On the road from Mandalay
“It’s a win-win situation;” joked motorbike rider Win Win as we shook hands on our deal, “you take picture of beautiful Burma and I buy medicine to make my mother well”.
And that’s pretty much how it turned out, apart from losing Win Win at critical moments of the trip. He had a maddening habit of forgetting when he was supposed to pick me up, leaving me fuming at times when I thought he had abandoned me altogether.
We were standing on the steps of the 79 Living Hotel in Mandalay, and after some friendly haggling, we agreed that I would give Win Win eighty US dollars and he would take me everywhere I wanted to go on his motorbike for the next three days. My hitlist included the ancient cities around Mandalay, the hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin to the east and the cave temples at Po Win Taung, way out west, and Win Win knew them all, so off we went.
A review of 'Comrade Aeon's Field Guide to Bangkok'
There are plenty of guidebooks to Bangkok; I’ve even written one myself--Top Ten Bangkok, published by Dorling Kindersley (DK) Books. The problem is, they’ve all become obsolete since the arrival of Covid, for several reasons.
Firstly, there’s no demand for guidebooks as nobody’s travelling. Secondly, they’re out-of-date because most of the hotels, restaurants and attractions that they recommend have closed during the pandemic. And thirdly, researchers can’t travel to update their guides.
Yet fear not, for a recently published novel tells you all you need to know about Bangkok. Perhaps it’s fitting that in this topsy-turvy, ‘new normal’ world, we should eschew works of non-fiction and look to the world of fiction for insight into the Big Mango.
The Bangkok-based author of Comrade Aeon’s Field Guide to Bangkok goes by the name of Emma Larkin, and a glance at previous titles explains why a pseudonym is necessary. Everything is Broken: The Untold Story of Disaster under Burma’s Military Rule is unlikely to be on the essential reading list of the current rulers of Myanmar, though Ms Larkin must surely be on their black list.
But back to Bangkok. While the plot, set in 2009 around a search for missing bodies from the 1976 and 1992 military massacres, is daring enough, the great achievement of this novel lies in slicing clean through the multiple strata of hierarchical Thai society and giving penetrating glimpses into how each level thinks and acts.
Main characters include a property developer looking for a cheap plot of land that will make his fortune, and his wife, a former movie star and current scriptwriter of soap operas. It’s interesting to note that a fascination with these soap operas is the only common link in this book between all levels of Thai society.
A significant but absent persona is Win, their son. Win disappeared during Black May 1992, when soldiers opened fire on protesters in Bangkok. Even 17 years later, his parents half-expect him to reappear, and he floats through the background like a ghost.
Then there’s the bored expat housewife, who spends the entire book contemplating suicide by jumping from their 27th floor apartment. Her husband’s busy having an affair with her best friend while her teenage son is lost in his phone.
Down in the bottom tier of society are the inhabitants of the Slum of Bountiful Pleasantness. Among them, the matriarch Yai Sunan from Isaan (Thailand’s impoverished northeast) is the main source of gossip and kind-heartedness. Ice and Toon are a couple of layabouts always looking for a lucky break.
Most intriguing of all is the elusive, indeed almost invisible, Comrade Aeon, a survivor of a student massacre at Thammasat University in 1976. After hiding with Communists in the jungles of the northeast for a few years, he slipped back into Bangkok, built himself a lean-to in an overgrown corner of this slum, and lined the walls with volumes of his Field Guide to Bangkok, which covers every topic imaginable from building subsidence to the constituent smells of the reeking canals and the rise to fame of his movie-star idol.
Sadly this field guide is no longer available as Comrade Aeon’s lean-to was burned down as part of a cover-up of the discovery of a mass grave. Yet as he wanders the streets of the city, searching for increasingly difficult-to-find patches of overgrown greenery in which to hide, Comrade Aeon is still scrawling cryptic messages on walls, pavements and electricity boxes, using spray cans, charcoal and ink markers, “so that if someone were to catalogue them and arrange the pieces in the right order they would be able to reassemble the lost memories that the city has tried to forget.”
Those familiar with Bangkok will no doubt read this novel with a wry smile, recognising many of the archetypes and quirks that create this vertical city’s unique character. Yet Emma Larkin’s caustic look at Thai society might just make those who have never set foot in Sin City think twice before doing so.
Set in Venezuela, California and Thailand
I’ve now posted the remaining stories from my collection titled In Transit, presented as part requirement for a Master’s in Creative Writing at San Francisco State University back in 1983.
Two stories are set in Venezuela (sadly much changed since those days) and another in California. I’ve also added one more, set in North Thailand, which was not part of the original collection but seems to ‘explore the responses of various characters to fundamental changes in their personal world’ as the abstract for these stories claims.
Happy reading—I’m eager for your comments.
A collection of short stories
Back in the 1980s, I studied an M.A in English (Emphasis: Creative Writing) at San Francisco State University. As part of the requirement for the degree, I wrote a collection of short stories called In Transit.
I recently pulled out a copy of this long-forgotten work, dusted off its yellowing pages, and have decided to share these stories on my website. They are mostly based on my own experiences and observations in Africa, South America and the USA, mixed with a heavy dose of imagination to be able to call it fiction. You’ll find these stories in a new section of my website called Short Stories, which I’ll be adding to as I dictate/transcribe the stories. I have begun with four stories, all set in Africa, and below is the first one--Beyond the End of the Road. I’ll be glad of any feedback that you would care to give. Happy reading!
Lost and found in the Sahara
I stood, literally, at the end of the road. The fresh tarmac ended in a neat ledge above the golden sand, and a clear blue sky pressed down on all horizons. From here, tyre tracks fanned out southwards into the vastness of the Sahara. It was only mid-morning, but already the sand burned my toes, which stuck out of my sandals. I pulled my pack under the sparse shade of a tree beside the last petrol station for 400 kilometres. All was silent, except for the rustle of leaves in a limp breeze.
Every journey has its point of no return and this had to be mine. I had followed the thin vein of my dream, a red line on a Michelin map of Africa, to where the road ended and the dust began. Beyond lay mystery—the infinite spaces of the Central Sahara, the biggest sandpit in the world and ghost of lush forests in former ages.
I had arrived the night before at In Salah just in time to see the bus pull out for Tamanrasset, the next stop on my route. The official told me the next bus was not for ten days. I wandered around the oasis. Mosquitoes droned above a stagnant pond surrounded by crumbling mudhuts and sagging palms. I walked out into the desert before lying down to sleep on my mat. In Salah—if God wills it. If God wills it, I will get a ride out of here tomorrow. If He wills not, then I will not either.
Enigmatic expressions on faces at the Bayon hint at a long-lost knowledge.
I was sorting through my images recently, looking for some good shots of Angkor to upload to image banks, when I was struck yet again by that blissful smile on the faces that gaze down from the towers of the Bayon, the centrepiece of Angkor Thom in Cambodia.
Originally over fifty towers featured four faces looking in the cardinal directions. Now only 37 towers remain, yet wherever you wander in the Bayon, these faces are looking at you.
Adapting to life under Covid-19
The global pandemic has proved fatal for over a million people, caused a severe headache for millions more and provided a windfall for a fortunate few, such as providers of food delivery services and manufacturers of face masks.
Like most of the world’s population, I’m in the middle of these three groups, which means that like many others I’ve lost my source of income. For the last couple of decades I’ve worked as a travel writer, but now that international tourism has ground to a halt, most of my clients (guidebooks, inflight magazines and travel websites) have either suspended or terminated their publications.
In an effort to recover from this setback, I’ve been trying to put my language skills to good use by taking on editing and proofreading jobs, as well as going back to teaching. I was fortunate to be born in an English-speaking country (the UK), and teaching English has enabled me to live and work in some extremely diverse countries, such as Sudan, Venezuela, Spain and Thailand. In over four decades living far from my homeland, I’ve become a firm believer in the notion that ‘travel broadens the mind’.
So now I spend my days doing small editing jobs and planning for a weekly class with my Thai student Pear, who is preparing to take an International English Language Testing System (IELTS) exam. She hopes to go and study a higher degree in marketing in the UK, for which she needs a Band 7 score. Given the huge difference between the Thai and English languages, this presents a considerable challenge.
We spend each class practising past IELTS exam papers in listening, reading, speaking and writing in order to take Pear’s command of the language up to the required level. Fortunately, she’s a very capable and motivated young lady, so I’m optimistic that she’ll be successful.
Of course we’re lucky to be able to meet for our classes, given the fact that students and teachers worldwide are forced to communicate through Zoom or other video conferencing platforms. While such uses of technology are admirable, I’m sure that most teachers and students would agree that a real class setting is a more effective way to learn.
Fortunately, Thailand has not been as badly affected by the pandemic as most countries, and with hardly any deaths and new cases during recent months, we don’t have to worry too much about social distancing. At the same time, it’s sad to see that my homeland, England, as well as the rest of Europe, is experiencing a second wave of infections.
Maybe going back to the basics of the English language is not a bad thing, since trying to explain the subtle and complex rules of English, as well as all the maddening exceptions to these rules, is making me appreciate how rich our language is. And if one day I am able to return to travel writing, perhaps this diversion will have sharpened my creative writing skills.
Dancing in the desert
Way back in 1975, I embarked on a life of adventure. My first move was to leave my native England and take a job as a volunteer teacher in Sudan. I was part of a group of 50 native English speakers who were hired by the Sudanese government to improve the level of English in high schools throughout the country. I was assigned to teach in Sennar, a town on the Blue Nile to the south of Khartoum.
I was supposed to spend a few days in Khartoum for orientation before taking a train to Sennar, but what with attempted coups and a heavy rain season, I had to spend a month in the capital before any trains started running. When I eventually got on the train and set out on my big adventure, I had plenty of time to write, so I got out my pen and began to scrawl the following words.
The Sudanese Shuffle
we were waiting for the train
which was waiting for us
until the train had waited for us
we had been waiting for the train
for some days now
when we started.
we were starting in the train
when we stopped and waited
and went again
and when we went
we hardly went at all
while the wheels rolled around
at the onset.
after the onset we set out
to the desert and all its dreams,
while the wheels would roll round
and then stop, and then sound
like they’d never be starting again.
Just as slow now as slowness can get
And we still haven’t quite got there yet.
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.
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.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.