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

Archive for December, 2015

Reeling in the year!

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Another year comes to a close, as we reel in the year and flip the page on the calendar, or rather toss out that dog-eared old calendar and break out a new one. To keep things in sync with 2016, here are 16 photos to greet the New Year, all taken last month when I was in Myanmar. Greetings from Shan State, Mandalay, and from my home in Bangkok: Best Wishes for a very happy and healthy New Year!

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Music CDs at Dasa in Bangkok

Well, somebody had to do it.

After several years of thinking about it, debating the pros and cons, and talking it over with my business partner, I defied conventional business wisdom and forged ahead last month, adding secondhand music CDs to the product mix at Dasa Books, my shop in Bangkok.

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My decision to “try it and see what happens” has pretty much been my way of doing business. Throughout more than thirty years of managing or owning various retail businesses, I have consistently defied conventional wisdom and simply done what I wanted, or what I thought customers might want, regardless of popularity or trends. I’ve found that if you cater to a niche market and know your product you can succeed.  And CDs have become one such niche market. But nowadays, even in a city as large and cosmopolitan as Bangkok, finding a good selection of music on CD, either new or secondhand, is becoming more and more difficult. Frankly, the selection in local shops sucks. To find CDs that I want, I have to either buy them when I go to Kuala Lumpur (where the Rock Corner branches still have a good selection) or order from online dealers.

Statistics in recent years show that CD sales are declining, of that there is no doubt. Thus many “experts” have declared that CDs are now obsolete, convinced that all music lovers are suddenly going to abandon their CD collection and start downloading and streaming music instead of buying actual discs. Well, hold on there, all you geniuses, maybe that’s not quite the case. Many music addicts still prefer buying and listening to music on compact disc. You can weigh the pros and cons of CDs versus vinyl, or even throw in downloads into the argument, but the fact remains that many people who buy and collect music still want CDs.

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So yeah, I like CDs, and I buy several hundred each year to satisfy my addiction, but I am a dying breed? I was excited about finally selling music in my shop, but frankly I wasn’t sure how much of a demand that there would be for CDs. If you listen to all those experts and doomsayers, they will tell you that digital is the future and “nobody buys CDs anymore.”

Thankfully, I discovered that’s not the case. We started selling CDs in mid-November, and for our opening stock I plucked about 500 “non-essential” CDs from my personal collection (How many do I still have? Let’s just say that didn’t make much of a dent in my collection!). Since that time the stock has continued to grow as customers have sold us more discs. We now have over 1,300 CDs in stock and the total would be higher, but a strange thing happened: we’ve already sold nearly 400 of the darn things! No market for CDs in this digital age? I beg to differ. Needless to say, I’m happy with the CD sales thus far, and judging from the feedback we’ve gotten, many diehard music lovers are very happy and excited to have another place in Bangkok to buy CDs.

Meanwhile, here are the CDs that I’ve been playing a lot at home and at work recently, reading to close out this year with a sonic bang!

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Les Ambassadeurs du Hotel de Bamako

Lee Hazlewood – Poet, Fool or Bum/Back on the Street Again

The Idle Race – Back to the Story

Ryley Walker – Primrose Green

Wet Willie – Manorisms/Which One’s Willie?

 

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Various Artists – Detroit Funk Vaults: Funk and Soul From Dave Hamilton 1968-79

Leon Ware – Moon Ride

Shawn Colvin – Uncovered

Game Theory – Real Nighttime (30th Anniversary Edition)

Various Artists – Loose Funk: Rare Soul from Sound Stage 7 Records

 

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Various Artists – Haiti Direct

Frankie Lee – American Dreamer

Continental Drifters – Drifted: In the Beginning &  Beyond

Neil Diamond – The Bang Years 1966-1968

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – The Travelling Kind

 

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Hot Tuna – Burgers

Various Artists – Super Funk 3

Justin Townes Earle – Single Mothers

Bombay Bicycle Club – A Different Kind of Fix

Jeff Lynne’s ELO – Alone in the Universe

 

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Passion Pit – Kindred

Red Garland Quintet – Soul Junction

Icehouse – Man of Colours

Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band – Stranger in Town

Bob Welch – French Kiss

 

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Squeeze – Cradle to the Grave

Goldberg – Misty Flats

Various Artists – Step Inside My Soul

Catherine Howe – What a Beautiful Place

Jefferson Starship – Red Octopus

 

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Funk Inc. – Hangin’ Out/Superfunk

The 9th Creation – Bubble Gum

Marlena Shaw – The Spice of Life

Various Artists – Los Angeles Soul: Kent-Modern’s Legacy 1962-71

Johnny Hammond – Gears/Forever Taurus

 

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Various Artists – In Perfect Harmony: Sweet Soul Groups 1968-77

Tame Impala – Lonerism

Roy Wood – The Wizzard

Various Artists – Howie B: Another Late Night

Todd Rundgren & Emil Nikolaisen– Runddans

 

Thailand’s Migrant Trials

The big news in Thailand this past week, as well as in Myanmar, was the announcement that a Thai court had found two migrant workers from Myanmar guilty of the murder last year of two young British tourists on the island of Koh Tao. The two men were sentenced to death by a curiously “unnamed” Thai judge.

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The verdict has been viewed as a dubious one by people familiar with the case, and has resulted in mass protests by outraged Myanmar citizens outside the Thai Embassy in Yangon and at towns straddling the border of both countries the past two days. Several organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Migrant Worker Rights Network have called for the court’s ruling to be reviewed.

Anyone who has followed this trial from the outset is well aware of the inconsistencies in the case, not to mention the sloppy way that the Thai authorities handled, collected, and processed the evidence. You can read elsewhere about these issues, suffice to say it raises a lot of doubts.

If was only after two weeks of investigation, missteps, and mounting pressure to find those guilty of the murders that the police officers on the tiny island of Koh Tao amazingly decided that these two workers from Myanmar had committed the crimes. I have no idea if these two young men (who are both 22 years of age) are guilty or not. But based on the “evidence” divulged in the media, and factoring in the accusations that the two suspects were beaten and tortured by police during interrogations, and you have a lot of room for doubt about what really happened.

But one thing of which there is no doubt is there are serious problems with the way that migrant workers are treated in Thailand’s criminal justice system. The operative strategy seems to be: when in doubt, blame the foreigner. I think it’s safe to say that virtually the entire Myanmar migrant community believes that these two men are innocent, and were made scapegoats and framed for the murders. Based on their experiences in Thailand and the way they have been mistreated by police officers and authorities in the past, most migrant workers from Myanmar are inclined to believe that this is another example of one of their own being blamed for something that they didn’t do.

In yet another recent case, highlighted in Sunday’s edition of the Bangkok Post, four young men from Myanmar have been accused of murdering a 17-year-old Thai woman in Ranong three months ago. Once again, there are allegations that Thai police used “brutal and intimidating tactics” to force confessions from the Myanmar migrant workers, two of whom are believed to be underage, having lied about their age in order to get the coveted work permits.

And so it goes. And unfortunately it still does.

 

A Bridge Too Crowded

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My recent trip to Mandalay also coincided with my birthday. I didn’t have any big auspicious plans for that day, except for one wish: I wanted to see the sunset at U Bein Bridge in nearby Amarapura. My friend Ye Man Oo arranged for his father to take us — along with his brother, cousin, and a few other friends — to the bridge that afternoon. We all piled into the back of the pickup truck and thirty minutes later we were at the bridge.

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I’ve been to U Bein Bridge five or six times already, but I never tire of the experience. I’m always charmed by the quaint old structure (supposedly the world’s longest teakwood bridge), the steady flow of pedestrians (along with a few bicycles, but no motor vehicles are allowed) going from one side of the lake to the other, and the lovely scenery. People fishing off the bridge, taking photos (and these days, the inevitable “selfie”), and watching the world go by.

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But this time, I was disturbed to note that the usual tranquil atmosphere had been displaced by hordes of tourists, both locals and foreigners, who had descended upon the bridge. Honestly, I felt like I was back at one of Angkor’s more popular temples; the place so overrun by visitors that you couldn’t stop and take a photo for fear of being trampled. I’m not exaggerating; it was that crowded. The other odd aspect was that the water level in the lake was very, very low; the lowest I’ve ever seen it. I didn’t notice a single person fishing this time, and frankly there weren’t many spots where someone even could fish. Most of the land beneath the bridge was high and dry, and there were even a few enterprising farmers plowing fields under it!

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In past visits my strategy was usually to walk across the bridge to the village on the other side, and then hire a row boat to take us back again. But this time, due to the plethora of tourists, there were no boats available. And of course nearly all of those tourists had requested that their boat wait on the east side of the bridge until sundown so that they could photograph the iconic structure as the sun set. Still a lovely sight … but be ready for the crunch!

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Field of Monks

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Okay, these photos weren’t taken at a real field, at least not a plush expanse of fertile green land with crops growing and weeds sprouting. Instead, this was the dusty playground outside the primary school in Shan State’s Tat Ein village. In retrospect — with apologies to Paul Simon — maybe I should have titled the post: “Me and Htun Pyu Down by the School Yard.”

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Classes were already finished for the day, and the novice monks were making the most of their free time, flying kites and running around when I cycled up the hill late in the afternoon. But I didn’t show up empty-handed. I brought them a shiny new football, which only ramped up their energy level and enthusiasm even more. And as usual, once I took the camera out of my bag, the endless request for photos began. Here are the happy results!

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Dancing in the Shan State Moonlight

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It was the full moon night in late November, a period known as Tazaungdaing in Myanmar, and also the time of a very popular annual festival. My friend Ma Pu Sue, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaungshwe with her husband Lesly, decided to throw a very memorable party that night at her home.

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Not only did Sue and Lesly prepare a very tasty spread of food — grilled fish, seasonal salads, and two varieties of sticky rice — but the invited guests were treated to a live traditional Shan band, complete with a knife dancer. The locals mixed with the foreigners — guests from France, the Netherlands, Kenya, and the USA — and everyone pretty much danced all night.

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The wine and whiskey were flowing — or in some cases with Lesly pouring the contents of a bottle down the throats of a few eager local fellows — as the guests were smiling and dancing the night away. Isabelle from France had a flock of young neighborhood girls mimicking her every choreographed dance move and when she finally sat down to take a break, a couple of the girls started copying my more rather freestyle moves! Better that, I guess, than trying to copy the moves of the boy who had been dancing with the two long knives!

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A few hours later, the band had stopped playing, the knife boy was dancing with the rest of us (thankfully, without those knives!), and a few of the more inebriated men had to be propped up against the wall of Sue’s new guest room so that nobody would trip over them. All things considered, it was another fabulous night under the moonlight in Nyaungshwe’s lovely Shan State.

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The Migrant Worker’s Plight

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A friend of mine from Texas was visiting Bangkok last month and one night we met for dinner at a Korean restaurant near his hotel. Imagine my surprise — and delight — to discover that all of the waiters at this restaurant were from Myanmar! The food was decent enough but the service from these waiters was outstanding. Of course that fact that I can speak some Burmese no doubt helped to endear me to the staff. Once they discovered that I knew some Myanmar zaga, they became MUCH more conversational. My friend and I were so impressed by the service that we went back the following week, and I’ve returned with other friends on two more occasions. Needless to say, the crew recognizes me now and instead of the usual greeting in Thai, I’ve earned a mingaglaba and lengthy conversations.

The young men (and at least one woman in the kitchen!) at this restaurant are among the millions of citizens from Myanmar who are working overseas, most of them in nearby countries such as Thailand and Malaysia. Migrant workers from Myanmar have been in the news again recently, in a very negative way, with wire service reports claiming that workers at some seafood factories in Thailand have to endure slave-like conditions, working 16-hour days with no holiday time off and for paltry wages.

That’s obviously the darkest of the dark side of the migrant worker situation in this part of the world. While there is no denying that some migrant workers have to suffer through horrible working conditions, most of the foreign workers (from countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos) in Thailand are fairly content with their situation. Their salaries are usually lower than what a Thai worker would receive for the same minimum wage job, and they often are not eligible for health care benefits or holiday overtime wages, and yet compared to what they would make at a similar job — if they could find one — in their native country the employment situation in Thailand is much, much better.

One of my best friends, Chiet, is from Cambodia and he has been working as a welder at various construction projects in the greater Bangkok area for the past three years. I always ask him if he plans on going back to Cambodia and his answer is always the same: “No, I want to stay here. I can make more money and life is easier.”

Sure, he misses his friends and family, but life is difficult for young people in Cambodia, especially those like him that don’t have much education. And the same goes for people in Myanmar. Despite the great strides in “opening up” the country and holding elections and making cell phones affordable for the masses, the economy is still sputtering, the cost of living is rising, and the wages for basic jobs are very, very low. Thus, many Burmese people like the waiters I know at this Korean restaurant continue to seek employment in Thailand and other countries.

Another friend, Yan Naing Soe, called me earlier tonight. I first met him at a teashop in Mandalay many years ago but he’s been working for a landscaping company in Malaysia for the past two years. A few months ago he moved back to Myanmar and is now working in the town of Muse, on the border with China. Although most people have never heard of Muse, it is a bustling trade center and the country’s main gateway to China (near Yunnan Province). For young men like Yan Naing Soe, if there are job opportunities in places like Muse or Malaysia, that’s what you do and where you go.

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One aspect of the migrant workers that gets mentioned frequently is the so-called problem of underage workers in factories. Frankly, I think that’s something that the authorities should be much more lenient about. The reality of the situation is that many young people in poor Southeast countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos — and even in “wealthy” Thailand — stop going to school in their early to mid teens. Are you telling me that you are going to forbid a 15-year old who is trying to earn money to help support their family from working? What are their options? I mean, let’s be realistic. Sure, in an ideal world they would stay in school until they are 18 years-old, but we don’t live in such an ideal world, and even the definition of what is ideal or proper is not the same in every country or culture. This insistence on employing only those who are 18 or older is sheer nonsense.

When I was in Mandalay last month a friend took me to his father’s shoe shop, a little neighborhood place where they make handmade sandals for men and women. There were several “underage” children working in this shop, but the conditions were not “slave-like” or abysmal whatsoever. Granted, this was a tiny business and most of these kids were either relatives or neighborhood friends who wanted to work, so it wouldn’t be fair to compare their situation to that of a factory worker in Thailand. And yet there are parallels. People need work, they want to work, and they should be able to do that.

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Meanwhile my Cambodian friend Chiet is looking for another job in Thailand. His last employer docked his wages for missing a week of work and he’s not happy about that. But it’s not like Chiet was goofing off or had gone back home without authorization. His leg became infected from some pieces of cut glass at the work site and he had to go to a hospital in Bangkok to get treated. And who paid for this treatment? Me of course! I shudder to think what would have happened to his leg if he had not promptly received proper medical care.

So yeah, the treatment of migrant workers in Thailand and elsewhere could still be a lot, lot better. But don’t forget that for the majority of those working in Thailand, like the waiters at the Korean restaurant, having a job enables them to earn enough money for themselves and to send funds back to their families.

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