I’ve been an admirer of the work of Michael Pollan since reading The Botany of Desire, in which he suggests that four plants (potatoes, tulips, apples and marijuana) have ensured their survival by generating a strong desire for them among humans. So when I noticed that he had taken on the topic of mind-altering drugs in How to Change Your Mind: the New Science of Psychedelics, my curiosity was piqued.
As someone for whom the hippie era was extremely formative (the long hair may be gone from the top of my head but the idealism’s still inside), I was intrigued to find out what has changed about the psychedelic experience during the last fifty years. It was the word ‘new’ that jumped out at me from the title; I wondered what modern scientists are making of substances I once thought could change the world.
The book is divided into three sections. Firstly, Pollan recounts the history of the use of psychedelic drugs in the West, beginning with Albert Hoffman’s accidental discovery of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in 1938. The second part relates his own trips (part of his research, as a ‘psychedelic virgin’) on LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and even inhaling the venom of a particular toad through a vaporizer. The third section of the book deals with the ‘new science’, describing recent experiments with LSD and other psychotropics to alleviate the suffering of terminal cancer patients, addicts of all sorts and the severely depressed.
While I was fascinated by the first two parts, as I never knew anything about the history of these drugs, and it’s always interesting to read other people’s accounts of ‘tripping’ as it’s such a difficult experience to put into words, I found the last part rather predictable. The scientists involved are all looking for a way to legitimize the use of LSD, so the experiments are set up with favourable conditions, the volunteers are carefully selected to produce positive outcomes, and Pollan reports only those cases that resulted in miraculous recoveries.
Nevertheless, reading the book brought back memories of some ecstatic states that I experienced myself many moons ago, and it reminded me that much of my euphoria then was due to escaping a sense of self (‘dropping the veils to reality’) and merging with the natural world. It also brought me back to my interest in Buddhism, which encourages us to attain a state of ‘non-self’ and to ‘be here now’, both of which are characteristics of the psychedelic experience.
Finally, it was fun to read about some of the strange activities humans are up to these days that I wasn’t aware of, such as holotropic breathwork and microdosing. The former is a type of hyperventilating that can apparently take the mind into a state similar to that caused by psychedelic drugs, and the latter involves ingesting LSD (or any other psychotropic) in tiny quantities to facilitate creativity in the brain, which is all the rage in Silicon Valley these days. Meanwhile, I haven’t had a mind-bending experience in years; anyone got any mushrooms?
I recently went on a trip to the Myeik (aka Mergui) Archipelago, in the Andaman Sea off the south coast of Myanmar (Burma). It's a place I had long wanted to visit, ever since reading Siamese White by Maurice Collis (check it out—a great read!). I spent five days in the company of a group of adventurous travellers, cruising around the archipelago, which consists of over 800 islands, mostly uninhabited.
It wasn't a perfect voyage, due largely to stormy weather, as it was the beginning of the monsoon season, but it was a wonderful break from work and my growing dependence on electronic gadgets—phone, laptop etc. I had a great time photographing deserted beaches, villages of Moken people (sea nomads) and, of course, stormy weather.
A story of mine about the archipelago will appear in the July/August issue of Fah Thai, Bangkok Airways inflight magazine, so if you happen to be on one of their flights in that time, look out for it. In the meantime, here's a small selection of images from my trip to give you a taste of this magical place.
Life is tough for us folks who live in Chiang Mai, former capital of the Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields (Lan Na). The problem is that there are so many festivals and ceremonies to celebrate that we never get time to rest, and it seems we’re out dancing in the streets almost every day.
Take this week for instance. Traffic was brought to a standstill by the Poy Sang Long parade, which snaked its way around the perimeter of the old city moat. Poy Sang Long is a Shan ordination ceremony, which is accompanied by plenty of singing and dancing.
As the royal wedding approaches, our blogger offers a surprising tip to Prince Harry on how to spend his honeymoon.
When Henry Charles Albert David Mountbatten-Windsor, better known as Prince Harry, walks down the aisle of St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle on 19 May 2018 to marry Meghan Markle, those of us who don’t have a personal invite will be watching weepy-eyed on TV. Though the concept of a monarchy may seem a bit outdated in the 21st century, there’s something irresistible about the pomp and pageantry that goes with a royal wedding, and Windsor does pomp very well indeed.
Now, Harry (can I call you that?), I’m sure you are planning to zip off with Meg (can I call her that?) to the Caribbean or somewhere out of public sight as soon as the ceremonies are over, but let me suggest that you do something totally unexpected. Why not spend your honeymoon beside the River Thames in Windsor, and give Meg a taste of true British culture?
Of course, first you should show her round the castle, but I shouldn’t bother with all the rooms, just enough to impress her. You might mention that it’s the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world, and that it was originally built by William the Conqueror in 1070, because he deemed the site “a place appearing proper and convenient for royal retirement on account of the river and its nearness to the forest for hunting, and many other royal conveniences”. Perhaps you’d better not mention the fire of 1992, when thousands of irreplaceable treasures went up in smoke. It might give her bad dreams on the big night.
A few weeks ago I made a trip to Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard (the area between Bangkok and Cambodia) to update that chapter of the Rough Guide to Thailand. I relished the opportunity to spend some time on Thai beaches, and to visit some islands that I hadn’t been to before, such as Ko Mak and Ko Kood. As a result, I’ve put together a small gallery of images, which I’ll post here along with a few words about each island.
This tiny, hilly island is little more than an hour’s journey from Bangkok, but it’s rarely visited, perhaps because it doesn’t have any stand-out beaches. However, it’s got a great, laid-back vibe, some comfy lodgings, super-friendly locals and several low-key attractions which you can visit in a ‘skylab’ (a glorified tuk-tuk).
It’s supposed to be a national park, but you’d never believe it with the boatloads of visitors streaming on to and off of the island each day. It has several gorgeous beaches on the east coast, some extremely expensive resorts (think $1000 a night) and some yummy seafood. Quiet on weekdays but frantic at weekends.
Thailand’s second-biggest island, ‘Elephant Island’ didn’t really get going as a tourist base until the 1990s but is making up for lost time and is now developing rapidly. Fortunately, the further south you go on the west coast, the quieter it gets, and there are still a few budget bungalows on the beach.
This small, mostly flat, island is unusual in that its inhabitants have got together to ban the sordid side of tourism such as jetskis and hostess bars. This leaves a tranquil island ringed by beaches and an interior given over to coconut and rubber plantations, which are great fun to explore on a bicycle or motorbike.
Not far from the Cambodian border, this must be one of Thailand’s last remaining undiscovered gems, though presumably not for long, as access is very easy these days. Fabulous, empty beaches, gushing waterfalls, towering ancient trees and winding sealed roads await explorers. Get there before it goes the way of all tourist resorts.
Putting the world to rights in five minutes
Our planet is in a mess—environmentally, economically, socially and politically. Hardly a day goes by without some horrific news about villages buried under landslides, politicians arrested for corruption or suicide bombers blowing themselves and everybody nearby to bits. Despite amazing advances in technology during the last century, we don’t seem to have learned anything about how to live together despite our differences. Even the modern sciences of psychology and sociology have no blueprint for improving relationships.
‘Kuala Lumpur’ means ‘muddy confluence’, referring to the meeting of the Gombak and Klang Rivers. This name was probably appropriate when it was a small tin-mining settlement in the 1850s, but it doesn’t quite capture the vibrant mood of the gleaming city that stands there today. Now you’d be hard pushed to find the confluence of those rivers, hidden somewhere between overpasses, underpasses and soaring skyscrapers; in fact, ‘cement city’ would be a more accurate, if unflattering, title. I’m not sure whether it’s because Kuala Lumpurians want to disown their muddy heritage, or perhaps because acronyms are currently fashionable, but these days the city’s inhabitants prefer to be called KL-ites, and their city simply KL.
I’ve been to KL several times before, but never got nearer to the city than Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), which is over 50km away, to the joy of taxi drivers. Now I find myself based in the city for a few days researching a story on Malaysian starfruit, and find time to check out a few sights.
Time to freshen up the website for the new year, so I’ve made a few additions and changes. Firstly, I’ve added a few scans of stories that appeared in printed magazines (an increasingly rare form of media!) during 2016. These are:
- Deep in the Delta, a photo essay on the Mekong Delta for Jetstar Asia magazine.
--Strange Town, a focus on Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar, for the South China Morning Post.
--Blissful Bloom, a story about the sacred lotus for Morning Calm (Korean Air inflight).
I’ve also changed the sample story from my collection ‘Searching for Shangri La’. ‘Sweeping Meditation’ is a chronicle of my changing attitudes to the fascinating activity of sweeping leaves. There’s also an audio version of the story, so rest your eyes for ten minutes and listen to the tale unfold.
Recently, I’ve been on the trail of vanilla, the magical spice that flavours our cakes, custards and ice creams. Along the way, the trail took me to Madagascar, where they produce the finest vanilla in the world. It’s called ‘Bourbon vanilla’, after the former name of nearby Reunion Island.
Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid (vanilla planifolia)? That its flower has to be pollinated by hand in order for the vanilla pod to grow? That the pod must be picked on a particular day of its growth, and then go through various stages of conditioning for almost a year before it is ready to use?
I didn’t know any of this; I didn’t even know what a vanilla pod looked like, but I found out pretty quickly before boarding a plane to Antananarivo (better known as Tana), Madagascar’s crazy capital.
Y'all know Wikipedia, dontcha? That wonderful bastion of philanthropy, the so-called ‘free’ encyclopaedia staffed by selfless sharers of essential information—one of the world’s ten most popular websites, written by the people, for the people?
Well, I got news for you—Wikipedia is wicked, and I don’t mean that in a ‘so bad it’s good’ way. I mean wicked, as in nasty, calculating and, worst of all, corrupt.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.