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

Posts tagged ‘bookshop’

Chinlone Books unveils new logo … and T-Shirts!

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I was back in Nyaung Shwe again last month, primarily to deliver more books to Mar Mar Aye at Chinlone Books. Ye Man Oo from Mandalay came along to help me organize the bookshelves, and his parents kindly drove us all the way there. And that’s not a short or easy journey, having to navigate several mountain ranges to reach Shan State. In any case the trip was a success: we increased the bookshelf count from two to six, while adding about 500 books to the mix. And more are on the way!

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Besides the sheer number of books — not only in English, but also French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Russian, and Japanese! — perhaps the most exciting aspect of being in Myanmar this time was seeing the new logo for the bookshop, one that was designed by Ye Man Oo himself. This kid is a very talented artist and has been brainstorming ideas for the past several months until he came up with a very cool design.

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The next step was getting some t-shirts made that sported his creation. We found a company in Mandalay called Moe Pale (thanks to my friend Ko Soe Moe for the recommendation!) that offered reasonable prices and good service. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to get the shirts made before we made the trek to Nyaung Shwe, but upon our return to Mandalay the shirts had been printed and were ready!

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I had a flight back to Bangkok the day after returning to Mandalay, but U Khin Maung Lwin graciously accepted the task of sending the shipment of shirts to Mar Mar Aye in Nyaung Shwe. And I’m happy to report that the shirts are now in stock in three sizes (medium, large, and extra large) and in three colors (white, light blue, and tan). And the price per shirt is only 6,000 kyat (about US$5). Why buy a boring Inle Lake t-shirt when you can purchase a beautiful Chinlone Books t-shirt?

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Meanwhile, we are gearing up for the next big book delivery sometime in September. Our aim is to beef up the number of books in all sections and languages in anticipation of the upcoming “high season” for tourism later in the year. If you are in Nyaung Shwe you MUST stop by Chinlone Books!

http://www.chinlonebooks.com/

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Orlando to Bangkok to Mandalay

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Where have the last two months gone? It’s been almost that long since I posted anything on this blog. During that time I’ve taken a trip to Myanmar and returned to Bangkok, hosted a friend from Mandalay, and worked myself into a stupor at my bookshop. Then came along this past weekend when news came of a singer being shot to death in my hometown of Orlando, Florida, and less than a day later another news flash about dozens of people killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando (initially, I was confused, believing that both incidents were linked). As of this writing, there are 49 people confirmed killed and nearly that many more injured or hospitalized. This happened in Orlando? The sleepy town we used to jokingly call “Bore-Lando. The mind boggles. Honestly, I can’t fathom such a horrific crime — they are calling it the worst mass murder in US history – occurring in my placid hometown back in Central Florida. But that only goes to show you that such madness can occur anytime and anywhere. But maybe more so in the gun-crazy environs of the USA.

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There have been many insightful, eloquent, and thoughtful articles and blog posts already written about the Orlando incident, that I can’t think of much more to say. All I can add is that I hope everyone in Orlando, and in gay clubs, straight clubs, and clubs catering to every musical and ethnic persuasion, remain open and do a booming business this week. Don’t let the lunatic fuckers intimidate you and prevent you from enjoying yourself and being around people you care about. Fight the power. Fight the insanity. And keep on dancing, dammit!

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Meanwhile, there was my trip. I’ll try and post some more photos from that trip in the coming weeks, but honestly, work has been so time-consuming in recent months that I’m not sure how much time I can devote to posting articles and photos. But, as usual, I had a very memorable time in Myanmar and there are some pretty cool tales to tell and fun shots to share.

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After spending two weeks in Myanmar — the  highlight of which was taking those irrepressible novice monks from Shan State’s Tat Ein village on a 3-day road trip to the ruins of Bagan — I returned to Bangkok … but not alone. Accompanying me on the flight home was my friend Ye Man Oo from Mandalay, taking his first trip out of Myanmar, not to mention his first time on an airplane. For the past couple of years he has been talking about how his dream was to come to Bangkok and see my bookshop. Well, defying all obstacles, we made that dream come true. More about his trip in a future post, but the two weeks he spent with me in Bangkok was an incredible experience — for both of us. Having him around constantly was a bit tiring — exhausting might be more accurate! — but his upbeat nature and boundless enthusiasm was contagious and by the time I took him back to the airport I was very sad to see him depart. But hey, there’s always a next time, and Ye Man Oo is already trying to convince his parents that he needs to make a return trip this summer. And frankly, he was so helpful at my bookshop every day that we would be thrilled to have him back again.

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Family & Friends in Cambodia

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Cambodia boasts many interesting things to see and do. There are the many spectacular old temples — the magnificent ruins at the Angkor complex being the most famous, but that’s only a fraction of what exists — and beautiful natural wonders, from lakes and rivers to caves and mountains. But the reason I keep going back there so often is because of the people. Much like the qualities that endear me to the people in Myanmar, the Cambodians I know are kind, considerate, and unfailingly polite.

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During my recent trip to Siem Reap, my friend Chamrong met me at the airport and drove me to my guesthouse. He also works at the airport, but he took the day off in order to greet me and take me around, which I greatly appreciated. The four Try brothers took the bus from Kandal province (near Phnom Penh) to see me, and another friend, So Pengthay, managed to meet me a few times during my stay, which wasn’t easy due to his tour guides duties. A big group one day, a couple of more tourists the next day; he was constantly having to go somewhere.

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On the one day that he didn’t have any clients, Thay invited me to the new house he is having built, not far from Psah Leu market. He and his wife just celebrated the birth of their third child the week before, so they are definitely going to need the extra space for the growing family. Plus, it’s getting mighty congested — and noisy — living with the in-laws, so this new home will be most welcome in other ways too.

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The ground floor is already finished, but Thay is waiting until the end of rainy season — as well as another infusion of money from summer tourist business — to finish the second floor of the house. Meanwhile, he’s already installed kitchen appliances and a wide screen TV, so the house is pretty much read to live in. While Thay showed me around the house and talked about the changes in Siem Reap, his young son was busy doing some impromptu “landscaping” with rocks he found in the yard,.

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I’m enormously proud of what Thay has done in the past twelve years. This is a young man who came from a very poor rural village and has made something of himself in Siem Reap. After working for me at my bookshop in Siem Reap, Thay passed an exam and became a licensed tour guide at Angkor, and now he’s busy all year. He’s also been able to travel to other countries; one company invited him to a training conference in the United States a few years ago, and they have also sent him on tour to Thailand several times. He still hasn’t had time to visit my bookshop in Bangkok, but I’m hoping that will happen later this year.

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With the house almost finished, his next goal is getting his children enrolled in international schools, believing that they need to learn English language skills at an early age. Another good idea!

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New Breed of Book Shoppers

At my bookshop I’ve noticed a new breed of shopper in the past couple of years. Clearly, there is a generational divide among customers nowadays.

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The older customers will sometimes consult hand-written or printed notes to assist with their book buying, while the younger generation almost always prefers using their phones. I see these young customers (mostly those under 30) wandering down the aisles, clutching their smart phones and staring at the screen, looking up occasionally to peruse the bookshelves. The odd thing about these smart phone users, however, is that a high percentage of them seem to have no idea how to actually find a book on the shelves! Give them a smart phone or sit them in front of a computer and they can surf and click and download with ease. But ask them to find a book in a well-organized shop and they are lost.

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It’s sad — well, actually, it’s fairly comical sometimes — to watch these people stare helplessly at the bookshelves as they try and find the image the matches that on their screen. They ask things like “Do you have this book?” — thrusting the phone in my face — or “Do you have anything by Paulo Coelho?” In most cases, we’ll reply “Yes, it’s right there in front of you”, or “Yes, it’s filed under the letter “C”. That only puzzles them further, so we end up having to walk them over and pull the book out for them. Not all shoppers are this clueless. Most older customers, those who have been buying books for decades, seem to have no problems finding what they want and will rarely require assistance, but it’s become increasingly obvious that navigating a brick and mortar store is a challenge for many younger ones.

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What the hell? Is it really that difficult? Honestly, I’m totally puzzled by these befuddled smart phone shoppers. I keep my shop very well organized, filing the books alphabetically by the author’s last name, and allotting separate sections for various genres of fiction and non-fiction. It’s not like there is no rhyme or reason to the system. Maybe the section dividing gets confusing for some shoppers, but surely not the alphabet? Then again, you go into some Thai-operated shops and they are either totally disorganized or they will file the book by the author’s first name instead of their last!

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But hey, at least these people are actually looking for books and buying books, as opposed to downloading digital copies online. So for that, I am grateful. Nevertheless, there still exist the troublesome cousins of the smart phone users, the laptop cretins. While the smart phone shoppers can be amusing, the ones that bring laptops into the shop and sit for hours — yes, 3 or 4 hours at a time is not uncommon! —- while nursing a single cup of coffee and hogging precious seating space, are the ones that are infuriating. These slugs sit there and tap away on their laptops —- working, studying, playing, who knows what they are doing — believing that that they are entitled to do whatever they want for as long as they want, oblivious to the fact that they are monopolizing the only table in my shop. Lately, I’ve run very short on patience and I’ve resorted to telling the laptop squatters that we are a bookshop and not a public library, so we cannot accommodate — or tolerate — people that want to hang out and kill time for hours. In other words, hit the road!

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Despite my increasing annoyance with some of the people frequenting my bookshop, most days are blissful. The majority of the customers are a pleasure to have; interesting, delightful, and polite people, curious about the world and wanting to learn more — and read more — about things. As long as the nice people outnumber the creepy ones, I’ll look forward to opening the shop each day.

Bangkok Rains and Rainbows

Whenever I return to Bangkok after a trip to a neighboring country, I always hit the ground running, heading straight to work at my bookshop only minutes after arriving at the airport. This time, however, after my afternoon flight from Mandalay on Saturday, I headed home and stayed there. One reason was the lateness of the hour — it was already after 5 pm — but also due to the steady drizzle outside. No point in rushing to the shop.

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Eventually the rain stopped and a glorious rainbow appeared just before the setting sun attempted an equally radiant performance. A few hours later, my friend Bay called and he and another fellow motorcycle taxi driver, Tik, came over to chat, listen to music, and guzzle a few beers. Even though I was dog tired, I welcomed their company. It was a nice “Welcome Back to Bangkok” experience. The only damper to the evening was the fact that I couldn’t get my TV to work for most of the night. Another Thai friend who had house-sat for me while I was away changed some of the chords between the TV and my CD player — apparently in an attempt to watch some “adult” DVDs, which was obvious from the big bag of discs he left underneath a table! — and I couldn’t figure out how to properly reconnect everything. I felt stupid until I asked the guy from the front desk and to come up and help me, but he couldn’t get the TV to work either. Finally, after switching remote devices, the TV miraculously came back to life!

The next morning I left early for work to get a head start on the day and see what damage had been done to my shop while I was away. It was STILL raining, so I hailed a taxi and took that to my shop. The driver I got was a real cheerful, chatty fellow, so funny that by the time we arrived at my destination on Sukhumvit Road he had me in stitches, real waves of laughter punctuating the morning mist. Ah, another reminder about why I love living in this crazy city.

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The rest of the day was a bit more stressful; a Thai dealer arrived around 10 am with hundreds of books to sell. The good news is that most of the books he had were very good and will help replenish the shelves. But the downside was that it kept me busy for the rest of the morning, afternoon, and evening; cleaning, sorting, pricing, putting all the information about each book in the computer, and then putting everything on the shelves or in various window and wall displays. It didn’t help that one of my employees had to leave early in the day to visit her grandfather who was in the hospital. So, it was a very busy day, and the volume of books was so big that it took us all of Sunday and half the day on Monday to finish the lot. But when everything was done, I got that familiar, comforting feeling of satisfaction from having completed a huge task.

Back at work and ready for another day of surprises and excitement. That’s one of the things that make living in Bangkok so worthwhile. To quote of the great philosopher Rod Stewart: “Never a Dull Moment!”

 

Dashing Through the Weirdness

I breathe a sigh of relief tonight, for I have managed to work another Christmas Day in my bookshop without resorting to violence or verbally haranguing some clueless nimrod for wishing me a “Merry Christmas.” Why is it that so many people in Thailand — both Thais and foreigners — assume that all Westerners gleefully celebrate Christmas? I’m not a Christian and I don’t celebrate Christmas, yet even living in Thailand it’s almost impossible to avoid the holiday weirdness.

 All of the shopping centers and department stores in Bangkok have been flaunting their horrific Christmas decorations since late October. If that’s not bad enough, many of these places also delight in playing Christmas music. It’s also impossible to avoid gaudy holiday decorations and spindly little trees in restaurants, banks, and supermarkets all around town. My apartment complex, however, didn’t put up a tree this year. I wonder if they are still upset that I set fire to last year’s tree.

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Is there some regulation that all employees in these places must wear Santa Claus hats? Really, it’s beyond ridiculous. This is Thailand, the welcoming kingdom of peaceful Buddhists and sexy go-go dancers. Why all the Christmas stuff? Even in the hospital where my friend is being treated they have Christmas decorations on every floor. Last time I checked, the population of Thailand was comprised of about 95% Buddhists, and most of the rest are Muslim, so what’s with all this Christian crap?

As you would guess, it has nothing to do with religion and all to do with being festive, or just being silly, and no country in the world does silliness better than Thailand. In fact, there are universities in Thailand that offer advanced courses in silliness. It’s that much of an art form. So when there is a chance to dress up, decorate, and do some shopping, hell, the Thais are going to go wild! And they do. I almost dropped by Foodland tonight to pick up a few things, but the thought of having to face a gauntlet of smiling Santa Claus hat-wearing cashiers wishing me a “May-ree Crit-mat!” was too much to deal with, so I walked straight home.

The Christmas overkill is not unique to Thailand. Go to any Asian country (well, maybe not North Korea) and you’ll see similar scenes of decorated malls and grinning people wearing Santa hats. Even in Malaysia, which is mostly Muslim, they aren’t shy about trotting out the Christmas decorations in full force. And when I was in Mandalay last month I saw several shops selling Christmas trees and other Santa crap. Man, you just can’t escape this nonsense. But hey, I guess it all has to do with marketing, right?

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The main problem, though, is that it’s a major Christian holiday, and that religious creepiness is always rearing its ugly head. Just last week some nutjob Christian — looking and sounding like an alcoholic Swede — wandered into my bookshop and started passing out those odious religious tracts. These fliers, though, were written in Thai, no doubt urging the recipient to repent and accept Jesus as their savior. I told this creep to get the hell out of my shop. He made some remark about “Jesus is coming soon,” so I retorted: “Well, it’s sure taking him a long time, isn’t it? What’s he been doing, masturbating to photos of Lady Gaga? No, wait a minute, didn’t I read that the Astros signed him to play shortstop next year? Or maybe that was another Jesus. I always get those Hispanic guys mixed up.” He kept babbling more Jesus voodoo, and I just smirked and added “take your fantasies somewhere else, dude, we don’t want your kind around here!”

My Cambodian friend Chiet was in the shop at the time, and he stared at the paper the creepy Christian had given him and asked me what it was. “It’s a new brand of toilet paper,” I told him. “But it’s a bit on the rough side, so be careful if you use it.”

 

Japanese Sunshine, Shan Style

October was a tough month for me, both financially and emotionally. My good friend is still hospitalized and back in ICU again. Lots of tests and conjecture, but there is still no clear prognosis. Earlier this week they transferred him from Paolo Memorial Hospital to the Bangkok Hospital Medical Center. I take that as a positive sign, at least in regards to the care he’ll be getting. The nurses and a doctor I talked to at Paolo were very kind and keep me updated on my friend’s condition, but BMC seems to have better facilities with which to treat him. I won’t go into specifics on his health issues, but it’s very serious. Right now, I’m just pulling for him to survive this ordeal.

So, lots of hospital visits, plus weekly dental appointments for myself, taking care of a broken filling and another tooth that’s cracked and needs a crown. All of which costs more money. October was also when my annual Thai visa had to be renewed, so that process cost another bundle of baht — and a stack of paperwork, all of which had to be signed and stamped — plus a visit to the remote immigration office at Chaeng Wattana. Man, am I glad that torture is over with for another year. And before the month was out I had to wire some money to a friend in Cambodia who needed some help. So much for trying to save money this month.

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Amidst all those dreary and costly events, I was granted a ray of sunshine — let’s call it Japanese sunshine — in the form of a visit earlier in the month from the lovely Kazuko. I first met Kazuko about three years ago, out in the rolling hills of Shan State in Tat Ein village. Kazuko is one of the main donors to projects in that village, including the building of the primary school. Like me, she’s fallen in love with the villagers, students, and monks who live there and visits often. But she’s got me beat as far as the number of visits, returning five or six times each year. Naturally, she is well regarded by the villagers, so beloved in fact, that they affectionately gave her the nickname “Ma Zabei.”

I missed seeing her when I was in Shan State back in late August, but she managed to make a visit later in September and spent several days in the village. I received an e-mail from her, telling me that she was in Myanmar, but headed to Bangkok afterwards. She also attached a photo and added this message:

All are fine at school! Do you remember him? He is out of monk. He is also remembering you.

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I looked at the photo: Did I remember this kid? I wasn’t sure at first. Owing to the fact that he’d been a novice monk at the monastery, I’d never seen him before with hair! But he remembered me, so I must know him. I looked at the photo again and finally figured out who he was. I’ve never learned his name, but he’s been one of the regulars who I’ve taught in he school the past couple of years, and he’s been a staple at the monastery during that time. The photo below is one I took of him at Kakku earlier this year during one of the field trips that I took with the students and monks.

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But the strange thing is, he wasn’t anywhere around when I visited the village in August. According to Kazuko’s note he’s left the monastery and is now living with his family in the village. But where was he two months ago? No idea, and Kazuko wasn’t sure either. Now that he’s finished his studies at the primary school, is he attending the secondary school? If he was, I think I would have seen him with the other kids after school, but he wasn’t with any of the groups I saw this time, either at the school or at the monastery. It’s all a bit of a mystery. But hey, at least he’s back in the village again. I really need to find out more about kids like this boy and if they are able to further their studies after they finish primary school. In some cases, it’s not feasible or practical for the family. Some of the boys are novice monks for a year or two — or three — and then they leave for other monasteries, never to be seen in the village again. Some of the monks at the monastery are actually from this same village, but it’s not clear to me why some stay longer than others. More tales of mystery to try and solve!

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Anyway, Kazuko finally made it to Bangkok and we managed to meet a couple of times. We met at her hotel in Pratunam one rainy night and with umbrellas in hand we walked a few blocks to Central World Plaza and had dinner at a Thai restaurant there. She had an iPad with her and showed me more photos from her trip, including pics of the mystery monk and other kids from the village. She also showed me some other projects she’s involved with, including a monastery in Bago and a village near Pakkokku. She is helping to fund construction of a new school in that village after the last one literally washed away in a flood last summer. In one photo she showed me, all that’s left of the school are some stone steps. Next time, it was decided, they’ll build the school a bit further from the river! Before she left Bangkok, Kazuko and two of her friends paid a visit to my bookshop. I made sure to take a few photos of the occasion, ones that I can show the kids back in Tat Ein village the next time I visit. Having “Ma Zabei” visit my bookshop will definitely earn me bonus points and added prestige in the Shan State rankings!

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