The Covid pandemic from 2020 to 2022 not only wiped out millions of lives but it also brought an abrupt halt to the livelihoods of many people, myself included. Suddenly, during global lockdown, there was no demand for a travel writer, quite simply because nobody was travelling.
Now, over a year after the worst of the pandemic has passed, I’m finally beginning to pick up the pieces and get my stories published again. There are still lots of holes in my client list that used to be occupied by guidebook publishers, inflight magazines and the like, but a few have survived and I’m going to post some recently published stories on my ‘peridoicals’ page. These are:
Teak Trails (Fah Thai magazine, September 2023). An overview of the teak boom that took place around Chiang Mai in the late 19th century and buildings that date back to that era.
A Mindfulness Journey (South China Morning Post, October 2023). A tour of four temples in Chiang Mai that offer meditation courses ranging from one to 26 days.
Conquering Doi Luang Chiang Dao (Fah Thai magazine, November 2023). An account of a trek to the summit of Doi Luang Chiang Dao, arguably the most enjoyable hike in Thailand.
Now that my novel Teak Lord is flying off the shelves of bookshops and zipping sightlessly into Kindles and other e-readers, I feel it's time to offer a bit of insight to the background of the book. For that reason, I'll be posting a few short articles that go behind the scenes of the novel, beginning with Tracking the Teak Lord – Part one: the tree, the history and the characters.
Venerating Mae Phosop
It was one of those magical evenings that happen once in a while – a balmy evening at the height of the rainy season (but no rain!), in an idyllic location, with a heartfelt performance from a group of talented actors and dancers.
As I had recently written a story for the South China Morning Post about rice farming in Thailand and the importance of Mae Phosop, the Rice Goddess, I was curious to see how she was portrayed.
She appeared as a longhaired, attractive woman dressed in a gold, satin dress, clutching a sheaf of rice stalks and attended by a group of long-eared nymphs.
The dance was a wonderful example of how performance art keeps Thai traditions alive.
Fortunately, the Goddess has been kind to us this year, and whatever catastrophes may occur in the coming months, at least we will not go hungry.
Will weed be fully legalized?
Thailand has attracted global attention through its recent delisting of cannabis as a narcotic, which came into effect on 9 June 2022. The country has also been buzzing, and I wrote about how cannabis is being used in cafes, restaurants, spas and clinics in my hometown of Chiang Mai for the South China Morning Post, which you can read here.
From the use of terms like ‘delisted’, ‘decriminalized’ and ‘legalized’, many people understand that cannabis can now be used freely. However, the government has stated that the only legitimate use is medicinal, and that levels of THC in the plant must be less than 0.2%, which won’t get anyone high.
In the couple of weeks since the delisting announcement, this story has changed day by day, and no doubt there will be further surprising announcements.
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 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.
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).
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.