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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.