Bookworming In Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam!

I said in my previous blog entry that I was on holiday for three weeks. I spent the second week of October up to the first few days of November backpacking through Bangkok, Thailand; Yangon, Ngapali Beach, and Mandalay, Myanmar; and Saigon, Vietnam. I’ve been planning this trip since 2009 (after I returned from my first solo trip through Hong Kong, Siem Reap and Kuala Lumpur), and there were a lot of changes in plans, budgets and itineraries for the next three years − and even until a few hours before my departure!

Some things haven’t changed, though. As with every trip (like this one), I just had to hit up a few bookstores during my 21-day journey. A few places in my itinerary are also related to books, literature and history; and one of the places I stayed in had a lot of reading material available for its guests.

So. Let’s get on with it, yes? 😉️

Baan Cedarberg

(For those planning a trip to Bangkok, I highly recommend this guesthouse. The friendly staff quickly responds to online inquiries, provides a lot of service discounts, and give great tips on where to go and what to do in the city and nearby destinations. It was fun hanging out with them and fellow guests, too.)

I arrived at the guesthouse a bit past midnight, so I was able to get a good look at the place only after some rest and a hearty breakfast. Besides offering short- and long-term accommodations, Baan Cedarberg (formerly known as Sukhumvit On Nut Guesthouse) also has a restaurant, and a language center where tourists can learn basic Thai and Burmese. It’s located a bit far from the tourist action (which takes place at the city center, and Khao San Road − a.k.a. “backpacker central”), but it’s a good 15- to 20-minute walk from the BTS On Nut and Bang Chak stations (I’m a slow walker, so it’s just 10 to 15 minutes for other folks), and you can hail taxis, tuk-tuks and motos from the main road.

Book shelf’s on the left side.

Baan Cedarberg has another thing that bookworms will really like: its book exchange service. The library’s composed of a single book shelf beside the cashier/counter, but it holds a wide selection for guests and visitors, with titles spilling out the front and back of the shelves. The top shelf had mostly Thai titles; the second shelf was groaning with the weight of manga; and the rest had travel guidebooks, biographies, fiction/non-fiction work, and other genres in English, French, Japanese and German.

I only had one book with me at that time, and I didn’t want to trade it in for another title since I haven’t read it yet, so I didn’t avail of the book exchange service. But I could browse and borrow any of the books they have at any time. Some of the titles I remember seeing are Lonely Planet guidebooks for Thailand, Cambodia and Laos (for guests who are still in the planning stage for their next destination), and the French paperback version of Keith Richards’ 2010 biography. I also read parts of Massacre at the Palace by Jonathan Gregson while waiting for a fellow female solo traveler to finish handling her mobile phone emergency.

I’ve stayed in guesthouses that have their own libraries for tourists and staff, but it’s my first time to see and stay in one that has an openly promoted book exchange service. Will make sure to bring a few books I could trade if/when I come back to Bangkok. 😃️

Edit: May 31, 2014

Guess I’ll have to look for a new hostel if/when I return to Bangkok! The On Nut hostel is no more; the owners left the city in June 2013, and set up shop in Kanchanaburi, near the Three Pagodas Pass and the Thailand-Myanmar border.

Go to Baan Cedarberg’s Facebook page for more information.

Books Kinokuniya

It’s sad and humiliating in many ways: a bookworm like me found out about “Kino” just recently. (What the fuck, right.) I missed out on visiting its branches in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai and Taipei when I was on holiday in those places. I’d like to think that I made amends with dear Kino in Bangkok. 😉️

The entrance to Book Paradise.

On my second day in the city, I headed to the Books Kinokuniya branch in Siam Paragon. The mall’s accessible via BTS Skytrain, but also right in the middle of the huge and hectic shopping district, so it’s easy to switch to other wallet-drainers like MBK (that one’s just across the street!) if you don’t find what you need.

I wanted Kino to be my first stop for the day, but I was distracted by the World Camera Day 2012 event happening at the tent outside the mall. 😉️ I had to remind myself that no, I’m only browsing, and I’m not covering that event, nor am I assigned by any publication to do so. Hahaha! When I finally got myself out of the tent, I headed straight for the third floor. The Siam Paragon branch of the book store chain has been given significant floor space (and is found near an H&M outlet, which happened to be on sale that day − uh-oh!), and has an excellent selection of Thai and English titles on any topic/genre you can think of. And of course, JK Rowling‘s The Casual Vacancy got a hardbound book tower at the front of the store.

Lots of locals and foreigners were in the store that Sunday morning/noon, and I saw several books I would’ve loved to take back with me to Manila if I didn’t have that dreaded “not enough room in my small backpack” problem. Also managed to take a good number of shots with my smartphone until a male staff member informed me (with an understanding smile on his cute face) that customers aren’t allowed to take photos while inside the store. Oops. 😉️

The book store may be smaller compared to the other ones I’ve been in, particularly National Book Store‘s different branches, Eslite in Taipei and Fully Booked; the last two megachains have their own buildings in Xinyi and Bonifacio High Street. But Books Kinokuniya in Siam Paragon still gets a lot of pogi points from me:

  • As I said a while ago, it has an awesome selection of books and paper products (e.g., notebooks, cards, stationery)
  • English and Thai sections are clearly labeled − although the Thai section’s smaller than the Engligh-language section
  • The friendly and helpful salespeople don’t follow you around like puppies, or as if you’re gonna steal something
  • Compilations, limited-edition titles and multiple editions of the same title are available − saw two versions of Damned by Chuck Palahniuk, compilations of Archie and Little Lulu, Austen/Dickens/Bronte compilations and hardcovers, and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series. Already completed my personal The Sandman collection, though − way back in my college/early work days.

Despite my luggage space problem, I seriously considered buying a hardbound copy of Craig Thompson’s Habibi while I was there (my nerdy friends in tech media told me it’s an awesome read). A quick check of current exchange rates and a comparison with PH bookstore prices put the Kino copy at around PhP 400-500 higher, so I put it back on the shelf. Sayang! I did get a short story collection set in Thailand, plus a notebook for work, so I didn’t leave empty-handed.

Books Kinokuniya
3rd floor Siam Paragon
991 Rama I Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok
10330 Thailand
(+66) 2610-9500, Fax (+66) 2610-9510, 10AM-10PM

Kuthodaw Paya

Some clarifications have to be made first.

Kyo Kyo (pronounced cho cho), my driver and guide in Mandalay, Myanmar, told me about Burmese language, history and culture as we went from one tourist site to the next. Here’s one: many people (especially tourists) use words like paya, stupa and pagoda when referring to popular Buddhist places in Myanmar. Turns out there are subtle differences. From what I remember (didn’t take out my notebook in time to catch everything he said!), paya and pagoda are interchangeable, with both words referring to a multilevel tower made for religious purposes. A stupa stores objects that have immense religious value. (Check out these Wikipedia articles on pagodas and stupas.)

Read this!

Another clarification has to be done. Kuthodaw Paya or Kuthodaw Pagoda is normally called the world’s largest book, but the name of the place is actually for the pagoda that stands at the center of the complex. “The world’s largest book” surrounds this paya or pagoda, and is made up of 729 stupas containing one stone tablet each, and with the front and back portion of the tablets carved with parts of the three categories (or tripitaka) of Theravada Buddhism’s Pali Canon. These carvings were originally done in gold, and jewels were used as ornaments for each stupa, but conflicts throughout Myanmar’s history and subsequent restoration efforts have led to the use of other materials.

Got it? OK, good. Took me a while to get all that into my head, too.

Oh, one last thing: some may say that the honor of being “the world’s largest book” shouldn’t be given to the tablets/stupas surrounding the Kuthodaw Paya. If you just have to be technical about it, the nearby Sandamuni Paya has more slabs and stupas, and adds “commentaries and subcommentaries” on the existing Pali Canon. Whew!

My original itinerary had both Kuthodaw Paya and Sandamuni Paya on it, but I ditched Sandamuni (and stuck to Kuthodaw) at the last minute. I picked the wrong time of day to go exploring; noontime in a very hot and dusty place like Mandalay will sap all your energy if you’re not ready for it. (Note: always bring sunblock, an extra shirt, face towels, and a big bottle of water. An energy bar or a banana, too, for when you start to feel a bit tired and woozy.)

It’s also advisable to hire a driver for the day, unless you want to go to all the sites on your own and get heatstroke in the process. Many taxi, moto, sai-kaa/trishaw, and truck drivers moonlight as tour guides, so you won’t have a hard time looking for one. Was very lucky that Kyo Kyo was stationed outside my hotel that day, and that he has all the necessary permits and passes to make things easier for both of us.

OK, back to the world’s largest book. It’s part of the US$10 ticket that tourists have to get for popular historical sites. Admission for Sandamuni Paya’s free, though. This is a book you can’t hold in your hands or read in one sitting (or even several!), and you won’t understand a single word unless you know how to read Burmese script. (No shit, Sherlock!) For me, the real impact of the Kuthodaw Paya and its 729 tablets lies in its existence and restoration throughout centuries and various conflicts, and the amount of work and religious devotion required to mount such an undertaking. That same devotion makes Theradins come to this site − and others in Myanmar and worldwide − every year.

Bagan Book House

I returned to Yangon for a 14-hour layover before backtracking to Bangkok. Fourteen hours isn’t enough to see what else Yangon has in store, especially when you’re halfway through a backpacking trip and already combating fatigue; a return trip is a must.

But I did have enough energy to make a few more stops before leaving Myanmar. The famous Bagan Book House − which carries a lot of local and foreign titles, and recommended by many websites on Myanmar tourism as well as Lonely Planet − was one of those last stops.

Yangon (and the government) may have employed a grid layout for its streets, but it can still be quite easy to get lost, especially when you’re going on foot and using a map not made to scale. For this round, I opted to take a cab to the bookstore − while I love playing charades with Inner Yangon’s friendly locals (more on that next time), I was too tired during this layover, and wanted to cross items out on my list as quickly as I could.

Getting bookish in Yangon.

After a brief detour, the taxi driver went back out to Merchant Road and turned into an inner street (37th) that had a few street vendors also selling books, mounted on makeshift shelves. Didn’t get the chance to see if these street vendors had any English titles. A few meters down the street was the entrance to Bagan Book House.

The atmosphere in and out of the shop was very laid-back; a group of men played sepak takraw outside, many of the neighborhood folks were setting up tables and chairs on the street for the dinner rush, and the store itself was filled with chatting women and kids running around. It wasn’t difficult at all to feel at home.

The current owner, U Htay Aung, is the second man to take charge of the store. His father, U Ba Kyi, was the original owner, and put it up in the 1970s, during the rule of the Burmese military junta. U Ba Kyi died eight years ago. U Htay Aung inherited the shop, and now runs it with his wife. Some of the titles being sold by the store were actually part of U Ba Kyi’s personal book collection.

In an informal “interview” with me as I browsed his shelves and took photos of the store, U Htay Aung said that he wants his young son (who was one of the kids I saw there that afternoon) to take over the family business in the future. He also said that business was really bad as recently as three years ago, but with the country’s transition to democracy and tourists coming in droves, it’s starting to pick up considerably, with more customers finding their way to the store every day. He proudly showed me a blown-up photo of Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand visiting the Bagan Book House, as well as separate photos of his father and General Aung San, hung up near the counter.

We had a lot to talk about that late afternoon. Our topics included the ongoing conflict between Buddhists and the Rohingya in Rakhine State, President Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi (yes, locals and tourists can talk about her openly now), and how people’s attitude towards reading has changed throughout the years. He commented that even in Myanmar, the younger generation isn’t that interested in reading; their focus lies more on gadgets and technology.

We wondered how Burmese bookstores will survive in the digital era, but I doubt that Bagan Book House will have any problems. I think that if it lived on despite the Burmese junta, it can live through anything. The shop has a wide collection of English fiction and non-fiction titles − I saw Gaiman’s American Gods (one of my all-time favorites) in there, as well as other Western bestsellers, and even several books on Suu Kyi. The store’s also an excellent resource for those wanting to learn more about Burmese history, peoples/ethnic groups, language, culture and literature. I made my own pile of books in a corner of the bookstore, and had a difficult time deciding which titles to buy. In the end, I got two memoirs done by Burmese authors, with a promise to come back for more.

U Htay Aung is a keen observer, and will tell you everything you need to know about Myanmar and the books he has on offer, even if you don’t ask for it. While talking to his wife and relatives, he saw me grab a hardbound, large-print copy of Sudha Shah’s The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma, and he offered me the paperback copy instead, which had the same content but was at least a thousand kyats cheaper. Sensing my interest in Burmese history, he also gently steered me towards a few more history books, which led to the two memoirs I went back home with. I paid 6,000 kyats for one book and 7,000 for the other, putting the total at 13,000 kyats (or under PhP 650 based on current exchange rates). Not bad at all!

By 6PM, another tourist (a thin, softspoken, ponytailed man residing in Hong Kong) had come into the store, and U Htay Aung was also busy answering his questions on history and architecture. My stomach was grumbling, so I had to go. I said farewell to U Htay Aung and the Hong Kong tourist, and went off in search of a teashop.

Bagan Book House
100 37th Street (between Mahabandoola Road and Merchant Road)
Kyauktada Township, Yangon, Myanmar
(+95) 01-377-227, (+95) 09-511-7470
Directions: If you’re coming from Botataung or Pazundaung Township, take Merchant Road and turn right at 37th Street. Bagan Book House will be on the right side, before the street market and bus stop at Mahabandoola Road.

Main Post Office

Going postal.

Most people ask travelers to send e-mails every now and then, just to let them know they’re doing OK. Some, like one of my cousins from my father’s side of the family, ask me to send postcards whenever I go backpacking. I’m more than happy to oblige; it’s always nice to see different post offices (that [hopefully] don’t change exorbitant rates to take parcels home − or implement rules and actions leading to a book blockade, *cough cough*) while traveling, and sending out things by post is a rare thing these days.

Unlike the other post offices I’ve been to in Southeast Asia, the Main Post Office in Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, is a very popular tourist attraction. Designed by Gustav Eiffel (yeah, the dude the Eiffel Tower was named after), this structure goes back to the 19th century, when Vietnam was still under French rule. The Post Office is right across the Notre Dame Cathedral and within walking distance of other noted buildings along Dong Khoi and District 1, and draws a large number of foreigners (and tourist buses) every day.

The interior of the Post Office is as beautiful as its exterior. Grand arches on the ceiling, two old and enormous maps showing Saigon’s layout in a different era, and an imposing portrait of Ho Chi Minh above the counters are complemented by nice “old school” touches such as round benches at the entryway, and a bank of church confessional-like dark wood compartments housing ATMs. There are also narrow corridors near the entrance filled with vendors and their wares. Overall, the novelty of sending people things via post is heightened by the place’s design and history.

More books!

You may be wondering why the Saigon Main Post Office is included in this “Bookworming In” list. Here’s why: at the far end of the first floor, surrounded by different post office counters, are oblong-shaped counters and shelves displaying the usual tourist fare − postcards with images of Vietnam’s best sights, stamps, accessories, and other products emblazoned with Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon. (It’s also where I bought the lone postcard I sent off to Singapore.) But a good chunk of the countertop was also given to travel guides on Vietnam and the country’s history, sights, food and culture. There were coffee table books, cookbooks, paperbacks, hardbounds, fiction and non-fiction works. I also found cool photo books on everyday life and transport − I browsed through Hans Kemp’s photo book Bikes of Burden, and his collaboration with fellow photographer Conor Wall, Carrying Cambodia (this one can be partially seen in the photo above).

The Post Office staff are also very pleasant and easy to deal with − I don’t know how they keep their cool despite random people taking photos everywhere and getting confused with regulations. I actually took much longer with the photos than with my primary task (sending the lone postcard)! And when the lady at the counter took my postcard, said “all done!” and gave me an honest smile, it really made my day. Those who know me also know that’s pretty hard to do. 😉

Saigon Main Post Office
2 Cong Xa Paris, District 1, Saigon, Vietnam


I came across the mid-sized bookstore TriBooks while walking along Dong Khoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was a very hot and humid day, and I was looking for refuge from heat and the throngs of tourists. And this particular bookstore wasn’t part of my itinerary; I was originally set on stepping foot in a Fahasa Bookstore branch, so I didn’t take any photos of the place. (Oh, that was a big mistake on my part.)

The store tagline, which I can’t remember verbatim but sent the message that it offers books for intellectuals, made me switch directions, jaywalk while the oncoming traffic was still following the green signal light (tsk tsk), and head inside. The place is easy to find; it’s located in one of Saigon’s big tourist areas, and just a few minutes away from the Main Post Office. Price tags are (more or less) in the same range as those of Philippine bookstores, with little discrepancy in conversion.

TriBooks showcases its books through wall-mounted and chest-level shelving systems, with the selections equally highlighting Western and Vietnamese titles. I spent the most time at the right side of the store, where history books and fiction and non-fiction works by Vietnamese writers were stocked. If you’re into art, design and trade books, make a beeline for the left side; business and academic publications are at the center; and souvenirs are all the way at the back. It may also go by the name ArtBook, but some of the titles I saw don’t really fit that bill; I’d say it has a pretty good selection for all readers.

158ED Dong Khoi, District 1, Saigon, Vietnam
Tel. & Fax (+848) 3827-9745

Sighting: Hotel Continental Saigon

As I continued walking along Dong Khoi, I saw a building that looked very familiar. I must’ve looked like yet another lost or confused tourist, standing there with a puzzled look on my face. After a few minutes, I finally remembered where I first read about the building, and its significance in literature.

Keeping up with the times.

I once bought a copy of Travel + Leisure (Southeast Asia edition) to read while waiting for my hospital appointment, and one of the reprinted articles from the US edition talked about the building I was staring at. Right in front of me was the Hotel Continental, fully renovated and brought to modernity − quite different from the quirky and run-down one described by Peter Jon Lindberg.

The hotel was built in 1880 and survived the war, and if its walls could talk, it would divulge endless tales about the people who passed through there during that time. It’s also known worldwide as the place where American author Graham Greene resided while writing his 1955 work The Quiet American. The hotel figures prominently in the book and in two film adaptations; in turn, its different editions can be seen in bookstores across Saigon, as well as hawked by market/street vendors.

But Greene isn’t the only writer who temporarily called the Hotel Continental home. According to Wikipedia (source):

The Continental was also home to the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (1913 Nobel Prize for Literature) and Andre Malraux (1933 Prix Goncourt for “Man’s Fate,” as well as other journalists, celebrities, politicians and heads of state.

Should’ve gone inside the hotel to explore, but I had other plans for that day. Maybe I’ll book Room 214 if/when I come back to Saigon. 😉

Hotel Continental Saigon
132-134 Dong Khoi, District 1, Saigon, Vietnam
(+848) 3829-9201, Fax (+848) 3829-0936

Fahasa Bookstore (Nguyen Hue branch)

My original target was the branch on Dong Khoi, but for some strange reason, I couldn’t find it. I obviously missed a sign or shop number somewhere. I eventually changed directions and found myself on Nguyen Hue − and finally in a Fahasa Bookstore branch after soaking up more of the usual tourist sights in District 1, and nearly melting from the intense heat.

(Update: the Dong Khoi branch is no more! Need to update my copy of Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring.)

The Nguyen Hue branch is comprised of several floors stocked not just with books, but also audio material, souvenirs, school supplies, maps − it reminded me of a (smaller) National Book Store, as well as a defunct neighborhood store that I used to frequent when I was young (Hey, Southerners! Remember Osmile? :P). This branch had more Vietnamese titles than English ones, and the latter’s relegated to the right side of the store. That first-floor section’s limited to romance novels, vampire/zombie fiction books, thrillers, biographies, autobiographies, reference books and self-help products. The rest of the floor’s filled with Vietnamese books. Tourists can also get huge city and countryside maps at the third floor, where the audio section is located.

Also, a few tips for customers:

  • Leave your bag(s) with the security guard at the left side of the store; he will then stash your stuff in a shelf and give you a claim number. I got reprimanded by the guard on duty because I went straight for the English section. In my defense, I didn’t know customers have to check their bags in.
  • You can’t take photos while inside the store. Don’t even try it. The salespeople there watch customers like a hawk.

There are many other Fahasa branches around the city, so if you can’t find what you’re looking for here, you can try the other ones. I didn’t though; for the first (and only) time during my holiday, I left a bookstore empty-handed.

Fahasa Bookstore
40 Dai Lao Nguyen Hue, District 1, Saigon, Vietnam