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

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Cycling Shan State’s Country Roads

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Monks Keeping Warm in Chilly Shan State

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Warm feet and happy hearts; the perfect combination!

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New Year Reflections

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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.

Mandalay Dining: Good Friends & Good Food at Aye Myit Tar

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No trip to Mandalay would be complete without a visit to Aye Myit Tar restaurant. Located on 81st Street, between 37th and 38th Street, the long-running restaurant has expanded to a 5-floor building and serves traditional Myanmar (Burmese) food from late morning until 9:30 pm each day.

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While the food is always tasty, and served in very generous portions, the outstanding service is what makes each visit to Aye Myit Tar so special. The young waiters are a friendly, cheerful and observant bunch, quick to refill drinks or ensure that you have extra helpings of rice or any of the soup and vegetable dishes that accompany each meal. Personable waiters such as Hein  Yar Zar and Soe Min Maung will help to ensure that your dining experience is a memorable one —-and memorable in a very good way!

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While the majority of customers at Aye Myit Tar are locals, you will always find a few foreigners and tourists dining there too. I was with a group of friends from Mandalay’s 90th Street neighborhood recently when we struck up a conversation with a couple sitting at a nearby table. They told us that they were visiting from Chile.

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“They speak Spanish in Chile,” I mentioned to my friend Ye Man Oo, who was sitting next to me. His eyes lit up. Ye Man Oo has visited me three times in Bangkok this past year and is not only a keen student of English but other languages too. When we weren’t practicing English, Thai, or even Cambodian, I would drill him on some occasional Spanish phrases. Thus, he was able to ask the young lady from Chile: “Como se llama usted?”

 

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The woman squealed with delight, clapping her hands. “This Burmese boy can speak Spanish!” That sealed the friendship, and after more conversation and a round of photos we finally said our goodbyes and headed home, leaving Hein Yar Zar and his friends the unenviable task of cleaning up the restaurant, a chore that needed to be done before they could finally sit down and have dinner themselves.

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It was another fine night of good food and good times with good friends — both old and new — at one of Mandalay’s most enjoyable restaurants. If you are in town don’t miss it! And if you finish your meal early enough, there is time to see the Moustache Brothers show just two blocks down the street.

 

 

 

Bagan Guitar Man … and his Books

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When I was in Myanmar last month I paid a visit to New Bagan — the small town just the road from “Old Bagan” and the famous ancient temples — where my friend Nine Nine has just opened up his own shop. Originally, Nine Nine planned to open a small shop and sell souvenirs as well as offering services like ticketing (plane, bus, boat, even balloon rides!) and massage. Well, he is in fact doing all that, but I also talked him into selling some books too. The result is the awkwardly named: 99 Chinlone Books Bagan Myanmar & Souvenir Shop.

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That may be more than a mouthful to say, but the shop itself is starting to look very nice and is a very comfortable place to spend some time. Nine Nine had some bookshelves paid, put some nice paintings on the walls, and we’re doing our best to stock those shelves. Thanks to my Mandalay friend Ye Man Oo and his father, U Khin Maung Lwin, we delivered another big batch of books for Nine Nine’s shop about two weeks ago.

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The only problem I found with his shop was that many of the books he already had in stock were priced much too high. If you want to sell more books, I advised, you need to make the prices more affordable. But hey, it’s a learning experience. Nine Nine is new to the book business and he hasn’t quite got the hang of pricing things yet. And to be honest, trying to determine the “best” price truly is confusing, especially factoring in all the different types of books he’s selling. Looking at the publisher’s list prices on the back cover, you are faced with US dollars, Canadian or Australian dollars, some prices in Euros, and others in UK pounds. Older books might have no prices listed at all, or perhaps an older currency that was used in Germany, Italy, or France. And don’t even try to correctly figure out the value of books published in Scandinavian countries. When in doubt, I told Nine Nine, just wing it!

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Thankfully, he’s taken my advice and is now pricing the books lower and getting the hang of which language is which. In addition to English language books he is selling books in German, French, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese and more. I even brought him a Jimi Hendrix biography in Polish!

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Nine Nine is also a musician and keeps a guitar at the shop, happily strumming away when  no customers are around, but also more than willing to play visitors a few songs. Ask him to play some tunes by popular Myanmar singer-guitarists such as Linn Linn or Wei La. I may be biased, but I think Nine Nine does a fantastic job of covering those songs. Deft guitar playing and he’s got a good voice too!

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99 Chinlone Books is located a few doors down from the popular Ostello Bello Hostel in New Bagan, and it’s right on the main road (Kayay Street) not far from popular restaurants such as Silver House. The shop is open every day of the week, usually from late morning until 9 pm or so. Nine Nine is running the shop himself while his wife stays home to take care of their young daughter, plus he’s sometimes called to do  some last-minute waiter duty at his friend’s new  restaurant nearby, so it’s possible that you might arrive and find nobody around, but you can USUALLY find him at the shop most days and nights.

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http://www.chinlonebooks.com

 

Kite Season in Shan State

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It’s that time of the year again in Myanmar’s Shan State. The weather turns cooler, the winds shift, and all young men’s attention turns to … kite flying!

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Yes, wander around any town or village in Shan State at this time of year and you will no doubt see kites flying everywhere. The kites are especially visible in the afternoon after school is out, or during the mornings on those class-free days. And the kite flyers are by no means all young boys; many men and more than a few young ladies can be seen flying kites too.

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After watching the novice monks at Tat Ein villages monastery rescue a kite that had been stuck in a tree one afternoon, and then enthusiastically set it soaring in the sky again, my friend Ye Man Oo and I decided to buy the monks a bunch of new kites that they could fly during their afternoon breaks.

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After buying the kites at a shop near Nyaung Shwe’s morning market, we cycled to the monastery and presented the bounty to the monks. Let’s just say that they were very excited to get the kites! Up, up, and away!

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Monks Behind the Lens

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During my last couple of trips to Tat Ein village in Shan State, just down the road from the town of Nyaung Shwe and the famous Inle Lake, I haven’t taken as many photos as usual. But that’s not to say that my camera hasn’t been put to use!

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Indeed, the camera has been getting a good workout each time thanks to the photo-loving novice monks at the village’s small monastery. Upon arrival I’ll usually had the camera over to young Aung Thaung, who will take some photos, and then he will hand the camera over to another monk who will handle the photography chores, for a while, and then back to Aung Thaung, and maybe another monk or two, and so it goes.

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The one constant during these photo-taking sessions is that I just stand back and observe, enjoying both the serious and silly poses that these kids think up. Here are a few of the MANY photos that those novice monks have taken in recent months.

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