musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Archive for November, 2012

Teachers Targeted … to Die

Wednesday’s Thai newspapers detailed a vicious crime, one that’s occurring with disturbingly frequency lately: another teacher shot down and killed in Thailand’s notorious “Deep South.” And this wasn’t just any regular teacher, but a school director in Pattani, one of the three provinces in South Thailand where Muslim “insurgents” have been on a rampage for most of the past decade.


In an article this week the Bangkok Post gave a sobering tally: since the violence surged in January 2004, there have been 155 teachers killed. Read that again: 155 human beings slaughtered because they were only trying to do their job and provide local children with an education. Teachers! That’s just … intolerable. Fuck those insurgents.


Sadly, it’s not just teachers that are being killed, although that group appears to be one of the various insurgent groups’ prime targets. Buddhist monks have been shot and beheaded; police officers murdered; soldiers and “defense volunteers” ambushed and killed; bombs going off in markets and teashops, killing and maiming yet more people. A news article in Bangkok’s The Nation newspaper back in March put the total number of people killed in the region at 5,086, and the number of injured at 8,485. But that was over eight months ago, and those numbers are obviously even higher now. While Muslim groups appear to be the ones who are instigating the violence, it’s not clear how they are determining their targets. The number of Muslims who have died is higher than the number of Buddhists (2,996 to 1,952, according to the article), yet the number of Buddhists injured was nearly twice that of Muslims (5,141 to 2,751).


So what is causing this senseless violence? Oddly, it’s hard to get an accurate answer to that question. On Wikipedia, for example, it says:

A striking aspect of the South Thailand insurgency is the anonymity of the people behind it and the absence of concrete demands.

And that’s one of the reasons that efforts to quell the violence have been so ineffective. There’s no obvious, declared enemy, no one group to take aim at, to attempt to negotiate with or eliminate. Some say that the whole thing is a continuation of a long-running separatist movement, the border provinces (next to Malaysia) wanting to create their own independent state. Others think that the root of the violence is because the mostly Muslim locals feel ignored and economically disenfranchised by the central Thai government.


No matter what the cause, one would think that eliminating this scourge of violence would be a priority for the Thai government, but various incarnations of the Thaksin Regime, and even the Democratic Party, have all proven to be either inept or not particularly interested in solving the problem. The mindset seems to be along the lines of:

“Hey, it’s just those three border provinces down south, so why worry? Most of those people are Muslim and don’t even speak Thai anyway, so they are not really the same as other Thai people.”


Maybe when the insurgency travels north to Bangkok the government will finally start to take this problem more seriously. Thus far, the violence has been confined down south, but how much longer will that remain the case? Meanwhile, 332 schools in Pattani were closed temporarily this week “for a review of security measures.” One idea is to have teachers stay and live at their schools, rather than risking a commute to and from home. But for those with families, that’s not a realistic option. Frankly, it’s a wonder than any teachers still bother going to work in those provinces with the constant turmoil. At some point, you have to look at the madness surrounding you and gauge if it’s worth putting up with or not. If it was me, I’d be on the first bus out of that hellhole.

Upcountry Thai Tunes

One of the most spirited and danceable types of Thai music is a genre known as Molam (or, I would argue, is more accurately spelled Morlam). This music is particularly popular in Thailand’s rural Northeastern provinces, the area called Isaan (or, alternately, Isarn).  Thus, you could accurately liken morlam to “country” or “folk” music. It’s the music of the working people. Morlam has been around for many decades, some say it’s been centuries, having originated in neighboring Laos and imported by ethnic Lao people who came to live in Thailand. 


A Bangkok-based label, Zudmangra Records, has just released an album of vintage morlam tunes on CD and vinyl: Theppabutr Productions: The Man Behind the Molam Sound 1972-75. These are songs that legendary producer Theppabutr Satirodchompu released on his own label, but the 17 tracks on this compilation are only a fraction of this amazing man’s output. He’s been dubbed “The Berry Gordy of Thailand” (Gordy, being the legendary founder of Motown Records) for good reason: at one point he had signed over 200 bands, releasing 7-inch singles and sometimes albums from almost every one of them. Some singles were so popular that Theppabutr reportedly pressed more than 10,000 copies of each, a huge number for the Thai music industry at the time.


But what does this morlam music sound like? For anyone that hasn’t been to Thailand and heard these unique sounds, I’d go out on a very long limb and liken it to the hillbilly sounds of Merle Travis colliding with the full band sound of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys … only with much stranger stringed instruments, cheesy organ sounds, and Thai vocals. Morlam may not sound much like Texas swing or Appalachian country, but it’s got a similar spirit and dance-stepping joy. For a better description, try the booklet inside the CD for Theppabutr Productions. In his excellent, liner notes, Bangkok-based writer John Clewley describes being in a village and hearing “the bubbling, unmistakable rhythms of molam blaring out from cracked speakers. Soaring vocals full of haunting ornamentation, vamping chords of the church organ-like khaen (a traditional free-reed mouth organ), the driving riffs of the phin, temple bells and percussion all combine into one delightful sound.”


And delightful it truly is. Perhaps morlam will not appeal to all music listeners, and indeed, it may rank as an acquired taste, even for those who have been exposed to “world beat” rhythms and other ethnic sounds. But there is no arguing the liveliness and fun factor of this music. And you don’t have to be sipping the village homebrew to enjoy it either — although that may enhance the enjoyment factor! If you want to hear the real sound of rural Thailand, morlam is where it’s at.


Theppabutr Productions can be purchased online via dealers like Amazon, or if you are in Bangkok, stop by the flagship Zudmangra Records shop on Sukhumvit Soi 51 (the first block on the left side, where the soi angles again to the left) and pick up a copy. The shop stocks mostly old Thai vinyl singles, but they also carry a variety of CD compilations from cool import labels such as Analog Africa, Light in the Attic, and Soundway. Even if you don’t dig morlam music, it’s a good way to get your Afro-Beat fix while living in Thailand!

Politicians, Friends, and other Delights

Blink and you missed it. Barack Obama made a whirlwind tour of the region earlier in the week, spending a half-day in Bangkok, about six hours in Yangon, and the better part of two days at an ASEAN summit meeting in Phnom Penh. Hillary Clinton also put in an appearance at each location, but then had to fly off to the crazy lands — The Middle East — in an attempt to pacify the Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, and possibly other aggrieved nationalities. Does that woman ever get any sleep?


It would be an understatement to say that Obama’s visits to Thailand and Myanmar were met with great excitement — and approval — from the populace in each country. People in Asia really like him. And it doesn’t hurt that he has a great smile. Obama himself appeared to be delighted by the warm reception, and looked like he was enjoying the visits. Thai Prime Minister Yingluck “I Love Democracy” Shinawatra couldn’t keep from beaming in every photo that I saw, looking like a schoolgirl getting to meet a famous pop star. And then there were several photos of Obama in Yangon, hugging and kissing Aung San Suu Kyi … uh, rather fervently. The Lady appeared a bit taken back from such an overt display of affection from Barry, but hey, it’ll certainly sell more newspapers in Yangon and give the fellows in the teashops something to talk about. And it sure beats having some creepy overweight dude, wearing a snorkel and flippers and carrying a bible, showing up on your doorstep late one night, dripping lake water and asking to spend the night. That’s one incident — and in case you missed it, yes, it really happened — that I’d love to know more details about.


Obama made visits to such sacred sites as Wat Pho in Bangkok and Shwedagon in Yangon, but by contrast, once he arrived in Phnom Penh he didn’t stop for any temple tours, but headed straight to the ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where serious business was discussed. The tone was set when Obama greeted Hun Sen — Cambodia’s Prime-Minister-for-Life and don’t you dare think otherwise — with a firm handshake, absent of any back slapping or pleasantries. Even if it was “Give a Thug a Hug” week, I don’t think Obama would have lowered himself to embrace Hun Sen. And good for him. Hun Sen is one of the creepiest “leaders” in the region and it’s about time people started standing up to him. By all accounts, the meeting with Hun Sen was “tense,” Obama giving the old Khmer Rouge foot soldier a dressing down on the subject of land seizures, human rights, freedom of speech, and other such sticky issues that the Cambodian government brushes under the bamboo mat. Despite the millions of dollars in foreign aid money that floods into Cambodia each year — it reportedly receives the highest percentage of any country in Asia — poverty in the country is still rampant and infrastructure well behind that of Thailand. It’s the same old broken record: the rich get richer … and they drive SUVs and get away with…


On another Cambodian note, I’ve been flooded with phone calls from friends there this week. The subject of Hun Sen and/or Obama never came up, however. Nowadays, my Cambodian friends have more important things to worry about; like paying school tuition, paying hospital bills, and affording to eat. I talked to three of the Tri brothers, and also Chamrong in Siem Reap. His wife just gave birth to their first child, a boy, but the baby was born one month premature, necessitating a multi-week stay in the hospital for mother and child. Rong took off from his job at the airport for over a full week to help take care of them. Happily, they are all home now and Rong is back at work. Another friend, So Pengthai has also had to help his wife and children recuperate from various illnesses. Blame it on the rainy season, which thankfully, now appears to have run its course.


Yet another Cambodian friend from Siem Reap, Chiet, has been calling me almost every day … from Thailand! He’s working in another province as a welder, trying to earn some extra money, Hell, trying to earn any money at all. He’s had a problem finding steady work this year in Siem Reap, so somehow he got hooked up with a job broker that brought him to Thailand. I don’t think he has legal working papers, which makes him one of thousands (perhaps the number runs into five or six figures … or more?) of Cambodians and Burmese who are working in Thailand without proper documents. Not exactly slave labor, but don’t think these people are getting paid a fair wage either. Whatever the case, Chiet is working every day of the week — no days off — and is quite tired, but in pretty good spirits overall. There is another Cambodian working with him, but the rest of the workers, I gather, are Thai. He’s obviously lonely, being away from friends and family, so I’m one of his few daily social contacts, albeit one that’s on the phone. If I can figure out exactly where he’s working — trying to get him to distinguish Sakhon from Nakorn and Pathom from Phanom and other similar words is a difficult task — I may visit him next month. He plans to work here until mid-April, the annual Khmer — and Thai — water festival period, before going back to Siem Reap. In the meantime, we talk each night, which is helping to improve my rusty Khmer skills; word and phrases I haven’t used in years are coming back to me. We joke about eating grilled dog for dinner, plus he’s learning some Thai words too, which he is thrilled to impress me with. I only hope he doesn’t fall into any bad habits — drinking and drugs come to mind — during his exhausting labor stint in a different country. It ain’t an easy life for people like him.


Stiff Records

Stiff Records billed itself as “the world’s most flexible record label” and during their glory years from the mid 1970s through the early 1980s they released dozens of excellent and influential singles and albums. Artists such as Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Devo, The Damned, Lene Lovich, Rachel Sweet, Ian Dury & the Blockheads, and Madness were among the most famous, but digger deeper into the Stiff archives and you’ll be rewarded with even more amazing music from The Members, Wreckless Eric, Tracey Ullman, Any Trouble, and many others. Call it punk, new wave, indie, alternative rock, or just plain pop, but the recordings on Stiff were mostly very good and definitely very influential.


In addition to the music, Stiff was notable for their bold, and sometimes bawdy, advertising slogans. In print, and especially on those omnipresent buttons and badges, it was hard to ignore jewels such as:

“If it ain’t Stiff it ain’t worth a fuck”

“Stiff’ll Fix It”

“If they’re dead, we’ll sign ‘em!”

Fuck Art, Let’s Dance!”

“Money Talks, People Mumble”

“We Lead Where Others Follow but Can’t Keep Up”


Yeah, there was no other record label quite like Stiff!


When I was in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, I was delighted to find a two-disc set called Born Stiff: The Stiff Records Collection at one of the Rock Corner shops. This CD has the usual Stiff suspects plus obscure tracks from the likes of Pink Fairies, The Tyla Gang, Larry Wallis, Billy Bremner, The Yachts, and The Sports. Some of my very favorite songs of that era are included: the rollicking “Swords of a Thousand Men” by Tenpole Tudor; Kirsty MacColl’s brilliant version of Billy Bragg’s “A New England”; Jona Lewie’s nifty “You’ll Always Find me in the Kitchen at Parties” (a good tune, and one of the best song titles ever!); Lene Lovich’s faithful cover of “I Think We’re Alone Now”; The Belle Stars Motown-like nugget “Sign of the Times”; and Graham Parker & The Rumour’s bitterly brilliant “Mercury Poisoning.” Stiff Records pretty much came to a grinding halt in 1986, but was resurrected two decades later, and this collection contains three tracks from 2008, including a wonderful song from Chris Difford of Squeeze and a nice new tune from Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby. She was so good that he married her!


About the only knock I can make about this collection is the absence of two very good artists: Ian Gomm (who had a big hit with “Hold On” and wrote some songs with Nick Lowe too) and the underrated/overlooked New York band Dirty Looks. Instead, we are offered a Motorhead track that seems woefully out of place, along with the puzzling “England’s Glory” by Max Wall. There are also a few tracks on this collection that sound dated or just plain dull; I never was a fan of Yello’s novelty-like tune “I Love You,” and while I like Devo very much, the version of “Jock Homo” on here sounds like it was recorded in a well. For the most part, however, Born Stiff is a great listening experience: fascinating collaborations, singular brilliance, and myriad moments of musical magic.


Mr. Obama goes to Myanmar

It’s official: Barack Obama will visit Myanmar later this month, the first US president to ever visit the country formerly known as Burma. Not surprisingly the trip has been both lauded and criticized, depending on which special interest human rights group or political organization is attempting to make itself heard. Nowadays, of course, a politician just can’t make a trip without people trying to analyze it or condemn it. But I think it’s wonderful that Obama is making this trip. It’s not “premature” or “misguided” — it’s the right thing to do.


The downside to this historic trip is that Obama will most likely spend a grand total of 16 hours in the country — half of that time sleeping — and will no doubt confine his visit solely to Yangon. Which is a shame because he won’t have the opportunity to see more of this beautiful, mesmerizing country, and get to meet more of the people, as opposed to the quick, generic glimpse he’ll be given by his greeters and minders.


In Yangon he is scheduled to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, now an elected member of the opposition party (one of many parties, actually), and reformist Prime Minister Thein Sein. He will most likely make the obligatory visit to Shwedagon, the country’s most famous and most revered pagoda. And after that? Meetings with the new US ambassador, some sort of bland dinner, and off he’ll go. See you later … thanks … take care. Which country is next? Oh, the joy of politics.


It would be really cool if Obama and his entourage dropped by a local restaurant, such as Feel, where my friend That Myo Aung works as a waiter, while he was in Yangon. It’s not far from Shwedagon, so why not?  Feel specializes in Burmese cuisine, but they also have Thai and Chinese dishes and some Western food. Something for everyone. Want a cappuccino with your curry? No problem! That Myo Aung is an incredibly attentive waiter, very friendly (as is almost everyone in this country), and has a smile that will light up a dim room. I can just picture him and Obama grinning at one another. That Myo Aung  and I will usually go out for dinner together at least once when I am in town. This trip, however, I didn’t have much time in Yangon, so I only saw briefly three times; once when I dropped by for a late breakfast with Ma Thanegi, later the same day when I met Win Thuya for lunch, and on my last day in town when I stopped by for a late afternoon coffee. As usual, That Myo Aung’s waiter radar kicked in and he found me before I could even sit down. I ordered a latte and we chatted for a half hour or so. When it was time to pay the bill, he waved me off; he had already paid for me. What could I say except: Che Zu Tin Ba De (Thank You!). The hospitality in this country never ceases to amaze me.


And on that subject, I’ll give you some more examples. In Mandalay I always drop by Minthiha, a rather large teashop at the corner of 72nd and 28th Streets. Actually, they have several branches in town, but this one has always been my favorite, thanks to a tip from Win Thuya many years ago.  After going there so often over the years, most of the waiters know me, and a couple of them always make an extra effort to treat me like royalty, much like Thant Myo Aung in Yangon. At Minthiha, my two regulars are Yan Naing Soe and Yan Zaw Win. I also make a point of taking them out to dinner when I’m in town, and sometimes we’ll go somewhere afterwards, maybe to a local shopping center or one of the Happy World complexes where they have games, silly rides, and a haunted house. Good, cheap fun. During one of my visits, meeting my tour guide friend Ko Soe Moe for breakfast one morning, Yan Naing Soe picked up the tab. And during another visit, Soe Moe paid. It was almost ridiculous; I couldn’t even spend my own money there!


Maybe such bill paying doesn’t seem remarkable to most westerners, but when you think about the fact that most of these guys are earning less than twenty US dollars per month — a month! — working at local restaurants and teashops, that’s an extremely generous thing for them to do. Naturally, I try and tip these waiters well, but I still think that their kindness exceeds the bounds of normal generosity.


But such hospitality is the Myanmar way. Selfish these people are not. I paid for very few meals when I was out with other locals. Ma Thanegi treated me to breakfast; Win Thuya paid the lunch bill; in Nyaungshwe Htein Linn treated me to pizza and beer at the Golden Kite Restaurant one night; also in Nyaungshwe, Ma Pu Sue invited me to her house for dinner another night, and on my final day in Nyaungshwe, another tour guide friend, Malar Htun, drove in from Taunggyi and took me to lunch, and later she handed me a bag of Shan State coffee. And there’s more. The kids at Tat Ein primary school were always offering me candy and any other snacks they had with them. Dirt poor village children and they don’t think twice about sharing what they have. The teachers at that same school made sure I had extra helpings of food at lunch each day or brought me tea and snacks when I was teaching English classes. Whenever I’m at Ko Tin Chit’s teashop on 90th Street in Mandalay, they never let me pay for anything I eat or drink. At Maw Hsi’s house in Mandalay, more home-cooked meals. Yes, these are my friends, but none of these people are rich and they really don’t need to be paying for my meals and treating me all the time. But that’s just the way they are. They are good people. Proud people.


Why do I keep going back to Myanmar again and again? It’s the people, of course. More than the overwhelming generosity and hospitality, it’s their personality and spirit that impresses me. I only hope that Barack Obama has the chance, in between meetings and briefings and chatting with The Lady, to meet some of the other down-to-earth human jewels that live in Myanmar. You’re in for a treat, Barack!


Crime Wave Press

Southeast Asia would seem to be fertile ground for writers specializing in crime fiction, and indeed in recent years there has been a bounty of new books published that use a particular country in Southeast Asia — most commonly Thailand — as the setting for various crime escapades or tales of espionage. John Burdett has a thriving series that uses a Thai police officer as the protagonist, Christopher G. Moore has his Vincent Calvino Bangkok P.I. books, and Timothy Hallinan has also written a well-received series based in Thailand. Thailand-based writer Colin Cotterill has his excellent Dr. Seri novels, all based in 1970s Laos, but has recently started a new series with a female Thai protagonist. And that’s only the cream of the crop. There are dozens of other writers who have found Thailand to be a source of inspiration for their novels, yet too many of these tales revolve around a clichéd mix of bar girls and Thai gangsters.


Wanting to break away from the typical “Bangkok Fiction” syndrome, a new imprint, Crime Wave Press, was founded earlier this year by Hans Kemp, the publisher of Visionary World, and seasoned writer Tom Vater. According to their website, they plan to publish “a wide range of crime fiction, aiming to promote strong voices, exceptional talent, and unique points of view in the crime fiction genre.” Crime Wave Press has just published Vater’s new novel, The Cambodian Book of the Dead, Dead Sea by Sam Lopez, and a new edition of Nick Wilgus’ popular Mindfulness and Murder, a novel that was turned into a Thai language film a few years ago. Crime Wave Press is also looking for more authors of English language crime novels that are either based in Asia or contain “a strong Asian connection and focus point.” I talked to Tom Vater recently about his latest novel and his plans for Crime Wave Press.


If I’m not mistaken, you basically formed Crime Wave Press out of necessity. That is, you were looking for a publisher for the new novel you had finished writing, but found that to be a frustrating process, so you decided to start your own imprint. How has the experience of being a publisher been thus far?

It’s been great, much, much better than we could ever have expected. Crime Wave Press was thought up one afternoon by Hans Kemp (a Hong Kong-based publisher) and me. We had just collaborated on a successful title, Sacred Skin, which was published by Visionary World, Hans’ acclaimed publishing house for illustrated books. I was frustrated with not being able to find a publisher for The Cambodian Book of the Dead, and Hans said, “Why don’t we start an imprint that puts out crime fiction based in Asia?” I was instantly sold on the idea. Hans has connections and business savvy and I have yet more connections, two titles under my belt and have read crime fiction vociferously for many years. We felt we could really launch an imprint that would reach beyond much of the tepid crime fiction output in the region.

I got the rights back for my first novel The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, and this was our first publication in June. The Cambodian Book of the Dead followed in July and Dead Sea by Sam Lopez came out in September. The reaction has been phenomenal. We sold the Spanish language rights for The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu which is coming out as both print and eBook in January 2013. We also sold The Cambodian Book of the Dead to Exhibit A, a British/US publisher, so that title will be re-launched worldwide in the middle of 2013, though we have retained the rights for Thailand and Cambodia. And I have been signed to write a sequel. So, all in all, modest expectations have been blown out of the water and Crime Wave Press seems to be really flying for now.

You are also looking for more writers to publish. What sort of books do you want to put out, and what are you looking for in a manuscript?

We plan to publish a range of crime fiction – from whodunits to Noir and Hardboiled, from historical mysteries to espionage thrillers, from literary crime to pulp fiction, from highly commercial page turners to marginal texts exploring Asia’s dark underbelly. We are looking for complete manuscripts by professional writers.  But we are of course also looking for stuff that we personally like. Much of crime fiction is political – from Chester Himes to James Ellroy – and we decided right from the outset that we would not publish books that do not fit into our own social, cultural and political framework. That’s to say we will not publish novels with an overtly conservative agenda.

What are your goals for the first year? Do you have a specific number of books you want to publish, for example?

We would like to publish ten novels by autumn 2013. We are hoping to get our titles into regional book chains, once our back catalogue is a little more extensive. And we continue working on selling foreign rights of our titles. But all this depends on the type of submissions we receive. So far it’s been a decidedly mixed bag – from hugely competent thrillers to complete nonsense: someone recently sent us a 120,000-word treatise on conspiracy theories. Most of the manuscripts we have received have originated in Southeast Asia and we are hoping to get some material from China, India and Japan as well.

Do you have confidence that there is still a good sales market for paperback books, or in a few more years will you be concentrating only on selling e-books?

I think that mass paperbacks will continue to sell. E-books are clawing a larger and larger market share from month to month, but as I said, one of our aims is to get a whole range of our titles into bookshops in Asia and I certainly think there is a market for it here. Also, the fact that our first two titles have been licensed/sold to other publishers as print editions and e-books suggests that the paperback is anything but dead in the US and Europe. For now we are looking at three different formats: print, print on demand, and e-books.

As far as writing style, who are your influences? Or, who would you be flattered to be compared to?

I don’t want to be compared to my literary heroes. They seem to be out there in a kind of sacrosanct atmosphere of unattainable stylishness and substance. I just try to write the best I can. The crime writers I love are authors like Chester Himes, John D. MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, David Goodis, Jim Thompson, Patricia Highsmith and Charles Willeford. And Chandler and Hammett. All these writers are dead of course. Amongst currently active authors I am particularly fond of Massimo Carlotto (his Death’s Dark Abyss is probably my favorite crime novel of recent memory), Philipp Kerr, and Charlie Williams. I also read a lot of fiction that is not directly crime related, anything from Joseph Conrad to the beat writers. I just started Andrew Morton’s Silver.

The Cambodian Book of the Dead is not your first novel. You also wrote another mystery, The Devil’s Road to Kathmandu, a few years ago. Besides locale, what is the biggest difference between these two novels?

Both books are very similar in that they feed directly on my 20 years of travel and non-fiction writing in Asia. All the settings in these two titles are extremely familiar to me and many of the characters are amalgamations of people I met on the road. The biggest difference is that almost ten years lie between the two books and in the interim I wrote and published hundreds of articles, several screenplays and numerous non-fiction books, so by the time I started The Cambodian Book of the Dead my writing was quite assured and I knew much better what I was doing. Also, The Devil’s Road is primarily an adventurous romp while the Cambodian Book of the Dead is a sometimes painful, often brutal examination of history, while still being entertainment of course. 

You’ve done a lot of travel writing in the past couple of decades, specifically research and writing for guidebooks, both in German and in English. Will you keep doing that, or shift most of your time and energy to Crime Wave Press?

I have found that in order to make a living from writing, I need to work in different genres. I am currently the author of several guidebooks covering Cambodia and Thailand. I was asked recently whether I might be interested in adding Burma to those titles and I declined. I am certainly not looking at expanding my guidebook catalogue. I used to write a lot more for print media but I see this type of work constantly declining. It’s increasingly badly paid and assignments are rarer than they used to be.

I really enjoy writing non-fiction books. I am currently in the process of editing my text for Kraig Lieb’s forthcoming Cambodia, a new illustrated book on the country by this well known Lonely Planet photographer and I have just been to Burma (Myanmar) to research Burmese Light, an illustrated book by Hans Kemp, due out in the spring of next year. Also, Sacred Skin, the book on Thailand’s sacred tattoos I published last year with my wife, photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat, was received really well – and we are developing several other ideas for illustrated books. I am very lucky that I work with good friends and that I am offered more work than I can handle. The time I no longer spend on print journalism and my decreasing involvement with guidebooks now belongs to Crime Wave Press and that is likely to increase in the coming year.

You’ve spent a lot of time in Cambodia over the years. Obviously, you go there for work purposes, but you also seem to like the country and the people. If you were going there just for personal enjoyment, what are some of your favorite places to go or things to do?

I love Cambodia, always have since first going there in 1995. Funky people, beautiful scenery, a venal government, and history to give any noir novel a run for its money. I do still go there for personal reasons. I have family in Phnom Penh. If I were to visit for a holiday, I would head for Kampot and Kep. The coastline towards the Vietnam border is sublime, infrastructure is improving but not exploding and it’s laid back. I also like Battambang. I was there recently on an assignment and the town has come a long way in recent years. The countryside in that part of Cambodia is gorgeous.

Besides writing, you are an avid reader and book collector. Where are your favorite places in Asia for book hunting?

Ah, now you are looking for arcane, secret information. Yes, I read all the time. Crime fiction, fiction, non-fiction with a bias towards Asia and Noir. I do also collect books and find it impossible to walk past a secondhand bookshop without looking inside. In Thailand the best two bookshops are Dasa Books in Bangkok and Backstreet Books in Chiang Mai. I was recently in Avignon, France and found first editions by William Irish and E.W. Hornung and an amazing shop called Lignes Noires, which specialized in crime fiction. Kathmandu used to be great place to pick up old books, but the street vendors have recently been closed down by the police. Kolkata (Calcutta) is another good city to find old titles, especially on India of course, and last time I was there I picked up three first editions by P.G. Wodehouse. Cairo has a fascinating secondhand book market. And someone told me recently Damascus is a great place to pick up old books, but perhaps now is not the time.

Jesse Winchester Tribute

One of the most gifted singer-songwriters in American music, yet one of the most unrecognized over the past several decades, is Jesse Winchester. His songs have been covered by the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, Wilson Pickett, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Ian Matthews, Nicolette Larsen, the Everly Brothers, and many others. Winchester is a talented performer in his own right and recorded several highly acclaimed solo albums. Back in the 1970s, a review in Rolling Stone magazine even called him “the voice of the decade.” Yes, he’s that good.  


Winchester has always comfortably straddled different musical styles, from folk and country to pop and R&B, but he never really broke out of the “critic’s favorite” corner and achieved mass success. One problem for him was the inability to play shows in his native United States during the prime of his career. For most of the 1970s, Winchester could not even set foot in the USA due to his status as a draft resister. In 1967 he had fled to Canada to avoid the US draft, and a subsequent stint in the Army, which at that time would have meant fighting in the Vietnam War. You have to admire someone like Jesse Winchester who stuck to his principles and refused to join the ranks of those fighting in yet another ill-thought US-led war. Even to this day, there are frightening numbers of misguided people who still believe they are “protecting people’s freedoms” by going off to war and fighting for their native country. The government, of course, loves subservient mindless patriots like that. I could go on and on about such patriotic nonsense, but I’ll save that diatribe for another day.


Winchester’s decision to move to Canada, naturally, was a big, big deal at the time. Being a notorious “draft evader” caused him no small amount of grief and verbal abuse and there were more than a few idiots who accused Winchester of not being patriotic, or worse. It wasn’t until 1976, after receiving amnesty from the government, that Winchester was able to return to the US and finally tour for the first time. But by that time, the golden era of the singer-songwriter had started to fade, and Winchester’s relatively gentle tunes were overpowered by the onslaught of the disco craze and the rise of pop-rock bands like Fleetwood Mac and Boston.


After his impressive run of studio albums in the 70s, and the solid Talk Memphis in 1981, Winchester lost his major label recording contract and has only recorded a handful of albums since then. Last year Winchester was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and the outlook looked grim indeed, but after undergoing radiation treatments and surgery he has been given a clean bill of health by doctors and is once again playing live club dates. Excellent news!


To help pay for Winchester’s medical care, his buddies Jimmy Buffett and Elvis Costello came up with the idea of doing a tribute album. The result is Quiet About It: A Tribute to Jesse Winchester, an excellent 11-song collection of tunes from James Taylor, Rosanne Cash, Buffett, Allen Toussaint, Vince Gill, Mac McAnally, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Little Feat, Costello, and a duet from Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris. That’s as stunning a collection of living musicians as it gets, and if that doesn’t get you excited, you just don’t recognize good music. But due to changes in the music industry, not to mention the aging of the music-buying population, the release of an album chock-full of big names like this has barely made a ripple. I only found out about it while surfing online late one night. Whoa … what’s this!? The fact that the CD was released on a small label, Mailboat Records, doesn’t help matters either.

If you’ve heard Jesse Winchester’s music in the past, it should come as no surprise that his songs positively shine in the hands of the gifted artists on this collection, all of whom are devoted fans of Winchester. In Bill Flanagan’s excellent liner notes for the album he writes: “Elvis Costello points out that it is quite remarkable how every song on this collection fits the style of each singer so well that you could swear he or she wrote it.”

And that’s definitely the case. These artists take Winchester’s songs and put a distinctive personal stamp on them. Listen to Rosanne Cash easing into “Biloxi”, Lyle Lovett’s distinctive take on “Brand New Tennessee Waltz”, or Lucinda Williams putting everything she has into “Mississippi You’re On My Mind.” This is beautiful, emotionally powerful music. My favorite cut on the album is Mac McAnally’s tender cover of “Defying Gravity,” a song that Jimmy Buffett also recorded many years ago on his wonderful Havana Daydreamin’ album.

Tribute albums can often be hit and miss affairs, but each and every song on Quiet About It is a winner. Track this one down and buy it … and enjoy it!


Lonely Nights

My phone rang on Friday night. I didn’t recognize the number, but that didn’t necessarily mean I didn’t know the person calling. Sometimes my Cambodian friends will call from some cheap Internet phone line instead of using their own number, or perhaps a Thai friend is using one of their friend’s phones.


I answered the phone and a man speaking in Thai asked, “Do you remember me?” Well, in fact, I DID recognize the voice. It was a guy who, to protect his privacy (and you’ll know why in a minute), I will call Bee. He, along with another friend or two, or three, will turn up at my apartment about once a week or so, hanging out to listen to music, drink beer, chat, or watch videos on YouTube. I enjoy their company. But I hadn’t heard from Bee in three or four months, which was very strange. Every time I’d call his number, I’d get a recorded message saying that his phone was turned off. I tried sending text messages, but still no reply.

“Of course I remember you,” I told Bee. “Where are you?” He told me he was in Nakhon Ratchasima, his home province. Nothing unusual about that, he frequently goes home to visit his family there when he has time off from work. But his reason for calling me WAS unusual. “Can you come here to visit me?” he asked. “I’m in jail.”

Of course that threw me for a loop. What do you say after an admission like that? I explained that I was working in my bookshop every day, so going to visit him would be rather difficult right now. And it would be. I work every day of the week, no days off at all. The only times I don’t work are when I take trips to neighboring countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, or Malaysia. Well, if I can take five days off to visit Cambodia, I could certainly adjust my schedule and take a day or two off from work to visit Bee. And it would require that much time to journey up to Nakhon Ratchasima (less than 3 hours), visit him in jail, and then come back. Since I don’t own a car, I’d be taking the bus.

“You can write me,” Bee added. “I’ll give you the address.” I asked him to hold on for a minute, and called over one of my Thai employees to write down his mailing address in Thai. If I did that myself, and I could if I really tried, it would take an eternally long time, or I’d screw up writing the characters and he might never get the package. I asked Bee what he needed, or what they would allow him to have in jail. He told me any type of dry food or snacks would be okay. “No soup?” I joked. Thankfully, Bee laughed at that line.

I didn’t ask Bee what he had done to deserve this stretch in jail. I figured he’d tell me if he wanted me to know. But he did say that he’s been in there for about two months already and still had “several” more months to go. Hell, that could mean a year or longer. He added that he was having a “difficult time” and hoped that I could come and see him. At that point, I felt like my heart was about to break. It’s hard to say no to someone who asks for so little, knowing that a visit from a friend would mean a lot to him. I asked Bee for details on making visits. He told me that visiting days are on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon. I told Bee that I’d try and visit sometime next month. And I’m really going to try and do it.

In the meantime I went out and bought some goodies, boxed them up, and mailed them to him on Monday; a bunch of food, a few magazines and books (all in Thai), and some cash. I asked him on the phone (and I still have no idea how he was able to use a phone while in jail; yet another question I’ll ask him next time.) about the money and he said it would be okay, even after I expressed concerns that whoever opened the mail at the jail might decided to take the cash for themselves. I just hope he gets most of what I sent him. I have no idea if he’ll be able to phone again. I included a letter in the package, one that I laboriously typed out in Thai one night on my computer. Took me forever, using the hunt and peck method to find the correct Thai characters, but I did it, and I don’t think I made any mistakes. Hopefully, he’ll be able to write me back. If nothing else, it was good to practice writing Thai again.

If hearing about Bee being in jail wasn’t sad enough news, my closest Thai friend, Thanayut, heads off to Lopburi today to start a two-year stint in the Thai army. After getting the unlucky red ball in the draft lottery, he put off the military obligation as long as could, taking his time to finish his university degree, but now the stalling is over and he must report. Maybe being in the army is not as bad as being in jail, but surely it won’t be any sort of picnic. Thanayut will be able to take leave once every couple of months, and he’s also looking at an option of getting out early if he waives his salary and other benefits. But whatever happens, I’m looking at a situation where I’m not going to be seeing him very often for the next two years. For someone I saw at least once a week, and is the most cheerful and optimistic person that I know, this is going to be a big adjustment. I’m pretty much of a loner and don’t socialize much but it’s always nice to have friends drop by once in a while. Thanayut, like Bee, was one of the few people with whom I would go to restaurants on a regular basis, or just hang out with. I better get used to more lonely nights again, because it’s going to be even lonelier without these guys coming around.


So, as I walked home last night, I was feeling down. I’d just got off the phone with Thanayut, saying goodbye, take care, miss you, and all those things that you say when you won’t be seeing someone for a long period of time. I took a motorcycle taxi part of the way, from the Thonglor-Sukhmuvit intersection to New Petchburi Road. When I hopped off the motorcycle to pay the driver, he asked me how long I’d been living in Thailand.

“About 15 years,” I told him.

“Ooh, you speak Thai very clearly,” he remarked.

I smiled at that. Obviously I love hearing such compliments. I worked hard to learn the language, but at some point I reached a plateau and became fluent enough for basic conversation in Thai, but never really progressed any higher. In the meantime I started studying Khmer and Burmese and neglected my Thai. I can speak “clearly” enough for a simple chat, but just don’t ask me to engage in a conversation that requires a lot of depth or complex vocabulary.

My mind was wandering when the motorcycle driver asked me another question. I asked him to repeat what he had said.

“Do you love Thailand?” he asked.

I smiled again, feeling the warmth, the genuine curiosity, and the good vibes that this friendly man exuded. “Yes, I do. I love it very much here.”

I may have a friend in jail, and another going off for Army duty, but I have to realize that those aren’t permanent conditions. Things change. You adapt. I can wait. They’ll be back. And I take comfort in the fact that I’m living in an incredibly warm (in every sense of the word!) and vibrant country, a place where I never ever feel like I’m truly alone.

I waved goodbye to the motorcycle dude and walked the rest of the way home with a smile on my face, basking in the glow of this magical place where I choose to live.


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