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

Archive for May, 2014

Donation Ceremony

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As part of the pagoda festival at Tat Ein village in Shan State, there was a special ceremony where donations were offered to other monasteries in the area. Monks, novice monks, and even nuns, from monasteries in various villages in this part of Shan State were invited to attend.

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Locals from Tat Ein village dished out donations of rice and money, and also presented the monks and nuns with gifts such as robes and other foodstuff and cooking oil. Some of the Pa-O villagers played music and danced, giving the event a very festive flair. The morning bled into afternoon; more donations, more ceremonies, more dancing, children running around and playing. I was enthralled by the whole spectacle, not wanting it to end.

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Eventually, though, things did wind down and villagers starting packing up, taking home donations of bags of rice and other goodies. Most of them jammed into the back of pickup trucks for the long ride back to their village, hoping to arrive before sundown. A long day, but a fun one.

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Faces of the Festival

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Here are some photos from the village festival that I attended in Myanmar’s Shan State back in March. This pagoda festival — on the full moon day — was held on the grounds of the monastery in Tat Ein village, just a few miles down the road from Nyaungshwe.

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I’ll be posting a longer roundup of this festival in the week or so, but for now here are some of my favorite photos of the people in attendance that day. The young and old, parents and children, monks and donors. It was quite a spectacle!

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Bookselling in Bangkok

This month marks the tenth anniversary of my bookshop in Bangkok. We were in the midst of an anniversary sale earlier this week when the Thai Army declared martial law. Two days after that they officially ousted the caretaker government in yet another military coup (the previous one occurred in 2006). Here we go again. Whatever you want to say about living in Thailand, it’s certainly never dull!

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It seems like only a few short months ago that I was worrying about how I was going to obtain enough books to stock the shelves of the bookshop that I planned to open in Bangkok. Ten years already? Damn, the time truly has flown by. Back in early 2004 I was still running a small secondhand bookshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It had been open for about two years, but I was missing Bangkok, plus getting the itch to open a bigger and better bookshop. So I did it.

Anyone who has ever operated a retail business knows about the ups and downs involved. I’ve worked, managed, or owned a variety of retail business for 35 years, so I’m quite accustomed to the myriad challenges, but running a business in Thailand has its owns distinct quirks. For one thing, if I was going to adhere to the business laws for foreign residents in Thailand, not only did I need to apply for a work permit and get the proper non-immigrant visa, I also needed a Thai business partner. Luckily, there was one trusty Thai man I knew (we had worked together at Tower Records in Bangkok in the late 1990s) who had both the desire and the financial means to go into business with a knucklehead like me.

After three frenzied months of planning and activity (finding a building to rent, finding a large quantity of books, finding contractors to renovate the building, finding sources for coffee beans and cakes and other items) we opened Dasa Books on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok. We had less than 7,000 books when we first opened, but today the stock hovers between 16,000 and 17,000 books, occupying three floors of retail space.

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You hear a lot these days about bookshops losing business or even closing down. People are either reading less — or at least that’s the perception if you listen to the “experts” — or they have “converted” to e-books and e-readers, forsaking the paper tome altogether. Well, from my perspective I’m not seeing that at all. Maybe the fact that we primarily sell secondhand books has given us some immunity against the e-reading trend, or the fact that expats in this part of the world tend to be readers instead of TV zombies, but our business has been increasing, not decreasing, over the past decade. Hey, knock on wood, I’ll take it, and hope that trend continues!

One other trend I’ve noticed in recent years is the new breed of younger customers and they way that they shop for books. Unlike older customers who will often bring with them a list of books that they are looking to buy, the new breed of customers consults their smart phone instead. The odd thing with most of these younger folks, however, is that they seemingly have no idea how to find a book on the shelves once they are inside the shop. They can quickly surf online, or click away effortlessly on their phone, but put them in a shop with real books and they appear stumped as to how to find anything. And it’s not like things are that hard to find in my shop. We keep the shop very well organized: all books are filed in alphabetical order by author and divided into specific categories. And yet many people just can’t figure it out. No wonder they are more comfortable shopping online!

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A more annoying trait of the younger generation is their obliviousness and sense of entitlement. We literally have a handful of seats in my bookshop, and yet some insufferable people will occupy a single table for hours on end, tapping away on their laptop or playing with their phone (I call them: “iMasturbators”), or chatting with friends, all while nursing a single drink. In my mind, these people are more pests than customers. There are days when I wish I could spray them with some magical solution and watch them vaporize. Good riddance!

Thankfully, the pests are in the minority and the vast majority of our customers are really cool, book-loving types. Take, for example, the first five customers who came to my shop this morning, all of whom are regulars. One is a retired Thai man who reads mostly non-fiction titles, between four and five fairly thick books every week. I’m continuously amazed at the variety, and volume, of books that this guy reads. The second man in the store today is Belgian and has lived in Thailand for several decades. He buys books in English, German, French, and Dutch. Not surprisingly, he has also done several book translations for a local publisher. Customer number three this morning was another retired man, Burmese by birth, schooled in the USA, and a resident of Thailand for 30 years. He’s big on historical fiction and loves to joke with me about politics, the dysfunctional Thai or American brands. The fourth customer in the store was a talkative Australian (is there any other kind?) who buys a lot of classic and contemporary fiction. Number five this morning was a British woman who buys mostly crime fiction and mysteries. Those first five customers were followed by a Chinese mother and her four children, all of them picking out books in English to read. Later in the morning a Buddhist monk stopped by to pick up a book on home improvement!

And that’s just a snapshot of a typical hour at the bookshop. I love this business and the rainbow of customers who come to shop for books. Sign me up for another colorful and interesting ten years!

Mandalay’s Noodle Nirvana

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As usual, my first night in Mandalay was spent dining at Aye Myit Tar Restaurant on 81st Street. This time, however, there was one thing missing: Nyein Htun, one of the waiters whom I’ve known for about five years. When Ko Ko Oo, one of the other waiters, told me about Nyein Htun’s absence, at first I assumed that he’d gone back to his home village near Monywa, but instead I was told that he was now across town, working at another restaurant.

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Actually, this other establishment hadn’t yet opened yet when I first arrived in Mandalay. But three days later they held a grand opening brunch and Ko Ko Oo gave me an invitation to attend. This restaurant, Aung Noodles, specializes in, well, noodles, or kyauk swe as they are know in these parts. The restaurant is located at the corner of 11th Street and 76th Street, near the northwest corner of the moat that surrounds the old Grand Palace. It’s a bit off the beaten tourist track, or at least far from my hotel and usual haunts, but the food was so good that I found it worth the drive, or in my case, the long bicycle ride.

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On the morning of the grand opening I met Ko Ko Oo at Aye Myit Tar and we took motorcycle taxis to the new noodle joint. I don’t think they told Nyein Htun I was coming, because he looked very surprised to see me. I was, as expected, the only Westerner in attendance. At this restaurant, Nyein Htun is not waiting tables, but training to be a cook. Judging from the excellent quality of the noodles that he dished up, he’s learned well. The noodles were flavorful without being overly greasy, and augmented by lots of fresh vegetables and juicy chunks of chicken.

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Aung Noodles is run by a relative of the woman who owns Aye Myit Tar, so the grand opening was a big family affair with many of the employees from Aye Myit Tar in attendance, most of them bringing gifts for the new owner. Even though it was mid-morning, not yet ten o’clock, Nyein Htun served me a cold Myanmar Beer with my heaping bowl of noodles. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I don’t drink during the day (and indeed I don’t; limiting my beer intake to the nighttime hours), so I dutifully sucked down the brew with a smile while slurping my noodles. And I have to say, it wasn’t a bad combination!

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I went back again about ten days later, after I’d returned from my trip to Shan State, and had another satisfying bowl of noodles, Nyein Htun waiting on me with his usual diligence. I hope this place does well. It looks like nothing fancy from the outside, but I can honestly say that serve some very tasty noodles dishes.

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Photographs from Zin Ko in Mandalay: 2014

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As promised, here is a sample of photos that Zin Ko took in Mandalay, and other spots, recently, using my old Canon camera. From shots of graduates in his neighborhood, scenes from the teashop on 90th Street, to picnics with relatives and friends at the waterfalls in Pyin U Lwin, and photos from our trip to Shan State, it looks like the kid is getting the hang of being behind the lens.

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One added bonus with Zin Ko taking photos this time was that I didn’t have to take as many as I usually do. He got his fair share of “Parent & Baby” shots, plus when we went touring around Inle Lake and other spots in Shan State, when the rest of the kids wanted “action shots” that task was often undertaken by Zin Ko.

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Hand-Me-Down Camera

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After buying a new camera earlier this year I gave my old Canon to Zin Ko, one of the children I know from U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay. I always used to let Zin Ko borrow the camera when I was in town, so he was very familiar with how to use it, and he seemed very eager to have one of his own.

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I actually gave the camera to Zin Ko last November, on the condition that he would just be borrowing it again until I bought a new model. I’ll do another post in the next day or two, featuring the photos that Zin Ko has taken the past several months, but today, the photos are ones that I took of the kid myself in March.

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Despite having a camera to use, it’s been a rough year for Zin Ko thus far. He father passed away in early March, and a few months before that Zin Ko had to temporarily stop going to school, mostly due to family turmoil. The day after I returned to Bangkok in early April, Zin Ko went to a monastery in nearby Inwa to become a novice monk for ten days. Now that the Burmese water festival has come and gone, the next plan for Zin Ko is even bigger. He will be moving to Yangon to live with his uncle and aunt and a few cousins. Zin Ko has never even been to Yangon before, so this will be a big change for him in many ways. But hopefully, this move will end up being a positive change for Zin Ko and help to keep him in school.

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One of the men in that 90th Street neighborhood, U Kyaw Hsi, was a big help this last trip, giving Zin Ko rides on his motorcycle so that he would be on time to meet me for dinner, accompanying us to the market, and taking him to the monastery in Inwa. In the absence of a father, I hope the men like U Kyaw Hsi and Zin Ko’s uncle will help the kid through this difficult period in his life.

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One day while I was in Mandalay Zin Ko accompanied me to the Horizon Internation School, where an American friend of mine (the one who is still hospitalized) has been teaching the past several years. While we were there, the principal, Mr. Ahmet, gave Zin Ko a Horizon t-shirt and hat. That was a very kind gesture, which was very much appreciated by both of us. The t-shirt was several sizes too big (hey, he’s a growing boy; in another year it will fit!), but the hat was a definite hit. I don’t think Zin Ko took it off the following two days!

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Hotel Queen in Mandalay

During my many visits to Mandalay I’ve stayed at four different hotels, always searching for the “perfect fit”. Except for the first dump, which will remain nameless, they’ve all been pretty good, but the best of the lot, or at least the one that I’m most satisfied with, is the Hotel Queen.

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Located on 81st Street, it’s just down the road from my favorite restaurant in town, Aye Myit Tar, adding to the convenience factor, at least for me. It’s a longer walk to the place where I rent my bicycle, but at least the Hotel Queen’s location is a whole lot quieter than the chaotic area on 27th Street, near the Zeigyo Market, where I used to stay. I don’t miss the noise on that street at all.

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The rooms at the Queen are more than adequate (the usual hot water, AC, cable TV), but it’s the friendliness and attentive service of the staff that really makes the place shine. Ma Khin Thida and her crew do a great job of making you feel welcome, and the head of housekeeping, Kyaw Zay Htun, is a heads up fellow who always takes care of any special requests. These people are gold.

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Another bonus is the free breakfast. At many hotels and guesthouses in Myanmar this free meal usually consists of some bland “American Breakfast” offering such as eggs and toast, maybe some fresh fruit if you’re lucky. But the Queen offers a very ample breakfast buffet of Western and Asian dishes, with treats such as the Burmese monhinga noodles, and a good selection of fruit and juices. The monhinga, in fact, is so good that I’ll often have a second bowl. No wonder I can never lose weight on these trips, no matter how much I cycle around town.

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Composed Monks Posing

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Back at Tat Ein Monastery in Shan State, the novice monks keep thinking up new ways to pose for photos. In all of the photos you see in this post, the monks themselves, sometimes resulting in fits of giggling. “Grab that umbrella!” … “Let’s do the reclining Buddha pose!” … “Come and kneel in front of the Buddha figure!” … “Hey, let’s read a book!” They even posed me in some of the shots.

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Usually one monk would get an inspired thought and the rest of his buddies would follow suit, either copying the pose or using a variation of the original. Sometimes they’d pose individually or sometimes in duos, but I couldn’t stop clicking until I’d fulfilled all requests.

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There’s never a dull moment with this crew, but believe it or not, sometimes they actually have to study!

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My Favorite Teashop

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Once again, during my recent trip to Mandalay, I was a frequent visitor at U Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street. I’ve written a lot of this teashop over the years, and how I accidentally discovered it during one of my bike rides around town. That turned out to be one of those “happy accidents” that ended up becoming an important part of my life.

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This welcoming little place is a throwback to the good old days when life was not so chaotic and hurried. The teashop is an open air joint with wooden benches and plastic stools, steaming thermoses of Chinese tea sitting on the rickety old table. Gentlemen from the neighborhood sit around and chat or just pass the time of day. No rush, no fuss, take it easy. You want air-conditioning, cushioned seats, a full lunch menu, and wi-fi? Go elsewhere!

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About the only nod to modern times are the two TV sets on one side of the open-air teashop, and the fact that U Tin Chit now has a smart phone which he is having a lot fun learning how to use. Children, housewives, monks, and other locals from the neighborhood drop by the teashop to watch what’s on TV or to order some bean cakes to go. U Tin Chit, if he’s not taking a nap in the back room (hey, give the guy a break; he pretty much runs the place alone and it’s open 24 hours a day!) will be happy to serve you. Zin Ko, one of the local kids, is now owner of my old camera, so don’t be surprised if he sneaks up and takes a photo of you!

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This is my hangout, my favorite teashop, and I call many of the people who frequent this special establishment my friends. Truly, they are a special bunch. It’s my home away from home and I hope nothing dramatic ever changes here. For me, no place in town is more comfortable.

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