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

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Comfort of Kuala Lumpur

I don’t travel much anymore. Really, I’ve pretty much lost the urge for adventure and seeing famous sights. And when I do travel somewhere, domestically or overseas, my goal is simply to relax.

Thus, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia has become one of my very favorite cities to visit. It’s only a 2-hour flight from my home in Bangkok to get there, and upon arrival the customs and visa process is refreshingly easy and efficient. Going from the airport into the heart of KL is also painless thanks of the handy KLIA train link. Once again, fast and efficient.

When I’m in KL I pretty much stick to the same routine: eating and shopping. The culinary treats could be local Malaysian dishes or excellent Indian, Burmese or Vietnamese food. Fancy a good steak? There is The Ship or the venerable Coliseum. Plenty of sumptuous choices for any appetite.

As for the shopping I only have two targets: books and CDs. Since the demise of the Rock Corner chain last year the best place to find new CDs is the Victoria Music outlet in the Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya. For secondhand CDs, Amcorp Mall is also the best hunting grounds. There is a great little shop on the basement level of the mall, and on weekends there are several dealers who ply their trade at the mall’s indoor flea market. More on those goodies in a later post.

For books, the weekend flea market at Amcorp Mall also has a decent assortment of dealers, but the best buys are actually new books at one of the BookXcess branches. I think they now have 6 branches in the greater KL area, but I  usually peruse the shelves at the large outlet in the Amcorp Mall and I’m also fond of the newer location at Fahrenheit in Bukit Bintang. At BookXcess they sell “remainders” at dirt cheap prices and the selection is very good. If you want newer new books, you can try the huge Kinokuniya branch in KLCC.

Getting around Kuala Lumpur and suburbs such as Petaling Jaya is also a breeze thanks to the various electric train links, subway and monorail, all conveniently accessed by a single ticket. I wish Bangkok would get it together and offer their multiple train links on a similar single ticket. Sigh. Maybe in my lifetime it will happen.

I also love just walking around KL and admiring the modern architecture and the mosques and temples, plus bursts of colorful graffiti and crumbling older buildings, most of which I think may not be around much longer. The last few years has seen a construction boom all around KL. I almost feel dizzy looking around at the sea of construction cranes and building skeletons reaching towards the skies. What’s fueling all this construction I wonder?

I’ve also grown to like the people in KL. They are not as overtly “smiley” as the locals in Thailand or Myanmar, but I find them to be very honest and helpful. It’s an interesting mix of cultures, nationalities, and religions. Sure, you can’t ignore the predominant Muslim influence in the country, but there is also a strong Hindu and Buddhist presence too. Take the native Malays, Indians, those with Chinese heritage, and immigrants from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and other Asian countries, and you have a diverse and dynamic cultural mix. Not to mention lots of great restaurants. I’m already looking forward to my next visit!

 

My New Favorite Author: Fredrik Backman

I had casually noticed books by Fredrik Backman in my bookshop many times over the past year or two, but had never thought to actually take the time to read one until recently. I’ve now read two of his novels — A Man Call Ove and Britt-Marie Was Here — and now I’m hooked. So much so, that I just bought two more books and have another two on my “to buy” list. I think he’s that good.

No doubt the high-brow literary pundits will scoff at the appeal of Backman’s feel-good novels but for readers like me — and apparently his fans now number in the millions around the world — these books are simply magical.

 

So, what’s the appeal? “Magical” is an overused adjective, but it really does succinctly sum up the power of these novels. Take an unlikely elderly protagonist, surround him or her with an equally unlikely cast of misfits, and the results are both comical and compelling.

It would take an arsenal of adjectives to properly describe Backman’s style, but the books are alternately funny and sad, delightful and thought-provoking, profoundly deep and easy to read. Basically, they are inspirational and life-affirming stories, the sort of book that will make you think differently about other people, not to mention yourself. I alternated between laughter and tears while reading the first two books, not ashamed to admit that I had to wipe my eyes many times after profusely shedding tears.

 

This is not my typical literary diet of crime fiction or travel tales, but something far more moving and soul-searching. And at this point in my life I need that. I’m ready for the next one.

Chinlone Books Opens in Mandalay

Next time you hear someone complain that there are no good secondhand bookshops in Myanmar, tell them about Chinlone Books, which just opened their biggest and best branch yet in Mandalay. Not only is it one of the very few bookshops in Myanmar, it’s a very good one too!

After opening their first branch last year in the Shan State town of Nyaung Shwe (located inside Aye Aye Travel), Chinlone Books decided to take a really big step and open up a proper bookshop in Central Mandalay. This took many months (well, a few years, all things considered) of planning, but earlier this month Ye Man Oo and his father, U Khin Maung Lwin, finally got the doors open!

Chinlone Books in Mandalay is not your typically disorderly secondhand bookshop that one finds so often in Southeast Asia. Instead, this is a very well organized, and surprisingly well stocked bookshop. They have a variety of fiction and non-fiction books in stock, including many books about Myanmar and Burmese history. They are also well-stocked with plenty of dictionaries and phrase books, and also have many titles for children, students, and young adults. In a cooking mood? They have plenty of books about cookery too.

In addition to books in English, they also stock books in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish and other Nordic languages. You might even find some Japanese, Turkish and Portuguese books if you look hard enough. And now that the shop is officially open, you can only expect the stock to grow and grow.

This has been a difficult and turbulent year for Myanmar, highlighted by the much-publicized problems in Rakhine State. Expectations for tourist arrivals are now much lower than expected at this time last year. Knowing that he can’t depend on a dwindling number of tourists to stay afloat, Ye Man Oo has astutely decided to also cater to the local market. You might be surprised or not, but a growing number of people in Myanmar enjoy reading books in English. In addition to adults and students (Mandalay is also home to an international school and several universities), Chinlone books also has some teachers and monks as regular customers. As any visitor to Myanmar soon discovers, the locals are incredibly curious and motivated people, and having a resource such as a secondhand bookshop in Mandalay, has been a delightful surprise for many.

Chinlone Books is located on 82 Street, between 33 and 34 Streets, just around the corner from the Hotel Queen, and within walking distance of the famous Zeigyo Market and Aye Mtyi Tar restaurant (which is on 81 Street). They are open daily from 9 am till 9 pm.

If you are in Mandalay, drop by the bookshop and give Ye Man Oo a hard time, or better yet, buy some books and enjoy a pleasant conversation with this impressive young businessman!

http://www.chinlonebooks.com/

The World Less Traveled With Dervla Murphy

The first book I read by Dervla Murphy was The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal. The book detailed Murphy’s work with Tibetan refugees in the 1960s. Very interesting book, but I found this one, In Ethiopia with a Mule to be even more captivating.

This travelogue is Murphy’s account of her 1966 excursion from Northern Ethiopia, near the Red Sea, to the capital of Addis Ababa, a journey of 1,024 miles. Nearly all of that was spent on foot, accompanied by her faithful pack mule, Jock. Along the way Murphy, a native of Ireland, describes her meeting many kind and hospitable natives, plenty of poor and sick people, some thieves and nasty characters, a few wild animals, and lots of uncertainty. There were nights, while trekking across sparsely populated areas, when there was no village to shelter her and the mule, forcing her to camp out under the stars. But the reader gathers that Murphy never considered that a particular hardship.

It’s hard to imagine anyone trying, or being able, to making a trip like this nowadays. Definitely an account of a bygone era, but maybe not that much of an innocent one, even in those days. If nothing else, this woman, traveling on her own with very little in the way of assistance or provisions, was a brave, intrepid soul. Wary of some people, trusting of others, she deftly relied on her natural instincts and ability to bridge cultural differences to ensure that she stayed out of harm’s way.

Murphy’s writing is both vividly descriptive and acutely insightful. She’s never afraid to praise or condemn the variety of people she meets, depending on the circumstances. And she supplements her adventures with plenty of thoughtful observations too. Here are a few lines that struck me when reading this book:

“In this country, as elsewhere, the best currency for purchasing kindness is trust.”

 ‘Nuclear weapons seem no more terrifying than the zeal with which we are chasing everyone else towards our own materialistic sewer.”

 “What damage are we doing, blindly and swiftly, to those races who are being taught that because we are materially richer we must be emulated without question? What compels us to infect everyone else with our own sick urgency to change, soften, and standardize? How can we have the effrontery to lord it over peoples who retain what we have lost — a sane awareness that what matters most is immeasurable?”

I love this woman! I was so smitten with this book that I plan on trying to find the other 20 books by her that I’ve missed. And as of this writing, she is still alive — and traveling — at the age of 85.

https://www.travelbooks.co.uk/shop-online-books/?category=Dervla+Murphy

 

 

Books! Chinese! Trump! Madness!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Chinlone Books Goes to Bagan!

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It all started with a request for a loan.

My friend from Bagan, Nine Nine, was unhappy with his current job and wanted to start his own business. After four years of working at the same hotel he was frustrated with the low pay and long hours. Opening his own business seemed like the thing to do. Low pay and long hours got you down? As many of us entrepreneurs can tell you, opening a business is certainly no cure for that dilemma! But hey, there ARE opportunities to reverse that equation if you are the boss, and Nine Nine is astute enough to realize that. But, after the birth of his daughter last year, money was running low. Needing some startup funds, he asked if I could help him.

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Hey, I try to help my friends whenever I can, but I don’t have a lot of cash to throw around, so I wanted to hear more about his business plan and what it would all cost. I wasn’t making any promises, but I told that we could discuss it when I visited Myanmar the next time. That was two months ago, back in September. The end result was that his idea was not going to cost all that much, so I DID lend him some money and his shop, 99 Souvenir Shop & Chinlone Books, is now  open in New Bagan!

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Yes, in addition to selling various souvenirs such as lacquerware, clothing, and postcards, he is running another branch of Chinlone Books. I asked Nine Nine if he was receptive to the idea of adding books to his product mix and he agreed. He’s been open for about one month now and is excited about what he’s been selling (the first book sold was “M is For Myanmar” from Things Asian Press) and what customers are asking for. The Bagan branch of Chinlone Books is located on Kyay Street (New Bagan’s main street) next to the Ostello Bello hostel, and diagonally across the street from the long-running Silver House restaurant. They are open every day!

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During that last trip to Myanmar, Nine Nine met me and my friend from Mandalay, Ye Man Oo, in Nyaung Shwe and we showed him the book setup at the Chinlone Books branch in that town, located inside Aye Aye Travel Services. The owner, Mar Mar Aye, explained to Nine Nine her system of cataloging the books and how she keeps track of sales. She’s an honest, hardworking lady and I hope her advice will help Nine Nine with his own business. If you are visiting Nyaung Shwe (near the popular Inle Lake in Shan State) or Bagan (New Bagan is just down the road from Old Bagan and the bigger town of Nyaung U) please drop in and say “Mingalaba” … and buy a book or two!

http://www.chinlonebooks.com/

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Chinlone Books in Nyaungshwe

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It’s official; the town of Nyaungshwe in Myanmar’s Shan State now has a proper secondhand bookshop, that being the newly re-stocked and re-named Chinlone Books.

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Known as “the gateway to Inle Lake,” Nyaungshwe has long been a popular place for tourists to stay when visiting the famous lake. Due to its laidback atmosphere, proximity to hill tribe villages, and general beauty, Nyaungshwe has ecame one of those places where tourists end up spending more time than they had originally planned. And if you have time to spare, why not read a book … or three!

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Mar Mar Aye and her husband actually had been selling used books in their little travel services shop in Nyaungshwe for several years, but the stock never really grew much.  About two years ago the couple separated and the husband went away, only to come back briefly last year for a few months before leaving for good earlier this year. But when he left this time he also took the remaining stock of books and bookshelves — plus a few of the bicycles that they rented to tourists — with him. This of course left Mar Mar Aye with practically nothing, expect for a few photocopied books with various Burmese and Myanmar themes that she had bought from a dealer in Bagan.

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When I visited Nyaungshwe in May I was shocked to see the dearth of books in her shop. “Can you bring me some books the next time you come?” she asked me. Well, I thought, that’s no problem, but maybe I can do better than that. I’d been thinking about the possibility of opening a small bookshop in Myanmar, and had my eye on Nyaungshwe in particular. I have access to plenty of books and Mar Mar Aye has a great location right on the main street in town, so why not combine forces with her?

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We talked things over and came up with a plan. I had several hundred books in storage at Ye Man Oo’s house in Mandalay and I decided to send a portion of those books to her when I returned to Mandalay. Next step was getting some new bookshelves made, put up a new sign, and rebrand the shop as Chinlone Books. For more on the shop see our new website:

http://www.chinlonebooks.com/

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Unfortunately, one of the signs that she had made had a spelling mistake (instead of saying that we were “the only place in Nyaungshwe” with books, the sign said “the only palace … ”), so that will have to be changed, but everything else is proceeding according to plan. We still need to add a few hundred more books to the stock and reorganize the shelves, a project that Ye Man Oo will help me with next month. We also plan to print up some T-shirts (boasting a very cool logo designed by Ye Man Oo!) and sell those in the shop too. Hopefully, this will be the start of a fantastic bookshop.

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Meanwhile, Mar Mar Aye is also devoting plenty of energy to her main business, Aye Aye Travel Services. She’s up at the crack of dawn each day, cooking and cleaning, before opening the shop. She still rents bicycles and sells tickets for boat trips on Inle Lake or canoe trips on the town’s canals (highly recommended!), in addition to arranging treks to villages nearby and further away. She also provides a laundry service and can arrange a massage in your hotel or in an upstairs room. Needless to say, she is one very busy woman!

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Chinlone Books is located in the same building as Mar Mar Aye’s other business, now known as Aye Aye Travel Services. The shop is located on Yone Gyi Road, next to the Indra Indian restaurant and the One Own Grill. It’s directly across the street from an old monastery (Yangon Kyaung) and one block from Myawaddy Road and the Golden Kite restaurant. The bookshop is open daily.

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Please spread the word about our bookshop and come and visit us if you are in Nyaungshwe or the Inle Lake area. And keep reading!

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