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

Archive for October, 2014

End of the Month Monks


It’s the end of the month already, and because it’s October many people have Halloween on their minds. Not me. I never liked that creepy holiday — or festival or whatever you want to call it — ranking it down there with Christmas as annual events that I go out of my way to avoid and ignore. Witches and goblins and haunted houses? Count me out. Come to think of it, Christians and Ghosts are about the same thing, aren’t they? They both are equally frightening and perplexing phenomena that seem to fascinate a certain percentage of the confused populace. Boo!




But I digress. Instead of trick or treating, I thought it much more interesting to post photos of some of my favorite people; the novice monks from Tat Ein monastery in Shan State.





I’m still in the process of reviewing and editing the mammoth bunch of photos that I took during my recent trip to Myanmar — many of them at the monastery — but whenever I see images of those happy-go-lucky young monks it puts a big smile on my face. Really, these kids crack me up every time. I hope you enjoy these photos too; a nice way to end a scary month!

























The Soul of Johnny Mathis

“Who is that singing?” asked one of my customers last week, referring to a CD that I was playing in the shop at the time.

“Johnny Mathis,” I replied.

“No kidding? I used to listen to him when I was in high school. That was back in South Dakota,” said the man, who added that he’s 76-years-old. “How old is Johnny Mathis now? He must be about ninety!”

Well, not quite. Although Johnny Mathis has seemingly been around forever — he recorded his first song in 1957 — he won’t turn 80 until September next year. It’s reported by the Guinness Book of World Records that Mathis has sold over 350 million records worldwide, ranking him as the third most successful recording artist of the 20th century. While recording legends such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles are at least names known to children born this century, I expect only a miniscule percentage have even heard of Johnny Mathis, much less heard any of his songs.


Granted, Johnny Mathis doesn’t possess the “cool factor” of Elvis or the Beatles, but you can’t ignore the fact that he was an outstanding vocalist. Mathis has one of the effortlessly smooth voices that sound good no matter what type of material he is singing. Mathis often gets lumped into the “easy listening” category of vocalists but he’s recorded an impressive and versatile canon of music during his long career, ranging from pop and country to jazz and soul, not to mention copious movie themes and Broadway show tunes.


The CD that I was playing in my shop was I’m Coming Home, an album recorded in 1973 that represented a “comeback” of sorts for Mathis, who after so much success in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, was finding the new decade a more difficult proposition as far as selling records. The album was produced by the legendary Thom Bell, and reflected Bell’s “Philly Soul” background. In the long line of Johnny Mathis albums, this one wasn’t a big seller and tends to get overlooked by many fans, but the lack of sales certainly wasn’t due to lack of quality. The album was chock-full of great tunes, most of the material written by Bell and his partner, Linda Creed, along with a couple of cover tunes. Mathis’s version of “I’m Stone in Love With You” (a big hit for the Stylistics) and “Life is a Song Worth Singing” (a solo hit for Teddy Pendergrass a few years later), along with the scintillating title track rank as some of the best songs that he ever recorded. I’m Coming Home is an album well worth checking out for fans of Mathis and those that enjoy early 1970s soul music.

Meanwhile, here are the other great and groovy CDs that I’ve been listening to repeatedly in recent weeks:


Steve Miller Band – Anthology

Nick Heyward – From Monday to Sunday

Charles Earland – In Concert

Various Artists – Super Funk 2

Eddi Reader – Vagabond



Various Artists – Memphis 70

Paulo Nutino – Caustic Love

Richard X. Heyman – X

Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison

Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare



Dee Dee Bridgewater – Red Earth: A Malian Journey

Daryl Hall & John Oates – Our Kind of Soul

Grant Hart – Good News for Modern Man

Robin Trower – State To State: Live Across America 1974-1980

Tommy Guerrero – A Little Bit of Somethin’



Various Artists – Eccentric Soul: The Way Out Label

Chicago – Live in Japan

White Denim – Corsicana Lemonade

The Ovations – One in a Million: The XL and Sounds of Memphis Recordings

The Merry-Go-Round – Listen, Listen: The Definite Collection



Johnny Otis – That’s Your Last Boogie

Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

Parliament – The 12-Inch Collection and More

The Voices of East Harlem – Right On Be Free

Churches – The Bones of What You Believe



Peter Green – Very Best of Peter Green and the Splinter Group

Eric Clapton & Friends – The Breeze: An Appreciation of J.J. Cale

Counting Crows – Somewhere Under Wonderland

Boogaloo Joe Jones – Legends of Acid Jazz

Joe Henderson – State of the Tenor: Live at the Village Vanguard



Richard Hawley – Coles Corner

Various Artists – Hall of Fame Volume 3: More Rare and Unissued Gems from the Fame Vaults

Low – The Invisible Way

Jimmy Eat World – Damage

Paul Revere & the Raiders – Greatest Hits



Brenda and the Tabulations – Right on the Tip of My Tongue

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

Gordon Lightfoot – A Painter Passing Through

Various Artists – Late Night Tales: Groove Armada

Willie Nile – Places I Have Never Been


Back to the original monastery: Shwe Yan Pyay


If you read with this blog on a regular basis you’ll often see photos of the novice monks from the monastery in Tat Ein village in Shan State, located very close to the town of Nyaungshwe, which in turn is known as the gateway to Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most famous tourist destinations.



But before I “discovered” Tat Ein village about four years ago, the local monastery that I visited most often in the past decade was Shwe Yan Pyay, the old teakwood structure with the distinctive huge oval windows, located on the main road leading to Nyaungshwe. I became friends with several of the monks at that monastery and would often take them on day trips to sites in the area, such as Kakku, Taunggyi, or the Pindaya Caves. Taking two or three monks led to taking five or six, and then a dozen at a time, and eventually I rented trucks and took the entire crew to the balloon festival in Taunggyi one year. They were always an appreciative and polite bunch of young men.




In the past couple of years, though, I’ve spent less time visiting Shwe Yan Pyay and more time cycling out to Tat Ein. But I still make it a point to visit Shwe Yan Pyay once or twice each time I’m in town, always taking donations of fresh fruit that I but at the morning market in town. Most of the monks that I’ve known over the years have moved on to other monasteries in the region, or perhaps gone back to their home village and resumed a “regular” life. Sadly, Pyinya Sawda, the monk I know who was pictured on the cover of the recently published Myanmar Dream Journeys, has joined the ranks of the departed and was not at Shwe Yan Pyay this time around. But I did recognize a few familiar faces among the remaining monks.




Unlike the mischievous bunch at Tat Ein the novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay are more reserved and shy. They like having their photos taken but are sometimes reluctant to make a request. But when I suggested a few poses this time around, the monks were more than happy to accommodate the request. Here are a few photos from that most recent visit to Shwe Yan Pyay, both of the monks and some interior shots that I took in one of the buildings.













All the Right Signs


Whether walking or cycling around the cities and towns of Myanmar, I’m always struck by the interesting and colorful — and sometimes downright bizarre — signs that abound. Throw in a bit of funky street graffiti and it’s a never-ending tapestry. Here are a few sign examples from my most recent trip.



















Bamboo Delight for Shan & Myanmar Cuisine


In the Shan State town of Nyaungshwe, within rowing distance of famous Inle Lake, Ma Pu Sue continues to offer her acclaimed Bamboo Delight Cooking Class. Assisted by her husband Lesly, Sue takes her clients through all the steps needed to cook the food, not only traditional Myanmar and Burmese cuisine, but also local Shan and Intha dishes. And those local treats, my friends, are some of the tastiest ones you will eat in the entire country.


The Bamboo Delight experience starts with a trip to the local market in the morning. While guiding you around the colorful market, Sue will buy all the ingredients needed for that day’s meal (your choice: lunch or dinner) and explain their uses. Next it’s back to her cozy home where she and her visitors will prepare and cook the meal. And then the best part comes: eating the lesson!


I’ve known Sue and Lesly for several years. They are very personable and always helpful. Both are fluent in English also. Honestly, you couldn’t ask for two nicer hosts. I always make it a point to drop by their house for a visit when I’m in town, and they will invariably invite me over for a meal, time permitting. During my last visit, Lesly cooked up a big pot of monhinga. In many parts of Myanmar this popular dish is eaten in the mornings for breakfast, but really it’s a treat that is delicious any time of the day or night.


Nowadays, the cooking classes are so popular with tourists, that it’s rare that Sue has an entire free day to relax or spend time with her two school-age daughters. But even when she has “kitchen duty” you can tell that it’s not a hardship at all: Sue loves what she is doing and it shows in her vibrant personality and delicious recipes. If you are visiting Nyaungshwe or Inle Lake, think about adding a Bamboo Delight class to your schedule for a truly unforgettable experience. A guaranteed highlight on any trip to Myanmar!





Bagan without the Crowds


One of Myanmar’s most popular tourist attractions is the city of Bagan. Actually, the area known as “Old Bagan” has almost no residents nowadays (most of those people were forcibly moved about two decades ago to an area now known as New Bagan), but Old Bagan is where you will find thousands (yes, that’s plural!) of ancient pagodas and temples, stretching across the dusty plains to the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) River. Gazing upon those marvels of architecture is truly a wondrous sight.



Because of the increase in tourism to Myanmar in the past couple of years, Bagan has also seen the number of visitors surge dramatically. It’s not nearly as bad as the busloads of tourists that now make visiting Angkor in Cambodia such an annoying activity, but nevertheless there are a lot more tourists in Bagan these days and it’s rare that you’ll be able to enjoy a pagoda by yourself, or at least in a tranquil atmosphere. That is, unless you plan carefully.




Thanks to it being rainy season, and thus the low season for tourists, and factoring in my preference for visiting out-of-the-way and less well-known sites, I managed to avoid the tourist hordes altogether during the two days I spent in Bagan. I ran into one carload of four tourists at one temple and that was it. Pretty darn amazing!





bagan091419For day one of my temple excursions, I went out entirely on foot, starting from my hotel in New Bagan, skirting the site of the old morning market, and then walking further towards Nyaung U. It’s surprising how many interesting old ruins are within walking distance, as long as you stick to dirt roads and small paths, but they are definitely out there … just don’t mind the garbage-strewn byways. It was nearing sundown by the time I returned to my hotel, just in time to snap a few more photos.





On day two I rented a bike from the nice folks at Silver House Restaurant. That bike, however, had a problem with one of the tires, so I returned it and got another one. While I was walking it down the main road, a young local boy stopped to talk with me. He said his name was Phyo Phyo and was on his way to play a game of football (soccer) with his friends. After telling him of my temple-hopping plans for the morning, he asked if he could join me. I usually enjoy just venturing out on my own, but then again, it’s nice to have company sometimes too, so I told him that he was welcome to tag along. Actually, since I didn’t have a concrete plan as far as places to visit, I told him that he could serve as my guide.





After visiting a couple of temples near the main road, we followed a dirt path that took us toward some more isolated sites. I should have paid more attention to the path, however, because at one point I ran over some small branches, ones that had large thorns on them. Even before I stopped the bike I knew what had happened: punctured tire! Sure enough, in no time at all, the tire was flat. But Phyo Phyo said that there was a tire repair stand back near the main road, so that’s where we headed. Under the shade of a tree, a man operated a little repair business. He patched up the tire — there were two holes — for a ridiculously cheap price and off we went again to explore a few more temples, one of which, if you climbed to the top, had a really nice panoramic view of the area. And I never would have known about it if it weren’t for Phyo Phyo’s suggestion. A good guide indeed!






When our morning excursion was finished (I had to be at a friends’ house for lunch, so I had to cut the tour short) I gave Phyo Phyo some money as a tip, figuring that’s what he would expect. But he looked genuinely shocked when I handed him the money, telling me that it wasn’t necessary. I assured him, however, that I appreciated him taking the time to show me around (hey, you gave up your daily football match!) and that I wanted him to accept the money as a gift. With a big smile, he took the money and wished me well. Another unexpected, but memorable encounter in Myanmar.





Mandalay’s Curry Nirvana!


A trip to Mandalay would not be complete with a meal — or a dozen — at the world’s greatest restaurant, Aye Myit Tar. Okay, it may not boast the most mouth-watering dishes on the planet, but it’s certainly one of my very favorite spots to dine and soak up genial atmosphere. This venerable culinary institution serves satisfying meals from late morning until nine o’clock, or later, each and every night. The food is very tasty — assuming that you have a craving for Myanmar cuisine — especially those trademark oily Burmese curries — but what makes the place so special is the amazingly attentive service by the crew of friendly young waters. In a word, it’s outstanding!



I sometimes will joke with friends about the service at Aye Myit Tar, likening it to a Monty Python skit; a team of three or four — or six — waiters hovering over your table; filling up the water glasses, pouring more beer, dishing out more rice, running back to the kitchen and getting you extra orders of the side dishes. By the time you have finished your meal, you are full to bursting. Once again, images of a Monty Python film surface: “Would you like a wafer-thin mint with that, sir?” Uh, maybe not!



But seriously, it’s no exaggeration; the diligent waiters seem like they are in constant motion, bouncing from table to table, darting into the kitchen, and back again, smiling the entire time. Of course there are those lulls when the customer flow temporarily eases and they get the opportunity to sit down and rest for a spell, or pose for the camera (as these photos will illustrate), but for the most part these guys work hard all day — starting with vegetable cutting detail early in the morning — and into the night. Most of these guys come from a village near Monywa and they live upstairs at the restaurant.



Admittedly, the menu at Aye Myit Tar is limited. There is curry, curry, and more curry. Hey, at least it’s not like yet another Monty Python flashback and you are facing a dozen varieties of spam! At Aye Myit Tar you have the choice of beef, pork, chicken, goat, fish, or even lobster curry. Plus there a few fried dishes on the menu. But if you are vegetarian or not in the mood for a curry of some sort you will find the selection a bit lacking. Each main dish, however, is accompanied by a staggering amount of side dishes, including vegetables, salads, and soup. Let’s just say, your table will be overflowing with dishes!



While the food is indeed good, there is an energy and positive vibe in the restaurant that I find addictive, which is why I keep going back and back, even when I’ve had my fill of curry. Some nights, if I don’t feel like a huge meal I’ll just drop by for a beer or two. I’ve become friends with several of the waiters over the years and make sure to tip them well, and they always reciprocate and give me gifts of some sort before I leave town. On this last trip, Ko Ko Oo bought me dinner one night and threw in a platter of fresh fruit, Kyaw Myu Htun gave me a six-pack of Myanmar Beer, and the newest kid on the block, Myint Kyaw, bought me a new longyi. These guys are gold!



Aye Myit Tar is currently located on 81st Street, between 29th and 30th Streets, right in the heart of Mandalay. But before the end of this year, most likely sometime in November, they will be moving back to their old location, also on 81st Street, but a few blocks further south, between 36th and 37 Streets. At the refurbished new digs they will have a total of six floors and even an elevator! And don’t forget those curries!



Connected in Mandalay!


It seems like everyone is getting mobile phones in Myanmar this year. With the price of phones, especially new brands of “smart phones,” dropping dramatically this year, along with new telecom companies offering SIM cards at a fraction of the previously high price, legions of locals are finally getting connected.


Having access to cell phones may not seem like an earthshaking event to Westerners who have become accustomed to using such devices the past decade or two, but for the average person in Myanmar, unable to use cellular devices due to the prohibitive cost or simply the lack of a reliable network, this sudden new era of connectivity is absolutely amazing.


Last week the Norwegian telecom company Telenor launched 2G and 3G services in Mandalay, offering SIM cards for 1,500 kyat, or less than US$2. Contrast that to what a SIM card cost only a year or two ago in Myanmar — around $200 — and you can understand the excitement among the populace. Everybody wants one! Yes indeed, the communication landscape in Myanmar has changed almost overnight.



During my trip last month I saw waiters at Aye Myit Tar in Mandalay with new phones and monks in Shan State (no, not the novice monks!) clutching iPhones. Even my little photographer apprentice Zin Ko now has a fancy new Huawei phone, complete with music, games, and videos. Mind boggling, just mind boggling.


The first company to launch service in Myanmar, Ooredoo, has already been advertising their services heavily around the country previous to Telenor’s recent launch. You couldn’t escape their billboards and other advertising. I can imagine the competition is only going to get fiercer and the demand will remain sky high.


Monday in the Park


The trip to Taunggyi and the caves almost didn’t happen. It had been raining most of the week in Nyaungshwe and when I asked U Sandimarr, the saya daw, (head monk) at Tat Ein village’s monastery about the idea of taking the kids on a trip, he basically said; we can go if the weather cooperates.



Well, thankfully, the forecast was for clear skies on Monday, plus there were no classes slated for that day, so it seemed like all was good to go. As I mentioned in the previous post, I ended up having to rent an extra truck to be able to handle all the kids — and a few adults — who wanted to go. Even the three trucks weren’t enough to handle the demand. These trips have become popular!




We ended up putting most of the girls and teachers in one truck, the boys in another truck, and the novice monks in yet another truck. Plus, another bunch of boys sat on the roof of each vehicle. I also passed out car sickness medicine and plastic bags to everyone. After several previous trips with this bunch, and knowing that we’d be travelling some hilly roads, the possibility of more than a few kids getting upset stomachs and puking was highly likely.







Anyway, here are a few more photos from our stop at the Eastern Amusement Park in Taunggyi, both before and after the wild stage show. I guarantee you; people in the village are most likely still talking about that show, especially the antics of “Disco Man.”












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