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

Posts tagged ‘Siem Reap’

Bookselling in Bangkok

This month marks the tenth anniversary of my bookshop in Bangkok. We were in the midst of an anniversary sale earlier this week when the Thai Army declared martial law. Two days after that they officially ousted the caretaker government in yet another military coup (the previous one occurred in 2006). Here we go again. Whatever you want to say about living in Thailand, it’s certainly never dull!

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It seems like only a few short months ago that I was worrying about how I was going to obtain enough books to stock the shelves of the bookshop that I planned to open in Bangkok. Ten years already? Damn, the time truly has flown by. Back in early 2004 I was still running a small secondhand bookshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia. It had been open for about two years, but I was missing Bangkok, plus getting the itch to open a bigger and better bookshop. So I did it.

Anyone who has ever operated a retail business knows about the ups and downs involved. I’ve worked, managed, or owned a variety of retail business for 35 years, so I’m quite accustomed to the myriad challenges, but running a business in Thailand has its owns distinct quirks. For one thing, if I was going to adhere to the business laws for foreign residents in Thailand, not only did I need to apply for a work permit and get the proper non-immigrant visa, I also needed a Thai business partner. Luckily, there was one trusty Thai man I knew (we had worked together at Tower Records in Bangkok in the late 1990s) who had both the desire and the financial means to go into business with a knucklehead like me.

After three frenzied months of planning and activity (finding a building to rent, finding a large quantity of books, finding contractors to renovate the building, finding sources for coffee beans and cakes and other items) we opened Dasa Books on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok. We had less than 7,000 books when we first opened, but today the stock hovers between 16,000 and 17,000 books, occupying three floors of retail space.

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You hear a lot these days about bookshops losing business or even closing down. People are either reading less — or at least that’s the perception if you listen to the “experts” — or they have “converted” to e-books and e-readers, forsaking the paper tome altogether. Well, from my perspective I’m not seeing that at all. Maybe the fact that we primarily sell secondhand books has given us some immunity against the e-reading trend, or the fact that expats in this part of the world tend to be readers instead of TV zombies, but our business has been increasing, not decreasing, over the past decade. Hey, knock on wood, I’ll take it, and hope that trend continues!

One other trend I’ve noticed in recent years is the new breed of younger customers and they way that they shop for books. Unlike older customers who will often bring with them a list of books that they are looking to buy, the new breed of customers consults their smart phone instead. The odd thing with most of these younger folks, however, is that they seemingly have no idea how to find a book on the shelves once they are inside the shop. They can quickly surf online, or click away effortlessly on their phone, but put them in a shop with real books and they appear stumped as to how to find anything. And it’s not like things are that hard to find in my shop. We keep the shop very well organized: all books are filed in alphabetical order by author and divided into specific categories. And yet many people just can’t figure it out. No wonder they are more comfortable shopping online!

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A more annoying trait of the younger generation is their obliviousness and sense of entitlement. We literally have a handful of seats in my bookshop, and yet some insufferable people will occupy a single table for hours on end, tapping away on their laptop or playing with their phone (I call them: “iMasturbators”), or chatting with friends, all while nursing a single drink. In my mind, these people are more pests than customers. There are days when I wish I could spray them with some magical solution and watch them vaporize. Good riddance!

Thankfully, the pests are in the minority and the vast majority of our customers are really cool, book-loving types. Take, for example, the first five customers who came to my shop this morning, all of whom are regulars. One is a retired Thai man who reads mostly non-fiction titles, between four and five fairly thick books every week. I’m continuously amazed at the variety, and volume, of books that this guy reads. The second man in the store today is Belgian and has lived in Thailand for several decades. He buys books in English, German, French, and Dutch. Not surprisingly, he has also done several book translations for a local publisher. Customer number three this morning was another retired man, Burmese by birth, schooled in the USA, and a resident of Thailand for 30 years. He’s big on historical fiction and loves to joke with me about politics, the dysfunctional Thai or American brands. The fourth customer in the store was a talkative Australian (is there any other kind?) who buys a lot of classic and contemporary fiction. Number five this morning was a British woman who buys mostly crime fiction and mysteries. Those first five customers were followed by a Chinese mother and her four children, all of them picking out books in English to read. Later in the morning a Buddhist monk stopped by to pick up a book on home improvement!

And that’s just a snapshot of a typical hour at the bookshop. I love this business and the rainbow of customers who come to shop for books. Sign me up for another colorful and interesting ten years!

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Good Hearts & Loving Kindness

I had dinner last Tuesday with two of my favorite people; Janet Brown and Ma Thanegi. Janet, now living in Seattle, had been in town for a week already, but Thanegi has just flown in from Yangon that morning. We met at my bookshop and then made plans to eat at a Thai restaurant on Thonglor. To make the journey easier I called one my motorcycle taxi friends, Bay, and asked him to bring a couple of other moto drivers to the shop to pick us up. Traffic was looking scary-bad, but within 20 minutes he and his buddies arrived and then whisked us away to the restaurant. I tipped the drivers generously and told Bay that he and his friends were welcome to join me for dinner whenever they had free time. Of course getting that free time is no easy task for these guys. They work insane hours with no days off. Anyway, Janet and Thanegi and I had a feast at the restaurant. Good food and good conversation; it was the perfect night.

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The next day Thanegi stopped by my bookshop to buy a few more books. This time I remembered to snap a photo! A few days later I was treated to a surprise visit from Beth Goldring from Phnom Penh. Beth founded the Brahmavihara Cambodia Aids Project in 2000, the same year I met her. She’s also there in the top ranks of my favorite people category; a truly amazing, inspirational lady. It was a busy Saturday when she dropped by my bookshop, but I made time to sit down and chat for a while. As usual, Beth is in the middle of several projects and planning another fundraising trip to the US later this year, but she stocked up on mystery novels while she was in my shop.

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And later that night, Bai and three of the motorcycle taxi drivers on my street dropped by my apartment to hang out and listen to music, the usual “Songs for Life” fare such as Pongist Kampee and Carabao. They’re a curious bunch — I don’t doubt I’m their first farang friend — and they pepper me with all sorts of questions, and I return the favor and ask them a bunch of stuff too. My Thai is still not fluent, so some of what they are saying doesn’t always register, but for the most part, we can carry on a semi-coherent conversation … and that thrills me. I truly enjoy their company.

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Today is Valentine’s Day of course, but here in Thailand the date this year also falls on an important Buddhist holiday, Makha Bucha. Loving kindness and love the one you’re with; a great combination! That got me thinking that I should expand the theme of my post today and write about life and love and good friends, all those things that I often take for granted. This year I’m reflecting more on this sort of stuff as one of my best friends remains bed-ridden in a local nursing home, basically waiting to die. And mortality reared its ugly head last week when I got an e-mail from another good friend, So Penh Thay in Siem Reap, Cambodia, telling me that his father had passed away the day before. I wrote back, and also called him, but I feel that any words of sympathy on my part were inadequate.

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Another one of my favorite people, Khin Nwe Lwin in Mandalay, sent me a couple of e-mails last week, attaching MP3s of some Burmese songs for me. She’s also been helping me keep track of people and things around the 90th Street neighborhood in Mandalay where I have many other friends. There’s a troubling issue with one of the kids there, but I’ll save that story for another post. But the main thing is that she is supportive of my efforts to help these kids and I really treasure our friendship.

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Also in Mandalay, I can’t forget about Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung, two stalwarts of the 90th Street crew who I take on field trips when I’m in town. During the past two trips to Mandalay, Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung have also become my nightly dining companions, usually at Aye Myit Tar Restaurant on 81st Street. It beats dining alone, and they are nice, polite kids, so I’m always happy to have them tag along. My birthday happened to fall during the time I was in Mandalay last trip and Zin Ko and Moe Htet Aung gave me gifts, one of which was this cute little stand with plastic swans and hearts that lights up when you flip a switch. “When the light comes on you will remember us,” Moe Htet Aung told me. Indeed I will!

 

On this Valentine’s Day, I send out hearts and arrows of love to all the friends and fine folks who continue to put up with me. And a Happy Makha Bucha Day too!

http://www.brahmavihara.cambodiaaidsproject.org/

 

The Need to Work

Earlier this week I had phone calls from two friends, both now working in countries where they were not born, trying to acclimate to a new language, new culture, new environment; the whole works. Since I pretty much did the same thing nearly twenty years ago, I can relate to their situation, although the obstacles and struggles that these two young men have faced pale in comparison to what I had to adjust to when I moved from the United States to Thailand.

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The first caller was Yan Naing Soe from Myanmar. I met him about five years ago when he was a teenager working at that Minthiha teashop in Mandalay. He always struck me as a bright, personable kid with poise, someone who would do well for himself if given the opportunity. But with only a sixth-grade education, his options were limited. He saved his meager salary from working long days at the teashop and used some of the money to study English when he had free time in the evenings. He left the teashop earlier this year to take an overseas job in Malaysia. Before he left I asked him if he felt scared to make such a move. “Yes,” he laughed. “I don’t know what will happen.”

But so far, so good. Yan Naing Soe  is working for a landscaping company in the Kuala Lumpur area, “cutting lots of trees” and working in the steamy outdoors. He gets Sundays off, which is a better deal than when he was working at the teashop and had no days off. He’s also making a higher salary, which I don’t doubt he’ll be saving and wiring home to his mother who lives near Bagan in Nyaung U. He sounds happy and content in his new home, working with a handful of other young Burmese men. I hope that I’ll see him again soon, probably in Malaysia next time.

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My other “foreign” friend is Chiet from Cambodia. He is back working a construction job in Thailand for the second straight year. This time around he is working at a construction site about an hour outside of Bangkok, in Pathum Thani province. He gets two days off work each week. Well, sometimes. The work schedule is erratic and in recent months he and the other workers have had to put in extra hours on the weekend to make up for any days that were rained out. Chiet is making only 280 Thai baht per day (less than US$10), but it’s still a higher salary than he got working jobs as a welder and security guard in Siem Reap. I hadn’t seen him since I was in Siem Reap earlier this year, but he came to visit me at my bookshop last week during a break from work. He’s still the same sweet and goofy kid that I’ve known for twelve years, but gaining confidence and experience. He’s learned a bit of Thai during his time here and he gets a kick out of trying to speak the language with me.

I thought again of my two friends when I read an editorial by Charles Blow in the New York Times last week. He was discussing a Republican senator in the US who did not support extending unemployment benefits past the current limit of 26 weeks. The Republican philosophy seems to be that helping people does them a “disservice” and unemployment benefits should be capped. But as Blow pointed out, this unemployment “safety net” is more than just a “handout” for many people, especially in these bleak times. Here is one excerpt from his editorial:

“Whereas I am sure that some people will abuse any form of help, I’m by no means convinced that this is the exclusive domain of the poor and put-upon. Businesses and the wealthy regularly take advantage of subsidies and tax loopholes without blinking an eye. But somehow, when some poor people, or those who unexpectedly fall on hard times, take advantage of benefits for which they are eligible it’s an indictment of the morality and character of the poor as a whole. The poor are easy to pick on. They are the great boogeymen and women, dragging us down, costing us money, gobbling up resources. That seems to be the conservative sentiment.”

Of course the dire unemployment situation and the perception of “poor people asking for handouts” is not just unique to the United States. A lot of people, most people in fact, want to work or need to work, but either can’t find a job or can’t find one that pays a living wage. Here in Southeast Asia, the meager employment prospects in many countries has caused an exodus of people — such as my friends Yan Naing Soe and Chiet — who have found higher-paying work in other countries.

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No, these people are not lazy and like the growing legions of out-of-work Americans they aren’t looking for handouts either. They just want to be able to earn a decent living and help their families. I agree with another thing that Blow wrote in his editorial: poor people are some of the hardest working people I have ever known.

I think about my own situation here in Thailand and consider myself very, very lucky. Not just because I’m living in a country that I love, but also because I’m now in a situation where I am self-employed and able to earn a sufficient salary for my needs. But if I was living back in the United States I shudder to think what I would be doing for a job. Would a company hire a middle-aged man like me? Let’s see; I have experience managing retail businesses (CD stores and bookshops) and also as a journalist. But those are not exactly high-demand professions nowadays. Would I be able to scrape together enough money to open my own retail business again? And if so, would it be able to turn a profit in this unpredictable, portable, online age? These are scary times and I fear they are only going to get scarier.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/12/opinion/blow-the-appalling-stance-of-rand-paul.html?ref=opinion

 

 

Cambodia Rocks

The national elections in Cambodia were held last week and it came as no surprise that Prime Minister For Life (or so he keeps hoping) Hun Sen and his CPP thugs — uh, I mean, party — won re-election once again. Actually, the big surprise was that their margin of victory was much less than expected, giving the rival CNRP (Cambodia National Rescue Party) more seats in the National Assembly. The latest tally that I read gave CPP 55 percent of the seats, a sharp drop from the 73 percent that they won (Bought? Stole?) in the last election in 2008.

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The big pre-election drama was the return of Sam Rainsy, a longtime nemesis of Hun Sen and now the head of the CNRP, who had been living in exile in France the past couple of years. But a week before the election, Hun Sen apparently paid attention to veiled threats from the likes of the United States, who were calling for “free and fair elections,” and arranged for Sam Rainsy to be pardoned for a “crime” that was dubious in the first place. But that was a case of too little too late, and with only a week to campaign — and not even being eligible to vote himself — there wasn’t a whole lot that Rainsy and his supporters could do. Or so it seemed. The fact that they did galvanize and inspire a lot of people — many of them disgruntled and disgusted by years of intimidation, terror, and corruption by Hun Sen and his minions — was actually quite impressive.

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Before the election I asked one Cambodian friend living in Phnom Penh what he thought about it all.

“Of course I will vote. My opinion is I really would like this country that I live in to have the real democracy. And I think it is fair for the other party to have a chance for a try. I hope things would change a bit, even if we could not do much, but at least something.”

 

Another friend, this one living in Siem Reap, sent me an e-mail the day after the election.”

“The election in my country was very bad. Too much corruption and cheating from CPP. I feel ashamed to all people in the world about what my leader did. The reputation of Cambodian is gone because of him.”

So, the elections may be over, but there is definitely a defiant feeling lingering in the air and the whole situation feels very unsettled. It’s too early to predict that there will be marches and demonstrations or people will take to the streets and occupy public squares in Phnom Penh. If there was an Arab Spring could we be in store for a Khmer Summer?  

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One encouraging sign, in addition to the decrease in votes for Hun Sen and CPP, is the growing number of young people who are voting and taking to social media to express their opinions. Cambodians used to strike me a very timid bunch, afraid of challenging authority and not daring to voice their opinions. Perhaps that’s a legacy from the brutality of the Khmer Rouge, which, if you’ll remember, wasn’t such a long time ago. But there is a new generation, those under the age of 30, who were born after the end of the Khmer Rouge era, and they don’t seem to share the same submissive and fearful traits that their parents did.

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This new generation wants change. They are tired of waiting. They are tired of being poor. They are tired of seeing Hun Sen and his buddies driving around town in their fucking SUVs and throwing lavish parties and wedding receptions, and then jetting off for shopping sprees in other countries. These people want a share of that pie too, instead of the meager crumbs that have been randomly tossed to them for the past three decades.

 A change is gonna come, baby, and with any amount of luck we may not have to wait five more years. Hun Sen, your days are numbered.

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Welcome to Cambodia!

“Welcome to Cambodia!” said my Cambodian friend. “Don’t believe anything here.”

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With that utterance we clinked beer glasses and took hearty sips. My friend smiled and shook his head. “In Cambodia, you can’t believe anything the government says.”

“Join the club,” I replied. “What you say is true about almost every country on earth. You can’t trust any government.” And keep in mind, we were having this conversation last month, before the latest privacy controversy erupted in the USA.

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We toasted glasses again and decided that we needed to order more beer. Just another night in Siem Reap with friends. My Cambodian friends impress the hell out of me. Whether they are working or still studying in school, they don’t take things for granted. They take their duties seriously, diligently doing what they need to do. But it’s a hard life in Cambodia if you are not wealthy, and none of my friends would remotely qualify as well off. They’re just trying to keep their heads above the economic water, raising families or trying to help younger siblings and/or parents by working, or trying to stay in school. Two of the Try brothers are in their early twenties and still trying to finish high school. But that’s what happens when you drop out in the sixth grade and work for a few years to help earn money for your family.  

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Talking to my friends this time, it was obvious that some of them have become quite disillusioned and frustrated with the government’s many promises, most of which have not come to fruition. Despite an obscene amount of foreign aid pouring in each year, not to mention an increase in tourism in the past decade, Cambodia remains a very poor country. One of my friends dreams of going to the United States to work, thinking it to be some sort of economic paradise. I didn’t want to burst his bubble too harshly, but told him that life there is also “very difficult” for many people.

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We talked, we laughed, we drank more beer; talking about good times in the past and contemplating the uncertain future.

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Politicians, Friends, and other Delights

Blink and you missed it. Barack Obama made a whirlwind tour of the region earlier in the week, spending a half-day in Bangkok, about six hours in Yangon, and the better part of two days at an ASEAN summit meeting in Phnom Penh. Hillary Clinton also put in an appearance at each location, but then had to fly off to the crazy lands — The Middle East — in an attempt to pacify the Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and possibly other aggrieved nationalities. Does that woman ever get any sleep?

 

It would be an understatement to say that Obama’s visits to Thailand and Myanmar were met with great excitement — and approval — from the populace in each country. People in Asia really like him. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a great smile. Obama himself appeared to be delighted by the warm reception, and looked like he was enjoying the visits. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck “I Love Democracy” Shinawatra couldn’t keep from beaming in every photo that I saw, looking like a schoolgirl getting to meet a famous pop star. And then there were several photos of Obama in Yangon, hugging and kissing Aung San Suu Kyi … uh, rather fervently. The Lady appeared a bit taken back from such an overt display of affection from Barry, but hey, it’ll certainly sell more newspapers in Yangon and give the fellows in the teashops something to talk about. And it sure beats having some creepy overweight dude, wearing a snorkel and flippers and carrying a bible, showing up on your doorstep late one night, dripping lake water and asking to spend the night. That’s one incident — and in case you missed it, yes, it really happened — that I’d love to know more details about.

 

Obama made visits to such sacred sites as Wat Pho in Bangkok and Shwedagon in Yangon, but by contrast, once he arrived in Phnom Penh he didn’t stop for any temple tours, but headed straight to the ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where serious business was discussed. The tone was set when Obama greeted Hun Sen — Cambodia’s Prime-Minister-for-Life and don’t you dare think otherwise — with a firm handshake, absent of any back slapping or pleasantries. Even if it was “Give a Thug a Hug” week, I don’t think Obama would have lowered himself to embrace Hun Sen. And good for him. Hun Sen is one of the creepiest “leaders” in the region and it’s about time people started standing up to him. By all accounts, the meeting with Hun Sen was “tense,” Obama giving the old Khmer Rouge foot soldier a dressing down on the subject of land seizures, human rights, freedom of speech, and other such sticky issues that the Cambodian government brushes under the bamboo mat. Despite the millions of dollars in foreign aid money that floods into Cambodia each year — it reportedly receives the highest percentage of any country in Asia — poverty in the country is still rampant and infrastructure well behind that of Thailand. It’s the same old broken record: the rich get richer … and they drive SUVs and get away with…

 

On another Cambodian note, I’ve been flooded with phone calls from friends there this week. The subject of Hun Sen and/or Obama never came up, however. Nowadays, my Cambodian friends have more important things to worry about; like paying school tuition, paying hospital bills, and affording to eat. I talked to three of the Tri brothers, and also Chamrong in Siem Reap. His wife just gave birth to their first child, a boy, but the baby was born one month premature, necessitating a multi-week stay in the hospital for mother and child. Rong took off from his job at the airport for over a full week to help take care of them. Happily, they are all home now and Rong is back at work. Another friend, So Pengthai has also had to help his wife and children recuperate from various illnesses. Blame it on the rainy season, which thankfully, now appears to have run its course.

 

Yet another Cambodian friend from Siem Reap, Chiet, has been calling me almost every day … from Thailand! He’s working in another province as a welder, trying to earn some extra money, Hell, trying to earn any money at all. He’s had a problem finding steady work this year in Siem Reap, so somehow he got hooked up with a job broker that brought him to Thailand. I don’t think he has legal working papers, which makes him one of thousands (perhaps the number runs into five or six figures … or more?) of Cambodians and Burmese who are working in Thailand without proper documents. Not exactly slave labor, but don’t think these people are getting paid a fair wage either. Whatever the case, Chiet is working every day of the week — no days off — and is quite tired, but in pretty good spirits overall. There is another Cambodian working with him, but the rest of the workers, I gather, are Thai. He’s obviously lonely, being away from friends and family, so I’m one of his few daily social contacts, albeit one that’s on the phone. If I can figure out exactly where he’s working — trying to get him to distinguish Sakhon from Nakorn and Pathom from Phanom and other similar words is a difficult task — I may visit him next month. He plans to work here until mid-April, the annual Khmer — and Thai — water festival period, before going back to Siem Reap. In the meantime, we talk each night, which is helping to improve my rusty Khmer skills; word and phrases I haven’t used in years are coming back to me. We joke about eating grilled dog for dinner, plus he’s learning some Thai words too, which he is thrilled to impress me with. I only hope he doesn’t fall into any bad habits — drinking and drugs come to mind — during his exhausting labor stint in a different country. It ain’t an easy life for people like him.

 

Don’t Do It!

Around the temples of Angkor nowadays, you can’t miss them. Everywhere you turn there are signs telling you not to do something, or to be careful. Watch Your Step … Don’t Touch … Don’t Litter. No Writing. Don’t Breathe Heavily. Ah, I miss the glory days of the old “hands on” Angkor, before the hordes of visor-wearing tour groups descended like locusts upon the temples. Such is “progress” in this new millennium.

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