else I missed? Sounds like a great guy. Then there is the radical monk in Myanmar who has urged Buddhists to boycott Muslim-owned businesses, and has been blamed for stirring up locals and causing some of the violence that’s plagued the country this year. Needless to say, this monk’s comments have created a storm of controversy, enough to put him on the cover of Time magazine.



But I’d prefer to leave those assholes out of the equation and concentrate on the good aspects of Buddhism, as exemplified by some of the monks I know in Myanmar’s Shan State. In today’s post there are some photos of the novice monks (and a few of their teachers) from the monasteries at Shwe Yan Pyay and Tat Ein. If observing Khao Phansa means having to refrain from playing football or watching matches on TV, these youngsters are going to have a tough couple of months ahead of them.







Live in Bangkok!

I used to be a diehard concertgoer when I lived in Florida. If the show I wanted to see wasn’t held in my hometown of Orlando I wouldn’t hesitate to drive up the highway to Lakeland, Tampa, or even Jacksonville to see the band. Going to Atlanta, about a 7-hour road trip, was not out of the question either. From the late 1970s through the early 1990s I saw hundreds of shows. But after I moved to Bangkok in 1996 my concert-going days evaporated. Certainly there are far fewer recording acts that pass through Bangkok compared to major cities in the US. We get the occasional superstar act like Santana, Eric Clapton, Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Elton John appearing, and once in a while an upcoming act like The Drums or Owl City, but for the most part the interesting artists are few and far between. And frankly, it would take someone really, really amazing for me to come out of hibernation and pay to see a show again.


Looking at the lineup up acts that are scheduled to appear in Bangkok in the coming months doesn’t exactly make me quiver with excitement: Jason Mraz, Placebo, Ash, Japandroids, Sarah Brightman, and Justin Bieber being the biggest international names, along with Thai acts such as Palmy and Blackhead. But then I saw a huge ad in the Bangkok Post yesterday announcing possibly the biggest concert event of the year: Barbie Live!


Yes, the doll. Barbie does Bangkok. Sounds like fodder for a new porn film. Curious that there was no mention of an appearance by Ken in the ad. Perhaps they had a bad falling out, or rumors of Ken as a cross-dresser are true and Barbie dumped him for good after she caught him wearing her high heels. The Barbie show in Bangkok is a four-day appearance at the Impact Exhibition Hall in Muang Thong Thani (a suburb of Bangkok). The ad describes this as an “All-New Barbie Musical” but other than that, what exactly does this event entail? Will it be animated? Will there be real people dressed up as dolls? Will they all be lip-synching? I’m curious, but not curious enough to shell out money for a ticket. And a front row seat will cost you 2,000 baht.

As bad as this event sounds, at least it’s different from the usual “live” events that occur so often in Bangkok, those being appearances by famous Self-Help gurus and Get-Rich-Quick authors/hucksters, all promising to show you the secrets to wealth and happiness.

Traveling with Karen Coates

I’ve never met Karen Coates, but we’ve travelled some of the same highways, rivers, and dusty back roads of Southeast Asia. Her journeys, however, have taken her into more countries, and much deeper into those places, than even my offbeat excursions have done.


In her new book, This Way More Better, published by Things Asian Press, Coates has compiled travel articles and essays about her many Asian travels. As she says in the book’s introduction: “This book spans a dozen years through megacities and muddy jungles, happy times, sad times, times of love and death. It encompasses twelve years of growth within me, as a person and as a journalist.”

Indeed, this book is not all happy tales and funny stories. Some of experiences she writes about are certainly grim and depressing. But there are also plenty of sweet and inspiring tales too. As a journalist, Coates’s work took her to countries such as East Timor, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and India. Using Thailand as her home base, she ventures many times to some of the same destinations, befriending locals along the way. One engaging person we meet in This Way More Better is Shu, a young Hmong girl living in Sapa, Vietnam. By the end of this book, Shu has grown from a precocious 10-year-old who speaks English and sells souvenirs to tourists into a confident young woman running her own business and taking care of her own child.

 ©2013 Jerry Redfern

It’s these life-affirming personal encounters with locals that Coates meets that make this book so memorable. Coates’s vivid, descriptive prose is sharp throughout, each page immersing the reader into the specific locale she is describing. Another asset is the accompanying photographs by her travel companion and husband, Jerry Redfern. These striking photos are the perfect complement for Coates’s warm words.

I’ll borrow another passage from her introduction to sum up what is so special about this book:

“Each story in this collection has taught me something — other others, about the world, about myself. In this collection, my aim is not to preach the lessons I have gleaned or tell you what you should know. Instead, I hope to present these stories in such a way that you might find your own meaning in each encounter. Books often offer a vacation from life. I hope, instead, this book takes you traveling.”

Indeed, it does just that, and more.

For more examples of Karen’s great writing, along with Jerry’s fantastic photos, check out her food blog:


The Filth of July

I saw this little news blurb, buried in the sports section of an online site earlier this week:

An Alabama minor league baseball team has cancelled a gun raffle that was supposed to be featured during its Second Amendment Night promotion. Huntsville Stars spokeswoman Nicole Colonis said Monday that the raffle during the team’s Wednesday night game against the Chattanooga Lookouts was cancelled after Minor League Baseball officials said the promotion was likely not in the franchise’s best interest. Colonis says Second Amendment Night will still feature free admission for members of the National Rifle Association who present their membership card. The Huntsville Stars are a Class-AA affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Ah yes, only in America could they think of holding such an idiotic promotion like that. Of course you also have to keep in mind that we’re talking about Alabama, hardly a hotbed of liberal values. But it’s still part of the good old U S of A, that bastion of rednecks, religious extremists, gun-toting misanthropes, and other cruel and unusual peckerheads. And hey, today is the Fourth of July, the annual Independence Day holiday in the USA, so you can bet all those misguided patriots will be waving their flags, shooting off their illegally purchased fireworks — and guns, of course — and proclaiming how proud and privileged they are to be living in “the land of the free and home of the brave.”

What a bunch of hogwash. I’m an American by birth, but I’ve lived in Southeast Asia for the past 17 years and that experience has definitely given me a different perspective on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Suffice to say, I don’t miss living in the USA whatsoever and I have zero desire to return, even for a short visit. The last time I did return to the States was 13 years ago and even then it felt awkward and uncomfortable being there. Keep in mind that this was in 2000, before the calamity of 9-11 and the Twin Towers. No wars yet in Iraq or Afghanistan, no taking off half your clothing to walk through airport security. Yeah, it was a long time ago.

I shudder to think how I’d react to being back in the US nowadays, being around Patriots and Freedom-Lovers, Right-wing Republicans and Born-Again Christians, and other sub-species who scorn science and deny the existence of climate change. I realize that not all Americans are brain-dead, TV-addicted churchgoing NRA members. At least half the population still seems reasonably same. Nevertheless, I think going back there would be quite unpleasant. I’m positive I would be miserable, short-tempered, and say awful things. Hell, perhaps I would do awful things. Whatever the scenario, it would be blunt and ugly and painful, and so … I ain’t going back.

In the US, back in the early 1970s during the days of the Vietnam War when there was controversy about draft dodgers who would move to Canada to escape military service, it was common to see these bumper stickers on cars that said: America: Love it or Leave It.

That was excellent advice.


90th Street Sorrow

The untimely death of young Aung Phyo Zaw in Mandalay last week really shook me. When tragedies like his drowning happen, one feels helpless. What can you do to help the family members and friends who are grieving? It’s especially frustrating when they are in Mandalay and I’m in Bangkok and I can’t physically be there to pay my respects.


Nevertheless, I wanted to do something, felt like I needed to do something. I feel a real solidarity with the people I’ve met on 90th Street in Mandalay. They treat me like family and I want to reciprocate whenever possible. I sent e-mails to two of closest friends in Yangon, Ma Thanegi and Win Thuya, and also sought the advice of Zin Maung Maung, my Burmese tutor in Bangkok. I asked them all for details on the Myanmar custom for dealing with death, and what would be appropriate for me to do in this case. I also expressed concern for the two other boys who had been swimming with Aung Phyo Zaw and what could be done to help or console them. I received these suggestions:

“You can send money saying please may you share in the merit of giving a Soon Kyway meal to the monks. They will be doing that anyway, and your contribution will be convenient for them.

“The Buddhist belief is that it’s karma from past lives and that nobody escapes the time of their death when it arrives. Tell them that accidents happen. It’s such a tragedy, but is karma. With these beliefs, Burmese Buddhists can deal with trauma.”

“In Burmese custom, we invite some monks at home and do some good donation for him on 7th day. So, if you want please give some money to use for the donation and offering for monk.”

I decided to donate some money for the Soon Kyway ceremony, which was held on the 29th at the family’s home in Mandalay. I asked my friend Walter, who is teaching at a school in Mandalay, to take the money down to U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street and give to him or ask for Khin Nwe Lwin, if she was around. I have no idea what sort of turnout that they have for this type of ceremony, nor what the vibe is like. I doubt it’s some sort of festive wake in the vein of what you see in New Orleans. But I’d like to think that it wasn’t all sorrow and tears, that the people gathered together last Saturday on 90th Street remembered Aung Phyo Zaw and his shy smile and the good times that they enjoyed with him.


So today, in remembrance of Aung Phyo Zaw , I’m posting photos of some of the people from 90th Street; the neighbors, the children, his friends, my friends.



















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