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A literary tour of Bangkok

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on April 21, 2006

A fascination with bookshops leads Sarah Anderson to this invigorating city to explore the literature it inspired

The Thailand Creative and Design Center (TCDC) opened in Bangkok’s Emporium Centre in November 2005. This enterprising organisation aims to let the world know that Thailand wants to compete in the contemporary world of design. There is a large library that, during the January weekend that I was there, was full of youth (who apparently would otherwise have been shopping) sitting and reading.

I had been asked to give a talk about the connection of the film Notting Hill with the Travel Bookshop. The movie played on all screens throughout the weekend and my concern was that the audience – a full house – would be expecting Hugh Grant or Julia Roberts to appear.

However the title of my talk – Turn Passion into Reality – seemed to satisfy the movie’s aficionados. I talked about how and why I started the Travel Bookshop in 1979 – how it was (and still is) my belief that you can get more out of the country you are travelling to, if you read literature, including fiction, which is set there; how Richard Curtis, then a neighbour, had come into the bookshop in the late 90s saying he was thinking of writing a film set in a bookshop and how that film became the immensely successful Notting Hill. A second talk was about my recent travels and how I have connected them with literature.

Bangkok from London just for the weekend was a mad venture and I certainly didn’t get the feeling that S.J. Perelman had in Westward Ha! “it struck me as the most soothing metropolis I had thus far seen in the East”. Arriving after a 12 hour flight at 6.30 am I was given less than an hour’s rest before being interviewed by 11 different papers and magazines. I was tired.

However adrenalin just about kept me going and I was taken to a party at Jim Thompson’s house for the opening of Siam in Trade and War. The accompanying book illustrating these fascinating 19th century maps, recently discovered in the Royal Palace, is published by River Books.

Jim Thompson who was largely responsible for setting up the Thai silk industry disappeared mysteriously in the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia in 1967: “The dense jungle rolls away endlessly on all sides, green and silent, roadless and dangerous: there are tigers in it, and hidden ravines a hundred feet deep, and tribes of elusive aborigines who still hunt with blowguns and poisoned darts along the secret trails” (William Warren Jim Thompson: The Legendary American of Thailand).

In his book A Fortune Teller Told Me, Tiziano Terzani visited Bangkok in 1993, the year the fortune teller told him he should not fly. He contrasts the “vulgar modernity of Bangkok, dirty, chaotic, stinking where the water is polluted and the air lead-poisoned” with old Bangkok where “The few streets on terra firma were lined with tall trees whose branches made tunnels of cool shade over the little traffic there was. The gilded spires of the pagodas soared above the houses and the palaces …”

At one point we picked up a taxi to go in the opposite direction (luckily) of the Chinese New Year rush-hour traffic. The driver told us he hadn’t moved for almost an hour; fortunately the Sky Train has made an enormous difference to the chronic traffic problems of Bangkok. I was staying close to the stop Ari where “We nose into narrow streets: cook-stalls and cloth shops, fruit-vendors and flower sellers, people packed tight on the sidewalks and seemingly packed down from above by the tangle of signboards and cable, and the heavy black haze of monoxide hanging over them (Charles Nicholl Borderlines). Nearby there was an excellent Thai restaurant, Deva at Soi Ari 3, where we ate crispy duck salad, Thai style crab cakes and fluffy fish.

Wherever I go I am always fascinated by bookshops. There is an enormous and brand new branch of Kinokuniya on the 3rd floor of the Siam Paragon (where many of the retail outlets are yet to open). It has a whole section devoted to Sudoku. Much more appealing is Orchid Books on the 4th floor of Silom Plaza which sells books about Buddhism and Asian Art as well as being a specialist publisher. The shopping centres are ubiquitous – but I’m not sure I can agree with Ian Buruma in God’s Dust that “After the air of slow death of Rangoon, I felt like kissing the ground of the newest Bangkok shopping mall. Here the king plays jazz”.

On the Rangsit Campus of Bangkok University there is a delightful and seemingly little known ceramics museum – the Southeast Asian Ceramics Museum. It is full of rare and wonderful pots and bowls – including much shipwreck stuff. Many are in pristine condition – not in pieces such as Yukio Mishima describes in The Temple of the Dawn: “As he approached, he realized that the pagoda was all inlaid with countless fragments of Chinese porcelain of either red or blue glaze … With the first rays of dawn over the Menam River, the tens of thousands of porcelain fragments turned into so many tiny mirrors that captured the light. A great structure of mother-of-pearl sparkling riotously”.

Pico Iyer summed up my feelings well – my unease due to a nervousness about public speaking: “And for all my unease in Bangkok, I could not deny that it was quite the most invigorating, and accommodating, city I had ever seen – more lazily seductive than even Rio or Havana. For elegance here was seasoned with funkiness, and efficiency was set off by mystery. Sugar was blended with spice” (Video Night in Kathmandu).