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

Posts tagged ‘Bangkok’

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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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.

Twenty Years Gone: Finding a New Life in Thailand

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This month marks a big anniversary for me: it was exactly twenty years ago, in March of 1996, that I left my home in Orlando, Florida and moved to Bangkok, Thailand. Starting a new life in a new country, surrounded by new sights, sounds, and smells. I’d gone from the plastic environs of Disney World and neighborhoods infested by mosquitoes and churches, to a chaotic but vibrant city packed with Buddhist temples, go-go bars, mangy soi dogs, and 7-Eleven branches on every street (actually, it’s sometimes now three or four of those convenience stores per block in Bangkok). Some people might think that moving halfway around the world to a foreign country where English is not the native language, and where the culture is very different, would be intimidating or uncomfortable, but I’ve found that hasn’t been the case for me at all. I’ve adapted, I’ve learned, and I’ve thrived.

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I was getting my hair cut today by a vivacious Thai woman named Pin. She wasn’t the very first person to cut my hair when I moved to Bangkok, but she was probably the second one, and for nearly the entire twenty years that I’ve lived here I’ve let nobody else cut my receding hairline. Happy Anniversary Pin … and Happy Anniversary Thailand! I have never regretted my decision to leave the relative comforts — not to mention the spiraling crime — of the USA and settle in a so-called “backwards” third world country. Hell, if Thailand is considered backwards, let it drop further! Moving to Thailand has given me a new perspective on life, new inspiration, and additional energy. If I was back in the states, I’d be edging towards retirement age and wondering how I was going to survive for the next decade or two, but over here it feels like I’m just getting started and have a lot of life to look forward to living.

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For most of these past twenty years I’ve lived in Bangkok, subtracting only the two years that I moved to Cambodia and ran a bookshop in Siem Reap. It’s not like I’m wearing rose-colored glasses. Thailand is far from a perfect place and I see things on a daily basis that drive me crazy, but when I think about the prospect of moving back to the United States I break out into a cold sweat … nd that’s not a funky James Brown sort of groove filled with positive vibes, but a most definite fear of being thrust back into an increasingly disturbing, dysfunctional, and dangerous society. I just sit back and watch the current political soap opera that is unfolding (imploding?) in the USA and thank my lucky San Miguel bottles that I don’t have to be surrounded by all that American nonsense.

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Okay, it’s not perfect over here either, and I admit that there are things that annoy me greatly about Thailand (don’t get me started about the current political situation!), but putting it all into perspective I’d still MUCH rather be living here in the kooky kingdom than back in the United States of Amnesia. Admittedly, there ARE some things that I miss about the United States and my hometown. I miss seeing some of my friends and I miss certain restaurants (oh, that amazing Cuban food in Florida!), but I don’t miss the family dramas, the high cost of living, or the cruelty ingrained in the culture. And I certainly don’t miss all the creepy Christians or the conservative rednecks who think the Civil War is still being fought and that racist jokes are funny. Uh, no thanks. And yet another thing: since I left Florida I haven’t owned or driven a car (or any motorized vehicle) for the past twenty years. I don’t miss the driving, the parking, the car maintenance, or all those insurance payments either. Honestly, it’s a relief to be free from all of that crap.

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Living in Thailand is only part of the equation. Using Bangkok as the hub, it makes for relatively quick flights (one to two hours) to neighboring countries such as Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and Myanmar. I continued tt be dazzled, and comforted, by these amazing places and the kind people who live there. And I still haven’t visited other nearby countries in the regions such as Vietnam, Indonesia (and Bali), Nepal, and the Philippines. Maybe I’ll go to these places someday. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the fascinating culture and friendly hospitality of Thailand and the other countries in the region. I’m here to stay!

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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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Rainy Days and Good Friends

It’s been a wet and wild week here in Bangkok. It’s raining nearly every day, sometimes two or three showers each day. Raining cats and dogs … not to mention rats and cockroaches. Yeah, it’s a wild city.

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In the midst of all this precipitation, a flurry of good friends has arrived in Bangkok for visits, ranging from a few days to a few weeks. Now that is the sort of storm that I enjoy! Last week heralded the arrival of Ma Thanegi and Myriam Grest, both from Yangon, and hot on their not-so-high heels was ex-Bangkok resident Janet Brown, now living in Seattle. I met those three charming women for several good meals around town, including lunch at the brand new Broccoli Revolution, a vegetarian restaurant at the corner of Sukhumvit Soi 49. It’s run by Naya, the same Thai woman who helped start the popular Monsoon Restaurant in Yangon.

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That same week I had yet another visit from a Burmese friend, this time Ko Soe Moe from Mandalay, who was making his very first trip to Thailand. Soe Moe is a freelance tour guide and translator and took advantage of the annual September lull to visit our fair kingdom. He spent most of his time up north, in and around Chiang Mai and Chiangrai, but also visited Ayutthaya. He took the overnight train to Bangkok from Chiang Mai and spent his last morning at my bookshop and then headed out for a quick tour of the riverside temples before making tracks to the airport for an early evening flight back to Myanmar. Soe Moe told me that he was very impressed with Thailand and plans to return next year, bringing his son with him.

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And they still keep coming. This week, by old Orlando buddy B.T. arrived for another extended stay in Thailand (Pathum Thani, for the most part), after spending most of the summer back in Florida, tacking on a few weeks in Berlin. My final visitor is Richard from Texas, who arrived this week for his annual Thailand sojourn. He’ll be here for almost a full month before flying back to celebrate Halloween in Dallas. Dinner this week? Why not!

It’s been fun to see everyone again, for however brief or long period of time they are here. Janet will also be in town for most of the month, and we are planning further meals in Saphan Khwai at the long-running Abu Ibrahim Indian restaurant and of course some Thai treats at Ton Khrueng, further down Soi 49. I think I’ll have to put off my plan to go on a diet for yet another month!

 

Vinyl Fever or Buyer Beware?

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There have been many articles in the media in the past year or so, heralding the return of the vinyl record album, a format that many people had long-thought dead, consigned to the dustbin of history, after the heralded arrival of the compact disc in the mid 1980s. But lo and behold, old record pressing machines are being salvaged and refurbished, cranked up and humming again, spitting out hot slabs of wax, and the sales of vinyl records are surging. Who woulda thunk it?

Legions of music lovers, especially those who consider themselves to be audiophiles, will proclaim passionately about how much more superior the sound of vinyl records is compared to that of CDs, or those lowly but prolific MP3 files. I don’t doubt that vinyl records sound better — or at least have more “warmth” and more dynamic range — than the other formats, but my ageing ears certainly can’t detect much difference, at least not enough to give a hoot. Then again, I never was one of those picky audiophile types that paid much attention to stereo separation and EQ levels, or whatever criteria is used to measure sound quality. Stereo or mono, vinyl or CD, boom box or high-end sound system, what matters to me is the quality of the music itself; the melody, the beat, the singer, the musicians, the lyrics, the whole package.

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Back in the United States, I worked in music stores (selling vinyl, cassettes, and CDs) — either as a clerk, manager, or eventually a store owner — for nearly twenty years, and then spent another two years working for Tower Records in Bangkok. I have great memories of the old vinyl era, both as a consumer and as a merchant. But personally, I don’t miss vinyl records one iota. Sound quality aside, with vinyl you always had to deal with a variety of nuisances, ranging from the possibility of warped records to defects such as pops, skips, and scratches. Records are fragile and they can break. Then are the issues of storage and mobility: records take up more space and they are heavier to haul around.

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Yes another factor that many people caught up in the current wave of vinyl fever forget is perhaps the most important one: the cost and availability of the record needle. Hey, you can’t play records without a working needle, right? And if you play those records with any sort of frequency you are eventually going to wear out your needle — depending on usage this can necessitate a replacement in a matter of months versus a year or longer — and will need to buy another one.

Okay, that brings up the cost of the needle. Obviously, the better quality of the turntable you have, the more the needle will cost. But wait a minute; can you even find the damn needle that you need? Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, we used have these reference books that would help us find the correct needle that customers needed. There were literally hundreds of different needles listed, and most were not compatible with other turntables. Finding the correct needle was sometimes a difficult task. Sometimes you had to wait until the replacement that you had to order would arrive. I can’t imagine the availability and compatibility of needles has suddenly gotten better. So what are these happy new turntable users doing? Are they playing their records sparingly or causing further damage to their precious vinyl by playing the records with a worn stylus?

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An additional twist to this vinyl renaissance is the cost of the records themselves. Man, they ain’t cheap! In a tactic that is typical of a greedy, clueless industry that grossly over-charged consumers for CDs for far too many years, the cost of vinyl records is now more than that of CDs. Colored vinyl! Limited Edition! More money! Honestly, it’s like these record companies have schemed up another new scam in a desperate attempt to rake in profits.

So no, I have no desire to return to those “glory days” of vinyl records. I’m quite satisfied with my burgeoning collection of compact discs, even if those too are becoming an endangered species in this era of file sharing and digitized downloads.

Here is an article on the subject of the vinyl resurgence that appeared in the New York Times this week:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/15/business/media/a-vinyl-lp-frenzy-brings-record-pressing-machines-back-to-life.html?ref=music

Friends on the Road

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I’m getting closer to the bottom of my most recent Myanmar photo vault, and here are a few more images from my last trip. Looking back at these photos of so many happy faces brings a smile to my own face. I’m looking forward to seeing these fine folks again soon … very, very soon!

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Yes, another trip is about to happen. I’ve been feeling so burned out in Bangkok lately; working too much and annoyed at all the clueless idiots playing with their smart phones every waking hour of the day. All I can say is that it’s a good thing I don’t own any firearms. Suffice to say, I need a break, not to mention a change of scenery, and a trip to Myanmar is just what the doctor ordered. Shan State ain’t quite like Luckenbach, Texas, but the idea is pretty much the same: back to the basics of life. I can’t wait.

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Children Love Books!

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This month marks the 11th Anniversary of Dasa Books, my bookshop in Bangkok. Time flies by, indeed! Seems like only a few months ago that I was scrambling to find enough books to fill the shelves, and now we have over 17,000 books in stock, covering three floors of store space. And if we had the option, we could certainly expand to another floor; the books never stop.

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And that’s a good thing; people are always coming in to sell or exchange books, so there is a healthy amount of interesting new titles being stocked every day. And the other good thing is that people are still reading books — and importantly from my perspective, they are still buying books. Despite all the doom and gloom about bookshops closing and customers “converting” to some sort of e-reader, I see tons of people still opting for real books. Thankfully, my business continues to grow each year, which gives me more confidence to keep stocking the shelves with more titles. In my mind, there is no such thing as “too many books.” Never enough is more like it!

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I’ve learned a lot of about books over the past eleven years, particularly in areas that I didn’t know much about previously, such as children’s books. One of the most gratifying aspects of running a bookshop is seeing the new generation of kids enjoying books. You’ve got to love the parents that take the time to pass the love of reading on to their children. It’s so cool to see kids who get excited when they come to my shop and pick out books they want to read. There’s one little boy named Astor, who is six years old, but he’s already a veteran book buyer. He and his father David come in at least once a month and pick out a bunch of books to read. I listen to Astor as he reads out loud, and David will help explain any difficult words. Right now Astor is going through a dinosaur phase. It will be fun to see what strikes his fancy next year … or ten years from now. From what I’ve seen, once a child has developed a reading habit, it’s not something they stop.

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So cheers to all the book-loving children and their supportive parents. Long may you read!

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Burmese People Power!

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As this year winds nearer to an end, we’ve seen many changes in Myanmar, not all of them positive ones. The general consensus among those folks seeking Democracy and greater personal freedoms — everything from a free press to uncensored Internet access — is that there have been a disappointing number of setbacks this year. All the much-vaunted reforms and progress seem to have strayed from the intended — or hoped for — path.

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But Myanmar is not alone in the struggle for human rights, democracy, and a free press. Look at many other countries around Asia and there aren’t a lot of positive trends to be found. Things are looking bleak in Hong Kong, not to mention in the rest of mainland China, Thailand remains under martial law after the coup this year (and don’t get me started about the new rash of police harassment targeting foreigners in Bangkok … very disturbing!), activists are disappearing in Laos, and Cambodia is still suffering under the iron-fisted rule of Hun Sen.

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Even across the waters, in the once free country known as the United States, they are experiencing new waves of political protests and racial unrest. Hey, if you are looking for stability there are always the Scandinavian countries. That is, if you can afford the high cost of living and don’t mind being frozen most of the year.

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So, wherever you are living, just watch your back (and your wallet!), don’t trust your government, monitor the police, and fight the powers that be … whenever and wherever possible.

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Meanwhile, here are some more photos from my last trip to Myanmar: the young and the old, people fighting the good fight, living day to day, and trying to keep from going under, amidst the turbulent seas of ineptitude and corruption, not to mention the spiraling cost of living.

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Walter Sylvest: 1941-2014

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Walter Sylvest, one of my very best friends, passed away this week at a nursing home in Bangkok. He had been hospitalized since falling ill in October last year and never fully regained the ability to speak or recognize visitors Even though he was 72 years-old when the illness struck, he had still been quite active and teaching full-time at the Horizon International School in Mandalay. Previous to that, he taught at various international schools in Bangkok such as St. Stephens and Bangkok Prep.

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I first met Walter during a trip to Thailand in 1992. He moved there the following year and I finally made the jump in 1996. On the surface, we didn’t have much in common, plus he was much older than I, and yet, we somehow bonded. I was a voracious book reader, but I don’t think that he ever read anything more than the daily newspaper. I liked to listen to music when I was at home, while he preferred watching action movies and “professional” wrestling matches on TV. Seriously, he was fanatical about his wrestling.

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But we were both single men — loners, if you will — living in Bangkok. No wives, or ex-wives, or children to be responsible for, so that was something that at least we had in common. For us, the great common denominators were food and travel. We usually got together for dinner at least once a week, and ended up taking many trips together to places around Thailand, and eventually to Laos and Myanmar.

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One of the things that I most admired about Walter was the way that he was able to re-invent himself and change careers and places of residence so many times. After working as a teacher in the Alabama public school system for many years, he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s and became an actor, appearing in TV shows and commercials, as well as bit roles in a few movies. He had a reoccurring role in the critically acclaimed TV series Frank’s Place, about a popular New Orleans restaurant. Despite rave reviews, the show didn’t strike it big with audiences and was cancelled after one season. After visiting Thailand in 1992, Walter moved to the kingdom the following year and resurrected his teaching career. He taught for another dozen years, and even did some substitute teaching after he officially retired. But then he came back for yet one more teaching gig at the school in Mandalay about five years ago. When I saw him there in September last year, he was zooming around town on his motorcycle, making plans to bake more treats for his students, and planning a visit to Bangkok. About a month later he was hospitalized, never again to return to Mandalay.

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Walter often “blamed” me for introducing him to Myanmar, a country that he ended up falling in love with, as I also did. Not only did he accompany me on a few trips to Myanmar, he eventually moved to Mandalay and started teaching again in his late sixties. “I’d be having a nice, peaceful retirement if it weren’t for you,” he’d heckle me good-naturedly. “Yeah,” I’d reply, “and you’d be bored out of your mind.”

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Walter was not an easy person to get to know. He had a hard façade that was tough to crack. If you didn’t know him well, you might be put off by his gruff, abrupt nature. He wasn’t a “people person” and didn’t like to socialize with other teachers at the schools where he taught. But if you got on his good side, he proved to be a loyal and dependable friend. Just last year, after one of the boys that I knew on 90th Street in Mandalay drowned, Walter helped arrange for me to make a donation to the boy’s family. He would do anything for a friend.

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He combined his love for teaching and his love for cooking by often baking cookies and cakes and taking them to school to give to students, teachers, and administrative staff. He would also occasionally invite some friends or teachers to his apartment and cook dinner for them. When we cleaned out his apartment in Mandalay earlier this year, we found dozens of cookbooks and hundreds of recipe pages downloaded off the Internet.

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I was informed about his passing on Tuesday morning by the doctor who was taking care of him. She sent me a text message and followed that up with a phone call. Later that morning the hospital sent also me an e-mail, and then a woman from the US Embassy called to make sure that I had received the news. I did my part in getting the word out by sending additional e-mails to friends and colleagues who had known Walter or worked with him. His cousin back in Alabama (Walter’s home state) had already been contacted, so I notified one of his childhood friends, a woman who had known Walter for over 60 years. I also called a man who had lived in the same apartment complex with Walter in Bangkok. They were not close friends, but this guy had taken the time to visit Walter when he was in hospital, and was always asking for updates on his condition, so I thought that he should know too.

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But I wasn’t done yet. I sent e-mails to mutual friends in Myanmar, in both Bagan and Mandalay, people at teashops, restaurants, schools, and hotels. They all remembered Walter and had been asking about him, so I wanted to make sure that they knew. Two teachers at Walter’s school sent me very nice recollections of their time with Walter, and I received very touching notes from Ma Khin Thida and Kyaw Zin Tun at the Hotel Queen in Mandalay. I think those notes made me cry the most.

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Walter was not a man you would forget if you met him. One mutual friend, who had taught with Walter at a school in Bangkok, described him as “like someone from a David Lynch film.” That made me laugh! Indeed, Walter was an unforgettable “character” in the truest sense of the word. With his thick southern accent, occasional malapropisms, and sometimes gruff demeanor he could appear unfriendly or demanding. And sometimes he really was. You certainly did not want to get on his bad side or feel his wrath! But he was also a considerate, polite, and very giving person too. I saw this generous side to him so many times, especially during trips to neighboring countries. He would visit orphanages in Laos and buy clothes for the children, even sponsoring a few kids in school. At poor rural schools he would buy pencils and notebooks for the students. At a very rundown teashop in Mandalay he bought shoes and shirts for the entire staff of boys — about 15 kids — who were working there. And he performed such acts of kindness more than a handful of times.

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I’ve spent the past few days thinking about our times together; the trips and dinners, and good memories. Whenever we got together Walter would always say something, or offer an observation, that invariably made me laugh. My favorite restaurant in Mandalay, Aye Myit Tar, was one that he loved to dub “the greasy spoon” due to its oily curries. It wasn’t his favorite place to eat, but he would graciously accompany me there anytime I wanted to visit. If nothing else, he was always entertained by the enthusiastic and friendly crew of waiters there. In fact, just a week ago, while dining at that same restaurant, two of the waiters asked about him.

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Walter was truly one of a kind. I’m really, really going to miss his friendship.

 

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