Some in the media have called it
Black Songkran. Demonstrations over the traditional Songkran festival turned
ugly and violent. Soldiers, APCs, and tanks were in the streets. Buses burnt.
Confrontation found the Reds and the military and police on opposite sides (most
of the time). Then suddenly it was over as quickly as it started. The
demonstration was called off and the protesters in the thousands who had camped
out at Government House left, loaded into buses provided by the
This is a blog devoted to books.
There are a number of such political blogs that have given a blow-by-blow
account of the events over the last week. Foremost would be Bangkok Pundit which
contains a good source of foreign reporting, local Thai newspaper and TV reports
as well as the English language newspapers in Bangkok. If you scroll down, you
will find a number of related blogs that present points of view on the current
The pundits will be going through
the wreckage and assessing the short, medium and long term damage. For a lot of
people it has been difficult to separate what are legitimate political issues
that remain largely unresolved and the highly flawed messenger that the Reds
used to advance their cause. It is difficult to win over support for legitimate
grievance if the main leader has a history inconsistent with supporting
democratic reform. The government side would have much more problem if a leader
untainted by corruption and a democratic instinct were to emerge in what likely
will be the next round in the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of the
I’ve had a lot of email from
readers concerned about the situation in Bangkok. If you are planning a trip to
Thailand, the risk to a tourist is minimal. Even at the height of the violence
earlier in the week, the streets where the action took place was largely
localized to a few areas and no one from abroad was injured.
had the chance a couple of weeks ago to go on a Chao Phraya River cruise. My
Swiss friend Marcel Emmenegger (making the victory sign) was the organizer,
assembling people to visit Punntara Resort. Our group was composed of friends of
Marcel and Khun Peerapong.
We set out from Bangkrachao in a
speedboat and continued along the Chao Phraya and ultimately to the mouth of the
river and the sea. We passed freighters, barges, tugboats, ferries, private
pleasure boats. The loading cranes along the port were motionless on this Sunday
trip. Along the river we passed traditional communities and houses; many have
small wharfs, and residence can be seen fishing.
The life part of Bangkok is mostly
hidden. Most people elect to stay on the ground in the city proper. At most
tourists will take a one-hour long-tail boat along the Chao Phraya River.
The vastness of the Chao Phraya and
its importance as an entry port, the relation of Bangkok to the sea, the locked
in time life along the rive mostly remain out of sight. You have to go out and
seek this experience.
Early on Sunday morning, we crossed
by ferry from the Port Authority of Klong Toey to Bangkrachao. This was a
three-minute ferry ride. What made this trip special was our host Khun Peerapong
and his wife, after the long cruise down the
Chao Phraya served us lunch, showed
us around Punntara, which also houses a fighting fish museum. I learned the
history of these incredible fish.
By the way, Punntara means
wisdom/spirit of water. A day on the river does increase wisdom about life in
Bangkok has a large expat population.
No one can hope to know everyone living here. Sometimes people slip through the
cracks that you wished you’d had sat down for a couple of hour conversation.
Only you find out about them too late. A case in point is playwright and
filmmaker Ronald Tavel. He died a few days ago on a flight
from Berlin to Bangkok. Apparently he’d been a resident in Thailand for a dozen
This is from the New York
“Ronald Tavel, a playwright and
screenwriter who brought a bawdy sense of the outrageous to some of Andy
films and helped mold the Off Off Broadway avant-garde theater movement in the
1960s and ’70s, died Monday on a flight from Berlin to Bangkok. He was 72 and
had lived in Bangkok for the past 12 years.”
“It's easy to see why Moore's books
are popular: While seasoned with a spicy mixture of humor and realism, they
stand out as model studies in East-West encounters, as satisfying for their
cultural insights as they are for their hard-boiled action.”
Back Jack is out in hardback edition published by Atlantic Monthly Press in
October 2009 and in the UK by Atlantic Books in December 2009.
A certain marketing idea may have
started with Disneyland. And that idea is roughly a place must have
entertainment value in order to be worth spending money to visit. It should be
fun for the entire family. Nothing scary or too real ever makes the grade; that
puts people off. What people want is safe, clean, and with benches to sit. Never
mind that the fairy tale story castle the children love is not remotely like any
The same fate is destined for old
battlefields. I suspect that the recent construction to turn the Dien Bien Phu
battlefields into tourists attractions can find examples elsewhere. Call it the
war of the battlefields where each site, village, province and country seeks to
out flack its competitors by offering a more entertaining tour of a place where
a historic battle was fought.
In the case of Dien Bien Phu there were a number of hills that
the French used to build trenches and fortifications, placing tanks and heavy
artillery in the war against the Vietminh. Beatrice was one of the best known of
these battlefields. It was also known as Hill 506. Barnard B. Fall in his
essential book Hell in a Very Small Placewrote, “[T]he choice was made to
fortify Hill 506 becuas it offered the best communication lines with the main
position at Dien Bien Phu itself and because it was hoped that the Communist
would never be able to bring their artillery in close enough to take advantage
of the controlling hill line. Beatrice took a pounding from the Vietminh heavy
artillery placed in the surrounding mountains.
Sgt. Kubiak, an survivor of
Beatrice, in Fall’s book is quoted: “We are all surprised and ask ourselves how
the Viets have been able to find so many guns capable of producing an artillery
fire of such power. Shells rained down on us without stopping like a hailstorm
on a fall evening. Bunker after bunker, trench after trench, collapsed, burying
under them men and weapons.”
In the video footage I shot on
Beatrice, our translator/guide shows the direction of the fire from the Vietminh
artillery placements. Also George Fetherling and translator walk along the
reconstructed trenches. You can see the finished “copper” colored trench lines.
It was as if the trenches had been color coded. The trenches also were very
deep. I am 6’2” and inside the trench I would estimate you would have had to be
6’8” to look over the top and take a shot with your rifle. I couldn’t find an
explanation for the depth of the redeveloped trenches left by the French.
Falls’ book Hell in a Very Small Place is one of the best pieces of war journalism ever written. It
is a classic work that gives a full account of the battle between the French and
Vietminh, which resulted in the French defeat in 1954. If you are interesting in
the history of Southeast Asia, this book deserves a place in your
Several people have asked about the
video camera that I used in Vietnam and Hawaii. It is a small and inexpensive
camera called Flip.
It cost about $125 and may be one
of the best investments I’ve made recently. I carry it everywhere. There is a
new upgraded model that has high definition. If I were to buy it again, I’d
spring for the upgrade.
There are several excellent
features. First it is small and fits easily into your shirt pocket. Second it is
very easy to use. Third, it has a USB port built-in so that you stick it into
your laptop and upload the footage and are ready to shoot again. Fourth, it
shoots up to sixty minutes. Fifth, no fuss with batteries as it charges through
the USB port straight to the camera.
This is a piece of technology that
could have interesting implication for law enforcement issues. Abuse of power,
corruption, intimidation, etc are very difficult to prove unless of course you
have video footage of an incident. Then, as they say, the images speak for
themselves. In repressive regimes where human rights are under siege, the Flip
could be an equalizer.
One thing: Amazon won’t ship
the Flip to Thailand. Why? Ask amazon.
One of the features of living in
Asia is how people share public space. Behavior in private spaces (homes and
offices) is never a reliable indicator on how people react in the presence of
strangers in a public place.
In Thailand it is rare for a
motorist to stop at a Zebra crosswalk to allow a pedestrian to cross. Drivers
cut in front of each other, drive through red lights, block intersections, drive
on the wrong side of the road, etc. In Vietnam, by comparison, the mix of
vehicles requires more tolerance on the part of motorists. Hundreds of bicycles
and samlors share the limited public space with cars, vans, taxis, and trucks.
As in Thailand, if you are on foot, then you must wait your chance to slip
through a narrow gap as the traffic comes to a halt.
In the YouTube clip that I’ve
posted, it is a scene from Hanoi. This isn’t rush hour. It is mid-afternoon.
That gives some idea of the number of people using the road. The traffic jams
make Bangkok traffic positively fluid by comparison. When you look at the clip,
notice the motorcyclist back his bike into traffic. They stopped for him!
Then there is the father on a
motorbike clutching his daughter as he winds through the traffic. Thai drivers
rarely use their horn. Though this is starting to change. But Thai drivers have
a lot of catching up to do to match the din of the cars, motorcycles, samlors as
their drivers lean on their horns.
After fifteen minutes of watching
the traffic, listing to the noise I started to wonder if my hearing will ever be
the same. You will see the occasional pedestrian slip from one side to the
The sheer number of people
and vehicles using the road makes for a public ballet, an art form as
pedestrians, cyclists and motorists co-exist on a narrow Hanoi street. Notice as
well the hundreds of motorcycles parked along the street, narrowing the passage
to a single lane.
Anywhere in Asia, the wet market is
the place to find what remains of traditional ways of shopping for food. Hanoi
is no exception and the wet market was one of the first places I set out to
find. No matter how low the prices are in mega supermarkets in places like Tesco
or Costco, something has been lost in the shopping experience that comes with a
market where the stalls are staffed with local vendors selling fresh produce,
meat, chickens and fish.
The walkways are narrow,
accommodating people on foot as well as those on motorcycles or bicycles. As I
walked through the market, there was a super abundance of fresh seafood on
display. Swimming eels and carp housed in buckets and aquariums were positioned
near the footpath, making it easier for shoppers to have a good luck at their
potential dinner. Here the shoppers and vendors have an ongoing relationship,
they chat about politics, their families, the cost of living, circulating
gossip, opinion and rumor. Shopping, in other words, was more than picking up
dinner; it was a place to share opinions, laughter and information.
There was a constant hum of
conversation, motorcycle engines, and vendors working their knives on the fish.
The strong smell of fish at first overwhelms. It takes a few minutes to adapt to
the sensory overload. At that point, you’ve entered a new world, one that is
actually closer to the ancient than the modern ways, and reminds us of what
we’ve lost in the way we shop for our dinner.
I spent five days on the Big Island
attending the Left Coast Crime 2009 convention. About 300 plus people attended.
Writers included those who write cozy mysteries to thrillers. We stayed at a
resort outside of Kona – one of those complexes that could have been anywhere.
That didn’t matter much as the point of the trip wasn’t sight seeing. Though my
two friends Terry and Tito did their best to show me around the Island. Terry
has a coffee farm and I spent sometime at the farm with Terry and his wife Susan
and son Sonny. On the way back to the conference, Terry pulled over to the side
of the road and picked enough fruit to last me the five days of the
Tito, a well-traveled man, and a
filmmaker, I had met years ago in Bangkok. He’s a talented filmmaker and
businessman. He signed up for the conference and took video footage of me
talking about Sex, Ghost and Amulets, as well as an interview with one of
America’s eminent crime fiction critics, Cameron Hughes. That interview will run
on one of the crime fiction blogs that Cameron contributes to.
On Thursday 12th March,
Khun Pou who runs Sala Thai in Honolulu put on a party for Vincent Calvino fans.
There was a good turn out, great Thai food, and good conversation. My friend
John Murphy was the organizing force behind the Sala Thai party. Along with his
daughter Melissa, he showed me around Honolulu. I arrived in the afternoon on
Thursday, bunked at John’s apartment, and he drove me out to the airport early
Friday morning. About 20 hours later, I arrived at my place in Bangkok. There
are no direct Bangkok/Honolulu flights. So this one took longer than the
Bangkok/New York flight I took in November, 2008.
A special thanks and Aloha to
Terry, Tito, John, and Pou for their incredible hospitality.
In late February I was in Hanoi and
Dien Bien Phu. My friend, Canadian literary critic, publisher and author, George
Fetherling suggested the adventure. George is finishing a book on the French
colonial period in Indochina. Dien Bien Phu was where it came apart with a
massive defeat at the hands of the Vietminh in 1954. We walked the hills where
the French had set up trenches and fortifications. They were heavily out gunned
and out manned. The surrender after about 3 months of battle remains a
historical watershed in Southeast Asian history. I recorded the trip with a
series of videos.
I had mentioned to George that in
1990 when I made my first trip to Saigon, it was as if the war had ended a
couple of weeks before. Dark, grim, and improvised. There were beggars and
homeless people everywhere. No one had any money. It was a nightmarish, noir
place. The absence of streetlights made nighttime navigation on the streets a
challenge. I saw very few private cars in 1990. But there were UN and NGO
vehicles. The Vietnamese were extremely resourceful, crafting vehicles out of
spare parts and scrap metal. These Mad Max vehicles belched bluish gray smoke
and, of course, had no lights. I spotted a variation of such a vehicle outside
the market in Hanoi. Only the vehicle in the video clip is too well made to
properly belong in the garage along side of to the old Saigon road warriors but
it does give an idea of the kind of transportation that one found on the roads
Hanoi was unrecognizable from my
first trip in 1991. Modern hotels, loads of second hand book stalls, good
restaurants, and a great wet market. I’ll be posting on YouTube street scenes
from Hanoi and the market.
Upcountry bicycles provide an
important transportation link. I captured three cyclists outside the old airport
at Dien Bien Phu.
Our translator and guide saw that we
were taken to the airport in Dien Bien Phu. Three brass shell casings set off
the alarm. The custom official examined the casings and smiled. No problem.
George was certain that a prison sentence awaited him in Canada should custom
officials find one of the casings. So I continue to hold one for him in
Our flight from Dien Bien
Phu was cancelled. The plane had some mechanical problem, and Air Vietnam
promised that they’d send a replacement plane in a day or two. That seemed a
little vague and open ended. We ended up, with the aid of our trusty translator,
in renting a taxi that drove us 500K plus to Hanoi. Having made that drive
through mountain switchbacks and over potholed roads, I can understand why the
French in 1954 couldn’t support their troops with ground transportation. I have
some good footage of that trip which I will post on YouTube.
I arrive in
Honolulu on Thursday afternoon. I hope to see friends at the Sala Thai
restaurant Thursday evening from about 6.30 p.m. onward. If you have books you'd
like me to sign, please bring them along. I will also a few copies of Paying
Back Jack, Spirit House and The Risk of Infidelity Index.
I am looking forward to the evening. With Thai food and beer, what
better way to start the weekend a day early.
Breeze and Pou
Sala Thai is located at: 1333 Nu'uanu Avenue Honolulu, HI
96817 (808) 529-0308