Thursday, 11 September 2014

Distracted by the 'China Convoy'

I have been silent on this blog for quite a time for two reasons, first I have been locked out and unable to post as they think I'm an intruder, but suddenly today I'm back in again. And secondly I have been distracted by researching and writing about the 'China Convoy'. [Paragraph] Further down this blog are some articles about 'Jack Reynolds', the mysterious author of the seminal novel, "A WOMAN OF BANGKOK", in which I ask for help to discover who he was. Well, now I know and have even written a book about him. He finally settled in Bangkok working for Unicef and had a family of seven children but the reason he came out east from England was because he was a pacifist and did alternative service in China in the nineteen forties. [Paragraph] The photo's of a bearded Jack in 1946 in Chungking where he was transport director for the Friends Ambulance Units 'China Convoy' This was a Quaker relief project which distributed medical supplies and services throughout China for almost ten years from the Japanese invasion to the communist 'liberation'. [Paragraph] Jack's story in China is an amazing one, full of adventures and accidents and is well worth telling. Called A TRUE FRIEND TO CHINA, 'The lost writings of a heroic nobody', my soon to be published book is an edited collection of the articles Jack wrote for the FAU newsletter that was put together and circulated to all its staff in China. [Paragraph] He was a great blogger long before blogging and I've thoroughly enjoyed doing the book, even if it has meant that my writings on Thailand have ground to a halt. Perhaps at least I'm back in my blog and it can come back to life.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Thai Girls Trashed!

......... My novel, THAI GIRL, is a story of how English student, Ben, goes backpacking in Thailand with Emma, his girlfriend from university. There are tensions between them and Emma dumps Ben on the tiny island of Koh Samet, their ultimate tropical paradise. Ben then falls for Fon, an enigmatic but flirtatious beach masseuse who refuses his advances but slowly is drawn in................ I have received many emails from readers alternatively saying that Emma or Ben are insufferable and that Thai women or western women are money grubbing and awful. Some of these comments are posted on the Readers Forum on and I find them fascinating because different readers react so differently to the book and its characters. ................... I have just recieved another message from a reader which is particularly interesting because she has spent a considerable time in SE Asia as an NGO volunteer. Her uncompromising views thus cannot be dismissed lightly as being from someone who is ignorant or not well-disposed to Thailand............ Her unexpurgated comments now follow............ I just read your book, THAI GIRL, which I found in an op shop in Australia. I've spent the past 5 years going to and through Thailand so was curious to see how it was written about.....well the scenery and setting certainly rang true, also the sense of discombobulation that first time travellers experience. But as a female I found the female characters to be absolutely awful. I know you were trying to create a sense of empathy with the Thais but did you have to make Emma such a horror? And frankly, having seen first-hand the grasping greed of many Thai girls and the terrible consequences of their overwhelming desire for money on naive Western men, I couldn't see anything in the female Thai characters that would cause any guy to 'fall in love'............. I don't pretend to have an understanding of men, but who would fall for the sob stories and rapaciousness of child-like women who see sex as a monetary transaction? I've sworn, after spending the past couple of years working in SE Asia, to never return to Thailand again. A big part of this decision is due to the constant demands for money, even from supposed 'friends' and even while already volunteering all my time to NGO work. I really fail to see how any self-respecting man could find any happiness when their entire personal value is monetary and not based on intelligence, kindness, humour; all of those necessary attributes to fulfilling relationships................... Are men really so shallow?........... Helen................................................................................ Wow say I! There are loads of issues there for comment, but just a brief defence of my female characters from me.......................... Wasn't Emma entitled to her post-university depression, especially in the face of Ben's overwhelming personality! She then had the courage to dump him and to go off and enjoy Thailand without him. And as for Fon, the 'Thai girl' of the title, she pushed Ben away and never asked him for anything. Surely she breaks the stereotype that Helen asserts?.......................... So what's your view? Are Thai women so rapacious and western men so shallow? Do please post a Comment.............................. PS If you'd like to read a case study, non-fiction this time, you could try my later book, MY THAI GIRL AND I.............

Thursday, 5 April 2012

My THAI GIRL's an Ebook!

For an author like me it’s earth shattering news that my two books about Thailand can now be bought anywhere in the world on the click of a mouse. They have recently become available as ebooks. **** If you Google the titles or go to Amazon you can find them from many suppliers and you can have them in seconds to read off your Kindle device or your usual computer screen. Images of both books appear to the right of this blog article and you can learn more about them and read reviews and first chapters on> **** My novel, THAI GIRL, is the story of a young Englishman who falls in love with Fon, a masseuse working on the beach on Koh Samet and tells how he discovers Thailand and its culture through his on-off relationship with Fon. “Thai Girl” was first published in Thailand in 1974 and again by Monsoon Books in Singapore, achieving best seller status in both places. It still sells well and is currently reprinting for the ninth time. A friend recently sent me a shot of the books prominently displayed at Bangkok airport which gave me a very good feeling!>**** MY THAI GIRL AND I, “How I found a new life in Thailand” is my own story of how early retired and living in Thailand I met my future wife, Cat, and how we set up home in the rice fields of North Eastern Thailand. The book is written as a collection of short anecdotes, not unlike the blog articles below. It tells my tale of falling in love in and with Thailand, together with all the joys and tensions of a cross-cultural relationship and of living far from home. It’s an easy read and, I hope, a funny one that can be dipped into as well as read straight through, though I hope you’ll find it hard to put it down!>**** This book has been a special pleasure for me as I have made many friends from it among readers who have had similar experiences or dream of escaping the western rat race, so I am happy that it can now be bought anywhere in the world. In fact as the book has over 100 photos, an ebook is perhaps better in that these all appear in colour and are far sharper than on the printed page.>**** The emergence of the web and of ebooks is causing a revolution in the world of publishing and books. It is said that in the US Amazon now sells as many ebooks as it does conventional books and that these are the future. I struggle with this because I still love the feel of a physical book and of the rows I have stacked tightly on my bookshelves as a reminder of past pleasures. On the other hand, the big publishers and book sellers have had a strangle hold on the book trade which has tended to inhibit the publication of new authors and fringe topics. Now it’s a new world out there with the emergence of ebooks and of ‘print on demand’ books where no physical stock is held but a book is printed off and bound whenever an internet order is received.>**** The availability of books on the internet, obviating the need for visiting a bookshop, is another side of the revolution. This applies not only to new books but to second hand and out of print books too. For the bibliophile or researcher, gone are the days of trawling through dusty second hand bookshops looking for that rare out of print title. Now all you have to do is go online and you can find any number of copies available and order and pay for one in a matter of minutes.>**** This is wonderful for readers of books. It presents a problem though for publishers and authors as an accessible market in second hand books must inevitably inhibit sales of new books.> Authors generally have to be satisfied with minimal royalties on the price of new books sold and have always complained that multiple reading via lending libraries means that they cannot make a living. I have always thought that a book is almost a sacred thing that should be kept and passed on for others. Now I can’t help feeling that a mass produced paperback should be read and discarded just like a newspaper. The new internet market in second hand books however means that the life of a book can be indefinitely renewed as it is sold on from reader to reader.>**** Writing and creativity does need to be stimulated and in general the new world of books will promote this. I therefore welcome the brave new world of ebooks and commend it to you. Ebooks are cheap to buy and great for the reader and at least they cannot be sold on and recycled. The world of reading is thus becoming a better and richer place.>**** In any event I cannot be a luddite as ebooks are here to stay and if you can’t beat them… just as in “My Thai Girl and I” I advocate that expats living in the cultural melting pot of Thailand can only find happiness there if they learn to ‘go with the flow’.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

"A Woman of Bangkok" is Back!

The great news is that, "A Woman of Bangkok", Jack Reynolds' classic novel published in 1956 in New York and London is at last back in print. If you scan down this blog you'll find many articles about my quest to learn more about it's author. I've now gone far down that road and so am thrilled for him that Monsoon Books in Singapore have issued both a paper version and an ebook. The blurb that you'll find at reads as follows. (If you go to the sample chapter, you'll also find a short bio of Jack.)********** "Set against a beautifully observed Thailand of the 1950s, this is the story of a young Englishman’s infatuation with a dance-hall hostess named Vilai, who all Bangkok knows as The White Leopard. No ordinary prostitute, Vilai is one of the most memorable in literature’s long line of brazen working girls. An unmitigated liar and brutally transparent about her desire for money, she unscrupulously milks young Reggie Joyce, the son of an Anglican vicar, with complete frankness. Reggie knows her for what she is yet there seems no folly he will not commit for her, no road to ruin he dares not take. Vilai becomes an obsession for him—an obsession that brings Reggie moments of ecstasy, months of anguish and the threat of utter disaster. Acknowledged today as one of the most memorable novels about Thailand, “A Woman of Bangkok” was first published to critical acclaim in London and New York in the 1950s and is a classic of Bangkok fiction. While the Fifties was a very different world, what is remarkable about this book is that the more the bar scene in Bangkok changes, the more it stays the same. Just as Moll Flanders and Fanny Hill stand eternal, Vilai takes a very special, dare one say seminal, place as the first and best of the many anti-heroines of the now burgeoning Bangkok novel."******** It is a fine piece of writing and well worth reading. Tell us what you think!********** Please forgive this bizarre editing. Blogspot is refusing to accept my paragraphing.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Preah Vihear Ablaze Again

The Cambodian flag flies peaceably above the first temple at Preah Vihear, known to the Thais as Khao Phra Viharn and I cannot now believe that blood is again being spilled in this futile border dispute. The conflict has no real substance but is merely the result of extreme nationalism being fanned by politicians on both sides of the border seeking to distract attention from internal problems and to impress the electorate. It is so ironic that two Asian nations are scrapping over a border that was imposed on them by French colonial Indo-China in an unequal treaty that the World Court then had to interpret.

Bullet holes from the Khmer Rouge era are clearly visible.

The biggest losers are the traders for whom the temple was a livelihood.

A sacred place, it should be enjoyed as a shared heritage.

I wrote the following article in October 2008, never thinking that the dispute would gather momentum for so long. Nothing has changed. Things have only got worse and more blood has been spilled. When will everyone come to their senses?

Thailand’s Temple of Doom?

I am so sorry that Preah Vihear, the Cambodian temple on the Thai border has once again become a political football, souring relations between the two countries.

Called Khao Phra Viharn in Thai, it is just two hours from where we live and I keep on going back as for me it is one of the most magical places in the world. I’ve been there ten times in the last few years and I want to go another ten.

Though the Khmer temples at Angkor are grander in scale, the natural setting of Khao Phra Viharn is beyond compare. It sits at the top of a cliff and as you stand there looking down at hundreds of miles of Cambodian plain and mountain spread before you, just behind you a thousand year symphony in stone, this must be one of the most remarkable places in the world.

The temple often acts as a lightning rod for tensions between Thailand and Cambodia as it is the Cambodian and not the Thai flag that flies over it. In 1962 the International Court of Justice decided a border dispute referred to it by Cambodia, ruling that the temple was within Cambodia and that the Thais must withdraw their troops. The Thais were outraged and have never forgotten this slight from the minnow to the east.

Now managed by the Cambodians in a pleasant state of sleepy under-development, little girls and old ladies wander through the ruins beseechingly selling postcards and cold drinks and whenever there are tensions between the two countries, the Cambodians assert their authority and close the temple to visitors. Whether the pretext is pollution flowing into Thailand from the stream below the temple or a Thai helicopter allegedly overflying Cambodian airspace, it always spells doom for the poor vendors who abruptly lose their livelihood.

The decision of the Court was that maps drawn up during the French colonial era and at least implicitly accepted by the Thais placed the temple in French Cambodia notwithstanding that geographically it is within Thailand. Standing on top of a gently rising escarpment and cut off from Cambodia by the cliff, it must always have been approached from the Thai plateau.

The usual presumption is that international borders follow the watershed. In this case the watershed is the cliff edge, which would put the temple within Thailand, but the Court concluded in this case that the treaty ruled otherwise. Unequal treaties by which colonial powers sought to extend their territory are nonetheless taken to be valid.

The latest saga is that Cambodia has now made an application to UNESCO for the listing of the temple as a World Heritage Site and again the Thais are outraged. The new Thai government seems prepared to co-operate but the opposition Democrats have made it a major issue in domestic politics, attempting to bring down the government. Charging that a deal had been done to allow the Cambodian application proceed in return for a casino concession for Thaksin Shinawatra, the shadowy power behind the PM, the opposition has obtained a court injunction to stop the government supporting the application for listing and has stirred up extreme nationalist fervour against Cambodia.

The whole conflict is damaging for all sides. If the Thais could only accept the reality of Cambodian sovereignty over the temple and support an application for listing, there would be benefit for all, especially for the poor vendors in the temple.

The approach to the temple from the Thai side is scheduled as a National Park so the Thai authorities already collect entry fees equivalent to those charged by the Cambodians for the temple itself. As the access and the only population centres are on the Thai side, the benefit of virtually all associated tourism primarily benefits the Thais. The Thai province of Si Saket is one of the poorest in the country and desperately needs its one significant tourist attraction to be promoted by harmonious progress to a World Heritage listing.

The current dispute could now close the temple and sour relations between the two countries for years, thus doing considerable self-inflicted damage to Thailand.

The more intransigent the Thais prove to be, the more the Cambodians will try to develop the approaches to the temple from their own side. There is talk of foreign funding for a major road through the jungle, of building a cable car up the cliff and, perish the thought, of casinos in the vicinity.

When I first visited the temple seven years ago, the view from the top was totally untouched by humanity. Though the jungle had perhaps been stripped of the best timber, there was not a road or a man-made structure in view for a hundred miles in any direction. Now already there is a dirt road with trucks crawling along it like ants and small shanty towns at the intersections. I fear what the future will bring. The great charm of the temple is that it remains under-developed and innocent, but all that soon may change.

In recent times it has been the focus of violent conflict as it was one of the last strongholds held by the Khmer Rouge long after the fall of Pol Pot, the genocidal leader of Cambodia. Indeed one of their cannons still stands high on the hill facing back towards Thailand.

Now once again the atmosphere is laden with doom and it all seems so sad. As I walk up the steep stone avenue towards the temple steadfastly refusing all offers of postcards, the little girls gaze hopefully at me. ‘Okay, mister. Not buy postcard now, but maybe later come back.’

Maybe but maybe not.

My heart usually melts for them or for the boy who in competent English tells me his life ambition is one day to go to school. My hand slips into my pocket for a few baht, always to be rewarded with a million dollar smile.

The temple and the simplicity of these people thus enriches me and all who go there, while the barrenness of racist nationalism and partisan politics that is now rearing its ugly head diminishes all of us. In this most beautiful of places the petty behaviour of politicians could not be more grotesque.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

My Thai Girl's a Hunter-Gatherer

This crab wandered in and paid the price.

During the rains there's frogs and fish in the rice fields.

These tiny fish are delicious deep fried.

And this was the trap that caught them.

A spicy dish of bamboo shoot is highly prized.

But it takes much time and effort to prepare it.

Rural Thailand is changing fast, often for the better, but as always there are winners and losers. For this child, change will not come fast enough and he may have little choice but to join the cohorts of cheap labour that migrate to the cities to fuel the modern economy, thus maintaining the comfortable life-style of the middle classes. The land can no longer provide a living, except for those who own substantial farms and work hard and capably.

But it was not always that way. Once there were forests and food for free.

I’ve written before about how the Surin countryside where my wife, Cat and I now live used to be bountiful and how it abundantly yielded birds and animals to eat, roots, leaves, nuts and fruits. Her childhood was spent gathering food in the countryside and her memories of that time seem to be happy ones.

The trouble is now that every available scrap of land has been made productive and almost all the forest has gone. With increasing population, farming cannot support the population and this unlimited resource of free food for the landless is no longer there. Thus the young and fit have to move away to the cities to find low paid work, often leaving their small children with Mama Papa in the village.

I’d never before thought of Thais as hunter gatherers but rather as prosperous growers of rice, so this is a new insight for me. Farmers and pastoralists wandering the world with their cows are the wealthy ones and the hunter gatherers are all but gone. One thinks only of the pygmies in the Congo, of the Punan in Borneo and the Orang Asli or Sakai in the mountainous jungles down the spine of Malaysia.

I’ve seen people in West Africa who wore nothing but leaves but even they grew crops. I’ve stayed with Dyaks several days up the Skrang river in Sarawak, sleeping under the huge bundles of human skulls tied up with rattan. They lived off the jungle and just before we went out hunting orang utan, they showed me the paws of a bear they’d killed a few days before. They also grew a few vegetables and kept pigs that ran wild in the forest around the long houses. This was fine by me but in the absence of a WC, when I headed off into the jungle to hide behind a bush, the pigs would come running. They were so keen to get up close and personal as I squatted down that they almost knocked me flying.

The only pure hunter gatherers I’ve ever met though were the Sakai in the Taman Negara national park in Malaysia. In the vastness of the jungle we were lucky to come across them sitting in low temporary shelters of palm and leaves. They were very hospitable as they showed us how they whittled the darts for the blow pipes with which they killed monkeys and showed us the roots and the honey they’d recently collected from the jungle. They were delightful people to meet, their most precious possession being the fire that they kept glowing in one of their shelters.

I now realize to my surprise that my Thai wife too is a hunter gatherer. There’s nothing she loves doing more in the village than collecting food and despite the loss of the forests, it’s still out there if you know how to find it.

And it also comes into the house too without being asked! The garage is a cool, quiet place where we’ve caught intruding crabs and frogs, rats and even a scorpion, and all of them have gone into the pot.

Then when it rains heavily at night, the frogs cry out noisily and Cat gets up and goes out in the dark and the wet hunting them. She takes a powerful head torch and a vicious looking spear and returns with several kilos of frogs and fish in a bucket.

We’ve had heavy rain recently and the fish pond overflowed and she made a fish trap of fine netting where the water runs out. This produced quantities of beautiful small fish of the kind that are used to make plaa raa, the foul smelling fermented fish that Isaan people so love.

Then Cat takes the bamboo shoots from around the fish pond and spends ages cutting it into tiny slices and boiling it up to soften it. One dish she made recently was to mix it with rice, chopped pork, various spices and a liberal quantity of plaa raa and fiery chili to render it totally uneatable by any farang. Then it was wrapped in parcels of banana leaf to make a local delicacy that was truly a labour of love.

She also collects pak ah chet, a leaf that grows on the surface of the pond. And she gathers kee lek from behind the house which is pounded to make a bitter green paste or soup, and at a certain time of the year we go out to the rice fields and climb the sadao trees to collect the young shoots that again are cooked up to make a decent curry as bitter as bile.

Then there was the trap with a blue light that accumulates a huge quantity of insects overnight that are fried up and eaten as a snack. The rice fields are full of fish and crabs, shell fish and prawns, all there for the taking, just like at the seaside, so in some ways the countryside is still nothing less than bountiful.

Nonetheless, you have to have land as there is no longer enough to sustain the whole population of rural Isaan. And that’s why the middle generation has gone off to the towns to find menial and badly paid work.

A few days ago one of Cat’s aunties came in to show off a new grandchild that had just been left with her by her daughter who works in Bangkok. This woman had eight children of her own but with only one of them now still with her in the village, all the others having gone away to the south. She already has two small grandsons living with her, their unmarried mothers gone far away so a third is a real burden, not to mention the cost of milk formula. From time to time her family send back small sums of money her and Papa and the children but for them it’s a poor life, living in what an only be described as a shack. They have absolutely no other income.

The new child is of course a joy, but the burden for an old woman of raising yet another baby is hard. But that’s just the way it is in rural Thailand.

The comfortable middle classes in Bangkok benefit from a vast pool of cheap labour while Isaan is a totally different world.

The village is a real community, though under threat, but it’s sad if more of the benefits of the modern economy cannot be brought to the countryside. That tension is of course what the current political turmoil in Thailand has been all about.

Meanwhile Cat has her farang and a comfortable life, but I respect her passion for living off the land and for not running a mile from the toughness of her upbringing. That’s what makes living in the village more rewarding for me as Cat’s enthusiasm for country life brings me a little closer to what remains of ‘the real Thailand’.

It still leaves the question though that the countryside has been stripped bare and is no longer capable of sustaining those with little or no land. In times of trouble there is little now for them to fall back on.

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog December 2010

Friday, 29 October 2010

"Resilient Thailand" Again

Central World Plaza, the massive retail mall in Bangkok that was devastated during the political protests only a few months ago has opened once again. Comparing this picture to the scene of destruction that you will see if you scan down this blog is remarkable.

This is a tribute to the resilience of the established political and commercial powers in Thailand and to the ability of this society to bounce back following seismic tremors.

I admire these qualities very much but there is perhaps a negative side as well. If the elite that controls Thailand restores the shiny facade but fails to deal with the grey reality that lies behind, then greater problems are only stored up for the future.

The privilege of the moneyed Bangkokian to shop in cool, marble malls has been restored but it is still the rural migrants who do the construction and factory work and run the city for dismally low wages. There is little then to send home to Mama Papa who squat in the dust back home in the village.

Amazing Thailand, Resilient Thailand, a country that is admirable in so many ways. Nonetheless, for her sake I desperately hope that she can learn to adapt and change in the very near future as her essential problems will not just go away of their own accord.

Andrew Hicks The Thai Girl Blog October 2010