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

Archive for January, 2017

Books! Chinese! Trump! Madness!


Looking at the calendar, it’s suddenly obvious that this month is almost finished! Damn, another manic, whirlwind thirty days. Business has very brisk at my bookshop in Bangkok, so busy that I rarely have time to even sit down read a book myself when I’m in the shop most days. When it’s time to close up, all I want to do is go home and drink a couple of cold beers and try to unwind after another stressful day.


Traditionally, the year-end holidays are always busy for us, but that heightened period of retail activity extends to the Chinese New Year — or Lunar New Year — period in late January or early February, depending on the lunar cycle. This year has been no exception, with regular customers combined with hordes of tourists passing through Bangkok, either spending time in Thailand or in transit to a neighboring country.  And it’s not, as you might assume, a lot of Chinese. Yes, there are indeed many tourists from Mainland China and even Hong Kong and Taiwan, but this holiday period is also observed in countries in the region such as Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and even Vietnam and residents of those countries also travel during this time. And it’s not just natives of those countries, but foreigners working in those countries that are getting a long holiday break and many are spending it in Thailand.


This time of year I also see the usual throngs of Western tourists, many of them who are making an annual visit to Thailand. It’s fun to see these once-a-year regulars and catch up on how they are doing. Holidays or not, the trend I’ve noticed in the past year is a noticeable increase in the number of Asian customers in my bookshop. And it’s interesting to note that many of these Asians are reading and buying English language books. And in these dark days of Trumpovich and his evil regime, the fact that people in other countries — yes, Muslims included! — are looking for English language books and reading them and buying them, is a very encouraging sign.


The seemingly illiterate Trump and his evil cronies might be intent on cutting themselves off from the rest of the world, and trying to make America white again (that is what he means, right?), but the rest of us — those with working brains — will carry on, trying to pursue our hopes and dreams, and reading good books!



Cycling Shan State’s Country Roads


One of my favorite things to do when I’m in the Shan State town of Nyaung Shwe is just hop on my bike and pedal around town, or more often out of town, hitting the dusty and bumpy country roads.



Some roads in the area are paved, and some are not, and some might better be called lanes or paths, as they meander through rice fields and up hills. Wherever I wander, however, the scenery is invariably splendid. Not many people in these parts, at least it’s not congested like back in Bangkok, but there are always friendly, smiling children out playing and waving, monks making their alms rounds (or you might see the younger novice monks also out playing), and sometimes a stubborn farm animal camped out on the road.





On my last trip I had Ye Man Oo from Mandalay with me, and thankfully he proved to be a good cycling companion, keeping pace with me no matter where I decided to venture, although, admittedly, we both had to dismount and walk our bikes up the big hill leading to Tat Ein village! But there is a “refueling” rest spot at the top of the hill, halfway to the village, complete with free drinking water, so that made the trek easier.





We rented our bikes from Aye Aye Travel Services in Nyaung Shwe, located in the same building as Chinlone Books. No flat tires and the brakes were good too; what more can you ask for!







Monks Keeping Warm in Chilly Shan State


Back in the hills of Shan State, in the village of Tat Ein near Nyaung Shwe, it’s a bit chilly this month. It was also chilly last month, and the month before. Sure, it’s “that time of year”, but this area is also at a much higher elevation than other parts of Myanmar, helping to ensure that the cold lingers longer.




On the suggestion of my friend Ma Pu Sue, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaung Shwe, I bought several dozen pairs of socks for the novice monks — and the senior monks — at Tat Ein’s monastery. We figured the socks would help keep their feet warm during those cold winter nights.




Ye Man Oo, a friend from Mandalay who is helping me organize the books at Chinlone Books in Nyaung Shwe, and I carried the load of socks to the monastery, along with a football, a volleyball, cane balls used for playing chinlone, and some kites for the monks. Our bags were full during the bike ride to the village, but upon arrival, we were able to quickly distribute the bounty to the eager novices.




Warm feet and happy hearts; the perfect combination!













New Year Reflections


Another New Year is here, which inevitably leads to reflection, resolutions, setting goals, and all those sorts of “start-the-year-anew” things. I’m just glad the idiotic Christmas season is finally over. Even here in Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country, you can’t escape the people wishing you a “Merry Christmas.” Okay, I realize that most of them mean well, but don’t they have working brains? Why do they I assume that I’m a Christian and/or that I celebrate Christmas simply because I’m a Westerner? I can forgive the Thais, who seem to think that Christmas is nothing more than another festive Western tradition, but I have to wonder about the mentality of the Westerners who so blithely assault you with their inane Christmas cheer. Enough already!

This past year has been a difficult one for me, at least in terms of enjoying life in Thailand. I’ve lived in Bangkok for almost 21 years, but the charm and appeal of day-to-life has definitely faded. Maybe the “honeymoon” is finally over, or perhaps my tolerance for Thais and their “mai pen rai” way of living has finally been exhausted.

Having to “manage” Thai employees has been the real test, a particularly exhausting exercise in patience. Most days I feel like a glorified babysitter, having to monitor these people and dealing with their habitual tardiness, inefficiency, and immature behavior. Turn my back for a single minute and they are playing with their “smart” phone or engaged in idle chatter. I’m not sure how  much longer I can put up with it all.

Actually, I still like Thai people. They are a pleasant, fun, laidback bunch of people — it’s just that I don’t especially like working with them! But I have to remind myself that it’s not all bad — and they aren’t all bad. I see nice people doing nice things every day, and it puts a smile on my face. And I also have to remind myself that I’m living in a city where the cost of living is still relatively low, there aren’t serious safety concerns, and there are a plethora of inexpensive transportation options available. Yes, for all is faults and warts, chaos and congestion, Bangkok remains a very nice place to live. I doubt I would be saying that if I was still living in the USA.

And so I remain in the sanctuary of my bookshop, enjoying the parade of interesting and genuinely kind customers who pass through each day. Just in the past few days, I’ve had nice conversations with regulars such as Phra Ratha (the book-buying monk with a burgeoning library), Sam the Thai Neil Young fan, Jim from Nashville, the nice Canadian lady (then again, aren’t all people from Canada nice?) who will buy a dozen books at a time, Robert from South Dakota, Daniel from New Zealand, Christopher G. Moore the writer, John from Sheffield, Kenny the Walter Mosley fan, Pumas from India, and many other nice but nameless customers. Some days are stressful and it can get insanely busy, but the cool customers help to make the occasional chaos tolerable.

I’m also thankful for the mails or phone calls from old friends that I’ve received this past week: my old boss Richard (who is now in the Philippines), Richard in Dallas, Linda in California, Hach and Pov in Cambodia, Janet in Seattle, Ye Man Oo and Hein Yar Zar in Mandalay, Chiet in Nontaburi (by way of Cambodia), Khin Nwe Lwin in Japan, Keith in London (who was in Istanbul this past week, but luckily not in harm’s way), Thay in Siem Reap, Mar Mar Aye in Nyaung Shwe, and my dependable Florida friends Tony, Dave, and Stan. Suddenly the year ahead — facing the frightening prospect of Donald Trump leading the world’s most powerful nation — doesn’t seem quite so depressing. Then again, buckle up and prepare for the worst!

This morning I was pleasantly surprised to see my old friend Bay at the motorcycle taxi stand near my apartment. He’d been “missing” for the past six months — gone back to his home province, presumably — and I was getting worried, so having him back in town and working as usual was a sign that things are perhaps back to normal.

Normal? I’m not even sure what this is anymore, but here’s hoping for a year that is decidedly less cruel, violent, and heartbreaking.


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