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

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Death of a Burmese Monk

Late last month I was saddened to hear about the death of U Kuthala Nanda, a monk at the Tat Ein monastery in Myanmar’s Shan State, on the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe. He was only 40 years old. I have visited the monastery dozens of times in the past decade and I considered U Kuthala Nanda a good friend.

I first met U Kuthala Nanda when he was an adult novice monk, having only recently entered the monkhood in his thirties after living his entire life in Nyaung Shwe. He was also the brother of my longtime friend Ma Pu Su, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class in Nyaung Shwe.

U Kuthala Nanda, or Aung Nanda as he was known before becoming a monk, had his share of difficult times, particularly in his late teens and twenties, when he was more inclined to live a wild life and seek solace from alcohol. But he eventually turned his life around and became a well-respected monk, what they call an U-Zin, at the monastery. I know that he devoted himself to teaching and taking care of the dozens of young notice monks who stay at the monastery, and I’m sure they are devasted by his passing.

Aung Thaung, one of the novice monks who spent the past several years with U Kuthala Nanda at the monastery, called me about two months ago to tell me that U Kuthala Nanda needed more money for his cancer treatment. From talking with Ma Pu Sue, I had known that U Kuthala Nanda was ill, but didn’t realize that the situation had become so dire. “I like to help people” young Aung Thaung told me after I had thanked him for letting me know the status of U Kuthala Nanda’s treatment. But despite the efforts of all of us, nothing could stop the ravage of the disease. I want to repeat the old refrain  that life is unfair, but the Buddhists also tell us the “life is suffering” so I’m confident that U Kuthala Nanda passed away knowing he did what he could during his brief time on this planet, and he left behind many, many young men who have benefited from his experiences and counsel. He will be missed.

 

Music on the Road: August 2019

I’m always listening to music. I need it as much as the air that I breathe and the water that I drink. It’s my life. At work, at home, and even when I travel I always have some tunes playing. I’m an album sort of guy, so I prefer listening to entire CDs or albums all the way through. Here are the musical friends that kept me company during my recent trip to Kuala Lumpur:

Steely Dan – Countdown To Ecstasy

Another from a very long line of Becker and Fagen masterpieces in the 1970s. Pick any song off this album. They are all gems! Pure songwriting genius, not to mention masterful musicians.

 

Maceo and All the King’s Men – Doing Their Own Thing

This, of course, is James Brown sidekick Maceo Parker blowing his horn and having a blast with a different bunch of musicians, Funky as expected, but also flourishes of jazz and some sweet soul. A real treat.

 

Gene Clark – Two Sides to Every Story

The ex-Byrds member released MANY fine solo albums during his short but brilliant career, and this relatively unsung effort from 1977 is among his very finest. Let the power of these songs move your soul.

 

Various Artists – Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester

Yet another singer-songwriter who should have been MUCH better known, Jesse Winchester mostly plied his craft from the 1970s through the early 2000s (after a Vietnam War-era hiatus in Canada), releasing several fine albums, the songs from which were covered by many other artists over the years. This “tribute” album, compiled when he was very ill, features a stellar cast of musicians including James Taylor, Rosanne Cash, Jimmy Buffett, Allen Toussaint, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Elvis Costello, Vince Gill, and more. Great songs and great performances.

 

Puss N Boots – No Fools, No Fun

This is Nora Jones, shedding her jazzy ways, joining two other talented female musicians and rocking away full throttle, with some lovely pop and folk garnishes. Covers of songs by the Band, Wilco, Neil Young, and more cool tunes, combined with fine originals written by band member Catherine Popper. What a pleasant surprise!

 

Bruce Hornsby – Here Comes the Noisemakers

This 2-CD set comprises performances from tours between 1998 and 2000. If you thought Hornsby was some sort of one-hit wonder (“The Way It Is”) think again; this set showcased his piano chops, songwriting skills, deft cover choices, and a crack band. Musical brilliance.

 

Various Artists – Largo

A very unlikely combination of artists makes for a thoroughly wonderful album, sort of “tribute” to composer Antonin Dvorak without the bombastic classical bits. Start off with the blues legend Taj Mahal, add Levon Helm from the Band, Cyndi Lauper, Joan Osborne (who sings the stunning “”An Uncommon Love”), rock vet Willie Nile, members of the Irish legends the Chieftains, some guys from 80s hitmakers The Hooters, and a dash of  Carole King. Simply an outstanding album that defies categorization. I wish more people had heard this album.

 

David Crosby – Sky Trails

Another ex-Byrds member, and more famously a founder of Crosby, Still & Nash, has been a real roll with a string of very strong solo albums this decade. On this one it sounds like he’s been listening to Joni Mitchell and Steely Day. And that’s a good thing!

 

Pink Floyd – Animals

What more can you say? Another rock classic from the 1970s. Pigs on the Wing!

 

Phoebe Snow – Phoebe Snow

One of those old chestnuts that still sounds great after all these years. Her debut album from 1974 had the hit “Poetry Man” but also plenty of other cool songs with a pop, jazz and soul flavor.

 

Bennett Wilson Poole – Bennett Wilson Poole

I hesitate to call this is a super-group, mainly because you’ve probably never heard of the other bands these guys are from but rest assured this is a wonderful lineup of very gifted singers and musicians. It features Danny Wilson from Danny and the Champions of the World (who have recorded a number of fine albums), Tony Poole from Starry Eyed and Laughing, as well as Robin Bennett who has played with Saint Etienne and the Dreaming Spires. The result is sheer pop brilliance with a laid back ‘70s vibe. A review in Mojo Magazine raved that their music “is rooted in late-60s country psyche, their heart in the LA canyons, and their talent somewhere in Americana nirvana.” And yet they hail from the UK. You can hear the influence of bands like the Byrds and CSN. Addictive stuff!

 

Poco – Head Over Heels

This influential country-rock group put out a lot of fine albums over the years. Even after losing one of their original members they carried and on and recorded this wonderful album in 1975. Chock full of one great song after another. It’s my favorite Poco album of all time.

 

Jackie Leven – Elegy for Johnny Cash

Ah, the voice of an angel! The ex-Doll By Doll singer put out a ton of fine solo albums over the past 20 years and never got the proper acclaim he deserved. This was another keeper, full of intelligent, soulful pleasantl subtle rock tunes. Hey, even Ian Rankin was a big fan!

 

Tasmin Archer – Great Expectations

One of the great unheralded voices from the 1990s. Great soulful pop songs propelled by that powerful voice. Should have been a monster hit.

 

Various Artists – Me, Myself & Irene (music from the motion picture)

Take a silly Jim Carrey movie but pump up the volume with some ultra-cool music — mostly covers of classic Steely Dan songs — and you end up with one winner of a soundtrack. The covers of Steely Dan songs by the likes of Wilco, Ivy, Ben Folds Five, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra are nothing less than joyous, plus original material by Pete Yorn, Hootie  the Blowfish, and even the Foo Fighters are also top notch.

 

Bo Deans – Joe Dirt Car

A very energetic and fun double live album by one of the more underrated “alternative” bands from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Listen to the audience feedback and it’s obvious that their fans adored them.

 

Lyle Lovett – Step Inside This House

This 2-CD set is Lovett’s tribute to the songs from other great Texas singer-songwriters of the past 40 years He covers songs by familiar names such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and Michael Martin Murphey, plus more obscure guys like Steve Fromholz, Willis Allen Ramsey, and Robert Earl Keen. Lovely, lovely stuff.

 

Blue Rodeo – The Things We Left Behind

Yet another double album, this one by the veteran but underrated Canadian band. They do “Americana” in the vein of the Jayhawks; catchy songs with stirring harmonies. Always a good thing.

 

Deacon Blue – Ooh Las Vegas

Once again, a 2-CD set, this one comprised of covers, B-sides, soundtrack songs, and other rarities that the excellent Scottish band recorded during the 1980s and 1990s. If you liked Raintown or any of their other fine albums, don’t miss this goldmine of rare tunes too. Soulful pop and songs that stick in your head.

 

Josh Rouse – Under Cold Blue Stars

Maybe not his very best album (I still have a soft spot for Dressed Up Like Nebraska) but still a very solid and enjoyable set of songs. Rouse is one of the better but lesser known American singer-songwriters to appear in the past 20 years and you can’t go wrong with any of early albums including this fine set of pop majesty from 2002.

 

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!

 

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

 

 

And a Time for Feasting

One of the great joys of visiting Myanmar, at least in my opinion, is sampling the various types of food. There are plenty of good restaurants serving traditional Burmese fare, such as Aye Myit Tar in Mandalay. You can also find places specializing in dishes from Shan State and other regions from around the country. The sheer variety is amazing.

You can also get very good meals at teashops. Most teashops in Myanmar have a nice variety of noodle and rice dishes, as well as bread and fried snacks. Get there early in the morning to taste some of the scrumptious noodles dishes such as monhinga, mondhi, and ohno kauk swe. Finger licking good indeed!

While I love dining at restaurants and teashops, I can honestly say the absolutely best food I’ve had is at the homes of friends. In Mandalay, I might be invited to Ye Man Oo’s for dinner, or to his uncle, U Nyunt Tun’s house. Incredible food! If I’m in Nyaung Shwe I have to juggle invitations, enjoying home-cooked treats at Mar Mar Aye’s house or a feast at Ma Pu Sue’s place. When in doubt; just say “yes” to them all … and prepare to eat a lot!

 

 

Monhinga Meal for the Monks

Yeah, it’s been a while. A long, long lonely time, as the song says. What can I tell you? Too much work, a bit of travel, yet more work, a couple of health issues, and a continuing spiral of work. I’m damn exhausted. The last time I posted anything on this blog was back in January and since that time it seems as if I have had no time to do all the things that I want to do, or at least the things that I used to do, which includes this blog.

At this point I’m not sure how much effort I’m going to put back into this thing, but I hate the thought of just letting it wither and die, so I’ll try and post a few things in the near future in the attempt to sustain it. Today’s post harkens back to November of last year when I was in Nyaung Shwe, the picturesque town in Myanmar’s Shan State. My friend Ma Pu Sue, who runs the Bamboo Delight Cooking Class with her husband Lesly in Nyaung Shwe, and I join forces each year in late November (our birthdays are a day apart) and offer a donation to monks from the nearby monastery at Tat Ein village.

Instead of making tracks to the monastery itself and offering physical donations such as school supplies or shoes (which we’ve done in the past), we invite the monks to Sue and Lesly’s home for a hearty breakfast of monhinga, the savory noodle dish that could be dubbed Myanmar’s most iconic culinary treat. You can find variations of monhinga all over the country, but Lesly’s special recipe is one of the best I’ve ever tasted. And I’m not just saying that because he’s a friend of mine; the guy can cook up some mighty fine food!

Actually, the novice monks from the monastery usually walk by Sue’s home each morning during their regular alms rounds. But getting the chance to sit down and rest, enjoy a bowl — or three — of this delicious monhinga, is undoubtedly a treat for the youngsters. Ye Man Oo, my friend from Mandalay, was also on hand to help serve the food to the monks. I just tried to stay out of the way while everyone else cooked and served — and ate — and simply enjoy the event, only actively participating at the very end when it came time to offer each monk a small cash donation.

Organizing this little donation breakfast every year is very gratifying, something I look forward to doing, but if you travel around Myanmar you will see similar donation meals and ceremonies nearly every day of the year. I’ve never met more generous people. I read an article recently that said that a higher percentage of people in Myanmar make donations to monasteries than in any country in Asia. I believe it.

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