Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Kingdom in Words — Best Thailand Books

Regular contributor John Borthwick bookworms his way through some of the best reads about Thailand — in fact, fiction and sci-fi.

“Thailand is the Italy of Asia. Great food, beautiful women, joyously corrupt and totally dysfunctional.” So writes Jake Needham, author of taut, intelligent thrillers set in Thailand. The Big Mango and Killing Plato are perfect stuck-in-the-airport novels or an on-the-beach read. In fact, your Thailand reading can fall into three phases: On The Plane, On The Beach and Back Home.

On the Plane

Jake Needham’s plots are steeped in international politics, big money bastardry and the onion layers of Thai corruption. (The Wall Street Journal Asia notes, “Mr Needham seems to know rather more than one ought about these things.”) Add sharp dialogue and pace, and you have the classic The Big Mango and recent delights like A World of Trouble. Needham’s work is notches above the recurrent template of farang fiction about Thailand, of go-gos, goons and gumshoes.

The Ideal Man: The tragedy of Jim Thompson and the American way of war by Joshua Kurlantzick is an excellent new biography of the legendary Jim Thompson, “silk king”, spy, socialite and disappearing man. The book’s sub-title sets the scene. Exceptionally informative about post–WWII Thailand and its most glamorous foreign resident.

Jim Algie’s Bizarre Thailand: Tales of crime, sex and black magic is nowhere near as sordid as its tagline suggests. Arcane local knowledge, and funny, too. In a similar vein, but people-focused, also check out Bangkok Babylon and Thailand Confidential both by Jerry Hopkins (biographer of Jim Morrison).

Money Number One: The single man’s survival guide to Pattaya and A Fool in Paradise — the titles say all that one needs to know about “romance” in Thailand. Aussie expat Neil Hutchison’s funny-ouch! anecdotes should be mandatory in-flight reading for all arriving foreign males between the ages of puberty and senility.

On the Beach

Ex-lawyer John Burdett’s four novels featuring his eccentric Thai-farang police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep — in a Bangkok of bizarre murders, dirty politics and curious sex — are smart, street-credible page turners and full of gloriously bent characters. Start with Bangkok 8. Burdett’s cast of good- and evil-doers is infinitely more nuanced than the penny dreadful dames and private dicks in the prolific Christopher G. Moore’s series of who-dunnits, also set in Thailand. Moore’s short story collection, Chairs is recommended, instead.

Jasmine Nights by Thai renaissance man and aristocrat S.P Somtow is rightly billed as “the classic coming-of-age tale in Thailand of the 1960s.” Set in a time-warp family enclave (“our remote little island kingdom on Sukhumvit Road”), at one point Somtow’s father tells him that the coming Vietnam War will soon change everything for them: “This place we’re in now is a piece of paradise ... But in this tiny Eden, there is no hint of the change that will sweep the world. We’re not really of this earth ... but it can’t last.” While it does, the story is sexy, magical, poignant.

Flavour-of-the-year Norsk noir novelist Jo Nesbo penned a Bangkok crime tale way back in 1998 that has only now been translated to English. Cockroaches sees his Oslo police detective/defective Harry Hole in Bangkok investigating the murder of the Norwegian ambassador who has turned up dead in a seedy motel. As they do. Go-gos, temples and opium dens(??) are the screensaver backdrops to Harry’s hunt.

Canadian poet-novelist-travel writer Karen Connelly knows Thailand and its language well. Try her adroit, youthful account of a year in the Kingdom, Touch the Dragon: A Thai journal. A much later book, Burmese Lessons: A true love story is a gritty, open-heart account of journey and loving in the Thai jungles amid exiled Burmese resistance groups.

A Woman of Bangkok by Jack Reynolds was first published in 1956. The Asian Wall Street Journal clocked it as “Among the ten finest novels written about Asia.” That’s a big call for a “young foreign man meets unscrupulous local vixen” tale. Nevertheless, it’s a plot still played out to this day, nightly. Which might explain this compelling novel’s re-emergence.

Back Home (and wishing you weren’t)

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi is a dystopian tale of gene scammers, agri-corp wickedness and an engineered, quasi-human woman, the “windup girl” of the title. All set in a future, post-diluvean Bangkok where government departments war for keeps against each other. William Gibson meets Blade Runner meets GM-induced famine.

Private Dancer sees Irish crime writer Stephen Leather (or at least his tragic protagonist, Pete) tread the same ground, shed the same tears and not learn the same lessons that Jack Reynold’s callow hero didn’t learn 50 years earlier. By the 21st century, however, everything in the Big Mango’s bar world is harder and far more sinister. Down, deeper and down, lovestruck Pete sinks into his obsession with a ying fatale. Slow Learner could be the book’s alternative title.

In Borderlines, fine English writer Charles Nicholl headed north to the Mekong and into Burma in search of rebels, jade, opium traders, insights and an elusive friend, Katai. “... sometimes I think that it wasn't just Katai who ‘got away’, but Thailand itself, the whole strange trip. I never really got to know where I was going, never reached my destination. Perhaps the code of the road is as simple as that. You never do get there. There is just the road, and what it reveals along the way.” Sounds familiar?

Happy reading!

John Borthwick is the author of Summer in Siam, a collection of essays about travelling in Thailand.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Talking Politics

As someone who actively promotes Thailand as a tourist destination, I think it would be remiss of me not to address the current ‘elephant in the room’ - the brewing political situation in Thailand. As I write, protesters amass in the streets of Bangkok, demanding the resignation of the democratically elected government; and while the protests have been largely peaceful, reports are just in that 28 people were wounded in an explosives attack, while in another location, an unidentified gunman opened fire on the protesters.

The situation is extremely volatile, and to be frank, there is no end in sight. While I don’t pretend to have detailed knowledge of Thai politics, I do recognise that there are two extremes and very little middle ground. On the surface, it appears to be a class war; but it is so entangled in a long and complicated history, it is difficult for me to summarise.

Instead, I’ll provide links to two articles which I think explain the situation far more concisely than I possibly could.



The bottom line for people planning a holiday to Thailand, however is ... is it safe to travel there?

The Australian government travel advisory site, smarttraveller.gov.au, warns Australian tourists to “exercise a high degree of caution” if holidaying in Thailand. They advise Australians to avoid all protests and major intersections where crowds have gathered; and to expect traffic delays and disruptions during this period.

Visitors to areas other than Bangkok are also warned to avoid demonstrations, especially in Phuket and Chiang Mai.

Note that they do NOT advise reconsidering travel plans or not travelling to Thailand.
The protests are not targeting tourists, and demonstrations tend to be localised.

While it is highly unlikely that the current situation will impact on your holiday in Thailand, please just be aware that shit happens anywhere in the world. Exercise commonsense and caution, avoid any sign of trouble, keep away from the crowds and focus on having a good time.

Go and find yourself a deserted beach, a hammock and a fresh coconut to sip on - and enjoy your vacation in the Land of Smiles!

Avoid the elephant in the room, but not the elephants!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Up/Down Chinatown

Regular contributor John Borthwick wanders Chinatown’s fascinating Yaowarat Road.

With its Blade Runner alleys, sidewalk astrologers, herbalists, goldsmiths and cheek-by-jowl eateries, teeming Yaowarat Road could be nowhere but in Chinatown. Yet not just any Chinatown. Bangkok’s, it is claimed, is South-east Asia’s largest.

In Feng Shui terms, Yaowarat Road is a “golden dragon area”, an ideal place for doing business. Five minutes on the street demonstrates the point. With Chinatown sprawling between, and beyond, Yaowarat and Charoenkrung roads, the whole place seems programmed to perpetually buy and sell, sell and buy, not to mention eat, drink and run.

Guess what part of town you're in?

The side sois off Yaowarat are microcosms of Sino-Thai enterprise, specialising in textiles, flowers, furniture or electronics, and everything else from hat-racks to rat-traps. Soi Itsara Nuphap 167, for instance, runs between Yaowarat and Charoenkrung. Enter it and you’ll think you’ve stepped into a Blade Runner set, minus the humidity and homicides. Breathe in, inch forward and by the end, several hundred metres later (and however long it takes), you’ve sampled a universe.

This being Chinatown, you’re never far from food — be it a street stall, café or restaurant — that offers respite from the intensity. On Santhipaab Road (No. 539) you’ll find excellent fried oyster omelettes at the little Nai Mon Hoi Thod eatery. When evening falls, footpath restaurants spring up along Yaowarat to provide you with a progressive feast of sea- and every other kind of food. Walk, stop and sample, then do it again; and also do the right thing by skipping the eco-uncool shark-fin and birds-nest soups.

Nai Mon Hoi Thod - delicious!

Not the easiest of finger foods...

Chinese settlers came to Thailand in numbers during the Sukhothai period (1238-1438) and their history in this Rattanakosin area dates back to even before the establishment of Bangkok in 1782. Much later, King Rama V encouraged more Chinese commercial trade and at that time ordered the construction of several main roads here, including Yaowarat in 1891. Bangkok’s Chinatown, one of the oldest overseas Chinese communities in the world, now covers about two square kilometres. Its maze of alleys, often redolent of herbs, incense, perfume and stir-fry, is also a business and commercial centre vital to the Thai economy.

Pics: John Borthwick, 2014

Yaowarat Road flows day and night like an asphalt Yangtze and its taxis, tuk-tuks, cars and pedestrians jostle with a fast-forward urgency, but not all is stress and getting. Shanghai Mansion Hotel, at 479, was built in 1892 and in its eventful life has been a Chinese opera house, stock exchange, textile trading house and department store. Pop in and check out the lobby’s chinoiserie — red sofas, lanterns, checkers and decorative screens — all paying homage to Deco-decadent 1930’s Shanghai. If you feel like staying, there are themed suites that have names like Cherry Blossom Havens.

You can reach Chinatown on foot from Hualamphong station (a 10-minute walk) or from Ratchawong Pier (via Ratchawong Road and Sampaeng Lane to Yaowarat). It is a world apart from Bangkok’s familiar Sukumvit-Silom-Khao San axis.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Thailand Hot Spots

You've done Phuket and Samui, have scaled the cliffs in Krabi and tramped the steamy streets of Bangkok. So where to next? Thailand has a wealth of beautiful islands, mountain towns and hidden treasures, just waiting to be explored. Here are three of the hottest new destinations in the Land of Smiles which I'll certainly attempt to hit in 2014...

Koh Lipe
Blinding white sand, turquoise water, a chilled atmosphere - sounds blissful, right? Koh Lipe - meaning Paper Island in the local Sea Gypsy language - is located near the Malaysian border in the extreme south of Thailand. Small and flat, you can literally walk anywhere on the island, with the main attraction being the three main beaches, which are peppered with low key resorts, bars and restaurants and of course offer great snorkelling, diving and kayaking. The island is accessed from Pak Bara pier in Thailand, or from Langkawi to the south in Malaysia. Sea Gypsies (or the Chao Lay people) still live on the island, making a living from fishing and tourism.

Touted as the "new Pai", Nan is a haven for travellers wanting to explore the northern hill tribe culture of Thailand in peace and tranquility. Located in a verdant valley not far from Luang Prabang (on the Laos side of the Mekong), it's a great place to go trekking or rafting, while the riverside town is a lovely, quiet place just to hang out and soak up the atmosphere.

Bueng Kan
Every year around October, something strange occurs along the Mekong River that creates a natural border between Laos and Thailand ... strange fireballs, ranging from sparkles to basketball-sized explosions, rise from the depth of the river, creating a natural lightshow. Locals say these are caused by a mythical snake that dwells in the river called a Naga, celebrating the time when the Buddha returned from his trip to visit his mother at the end of Buddhist lent. The centre of fireball activity is the province of Buang Kan, where the river is at its deepest. Temples in this district are dedicated to the snake god, with Wat Aa Hong Silawas said to be the best places to view fireball activity during the annual festival (also celebrated in Nong Kai province). Other attractions in the region include mountains, temples and waterfalls.

Pics: Tourism Authority of Thailand