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Extracurricular Reading

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Myanmar

imageThis is why I posted any book review this month. I’ve been perusing everything about Myanmar–travel books, history, tips on independent travel. I’m going for two weeks in January on my own before heading home for a visit in Hong Kong. Myanmar is now open to foreigners but a single-entry visa good for a month is mandatory of all visitors arriving in Yangon and Mandalay by air. I have to arrange hotels, transports, and coordinate with a mixture of domestic flights, trains, and a cruise on the Irrawaddy River.

Some preliminary thoughts:

1. Shoes must be off in all monasteries and temples. This means Myanmar trip will be a flop-flop one. I need to bring at least two pairs.
2. The country is caught between the desire to grow and in the rusty old colonial facade. It’s growing in a speed that even guide books cannot keep up. It’s high time to go as international chain like Starbucks and McDonalds have yet to enter the country.
3. Horse carriages will be used for seeing the thousands of pagodas that flank all over Bagan. Temple ruins are the prime reason why I’m going.
4. Hotel/guesthouses rooms can be scarce during high seasons. Reservations a must.
5. Mystery. It’s the most mysterious country in Southeast Asia due to its prolonged closure. I want to see Myanmar’s truest forms before it becomes “assimilated.”

December Reading

The clock is ticking away for 2015. It’s December—the time of the year for holidays, gatherings, food, celebrations, and for some, distraction from readings. I usually like to sit by the fire place with my punkins and read mysteries. On the eve of my annual trip home in Asia, December also sees many travel/history/historical fiction crammed into my readings. This year Myanmar is put on the spotlight.

Since the country has opened up to tourism, development of infrastructure has gone on a break-neck speed, and so are the prices which has more than doubled compared to 2011. It’s the perfect time to go or it will become another Angkor Wat (Cambodia), heavily tread by package tours.

Before traveling to Myanmar, an excellent historical novel to read is The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, which I have read years ago. To refresh and to gain relevance of the upcoming trip, I’ll reread. The book enables reader to appreciate the days before the fall of the last imperial dynasty, the years under the British rule, the Second World War and the Japanese occupation.

Other books on the “read-dar” include the mandatory Letters from Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi, The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U, and Burmese Days by George Orwell. I usually would read up on the travel guide while flying over the Pacific. That said, for the first time ever, I’m ditching Lonely Planet for the more updated Rough Guide on Myanmar. A two-year-old guidebook is too dated, at least for the prices on accommodations and transportations, for a country that is growing with an lightning speed.

Kayenta and the Monument Valley

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The road (US-163) leading to the Monument Valley in Utah not too far from Arizona state border is dotted with little wood stands selling jewelry and pottery by Narajo Indians. I have little interest in crafts but surprisingly, at a nearby trading post, I found a copy of Kayenta and the Monument Valley by Carolyn O’Bagy Davis and Harvey Leake. It’s devoted to the history of the Navajo tribe and how the town of Kayenta became the center of the tribe gatherings. The serendipitous thing is that the very trading post where I bought is book is exactly the one established by Indian traders John and Louisa Wetherill in 1910.

Monument Valley is not like a national park. There aren’t signs and rangers all around explaining the landscape and wildlife. Service isn’t always snap-snap, and many visitors will have to adjust to the slower, quieter pace of many Navajo. I’m glad I have stumbled upon this book and read up on it before getting there. The area known as the Monument Valley is sacred land for the Navajo and understanding why will enhance one’s appreciation of it.

Off to France

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Tout arrive en France! I’m off to Paris and Normandy, the blog will not be updated on a regular basis.

Note to Self: Destination Paris

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Literary Paris often brings travelers to Hemingway’s apartment, Les Deux Margots, Cafe de Flore, the Shakespeare & Company, which are all landmark literary sites, but there are off-the-beaten-path literary locales I wish to explore.

Bibliotheque Nationale de France tops my list in the upcoming trip to France. It’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. It is the repository of all that is published in France. Les Editeurs is a combination of cafe, bar, restaurant and library with more than 5,000 books. Le Cafe-Livre is a cafe-bookshop where one can enjoy a drink or browse through the thousands of books displayed on walled-in shelves.

The one book that will see me through the flight over the pond will be Bricktop’s Paris, which explores the lives of black women who sought freedom an artistic expression in Paris between the two World Wars. How Paris Became Paris, my current read, describes Paris’ emergence from the Dark Ages into the world’s grandest city. La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life explains how seduction has long been used in all aspects of French life, from small villages to the halls of government, providing a surprisingly helpful cultural primer.

Growth of Paris

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This is a gem of a book. A history of Paris through the development of its streets, urban space, and infrastructure. Construction of Pont Nouf, for example, became one of those rare public works that actually shape urban life. On the New Bridge, Parisians rich and poor came out of their houses and began to enjoy themselves in the public again after decades of religious violence in 1734. The Pont Nouf became the first truly communal entertainment space in the city. This book demonstrates that the Parisien model for urban space was in fact invented two centuries earlier than the times when most people associate the signature characteristics of Paris.

“A Pedestrian in Paris”

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Doing a little homework for Paris, that is, readying my mind for the City of Light. John Baxter is right: Paris is meant to be seen on foot and sans itinerary. That is exactly what a flaneur does, who walks for the pleasure for it, without a sense of time or an aim. Parisians have long regarded the city as an extension of their homes. The concept of public space doesn’t exist there. People don’t step out of their front door into their cars, then drive across town to the office or some air-conditioned mall. Parisians bike, take the metro or bus, and walk. Like philosopher Charles Gros says, “Nobody has yet found a better way to travel slowly than to walk. It requires two legs; nothing move. Want to go faster? Don’t bother walking—roll, slide or fly: don’t walk.” Walk to the one’s whim and feelings, follow no guide, and do not rush.

Alongside Edmund White’s The Flâneur and Adam Gopnik’s Paris to the Moon, The Most Beautiful Walk in the World is as close as a reader can get to the feel of a languid spring walk along Baron Haussmann’s boulevards without actually being there. Baxter understands that the beauty of that great city is the generosity, the bounty that allows all of her admirers to, as Colette once said, create their own little province — connecting a bakery to a park to a favorite shop to a literary anecdote.

Unusual Reading Habit

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A bit of an off-topic. This question came up at work: What is an unusual reading habit of yours? For me it’s armchair travel books, specifically travel guides. I peruse travel guides to my favorite places like I read a novel. Rick Steves’ series in Europe is one of my favorites. I enjoy the candid and humorous voice in his writing. Reading the book is like having a tour guide speaking to me. Travel is freedom, but sometimes in order to get the best out of what a place offers, I have to do my homework and research before going. Money and budget issues aside, when you lay the chips down, it comes down to what is open on what day. This is what I appreciate about Rick Steves’ guide. He lists weekly closure of all museums and sights of interests in any given city. He tells you when and how to go to popular sites without breaking a sweat. This is all important information that would make a trip so much smoother. I remember waiting in line for almost an hour to get into The Louvre on the day after it’s weekly closure. That’s something to keep in mind when planning an itinerary. The book reminds me to give a culture the benefit of my open mind. See things as different, but not better or worse.

A New Beginning

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My new year starts in March, because I take annual vacation from late January onwards until March. It’s down time, reading time, and nature time. In Hong Kong and Bangkok, I found my reading haven in a couple bookstores that appeal not only to book lovers. I like the way these bookstores are decked out like a museum, with a touch of scholarly. I enjoy the open layout consider how precious space is in Asia, where every inch is used to maximize profit.

Browsing is an eye-opening experience. Browsing allows one to be bombarded with books of which the subject matter and author one has never heard of. It’s both enlightening and exciting. It’s inevitable that bookstore trying to appeal to the general public is cluttered with gimmicks of any kind. But a reader’s patience is often rewarded with substanced reads.I know what I don’t like—self-help books that are done to death, ghostwritten books of celebrities, chick lit, and romances—so I steer clear of them and come to cultivate interests in subjects I rarely get to read back home. I bought a couple books, written in Chinese, on buddhism and ideas of god but not necessarily about religion. As for fiction, Asia is the heaven for bargained UK paper editions of modern classics. Iris Murdoch, Graham Greene, Christopher Isherwood, Doris Lessing, to name a few, all for USD10. I know books are not friendly items to the skimpy luggage allowance, but I can’t help bringing back a stack that will see me through at least a few months.