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

Archive for April, 2015

Burmese Songs of Passion and Harmony


One of my very favorite recording artists in Myanmar is a singer-guitar player known as Lin Lin (or sometimes spelled Linn Linn, or even Lynn Lynn). I have a couple of his albums, one of which, Sin Za Ba, is without a doubt one of my very favorite albums in any musical genre. I don’t profess to understand all of the lyrics, but the songs are bursting with melody, passion, and power. Last year when I was in Mandalay I picked up the newest recording by him, Mee Ein K’Byar, roughly translated as “Lantern Poem”. There is a woman pictured on the cover of the CD, and she apparently is the female voice who sings on several of the album’s songs too. I asked my waiter friends at Aye Myit Tar restaurant in Mandalay who this woman was and they knew right away: she is Chit Thu Wai, a talented singer who also happens to be Lin Lin’s wife. Once again, Lin Lin has written another memorable batch of tuneful songs. I like the addition of Chit Thu Wai’s vocals on this album too. She has a very pleasant voice, one that meshes well with Lin Lin’s own expressive vocals. In addition to Lin Lin’s deft guitar playing, there are more piano parts on this new album. Clearly, this is a match made of passion and harmony.


Meanwhile, back in Bangkok, amidst the droves of idiots who are dazed and mesmerized by their “smart” phones, here are the other most excellent CDs that are keeping me sane lately:


Hailu Mergia and the Wallas – Tche Belew

Ron Sexsmith – Whereabouts

Various Artists – Look to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears Revisited

Johnny Hammond Smith – Gamblers’ Life

Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams



Isley meets Bacharach – Here I Am

Wilton Felder – We All Have a Star/Inherit the Wind

Caribou – Our Love

Royksopp – Junior

Isaac Hayes – Presenting Isaac Hayes


Jerry Williams _Gone

Jerry Williams – Gone

Various Artists – Love and Jealousy: The Deeper Side of Southern Soul

Deep Purple – Come Taste the Band (35th Anniversary Edition)

Various Artists – Tommy Guerrero: Another Late Night

Bembeya Jazz National – Classic Titles



George Jackson and Dan Greer – At Goldwax

Gato Barbieri – Bolivia

Various Artists – MGMT: Late Night Tales

Mark Ronson – Uptown Special

Brinsley Schwartz – Nervous on the Road/The New Favourites



J. Mascis – Tied To a Star

Gary Bartz – Harlem Bush Music/Taifa/Uhuru

Durutti Column – LC (Expanded Edition)

Curtis Mayfield – We Come in Peace with a Message of Love/Take It To the Streets

Fitz and the Tantrums – More Than Just a Dream



Burning Spear – Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost

The Fatback Band – Let’s Do It Again

Sister Sledge – The Definitive Groove Collection

Marc Cohn – The Very Best

Elbow – Seldom Seen Kid


KL Quickie


Not much to say today, just posting a few photos that I took during my trip to Kuala Lumpur in January, just before the start of the annual Lunar New Year. As usual, I made multiple trips to buy CDs at various branches of Rock Corner and Victoria Music, bought a bunch of bargain books at Book Xcess in the Amcorp Mall (and couldn’t resist browsing the selection of used CDs at their weekend flea market), and had many great meals at places such as the historic Coliseum Café.




On another food note, over in the Dang Wagi neighborhood, the legendary Yut Kee has moved! But regular customers need not worry too much; the revered kopitiam has only moved around the corner, to spacious new multi-floor digs. Unfortunately, I was unable to eat at the new location. I showed up on a Monday, the one day of the week they are closed!


















Heading to the Hills: Mingun and Sagaing


When I was in Mandalay last month, I followed tradition and took some of the kids from 90th Street on a trip in the area. We’ve taken a dozen trips or more over the past decade, and in recent years we’ve gone as far away as Bagan and Shan State (Taunggyi, Nyaunghswe, Inle Lake).



This time around I didn’t have the budget or the energy for a long trip, so we stuck closer to Mandalay, visiting the nearby towns of Mingun and Sagaing. I’ve been to Mingun many times, and in the past have always taken the boat on the Irrawaddy River that makes morning runs to the riverside town. The trip takes about an hour each way. You know you’ve reached Mingun when you see the towering base of the Mingun Pagoda next to the river. This pagoda was actually never finished. It was designed to be the country’s tallest pagoda when construction began back in 1790. But after the ruling king died, and an ensuing earthquake caused a huge crack to form on the structure, construction was halted and never resumed. But the project was so grandiose that even the resultant base is alone an impressive sight. There are now signs discouraging tourists from hiking to the top, but everyone makes the climb anyway.



The other highlights in Mingun include the huge Mingun Bell (noted as the world’s largest “uncracked” bell), the Hsinbyume Paya, a white-washed pagoda distinguished by its funky “waves” of walls, and don’t forget those huge “guardian lions” next to the riverfront. Throw in the Mingun Home for the Aged (a nursing home), and a few more monasteries on the hill, and that’s about all there is to see or do in Mingun.





For this trip, instead of taking the boat, the kids made the decision to hire a small “light truck” that would take us to both Mingun and the nearby town of Sagaing, famous for the hundreds of pagodas that are strewn around the surrounding hills. After climbing Sagaing Hill (accessible by a very long series of stairs), the crew was exhausted and some of the boys took naps on the terrace. Once again, though, they were well behaved and the excursion was a delightful way to spend the morning and early afternoon. Other than buying the entry ticket for foreigners at the Mingun Pagoda, and paying for lunch for everyone, it was a fairly inexpensive outing too.















Yangon’s Vanishing Architecture


I didn’t visit Yangon when I was in Myanmar last month, but it feels like I’ve just been there after reading Still Lifes From a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon by Elizabeth Rush. Just published by Things Asian Press, this is both a beautiful book (large format, coffee table size) packed with photographs of the city’s old architecture, and an insightful account of its residents and their lives.

Rush spent over a year wandering around Yangon, documenting the city’s grand old Colonial buildings, many of which were in danger after government reforms earlier in the decade encouraged a new wave of “investors” to descend upon the city. Naturally, developers aren’t too keen on preserving old buildings, so the inevitable demolition commenced. It’s not a stretch to compare such greedy developers to vultures, just waiting to pounce upon a decaying corpse.

In her introduction to this book, Rush notes that she “wasn’t interested in the architecture so much as the lives that took place inside it.” Thus, rather than only focusing on photos of the exterior of these crumbling old structures, Rush takes you inside the buildings and inside the lives of the inhabitants, via stunning photographs and revealing essays. In one essay, Rush writes: “It is best to state my aims: I am reaching towards the ineffability of home through the cataloging of individual living rooms and their contents. I believe that it is possible to reach the sublime by drawing close to and worshipping the real. And little is more real than a person’s home.”


On that point, the reader is offered glimpses into the lives of the residents of these buildings in Rush’s striking photographs. While most photographs are devoid of any people (that’s perhaps my only criticism: I would have liked to have seen more of the people pictured inside their rooms), you can see framed photos of parents and their children, revered monks, the omnipresent shrine to the Buddha, calendars on the wall, a variety of knickknacks. These rooms are bursting with life and history.

While the photographs will be the main attraction for many, Rush’s evocative essays are also a valuable addition to the appreciation of this book. Additional essays included in this book were written by noted author Emma Larkin (Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop) and Thant Thaw Kaung. Larkin writes in her essay, “When Elizabeth records the enduring sediment of personal histories she also, inevitably, follows a trail of destruction.” Rush also notes: “As Yangon’s buildings grow taller, brighter, and more spacious, the city was also becoming smaller somehow, out of reach.”

And that’s the sad reality of Yangon’s current makeover. With so much “progress” and development taking place, the city is losing a hunk chunk of its history and heritage … and its soul.


Shan State Street Parade


I might be exaggerating if I say that I see some sort of street parade every single day when I’m in Myanmar, but it sure seems like it! If not every day, I certainly come across some sort of parade or procession a couple of times each week every time I’m in the country.



Sometimes the procession might be for a wedding, a noviciation (Shin Pyu) ceremony, part of a full moon festival, or for making donations to a local monastery. When I was in the Shan State town of Nyaungshwe last month, I was fortunate to witness a very colorful little parade one afternoon. Young girls were dressed in their finest, complete with makeup and lipstick, and teenage girls walked down the main street of town attired similarly. Groups of young boys were also part of the procession, some of them also dressed up in frilly clothes and sporting makeup. What was that all about? Well, this was part of a traditional Shin Pyu ceremony, where the boys are paraded through the streets (one riding a horse!) before going back to the monastery, whereupon they have their head shaved and they will become a novice monk for a week or longer.




The procession in Nyaungshwe included a few adults too, some of whom were driving trishaws full of donations, along with a small marching band. It was an entertaining and colorful spectacle, yet another fascinating example of the unique way of life in Myanmar.









Percy Sledge: Soul Deep


I was saddened earlier this week to hear about the death of Percy Sledge, one of the greatest soul singers of all time. Yes, I’d rank him up there as one of the very best, along with more famous singers such as Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Al Green, and Sam Cooke. Percy Sledge may not have enjoyed the same fame and acclaim as those others, but make no mistake about it; he was truly one of the great ones.


Of course it’s not like Percy Sledge was an unknown singer himself. He had his share of hits in the 1960s, his best known song being “When A Man Loves a Woman,” a monster hit when it came out in 1966 and one that later enjoyed a second life when it was used in a TV commercial and reissued as a single in the 1980s. It’s been said that “When A Man Loves a Woman” was the very first Southern soul record to top the US pop charts. Later, in his outstanding musical history book, Sweet Soul Music, Peter Guralnick wrote of the song: “Southern soul had at last entered the mainstream of pop in the unlikely guise of the ultimate make-out song.”


There are several good collections of Sledge’s hits available as single or double disc CD sets, but my favorite CD is a two-for-one collection that includes the albums The Percy Sledge Way and Take Time To Know Her, originally released in 1967 and 1968. These albums contain perfect examples of Sledge’s pleasing country-soul mastery, songs (many of which were written by the legendary Dan Penn) such as “Dark End of the Street”, “Drown in My Tears”, “Take Time to Know Her”, “Cover Me”, and “Out of Left Field.” If you don’t know these songs, you should!


And out of all his many hits, my very favorite Percy Sledge song is definitely “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road,” a tune that resonates with weariness and despair, but also hope and joy. It’s an exquisite example of sweet southern soul, something that Percy Sledge seemed to do with effortless ease and confidence. I also have a late-career album by Percy Sledge that is very good, 2004’s Shining Through the Rain. Sledge was in his 60s when these songs were recorded, but his voice still retains its power and elegance as he covers songs such as “Big Blue Diamonds” and “My Old Friend the Blues.



Tat Ein Football Club


Go to any neighborhood in any town or city around Myanmar and you will find a group of boys — including young monks — playing football, or soccer as it’s known in some parts. It’s rare that kids have access to a proper football pitch, so most games are held on an empty field or even on the street.



Whenever I visit Tat Ein village in Shan State, just down the bumpy dirt road from Nyaungshwe, I bring a football with me. Believe me, the gift of a good quality football (I usually buy them in Mandalay or Yangon where the selection is better) is much appreciated by these boys. This time I brought two balls, and there was such a demand that had to go out and bought a third football in Nyaungshwe after the novice monks requested one of their own too.



There’s no doubt that these boys love to play football, yet almost every time I would take any photographs of the action, the game would come to a complete halt and the players would ask to have their photo taken. What a bunch of hams!






People of the Land


As anyone who has traveled around Myanmar can testify, the country is packed with interesting historical sites and places to visit, not to mention the beautiful natural scenery. It’s also safe to say that the one thing that impresses visitors the most is none of those things; it’s the people of Myanmar. Polite, Friendly, Hospitable, Lovely, Kind and Caring; they are all that and more.



Here are a few photos of some of the wonderful folks that I crossed paths with on my most recent trip.





























Batu Caves & Police Stops


Earlier this year, in late January, I went to Kuala Lumpur for a few days, making my usual rounds of CD stores, bookshops, and local restaurants. While I was in town I met up with my friend Yan Naing Soe a couple of times. He’s from Myanmar (I first met him many years ago in Mandalay), but has been living in the KL area for the past two years, working for a landscaping company.


On a Sunday when he didn’t have to work he invited me to go with him and one of his Burmese friends to the famous Batu Caves, located on the outskirts of KL. In all the times I’ve been to KL I’d never visited these caves, so I was more than happy to accept the offer. To get to the cave, we decided to take the train, both for the convenience and the price. There is a station right next to the caves, plus the ticket price per person is ridiculously cheap: only 2 ringgit, which is about 20 Thai baht, or less than 1 US dollar (around 70 US cents).



On the way to the train station, however, a couple of Malaysian police officers were stopping pedestrians at random, asking to see their ID cards. It became quickly obvious to me that they were stopping anyone who looked like a “foreigner”, or more specifically migrant workers, as Yan Naing Soe and his friend were. As my friends obligingly took out their ID cards, one of the cops looked over and motioned to me that I didn’t need to stop. But I told him that I was with these two guys from Myanmar. As soon as I said that, the police officers abruptly curtailed their ID check and apologized to me for detaining my friends. A nice gesture, but I wonder how much hassle Yan Naing Soe and his friend would have had to put up with if I hadn’t been with them. Just goes to remind you of the shabby treatment and shakedowns that migrant workers must put up with in other countries. My Cambodian friend Chiet reports similar “detentions” when he is working in Thailand.



Anyway, we finally made it to the caves and I was pleasantly surprised that there was no admission charge at all. What a concept! In Thailand, just by being a foreigner, you’d be hit up for some sort of fee. Free of not, I wasn’t overly impressed with the Batu Caves. From what I saw of the area, they are more craggy rock formations than actual caves. Worthy of a few photos, but not exactly an awesome natural attraction.




In any case, this site is considered to be of great religious importance to Hindus. In fact, while we were there, several groups of Hindu devotees were making their pilgrimage to the caves. Seeing these people walking around all powdered, shaved, and dressed in colorful costumes was far more entertaining than seeing the actual caves. Of course the hordes of monkeys that prowl the stairways also had some entertainment value, but it’s not a destination that I’d be rushing back to see again real soon. If nothing else, though, the trip to Batu Caves is an inexpensive train ride and makes for a pleasant way to kill an afternoon.





What’s Cooking in Nyaungshwe?


As usual when I was in Nyaungshwe last month I dropped by to see my friends Sue and Lesley at their house. It’s always fun to catch up on things, and of course to see what’s cooking. And I mean that literally: there is always something delicious being cooked at their home.


Part of the reason for the constant cooking is that Sue and Lesly operate the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class out of their home in Nyaungshwe, offering tourists a chance to learn more about the wide array of cuisine in Myanmar, and Shan State in particular. I’ll guarantee you this: not only will you be charmed by Sue and Lesly and their gracious hospitality, but you will be VERY impressed by the tasty dishes they create. If you thought Myanmar cuisine, or Burmese food, was nothing more than oily curries and greasy snacks, prepare to be enlightened! The variety of soups, salads, noodles, and other fresh dishes that Sue and Lesly whip up in their kitchen is truly scrumptious.  The classes have become so popular with tourists that their home is sometimes too small to accommodate bigger groups, so they will occasionally hold classes and meals a little further down the road, at a scenic spot overlooking my beloved Tat Ein village.



On my last day in town — the day of my mysterious concussion! — I invited two other travelers staying at my hotel — Arnaub from India and Katarina from Los Angeles — to drop by Sue and Lesly’s house for some coffee and snacks, In addition to the cooking classes, they also offer fresh-brewed coffee, tea, and fruit juices for travelers. When we arrived, another familiar face was at the house; Pascale from France, a friend of mine who is also a frequent visitor and donor to projects around Myanmar. We had a wonderful time at Sue and Lesly’s house; friends on the road enjoying good conversation and local culinary delights!




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