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

Archive for April, 2014

Shan Market Morning

 

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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.

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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.

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The Monk on the Cover

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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 Amazon.com 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

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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.

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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:

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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 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.

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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.

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Shan Village Dance Fever!

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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.

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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!

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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!

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Fine Dining in Mandalay

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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.

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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.

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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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Festival of Death

Thailand’s annual holiday of death and delight, otherwise known as the Songkran water festival, starts today. Songkran is officially a three-day holiday, but invariably stretches out to last nearly a full week when you factor in weekends and bank holidays. Songkran can be an especially fun and festive time with people — both locals and foreigners, many of them tourists — playfully squirting, throwing, and dumping water on one another out in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, the “playful” antics can sometime escalate into mischievous or even cruel forms of water warfare. And then there is the powder that celebrants enjoy smearing and wiping over the body parts of anyone that orbits into their range. So no, it’s not always good-intentioned fun.

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I have very fond memories of Songkran, my first exposure to Thailand having occurred during a water festival 22 years ago. What an amazing sight: thousands of people riding around town in trucks and motorcycles all day throwing water and laughing and singing. But there is/was a downside to the happy vibe; some of those celebrants also consumed large quantities of alcohol, became shit-faced drunk, yet reasoned that they could still operate a motor vehicle and of course had an accident, maiming or killing themselves or some innocent bystander. Another happy holiday ending in tragedy.

Death and destruction have become synonymous with Songkran in Thailand. The headline of an article in yesterday’s Bangkok Post blared: Nine Killed in Fiery ‘Danger Day’ Smash. The only reason that this article didn’t make the front page was because the casualties (9 dead and 12 more injured, 4 of those in critical condition) were “only” Cambodians, and probably not deemed important enough for the editors to devote major page space. The Cambodians were travelling in a van that was taking them from Rayong to a border checkpoint in Chanthaburi when the van hit a tree and burst into flames. Most likely these Cambodians were migrant workers heading home to celebrate the holiday in their native country. Like Thailand, Cambodia (and also Myanmar and Laos) have similar water festivals in mid April. In fact, this is THE major holiday in every one of these countries.

I have a Cambodian friend who is working a construction job in Samut Prakarn, a province bordering Bangkok, so whenever I hear about accidents like this (not only vehicle crashes, but also when buildings collapse at construction sites, another sad but common occurrence), I worry about his safety. I always breathe a sigh of relief when he calls and checks in, his laughter assuring me that he’s fine. But with so much constant chaos and a lack of attention paid to safety over here, I’ll always remain worried. Hell, while I was in Myanmar last week, my Thai friend Thanayut was in a fairly major road accident. His car was pretty much totaled but thankfully all that he suffered were some bruises and cuts. It could have been much, much worse.

Like most foreigners who have lived in Thailand for many years, Songkran has lost most of its charm and appeal for me. And yet, I still enjoy the happy vibe that pervades during this time, not to mention the fact that traffic jams in Bangkok are almost non-existent for a full week. So, during this extended holiday, I’ll stay inside my bookshop and work as usual every day, open till close, thus avoiding most of the water craziness, taking taxis to and from work instead of walking or using motorcycle taxis.

Today’s update in the Bangkok Post: 102 Killed and 893 injured. How scary is that? And so, each day when I read the newspaper or check online, I’ll be horrified at the spiraling tally of road accidents and casualties. Have fun folks, but be very, very careful out there.

 

Mobile Myanmar

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No special theme for today’s post, just a few photos from my recent trip to Myanmar that struck me. Each time I return to Bangkok after one of these trips, customers in my bookshop will ask me “What’s it like?”, or friends who have visited the country previously will ask things like “What has changed?” or “What is the situation like over there now?”

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I never know quite how to respond to such questions. What’s Myanmar (or Burma) like? Well, despite the Buddhist influence on the society, it’s not quite like the other countries that it borders. To me, it’s by far the most interesting country in Southeast Asia, populated by extremely kind, polite, and charming people, ones who take hospitality and generosity to a whole new level. Unlike the more westernized countries in the region, Myanmar still retains most of its unique old traditions and culture, everything from wearing longyis to putting thanaka paste on the face. That situation, though, is starting to change, and I fear that too much — and much too sudden —“progress” will cause the country to lose its magical vibe.

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But most of the country is still very poor and its infrastructure lags way behind that of Thailand and Malaysia, and even Cambodia. Nevertheless, accommodation at hotels and guesthouses is very comfortable (despite the frequent power cuts; most places have generators as backup), and English is spoken widely in the major tourist areas. Speaking of accommodation, hotel rates are much higher than they were earlier this decade. In Yangon and Bagan (two cities that I skipped this time), for example, hotel rates have tripled — or worse — in the past two years.

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For those high-tech travelers who need to be “connected” all the time, be prepared to be patient or to do without for long periods of time. But now that tourist arrivals are climbing in Myanmar, finding a quiet pagoda or monastery is next to impossible in the major tourist areas. The Led Zeppelin song “Trampled Under Foot” springs to mind when I think about going to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon or visiting a sunset pagoda in Bagan. I’m glad I saw those places back in the day, for I doubt that I’ll be brave enough to fight the ever-growing tourist hordes to see them again.

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The biggest change that I see now —other than once-banned photos of Aung San Suu Kyi all over the place — is technology, especially in the form of “smart” phones and other gadgets. Even in villages and rural monasteries I saw people playing with some sort of shiny new phone (even if they couldn’t yet afford a SIM card to make calls), talking on phones, taking photos, updating their Facebook page; things you definitely did NOT see much, if at all, two or three years ago. At every monastery I visited I think the head monk, the saya daw, had an iPhone, iPad, or some sort of device or computer. Hey, even the guys in red robes need to be connected, I suppose.

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And at this time of year it’s really, really hot; even in Shan State, where the higher elevation normally insures cooler temperatures. Not this month. And so, to combat all that hot weather, here are photos of some of the cool people that I met this trip.

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Searching for Books in Shan State

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I had extended my stay in Shan State’s Nyaungshwe for an extra two days in order to attend a pagoda festival in Hat Ein village. The festival was being held on a full moon day, which I was told, would guarantee a most festive festival. My only problem was that I was about to finish the paperback book I brought with me, The Secret Soldier by Alex Berenson (a great read by the way, part of his intriguing John Wells espionage series), and I needed another book to read until I could return to Mandalay where I had another book tucked away in an extra bag. I’m one of those people who believe that a day without books is like a day without sunshine, so I had to solve this predicament quickly.

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Luckily, there is a small shop in Nyaungshwe, Golden Bowl Travel, that stocks books. They are located on Yon Gyi Road between the main market and Golden Kite Restaurant. It’s run by Ma Ma Aye and her darling daughter who goes by the nickname of Tina. They are truly sweet and very helpful people. I browsed their selection of English language titles (they also have books in French, German, Swedish, Italian, and Dutch), pondering several titles. There was a 2-for-1 Ed McBain edition, but I’d already read both novels, so I continued perusing the shelves. I pondered a John Cheever short story collection, but the book looked too heavy for my needs, both the size and weight of the book (I need something relatively small to stick in the shoulder bag that I always travel with) and perhaps too serious in tone for my carefree travel mood. In the end, I opted for a Stuart Woods novel, Orchid Blues. I had read one Stuart Woods book about a decade ago (don’t even ask me to remember the title!), recommended by a friend who is also a big mystery buff, but I don’t recall being that thrilled with that book. In any event, I figured I would try Woods again and see if I liked him better this time around.

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Well, that didn’t happen. In fact, I can truly say that I hated this book, a reaction that I rarely have when reading mystery novels. But this book was so trite and lame that I gave up after about 100 pages. I’m amazed that I even made it that far, but it wasn’t like reading that many pages was a particular challenging task; the dialogue was so simplistic and ridiculous that a child could have breezed through it. In fact, I wonder if this was indeed aimed a “young reader” market. It certainly will insult the intelligence of anyone that reads reasonably well-written crime fiction. Honestly, I can’t heap enough scorn upon this book. Total rubbish.

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So, I took it back, along with the Berenson book that I had finished, and resumed the task of picking out another novel. I looked at both the McBain and Cheever books again, but opted not to get either one. Then I noticed a Daniel Silva book on the wall. I think I’ve read all the books in his Gabriel Allon series, but this particular novel, The Mark of the Assassin, was a one-off effort that I hadn’t read yet. Say no more, I’ll take it! And, predictably, it was a very good read, although it struck me as a paint-by-numbers spy story with relatively few surprises. Nevertheless, it held my interest and lasted me until I reached Mandalay.

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I know; experienced travelers who read would advise me to get a Kindle or some other sort of e-reader for when I’m on the road, but having such a device doesn’t even remotely appeal to my reading tastes. Give me a real book with that magical paper smell and the familiar comfort of turning the pages. I’m a holdout and proud of it!

 

 

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