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

Archive for March, 2014

Festival Time in Shan State

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Greetings from Nyaunghswe in Myanmar’s Shan State. I’m here for a few days to rest, reconnect with friends, and maybe, just maybe, attend a temple festival in Hat Ein village this weekend. I’m scheduled to return to Mandalay on Sunday, but that’s the same day as this festival, so I may postpone my departure and stay for the event. I’ve been invited for lunch in the village today, at which time I’ll try and give some more details about what sort of temple festival, a paya pwe, this is going to be. Some are very colorful and festival events with games and food, but others can consist of nothing much more than monks chanting.

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I dropped by Shan Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe yesterday and met with some of the monks to give them photos of the trip we took together to Kakku last year. I also gave Pyinya Sawda, one of the novice monks in residence, a copy of the book that has him pictured on the cover. I also passed out photos to the kids and novice monks in Tat Ein village, a task which is always a bit … chaotic. But fun. The monk population has dropped considerably, with only about 20 novices currently at the monastery. But as always they were a charming bunch.

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I actually arrived here four days ago with a group of children and fathers from 90th Street in Mandalay. On the way here we stopped at a mammoth cave about an hour outside of Taunggyi, then saw a few places in that town, and finally arrived in Nyaungshwe. I stayed at a hotel in town while the rest of group shacked up at a local monastery. My friend Ma Ma Aye had made arrangements for the group to stay at the roomy Yangon Kyaung monastery, but one of the drivers knew someone with connections at yet another monastery, so that’s where they stayed. And to file under the “It’s a Small World” bin, they stayed at … Tat Ein Monastery. Too bizarre of a coincidence!

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With the group from Mandalay  I also spent a full day touring spots around Inle Lake. I’d been there many times, but this was the first time that most of of the kids, or the adults, had seen the lake so it was fun to gauge their reactions to everything. Now if I can just get rid of this cold that I caught, life will be wonderful again!

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Last Minute Flurry

I’ve spend most of the past 48 hours trying to pack and prepare for my trip this week to Myanmar. Very excited about seeing my friends again, but also having to try and arrange a multitude of tasks ahead of time, both in Mandalay and here in Bangkok.

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One item on the agenda was getting my hospitalized friend’s Thailand tourist visa renewed. He’s been in hospital since mid-October and at first they were giving him 30-day extensions. Due to his critical condition they’ve now seen fit to give him 60-day extensions. Each time the visa was about to expire, the hospital would phone me up, ask if I could come down and pay the visa fee, I would do it, and everything was set.

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But now that he’s been transferred to a nursing home, and no longer officially under the care of Bangkok Hospital, that complicates matters. In order to help arrange the renewal I contacted the fine folks at the Sutlet Group in Bangkok, who also operate PB Legal Services.  They are the ones that handle all the paperwork for my own annual business visa and work permit renewals. After getting a definite “no, we can’t arrange the visa this time” from the hospital, I contacted Patara at PB Legal and explained the situation. I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough time to collate all paperwork and documents needed, but within a few short hours Patara had contacted the doctor at the nursing home, scheduled a pick-up of some essential documents, and gone to the hospital to finish making the final arrangements. Amazing service, and very much appreciated!

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Meanwhile, I’ll be attending to matters at that same friend’s apartment when I get to Mandalay. We still have most of his possessions in storage in a back room at the apartment, but now it’s time to move things out and store them at a local monastery, donate a few things, and perhaps try and sell some of the nicer items. There will be plenty of work to do. On top of that, my friend Zin Ko’s father died last week, and I anticipate more than a bit of sadness on 90th Street when I arrive this time. Poor kid; last year around this time one of the friends who was swimming with him drowned in the river, and now he loses one of his parents. Life can be cruel, but I always try and maintain some sense of optimism and I hope I can spread some of that to Zin Ko on this trip. Wish us all luck!

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And this time I’ll also be travelling back to Shan State to visit friends in Nyaungshwe and Tat Ein village. I haven’t been there in almost a year, so I’m looking forward to seeing everyone again. I heard back from Ma Pu Sue this week and she confirmed that Pyinya Sawda is still at Shwe Yan Pyay monastery, so I’ll be bringing him a copy of the book that has his photo on the cover.

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The Motorcycle Concerts

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Some of the guys from the neighborhood motorcycle taxi stand continue to drop by my apartment once every week or so to listen to music, drink beer, and chat. About two weeks ago, one of the guys, Noy, was bemoaning the fact that his old acoustic guitar was now rendered all but unplayable, having been battered by termites and a cracked neck. If there is something I appreciate, it’s an aspiring musician, so, before he left that night I slipped him some money and told him to use it to buy a new guitar. It wasn’t a huge amount of money, but enough to buy a decent secondhand acoustic guitar. He looked shocked when I handed him the money, but thanked me and told me that he’d bring the guitar by to show me after he purchased it. He had already been eyeing a model for sale in a nearby pawnshop and saving his wages, he said, so the extra money should seal the deal.

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Over a week went by and I didn’t see or hear from him or any of the other drivers that usually come over. I thought that perhaps he had ended up using the money for something else and was perhaps ashamed to show up without a guitar. Hey, I understand, life interrupts and things happen. Then, last Friday night Noy called up and asked if I was free that night. Sure, I told him, come over anytime after nine. When I opened the door, Noy was standing there with guitar in his hand and a big smile on his face, and in his wake was another motorcycle guy, Nat, and he also was carrying an acoustic guitar!

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The two guys sat down and proceeded to launch into a repertoire of pleng puea cheewit (“Music for Life”) standards, mostly songs by Pongsit Kampee. Okay, they’re my friends and I may be biased, but I was pretty impressed by their playing ability. Noy is quite adept at picking out some tricky chords and Nat showed that he could play well too, plus he has a very pleasant singing voice. At one point in the “concert” Noy asked if I could take a video of them with my camera. After I filmed them, I downloaded it onto my computer and Noy in turn posted it on his Facebook page. Ah, this brave new world!

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Playing covers is one thing, of course, but now I’ll be curious to see if Noy and Nat are inspired to start writing their own material. I’ll be eager to hear the next installment in the motorcycle concerts!

 

Loving Life in Bangkok

This month marks 18 years since I left my comfortable life in the USA and moved to the chaotic confines of Bangkok. It was a drastic move and a new adventure, but one that I felt like I needed to make. And I haven’t regretted it a bit. Eighteen years? Damn, time does indeed fly by!

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When I first moved to Bangkok I was quite adventurous about seeing — and doing — as many things in town as I could. Of course I was already familiar with the city after visiting many times over the previous years, but living in “The Big Mango” was still a fascinating and thrilling new experience. The city isn’t for everyone, and certainly there are many people who don’t like it at all, but for me it’s a fantastic place to live and it still hasn’t lost its vibrancy and fascination. Never a dull moment is an understatement. I love living here.

I had a bit of time to reflect on living in Bangkok earlier this week when I ventured down to the notorious Patpong quarter to meet Richard, a friend from Texas, who was staying at a hotel on Suriwong Road. I hadn’t been to this part of town in ages, but walking the streets and immersing myself in the myriad sights, sounds, and smells, brought back lots of great memories. I stopped at one street vendor and bought a bunch of Thai themed key chains to give to friends in Myanmar when I go there later this month. I bought several dozen so the dealer was more than willing to give me a discount. I’m not much of a haggler, but I do enjoy talking Thai with these street sellers. Most of them are really nice folks who are always delighted to hear a foreigner speaking Thai, and that really opens up the conversation. For me, that’s part of the charm of living here.

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After meeting Richard at his hotel we strolled down the sidewalk obstacle course on Suriwong. It was about 6:30 in the evening and the street was already packed with vendors, touts, and the usual parade of badly-dressed tourists. We ate the Roadhouse Grill on the corner of Suriwong and Rama IV Road. I’ve eaten there many times in the past decade but hadn’t been there in about two years. I was very impressed by the service and the food was excellent (the savory black bean soup brought back memories of great Cuban restaurants in Florida), although it was muchmore expensive that it used to be — or at least more than I remembered. The waiter was so diligent and personable that I added an extra tip on top of the service charge already on the bill.

Earlier this week I had to go to my bank to transfer money to an account I have in the US. I’ve done this several times before, but the process, and the paperwork involved, is always fraught with tricky details. One wrong piece of information is liable to screw up the whole transfer. But the young woman I dealt with at the bank was very sweet and very patient, and when I made a mistake putting the correct name under one of the beneficiary accounts she caught it and helped make the correction. When the transaction was finally complete she gave me a little bank bag as a gift.

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And then my friend Toh showed up one night and met me for a late dinner of noodles at a nearby street vendor. Those cheap eats are some of my favorite meals. Toh just returned from visiting his mother in Kalasin and brought me a gift, another unexpected but nice surprise. After dinner we went back to my place and listened to music (he had brought a live CD by Retrospect, a Thai band that he likes a lot) and had a really nice conversation. I hadn’t realized that he was such a history buff; he particularly loves watching movies and documentaries about various world wars. He’s such a cheerful and easygoing guy, and I feel lucky to count him as a friend.

Feeling lucky sort of sums up my life here in Bangkok. I’ve worked some great jobs and meet some great people, both Thais and other foreigners. It’s been an incredible adventure, and I hope it continues for another 18 years … or longer!

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Monastery Moments

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I was pondering a variety of subjects to write about this week, but nothing really clicked. I considered writing about a customer at my shop who passed away this week; the mysterious fate of that Malaysian Airlines flight (and I’ve flown with that airline several times, making this an even more compelling drama for me); the impromptu concert in my apartment (most likely I will write about that, but not yet!); or then there were the Christian missionaries that I not so politely asked to leave my shop last week.

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But in the end, the monks won again! Yes, when all else fails, I can post photos of those charming novice monks from Myanmar and all feels right with the world once again. If nothing else, seeing the photos that I’ve taken of these monks always brings a smile to my face. And actually I’ve been looking at some of these photos a lot lately: Last week I went and had prints made of the shots that I took of the novice monks at Tat Ein village in Shan State last year, and I’ll be taking those prints to give to the monks when I visit later this month. And of course that will prompt a whole new series of photos. I can’t wait!

 

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Monk Cover Star!

The strangest things happen when you’re just killing time.

Thursday was one of those rare days when I was able to sneak away from my shop before closing, allowing me time to run some errands and buy a few things before meeting my friends Keith and Sunay for dinner. We had reservations for 6:30 at Cabbages and Condoms (and yes, that’s the name of the restaurant, a fairly famous one here in Bangkok; one that definitely caters to tourists, but the food and service are always excellent), so was strolling down Sukhumvit Road, perusing the cornucopia of crap for sale and killing time until dinner.

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Even though I own a bookshop, I still can’t resist popping into other book establishments, so I decided to wander through the long-running Asia Books branch near the Asoke intersection. On one wall, they had a display of large-sized photography books, one of which brought a big smile to my face. The cover photo of this book, Myanmar Dream Journeys, showed Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, the old teakwood monastery in Nyaungshwe, with two novice monks standing next to one of the distinct oval windows. But that wasn’t the big surprise: “I know that monk!” I almost blurted out loud, noticing the novice monk on the left side of the window.

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And indeed I did. I’ve known that monk, Pyinya Sawda, for several years. If my memory is right, Pyinya Sawda has been at Shwe Yan Pyay for about four or five years. I’ve taken him and other monks on field trips in the area whenever I’m town. Pyinya Sawda was among the group I took to visit the Pindaya Caves a few years ago and was also in the group that I took to the huge balloon festival in Taunggyi. He’s a really nice kid and always makes a point to talk to me whenever I visit the monastery or when we go on trips. Many of the novice monks there are shy, especially in the presence of a foreigner, but not this kid! He really does have an engaging personality and as the photographer of this book no doubt realized, he’s quite photogenic too.

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Last year I had talked to Pyinya Sawda about going to Kakku, the old Pa-O ruins in a remote area of Shan State, with a few of the other monks from the monastery. Plans changed, however, and he ended up not being able to go, a dilemma I wrote about in this post last year:

https://garlicneversleeps.wordpress.com/2013/09/29/monks-among-the-ruins/

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In honor of Pyinya Sawda (that’s his “monk name,” his real name is Myo Swe) making the cover of this new book, I combed through my photo archives and found a bunch of shots that I’d taken of him over the years. Some of my favorites are the ones where he was playing a game with the other novice monks, running and jumping on these old concrete ledges outside the monastery. In some of the photos Pyinya Sawda looks like he’s taking flight! The other shots of him trying to handle a leaking hose are also pretty funny.

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I just contacted Ma Pu Sue, another friend in Nyaungshwe, and asked her to drop by the monastery and make sure that Pyinya Sawda is still there. These monks move around so much, that there is never any guarantee that I’m going to see them whenever I return. But if he’s still at Shwe Yan Pyay, I’ll be taking him a copy of this book when I visit next month.

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Myanmar Dream Journeys has recently been published by John Beaufoy Publishing. It was written by Christine Nilsson, who also took the photographs.

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Somtow’s Jasmine Nights

After I moved to Bangkok in 1996, Jasmine Nights by S.P. Somtow was one of those novels that I would often see in local bookshops, yet I only got around to reading it last week. That’s my loss for waiting so long; this is a marvelous novel, both a humorous coming-of-age tale, and one that offers a time capsule of what it must have been like living in Bangkok in 1963. From the descriptions of savory street food and paddling boats down the pungent city klongs (canals), to details of the Thai belief in ghosts and lucky amulets, this novel strikes the right chord from beginning to end. Best of all, the book is populated by a thoroughly entertaining cast of colorful characters, both Thais and “farangs” (foreigners).

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Jasmine Nights is the story of a 12-year-old boy nicknamed “Little Frog” — a rich, sheltered child who prefers the nickname “Justin” and enjoys reading classics of English language literature such as “Homer” and the plays of Shakespeare — and his eccentric circle of relatives, employees, and friends. The boy’s parents, we are told, “disappeared” when Little Frog was younger and their whereabouts aren’t divulged to the child. In their absence Little Frog is being raised by his three aunts in a secluded Bangkok estate. His best friends are his books and his pet chameleon. Early in the novel, several alarming things happen; Little Frog witnesses the maid giving his uncle a blow job at a family funeral, the beloved chameleon dies, Little Frog accidentally meets his mysterious great-grandmother (a delightful old lady who quotes lines from the film Psycho), and an American family — Black people, of all shocking things! — move in next door. And we can’t forget the gardener who is saving money for a sex change operation, nor the skirt-chasing, tongue-tied British doctor. Before this engaging novel has run its course, Somtow examines the economic and societal gap between the classes in Thailand, racial relations and stereotypes, and the Thai spirit world. Oh, and Jack and Jackie Kennedy are part of the drama too.

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Now that I’ve finally discovered this magical novel, I may be pestering my book-loving friends to read it. Really, it’s that great, that impressive. A novel that’s equal parts funny, moving, interesting, and inspiring. Jasmine Nights is a winner on all counts.

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S.P. Somtow is the pen name of Thai writer and composer Somtow Sucharitkul. Although Thai by birth, Somtow grew up and was educated in England. English is his first language. As an adult he has split time between Los Angeles and Bangkok. Under the Somtow surname he wrote several acclaimed novels in the 1970s and 1980s, mostly horror and science fiction novels. Thus, Jasmine Nights, first published in 1994, was a bit of a stylistic departure for him, but in my mind a welcome one.

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In the past two decades, Somtow has shifted from writing novels, focusing on a musical career. He has composed several symphonies, written an opera, and conducted the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra. He is currently the artistic director of the Bangkok Opera.

 

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