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

Archive for August, 2014

Happy Muddy Trails

I’m back in Shan State this week, making my base in Nyaungshwe, the lovely little town that serves as the “Gateway to Inle Lake,” one of Myanmar’s most popular tourist attractions. Despite Inle’s popularity, and the building of more hotels in the area, Nyaungshwe has managed to retain most of its laid-back, rural charm. The scenery remains beautiful and the people remain friendly and polite. The vibe is definitely blissful; just don’t mind the increasing presence of noisy motorcycles!

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It rained most of the day yesterday. but that didn’t stop me from making the short trip out of town to Tat Ein village. I rented a bike from Mar Mar Aye at Golden Bowl Travel — also a nice place to pick up secondhand books. While I was waiting for a fairly hard rainstorm to run its course, Mar Mar Aye served me hot tea and a bowl of fresh fruit. You can’t beat these folks for their hospitality. Another tourist came in from out of the rain, a young man from Sweden. He told me that he and his girlfriend were in the middle of a 3-month trip around Asia and Europe. They are heading to Yangon today and later taking the Trans-Siberian express to Moscow,and then on to Spain before returning to Sweden. He bought a copy of Emma Larkin’s “Finding George Orwell in Burma,” one of many books about Burma/Myanamar that are in stock at Golden Bowl.

 

After the rain let up, I donned a raincoat and braved the steady drizzle for the ride out to Tat Ein. It was actually quite nice and pleasant, the rain helping to alleviate the usual afternoon heat. If I’m going to get wet, better a bit of rain than a lot of sweat. Nevertheless, the dirt road leading to the village was more than a bit muddy after all the rain, so I took more care than normal. I timed my arrival for about 3 pm, when classes normally end at the primary school in the village. I was bringing bags of medicine to replenish the first-aid box at the school, plus I had several hundred photos to give to the teachers, students, and monks. With all that in hand, I didn’t want to arrive in the middle class and create a disruption. While peddling down the main road in Nyaungshwe, before getting to the dirt road that leads to the village, I passed groups of students returning from classes at the local high school. Waves and smiles and kept peddling.

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When I reached the classroom at the village, classes were still in session so I waited outside with my backpack full of goodies, leaving my muddy shoes at the bottom of the steps. Even though they were in the middle of class, that didn’t prevent a handful of young novice monks from stepping away from their desks to greet me, all of them eager to see the photos that I had brought. “Please wait,” I told them in Burmese. “I’ll hand out the photos after class at the monastery.” One of the teachers also came out to say hello, but told me that the class would not end until 4:30! Some sort of new “Rainy Season” schedule apparently.

 

I had over an hour to kill, so I wandered around the area, noticing some new construction, especially around the dining rooms. I walked up the hill to the monastery, only to find it temporarily deserted. I expected to find at least a few of the older novices and senior monks there, but at this hour there wasn’t anyone around, not even the usual stray dog. I sat down and rested for a spell, then went over to a cistern and used some of the water to clean my mud-cakes sandals. Man, that stuff was thick!

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Shortly after 4:00 I walked back down to the school and waited for the classes to end, which they did at about 4:15. I gave the bags of medicine to one of the teachers, giving her instructions about a couple of items. Then it was time to distribute the photos! I gave the one of the girls and older students to one boy who said he would hand them out, then I followed the novice monks up the hill to the monastery and tried to maintain order (imagine 20 pairs of hands all trying to reach in to a bag!) while passing out the photos. As you can imagine they were very pleased with the photos, and as you can also surmise, this led to another not-so-short session of photos. But seeing that sea of red-robed smiles made it all worth the effort.

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Mandalay Morning

msnack2While riding around Mandalay yesterday, I was particularly struck by one scene I observed; a group pink-robed nuns were crossing the street, passing another group of women, a Muslim trio clothed in traditional black garments. I wish I had my camera ready for a shot, but alas it’s an image I can only preserve in my mind.

 

In the wake of last month’s so-called sectarian violence in the city, I have yet to see any signs of animosity or tension. The curfew has been lifted and people are going about their normal daily activities. I hope this peaceful vibe remains.  Meanwhile, while in Mandalay this week I’m doing the usual: riding my bike around town and trying not to get hit by passing cars and motorbikes (not to mention other cyclists, pedestrians, and the occasional farm animal), visiting friends on 90th Street, going to teashops, and dining at the always fabulous Aye Myit Tar restaurant.mawbridge1

Getting some rain this morning, which may help to alleviate the intense heat we’ve had all week.  I’m going to Bagan on Thursday for a few days and then off for a short stay in Shan State before returning to Mandalay next week. Lots of bag-packing and traveling, but I’m looking forward to the experiences that await

Lost in the 1970s: Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose

While they had a handful of very popular Top 40 Hits (“Treat Her Like A Lady”, “Too Late To Turn Back Now”, “Don’t Ever Be Lonely”), Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose don’t rank among the better known, or critically acclaimed, soul acts of the 1970s. And that’s a shame, because their songs were consistently very good, ranking as some of the most memorable soul gems of the decade.

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I recently bought Classic Masters, a 12-song CD compilation by Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose. The CD includes all of their singles plus a few choice album tracks. Except for one song on the compilation, a cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” all the songs are originals written by the group’s lead singer Edward Cornelius. I love the description of “Treat Her Lady” in the liner notes, calling it a “bulls-eye blend of rock and soul elements … a driving biker beat that Steppenwolf would have crawled across steaming desert asphalt for, with raunchy rhythm guitar chords WAY up front in the mix.”

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Indeed, there were few other songs as distinctive as “Treat Her Lady” blasting from the AM radio in 1971. In addition to that song and the other hits there are songs that should have been big hits, such as the gorgeous “Big Time Lover”, “Good Loving Don’t Come Easy”, and “Got To Testify (Love).” But after only three albums, Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose disappeared from both the charts and record stores. This 12-track compilation offers a good overview of this underrated soul group. The booklet that comes with the CD includes some cool old photos (love those matching suits!) and liner notes about the group written by A. Scott Galloway. A worthwhile purchase for fans of 1970s soul music.

Meanwhile, here are the other CDs, new stuff and older treats, that are keeping me company during this rainy season in Bangkok.

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Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott – What Have We Become

John Dunbar – Adventures in Trevorland

James Govan – Wanted

Manic Street Preachers – Futurology

Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

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Mind & Matter – 1514 Oliver Avenue

Daryl Hall & John Oates – Daryl Hall & John Oates

Neil Finn – One Nil

Wes Montgomery & Wynton Kelly Trio – Smokin’ At the Half Note

Various Artists – Best of Perception & Today Records

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Gladys Knight & the Pips – Claudine/Pipe Dreams

Queens of the Stone Age – Like Clockwork

Guided By Voices – Motivational Jumpsuit

Various Artists – Getting’ It Off: Westbound Funk

NRBQ – Brass Tacks

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Chrissie Hynde – Stockholm

Patty Griffin – American Kid

Broken Bells – After the Disco

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Days of Abandon

Sam Dees – The Show Must Go On

 

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Various Artists – New Orleans Funk Experience

Lee Fields – Emma Jean

The BB&Q Band – Greatest Hits & Essential Tracks

The Millennium – Begin

William Onyeabor – World Psychedelic Classics: Who is William Onyeabor?

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John Hiatt – Terms of My Surrender

Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything

Commodores – Machine Gun

Kenny Dorham – Una Mas

Ronnie Laws – Pressure Sensitive

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Lucinda Williams – Lucinda Williams

The Turtles – Save the Turtles: Greatest Hits

Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – Give the People What They Want

Aloe Blacc – Lift Your Spirit

Albert Lee – Speechless/Bound But Not Gagged

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Chumbawamba – A Singsong and a Scrap

Ned Doheny – Hard Candy/Prone

The Dirtbombs – If You Don’t Already Have a Look

Bombay Bicycle Club – So Long, See You Tomorrow

Temples – Sun Structures

 

Sorting Out the Monks

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More monk photos? Well, why not? But I promise that this is the last of the batch … at least for now. I took so many photos of the novice monks at the monastery in Tat Ein village earlier this year that it’s taken me this long to post the best of the lot.

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For most of the past week I’ve been sorting through stacks of prints that I had made of some of those monk photos. The plan is to give each monk a small flip-through album with his photos inside; their own personal souvenir. The biggest problem I found while sorting through all the photos this time, however, was trying to identify who was who. I mean, you take a young novice monk with a shaven head and they all tend to look alike!

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There were a few of the monks that I could easily identify, mainly because they had been at the monastery for a few years already and I know them. But some of the newer faces took some real scrutinizing before I could clearly determine who it was. Hopefully, I haven’t screwed things up and put some other kids’ photo in the album of a different monk! But we’ll find out when I head back to the village at the end of this month. I’m looking forward to both getting out of Bangkok for a spell and also seeing these pleasant young monks again. If my money holds out I might even take them on another field trip this time around too.

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Hillary Clinton’s Reading Choices

Hillary Clinton has been back in the news lately, thanks to the backlash about the outrageously high fees that she commands for speaking engagements, the publication of her new book, and a few choice comments she made about current US foreign policy.

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About two months ago there was a short interview with Clinton in the New York Times, one that focused on books that she enjoys reading. This book interview column is a regular feature in the New York Times and I always find it fascinating to find out what various authors like to read when they are not writing, what they read when they were growing up, or in some cases the classic books that they admit to not having read yet. Here are a couple of excerpts from the column that featured Clinton:

Who are your favorite contemporary writers? Are there any writers whose books you automatically read when they come out?

“I will read anything by Laura Hillenbrand, Walter Isaacson, Barbara Kingsolver, John le Carre, John Grisham, Hilary Mantel, Toni Morrison, Anna Quindlen, and Alice Walker. And I love series that follow particular characters over time and through their experiences, so I automatically read the latest installments from Alex Berenson, Linda Fairstein, Sue Grafton, Donna Leon, Katherine Hall Page, Louise Penny, Daniel Silva, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Todd, and Jacqueline Winspear.”

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

“At the risk of appearing predictable, the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking. I was raised reading it, memorizing passages from it and being guided by it. I still find it a source of wisdom, comfort and encouragement.”

 

Well, she had me pleasantly surprised there for a while, picking authors that I also enjoy reading such as Daniel Silva, Alex Berenson, Laura Hillenbrand, and Alexander McCall Smith. But then she blew it with the lame Bible pick. I’m not sure if that was an “astute political choice” or truly a sincere personal pick, but either way it dismisses her in my mind as yet another religious wacko.

I’ve made these comments in past posts, but my feelings remain the same if not stronger: religion has no place in politics. If you are telling me that the Bible influences your way of thinking and how you make decisions, then I sure as hell (or should I capitalize that as a proper place name?) don’t want you holding elective office and making laws that affect my life.

In the United States a big deal was made about fifty years ago when John F. Kennedy was elected president, making him the first Catholic to hold the nation’s highest office. In the last US presidential election the fact that Mitt Romney was the first Mormon to run for office was also a source of curiosity. Personally, I’m waiting for the first atheist to run for office, someone who has the intelligence and fortitude to declare that they are not a superstitious half-wit who belongs to an organized religion. Please, just give me one such honest person.

I get so sick of seeing the same types of people elected to office in the USA. Most are career politicians with backgrounds in law, or perhaps they have some business experience. But do we really want more lawyers and MBA types running our government? Why don’t we elect scientists, teachers, economists, or people that actually have the brains and experience to effect change and make our lives better? Enough with these money-raising talking haircuts and dangerous religious fundamentalists; it’s time for real change. And even though she would be the first female president if elected, an insider like Hillary Clinton — especially one that apparently holds diehard religious beliefs — does not represent change for the better. 

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/15/books/review/hillary-rodham-clinton-by-the-book.html?ref=books&_r=0

Rage and Relief

About this time yesterday I was seething with anger, fit to kill as they’d down in the boondocks. I’d just paid a visit to a travel agent on Sukhumvit Road (I won’t name names at this point, but they are located near the end of Soi 11/1, if you’re keeping track) that handles my air tickets and most especially arranges the visa that I need each time I visit Myanmar. I’ve been using this agent for several years for the visa service, and more recently for plane tickets after I tired of the cattle-car experience of flying with budget carrier Air Asia.

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Anyway, the “service” at this travel agent has always been a bit … erratic. Sometimes they are efficient and other times they are maddeningly slow or inept. But the place is run by Burmese natives and I’ve always felt like it was a good thing to support them and give them my business. Well, after this week’s fiasco, no more!

I dropped by the travel agent over a week ago to give them my passport and the required two photos, along with payment for the tourist visa. It usually takes 2-3 working days and then I go back to the travel agent and pick it up. I pay a lot more than I would getting the visa directly from the Myanmar Embassy, but I’ve heard so many horror stories about that embassy, at least the impolite way that they treat some tourists, that I’ve never dared to go down there myself. Plus, I save time by letting the travel agent go through the application process and go back to pick it up later. Things seem to have improved at the embassy in recent years, since the dawn of “Democracy” in Myanmar, but I’ve continued to use this local visa service simply for the convenience.

A day after I dropped off my passport at the travel agent, they sent me an e-mail telling me that the embassy would not issue me a tourist visa this time because I’d “been to Myanmar many times already.” If I wanted to visit the country, they told me, I would need to apply for a business visa this time. Of course, there was a twist to this: the cost of the business visa is more than double that of the tourist visa! Did I smell a scam of some sort? Indeed I did!

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I wrote back to the travel agent, complaining about this “need” for a business visa. How many times is “too many”, I asked? Did the embassy give you a figure? Of course they had no answers to those questions, only suggesting that I apply for a new passport from the US Embassy, the logic being that a new passport with blank pages would not show the already used visas in the old passport! And to that odd request, I asked: doesn’t the Myanmar Embassy keep track — in a computer possibly — of how many times a person has visited their country? The more I thought about this visa mess, the whole scenario seemed very, very odd. And wrong. I’m not doing any business in Myanmar. I never have. So why was the embassy — or perhaps the travel agent itself, wanting to pocket the extra profit — trying to pull this shit?

The other catch in applying for a business visa is that you must show a “Letter of Invitation” from a registered company in Myanmar. But of course this lame travel agent didn’t tell me exactly what sort of company needed to invite me, or what type of letter was needed, only suggesting that I ask “a friend” for an invitation. Later, I found out that this invite had to be on an official letterhead and accompanied by the company’s official business registration in Burmese. Arrrgghhhh!!!

But, I was lucky. I know a few legitimate business people in Myanmar and one of them was kind of enough to furnish me with the necessary letter and other documents in a quick and efficient manner. Which is more than I can say about this fucked-up travel agent and the way they did NOT issue my air ticket in a timely manner. I won’t bore you with the details of that additional problem, but suffice to say that it proved to be nearly as big a headache as the visa mess.

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After waiting over a week, for both the visa to be straightened out and the air ticket to be issued, they both materialized yesterday afternoon. I went down to the travel agent to pick up my passport, and pay the additional fee for the business visa, which, I’ll repeat, was over double the cost of the tourist visa. I vocally expressed my displeasure, even going as far as banging my fist on the counter and shouting expletives. I questioned the price that the travel agent was charging me, especially after finding out the “real” cost of the visa if you get it direct from the embassy. “But they ask you for more documents if you go by yourself,” one of the women at the office told me. I couldn’t imagine being asked for more documents than I already had to procure, but even if that was the case, I think I’d rather take that option the next time than the torture of dealing with these thieves at the travel agency. I reminded them that I had been a repeat customer for the past five years, but they still didn’t feel like cutting me even a little bit of slack on their exorbitant visa charge. Say no more, you morons; you’ll never see me or my money again.

So I woke up this morning still upset, and wondering if they had managed to fuck up my air ticket too, even though they had given me a receipt. I logged on to the Bangkok Airways website to check on my flight and they had my booking listed, but there was a notice about some “error” with the reservation, suggesting that I phone the airline office. I did that immediately, but was reassured by the friendly customer service agent that my flight was confirmed and everything was in order.

Whew! A sigh of relief … and finally a big smile. Myanmar, I’m coming back!

 

 

Reasons To Be Cheerful: Myanmar Edition

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In the wake of John Kerry’s visit to Myanmar last week, I thought that I’d post some more photos of various Myanmar citizens, captured during my trip earlier this year. More reasons to be cheerful, as the late great Ian Dury would say! And by the end of this month, I’ll be back in the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar” (yes, that’s the latest official name of the country) once again. I can’t wait to see these amazing people once again!

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