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Perfect Pitch in Southeast Asia

Music is one of the reasons why we’re different from other creatures. While language has been around for about 3,500 years, archeologists have found evidence that flutes existed over 37,000 years ago. Musical instruments are a unique window into the culture that fashioned them. Little wonder then, when we are far from home, music can make us home. 

Khaen - Laos traditonal instrument

In Laos, the quintessential instrument has to be the khaen. And yet this free-reed bamboo mouth organ consisting of rows of tubes fastened together is more than just an instrument. Like blues or jazz in the US, it’s a distinctive sound, evocative of traditional courtship rituals, wild festivals and sober gatherings, often as an accompaniment to a singer or Molam narrating local tales in song.

Traditional musical instruments can be representative of a rather stilted and idealized version of a culture. The changing uses of the khaen, though, belie such stereotypes. Khaen playing has always adapted to the shifting styles of the times, with traditional performance genres coexisting with more modern interpretations.

Nowadays, traditional instruments face competition, particularly amongst the young, from easily accessible and downloadable pop music. However, Kongdeuan Nedthavong and Jonny Olsen are two people, who in their very different ways, are determined to ensure that the music of the khaen continues to contribute to Lao culture while reaching new audiences.

Mrs Kongdeuan Nedthavong is the perfect illustration of how khaen playing continues to evolve. This former director of the National Library, and master’s graduate from Canada and France is breaking new ground with the khaen. Traditionally, this was a male pursuit with women only allowed to sing. Despite initial opposition, what began through secret lessons with a kindly teacher has blossomed into a lifelong love affair. Kongdeuan’s passion is palpable when listening to her stunning solo performances. She has performed in France and the USA and has featured in several major magazines. She also feels a real responsibility to ensure that traditional khaen playing continues to be an important part of Lao culture. To this end she is a founder member of the Laos Khaen Preservation Group which focuses particularly on encouraging young people to take up the instrument. “For children to have a chance to learn to play an instrument not only helps them develop new skills but also helps them to relax and be more creative.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Jonny Olsen’s experiences show that these distinctive old bamboo pipes can have an appeal outside the narrow confines of Laos and north-east Thailand. Jonny was first introduced to the music of the region by a friend he was working with in a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. Then, on a visit to Thailand, he heard the khaen in a shopping mall. He was immediately captured by the sound. “It created a nostalgia like my soul had heard it before in a past life.” Jonny feels there’s almost a hypnotic quality to the rhythms that makes people want to dance. He believes the khaen has the potential to go more international. He has played it in a diverse and eclectic range of musical styles including reggae, classical, and even Indian folk music. What does the future hold for Jonny? Well, he’s keen to collaborate with many different artists in multiple genres internationally. He also sees himself teaching the khaen to other interested foreigners, as he’s currently doing via Skype, and maybe even write a book about Lao folk stories of the khaen.

By Somsouk Souksavath and David Fairhurst


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Mawkhaen Jonny Olsen

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The Magic of Myanmar


The years that Myanmar spent in seclusion added to its mystery, like the eyes of a woman glimpsed behind her purdah. Myanmar is geographically gifted, within its borders are romantic islands, vast deltas and seascapes, breathtaking rivers and the soaring grandiosity of the Himalayan foothills. What are you waiting for? Get packing!

While the best known tourist paths are sufficient to satisfy any appetite, Myanmar offers the adventurous or curious traveller, a huge menu of experiences. Oh! offers some alternative ideas for things to do, see and feel in Myanmar as it throws open its doors, and windows, to the world.



With the opening of the nation came a simultaneous flowering of art and literature. Visit some of Yangon’s galleries to see how artists in Myanmar express their new lives. Attend concerts, and musical events to appreciate how Myanmar’s young are carving their own brand of pop culture. 

Photography, StreetScoping


Visit markets, sit with a cooling beer or even a hot tea and a long lens and capture the faces, shapes and movement of the cities. Despite the sapping heat there is always something going on. A flirtatious smile, traders with laden carts, the elders; their tough lives etched on their faces, the sassy young, optimistic about the future, or the Maugham-era, faded romance of the architecture. Don’t leave Myanmar without a hot air balloon trip over Bagan. Clichéd? Yes. Wonderful? Also yes.

Burmese Food

Myanmar’s multi-ethnic diversity is best appreciated via its food. Many of the street eats such as rice flour pancakes are ubiquitous to the region but look for subtle differences in flavours. Khaut sweh is my favourite dish; a wet soupy chicken curry, usually taken for breakfast with many side dishes. Try fish cooked for 24 hours so the bones become as edible as the delectable flesh. Myanmar’s a vegetarian’s dream having the biggest array of salads in Asia. You can detect Thai, Indian and Chinese influences in dishes like chickpea soup with ginger and lemongrass, but it is the people of Myanmar who have taken these traditions, and blended them into something really special.

Sagaing and Inwa


Across the Ayeyarwady River, Sagaing is about 30 minutes from hot and dusty Mandalay. The town’s abundance of shady trees provides relief from the heat. The area is dotted with pagodas, monasteries and nunneries and the pace of life is slower and the air cleaner than Mandalay. On top of a 240-metre-hill is the Hsoon Oo Pon Nya Shin Pagoda, from which there are breathtaking views of Sagaing, the Ayeyarwady, its two bridges, and in the distance, Mandalay. Cross the river by ferry and explore Inwa by horse cart. The countryside will have you reaching for your camera and some of the pagodas are as magnificent as any to be found in the rest of the country.

Mandalay to Bagan

If you have time on your hands take the steamer from Mandalay to Bagan. It is advertised as a 10-hour journey but is more likely to be between 14 to 16 hours. And this is the fast boat; the slow one takes two days! The “voyage” starts at about 5.30 am and after sunrise the banks teem with life. This is a living river, the major artery that literally feeds the nation. Its cargo boats have been plying the river since 1856. Dream you way back to earlier times as the river slips by.

By Percy Aaron & Melody Kemp


Coffee Around Southeast Asia

Something is Brewing

In laos, especially in the larger towns, a distinct change is taking place. Coffee shops are sprouting up everywhere and though they might not be as ubiquitous as the beauty salon or the mobile accessories vendor, they're infinitely more pleasing to the eye. Cappuccino, espresso, latte and mocha have entered the vocabulary of even teenagers, and the trend is similar throughout the region.

Coffee Pioneer in the North

There are certainly some days I think it would be easier to have a big plantation,” jokes David Dale, who co-founded and operates Luang Prabang-based Saffron Coffee with his wife Malayvanh.

‘Easy’ is not an ethos that David gravitates towards. Instead, he works with over 700 families from 20 villages spread out around the hills of Luang Prabang Province. Made up of Hmong, Khmu, Gasak and Mien groups, the villages represent the province’s diverse ethnic and cultural make-up. Together, these farming communities and Saffron Coffee produce some of the best organic, shade-grown Arabica coffee in northern Laos.

David and his team train the farmers on proper cultivation, emphasizing the benefits of shade-grown and organic practices. Once the coffee trees begin to produce, David and his team travel to the villages, often scaling precipitous hillsides where roads are washed out or dangerously narrow, to buy freshly harvested cherries (the term refers to fruit from coffee trees).

Back at Saffron’s warehouse, the coffee berries are washed vigorously to remove the pulp surrounding the beans. The beans are dried and roasted in small batches. The result is coffee with exceptional flavour profiles, strong hints of fruit and coffee, with balanced sweetness and acidity.

As committed as David is to helping the ethnic communities he works with, he is equally dedicated to producing a first-rate product.

“If the coffee is not grown above 800 meters, shaded in canopy and organic, we don’t buy it,” states David. Unlike the Bolaven plateau, where temperatures are cooler and rainfall significantly higher, coffee grown on hillsides benefit from canopy cover. The shade trees offer additional advantages, such as controlling erosion and contributing to soil fertility. “Many farmers want to cut down trees, because shade is counter-intuitive in farming. But without shade, the cherries ripen too quickly, ultimately rotting on the trees and destroying the crop, ” explains David.

The story of Saffron Coffee began in 2006, when David and Malayvanh moved permanently to Luang Prabang. The couple began looking for a livelihood to support their growing family. In nearby highland communities, David encountered ethnic communities who practiced subsistence and shifting agriculture. The poverty and environmental impact inherent in these villages motivated him to look for a solution. Many older farmers had grown coffee in the past, but neglected the trees in the absence of a market. David saw a real opportunity and began to help farmers transition back to growing coffee. In many respects, David and Malayvanh are pioneers, succeeding in reviving coffee cultivation among highland farmers where others have failed.

A worthwhile challenge and doing good for his community and for the environment are what keeps David inspired, even when things are far from ‘easy’. His tenacity and good work are paying off; for Saffron, for the farming communities and let’s not forget, for those of us, who enjoy a really good cup of coffee!

- By Rachna Sachasinh -


Oh! Recommends:

Saffron Cafe in Luang Prabang


Common Ground Cafe (Chao Anou Street)
A child-friendly place where you can enjoy organic coffee from Luang Prabang.

Le Trio Cafe (Setthatirat Street)
This Unique coffee boutique roaster which embalms the whole neighborhood is the rendezvous for espresso lovers.

Begonia Cafe (Soi 4 off Nongbone Road)
A retro-chic little gem excels in the art of preparing lattes.

5 things you should know about coffee

1. The Dutch were the first to ‘liberate’ coffee, stealing the plants from Ethiopia where it was widely grown. It was called arabica as the Dutch considered Ethiopia to be an Arabic nation.

2. The word mocha comes from the port from which is was exported.

3. The Dutch colonials took it to Indonesia where it was grown commercially for the first time outside of Africa.

Indonesia therefore has been growing coffee for over 300 years but has been overtaken by Brazil as one of the leading growers.

4. Kopi luwak, the most famous, if not most questionable, variety of coffee resulted from legendary Dutch stinginess. The colonial plantation owners did not allow their Indonesian labourers to drink coffee themselves. But the workers, tempted by the aromas drifting from the bosses’ houses noticed that local civet cats both ate and excreted the beans. So being curious they took the beans, carefully washed and roasted them. Voila! a brand was born.

5. Australian Sasa Sestic from Canberra, Australia won the 2015 World Barista Championships this year in Seattle judged by Fai (see interview) making four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature drinks in 15 minutes. To reflect Australia’s love affair with wine, Sestic’s signature coffee contained a splash of shiraz viognier juice from a vineyard in the Australian Capital Territory.


Hotel shenanigans in Hanoi

It was going to be a long day. The brochure for the day trip to Halong Bay had the coach picking us up from the hotel at 7.00 am and dropping us back after 9.00 pm. I was running a temperature but didn’t want to cancel.

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