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

Archive for September, 2013

Monks Among the Ruins

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Back to Kakku again? Yes, indeed. This was my fourth trip to the isolated grove of ancient Pa-O stupas in Shan State’s Kakku, but it wasn’t my decision to go there. I left the choice up to the novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung in Nyaungshwe, specifically one of the monks, Pyin Yo Sawdaw, who told me that the sacred site of Kakku was his destination of choice.

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Over the years I have taken groups of monks from Shwe Yan Pyay on field trips to places on interest in the area such as Taunggyi, Kakku, and the Pindaya Caves. Two years ago I ended up taking the entire monastery to the annual balloon festival in Taunggyi. But since that trip I’ve returned to Nyaungshwe twice, but haven’t taken the monks anywhere, opting to take the kids from the village of Tat Ein on trips instead. So, I was feeling a bit guilty lately, thinking I’d been neglecting the Shwe Yan Pyay monks, so I decided to give them first dibs on a trip this time. Pyin Yo Sawdaw is a really nice kid, and without a doubt the friendliest monk at the monastery. I’ve known him for several years and he always makes a point to talk to me when I visit the monastery. At this point he’s also the only one I know by name, all of the other long-timers that I knew have “graduated” to other monasteries in the region.

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Prior to my arrival in town, I asked my friend Htein Linn to drop by the monastery and tell Pyin Yo Sawdaw the date when I would be coming to town, so that he could make any necessary preparations for the trip, such as getting permission from the Saya Daw, the abbot at the monastery. When I arrived in Nyaungshwe I dropped by Shwe Yan Pyay the first day and talked to Pyin Yo Sawdaw, and we agreed to go on Saturday that week. I told him that I’d rent a van, which meant that we could take about six monks. I also had a nice chat with the Saya Daw while I was there and he gave his blessing for the trip. It looked like we were good to go.

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Or maybe not. When I arrived at the monastery on Saturday morning and rounded up the monks, Pyin Yo Sawdaw was not with the others. A few minutes later he showed up, but told me that he had to stay at the monastery and study. Normally, this kid is all smiles, but on this day he looked quite dejected. I’m still not sure what the problem was, but there wasn’t anything I could do to force the issue, so I gathered the other six monks and we boarded the van for the first leg of the trip, the 45-minute drive to Taunggyi.

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Any foreign visitor to Kakku must first stop at the Golden Island Cottages office in Taunggyi (they are the administrators of the site, enabling that the Pa-O villagers in that area get a share of the proceeds) and pay the entrance fee and the guide fee. Our guide this time was Nang Khan Moon, a personable young Pa-O woman who had recently graduated from high school and was preparing for her first year at university.  She was working as a guide during her break.

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The problem, though, was where to put her in the van! Due to Buddhist protocol, women are not supposed to touch monks, and even sitting next to them is frowned upon. Giving her the front seat was one option, but usually that perk is also reserved for monks. Then again, we were dealing with novice monks, so it seemed as if we could bend the rules a bit, and so we did. Nang Khan Moon sat in the front seat for part of the journey, but after one of the monks got car sick (and we talking puking-his-guts-out type of sick), we moved him to the front seat next to the driver, and Nang Khan Moon sat between me and another novice monk. No one seemed to mind that arrangement, so that ended up not being a problem at all.

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The monk that got sick was one of the older ones, and one who had travelled with me two years previously during a trip to Taunggyi. He had no problems on that trip, so I don’t know what caused him to get sick this time, but he was the only one in the group who lost his breakfast. It was bad enough that when we stopped for lunch in Taunggyi (in keeping with that always tricky Buddhist protocol, we had to eat well before noon) he didn’t eat a thing, and when we arrived at Kakku he stayed behind with the driver and didn’t walk around the site with the rest of us.

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I felt sorry for that kid, but I also was still feeling bad that Pyin Yo Sawdaw couldn’t have joined us, so I bought him a Kakku souvenir photo book, along with some postcards from one of the important pagodas in Taunggyi that we visited on the way back (more details about that leg of the trip on a future post). The trip hadn’t exactly gone as planned, but these six monks — well, at least five of them — seemed to have enjoyed the outing very much. One of them, in a gesture that was out of character for these normally very sedate monks — none of whom speak much, if any, English — profusely thanked me afterwards. That alone made the whole outing worthwhile.

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The Road to Steve Young and Ian Matthews

Many music fans have heard the Eagles singing a song titled “Seven Bridges Road.” Say what you want about the Eagles, but that is a lovely tune that really showcases the band’s gorgeous harmonies. Few listeners, however, are aware that a talented musician by the name of Steve Young was the one who wrote and first recorded that song. And fewer people still have heard perhaps the definite version of “Seven Bridges Road,” the one sung by the prolific yet underrated Ian Matthews. By coincidence, I had all three versions of that song on albums that I listened to on my MP3 device while travelling around Myanmar last month. Synchronicity, or perhaps continuity, would have ensured that I crossed a total of seven bridges during my trip, but alas, even while cycling down rural roads in Shan State, that didn’t happen. But even the lack of bridges couldn’t take away my enjoyment of the tunes. This is my kind of road music.

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I first heard “Seven Bridges Road” in 1978 on Steve Young’s excellent album, No Place To Fall. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was actually the third version that Young had recorded of that song, the first occurring in 1969. But the “hit” version of the song came a few years later, in 1980, when the Eagles recorded an electrifying live acapella version of “Seven Bridges Road” for their mega-selling Eagles Live album. Some critics accused the Eagles of stealing — or at least “borrowing” — the vocal arrangement on “Seven Bridges Road” from the version that Ian Matthews recorded in 1973 on his Valley Hi album, a session that was produced by Michael Nesmith (yes, the guy from the Monkees!). That collection of songs is still considered one of the finest albums that Matthews ever recorded.

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Valley Hi is now available on CD, coupled with another fine album that Matthews recorded in the 1970s, Some Days You Eat the Bear. Matthews has enjoyed a multi-decade run as a solo artist, but he was also a member of the influential folk-rock band Fairport Convention, and later formed his own group, Matthews Southern Comfort, as well as Plainsong. He fuses elements of folk, rock, pop, and country to create very melodic, tuneful songs. Matthews has written his share of original material, but he is best known for covering songs by other artists. He just seems to have a knack for picking and recording very tasteful songs. On the Valley Hi/Some Days You Eat the Bear albums he covered tunes by the likes of Richard Thompson, Gene Clark, Jesse Winchester, Tom Waits, Steely Dan, Jackson Browne, and Randy Newman.  Good taste and good versions! Another one of his better albums, Walking a Changing Line, was composed entirely of songs by Jules Shear. Note: Matthews’ first name is sometime spelled as Iain on his albums.

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Meanwhile, Steve Young is also still recording albums under the musical radar. One of his latest efforts was 2005’s acclaimed Switchblades of Love. In addition to that, No Place To Fall was recently packaged on CD along with another of his excellent studio albums, Renegade Picker. Two-for-One goodness. Young’s albums should appeal to fans of alt-country or the outlaw style of country music pioneered in the 1970s by artists such as Jerry Jeff Walker, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson.

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Photos from Zin Ko

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Whenever I visit 90th Street in Mandalay, I lend my camera to Zin Ko, one of the kids from the neighborhood, and let him take some photos. Except for the shot above, that I took of Zin Ko, all the other photos are ones that he snapped.

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This trip was unusual because I both started it and ended it in Mandalay. Normally, I fly into Yangon to begin my trips, but now with direct flights to Mandalay, that’s no longer necessary. After four days in Shan State I returned to Mandalay with good news and bad news for Zin Ko. The bad news was that my camera was not working properly and would need to be repaired, thus we wouldn’t be able to take any more photos my last two days in Mandalay.

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I had already been thinking about getting a new camera, so having the problem with this old Canon (I’ve had it for five years) will only hasten my decision. And the good news, I told Zin Ko, is that after I have this old model repaired, I want to give it to you. That is, if you want it. Well, needless to say, Zin Ko, was very excited at that idea and replied in the affirmative. “I can take photos at weddings,” he told me in Burmese. And the purpose of that, he added, was that he could charge money for such a service. Not a bad idea, kid!

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Zin Ko has already got the basics down, but I still need to show him more of the options on the camera, as well as explain more about lighting, composition, and other techniques. Not that I’m any sort of photography expert, far from it, but hopefully my suggestions will help him understand more about the camera and what it can do. Plus, it will give me a chance to learn some new phrases in Burmese. In any case, I’ll be curious to see the results of what he snaps next time.

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Just Kids

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No tales to tell today, just a bunch of photos of kids being kids that I took in Myanmar recently. In the school, at the monastery, riding bikes around town, at the swimming pool, hiking in the hills, at 90th Street in Mandalay, in the village in Shan State; the children I encountered were a constant source of amusement and joy. It’s going to be a sad day — and I fear the day is coming soon, even in Myanmar — when their idea of “play” no longer means playing games outdoors with friends, but being glued to some sort of iDevice.

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Buddha Bonanza

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If you spend any amount of time as a tourist in Myanmar, you’ll visit a mind-numbing number of pagodas, temples, and monasteries. For many Westerners, it can all seem like an endless Buddhist blur after a short while, tempting some cynical visitors to remark that “they all look alike.” Another huge pagoda with a gleaming golden stupa? Uh, that’s nice. You go right ahead. I’ll just wait here in the horse cart.

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If you venture inside any of those sacred Buddhist sites, you are going to see a lot of Buddha figures. It’s like a Buddha bonanza! And unlike the endless parade of pagodas, the shrines to the Buddha don’t all look the same at all. I marvel at the variety of Buddha figures that I’ve seen during my trips to Myanmar. They come in all shapes and sizes, and in different poses and different styles. Standing Buddha, Reclining Buddha, Disco Buddha, Umbrella Buddha, Forest Buddha; there’s a Buddha for all occasions.

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Here are a few of the Buddha images that captured my eye during my most recent trip. These shots were taken in a variety of locations in and around Mandalay, Taunggyi, and Kakku.

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Bamboo Delight Cooking Class

Back in Shan State, in the still-sleepy town of Nyaungshwe (but maybe not for much longer; construction is booming and more motorcycles are zooming), Ma Pu Sue has opened the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class.

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Sue has worked in the tourism industry for many years, most recently as a guide who can take visitors to scenic places in the area, such as Inle Lake or nearby villages, or further afield on multi-day treks. But lately her focus has been on her Myanmar cuisine cooking classes, which have proved to be enormously popular with foreign tourists.

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Instead of only showing her visitors the basics of Burmese food, Sue offers them a total culinary experience. She takes each client to the bustling morning market where she picks out various food and spices, explaining how each item will be used. After that it’s back to her house for food preparation and cooking. And then the moment that everyone looks forward to experiencing: eating a tasty meal!

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While I was in Nyaungshwe earlier this month I dropped by Sue’s house several times. Two of my friends from Bagan, Nine Nine and Htun Htun, were in town, so Sue invited the whole crew to her house for a “snack” one afternoon. Inside the house, Sue’s two daughters and another girl from the neighborhood were cutting banana leaves to use as “plates” and containers for some salads that she was making. Later, we got to sample some of the veggie treats, which came with a tasty garlic dip. Sue also served some fried tofu, tea leaf salad (a staple in almost every Myanmar home), and other tasty sauces and dips.

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I’ve also been treated to lavish meals at Sue’s house and I can honestly say that everything I’ve tasted has been extremely delicious. The cuisine found in Shan State is different than some of the more common, and oily, “Burmese” dishes found in other parts of Myanmar. There are plenty of fresh vegetable dishes, savory soups, creative salads, fish from the lake, and an assortment of curries with chicken, pork, and beef. A little something for everyone, some dishes of which may surprise you.  

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If you are interested in learning more about the local cuisine and have time while in Nyaungshwe, you can contact Sue at: bambooprincess.sue@gmail.com

 

Laughter in the Rain

It’s not often that a Neil Sedaka song pops into my head while walking the streets of Bangkok, but the deluge of rain that I found myself overwhelmed by on Wednesday night triggered Sedaka’s mid-1970s hit “Laughter in the Rain” to run circuits around my brain for several hours.

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It was one of those freak rain storms that didn’t come and go quickly, as they usually do. Instead, this intense and persistent strorm lasted several hours, raining hard enough to ensure flooded streets and traffic gridlock. I had been dining with my friend Michael at Soul Food Mahanakorn, a Thai restaurant on Thonglor. Ten o’clock came and went and it was still raining, so we both ordered another round of Beer Lao, the dark variety. Eleven o’clock threatened to rear its head and it was still raining hard. Rain or not, it looked like the restaurant would be closing soon, so we paid our bill (the food is quite good at that place, but it’s not cheap, and portions aren’t very big either; I had the odd feeling of leaving a restaurant still a bit hungry!) and marched outside to face the elements.

For Michael, getting home wasn’t going to be that difficult a task, even in the pouring rain. From the restaurant, he had only a short hike to the Thonglor BTS Skytrain station, and then a dry ride back to his place near Sathorn Road. For me, however, the transport options weren’t looking as simple. I live on New Petchburi Road, not an area serviced by the Skytrain or subway. In heavy rains like this one the number of available taxis decreases dramatically, and even if you do luck into finding one, the traffic is so backed up that you are looking at a very long ride home. The rain also means that taking a motorcycle taxi is not a particularly desirable option. Yeah, you can take one, but without a raincoat, which I didn’t have with me, you’re going to get soaked. And at this time of night, even motorcycle taxis are almost impossible to find.

Thonglor was already quite flooded, so with umbrella in hand, I decided to walk back to the Sukhumvit intersection in hopes of finding a dry stretch of pavement where I could wait and possibly flag down a taxi. I waited under an awning for nearly 30 minutes, the rain never letting up and no taxis stopping. That’s when I started laughing and that Neil Sedaka song began playing in my head. I mean what else could I do but wait out the rain and laugh about it all? It was that ridiculous.

Another reason for laughter was the sight of the cockroach dance. While I was waiting under the awning I noticed a woman standing nearby who started twitching and slapping her back, and then screaming. What the hell? But she wasn’t the only one. A young man standing next to the woman commenced into doing an exaggerated slap and shuffle of his own. At that point I noticed the source of this chaos; cockroaches. Dozens if not hundreds of the little critters, skittering across the pavement … and up legs and arms and backs and heads! Things got so bad that the man yanked off his shirt and tried to brush off the intruders. While I was laughing at this scene I felt a crawling presence on my own shoulder. Yep, the cockroaches had found me too!

I finally gave up on a taxi and decided that there wasn’t much I could do at this point but to start walking home. It’s a bit of a hike, but I’ve done it before, and hey, it’s good exercise, right? The clock was pushing midnight by this time and the rain had let up enough that I put away my umbrella and just donned a baseball cap as protection from the elements. But there was still no sign of any vacant taxis, either the regular ones or the motorcycle variety.

The walk home was, shall we say, soggy. Several of the sois and driveways that I had to cross were so flooded that the water came up almost to my knees. Needless to say, these old Reeboks were going to need a thorough drying afterwards. Actually, I need a new pair anyway, but I’ll wait until after rainy season has safely retreated until I buy anything new. Marching down Thonglor, I passed vendors who were packing it in for the night, pedestrians seeking shelter, and swirling pools of garbage. But I pressed on, laughing in the rain, that song still playing in my head.

Scenes from a Burmese Restaurant

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Whenever I arrive in Mandalay, I head to the Aye Myit Tar restaurant on 81st Street (between 29th and 30th streets) for dinner the first night. I invited my friend, Htoo Htoo, also known to many tourists as Mr. Htoo, to join me for dinner, since my American friend, Walter (who teaches at an international school in town), was busy that night.

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But before the evening was out, we were joined by two more surprise guests; Moe Htet Aung and Zin Ko, friends from the 90th Street neighborhood. I had mentioned to them that I eat dinner at Aye Myit Tar frequently, so they knew where to find me. They had already eaten earlier in the evening, but they joined us for soft drinks after the meal, while I worked on a second bottle of Myanmar Beer.

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I ended up eating dinner at Aye Myit Tar almost every night I was in Mandalay, the only exception being the night I met Walter for dinner at V Café, and another night when I went with Moe Htet Aung and Zin Ko to a karaoke bar & restaurant on the other side of town. After that first night I told Moe Htet Aung and Zin Ko that they were invited to join me for dinner any night that they were free, and that ended up being every night I was in town! But I was more than happy to have them join me. They’re good kids and I enjoy their company, and the prices at the restaurant are low enough that having two extra guests is not a huge expense.

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One night at Aye Myit Tar I was pleasantly surprised to run into my Australian friend, Judyth Gregory-Smith, the author of Myanmar: A Memoir of Loss and Recovery, who was dining there with two of her local friends. Judyth is a frequent visitor to Myanmar and was checking in with her friends and checking up on her various projects. She is also in midst of writing another book.

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As usual, we were spoiled by the incredible service at Aye Myit Tar. The waiters remain diligent, attentive, friendly, polite, and sometimes silly. A good combination! My usual crew of Nyein Htun, Ko Ko Oo, Aung Myo Ko, and Kyaw Myu Htun were supplemented by a revolving cast of others. It gets to be comical at times, all these waiters taking turns to fill up my glass of beer, dishing out more heaping spoonfuls of rice, refilling the side dishes of vegetables, bringing out another bowl of soup, and giving me extra servings of curry. To say that I feel bloated when I leave the place is an understatement! For such good service I always make sure to tip the guys extra, and this time I brought them all souvenir key chains from Inle Lake as a bonus gift. These guys work long hours — usually from seven in the morning until at least nine every night, with only an hour or two break in the afternoon — so I feel that any extra perk that I can give them is more than deserved.  

 

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Crosstown Traffic

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When cycling around Myanmar, sometimes I felt the only thing missing was a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you need to get yourself to Electric Ladyland immediately! And don’t take the A Train!

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Even if what you see in Myanmar doesn’t qualify as cross town traffic, you can call it around town traffic, dirt lane traffic, or even country road traffic. Sometimes the traffic is insanely congested, as so often happens in the heart of Mandalay, but at other times it might feel like you’re the only one on the road, as you’ll occasionally find in parts of Shan State. But no matter what the traffic conditions, you are guaranteed to see a wild variety of transport choices in Myanmar. In addition to cars, buses and motorcycles, you will encounter mobile carts, bicycles, trishaws, and even a few other non-automotive varieties.

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I never did take a proper shot of the real traffic chaos that I often encountered in Mandalay. Frankly, I didn’t have the courage. The non-stop buzz of vehicles darting through intersections (most of which have neither traffic lights nor stop signs) and zooming towards me on the wrong way of the road made such a task a bit daunting, if not flat-out dangerous. Just try to imagine a color transport stew of bikes, carts, motorcycles, buses, trucks, cars, and trishaws coming at you from every angle … and then get out of the way!

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Burmese Buzz

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Call it the Burmese Buzz, or the Myanmar Mood, but the feeling just won’t go away. It’s that heady, slightly intoxicating feeling that I get after experiencing yet another memorable, life-affirming trip. I’ve been back in Bangkok for three days now, but I’m still feeling Myanmar, thinking Myanmar, missing Myanmar.

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Which is odd, in a way; I’ve visited Myanmar over 20 times at this point, and the travelling back and forth has become a relatively routine matter. Once I’m back in Bangkok, I manage to switch from travel mode to work mode almost immediately, heading straight from the airport to my bookshop, taking only a short detour to drop off bags at my apartment. I stop trying to speak phrases in Burmese and revert back to Thai. But that’s sometimes easier said than done; after getting off the airport rail link in Bangkok on Tuesday I asked a motorcycle taxi driver to hold my bag, but spoke in Burmese. The synapses finally clicked and I managed to speak the correct language the second time around, but I still felt out of sorts.

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Maybe that was indication that acclimating back to daily life in Bangkok wasn’t going to be as smooth and effortless this time around, and perhaps the withdrawal symptoms would be more acute. I feel like I really bonded closer with many of my friends in Myanmar this time, so leaving them all behind and returning to Thailand has left me feeling sadder and more wistful than usual. I keep thinking about the good times and the little things that make each trip so special: I yearn for another bowl of monhinga for breakfast; I want to tie on a longyi and hop on my bike; meet friends and hang out on 90th Street in Mandalay; stop at Aye Myit Tar for curry and beer and the let the waiters fuss over me; visit the delightful kids and mischievous monks at the school and monastery in Tat Ein village. But alas, vacation time has ended and I really must try and put all that behind me for now. But only for a while.

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One of the albums on the MP3 music player that I take on my trips is Sin Za Ba by Linn Linn. I played that a lot during my eleven days in Myanmar and I’ve listened to it every day since I returned. I only understand a fraction of the lyrics in the songs, but the melodic music evokes a special mood and reminds me of the days I spent in the country. I listen to these songs and it feels like I’m back in Mandalay. Like most great music, the songs on Sin Za Ba resonate with me, soothe me, and inspire me.

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I guess it’s not too soon to start thinking about the next trip. I won’t be able to return for another seven or eight months, but at least I can start the process of mentally planning it all. Better the Burmese Buzz than the Burmese Blues.

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