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

Posts tagged ‘Things Asian Press’

Yangon’s Vanishing Architecture


I didn’t visit Yangon when I was in Myanmar last month, but it feels like I’ve just been there after reading Still Lifes From a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon by Elizabeth Rush. Just published by Things Asian Press, this is both a beautiful book (large format, coffee table size) packed with photographs of the city’s old architecture, and an insightful account of its residents and their lives.

Rush spent over a year wandering around Yangon, documenting the city’s grand old Colonial buildings, many of which were in danger after government reforms earlier in the decade encouraged a new wave of “investors” to descend upon the city. Naturally, developers aren’t too keen on preserving old buildings, so the inevitable demolition commenced. It’s not a stretch to compare such greedy developers to vultures, just waiting to pounce upon a decaying corpse.

In her introduction to this book, Rush notes that she “wasn’t interested in the architecture so much as the lives that took place inside it.” Thus, rather than only focusing on photos of the exterior of these crumbling old structures, Rush takes you inside the buildings and inside the lives of the inhabitants, via stunning photographs and revealing essays. In one essay, Rush writes: “It is best to state my aims: I am reaching towards the ineffability of home through the cataloging of individual living rooms and their contents. I believe that it is possible to reach the sublime by drawing close to and worshipping the real. And little is more real than a person’s home.”


On that point, the reader is offered glimpses into the lives of the residents of these buildings in Rush’s striking photographs. While most photographs are devoid of any people (that’s perhaps my only criticism: I would have liked to have seen more of the people pictured inside their rooms), you can see framed photos of parents and their children, revered monks, the omnipresent shrine to the Buddha, calendars on the wall, a variety of knickknacks. These rooms are bursting with life and history.

While the photographs will be the main attraction for many, Rush’s evocative essays are also a valuable addition to the appreciation of this book. Additional essays included in this book were written by noted author Emma Larkin (Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop) and Thant Thaw Kaung. Larkin writes in her essay, “When Elizabeth records the enduring sediment of personal histories she also, inevitably, follows a trail of destruction.” Rush also notes: “As Yangon’s buildings grow taller, brighter, and more spacious, the city was also becoming smaller somehow, out of reach.”

And that’s the sad reality of Yangon’s current makeover. With so much “progress” and development taking place, the city is losing a hunk chunk of its history and heritage … and its soul.



Books & Borders

tatein_20131124_103637 While I was in Mandalay last week, my Japanese friend Kazuko was on the other side of Myanmar, visiting friends in Shan State’s Tat Ein village. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to travel all the way to Shan State (a full day’s journey by bus, but only a 25-minute flight), so we weren’t able to meet. But when Kazuko was in Bangkok two months ago, I gave her a copy of M is for Myanmar to give to Maung Thwe, the boy who I had known when he was a novice monk at the monastery in Tat Ein, but who is now living with his family again in the village. Kazuko gave the book to him during her visit and reports that Maung Thwe was very happy to receive the present. Thanks to Kazuko for the photos!


The cool thing about M is for Myanmar, besides the fact that it has very colorful illustrations, is that the text is in both English and Burmese, making it easy for children to read. M is for Myanmar is published by Things Asian Press, the same fine company that recently published Ma Thanegi’s cookbook, Ginger Salad and Water Wafers: Recipes from Myanmar, and Janet Brown’s excellent travelogue, Almost Home. Things Asian has been publishing travel books for over a decade, but they also have a children’s book division, and in addition to the Myanmar book they have published many other titles, including B is for Bangkok, H is for Hong Kong, and T is for Tokyo.


What’s Cooking in Myanmar?

As the year winds down, it’s beginning to look a lot like … Burmese food! Call it Myanmar cuisine, or the old familiar, Burmese, but the tasty and underrated cuisine from this country is ready to take its place at the world’s culinary table. Yes, I love the food that I’ve tasted during my travels in Myanmar (everything from noodle dishes such as monhinga and mondhi, to the amazing fermented tea leaf salad), but I’m not the only one; before this year is out, there will be three excellent new books about Burmese food available in bookshops and from online dealers.


Just published this month is Ma Thanegi’s Ginger Salad and Water Wafers: Recipes from Myanmar. This is actually an expanded version of her An Introduction to Myanmar Cuisine that was first published in 2004. This new edition, published by Things Asian Press, includes gorgeous photographs by Tiffany Wan, showing you not only the wide variety of food featured in the book, but also many captivating sights from around the country. Chapters in the book cover: Soups, Main Dishes (various meat and fish curries, stews, steamed and grilled dishes); Soups; Salads (an incredibly diverse section, with recipes for Tofu, Grilled Eggplant, Pennywort, Long Bean, Green Mango, Ginger, Tomato, and Shrimp Paste salads); Vegetables; Relishes; Rice (there’s more to rice than you think: coconut rice, rice porridge, briyani, fried rice, rice salad); Noodles (don’t get me started, this is one of my favorite food categories in Myanmar cuisine, and Thanegi offers a wide range of recipes of the more popular dishes); Desserts and Snacks (fritters, pancakes, sauces). If you think that Burmese food consists of nothing but oily curries and greasy fried rice dishes, prepare to be enlightened!



And the first bookshop in the world to have the new Ma Thanegi cookbook in stock? No, it’s not my shop in Bangkok, Dasa Books, but Golden Bowl Travel in Nyaungshwe’s Shan State. Shop owner Ma Ma Aye is very proud to offer Ginger Salad and Water Wafers to travelers passing through town. She is also stocking other titles by Ma Thanegi, including Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, Nor Iron Bars a Cage, and the fascinating alternative guidebook from Things Asian Press, To Myanmar With Love.



Earlier this year, Naomi Duguid’s latest cookbook, Burma: Rivers of Flavor was published. As in her past cookbooks, Naomi not only showcases the food of the country or region, but also focuses on the people and culture. Naomi spends a lot of time in each country she visits and Myanmar is no exception. She has a true appreciation and love for the country, and it shows in her book. Here is one very good description of her book that I found online:

Interspersed throughout the 125 recipes are intriguing tales from the author’s many trips to this fascinating but little-known land. One such captivating essay shows how Burmese women adorn themselves with thanaka, a white paste used to protect and decorate the skin. Buddhism is a central fact of Burmese life: we meet barefoot monks on their morning quest for alms, as well as nuns with shaved heads; and Duguid takes us on tours of Shwedagon, the amazingly grand temple complex on a hill in Rangoon, the former capital. She takes boats up Burma’s huge rivers, highways to places inaccessible by road; spends time in village markets and home kitchens; and takes us to the farthest reaches of the country, along the way introducing us to the fascinating people she encounters on her travels. The best way to learn about an unfamiliar culture is through its food, and in Burma: Rivers of Flavor, readers will be transfixed by the splendors of an ancient and wonderful country, untouched by the outside world for generations, whose simple recipes delight and satisfy and whose people are among the most gracious on earth.



Next up, scheduled for January 2014 publication is Robert Carmack’s latest food offering, The Burma Cookbook: Recipes From the Land of a Million Pagodas. Robert has travelled to Myanmar dozens of times over the years and knows both the country and it cuisine inside out. This is the product description of the new book:

The Burma Cookbook is a lavishly photographed cookbook and historic travelogue, tracing contemporary and colonial Burmese dishes over the past century. With its rich traditions of empire, The Burma Cookbook highlights the best of present-day Myanmar, including foods of its immigrant populations – from the subcontinent, down the Malay Peninsula, and Britain itself. The authors spent some ten years researching the book, while organizing and hosting culinary tours to uncover the country’s most popular dishes. The authors had exclusive access to The Strand Hotel’s collection of historic menus, pictures and photos, while contemporary photography by Morrison Polkinghorne portrays Myanmar street life.

By the way, Robert and Morrison continue to conduct their very popular “Food Tours” of various Asian locales. They have a Vietnam food tour scheduled from December 29 through January 5, and their next tour to Myanmar will revolve around the annual water festival in April next year. For more information, check their website:

And the common denominator connecting these three cookbook authors? Not only are they are all avid travelers, ones who give back to each country that they visit, but they have all shopped at my bookshop in Bangkok. I can confidently say that they are all good people with good taste — in both food and books!



Traveling with Karen Coates

I’ve never met Karen Coates, but we’ve travelled some of the same highways, rivers, and dusty back roads of Southeast Asia. Her journeys, however, have taken her into more countries, and much deeper into those places, than even my offbeat excursions have done.


In her new book, This Way More Better, published by Things Asian Press, Coates has compiled travel articles and essays about her many Asian travels. As she says in the book’s introduction: “This book spans a dozen years through megacities and muddy jungles, happy times, sad times, times of love and death. It encompasses twelve years of growth within me, as a person and as a journalist.”

Indeed, this book is not all happy tales and funny stories. Some of experiences she writes about are certainly grim and depressing. But there are also plenty of sweet and inspiring tales too. As a journalist, Coates’s work took her to countries such as East Timor, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and India. Using Thailand as her home base, she ventures many times to some of the same destinations, befriending locals along the way. One engaging person we meet in This Way More Better is Shu, a young Hmong girl living in Sapa, Vietnam. By the end of this book, Shu has grown from a precocious 10-year-old who speaks English and sells souvenirs to tourists into a confident young woman running her own business and taking care of her own child.

 ©2013 Jerry Redfern

It’s these life-affirming personal encounters with locals that Coates meets that make this book so memorable. Coates’s vivid, descriptive prose is sharp throughout, each page immersing the reader into the specific locale she is describing. Another asset is the accompanying photographs by her travel companion and husband, Jerry Redfern. These striking photos are the perfect complement for Coates’s warm words.

I’ll borrow another passage from her introduction to sum up what is so special about this book:

“Each story in this collection has taught me something — other others, about the world, about myself. In this collection, my aim is not to preach the lessons I have gleaned or tell you what you should know. Instead, I hope to present these stories in such a way that you might find your own meaning in each encounter. Books often offer a vacation from life. I hope, instead, this book takes you traveling.”

Indeed, it does just that, and more.

For more examples of Karen’s great writing, along with Jerry’s fantastic photos, check out her food blog:



Kim Fay’s Map of Lost Memories

At the far end of the apartment, a row of shutters opened onto a balcony overlooking the swayback roofs of Shanghai. Beyond the low buildings and down a crooked street, the Whangpoo River shushed against the wharves. A heavy, velvet humidity pressed down on this dark belt of water, a perpetual tension that caused a wilted draft, lifting fumes of jasmine and sewage, coal and rotting river weed, into thick night air.

That’s the opening paragraph of The Map of Lost Memories, the impressive debut novel by Kim Fay that has just been published. That evocative passage is just one of many that are peppered through the thrilling historical novel, set in Asia in 1925. Fay takes the reader along with her characters, deftly describing the sights, smells, and vibes of each exotic locale they visit. From the back alleys of Shanghai and Saigon, to humid jungles and magnificent temple ruins in Cambodia, Fay’s vivid, atmospheric prose enables the reader to see and smell and feel the surroundings.

The main character in The Map of Lost Memories is Irene Blum, a young museum curator from Seattle. She has been sent to Asia on an unusual mission by her dying, and somewhat mysterious, mentor. In Shanghai she is introduced to Simone, “a mercurial French woman” and experienced Asia hand, who Irene hopes will help her find a legendary set of copper scrolls that detail the history of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer civilization, an area of particular interest to both women. After joining forces in Shanghai, and dealing with Simone’s dangerous husband, the two women sail to Vietnam, where they rendezvous with two men in Saigon. From that point, their journey takes on added intrigue — and even more participants — when they enter Cambodia and travel from the ruins of Angkor to Phnom Penh, and then into the unforgiving Cambodia jungles in search of a mysterious temple and the scrolls.


Kim Fay spent fourteen long years — from inspiration to publication — writing, researching, and rewriting her novel. That sounds like an unbelievably tedious and frustrating ordeal, but she should be quite happy with the end result. Only published a few weeks ago, The Map of Lost Memories is already receiving raves. A review in Publishers Weekly called the book “Atmospheric, lyrical, and written in almost painfully beautiful prose, this historical novel sings like a coloratura soprano performing in a gorgeous opera.” The Historical Novel Society also recommended the book, saying: “We expect a female Indiana Jones and an expedition filled with adventure and excitement, but while there are exciting moments, the focus is more on character, and the whole expedition is more of a journey of self-discovery … an intriguing read that takes different paths to those expected.”

Other authors have also been effusive with praise. Gail Tsukiyama said: “With deftness and clarity, Fay brings her world to life and gives us a captivating read.” Nicole Mones added: “Kim Fay breathes new and original life into the Westerner-in-Asia novel with The Map of Lost Memories. An enchanting, absorbing first novel, all the more remarkable for its effortless portrayal of a bygone world, now nearly forgotten.”

I played e-mail ping pong with Kim recently, asking her about the new novel and its source of inspiration, her other writing projects, and a few questions about food. Needless to say, she’s a very busy woman these days!

You must be very excited to see your first novel finally published and in bookshops. What sort of emotions are you experiencing now that it’s out?

If I had the words to draw a picture of me doing a happy dance, I would. This truly is the best feeling in the world. I’ve wanted to be a published novelist since I was ten, so to say that this is a dream come true is an understatement. I plan to enjoy every second of it, except for those when I’m anxiously worrying that no one will buy my book! Fortunately, these moments pass. Also, along with exhilaration, there is some sadness. I spent fourteen years with my characters. Now I have to let them go. Fortunately, readers are starting to discuss them. It’s a bit like when a kid goes off to college. The parent still hears about what they’re up to and even talks about them with family and friends, but ultimately the parent is no longer in control and the child has gone off to live her own life.

You lived in Vietnam for several years, but most of this novel takes place in Cambodia and is about ancient Khmer temples. What inspired you to pick this topic for your book?

Not long after I moved to Vietnam, I read a book called Silk Roads. It’s the true story of Andre and Clara Malraux, a young French couple who lost their small fortune and came up with the idea of looting a Cambodian temple and living off the sale of a few choice artifacts. In 1923, they set sail to Cambodia, and with the help of local laborers, they pried a seven-piece, 1,000-pound bas relief from the abandoned temple of Banteay Srei. They were caught almost immediately and put under house arrest in Phnom Penh. While there they witnessed the injustices of colonialism. This experience launched their involvement in the revolutionary politics of the region, and their overall experience inspired me to start writing The Map of Lost Memories.

This novel took several years for you to write. Like any good fiction, you had to create memorable characters, write believable dialogue, develop atmosphere, and mix in a page-turning plot. Which aspects to writing the novel were the most difficult for you? And which parts were easiest?  

The first books I read on my own when I was young were mysteries such as Nancy Drew. Because of this, I’ve always been drawn to plot. I love mapping out a story and creating an intricate web that needs to be unraveled. This comes easily to me, as does creating a setting that draws readers in. I think the latter is due to my love of travel writing. I’m grateful to the skills I’ve honed as a travel writer, since they give me the ability to create a strong sense of place. What is toughest for me is character. I don’t have a problem coming up with characters, but once they emerge, I often have no idea who they are. And I will find myself trying to force my characters to go against their nature and behave in ways that will serve the plot I’ve created—this is always a mistake! Fortunately, characters usually have minds of their own, and if you give them their space, they will develop in incredible ways. I also write in layers, with one draft layered over another draft layered over the top of another. By doing this I allow my characters to develop organically, and I spend time getting to know them better and understanding who they are in the context of the story I’m trying to tell.

You have quite a cast of interesting characters of various nationalities in your book. Once you had the idea for the novel, did you also have the roster of characters pretty much set, or did they evolve during the course of writing?

I think I answered part of this question in my response above, but to elaborate on it, Roger and Simone Merlin were loosely inspired by Andre and Clara Malraux, and like most of the characters—Irene, Marc, Mr. Simms, Anne—they existed from the very start. The big surprise was Clothilde. She did not exist in the early drafts of the book, and when she first appeared, she was simply Mr. Simms’s nurse. But the more I wrote, the more she demanded a life and story of her own. I think she was protesting the lack of local characters in the book. I don’t blame her, but I was wary of including a local cast of characters, because I felt that I had to stay true to the Western viewpoint in Asia in the 1920s, and that viewpoint was so awful most of the time. Even Irene, who loves Cambodia and its culture, has a pretty terrible attitude toward the local population. Also, when it came to local women and their role in Western expatriate society at that time period, they were generally confined to being servants, mistresses or prostitutes. While Clothilde is indeed Mr. Simms’s mistress, I hope that her reasons for this are sympathetic justified in the story and that her individuality comes through. I wish I would have developed Clothilde further, but she has recently informed me that she will have a significant role in the sequel!

I recall your last trip to Asia a few years ago when you went to Cambodia and took the boat from Phnom Penh up the river to Kratie. At that point, you must have been close to finishing the book. What specific contribution did that trip make to the novel?

In 2009, as I neared the end of the writing the novel, I hadn’t been to Cambodia for four years. The plot of the novel had evolved drastically during that time, and I felt the need to return and immerse myself in the country, so that I could undertake the home stretch with Cambodia’s sights, sounds and smells fresh in my mind. I spent days in the National Museum in Phnom Penh (one of my favorite places in Cambodia and the scene of a major encounter with Irene and Simone), just sitting in the shadows, sipping iced tea and studying the artifacts. And I traveled to Kratie, on the Mekong River between Phnom Penh and Stung Treng. There, I pedaled out into the countryside and let my mind wander as I inhaled the dank, omnipresent scent of the river and reminded myself how such intense heat and humidity can make a person feel so alive. I was able to return the States and steep my final work on the novel in the immediacy of my experiences.

You’re a former bookseller. In this era of e-books and online sales, many bookshops are closing. Do you think that brick and mortal retail shops can still play an important role in selling books, or will they soon go the way of the dinosaur?

I think brick and mortar retail shops play an incredibly crucial role—creating a sense of community and offering a place where discussion and ideas can take root and grow. There is no substitute for an independent bookseller hand-selling a customer his favorite book, or for a conversation that breaks out among the shelves when two people discover they love the same book. I understand why people shop online, and I understand why they read e-books, but I think in both instances they are missing out on what is my favorite thing about independent bookshops: human connection. The more our lives our consumed by our online worlds, the more we need bookshops to keep us connected to one another. Every time I walk into an independent bookstore, I feel a sense of possibility. Of course I would love to say that because of their importance, bookstores will be around forever, but sadly I’m not sure. I’m just grateful to people like you for investing your lives in places where people can gather and share their love of the written word.

What about your next novel; a sequel to this one, or something entirely different?

There will definitely be a sequel to The Map of Lost Memories, although it’s difficult to talk about without revealing spoilers. But that’s not my next book. I’m about 100 pages into a new novel that takes place in Vietnam between 1937 and 1975. It’s the story of an American woman born in Vietnam who goes on to become a culinary anthropologist. Along with studying the country’s imperial cuisine, she also feeds homesick soldiers. I want to use the book to explore the domestic side of Vietnamese life during an era associated solely with war. I also want it to be a love song to the country. But because of my affection for Nancy Drew, I can’t help myself—there will also be a murder and a mystery to be solved.

You are editor of the marvelous To Asia with Love series, and also wrote the excellent food travel memoir Communion. Do you have any ideas for other travel or non-fiction books that you’d like to write, or will you stick to novels at this point?

I feel fortunate to have edited the To Asia With Love guidebooks and to have written a food memoir about Vietnam; and although I truly enjoy writing nonfiction, my first love is fiction. Now that I have an opportunity to pursue it, that’s where my main focus is. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write more nonfiction in the future. One idea I’d really like to pursue is a Vietnamese imperial cuisine cookbook to pair with my new novel. But it would contain more than just recipes. It would also be a history book and incorporate stories from Vietnam’s imperial era and unique tidbits, such as translations of a cookbook from the imperial city of Hue that was written in 1915 entirely in verse.

You’re an unabashed foodie; you’ve written about Asian cuisine and cook a lot at home. What are some of the best dishes you’ve eaten in Cambodia?

On my last trip to Cambodia, I became addicted to green mango salad. I was blazing hot all the time, and it was so refreshing—especially since mangos were in season, hanging by the hundreds in the trees and piled high at every roadside stand. It was also more flavorful than similar salads I’d had in surrounding countries, mainly because, as I wrote in my travel diary, it was so “shrimpy.” I also ate a lot of pleah, the cold beef salad made with lime, roasted rice powder and peanuts. While I like many of the soups, as well, I was definitely drawn to dishes that revived me with their coolness and light flavors.

Were you brave enough to try any of the more “challenging” treats over there, such as tarantula or field rat?

I’m not opposed to such treats in theory, but to be honest, I’m not sure if I could stomach a whole tarantula. And for the most part, I didn’t come across such dishes. In any case, I figure Anthony Bourdain has the adventure dining market covered—I think I’ll do best leaving the creepy crawlies to the experts!!

You will do some book signings and interviews in the US for the launch of this novel. Are you planning on any trips to Asia to promote the book too?

In the spring of 2013, I’ll be accompanying a food tour group through Vietnam; at the end of this trip, we’ll visit Cambodia where we plan to hold a book group for The Map of Lost Memories right at the temples. While there, I hope to do an event at Monument Books, which already has my novel on sale, front and center. If it works into my schedule, I’d love to come to Thailand as well, but I’m not yet sure if that will happen.




Yangon Ladies

On Tuesday a woman walked into my bookshop and while scanning the shelves, told me that “a Burmese friend recommended your shop to me.” “Really? Who was that?” I asked. “Ma Thanegi” was her reply. That of course led to more conversation and introductions. She told me her name was Naomi, was from Canada, but spent a lot of time in Thailand each year. She had also been making frequent trips to Myanmar to do research for a Burmese cookbook she is writing. She ended up buying a bunch of books (including every title we had by Alan Furst) to take with her to Toronto the following day.


I wrote an e-mail to Ma Thanegi later that evening, telling her that I had met a very interesting friend of hers. Thanegi wrote back and said: “Google her name — Naomi Duguid. She’s a lovely person.” I took her advice and did an online search, revealing that Naomi Duguid is quite the traveler and also a highly regarded cookbook author. She has written several cookbooks with Jeffrey Alford, including Flatbreads and Flavors; Hot Sour Salty Sweet: a Culinary Journey through Southeast Asia; Flavors of Rice; Mangoes and Curry Leaves: Culinary Travels through the Great Subcontinent; and Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China.


From the reviews I’ve read, Naomi’s books appear to be much more than ordinary cookbooks or collections of recipes. Her books combine food, travel, and culture, immersing the reader in the lives and customs of the people of the country or region that she is visiting and writing about. In an interview she did with Artsmania, Naomi said:

“I try to work against our natural tendency to pigeonhole other people or other cultures … I see all these books as tools for helping make the “other” less “other.” The stories can do that for some people, and then if they make the recipe, maybe the story echoes with the recipe and gives them more dimensions. And so it’s no longer just a place they’re never heard of on a map, or a place they think is weird and foreign.”


The new book that she told me about is tentatively titled Rivers of Flavor: Recipes and Travel Tales from Burma. Publication is scheduled for September 2012 by Random House Canada and Artisan Books in the US. I can’t wait to read it!


Paula Helfrich, another resident of Yangon — and also a friend of Ma Thanegi — was in my shop the previous week for some book buying and conversation. Paula is American but has been living in Myanmar for several decades (in fact, she was born there!), teaching English to monks and children. Paula recently co-wrote a novel, Flying, with Rebecca Sprecher. It’s published by Author House in the USA. Described as “an unprecedented, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the airline world,” Flying traces the lives of two young women, one of whom (like Paula) was raised in Southeast Asia.


And I have to put in a plug for Ma Thanegi’s books while I’m at it. Last year, Things Asian Press published her travelogue Defiled on the Ayeyarwady, a fascinating and funny account of Thanegi’s trip down the famous river. In addition to being a detailed account of her trip, it serves as an excellent primer for those wanting to know more about Burmese culture and customs. Her conversations with fellow passengers, and observations of what’s happening around her, are marvelous. She is currently working on a new memoir of her life in Myanmar, and Things Asian also plans to reprint her excellent cookbook, An Introduction to Myanmar Cuisine later this year.




KL Update: February

I’ll post more about my trip to Kuala Lumpur next week, but I thought I’d update you on a few things right now while I’m thinking about … and have nothing else to do on this last night in town. I have another early morning flight back to Bangkok, so I’ll attempt to get to bed early and wake up at the unnatural hour of 4:00 am.

I dropped by the Tower Records branch in the Lot 10 Shopping Center on Monday afternoon and was immediately alarmed by what I saw when I entered the shop. The store sign was gone and a few of the fixtures were bereft of CDs. Employees in some sections of the store were busy boxing up stock. “Are you open?” I asked one of the employees. The guy assured me that yes, the shop was open, but they were in the process of moving. At the end of this week they will be relocating to the ground floor of the nearby Times Square shopping center. I did a quick run-through of the shop and bought six CDs, including a rare Gatemouth Brown title that I neglected to get last trip. I’m just happy that this branch of Tower is staying in business. The US chain filed for bankruptcy and closed a few years back, and all the Bangkok branches (I used to manage two of them) morphed into CD Warehouse locations in the late 90s, but even those are now shuttered. I mentioned to the manager of the KL store that I used to work for Tower in Bangkok back in the mid to late 90s. “The good old days,” he sighed. We talked a bit about the current state of retail and he bemoaned the trend of so many music listeners to illegally download songs and albums nowadays. Needless to say, it’s done irreversible damage to retail shops and chains like Tower.

Speaking of bankrupt retail chains, Borders Books in the US, is also going the way of the dinosaur. I think they have closed most, if not all, of their US stores by now. They used to have a large branch here in KL also., in the same Times Square where Tower is moving, but they closed it and downsized to a smaller Borders Express about 2 years ago. I assumed that branch had also closed, but now I’m not sure. I went to the Curve shopping center in Petaling Jaya (a large suburb of KL) yesterday and was startled to see a very large (two floors) branch of Borders still open there. Even more startling was what I saw in their travel section; books from my friends at Things Asian Press. They had Janet Brown’s wonderful Tone Deaf in Bangkok,  the photo book Lost & Found Bangkok (which has photos of my bookshop on a few pages!), and To Vietnam with Love. I was disappointed that they didn’t have To Myanmar with Love, or Ma Thanegi’s excellent Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, but it was still cool to see of those Things Asian books in stock. And today when I was in Bangsar Village Shopping Center I saw a Borders Express shop. So, like Tower, some of the Borders are still afloat here in Malaysia.

Malaysia remains a very easy country to visit in regards to visa and immigration. Unlike Cambodia, Myanmar, or Laos, in Malaysia there is no visa fee, they don’t have any of those annoying forms to fill out (for either immigration or customs), and no photos are required either. Plus, you can stay up to 90 days on a tourist visa, as opposed to a limit of only 30 days in the other Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand. What can’t all the ASEAN countries be as easy as Malaysia?

The LRT subway/light train system here remains very convenient and inexpensive (compared to Bangkok). They now have completely automated machines that can sell one-way tickets or used to top-off your multi-trip card. It took me three times to figure out the machine, but now I feel like a seasoned pro.



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