Category Archives: Writing

The Golden Palace

THE SESSION #128— BEER BLOGGING FRIDAY

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is a chance for the world’s beer bloggers  to get together once a month and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. Each month, a different beer blogger hosts the Session, chooses a topic and creates a round-up listing all of the participants, along with a short pithy critique of each entry.

Deep Beer is hosting The Session #128 for October 2017. The theme chosen is Bottle Shops: Good, Bad & The Ugly.

So, here I am about to contribute my second (or is it third?) piece to the enjoyable conflagration of beerness that is The Session.  I thought that a reflection on my local bottle shop here in Yangon (Rangoon), Burma, might stand as an interesting counterpoint to most of the other pieces in the round-up.

So there it is – the Golden Palace, a hole-in-the-wall bottle shop on the corner of 46th St and Bogyoke Rd in downtown Rangoon.  Easy to walk past – doesn’t look like much, does it?  But this deceptively small cave has plenty of goodies within.  Let’s peer inside, past the Heineken Regal Seven branding…

As you enter the three-metre squared room the configuration is clear: on your right are whiskeys and liqueurs, on your left are wines, vodkas and domestic liquor, and in the fridge and at the back is beer.  The selection of spirits is impressive for Burma – they are all illegally (or given the volume of trade, perhaps “informally”) imported.

Because of the tax on  spirits here any of these bottles sells for substantially cheaper than in my home, Australia.  On this visit I picked up a bottle of Jameson’s for AU$18 which at home would run AU$35 or more.  The big American bourbons go for much less.

But a 700ml bottle of 40%ABV Myanmar whiskey sells for US$1-5, so even though the foreign whiskeys are cheap, the locals tend to opt for the Burma-distilled stuff unless they’re showing off.

I have asked the owner to get in some Bushmills several times to no avail.  Because he relies on border traders for stock, the variety of import supply is entirely out of his hands.  They can’t just order something different; they are presented with options, and they choose accordingly.

There is one particular thing I value this bottle shop for: it has Hoegaarden.  I haven’t come across witbier at any bottle-o other than the Golden Palace, anywhere in Myanmar.  So when I crave that orange peel and coriander, I sidle up to the Palace and buy out their stock.  A single bottle goes for US$2.  I can’t vouch for their freshness but none have ever been undrinkable.

They use a simple notepad and pen for keeping track of sales at the Golden Palace.  The space is so very small, but because labour is cheap there are usually at least two people working at any one time.  Unlike other bottle shops, they’re never drinking on the job.

On this visit, one boy was sitting and hammering flat ring-pulls from Dagon beer cans on the concrete ground.  When I asked what he was doing in Burmese, he replied, “lucky draw”.  He was preparing the ring pulls to send back to the brewery for cash redemption.

These peculiar metal contraptions adorn the back wall, holding the domestic longneck stouts on offer.  Black Shield claims to be a Baltic porter/stout, but that’s rubbish.  Both these brands are tropical all the way – and not very tasty to my palate, which expects something a little more from a stout than boozy warmth and saccharine sweetness.

Next Friday Burbrit, the first craft brewery in Myanmar, will be launching a London Porter and is guaranteed to be much tastier.  This will be the first time Myanmar has had a domestically-produced porter for decades.

When the British first came to Burma, the soldiers of the Crown were each given a “porter ration” and the first industrial brewery was quick to brew dark beers after setting up shop in 1886.  Unfortunately with independence and nationalisation so went the porter.

The total of my purchases, a dead simple addition equation, is methodically put through the calculator and written into the notebook.  I pay and leave, mentioning once more that I’d really, really, really like some Bushmills.

An exchange

A roadside stall in Kalaw, displaying dozens of dust bottles, gleaming in the dwindling sunlight.  The sky is grey-blue in the east, cinnamon in the west; it is a gloomy, but dignified wet-season sunset.  I screech to a halt in the slush, position the front doors of my beige hatchback over dry, rather than wet, mud and hoist my longyi.  Albert follows as I assess the area.

“Pineapple wine? Apple wine? Plum wine?” I ask, pointing to the array of bottles.  A young boy scurries out from the gloom within the stall nodding.  “What’s that one?” I ask, pointing to a bottle with more dust than usual, obscuring the writing and image on the label.  The boy replies with a word I don’t understand.  We go back and forth until realisation dawns: damson.

“Do you know who makes this wine?” I ask.  The boy doesn’t know.

“Where do you buy these from?” I ask.  The boy doesn’t know.

“Is it a company or a family?” I ask.  The boy stares at me.

“Is this all you have?” I ask.  The boy hesitates, then ducks inside.  He is gone twenty seconds.  Yes, that’s all they have.

I ask Albert, my partner in wine business, which he would prefer.  An enthusiastic drinker, he declares that they all sound wonderful.

“We’ll buy one of each.”

The boy calls out and is joined by another, older teenager, who looks around for something.  He pulls out six gleaming white cardboard bottle bags, the kind ubiquitous in Australian and high-end Yangon bottleshops, and carefully puts each of the dusty, dirty, aged bottles into their own crisp, clean gift bag.  As he does so, I go through the basics.

“Do you drink wine?” I ask.  The boy does not.

“Do you drink beer?” I ask.  The boy does not.

“How about cigarettes?” I ask.  The boy thinks for a moment, and then says no.

A motorcycle splutters past.  Then another.  Kalaw’s rhythms are foreign to me, but it is a town of domestic migrants, of opportunity and of tourists.  I can categorise it: and Albert and I at least fit in here, there is a role to play, unlike many other idiosyncratic villages and towns across the country, down potted roads and one-lane “highways”.

The sun descends.  Cinnamon turns to peach.

We load the boot of the Kia up with our mysterious wine, pay and leave.

A Rooster as Big as a House

This is the eighteenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about a friend of mine and his many motorcycle accidents in Laos.

In November 2009 I motorcycled around the southern part of Laos for a month with a close friend who I will call Greg.  It was a trial by fire for Greg, who had never ridden a motorcycle before.  He was very keen to learn and I thought there could be no safer place in Southeast Asia than the beautiful dirt roads of Laos, blessedly free of the traffic that chokes so much of the region.  We landed in Vientiane, rented our motorcycles and headed into the suburbs for his first lessons.

This is a story of three motorbike accidents.  It is a story of fortitude and perseverance in the face of repeated bruising, a story of the human spirit overcoming an increasingly broken body, a story of lessons learned.  But mostly it is a story of luck – that Greg didn’t shuffle of this mortal coil deep in the Laos jungle, wrapped around a twisted metal heap that used to be a two-wheeled vehicle.

The first crash happened somewhere near Thakhek, only a few days into the trip.  Greg and I were putting merrily along a dirt road on the way to a lake for a swim.  I had a passenger at this time, a lovely Australian named Ricky who was on a worldwide tour for a year.  I was confiding to him at the time that I was a little worried about how Greg would go riding.

“But, he seems to be quite safe,” Ricky said to me.  “He’s not going fast or anything.”

It’s true; we were cruising at about forty kilometres an hour, a pretty tame speed for the empty dirt roads of rural Laos.  But as sure as the sun rises, as soon as Ricky said that, Greg sped past us.  He gave a knowing nod and smirk as he did so: catch me if you can, it communicated.

But before I could attempt to catch him or not, Greg pushed his bike into a ditch, smashed the wheel into the corrugated dirt and catapulted himself onto the road.  It was a perfect sequence of events from our perspectives: he zoomed past Ricky & I, came in full view of us and only then promptly crashed the bike.  I shook my head and skidded to a halt.  There he lay, this friend of mine, just gaining his confidence on two wheels, only to be dashed against the hard earthen reality of over-enthusiasm.

The second incident occurred a few days later, further south near Savannakhet somewhere.  I forget where we were headed, but it was just the two of us by now, Ricky having departed for his next destination.  This was before I had a smart phone or GPS and we were relying on print maps.  I knew we had to make a right hand turn somewhere but wasn’t sure where, so I took the lead, ducking through the paddocks checking left then right at each intersection.

Then HO! I spotted the turn.  It was too late to make it, so I put the brakes on after crossing the intersection and turned my head – once more, just in time to see Greg’s face contorted in shock as he applied his front bake, skidded into the dirt and crash out alongside me.  I just stared at him in disbelief.  If he had used his back brake he would have been fine, but for some reason he panicked, and instead of cruising past me or initiating a rear brake skid he opted to put all pressure on the front – and on these red dirt roads, that was a recipe for disaster.

Greg slowly rose to his feet.  Somehow his pants had fallen down.  He stood on the road in his boxer shorts, breathing heavily.  Dust and steam surrounded him as our motorcycle engines purred.  Three farmers, who had seen the whole thing, approached from the fields, and another motorcyclist pulled up to ask if we needed help.  Greg stared at them.  They stared at his naked legs and boxer shorts.  I stared at the whole scene.  Then we all burst out laughing.  Thankfully Greg and the bike weren’t too hurt; but his pride was taking a slow, sure, beating.  After righting the bike I took a quick photograph and we moved on.

The third and final crash was a doozy.  It beat Greg down and could have been quite serious.  Unlike the other two, I didn’t witness it.  Greg and I were descending a steep hill deep in a national park.  After five minutes of riding I realised I hadn’t seen him in my rear view mirror in a while, so I stopped and waited for him to catch up.  Ten minutes passed with no Greg passing me by.  I turned around and rode back up the mountainside.

There, in a small village, sat Greg, despondent, clothes ripped, skin slashed, surrounded by local peasants.  His motorcycle was not exactly a tangled heap, but the clutch had snapped off and there was significant cosmetic damage.  Oh dear, I thought.

“What happened man?” I asked.

“Rooster,” Greg said.  “As big as a house.”

I nodded.  Plenty of animals came at you on these roads.  I had been lucky to never hit anything.  I guess Greg was faced with the prospect of killing the rooster or hitting the brakes – and he went for the front brake again.

We didn’t say much.  He got on my motorbike and I nursed his own clutchless wreck down the hill and towards our accommodation.  That night I tended his wounds, using basically my entire first AID kit.

Did Greg have a good time in Laos?  Yes, he did.  He and I went on to take many more bicycle and motorcycle trips in Asia, and I am proud to say his vehicular stability is now peerless, with nary a stack or a skid for years.

But that trip in Laos in 2009 was a close call – and it could have gone either way.