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.
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.
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.
Putting the world to rights in five minutes
Our planet is in a mess—environmentally, economically, socially and politically. Hardly a day goes by without some horrific news about villages buried under landslides, politicians arrested for corruption or suicide bombers blowing themselves and everybody nearby to bits. Despite amazing advances in technology during the last century, we don’t seem to have learned anything about how to live together despite our differences. Even the modern sciences of psychology and sociology have no blueprint for improving relationships.
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.
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.
The Ebola virus has certainly captured the world's attention, especially now it's moved into Europe and the USA. The first outbreak of this deadly virus occurred in 1976, when it was more commonly known as the Green Monkey Disease, since it was thought to have originated in a particular type of monkey. I happened to be travelling in South Sudan at the time, and was devastated to find many villages deserted, their inhabitants either struck down by the disease or having fled to escape its contagious grip.
Some years later, when I was preparing a book of short stories as part of my M.A. in English (Creative Writing) at San Francisco State University, I used my visit to this obscure part of the world as the basis for a story called...
THE GREEN MONKEY’S TALE
The truck ploughed to a stop, sending clouds of red dust swirling into the dense jungle of the Central African Republic. As the haze cleared, a small boy became visible at the roadside, holding out the body of a dead monkey by the tail. He squinted at the driver and shouted.
“Hey, mister! Fresh shot today! Only fifty francs!”
“Let me see,” the driver responded, a gleam in his eye. “Fifty francs, hey? Well, take this for it.” He pushed three ten-franc notes into the boy’s hand, and swung the corpse onto the dashboard of the cab. The boy ran off into the undergrowth, pushing the notes into his ragged shorts, while the driver pulled away again, grinning at Chris, his English passenger.
“Hey, man, now we have a feast tonight. You eat monkey before?” he asked, his white eyes shining from the deep caverns of his cranium.
“No, Emille,” Chris answered, wincing at the thought. “I’ve eaten some strange things lately – snake, elephant, locusts – but never monkey.”
The tiny skull of the animal seemed to sneer at him as it rocked on the dashboard like a stuffed toy. Its minute hands still clung to an imaginary branch and its green fur bristled.
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.