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

Archive for March, 2015

Scenes from the Road to Mandalay and Beyond

Here are a few photos from the road, on the way to Mandalay, Nyaungshwe, and beyond, taken during my trip earlier this month. Typical scenes and sights, populated by extraordinary people. I might have lost my memory for a few short minutes after my mysterious bicycle crash, but I’ll never forget the panorama of sights, sounds, and smells that surrounded me every day while I was in the country.



A bowl of fermented tea leaf salad: the REAL taste of Myanmar!



A streetside petrol stand in Mandalay



The sun sets over the road on the way to Tat Ein village in Shan State … very close to where I had my bicycle mishap.



Two of the dedicated young teachers from the primary school in Tat Ein village. Even in between school terms they help out in the village.



A young novice monk gleefully chases down a football on a dusty field in Tat Ein village.



Fishing in the weeds? Well, they’re giving it a try in Nyaungshwe.



I ran into U Sein Win, the man who sells paintings outside Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe, at an old temple on the outskirts of town one afternoon. He told me that he meditates at this temple every day.



I found the “Hair Cat” on a dirt road in a very remote section of Nyaungshwe while riding my bike one afternoon. I can’t imagine that they get any foreign customers, but kudos on the cute sign!



Novice monks at Shwe Yan Pyay monastery in Nyaungshwe trying to pay attention to their afternoon lessons. Nowadays the lessons are often interrupted by hordes of tourists parading through the monastery.



Taking a dip in the creek on a hot afternoon in Nyaungshwe.



Pedestrians cross a wooden bridge across the street from the mammoth Ma Soe Yein monastery in Mandalay.



Cheap and tasty fruit and other snacks for sale in Mingun.



Need a ride in Mandalay? This vehicle is perhaps NOT a good option.



An early morning offering to monks outside the Hotel Queen in Mandalay.



The novice monks at Tat Ein village are a great bunch, but I snapped one afternoon and felt compelled to strangle this one!


Bigger & Better: Mandalay’s Aye Myit Tar


My favorite restaurant in Mandalay, Aye Myit Tar, recently moved back to their original location on 81st Street, between 36th and 37th Streets —- but with a twist. The restaurant is now a towering six-floor operation, complete with an elevator, private dining rooms, and an entire floor devoted to wedding receptions. It’s bigger, taller, shinier, and dare I say, even better.




No matter what the place looks like, the bottom line is the food, and Aye Myit Tar still serves up a gut-busting array of tasty curries, vegetables and other treats for both lunch and dinner. And, in another continuation of their long-standing tradition, the service at Aye Myit Tar remains ridiculously attentive and friendly. These guys — and now a few young ladies too — go out of their way to provide outstanding service.





On this trip I discovered the good service at Aye Myit Tar is not limited to food and beverage. I cycled by the restaurant one morning and stopped for a chat when I saw some of the waiters hanging out outside the building. A strap on my shoulder bag was torn, so I asked them if there was tailor nearby where I could get the bag mended. Ko Ko Oo, one of the waiters who I’ve known for several years, asked to see bag and inspected the damage. He told me to wait for about ten minutes and then ran off with the bag, only to return within the specified time frame, the bag now completely mended. I asked him how much for the repair and he waved me off, saying there was no charge. Another example of just how amazing Burmese hospitality can be. That was sweet of Ko Ko Oo not to ask for any money, but I made sure to tip him extra at dinner that night!






In recent trips I’ve been joined for dinner by friends from 90th Street, such as Zin Ko, Baw Ga, and Ko Min. Two other kids from the neighborhood, Khant Kaing Kyaw and Ye Win Zaw, expressed an interest in joining the dinner festivities, so I invited them to join us too. Even with a gang that large, the prices at Aye Myit Tar are low enough that it didn’t dent my budget too badly.











Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band


The recently released debut album by the Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band, 21st Century Molam, is a very interesting collection of instrumental music. “Molam” is a style of Thai folk music, extremely popular in the country’s Northeastern “Isaan” region. Unlike most styles of Molam that feature vocalists, this “International” band from Bangkok (comprised of mostly Thais, but also a Westerner on percussion) focuses on instrumentation. And they boast a lively mix of instruments, including the khaen (a bamboo type of harmonica), phin (a Thai lute, or stringed guitar-like instrument), along with more traditional sounds such as bass, drums, and percussion.

In the liner notes to this CD, the arrangers of the music, DJ’s Maft Sai and Chris Menist, explain that the concept for the band was “born out of looking for records” around Bangkok. At their inaugural Paradise Bangkok party a few years ago, the DJ’s spun a wild mix of music, tunes that they felt to be “natural musical links between sounds around the globe,” from artists such as Mulatu Astatke, Augustus Pablo, R.D. Burman, and Fela Kuti. The spirit of those musical influences can be heard in the songs on this CD, and there are even times when I detect a surf guitar vibe, reminiscent of the Ventures or the Raybeats, but when all is said and played the compositions exude the distinctive sounds of Thai Molam.

If I have one criticism it’s that there is a bit of same-iness to the arrangements of some tracks. Perhaps adding a vocalist on a few songs would have spiced things up a bit, but I can’t fault the concept of making an all-instrumental album either. All things considered, this is pretty darn cool music. The CD contains 12 tracks with a total of 46 minutes. I got my copy at the Zudmangra Record Store on Sukhumvit Soi 51.


Meanwhile, here are the other CDs — newer albums and vintage delights — that I’ve been playing and playing and playing lately:



Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

Robert Plant – Lullaby … and the Ceaseless Roar

Syl Johnson – Twilight and Twinight Masters Collection

Rusty Bryant – Legends of Acid Jazz

Benjamin Booker – Benjamin Booker



Barrence Whitfield and the Savages – Barrence Whitfield and the Savages (plus 10 for the Pot)

Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin – Fly By Wire

Future Islands – Singles

James Mason – Rhythm of Life

Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal



Jesse Winchester – Reasonable Amount of Trouble

Chumbawamba – Un

Ronnie Dyson – Lady in Red

Crown Heights Affair – The Very Best Of: Dreaming a Dream

Neil Young – A Letter Home



Various Artists – South Texas Rhythm ‘n’ Soul Revue

Mark-Almond – The Best Of Mark-Almond

Radney Foster – Everything I Should Have Said

Jim Lauderdale – I’m A Song

The Dream Academy – The Morning Lasted All Day: A Retrospective



Roger Nichols – Small Circle of Friends

Various Artists – Dave Hamilton’s Detroit Funk

Timmy Thomas – Why Can’t We Live Together

Dorothy Ashby – In A Minor Groove

Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence



Vic Godard & Subway Sect – 1979 Now!

The New Basement Tapes – Lost on the River

Sali Sadibe – Wassoulou Foli

Frazey Ford – Indian Ocean

The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers



Lucinda Williams – Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

The Miracles – Renaissance/Do It Baby

Reigning Sound – Shattered

Magnum – Fully Loaded

Laura Lee – The Chess Collection



Eddie Floyd – Rare Stamps

Dave Kusworth – In Some Life Let Gone: An Anthology 1977-2007

Various Artists – Living in the Streets: Vol. 2

The Abyssinians – Satta Massagana

Amos Lee – Mountains of Sorrow, Rivers of Song



Various Artists – Royal Grooves: Funk and Groovy Soul from King Records

Peter Bjorn and John – Gimme Some

The Frank and Walters – Souvenirs

Stoney Edwards – The Best Of: Poor Folks Stick Together

J.J. Grey and Mofo – This River


Novice Monks in the Afternoon


Nyaungshwe in Shan State is known as the gateway to Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most famous tourist attractions. But I’ve toured the lake more times than I can remember, so when I’m in town nowadays I bypass the boat trips and ride my bike around town. And my favorite destination of all is nearby Tat Ein village, a place I visit on almost a daily basis.


In the past, I’ve taught English language lessons at the primary school in the village, donated medicine to the school and monastery, and taken the kids on field trips in the area. I know the people well. School had just shut down for the multi-month “summer break” and I had no plans to take the kids on any trips this time, but I did spend many afternoons at the monastery, just chatting with the monks and taking photos. I time my arrival around midday, after the monks have eaten, or late in the afternoon, after they’ve finished their studies, in order to avoid interrupting their routine. I enjoy their company but I don’t want to be more of a distraction than I’ve become already!




As you can see from these photos, the novice monks at Tat Ein are a playful and lively bunch. Camera shy they are not! It’s gotten to the point where they will demand that I take their photo … but in that cute, polite manner that they have that makes it all so charming. They never cease to amaze me with their ideas for photos, and yes, all of these shots occurred with no prompting or suggestions from me. The monks thought of them all! One kid managed to paint his face with some bizarre red marks; another novice fashioned an outfit out of a feed bag; the boys took turns playing “teacher” in the classroom; one of the village dogs became an unwilling photo prop; the monks took turns sitting in a fountain.





As usual, it was great fun and the minutes/hours flew by while I was at the monastery taking photos. The thought of returning to my hotel didn’t occur to me until I saw that the sun about to set and I’d scamper off and make plans to return the next day, eagerly to see what new photo ideas the novice monks would think of for the next session.
















Thanaka Party!


It was one of those unplanned moments that turned out to be a highlight of my trip to Myanmar. I was walking down the hill from the monastery at Tat Ein village, a group of novice monks in my wake, ready to say my goodbyes to everyone. At the bottom of the hill, however, there was a party of sorts going on; a group of village girls enthusiastically dabbing one another with thanaka paste.




If you haven’t heard of thanaka before, you have most likely seen it, especially if you’ve been to Myanmar or seen photos of the people who live in the country. Thanaka is everywhere! Thanaka is a pale yellow paste, or powder, that’s made from the ground bark of a locally-grown tree. The paste is dabbed on the skin — usually the face — of the person, and sometimes in very creative patterns. You will see it on children of all ages, and women of almost any age. Thanaka serves as both a sunscreen and a cosmetic. Many women value thanaka for its skin healing properties, plus many local men think that not only does thanaka look attractive on a lady, but it smells great too! Thanaka as an aphrodisiac? Why not!






At Tat Ein, the girls were obviously having a great time going wild with the thanaka. Wanting to join the festivities, I suggested that they apply some to my face too, an idea that they eagerly accepted! Within minutes I had thanaka smeared all over my face. But I wasn’t the only one: a couple of the monks in my contingent got caught in the crossfire and had thanaka smeared on their faces too. But you know what? Judging by their delighted reaction, I don’t think they minded one bit at all!





Another magical day in Myanmar … all thanks to a bit of thanaka!








Rural Memory Lapse

At first, I thought I was dreaming.

I looked at the scene front of me: the day had turned to darkness, and a couple of young Burmese woman were talking to me, asking me if I was okay. To their left, a police officer approached me and asked me a similar question. Someone mentioned that I had just been to Tat Ein village. But why was I sitting by the side of the road with blood on my head?


Well, it turned out not to be a dream at all. Somehow, at some point, I had stopped riding my bicycle down the dirt road leading from the village back to Nyaungshwe and I had ended up face down by the side of the road. Luckily, I hadn’t suffered any broken bones, and the bike itself seemed to be in good shape too. One of the lenses on my eye glasses had popped out, and I had some dirt on my camera, but other than those minor annoyances, I seemed to have emerged relatively unscathed from the accident.

Or was it an accident? I must have suffered a concussion of some sort because I have no recollection of what happened on that road. Did I lose control of my bike on a steep curve? Did I pass out for some reason? Had someone or something hit me? Try as I might, I can’t summon any memories or an explanation. My shoulder bag was intact and all the money safely inside, plus my camera and MP3 player in working order, so I can rule out robbery.


I recall speaking Burmese to the small crowd that had formed, thanking the ladies, and then another police vehicle arrived to take me to the hospital. And no, they didn’t use a seat belt to strap me in. I finally looked at my watch and noticed that it was after seven o’clock. Damn, I was supposed to be a Mar Mar Aye’s house at 6:30 for dinner. She’s going to wonder what happened to me. I asked one of the cops to relay my regrets. We got to the hospital and they directed me to a bed whereupon a doctor treated me almost immediately, looking in my eyes, and swabbing the blood off my forehead.


Within the next hour, Mar Mar Aye had shown up — complete with food from our postponed dinner — along with a local tour guide that I know, and another man, one who used to work at my hotel. Ma Pa Sue called to check up on me, and later her husband Lesley came to the hospital to see me too. But to top it all off, the manager of my hotel showed up, signed me out of the hospital, and even paid the bill for me! I tell you, nothing beats the hospitality in Myanmar, and the people here in Shan State could be the best of the best.


The tourist police, three local men, were also unfailingly polite and helpful. Not only did they transport me to the hospital, they stayed to make sure that I was okay, and then turned up at my hotel the next morning for another visit. Before they left the hotel, I tried to discreetly give them a small amount of money (“something for a visit to the teashop”), but they declined, saying they were only doing their duty.


It probably would have been wise to stay in Nyaungshwe an extra day and rest, but that morning I had a scheduled flight to Mandalay and I didn’t want to change it. Besides, I could just as easily rest in Mandalay, and that’s exactly what I did later that day, skipping my usual teashop excursion in favor of a long nap.


I still can’t figure out what happened on the dirt road, a familiar stretch of rural bumpiness that I’ve navigated dozens of times without any problems. One minute I was hanging out in the village, taking photos with some novice monks at the monastery, passing out badminton rackets, watching the girls in the village play games while the boys played football. And then … boom … I’m bloody and not able to remember what happened.


But hey, all things considered, I’m lucky this freak accident didn’t turn out to be worse than it was. I’m just very thankful that so many kind people were there to help me and patch me up.


As for this blog, I haven’t posted anything the past couple of months due to a combination of factors; lack of inspiration and an insanely busy start to the year. Business has beyond brisk, which is good in some ways, but very fatiguing as well. The last thing I want to do when I go home at night is sit in front of the computer and write. But this latest trip to Myanmar was as interesting as expected, so I’m sure I’ll be posting more photos and stories in the coming weeks. But right now, I’m just trying to take it very easy and pace myself more than usual, so don’t expect a flurry of posts anytime soon.


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