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Blog Archive March 2009

Bangkok Report: Black Songkran, Sunny Thursday

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 authorities.


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 political situation.


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 public.


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.

Posted: 4/16/2009 5:57:39 AM 


Chao Phraya River

I 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.

Posted: 3/31/2009 5:12:37 AM 


American filmmaker: Ronald Tavel

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 years.


This is from the New York Times:


“Ronald Tavel, a playwright and screenwriter who brought a bawdy sense of the outrageous to some of Andy Warhol’s early 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.”


Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/27/theater/27tavel.html?_r=1&scp=3&sq=Hollywood%20screenwriter%20bangkok&st=cse


It’s a wake up call. Make that extra effort to get out and meet interesting people where you live. Because they won’t be around forever. And of course neither do you.


Here’s a list of Tavel’s films with Andy Warhol.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ronald_Tavel

Posted: 3/30/2009 5:35:32 AM 


Paying Back Jack

On Sunday 22nd March The Japan Times ran a review of Paying Back Jack. 


Review Mark Schreiber under the title Tale of a fallen woman and other intrigues, concluded:


“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.”

Paying 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.

Posted: 3/23/2009 10:23:51 PM 


Battlefields as entertainment centers

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 real castle.


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 Place wrote, “[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 library.

Posted: 3/23/2009 4:46:16 AM 


Video Equipment

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.

Posted: 3/19/2009 6:30:25 AM 


Honolulu Discussion of Vincent Calvino

One of the joys of writing is to meet new people on the road.  Last week when I was in Honolulu I had a chance to meet Shawn Hamamoto.


John Murphy videoed our parking lot discussion about Vincent Calvino.


Such literary discussions should be encouraged in parking lots, street corners, and sideways across the world.

Posted: 3/19/2009 12:18:35 AM 


HANOI Road Warriors

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 other.


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.

Posted: 3/18/2009 12:01:01 AM 


Market Life in Hanoi

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.

Posted: 3/16/2009 10:59:11 PM 


Return from Hawaii

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 conference.

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.

Posted: 3/16/2009 5:28:25 AM 


Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu

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 in 1990.

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 trust.

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.

Posted: 3/16/2009 5:26:02 AM 



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

Posted: 3/12/2009 6:18:56 AM 



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