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

Archive for December, 2013

Another Weird New Year?

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It’s that time again; another year has zipped past and everybody is ready to greet the arrival of twelve more weird and unpredictable months. Here in Thailand, just looking at the next few weeks ahead is cause for great concern. The recent political protests show no signs of abating. In fact, if this rabble rouser Suthep and his misguided minions get their way, the elections planned for February 2 will be either postponed or scrapped altogether (they are already out in force, trying to prevent candidates from even registering!), resulting in yet more street demonstrations. If violence erupts again it could possibly cause the military to get involved. Another coup in Thailand? That’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility at this juncture. And all this shit is happening right in the midst of what should be the “High Season” for tourism. Good timing, you morons!

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Ah, I’m getting agitated again and that’s not what I set out to do in this post. It’s the end of the year and wanted to think nice thoughts and be optimistic. Oh well, let’s all ring in the New Year anyway and hope for better — much better — days ahead, no matter where you live. One thing that always makes me smile and puts me in a better frame of mind is looking at the photos of the friendly people who I’ve met during my trips to Myanmar. Here are a few more shots from the trips I took this year.  Wishing everyone a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2014!

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Best of the Year or too much Hype?

Earlier this month, I picked up the latest issue of Mojo Magazine with their annual “Best Albums” list. Once again there are a few predictable picks and more than a few head scratchers. Last year’s “Best” album, according to Mojo’s experts, was the Jack White solo album, Blunderbuss. Even though I’m not a big White Stripes fan, I succumbed to all the glowing reviews and decided to take a chance on the Jack White CD, but after listening to it over a dozen times the “genius” of it totally escaped me. And their choice for best album this year, Bill Callahan’s Dream River, is another one that I can’t quite figure out. I picked up a copy when I was in KL last month, but I just don’t hear any greatness on this one either. The new album by Elvis Costello and the Roots, one that’s also received rave reviews and one that I thought I’d love, is another one that I’m really struggling with. Other Mojo “best of the year” picks such as Nick Cave, John Grant, James Blake, Black Sabbath, Kanye West, and Arctic Monkeys are either perplexing choices or ones that don’t remotely appeal to me. But hey, you can’t like everything.

http://www.mojo4music.com/9206/mojo-top-50-albums-2013/

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So what was my favorite album of the year? I enjoyed new albums by David Bowie, John Hiatt, Daft Punk, Eleanor Friedberger, Steve Earle, Deerhunter, Kings of Leon, Grant Hart, O.M.D., Jason Isbell, Slaid Cleaves, The Strokes, Empire of the Sun, Johnny Marr, Kurt Vile, Kim Richey, Local Natives, Phoenix, Dawes, Garland Jeffreys, Tift Merritt, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Phosphorescent, Yo La Tengo, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and many others. But to pick a “best” one out of the bunch would be an almost impossible task. Plus, there are plenty of new releases that I want to hear but still haven’t heard yet. I buy a lot of CDs every year, and even though I try to keep up with the latest releases, I’m not able to listen to everything that comes out. The selection of new releases is very much “hit and miss” here in Bangkok, and much better in Kuala Lumpur, but there are still a lot of things that I can’t find, so eventually I’ll end up having to order them online. But I’m in no hurry to hear all the latest. Good music doesn’t age or spoil. I still enjoy the hunt of browsing for real CDs in shops, so I’ll eventually get around to hearing new albums on my “want list” by Arcade Fire, Mavis Staples, Charles Bradley, Mikal Cronin, and Queens of the Stone Age.

Meanwhile, here are the latest CDs that I’ve been playing a lot lately; a few new releases, plenty of old ones, but all things that I enjoy listening to very much. Happy New Year!

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Jackson 5 – Come and Get It: The Rare Pearls

Daft Punk – Random Access Memory

Surfer Blood – Pythons

Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale – Buddy and Jim

Josh Rouse – Josh Rouse and The Long Vacations

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Patty Griffin – Silver Bell

Empire of the Sun – Ice on the Dune

ZZ Top – La Futura

Joe Simon – The Power of Joe Simon

Joe Henderson – Canyon Lady

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Various Artists – Something New To Do: The Philip Mitchell Songbook

Allen Toussaint – Songbook

Joan Armatrading – Starlight

Willy Deville – In New Orleans

Aimee Mann – The Forgotten Arm

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Charlie Whitehead – Songs to Sing: Anthology 1970-78

John Jarvis – So Fa So Good

The Rumour – Not so much a Rumour, more a way of life

Mel and Tim – Only Good Guys Win in the Movies

Rick Nelson – Playing to Win

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Final Solution – Brotherman (Original Soundtrack)

Bambino – Nomad

Ry Cooder and Corridos Famosos – Live

NRBQ – We Travel the Spaceways

Beach House – Bloom

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Garland Jeffreys – Truth Serum

Stanley Turrentine – The Spoiler

Tired Pony – The Ghost of the Mountain

Art Blakey – Witch Doctor

Ron Sexsmith – Forever Endeavor

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Various Artists – Play the Game: The XL and Sounds of Memphis Story

Jose Feliciano – No Jive: The Very Best of 1964-75

The National – Trouble Will Find Me

Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: The Tragar and Note Labels

Foxygen – We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic

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Rail Band – Belle Epoque 2: Mansa

North Mississippi All Stars – World Boogie is Coming

Belle and Sebastian – Third Eye Centre

John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts

Darrell Banks – I’m the One Who Really Loves You: The Volt Recordings

 

Motorcycle Beer Night

If I looked a bit haggard in my bookshop today, there was a good reason for it. I was up until 3:30 in the morning drinking beer with a group of motorcycle taxi drivers — motosai — from my neighborhood. I can’t even remember the last time I stayed up that late (must have been back in the early 1990s!) or drank that much beer, but it was a lot of fun.

I’m usually in the sack by midnight, so staying up that late caused my normal morning routine — I wake up at 7:30 and am out the door about 45 minutes later to go and open my shop — to, shall we say, drag a bit more than usual. Man, I’m getting too old for these late night sessions. But all things considered, I don’t regret it. I don’t get guests that often, but these guys were a friendly and polite bunch and I enjoyed having them over.

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One of the guys had phoned me earlier in the evening, around 9:30, and asked if I was free. I told him sure, come on over and bring your friends. He said that he’d come by after his shift ended, which was around 10:30 that night. But eleven came and went and I wondered if anybody was going to show up, so I called and he said that he was still working. Hey, if these guys have customers, they are going to keep working. Finally, a few minutes past midnight the crew arrived; four of the motorcycle taxi drivers from the stand near my apartment.

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One of them heard the music playing inside my apartment and grinned: “Pongsit Kampee.” And he was correct; I had a Pongsit Kampee CD playing, just as a hunch that these guys would like Kampee’s Thai “music for life” folk songs, and they did. I tell you, Pongsit Kampee never fails. Something about his down-to-earth songs, and that lovely voice, always connects with Thai people like these young motorcycle taxi drivers.

This was the first time that this particular group had been to my place, so to help get the conversation going I passed around some photo albums of my trips to Myanmar and Cambodia and told them more about my travels and my job. And they told me about their lives too. One of the guys comes from Surin, which is near the border with Cambodia, and he could speak a bit of Khmer, so we had fun with that.

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The cool thing was watching these guys start to relax and loosen after a few minutes. I was no longer their customer, but a friend. I think there is always some hesitation and uncertainty when these motorcycle guys come over for the first time to visit “the strange farang,” not knowing how well we will be able to communicate or how comfortable they’ll feel. But I can speak Thai reasonably well and enjoy the company of locals like these guys, so I think that helps to bridge the cultural divide and create some sort of common thread. So, between the good music, travel photos, and a steady flow of beer, we broke the ice and had conversations about a variety of subjects, ranging from sports and food to their work routine and the hazards of the job. These guys usually work from 8 am until late at night, such as the midnight shift they just finished. They’ve got to deal with traffic jams, careless car drivers, police shakedowns, and bad weather. They don’t get to work in an air-conditioned office or have days off. But they will get a break for the upcoming New Year holiday. They are all heading back to their home provinces this weekend to visit family and friends for a few days. Three of them are going to Nakhon Ratchasima and the other guy will return to Surin.

At one point — perhaps inspired by the Tiger Beer — someone got the idea to take photos, so they all pulled out their phones and took turns snapping shots of the group as we toasted one another. Good silly fun. It was after 2:00 and we had polished off the six large bottles of beer that I had in my fridge, along with a variety of crunchy chips and nuts. I figured at that point that they would call it a night and go home, but they were just getting started! One of them left to pick up some more beer at a nearby shop (obviously, they must know where they can get after-hours supplies) and returned with another four bottles. Good grief!

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Pongsit Kampee later segued into some vintage Carabao and eventually they exhausted the rest of the beer and chips. But before leaving, they insisted on cleaning up after themselves; picking up empty bottles, sweeping the floor, and washing all the glasses. I just stood and watched, marveling at their industriousness and politeness. A good crew. I hope to have them back again when they return from their New Year break, but next time maybe I’ll suggest an earlier night. Right now, I need sleep!

 

Dashing Through the Weirdness

I breathe a sigh of relief tonight, for I have managed to work another Christmas Day in my bookshop without resorting to violence or verbally haranguing some clueless nimrod for wishing me a “Merry Christmas.” Why is it that so many people in Thailand — both Thais and foreigners — assume that all Westerners gleefully celebrate Christmas? I’m not a Christian and I don’t celebrate Christmas, yet even living in Thailand it’s almost impossible to avoid the holiday weirdness.

 All of the shopping centers and department stores in Bangkok have been flaunting their horrific Christmas decorations since late October. If that’s not bad enough, many of these places also delight in playing Christmas music. It’s also impossible to avoid gaudy holiday decorations and spindly little trees in restaurants, banks, and supermarkets all around town. My apartment complex, however, didn’t put up a tree this year. I wonder if they are still upset that I set fire to last year’s tree.

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Is there some regulation that all employees in these places must wear Santa Claus hats? Really, it’s beyond ridiculous. This is Thailand, the welcoming kingdom of peaceful Buddhists and sexy go-go dancers. Why all the Christmas stuff? Even in the hospital where my friend is being treated they have Christmas decorations on every floor. Last time I checked, the population of Thailand was comprised of about 95% Buddhists, and most of the rest are Muslim, so what’s with all this Christian crap?

As you would guess, it has nothing to do with religion and all to do with being festive, or just being silly, and no country in the world does silliness better than Thailand. In fact, there are universities in Thailand that offer advanced courses in silliness. It’s that much of an art form. So when there is a chance to dress up, decorate, and do some shopping, hell, the Thais are going to go wild! And they do. I almost dropped by Foodland tonight to pick up a few things, but the thought of having to face a gauntlet of smiling Santa Claus hat-wearing cashiers wishing me a “May-ree Crit-mat!” was too much to deal with, so I walked straight home.

The Christmas overkill is not unique to Thailand. Go to any Asian country (well, maybe not North Korea) and you’ll see similar scenes of decorated malls and grinning people wearing Santa hats. Even in Malaysia, which is mostly Muslim, they aren’t shy about trotting out the Christmas decorations in full force. And when I was in Mandalay last month I saw several shops selling Christmas trees and other Santa crap. Man, you just can’t escape this nonsense. But hey, I guess it all has to do with marketing, right?

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The main problem, though, is that it’s a major Christian holiday, and that religious creepiness is always rearing its ugly head. Just last week some nutjob Christian — looking and sounding like an alcoholic Swede — wandered into my bookshop and started passing out those odious religious tracts. These fliers, though, were written in Thai, no doubt urging the recipient to repent and accept Jesus as their savior. I told this creep to get the hell out of my shop. He made some remark about “Jesus is coming soon,” so I retorted: “Well, it’s sure taking him a long time, isn’t it? What’s he been doing, masturbating to photos of Lady Gaga? No, wait a minute, didn’t I read that the Astros signed him to play shortstop next year? Or maybe that was another Jesus. I always get those Hispanic guys mixed up.” He kept babbling more Jesus voodoo, and I just smirked and added “take your fantasies somewhere else, dude, we don’t want your kind around here!”

My Cambodian friend Chiet was in the shop at the time, and he stared at the paper the creepy Christian had given him and asked me what it was. “It’s a new brand of toilet paper,” I told him. “But it’s a bit on the rough side, so be careful if you use it.”

 

Snatching it Back in KL

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As I noted in the previous post, I had another whirlwind trip to Kuala Lumpur last month. I don’t know anyone in the city except for the nice folks at my hotel, as well as the helpful clerks who remember me at the various branches of Rock Corner and Victoria Music where I always buy CDs, but always I enjoy spending time in Kuala Lumpur.

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I like to walk around Kuala Lumpur as much as possible, but when going somewhere that’s more than a few blocks in distance I use the handy train system they have, which includes a monorail and the KL Komuter line. This time around I ventured as far as Subang Jaya, in pursuit of — what else — more CDs, at a branch of Rock Corner I had never previously visited in the Subang Parade shopping center.

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There is not much in the way of historic buildings to see in Kuala Lumpur, but nevertheless I do enjoy the variety of modern architecture and skyscrapers that sprout up around the city, plus the colorful old shophouses in the Dang Wangi area. I had read something online recently about a rash of bag snatchings in the city, mostly perpetrated by thieves on motorcycles. I didn’t witness anything like that, and thankfully I didn’t have anything stolen, but I did see several notices around town, warning people to “beware of snatch thieves”. Such a shame that scum-sucking, cycle-driving thieves have to prey on pedestrians. Despite those warnings, however, I find KL to be a very safe city.

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As usual, I had meals — and a few nighttime bottles of beer — at Gantawin, the Myanmar restaurant located near Central Marker (Pasar Seni). And, as usual, I was the only Westerner in there each time I visited. But I get a kick out of eating monhinga for breakfast, having Shan noodles for dinner, and speaking Burmese with the waitresses. Plus, there is a variety of other Burmese business scattered on that street —including young women selling betel nut — another factor that makes Kuala Lumpur such an interesting and colorful city.

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Hungry for Kuala Lumpur

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I was in Kuala Lumpur last month for four days. It was pretty mucha non-stop frenzy of eating, CD buying, eating, book buying, eating, more CD buying, and more eating. In case you haven’t figured it out, Kuala Lumpur is a foodie paradise. You can find a wide variety of restaurants and food stalls to send your taste buds into overdrive all around KL and in neighboring towns such as Petaling Jaya. I ate local Malay cuisine at Yut Kee in Dang Wangi, sizzling steaks at the Coliseum and The Ship, Burmese monhinga at Gantawin, and Indian snacks such as samosas on the street. 

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There is a cool-looking retro A&W drive-in restaurant across the street from the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya that I was tempted to try, but I had too many bags of books after shopping at  BookXcess, so I didn’t even stop for a root beer. I always intend to sample an even greater variety of food when I’m in the city, but I end up patronizing my favorite places each time and there is never enough time — or room in my stomach — to eat it all. Maybe next time.

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The Need to Work

Earlier this week I had phone calls from two friends, both now working in countries where they were not born, trying to acclimate to a new language, new culture, new environment; the whole works. Since I pretty much did the same thing nearly twenty years ago, I can relate to their situation, although the obstacles and struggles that these two young men have faced pale in comparison to what I had to adjust to when I moved from the United States to Thailand.

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The first caller was Yan Naing Soe from Myanmar. I met him about five years ago when he was a teenager working at that Minthiha teashop in Mandalay. He always struck me as a bright, personable kid with poise, someone who would do well for himself if given the opportunity. But with only a sixth-grade education, his options were limited. He saved his meager salary from working long days at the teashop and used some of the money to study English when he had free time in the evenings. He left the teashop earlier this year to take an overseas job in Malaysia. Before he left I asked him if he felt scared to make such a move. “Yes,” he laughed. “I don’t know what will happen.”

But so far, so good. Yan Naing Soe  is working for a landscaping company in the Kuala Lumpur area, “cutting lots of trees” and working in the steamy outdoors. He gets Sundays off, which is a better deal than when he was working at the teashop and had no days off. He’s also making a higher salary, which I don’t doubt he’ll be saving and wiring home to his mother who lives near Bagan in Nyaung U. He sounds happy and content in his new home, working with a handful of other young Burmese men. I hope that I’ll see him again soon, probably in Malaysia next time.

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My other “foreign” friend is Chiet from Cambodia. He is back working a construction job in Thailand for the second straight year. This time around he is working at a construction site about an hour outside of Bangkok, in Pathum Thani province. He gets two days off work each week. Well, sometimes. The work schedule is erratic and in recent months he and the other workers have had to put in extra hours on the weekend to make up for any days that were rained out. Chiet is making only 280 Thai baht per day (less than US$10), but it’s still a higher salary than he got working jobs as a welder and security guard in Siem Reap. I hadn’t seen him since I was in Siem Reap earlier this year, but he came to visit me at my bookshop last week during a break from work. He’s still the same sweet and goofy kid that I’ve known for twelve years, but gaining confidence and experience. He’s learned a bit of Thai during his time here and he gets a kick out of trying to speak the language with me.

I thought again of my two friends when I read an editorial by Charles Blow in the New York Times last week. He was discussing a Republican senator in the US who did not support extending unemployment benefits past the current limit of 26 weeks. The Republican philosophy seems to be that helping people does them a “disservice” and unemployment benefits should be capped. But as Blow pointed out, this unemployment “safety net” is more than just a “handout” for many people, especially in these bleak times. Here is one excerpt from his editorial:

“Whereas I am sure that some people will abuse any form of help, I’m by no means convinced that this is the exclusive domain of the poor and put-upon. Businesses and the wealthy regularly take advantage of subsidies and tax loopholes without blinking an eye. But somehow, when some poor people, or those who unexpectedly fall on hard times, take advantage of benefits for which they are eligible it’s an indictment of the morality and character of the poor as a whole. The poor are easy to pick on. They are the great boogeymen and women, dragging us down, costing us money, gobbling up resources. That seems to be the conservative sentiment.”

Of course the dire unemployment situation and the perception of “poor people asking for handouts” is not just unique to the United States. A lot of people, most people in fact, want to work or need to work, but either can’t find a job or can’t find one that pays a living wage. Here in Southeast Asia, the meager employment prospects in many countries has caused an exodus of people — such as my friends Yan Naing Soe and Chiet — who have found higher-paying work in other countries.

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No, these people are not lazy and like the growing legions of out-of-work Americans they aren’t looking for handouts either. They just want to be able to earn a decent living and help their families. I agree with another thing that Blow wrote in his editorial: poor people are some of the hardest working people I have ever known.

I think about my own situation here in Thailand and consider myself very, very lucky. Not just because I’m living in a country that I love, but also because I’m now in a situation where I am self-employed and able to earn a sufficient salary for my needs. But if I was living back in the United States I shudder to think what I would be doing for a job. Would a company hire a middle-aged man like me? Let’s see; I have experience managing retail businesses (CD stores and bookshops) and also as a journalist. But those are not exactly high-demand professions nowadays. Would I be able to scrape together enough money to open my own retail business again? And if so, would it be able to turn a profit in this unpredictable, portable, online age? These are scary times and I fear they are only going to get scarier.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/12/opinion/blow-the-appalling-stance-of-rand-paul.html?ref=opinion

 

 

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