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

Archive for June, 2014

Slaid Cleaves: Country With Soul

One of the most impressive purveyors of country music nowadays, at least to my ears, is Slaid Cleaves. If you are like some people who automatically dismiss modern country music as formulistic drivel, it’s time for a reappraisal, at least in this case. Slaid Cleaves sings well-crafted tunes that are bursting with melody, intelligence, and passion. It’s not the bland contemporary country that dominates today’s charts, nor is it retro hillbilly fare. If I had to compare him to anyone, I might throw out John Prine and Guy Clark as kindred musical spirits, and yet Cleaves has his own distinct sound. Cleaves grew up in Maine, not exactly known as a hotbed of country music, so he moved to Austin, Texas in the early 1990s, whereupon he began to establish himself as a first-rate singer-songwriter and performer.


By my count he’s now released eight studio albums, with last year’s Still Fighting the War ranking among his very best. That album boasted yet more fine songs that pack an emotional wallop, all propelled by Cleaves’ stirring vocals. Recently I picked up a 2-CD concert set that he recorded in 2010 and released the following year, Sorrow & Smoke: Live at the Horseshoe Lounge. As good as his studio albums are, and they are mighty fine indeed, I think this live set might be the best thing I’ve heard by him yet. Perhaps it’s due to playing in front of a live audience, but Cleaves sounds both relaxed and confident, reeling off well-known songs (at least well-known to his fans!) from his older albums, throwing in a few new tunes (which appear on later albums), and doing a couple of heartfelt covers of songs by the beloved Don Walser, “the Pavarotti of the Plains”, as Cleaves dubs him. Those songs, punctuated by some impressive yodeling by Cleaves, are among the album’s standouts. Plus, the banter between him and the audience is quite entertaining. After admitting that it took him several years to work up the courage to enter the seemingly seedy Horseshoe Lounge, a member of the crowd later playfully heckles him, yelling out: “Afraid to come in here, were you?”


If you buy the CD, one of bonuses that come with it are two “Slaid Cleaves Live at the Horseshoe Lounge” beer coasters! That’s a nice touch, further giving the listener the feeling that they were right there in the lounge that night, a cold beer in hand, enjoying this most intimate and entertaining of shows. Well worth a listen!

Meanwhile, as rainy season entrenches itself here in Thailand, these are the other albums offering me comfort and happiness, and maybe a jig around the living room:


Tori Y Moi – Anything in Return

Real Estate – Atlas

Various Artists – Street Sounds from the Bay Area: Music City Funk & Soul Grooves 1971-75

Walter Egan – Myth America

Gregory Porter – Liquid Spirit


Buck Owens – Buck ‘Em: 1955-1967

Melvin Sparks – Legends of Acid Jazz

Aimee Mann – I’m With Stupid

Crabby Appleton – Crabby Appleton

Andy Kim – Baby I Love You/Andy Kim

Tunji Oyelana 

Tunji Oyelana – A Nigerian Retrospective: 1966-79

Various Artists – The Message: Soul, Funk and Jazzy Groove from Mainstream Records

Low – I Could Live in Hope

Empire of the Sun – Walking on a Dream

The Grass Roots – The Complete Original Dunhill/ABC Singles


The Newcomers – Mannish Boys: The Stax & Volt Recordings 1969-74

Black Keys – Turn Blue

Various Artists – Steppin’ Stone: The XL and Sounds of Memphis Story, Volume 3

Capital Cities – In a Tidal Wave of Mystery

Joe Simon – The Sounds of Simon/Simon Country


The Impressions – Three the Hard Way/First Impresssions

Robert Cray – In My Soul

The 8th Day – The 8th Day/I’ve Gotta Get Home

Lone Justice – This is Lone Justice: The Vaught Tapes 1983

The Peddlers – How Cool is Cool: The Complete CBS Recordings


Blood Orange – Cupid Deluxe

Caesar Frazier – Hail Caesar/’75: The Eastbound Sides

Mike Viola & the Candy Butchers – Falling Into Place

The Figgs – Lo-Fi at Society High

Joe Henderson Quintet- At the Lighthouse


Various Artists – Bambara Mystic Soul: The Raw Sound of Burkino Faso 1974-1979

Prince Philip Mitchell – Top of the Line

Mazzy Star – Seasons of Your Day

Nick Heyward – Tangled

Scott Walker – The Collection


Tower of Power – Hipper Than Hip: Live on the Air & in the Studio 1974

Game Theory – Tinker to Evers to Chance

Shark Move – Shark Move

Sid Selvidge – The Cold of Morning

Graham Gouldman – And Another Thing


The End of Inle Lake as We Know It?


Inle Lake is one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist attractions, and it’s also one of the places most at environmental risk due to overfishing and the use of pesticides and fertilizer by local farmers, and, ironically, the rapid growth of the tourism industry. Since the “opening up” of Myanmar in recent years, increasingly packed boatloads of tourists are taking to the lake, which only adds to the pollution and congestion conditions. And to accommodate those growing throngs of foreigners who want to see the lake and the surrounding area, more forests and farmland are being decimated to make way for “scenic” hotels along the lakeshore.



Earlier this month I read a report, announcing that the Hilton Hotel chain will be opening properties in Nay Pyi Daw and Ngapali Beach this year, followed by a Hilton Inle resort in 2106, and a Hilton Mandalay in 2017. Hilton Inle? Please, please, please …. tell me that’s somebody’s idea of a joke. A fucking sick joke. Say it ain’t so, Ko Soe Moe! There’s really going to be a Hilton Inle? I’m getting intestinal cramps just thinking about it. Is this really someone’s idea of progress? Hey, I realize that new hotels mean new jobs, and the locals certainly deserve the chance to better their lives, but are expensive resorts a good solution, especially in an area that is so environmentally fragile?





I actually visited Inle Lake again back in March when I took the kids from 90th Street in Mandalay on a multi-day trip to Shan State. Normally when I visit this part of Shan State, in Nyaungshwe, I avoid the lake altogether. I did my obligatory Inle boat tour several years ago and haven’t felt the need to do another one, but with the group in tow — most of whom had never seen the lake — it was chance to be tourist all over again. And I have to admit, it was a lot of fun, although being on the lake and traipsing around its surrounding villages all day was more than a bit tiring.







After visiting weaving villages, famous old lakeside pagodas and ancient stupas, stopping by the “Jumping Cat Monastery” (where the cats have gotten so fat that they rarely jump any more), the kids decided it was time for a swim when we reached Indein.













Novice Photographers Strike Again!


Once again, while I was spending time at Tat Ein village in Shan State back in March, I let some of the novice monks in residence at the monastery borrow my camera. I usually designate one monk as my assistant photographer, but the last few kids that handled that role have left the monastery, so this time I made it a group effort!




As far as my ageing memory can recall, no one in this bunch had used my camera before (actually, this trip was the “debut” for my new camera, but it’s similar to the old model I had), so I gave them a quick run-through on the operating basics, stopping only occasionally to offer tips when it looked like they were puzzled, and then let them run off with the camera — literally.






While I was giving the u-zin his English lesson, the novice monks ran wild with my camera, taking shots in and around the grounds of the monastery. I wish I had been a fly on the wall and could have listened in while they giggled and pondered new ways to pose. Here are the results of their photo-taking rounds. I look forward to going back to the monastery later this year and hand them some prints of the shots that they took.












In Defense of Taxi Drivers


In the Letters to the Editor section of the Bangkok Post this week there was another snarky letter by some grumpy expat complaining about Bangkok taxi drivers, calling them the worst he’s ever encountered. Really? I swear, some of these farang living in Thailand, or perhaps visiting our kingdom, seem to thrive on complaining about things. Thais can’t do this, they screw up that, things aren’t as good as in my country, these people are bad, why can’t they improve this … blah blah blah. The proverbial broken record, the same shit over and over again. So leave already!

Taxi drivers are easy targets, and passengers love to complain about them, but honestly I have mostly very favorable experiences, both with regular taxi cabs and especially with motorcycle taxis here in Bangkok. Being able to speak some Thai helps the communication factor, so maybe that’s one reason I get along so well with these guys, but I really don’t understand why Bangkok taxis get such a bad rep. Most of them are just hard-working down-to-earth dudes from upcountry trying to eek out a living here in the big, crazy city. I know if I had to drive the chaotic streets of this city for any length of time I’d be completely frazzled and on edge all of the time. So I can certainly excuse the occasional taxi driver who doesn’t smile or doesn’t want to take me across town in rush hour traffic, or is disappointed that I’m not taking his taxi from the airport to Pattaya. Put yourself in their shoes. Hell, if I was driving a taxi, I’d probably turn down 90% of the freaks wanting a ride. Next!


I almost always have very interesting conversations with the taxi drivers in Bangkok. They are a curious bunch and are eager to bombard me with a variety of questions. It can range from simple things like asking where I come from and what am I doing in Thailand, to my opinion of Thai women, Thai food, and lately, World Cup Football teams. And a lot of them play pretty cool music in their taxi too, mostly Thai mor lam or luk toong tunes. I love checking out their little Buddha shrines or smelling the fragrant flowers that some of them stick on the dashboard. Thai taxis are their own separate little world.


I was in Kuala Lumpur last week and had very favorable experiences with the taxi drivers there too. Over there, you get more of a racial mix; Muslim Malays, Chinese Malays, Indian Malays, and a few that could be from other South Asian countries. But they are also eager to talk and I find them to be very friendly and honest for the most part. One guy that took me to the train station at KL Sentral last week ended up thanking me after our conversation, and parting with the words; “Good Luck, brother.” You couldn’t help but smile!


Shan Dinner at Sue’s House


While I was in Nyaungshwe recently I was invited by my friend Ma Pa Sue for dinner at her house one night. She’d also invited the group I brought from Mandalay, but seeing as how that crew numbered close to twenty people, I thought it would be better to wait until they returned to Mandalay before I barged into Sue’s home. It’s always a treat to see Sue again, but doubly so when I get the opportunity to eat one of her special meals.



In the past year she’s transformed the place, turning her house and the grounds around it into the location of the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class. Not only is she teaching classes on how to cook Burmese food, including local Shan and Intha specialties, she is offering snacks and drinks (coffee, tea, juices) to passing tourists. I’m really impressed with how she has decorated the area in and around her home, located on a quiet street only a couple of blocks from Yon Gyi Road (where you will find the main market and Golden Bowl Bookshop).



Anyway, back to that meal at Sue’s house; it was delicious beyond words once again. Sue has a flair for cooking and presentation, so the meal was a feast for both the eyes and the stomach. Bernard, a mutual friend from Switzerland, was also in town and he joined us for the meal. It was nice to see him again and catch up on the many charitable activities that he’s been doing, most of them in conjunction with Win Thuya of Myanmar Mosaic Travel, a new agency based on Yangon. I’ll try and write more about their projects in the near future. They’re good people and doing good things for underprivileged villages and schools around Myanmar.


Meanwhile, if you get the itch to try a bit of cooking — and eating — the local cuisine while in the Inle Lake area of Shan State, drop Sue a line and visit her. It will be one of the highlights of your trip!


Shan State Cave


During the trip I took with the group from 90th Street in Mandalay to Shan State back in March, we visited a huge cave. Located about an hour’s drive from Taunggyi, Htam Sam Cave is a very impressive natural attraction, more interesting in my mind than the more famous Pindaya Caves, also in Shan State. It’s also much bigger and easier to navigate.




As usually happens during these trips, I let Ko Maw Hsi and our driver, U Kyaw, select a few sights to see and this was one of their picks. I’d only vaguely heard of this cave before, knowing that it was “discovered” by some villagers only a few years ago and until very recently foreigners were not even allowed to visit. But now that permission has been granted, foreigners are welcome, uh, just as long as you pay the steep $20 entrance fee. That’s right, twenty US bucks! Compare that to the $5 charge at Pindaya and something seems out of whack. When the monk at the ticket table announced the fee, I audibly gasped and expressed my outrage. And when they told me that I would have to give back the laminated “pass” that my twenty dollars bought when I was finished with my tour of the cave, I expressed even louder disapproval. “For twenty dollars I think I should get some sort of souvenir to keep,” I suggested.




At this point I was speaking so loudly that I may have been scaring the monk and his comrades, so he quickly granted my request, no doubt hoping that I’d get the hell out of the way before I made a total scene. Usually I’m not so demanding and belligerent, but the high ticket price really did throw me for a loop and wasn’t going to meekly accept it without voicing my opinion. In any case, the caves themselves really were impressive. If you’re in the Taunggyi area, it’s well worth a visit.










A Night At the Coliseum

I’ve been in Kuala Lumpur for the past four days,  making my usual rounds: buying some books for my store in Bangkok and CDs for myself. Another goal this time was meeting my friend Yan Naing Soe. We used to get together when I made trips to Mandalay, but about a year ago he left Myanmar and is now working for a landscaping company in the greater KL area.


We had plans to meet for dinner on my first night in KL, but Yan Naing Soe had never been to the part of town where I’m staying (near the Maybank Tower), so one of the employees at the hotel, Ko Sein Win, who also happens to be from Myanmar, was able to speak to him on the phone and give him directions. Nevertheless, Yan Naing Soe was about 2 hours late getting here, so we had a very late dinner that night. My first choice, the Gandawin Restaurant, which specializes in Burmese food, was closed, so I suggested the Coliseum Cafe. We arrived very late, but the restaurant was open and doing a very brisk business.

I returned to the Coliseum for dinner again tonight, but alone this time. Yan Naing Soe has a pretty heavy work schedule this week, so he wasn’t able to make it. But the waiter at the Coliseum remembered me, and apologized for forgetting my appetizer last time.  Really, I wasn’t upset at all, but appreciated his apology. We had arrived less than an hour before closing that night and the restaurant was packed, so I was just happy that they could serve us in time. Not only did the waiter remember me, one of the cooks did too. He had overheard me speaking Burmese with Yan Naing Soe and asked me if I worked in Myanmar. I told him that I didn’t, but was a frequent visitor to that country and had picked up a bit of the language. Then the conversation steered towards my job in Bangkok, and both the cook and the waiter had lots of questions. Of course the subject of “massage parlors” came up. Hey, Bangkok does have that reputation!

I ended up having a great time dining alone, thanks to the interesting conversation with those personable employees at the Coliseum. The cook, in fact, was quite a character! And to think that I almost didn’t go there tonight. My initial plan was to opt for a cheaper meal somewhere closer to my hotel. But in the end I chose the Coliseum once again and I’m glad I did. The food was fabulous as always, but this time the meal was enhanced by talking to two very nice people. An unpredictable but very memorable evening. Just one of the reasons that I love travel.


Death and Sex and Richard Nixon

In the “Best Book I’ve Read This Year” category I would put May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. This is a brilliant, sprawling novel, one that will make you laugh and cry, shudder and smile.


A.M. Homes has populated her latest novel with articulate and colorful characters, one of whom is a university professor with an obsession for the life of Richard Nixon. In the early chapters of this book the reader is confronted with several disturbing incidents, ranging from adultery to murder, and later there is yet more sex and even an incident that would qualify as pedophilia, and yet by the time this novel has run its course the overall tone is quite buoyant and positive.

Towards the end of this novel, one character remarks about the guests at a large family gathering:

“It’s like a freak show, a random collection of people.”

And yes, on the surface, the assemblage of characters that Homes has thrown together in this rambling novel does seem bizarre and haphazard. But the patient reader will be rewarded as Homes ties it all together, working her literary magic to create a truly brilliant book that churns up the gamut of human emotions. When the story comes to a close you want to cheer for these brave people and the way they have lived their lives and how they have overcome so much heartbreak and sorrow, all while discovering the joys of life and caring for other people. I can’t heap enough praise on this book. I haven’t read a novel that’s moved me so much in a long, long time, nor one that’s made me laugh as hard.


I’ve been a fan of A.M. Homes for many years, enjoying novels such as Jack and Music For Torching, and the short story collection The Safety of Objects (although, another collection of her short stories, Things You Should Know, I thought was fairly awful). Homes is never shy to explore controversial subject matter or to present disturbing characters, but I find her novels to be very thought provoking and fascinating.

My favorite of her books, until May We Be Forgiven came along, was This Book Will Save Your Life, a magical feel-good novel, one that may not save your life but will at least make you feel much better about life. May We Be Forgiven is not as consistently charming or upbeat as This Book Will Save Your Life but it’s another novel that leaves the reader with hope for the human race.


Moments in Myanmar: 2014


Novice monks and their canine friend in Tat Ein village.



Tasty snack at the market in Nyaungshwe.



U Kyaw reads an inscription at Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe.



Zin Ko’s grandmother in Mandalay.



Another roadside attraction … somewhere in Shan State.



Another scenic view … somewhere in Shan State.



Turning green again: after working all day in a jade workshop in Mandalay this boy has the green skin to show for it!



Beauty Saloon? Maybe you get something extra with that haircut!



Monks perusing the book selection at an outdoor vendor in Mandalay.



Myanmar Beer? I don’t mind if I have another one!



Keeping the hands warm on a chilly Shan State morning.



Novice monks in Tat Ein village take a break before their alms walk.



Beware of just what exactly?



Arranging the leaves for the betel nut vendor.



Underwater exploration in Shan State.



Those truck rides sure are tiring!



Young monks and their toys.



Bringing home the goods from the market near Inle Lake.



Festival At Night



The night before the official pagoda festival in Tat Ein village, they held an entertainment program featuring dancing (student groups from the village, and a troupe from a nearby Pa-O village) and singing (anyone brave enough to grab the microphone was welcome!). Showtime was delayed more than an hour due to some technical problems with the sound system, but once that was resolved, the show began!






Kids and parents, grandparents and the usual contingent of novice monks, everyone seemed to enjoy the spectacle immensely. Not your typical evening in the Shan State hills, but a colorful one! The biggest surprise was seeing many of the villagers whipping out mobile phones and taking photos of the show. That might not seem like such a big deal in these digitally-obsessed modern times, but even a short year ago, I could count on one hand the number of locals I saw with such phones. It’s not like everyone has one, but seeing villagers with a phone isn’t such a rare sight any longer. Who knows; maybe another year from now and it wouldn’t surprise me to see even the novice monks carrying phones.










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