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

Posts tagged ‘bookshop’

Monday Smiles


Another day — and night — with sporadic rain showers here in Bangkok. I think we can safely say that the rainy season is now officially here. But even the wet weather didn’t stop a surprising number of customers from flocking to my bookshop to sell, exchange, and buy more books today. No matter what you hear, not everybody is tethered to e-readers just yet, and for that I’m grateful. It wasn’t an official Monday holiday (of which there were two last month in Thailand), but it was so busy that it felt like one, or at least an extension of the weekend. I’m too exhausted from buying and organizing books to think about writing anything of substance today, so these photos that I took recently in Myanmar will have to suffice for now. But hey, more smiles on a Monday is a good thing, right?























The King on the Moon

I was in my bookshop last night, updating the Daily Arrival list on our website, when I got a phone call from Chamrong, a friend in Cambodia. The connection was poor, so I had to ask him to repeat what he was telling me. Something about the moon.

“Go outside and look at the moon,” Rong urged me. “I think the moon in Bangkok is the same as Cambodia. You should go look.”

“What is happening with the moon?” I asked. “Is there an eclipse or something?”

“Look at the moon,” he repeated. “You can see the face of King Sihanouk!”

“Huh? On the moon?”

“Yes!” Rong exclaimed. “You can see his face! It’s King Sihanouk!”

So, with phone in hand, I wandered outside and looked up. All I could see were the damn Skytrain tracks, some large buildings and lots of wires. I turned in a different direction and more of the same, plus a massage sign and a few billboards. No sign of any moon.


“I can’t see the moon right now,” I told Rong. “There are too many tall buildings on my street. I’ll have to look later when I go home.”

“Yes, look later. You will see King Sihanouk’s face.”


Well, on my walk home, I finally did catch a glimpse of the moon. My eyesight isn’t so good, even wearing glasses, but I certainly couldn’t make out any image resembling the recently departed King Sihanouk of Cambodia. Hell, if you use your imagination and look at the moon, it could be anybody or anything.


“Look, there’s Gordon Lightfoot!’

“No, it’s Isaac Hayes.”

“Actually, that looks more like Richard Nixon.”

“You’re crazy, it’s Betty’s buttocks.”

I wasn’t about to tell my Cambodian friend he was nuts. No doubt this Sihanouk on the moon thing is some rumor that’s running rampant in Cambodia, as happens so many times over there. If they want to believe that their beloved former King is smiling down at them from the moon, go ahead and let them. Just don’t let it rain again tonight.

Mandalay Monks Revisited

On the other side of 90th Street in Mandalay, between 34th and 33rd Streets, is a rather large monastery, populated by nearly 100 novice monks. During one of my meandering cycling trips around town, I visited it for the first time during a trip last year, and returned again this month. I wrote down the name in one of my journals, but damned if I can find the thing when I need it. So whatever this monastery is called, it’s a lively one, and the novice monks in residence enjoy posing for photos — especially knowing that I’ll go a local camera shop and bring them back prints the following day!


One day I met a local man who had stopped by the monastery on an errand of some sort. He appeared to be a regular. During our conversation, when he was asking the usual “where do you come from?” sort of questions, one of the monks standing next to us told him that I owned a bookshop in Thailand. Good memory, kid! Here are a few shots I took during two recent visits to the monastery during the late morning “lunch” break.




Sweet Sixteen

I hadn’t circled the date on my calendar — and actually I can’t remember the exact date — but this week marked the 16th anniversary of my move from the United States to Thailand. Holy jumping sassafras! To say that the time has flown by would be a definite understatement. But even after sixteen years, and a few bumps along the route, I wake up each morning very thankful, and very happy, that I am able to live and work in a magical, tolerant country. This still feels like paradise.


Actually, I haven’t spent the entire 16 years in Bangkok. I moved to Cambodia in 2002 to open a bookshop in Siem Reap. I stayed there for nearly two full years before I felt the tug of Thailand and moved back to Bangkok … to open another bookshop. What’s next? I like challenges and new places, so maybe a bookshop in Mandalay? Hmm. I’d be lying if I said that the thought hasn’t crossed my mind. But reality screams back, telling me that that’s not going to happen: No way, dude! You’re better off staying in Bangkok. At least for now.


I’ve met many other Westerners who have relocated to Thailand. Some of them seemingly had no choice in the matter, having been sent here by their company for work. But many others, like me, moved to Thailand because they became disenchanted with their native country and felt that life in Thailand offered something different and exciting. In other words: something better. Some expats adapt and thrive here in Thailand, but others are bothered by the heat and chaos and can’t ever grasp the differences in culture and language. Still others find that they miss something — or someone — back in their homeland and end up moving back relatively quickly.


Me, I’m sticking it out and staying put here in this comfortably weird corner of Southeast Asia. I constantly follow news reports and get e-mails from friends back in the US, so I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what life is like back there. And it scares the hell out of me. Why would I want to go back to that sizzling pu-pu platter of insanity? If anything, a high percentage of Americans have become more intolerant, destructive, angry, and ignorant over the past few years. Looking at the field of pathetic Republican candidates running for president this year is frightening evidence of this downward spiral. How can so many members of the voting public support religious maniacs who spew lies and distortions? One candidate, Rick Santorum, appears to have a particularly bizarre obsession with sex, babbling on and on about what he defines as family values. But he’s a Catholic, those masters of guilt and hypocrisy, so his having such Victorian attitudes toward sex shouldn’t come as a shock. What is shocking, though, is that he has commanded so much support from the American voting public thus far. Then again, considering the warped “morals” of the religious right, Santorum’s views must be in tune with those of their own.


Charles M. Blow wrote an outstanding piece about Santorum’s sexual fixation (frustration?) in the New York Times last week. He used many excerpts from speeches that Santorum has given on the campaign trail to showcase that obsession. Here is one such example:


Santorum: “It comes down to sex. That’s what it’s all about. It comes down to freedom, and it comes down to sex. If you have anything to do with any of the sexual issues, and if you are on the wrong side of being able to do all of the sexual freedoms you want, you are a bad guy. And you’re dangerous because you are going to limit my freedom in an area that’s the most central to me.”


I’m inspired to borrow a portion of Santorum’s rant, change a few words, and throw it back at him:

If you have anything to do with religious issues, and if you are allowed all of the religious freedoms you want, you are a dangerous guy. And you’re dangerous because you are going to limit my freedom.


And these zealots ARE a very dangerous bunch. I think that by embracing religion — specifically Christianity — to such an extreme extent, America has lost its way to the highway and is headed for the ditch. A staggeringly high percentage of Americans think it’s more normal to pray about matters than to think them through logically. But of course logic or intelligence never enters into their thought process. They are more alarmed about premarital sex and gay marriage than the deteriorating environment or the poor quality of public education. Santorum’s mindset, and that of his religious supporters, vividly illustrates what turns me off about America, what scares me about America, and why I have zero desire to go back there.


Thailand certainly has its share of problems too, and more than a few idiot politicians are running loose. But at least they don’t use religion to blind the masses. In recent years, Thailand has suffered from floods, a military coup, Red Shirt protests, and Yellow Shirt protests. But I’d still much rather live here in this imperfect Asian kingdom than back in the misnamed land of liberty, freedom, and justice for all. From now on I think I’ll just call it the United States of Religious Loonies.

No-Fi, iZombies, and other notes

Business at my bookshop in Bangkok was very good in December and has continued to be strong so far this month, which is a big relief after the extremely slow days during the flooding mayhem in October and November. The Lunar New Year (“Chinese New Year”) holiday hasn’t officially started — that’s later this month — but we’re already seeing lots of travelers from the Asia region, taking their long holidays in Thailand or passing through Bangkok. And many Western tourists are finally trickling back into Thailand too. Maybe this year’s high season won’t be so dismal after all.

Not all people walking into my bookshop come to buy books. Inevitably, we get some laptop-lugging geek asking if we have wi-fi, the answer to which is a resounding “NO!” But the fact that we are wi-fi-less doesn’t stop many of the laptop slackers, or those with some other trendy iDevice that will be obsolete in six months, from laying claim to a seat at our front counter and “hanging out” for several hours, blissfully unfazed by the fact that they are monopolizing one of the few seats in the shop. They seem to think that ordering one cup of coffee entitles them to such privileges. Oh, if I had a grenade. What is it with the new generation and the bizarre sense of entitlement that so many of them flaunt?

Speaking of clueless, I continue to be amazed by the legions of electro-zombies stumbling around town — on sidewalks, in malls, on public transport — transfixed by their shiny new iDevices, totally oblivious to what’s transpiring around them. They are blissfully mesmerized by that little screen, furiously texting, or poking away at the screen of their iWanker. I find this e-addiction both humorous and frightening; a “perfect storm” of social engineering that I think will have a negative effect on civilized society. Well hell, it already has had a negative effect, but I think it’s only going get worse. But hey, as long as these folks have the latest shiny gadget in hand, they won’t care that their freedoms are quickly eroding, or that around-the-clock Big Brother surveillance is nearly here. You want “social networking,” well you got it, baby! It only confirms a long-held belief: most people are sheep.

I made my weekly trip to the Sizzler restaurant on Thonglor for dinner last Thursday night. After I had finished eating, one of the waiters told me that they would be closing down next week. That’s closing as in “for good”. Well, that threw me for a loop. I’ve been going to that particular branch of Sizzler on nearly a weekly basis for most of the past decade. For me, the big draw is their well-stocked soup and salad bar. It’s a chance for me to get a good balanced meal instead of just eating noodles or rice for dinner, or getting lazy and ordering a pizza. Anyway, it looks like I’ll now to find another substitute for my Thursday night meal. I suppose I could go to the Sizzler in Central World Plaza instead, but that’s a little out of my way.

Speaking of Central World, I did go there earlier this week and walked around the B2S branch, browsing the CD selection. I managed to not buy a single CD, remarkable restraint for me. But then again, they weren’t having a sale and I didn’t find anything on my wish list in stock. The B2S shop aside, Central World remains a baffling maze of shops, department stores, escalators, and obstacles — they even have a small ice skating rink. There is no logical pattern to the layout, a bit like Bangkok itself! After all these years, I still manage to get lost or turned around when I visit this retail monstrosity. But one thing I did notice at Central World — as well at other malls and restaurants I have visited this month — is that they STILL have those gaudy Christmas decorations on display. I’m tempted to borrow a wrecking ball from one of the nearby construction sites and initiate a bit of creative demolition. I’ll deck their fucking halls!

When leaving Central World, I debated on how to get home. I could walk back to the BTS Skytrain station at Chidlom, take the Skytrain to Ekkamai, and then get a motorcycle taxi the rest of the way home. Or I could walk across the street to the Pratunam Pier and take a water taxi on Klong Saen Saeb, the big canal that intersects the city. I opted for the boat and took it to the Thonglor Pier, whereupon I walked the rest of the way home. Easy. I hadn’t taken the water taxi in several months, and using this mode of transportation reminded me of how much I enjoy it. I used to be a regular boat commuter in the mid to late 1990s, those traffic-jammed days before the Skytrain or Subway systems were in operation and Bangkok commuters had more limited options. Despite the fact that the black klong water is horribly polluted, smells bad, and boat’s engines are loud as hell, I find the ride on the water is very relaxing. I don’t have to worry about being sideswiped by a passing motorcycle or breathing toxic bus fumes. And naturally there are no traffic jams — or even boat jams — on the klong!

One of the supremely cool customers at my shop — one that doesn’t sit at the counter and play with his laptop — is an American named David, just back from his first trip to Myanmar. Even though he’s from Philadelphia, and a Phillies fan, David’s a good guy, and I was happy to give him lots of pre-trip advice about traveling around the country. He reports that he enjoyed Myanmar very much and is already planning a return trip for later in the year. He made the usual circuit — Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, and Nyaunghswe/Inle Lake — as well as heading west to the beach town of Ngwe Saung. He found a huge bungalow right on the beach for only $15 per night. Yes, bargains can be found over there, even during the high season.

Season’s Headaches

We’re now firmly in the middle of December, which of course means it’s almost time for that most annoying of annual holidays, Christmas. Yes, I’m one of those “Bah Humbug” types. I’ll spend the rest of the month trying not to visibly grimace when some unsuspecting soul wishes me a “Merry Christmas” or am forced to endure vapid Christmas music when wandering through the local shopping malls and supermarkets. As far as I’m concerned, this borders on torture.

When I first moved to Bangkok nearly 16 years ago, I naively assumed that I could escape the idiocy of the Christmas season, and the idiotic babblings of fervent Christians, by living in Thailand. But alas, that wasn’t to be. Although Thailand is overwhelmingly populated by Buddhists, the locals seem to think it’s cute to decorate department stores, restaurants and supermarkets with Christmas trees and other jingly, glittery crap. And hey, why not wear a Santa Claus hat and sing “Jingle Bells” while you’re at it! Sanook, na ka! Well, it’s not so sanook for those of us with little tolerance for Christmas or Christianity. My dream is go around to all the shops that are displaying trees and other gaudy decorations, whip out an industrial-sized lighter, and start setting fire to these seasonal atrocities. Whooomph! There’s your festival of lights!

Yet another disturbing aspect to “Festive” season here in Bangkok is the annoying appearance of Christian carolers on the BTS Skytrain carriages on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Why these groups are given permission to serenade (I think harassment is a more accurate term) passengers on the train is beyond my comprehension. Then again, maybe these are renegade bands of carolers who gleefully flaunt regulations in an attempt to spread their perverted brand of Christmas cheer. Whatever the case, I now purposefully avoid the Skytrain on those “special days.” Not only would the Christmas yodeling leave me fuming, I fear I would lose all control and either start spitting on the offenders or physically grab a couple of the louder carolers and hurl them onto the rails below. Hark! There’s a body on the tracks!

Earlier this week, I was in the back room of my bookshop when I heard an abrasive chorus of “We Wish you a Merry Christmas,” accompanied by the strumming of a guitar, coming from the front of the shop. I knew the culprits immediately: a group of peculiar Filipino minstrels who are always walking into local shops and serenading for money no matter which month it is. I rushed out of the room and literally chased them out of my shop, screaming obscenities at them.

As they slithered back out into the street one of my customers remarked: “Wow, I’ve never seen you get so upset like that!” No, it’s indeed rare to see me explode in such a manner. Normally I stay pretty calm even in the midst of occasional chaos. But I have zero tolerance for evangelical Christians who flaunt their bizarre religious views in public. And I especially detest those missionary types who travel to foreign countries with the aim of “converting” locals who they deem to be “poor, ignorant heathens” in need of saving. But hey, the Jesus-Lovers are obviously morally, culturally, and intellectually superior to the rest of us agnostic souls, so we should listen to them, right? Uh, no. Delusional and dangerous are better words to describe these Bible Belters. If they want to believe their fantasy tales and celebrate Christmas they are entitled to do so, but not in public places where the rest of us hope to escape such nonsense.

It’s also safe to assume that I wont be playing any Christmas music in my shop this month. As usual, the CD player will be blasting nothing but a medley of Satanic, devil-worshipping hits!

Siem Reap

I spent four days in Siem Reap, Cambodia earlier this month. I ran the Lazy Mango Bookshop there from 2002-2004. Even though I’m based in Bangkok now, I to go back and visit friends in Siem Reap once or twice each year. I have fond memories of those days and the many wonderful Cambodians that I met. So Peng Thai and Chamrong both worked at my bookshop. Chiet and the Try brothers — Hoich, Hach, Channo, and Bo —- were all “street kids”, stopping by during the shop to chat (this did wonders for my Khmer language development), run errands for me, or help me dust the terminally dusty bookshelves (our front “gate” was always open — no AC, just ceiling fans — so the Siem Reap dust was a regular visitor). They were your typical irrepressible, happy-go-lucky kids, but not attending school at the time I met them. We soon fixed that problem.


It’s been satisfying to see them all “grow up” over the past decade. Rong is now a supervisor at the Siem Reap airport and belatedly taking a course to get his high school diploma. Thai is working as a licensed Angkor tour guide. He and his wife are expecting their second child early next year. Chiet didn’t get far in school but took a vocational training course and is now working as a welder. The oldest Try brother, Hoich, is now 22 and still hasn’t finished high school. He’s frustrated and wants to get a job and make some money. Thai is helping me find a vocational school or course where he can study motorcycle repair. Hach turns 20 soon and is happily going to high school and also studying English and various computer programs. I have a feeling that Channo will also go the way of Hoich and not finish school, but the youngest, Bo, who is 16, once again finished first in his class on the last round of exams. He tells me that he wants to be a doctor. Go for it kid! One notable absence from our old gang is Sophea, who used to run a shop in the town’s old market. She had the audacity to go and get married and then move to the USA about a year ago. The kids really miss her and are always asking me for updates on what she’s doing. One of these days we hope she’ll come back and visit us.


Siem Reap has changed dramatically since I lived there nearly a decade ago. It was never a particularly picturesque town, but it did have its pleasant side. Sadly, those last vestiges of charm are fading away with the increase in vehicle traffic and building construction. I’m not pleased with a lot of the growth I see. Along Highway 6, the road to the airport, there is such a glut of cookie-cutter hotels that many of them stand vacant or construction has halted. And yet, still more are being built. Must be high hopes for an increase of Chinese tour groups on the horizon.


I didn’t even go to Angkor this time. Other than taking a trip on the lake to Kampong Pluk (photos coming soon) I didn’t really go anywhere. Most of my time was spent meeting friends for meals, almost all of which were at the Hawaii Restaurant near Wat Bo Road. I’ve always liked the food there — from tasty pizzas and other western dishes to very good Khmer food — but for the Try brothers the real draw is their pool table. Game after game after game. And the family that runs the restaurant is always polite and friendly, offering typically charming Cambodian hospitality. Reason enough to go back!

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