A review of the novel Bangkok Wakes to Rain
Everybody knows that Bangkok will drown one day. It sits a precarious 1.5 metres above sea level, which continues to rise steadily due to climate change, while the city is sinking under the weight of its concrete jungle by a few centimetres each year. Some give it ten years, others fifteen. For the city’s 10 million or so inhabitants, this is a cause for concern, and the government’s efforts to stave off the inevitable with multi-million dollar flood barriers have all the pathos of a madman trying to hold back the tide.
The scenario is ripe for a dystopian novel, which Pitchaya Sudbanthad has provided in the form of Bangkok Wakes to Rain. This wildly ambitious debut novel jumps back and forth through the city’s history from the mid-19th to the mid-21st century, and by the end all that remains of the former capital are the tops of the tallest skyscrapers, with floodwaters splashing at their windows.
The characters range from a medical missionary in the mid-19th century to a divorced socialite and her drifter son, Samart, aka Sammy; from a girl caught up in the 1976 student massacre to fashion-conscious teens desperate to change their nose shapes and as-yet-unborn, water-savvy kids who take tourists out in longtail boats to gaze down at the drowned city.
The common thread between these diverse characters is a Sino-colonial house, which like so many other plots of land in Bangkok is developed into a towering condominium in the 1970s. At some stage each of the characters lives in or visits the house or condos, and the scenes often jump a decade or two to pick up with the next generation. This restlessness is also reflected in scenes that take place in London, Stockholm, Yokohama and New England as the Bangkokian diaspora scatter around the globe.
What makes this book stand out apart from its epic time scale is the sense of place, and anyone who has lived in or visited the Big Mango is likely to feel a resonance in Sudbanthad’s detailed descriptions, particularly of food. “Fish came at him, silvery and whole, bathed in plum sauce and ginger. Grilled prawns the size of men’s hands oozed with orange roe, and bowls of curry the color of flames formed a volcanic ring around the table. He kept eating, teary-eyed, until suffering melted into a mode of pleasure.”
The main theme of the story, the gradual submersion of Bangkok, is also portrayed vividly: “Everyone in Krungthep was watching the TV screens that covered the approaching flood day and night. Somewhere upcountry the water was lapping on the steps of thousand-year old temples and forcing saffron-robed monks to camp on highway ramps. Produce markets turned into shimmering, rectangular pools. Entire industrial complexes seemingly went undersea. Airports closed due to submerged runways.”
While the lyrical prose is enough to keep readers turning pages, the novel has its shortcomings. It is divided neatly into four parts, with one-word titles for each sub-section, such as Outpour, Impasse and Netherworld. Yet there is no connection between each sub-section and the next, so it reads like a disjointed set of independent short stories.
The writer begins many sections by stating ‘He did this’, or ‘She did that’, and it is only several pages later that the reader learns, either by deduction or by being told, who the ‘he’ or ‘she’ is. While there is a stylistic cleverness to such a technique, it doesn’t always work.
For example, the ‘she’ of the opening section, Visitations, is never identified, though the setting is clearly contemporary. After this the narrative jumps back to the mid-19th century to describe the frustrations of a medical missionary in the steamy, disease-ridden city that was less than a century old.
It’s also debatable whether the work is intended as a dystopia. While the threat of rising waters creates a menacing backdrop to events, there are no descriptions of mass suffering or bloated bodies floating on the water as one might expect in such an aquatic disaster. Instead, Sudbanthad turns his attention to technological innovations that might await us, such as the option of ‘afterbodying’ for well-heeled oldies, a form of eternal life by which they can choose their appearance, time and location at will.
Despite its limitations, Bangkok Wakes to Rain evokes a city that can appear either a heaven or a hell to those who pass through it or live there, and following it through from its early days to its imminent submergence, albeit in an erratic time frame, makes for a thought-provoking experience. Read it before the deluge washes the city away.
This pandemic has me lost for words
Help! I don't know what to write, and this is a dire situation for a writer. The problem is that these days there’s only one thing on everyone’s mind—coronavirus. And while everybody and their grandmother has had their say about this invisible killer, writing about any other topic seems simply senseless.
Like many others, I've found that my regular job, travel writing, has ground to a halt since nobody's travelling any more, So for now at least, soft-sand beaches and tropical sunsets are off the menu.
I've therefore hopped on the coronavirus bandwagon and written a couple of blogs myself. The first explains how a Buddhist perspective can help us avoid becoming hysterical about the situation, while the second suggests that we cultivate the subtle art of going nowhere to counteract cabin fever during lockdown.
These stories are posted on medium.com, a site with a paywall, but authors are permitted to share their stories through 'friend links'. Following are the links to those stories, which include embedded audio files in case you would like to close your eyes for a few minutes and listen rather than read:
Publishing on medium.com has been an inspired choice, as the website pays writers when paying members spend time reading their stories. I recently received payment for my first month, which came to a staggering $0.02. This means I only have to earn another $4.98 before I cover my expenses for my first month’s reading.
Medium.com is full of great ideas about relationships, technology, politics, philosophy and pretty much anything else you can think of. Currently it hosts over 11,000 publications and claims to have over 120 million readers worldwide.
And now I've got over my blogger's block, I know exactly which story on Medium that I'm going to read next; 'How I doubled my income on Medium in a month'.
For more of my stories on Medium, just go to medium.com/@ronemmons.
Back when I was a bus driver for London Transport, I used to drive the number 47 between Catford and Shoreditch, crossing over the River Thames at London Bridge. Crossing the bridge several times each day, I developed a fondness for this huge span of granite that connected the different worlds of south and north London. However, as I passed back and forth, the bridge was being taken apart to be sold to a rich American, so the story went.
Many years later, when I was touring around the USA, I passed a turn-off signposted to the bridge, and my curiosity drew me to look at its new location in deepest Arizona. I found the bridge was the focal point of a tourist village at the entrance to Lake Haversu City, a far cry from the grimy streets of London.
Still later, when I penned several travelogues recounting my quirky travel adventures, I reflected on my different experiences of the bridge on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. London Bridge Revisited is one of the stories in the collection called Searching for Shangri-La, which is available as an ebook or paperback on Amazon.
I have also posted the story on this site, and if you’re curious to know what it’s like to drive a bus in London or visit a tourist village in Arizona, click here to read or listen to the ten-minute tale.
I love working as a travel writer, especially when it involves complimentary rooms in 5-star hotels. The trouble is, I’m not really a 5-star person, and I don’t feel comfortable with people bowing and scraping before me as if I’m in some way superior.
A recent experience in Myanmar reminded me of this discomfort. The awkwardness began when the porter brought my bags to my luxurious room, pointed out the controls for the air-con and TV, then hovered in the doorway. Having just arrived in the country and withdrawn cash from an ATM, I only had large notes in my pocket, which I was loath to part with for a tip. After an icy moment, the porter left empty-handed.
One of my difficulties with 5-star living is that the fees I am paid for my work do not allow for expensive treats such as a drink from the minibar or a meal ordered through room service. If I succumb to one or two such indulgences, it costs me as much as a night in a budget hotel, somehow negating the benefit of a free night’s sleep. Sometimes I have found myself in 5-star resorts far from any restaurants or shops and have had little choice but to eat in the hotel restaurant, my stomach churning at the thought of what it is costing me.
One of the many reasons that I love living in Chiang Mai is the nearby presence of Doi Suthep, the city’s ‘guardian mountain’, which rises about 1600 metres above sea level. The most popular place on the mountain is the temple called Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, which sits at an elevation of around 1300 metres and on a clear day offers sweeping views of the city and valley below.
While this temple is one of the must-see sights of Chiang Mai for visitors, there’s a place I much prefer to go to enjoy the mountain’s tranquil, natural surroundings. It’s a trail that leads up the mountain about 300 metres, taking about an hour, and ends at a dramatic waterfall that runs all year. I never fail to finish that walk in a better mood than I started.
The world is changing fast, and my line of work is no exception. As a freelance writer/photographer, I’ve spent the last 20 years providing illustrated articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as writing and updating guidebooks for a variety of prestigious publishers.
One of my main clients through these years has been Rough Guides, a company that has earned an enviable reputation for providing in-depth background on the culture of the countries it covers, along with helpful insights and reliable recommendations for sights to see as well as for where to eat and sleep from its researchers.
For nearly 20 years I have been involved with updates of the Rough Guide to Thailand and the Rough Guide to Vietnam, and while the rates of pay were not generous, they at least made it possible for researchers/writers to visit the places mentioned in the guide, evaluate any changes and make revisions where appropriate.
Sadly, since Rough Guides was sold in 2018 to APA Publications, who also publish Insight Guides, all that has changed. Rates of pay are now less than half of what they were, and it is being made clear to researchers that they are no longer expected to visit a destination in order to update a guide. As a colleague commented on the Rough Guide Authors’ Forum recently, “If there’s no actual travel involved, then what is the point of being a travel writer?”
Good question. I may be old school, but I really can’t see any other way of updating a guidebook efficiently without going to look in person at the attractions, hotels and restaurants that are currently listed. So I guess it’s bye-bye Rough Guides—it’s time to find another way to make a living.
It’s almost like a religious experience, because when you click the ‘confirm’ button, it’s a moment of profound import, which will largely determine whether the arrows beside your team’s name will be green or red after the next round of games, showing that you’ve gone up or down in the league. I’m talking about making fantasy football transfers, the most exciting aspect of playing this silly but fun game.
First, you have to keep an eye on all the games in an English Premier League gameweek. That’s 10 games, lasting around 2 hours each—20 hours. As you watch, you need to evaluate the performance of all players on the pitch—around 25 players per game, so that’s 250 players, and make a mental note of any players that impress you. Those of us who don’t have time to study things so carefully settle for an hour-long roundup of the gameweek’s highlights.
Then, you have to decide which of your players you want to kick out of your team—those that are performing badly and those who are injured or suspended for whatever reason, as they are not going to win you any points.
Next, you need to look at the upcoming fixtures and decide which of the players that you plan to transfer in have a good chance of scoring, keeping a clean sheet and so on.
After that, you have to look at the value of those players you fancy drafting in to your team, as all fantasy managers have a limited budget of £100 million, though this figure can be increased by careful buying and selling.
Finally, and perhaps most critically, you need to decide how many transfers you’ll make. Everyone is allowed one free transfer a week, and if you make more, you forfeit 4 points for each player brought in. If your hunch is correct and these newly transferred players perform well, it’s worth the risk, but if not, you end up cursing yourself for taking the chance.
It may be a silly game, but it has around 6 million players who all spend the weekend cheering and swearing as they watch their players performing well or badly. And besides, it provides a welcome distraction from the constant stream of bad news from the so-called real world.
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.
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.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.