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

Archive for May, 2015

Neil Young at Night

I’ve been going through another Neil Young phase again recently, which as far as I’m concerned, is a very good thing. Sure, he’s had his career ups and downs, but the majority of his recording output is wonderful and I find that even the so-called missteps are fascinating and fun to listen to. For some reason, I prefer playing his albums at night, after I get off work. Two relatively new entries in his burgeoning catalogue are the ones getting the most play at my place lately.

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Live At the Cellar Door is a recently unearthed and released solo recording from 1970, culled from three shows that Neil did at the famous club. It’s just Neil by himself — his band Crazy Horse doesn’t appear on this one. Neil sounds young and almost giddy at times as he introduces the songs, sometimes veering off into a spiel about something weird. But when he’s playing the songs, armed only with an acoustic guitar or playing the piano, he truly shines. Neil’s voice has always been one of those love it or hate sorts of things. Personally, I like it a lot, believing his vocals have proper amount of passion and sincerity to elevate these songs to greatness. And great ones they are, classic songs from his early years such as; Tell My Why, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, After the Goldrush, Expecting to Fly, Old Man, Birds, Don’t Let It Bring You Down, See the Sky About to Cry, Cinnamon Girl, I Am a Child, Down By the River, Flying On the Ground is Wrong. Listen to these songs and prepare to marvel; all over again: this is just pure songwriting excellence. In my book, or on my stereo, it doesn’t get much better than this. Great tunes and the sound quality is surprisingly very high for such an old club recording. Go ahead and sing along.

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The sound quality, however, isn’t so good on A Letter Home — but that was the whole point. The album, recorded and released last year, was recorded in a refurbished 1947 Voice-a-Graph recording booth — a tiny unit that resembles a phone booth. It’s certainly not state-of-the-art sound, which may bother some of the pickier listeners out there, but if they ignore this album just for that reason, they are nothing but idiots anyway.

For A Letter Home Neil recorded a whole set of covers and played it all on his acoustic guitar. It’s a very stripped-down sound, not only due to the sparse instrumentation but also due to the way it was recorded in that old booth. It’s akin to listening to a vintage 78 rpm record; snaps, crackles, pops and all. So, no, this one will certainly not appeal to the audiophile crowd, but once again, I think that’s one of the cool things about this album. This is Neil’s genius working at full throttle, and the rough nature of the recording process only enhances the emotional power of the songs.

The song choices alone are brilliant, covers of tunes by Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Bert Jansch, Don Everly, Bruce Springsteen, and Ivory Joe Hunter, plus two songs each by Willie Nelson and Gordon Lightfoot. Besides all the cover tunes, the theme of the album is indeed “a letter home,” that being a musical message to Neil’s late mother. The spoken word asides to “Mom” at several points in the recording border on hokey, or just plain annoying, but hey, it’s Neil’s concept, so the more power to him. Unlike the Cellar Door recording, this isn’t vintage Neil Young, but it’s still mighty satisfying.

Burmese Roadside Scenes & Snacks

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Here is an odd, but hopefully interesting mix of photos that I took in Myanmar earlier this year. Not your typical tourist hotspots, but scenes from the roadside and beyond. Normal, everyday things and places, and of course some tasty treats to eat!
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Kung-Fu Monks!

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Back at the monastery, everyone was kung-fu fighting! Sorry, apologies to Carl Douglas and Casey Kasem for that one, but I couldn’t resist!

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As it turns out, though, the novice monks at Tat Ein’s small monastery are indeed martial arts fans — having watched a few Jet Li films in their young lives — and a little spirited kung-fu poses, thankfully free from any real fighting, were the order of the day when I stopped by one afternoon in early March. Man, these kids constantly crack me up. Hey, Saing Aung, watch that arm!

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Friends on the Road

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I’m getting closer to the bottom of my most recent Myanmar photo vault, and here are a few more images from my last trip. Looking back at these photos of so many happy faces brings a smile to my own face. I’m looking forward to seeing these fine folks again soon … very, very soon!

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Yes, another trip is about to happen. I’ve been feeling so burned out in Bangkok lately; working too much and annoyed at all the clueless idiots playing with their smart phones every waking hour of the day. All I can say is that it’s a good thing I don’t own any firearms. Suffice to say, I need a break, not to mention a change of scenery, and a trip to Myanmar is just what the doctor ordered. Shan State ain’t quite like Luckenbach, Texas, but the idea is pretty much the same: back to the basics of life. I can’t wait.

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Nyaungshwe’s Market Morning

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One of my favorite things to do when I’m in the Shan State town of Nyaungshwe is visiting the morning market. Actually, it’s open in the afternoon too, but mornings are when the market is truly alive and bustling. I love the sights and sounds and smells of the market, not to mention the vibrant colors, contrasts, and textures of the vegetables and spices. And of course none of it would be as interesting without the variety of local people — many of them from neighboring villages and hill tribes — who come to shop or sell items here.

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Due to the fact that the market is a popular shopping destination — particularly on the weekly “market day” when the market volume surges with the presence of additional vendors — and is now a lure for camera-toting tourists too, it can get rather cramped and crowded in the narrow aisles most days. But hey, the tight squeeze is all part of the unique charm and atmosphere, right? If some of the food looks tasty, don’t be shy; many of the vendors will let you sample their wares!

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Going to the market in the morning is also part of Ma Pu Sue’s schedule when she holds sessions at her Bamboo Delight Cooking Class. Sue will bring her clients to the market and explain how various fruits, vegetables, and spices are used in preparing local dishes. After the shopping is complete, Sue brings the crew back to her home where they cook up a full meal, and last but not least, enjoy eating the fruits of their labor by consuming the cooked dishes. And it all starts here, at Nyaungshwe’s colorful market. If you’re in town, don’t miss it!

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Meet the Monks!

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It was time, way past time. I’d been hanging out with these novice monks at the monastery in Tat Ein village for several days, but I hadn’t learned any of their names. And some of these boys weren’t new faces; several of them had been at the monastery the previous year, and a few were around the year before that. This time there were only nineteen novice monks in residence, about half the number as last time, so I decided to do an exercise one afternoon and learn the name of each monk.

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I had them all line up and write their name in my notebook. Next to their name, which they all wrote in Burmese, I wrote down what sounded like their name so I could remember it. To make sure that I could match the names with the faces, I took a photo of each monk. So, here they are; the novice monks of Tat Ein monastery!

 

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Htun Phyu

 

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Pa Kyay

 

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Soe Nyaunt

 

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Own Maung

 

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Hla Kham

 

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Htet Lu

 

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Tun Wei

 

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Zaw Oo

 

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Saing Bwee

 

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Nay Win Tun

 

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Aung Thaung

 

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Myaung Myat

 

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Kun Tun Han

 

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Kyaw Kham

 

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Saing Aung

 

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Saing Ko

 

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Ye Naing

 

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Maung Bauk

 

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Children Love Books!

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This month marks the 11th Anniversary of Dasa Books, my bookshop in Bangkok. Time flies by, indeed! Seems like only a few months ago that I was scrambling to find enough books to fill the shelves, and now we have over 17,000 books in stock, covering three floors of store space. And if we had the option, we could certainly expand to another floor; the books never stop.

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And that’s a good thing; people are always coming in to sell or exchange books, so there is a healthy amount of interesting new titles being stocked every day. And the other good thing is that people are still reading books — and importantly from my perspective, they are still buying books. Despite all the doom and gloom about bookshops closing and customers “converting” to some sort of e-reader, I see tons of people still opting for real books. Thankfully, my business continues to grow each year, which gives me more confidence to keep stocking the shelves with more titles. In my mind, there is no such thing as “too many books.” Never enough is more like it!

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I’ve learned a lot of about books over the past eleven years, particularly in areas that I didn’t know much about previously, such as children’s books. One of the most gratifying aspects of running a bookshop is seeing the new generation of kids enjoying books. You’ve got to love the parents that take the time to pass the love of reading on to their children. It’s so cool to see kids who get excited when they come to my shop and pick out books they want to read. There’s one little boy named Astor, who is six years old, but he’s already a veteran book buyer. He and his father David come in at least once a month and pick out a bunch of books to read. I listen to Astor as he reads out loud, and David will help explain any difficult words. Right now Astor is going through a dinosaur phase. It will be fun to see what strikes his fancy next year … or ten years from now. From what I’ve seen, once a child has developed a reading habit, it’s not something they stop.

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So cheers to all the book-loving children and their supportive parents. Long may you read!

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Shan Birthday Girl

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When I arrived in the Shan State town of Nyaunghwe back in early March, once I was settled in my hotel room, I slipped into a longyi and immediately headed outside. My first stop was to Golden Bowl Travel & Bookshop to rent a bike and chat with the owner, Mar Mar Aye. She’s a wonderful lady and almost single-handedly runs the shop.

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It turned out that I arrived on an auspicious day; it was her daughter Tina’s birthday. They were planning a celebratory dinner at a local restaurant that night, and Mar Mar Aye graciously invited me to join them. I asked if I could bring anything, but Mar Mar Aye told me that presents were not necessary. However, I suggested that I could buy the birthday cake. That idea, at least, met with approval!

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The restaurant that we went to, Pwe Daw Win, is a recently opened place on Yone Gyi Road, about a kilometer east of Golden Bowl and the central market area, not far from the road that leads to Tat Ein village. We rode our bikes to the restaurant T about seven o’clock that night, where we met another family friend, Lwan Moe Aung, who is a local trekking guide. At Pwe Daw Win you have the option of eating in the main dining room or one of the cute little open-air private huts (for lack of a better word). We opted for a hut, Mar Mar Aye ordered the food, and soon the feast began!

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Tina couldn’t wait to get to the cake: she started cutting it up and serving it even before all the main courses had arrived! Hey, whatever floats your boat, right? I certainly didn’t complain. The cake, luckily, was quite testy, and so was the rest of the food at Pwe Daw Win. Good food and good friends; needless to say it was a very good evening!

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While the teacher is away …

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Back in Shan State’s Tat Ein village, the summer break had just started by the time I arrived, thus there were no classes being held at the primary school. But that didn’t stop all classroom activity! While the teachers were away, some of the kids decided to take over the classroom and have some fun of their own one afternoon.

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In case you were expecting tales of wanton mischief, a graffiti party or vandalism, nothing of the sort occurred. Basically, the kids — mostly novice monks and other male students — were well behaved; goofy as could be, but never out of control. About the wildest thing I witnessed was one novice monk playfully threatening another monk with a long measuring stick.

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And yes, those novice monks — known as ko yin in these parts — were clearly having a great time playing teacher and hamming it up. The younger monks also take classes here when school is in session, so the room was a familiar place for them. Some of the more restrained boys stayed in their seats and watched the action, while the more mischievous ones ran around and dreamed up more silly photo ideas.

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Meanwhile, a group of girls was gathered in the back of the classroom, distancing themselves from the notorious ko yin and waiting for a lull in the action, hoping the monks would cease their nutty ways long enough for them to get their picture taken too. Happily, that’s just what happened!

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When in doubt, rely on the Monks

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I’m feeling bored and depressed this week, listless and uninspired. But I felt like I needed to post something, anything, before the week wound down to a close, so I came up with an answer: monks!

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Yes, when in doubt, rely on the monks. And on that note, here are more monk photos from my last trip Myanmar. And believe me; I have several hundred more that I haven’t even finished editing yet, so this won’t be the last by any means. So, without further delay, here are some pictures of those delightful novice monks from Tat Ein monastery in Shan State.

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