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

Archive for April, 2014

Shan Market Morning





One of my favorite activities while in the Shan State town of Nyaungshwe is wandering around the morning market in the center of town. I’m not a shopper and almost never buy anything — except for bags of fruit that I take to the monks at Shwe Yan Pay monastery each day. Instead, I’m content to roam the aisles and marvel at the cornucopia of sights and smells.












This market is absolutely bursting with vibrant colors, thanks to the profusion of fruits, vegetables, and flowers for sale. Factor in the traditional outfits of the Pa-O villagers who are both selling and buying, and pink-robed nuns who come in groups to shop, and the color fest is magnified even further.















The Monk on the Cover


While I was in Nyaungshwe last month, one of the items on my agenda was stopping by Shwe Yan Pyay Kyaung, the old teakwood monastery on the edge of town. I always go there when I visit Nyaungshwe, but this time I had a special task: to take the monks a copy of a new book, Myanmar Dream Journeys. This book pictures two novice monks (and the shadowy head of a third one) from Shwe Yan Pyay on the cover, one of whom, Pyinya Sawda, I know quite well.

 I stopped by the monastery around noon one day, shortly after the monks had finished their last meal for the day. After chatting with the always gracious saya daw, the head monk, I wandered over to the building where the novice monks stay and found Pyinya Sawda. Since he had not been able to go with us to Kakku (a grove of sacred Pa-O ruins in Shan State) last year, I brought him a small photo album with snapshots from the ruins, along with a copy of Myanmar Dream Journeys.


After I returned from my trip many friends have asked me about the monk’s reaction. “Was he excited to see the book?” Well … I don’t know. It’s hard to gauge how the young man felt about having his photo — taken about three years ago — on the cover of this book. Like many of the older novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay, Pyinya Sawdais rather stoic and doesn’t show much emotion. He’s certainly not the carefree young novice that he was a few years back when I would see him running around the monastery and playing games of tag with the other monks. He’s now older and much more serious about his studies and his future as a monk. I think perhaps the advent of a new round of exams this summer is also weighing on his mind. So, I think he was pleased to get the book, but I don’t think “excited” would accurately describe his reaction.



Before I handed the book over to Pyinya Sawda I had a chance to thumb through it. Myanmar Dream Journeys features the photographs of Christine Nilsson and those images are quite captivating. Nilsson traveled extensively around Myanmar and her photos reveal much of the natural beauty of the country’s scenery, and also of the people. The cover photo of Pyinya Sawda and the other monks, standing next to one of Shwe Yan Pyay’s distinctive oval windows, is also included inside the book, but unfortunately they don’t list the proper name of the monastery in the caption!


The text inside also could have been much better. Actually, I think the book would have been much better with no text at all. The strength is the photos and they should have stuck to that. In the first half of the book, Nilsson writes about her travels and impressions of the country. But the second half of the book — where she tries to offer various “useful” travel tips, covering things like hotels, transport, tour companies, and restaurants — is where things really fall flat. Nearly all of her recommendations are geared to the “high end” market and are both predictable and uninspiring. Not to mention damn expensive. Anyone on a budget would not be able to do much of anything on her list. Then there is the section where various Burmese phrases are listed, all accompanied by rather bizarre attempts at transliteration. I defy anyone to try and use a single one of these phrases and expect to be understood by a local while traveling in Myanmar. It won’t happen. Totally useless! Those criticisms aside, the photos in the book are indeed lovely and make the book a worthwhile purchase on that merit alone.

I checked on this week and they still list the book as not available yet, with a publication date set for May 23, 2014. But copies have been available here in Bangkok for several months already. In fact, Asia Books has had the book listed in stock since October 2013.


Songs for Slim


The new Songs For Slim compilation album is overflowing with great songs, plus it’s for a good cause, making it a very worthwhile purchase on all counts. Songs For Slim is a benefit album, proceeds of which will go to help pay the medical bills of Slim Dunlap, best known as a guitarist for the Replacements, the legendary Minneapolis band that made some wonderful albums in the 1980s and early 1990s. Dunlap also made two highly regarded solo albums (the first in 1993, the other in 1996), but a stroke in 2012 curtailed his music career and he now requires round-the-clock medical care. Fortunately, he has many friends in the music industry who have banded together to help him out.

So yeah, Songs For Slim has its heart in the right place, but on musical merits alone this 2-CD set is thoroughly enjoyable. If you cut your teeth on the alternative-pop guitar-propelled music of the 80s, particularly the rowdy rock of the Replacements, you’ll find a lot to like on this album. I’ve been a Replacements fan since the early days, but I’d never heard either of the solo albums that Slim Dunlap recorded, so the biggest surprise for me was the high quality of these songs, all of which Slim wrote himself. This tribute album features the likes of the Replacements, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Joe Henry, Tommy Keene, Jakob Dylan, Patterson Hood (from Drive-By Truckers), Soul Asylum, Peter Holsapple, Frank Black (from the Pixies), Jeff Tweedy (from Wilco), and many others, including a track by LP.Org, which features the radiant vocals of Gary Louris from the Jayhawks. Another of my favorite tracks is by a guy I’d never heard of before, Frankie Lee. Imagine if Ronnie Wood was a much better vocalist and that’s pretty close to what he sounds like.

Kudos to these artists, and to especially Slim’s friend and longtime Replacements manager Peter Jesperson, for putting this heartfelt and rockin’ tribute album together. Songs For Slim is available as a 2-CD set, or on good ole vinyl, including some 10-inch and 12-inch singles available, plus limited edition artwork by Replacements drummer Chris Mars.

In addition to Songs For Slim here are some of the other CDs that are making me sing and dance and cool down during the intense heat wave that we are having this month in Bangkok:


Various Artists – Hall of Fame Volume 2: More Rare and Unissued Gems from the Fame Vaults

Eric Clapton – Give Me Strength: The ‘74/’75 Studio Recordings

Various Artists – The South Side of Soul Street: The Minaret Soul Singles

Stanley Turrentine – That’s Where It’s At

George Jackson – All Because of Your Love


Le Grande Kalle – His Life, His Music

Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: Smart’s Palace

Ry Cooder – Get Rhythm

Doug Paisley – Strong Feelings

Al Green – Love Ritual: Rare and Unreleased 1968-76


Drive-By Truckers – English Oceans

Allen Toussaint – The Complete ‘Tousan’ Sessions

Eddie Reader – Live in Japan

Flora Purim – Butterfly Dreams

Josh Rouse – The Happiness Waltz


Various Artists – The World Needs Changing: Street Funk & Jazz Grooves 1967-1976

Television Personalities – Yes Darling, But is it Art?

Midlake – Antiphon

The New Mendicants – Into the Lime

Willie Mitchell – Poppa Willie: The Hi Years 1962-74


Smoked Sugar – Smoked Sugar

The Young Fresh Fellows – The Men Who Loved Music

Mary Chapin Carpenter – Songs from the Movie

X – Under the Big Black Sun

Patrick Cowley – School Daze


Lowell George – Thanks I’ll Eat It Here

Tommy Tate – I’m So Satisfied

Various Artists – Late Night Tales: Belle and Sebastian Vol. 2

Beth Orton – Pass in Time: The Definite Collection

Roy Harper – Man & Myth


Larry Saunders – Free Angela

Major Lance – The Very Best Of

Trombone Shorty – Say That To Say This

Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes

Chumbawamba – The Boy Bands Have Won


Monastery Language Lessons


While I was visiting Tat Ein village in Shan State last month, an u-zin (a senior monk, or teacher for the novice monks) at the monastery by the name of Nandawun That asked me to help him with his English lessons. He’s such a nice guy that I was only happy to oblige. I usually spent the better part of an hour each day helping him with his pronunciation or explaining various words and phrases to him.


I was very impressed with the number of vocabulary words that he has committed to memory in less than two months of study. He has been studying in nearby Nyaungshwe with a Burmese teacher and he seems to have digested a lot of material in this short period of time. But I was a bit taken back by some of the words that his teacher had given him; “shit”, “feces” and “excrement” being a few of the more graphic examples. Well, I guess monks need to know a wide gamut of words and phrases, even the crappy ones!  Some of the sentences in his lessons were either awkwardly phrased or didn’t make much sense at all, so I tried to smooth those out for him too.


Nandawun That has really embraced his English language studies and shows signs of being a quick learner. When not studying or keeping tabs on the sometimes mischievous young novice monks in residence at the monastery, he enjoys meditation and watching “Rambo” movies. I kid you not. He told me that he loves watching action films, especially those with car chases and blazing guns; Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and all that sort of crap. Contrast that with his Buddhism studies and meditation and it doesn’t quite add up. But hey, such is life, right?



Some of the novice monks at Tat Ein took turns taking photos of us during some of our language lessons. During one session, the novices got the idea of putting themselves in the frame too. I can just hear them giggling and discussing their plan: “Hey, let’s pose us in the background too!” … “Yeah, great idea, dude!” Okay, it’s doubtful that they used the word “dude” or any remotely similar Burmese or Shan words, but I do think they got a kick of out carrying out their silly photo shoot.



And these photos are just a small sample of what they took. Whenever I let the monks borrow my camera the results were always fun and sometimes pretty darn creative. I’ll make a separate post in the near future of photos that I took of the novice monks, along with ones that they took by themselves. These kids don’t lack for imagination!




Shin Pyu Ceremony in Mandalay

It was another one of those happy accidents, or at least an unplanned stroke of luck, that led me to a shin pyu ceremony being  held at a neighborhood on 90th Street in Mandalay last month.



I was riding my bike towards U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street one morning when I noticed the colorful trappings of the shin pyu ceremony adjacent to a monastery. I parked my bike and with camera in hand (of course!) I asked if it would be okay for me to take some photos. Ya ba de. Of course! There were several boys being “initiated” that morning, and their proud parents and grandparents were out in force. Two lovely ladies in the crowd invited me to stay in partake in meal, even though I was a total stranger just passing by. But that’s typical of Burmese hospitality; nobody is a stranger for long. I thanked the women, but begged off the meal invite, explaining that I had just had a big breakfast at my hotel. But I did stay and take more photos, lots of smiles amidst the beautiful décor.



So what, you ask, is a shin pyu ceremony? The shin pyu ceremony is considered a VERY important rite of passage in a young boy’s life in Myanmar, similar in a sense to a Jewish youth having his bar mitzvah. It’s considered somewhat of an obligation for the parents to give their son a shin pyu ceremony, but it’s not unheard of for other relatives or donors to contribute to the ceremony as they can be quite elaborate and expensive undertakings.




The shin pyu, or novitiation ceremony, often takes place during the summer months (March through May) in Myanmar when schools are closed. Normally the boys that participate are between the ages of 9 and 12, but sometimes younger or slightly older. As you can see in these photos the boys are decked in very elaborate and colorful costumes, or “princely attire,” and sport lots of makeup too!



 In the morning of the ceremony there is usually a procession around town, or perhaps just around the neighborhood, in either a car or sometimes even on a horse! Depending on finances, there may also be a band or musical troupe accompanying the procession. Eventually the boys return home, change out of the fancy clothes and then go a monastery later in the afternoon, whereupon their heads are shaved and another ceremony is conducted, the boy then officially becoming a member of the Holy Order of Sangha. Typically, after a shin pyu ceremony, a boy will stay at the monastery as a novice monk for a minimum of one week.



I didn’t stick around for any processions or head shaving, but here are a few examples of one stage in the amazing shin pyu ceremony.


Shan Village Dance Fever!



One of the highlights of my recent trip to Myanmar was attending a temple festival, a paya pwe, in the Shan State village of Tat Ein, not far from Nyaungshwe. And the best part of this festival was the dancing, both the choreographed night-time performances and the more spirited and spontaneous daylight strutting.



There was no competition that I know, but if there was, the man pictured above would have been the clear winner. This guy could bust a move, not to mention get on the good foot! He was a total delight to watch: absolutely brilliant footwork and some nifty hand gestures too. Honestly, I think James Brown would have approved of this guy!




The first night of the festival we were treated to dances by groups of the local village girls (“Those are my students!” one of the teachers boasted), plus performance by some Pa-O women from another nearby village. In fact, there were many other Pa-O villagers in attendance, including my hip-shaking buddy pictured previously. I think there were about a dozen different villages, each representing their local monastery that came for the festival. I’ll have more photos from the festival in a later post, but today, it’s only dancing!











Fine Dining in Mandalay


As usual, upon arrival in Mandalay, my first night’s meal was spent at Aye Myit Tar Restaurant on 81st Street. And that’s also where I went on my second night … and my third night too. At that point, my stomach pleaded for a change of cuisine and I skipped the fourth night, but was back again on night number five. Yeah, the food at Aye Myit Tar is delicious, and the portions are generous (plus second and third helpings are not unheard of either!) but I know most of the wait staff at the restaurant and they always spoil me shamelessly, so dining there is always a treat.



Aye Myit Tar might not qualify as “fine dining” for those used to western cuisine, but for local tastes the curry and rice dishes are always tasty. Each main dish that you order (usually a curry of some sort; your choice of beef, chicken, pork, mutton, fish, etc.) is accompanied by an array of side dishes that include vegetables, salads, soup, and a tray of crunchy things (carrots, okra, cucumber, etc.). All in all, it’s a gut-busting orgy of food.




In their new location, Aye Myit Tar is now just down the street from my hotel, so I’m always riding my bike past the place, often stopping to chat with some of the waiters who are hanging outside. Even outside of regular dining hours, these guys start work early each morning, working on food prep and cleaning the place: 15-hour work days are the norm. So, if you’re dining there, don’t forget to leave a tip. These young men will appreciate it very much!







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