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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m sure I’m not the only photographer who has watched with dismay as online stock photo (or microstock) libraries have mushroomed over recent years. Why dismay? Well, I used to sell my travel stories to clients as a package of words and images, of which the images would often be worth half or more of the fee. Yet since these image libraries have expanded to cover every destination and topic under the sun, and since their images are available for use at US$1 or less, most publications I work for now want me to provide text only, which means I’ve lost about half my previous income.
Usually when I travel, I’m updating a guidebook, so I’m rushing around from dawn to late, checking hotels and restaurants for inclusion in the next edition of the guide. But a few weeks ago I lucked out, spending ten days on a Pandaw cruise around Ha Long Bay and the Red River Delta in Vietnam in order to write and photograph a story about it for the company’s magazine, as it was a new route that they wanted to publicise.
Loved it! Sprawled on a sun lounger, taking in the endless change of view, from towering karst outcrops to container cranes, brick kilns, fields of rice and passion fruit, locals waving from the riverbank. Wandering around small villages, watching water puppet shows, seeing conical hats made, listening to traditional songs sung by teenagers. Writing a few notes about the experience and getting to know my fellow passengers, gorging on gourmet food three times a day. Following are a few images from the trip.
If you want to read the full story, take a Pandaw cruise and read it in the Pandaw Magazine while aboard, or sign up as a subscriber on their website—www.pandaw.com.
Restoration at My Son
The My Son complex of Cham temples located in a lush valley around 40km from Hoi An is one of Vietnam's World Heritage sites and brings a steady stream of visitors every day to view the ruins of a once-powerful civilization. However, many of the ruins were in such a decrepit state that they gave little idea of how the site once was. Now a sensitive restoration project by UNESCO has brought back to life Group G of these temples, and ongoing work is transforming the ruins of Group E, which dates back to the 8th century.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.