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.
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.
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).
‘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.
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.
"Goodbye hello!”…reminds me of an old Beatles song, but the website hola.org is something much more insidious than anything we knew when we used to go round singing “I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello”.
A friend recommended it as a useful site that would enable me to watch programmes on the BBC iPlayer, which is generally not available outside the UK, as well as any other websites that are generally blocked in the land where I live—Thailand.
Being a sucker for anything that makes life a bit easier or more fun, I downloaded it and for a couple of weeks enjoyed my new-found freedom—watching the final of Wimbledon tennis and a few insightful documentaries—but then the trouble began.
I read an intriguing book recently--Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. It’s a kind of ‘1984’ for the 21st century, a post-apocalyptic novel (date unspecified) that mentions various factors, such as rising sea levels flooding major cities, holes in the ozone layer and a pandemic along the lines of the Ebola virus (which has just re-appeared in Guinea in the last few days), which have wiped out virtually all life on the planet. All that remains are a few human survivors and genetically-modified life forms gone wild, like wolvogs, pigoons, and rakunks.
Last week the TV news channels like BBC and CNN droned on for hours about the death of Margaret Thatcher, but this week they gave a single minute to the passing of Richie Havens—a gifted singer and songwriter who helped to forge the consciousness of the hippie generation. Since there are unlikely to be any eulogies of Richie on TV, I feel duty bound to rattle on for ten minutes about this heroic person.
Can you trust
When Stephen Kaufer was planning a holiday in Mexico about a decade ago, he couldn’t decide which hotel to book, and a thought occurred to him that might have occurred to any holiday-maker: “Wouldn’t it be neat if there was a website where anybody could review any hotel or restaurant and share it with the world?” Wish you’d got in there first? Kaufer’s tripadvisor.com is now the world’s most popular travel website by a country mile with around 60 million visitors a month and growing. But is it really the answer to everyone’s travel-related prayers?
It's official. By a landslide (well, 3-0), visitors to this website have voted for the shorter version of how to say this year, so the vote is now closed, and I hope you'll all go around calling this year 'twenty thirteen' rather than 'two thousand (and) thirteen'.
To be truthful, I'm relieved about this, as it seems pretty obvious to me, but I still hear people calling it 'two thousand and thirteen' every day, particularly news announcers on the BBC and CNN, who I would think should know better. After all, we didn't run around at the end of the last millennium talking about 'one thousand, nine hundred and ninety nine', did we? And can you imagine us texting each other at the end of this millennium, saying 'OK. C u at 4pm on 4 March two thousand nine hundred and ninety nine'? No way, we'll need shorter ways to communicate by then...if indeed humans are communicating at all.
So thanks for your participation - all three of you - and enjoy all the wonders that twenty thirteen has in store!
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.