MODERN THAI LITERATURE: SUNTHORN PHU RATTAWUT LAPCHAROENSAP AND BANGKOK 8

SUNTHORN PHU

Sunthorn Phu (1786-1855) is widely regarded as Thailand’s greatest poet. Known as “The Poet of Four Reigns” and sometimes referred to as Thailand’s Shakespeare, he is best known for his romantic adventure story Phra Aphai Mani and for nine travel pieces called Nirats. For his Bicentennial in 1986, Sunthorn Phu was honored by UNESCO as a great man as well as Thailand people’s poet. According to the Thai Ministry of Culture: “The Bicentenial of Sunthorn Phu in 1986 was an occasion to pay homage to the poet who has been a teacher to the nation. With his moral attitude and deep sensitivity, he assisted in the making of Rattanakosin or the City of Bangkok. He thoroughly knew the Thai character and so he knew what the future would hold for the people. Thought his works, we can and must test the destiny of the nation.” [Source: Sunthorn Phu: The Poet of Four Reigns, Thai Ministry of Culturesakchaip.tripod.com/bookworm/sunthorn

Although it is a matter of some dispute Sunthorn Phu’s father was a native of Rayong while his mother came from Phetchaburi. Sunthorn Phu himself a is native of Bangkok, or of Thon Buri, to be exact. As a true Buddhist, Sunthorn Phu has left no trace of himself. The only place that may be associated with him is a temple in Bangkok called Wat Thepthidaram in which he spent the last few years of his long monkhood from about 1840.

Sunthorn Phu criticism was for a long time influenced by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab’s brief biography of the poet, published in 1922. This piece of writing was evidently derived from an unpublished Life of Sunthon Phu by Phraya Pariyatithammathada. The main tenets of Prince Damrong’s criticism had the poet pinned down as commoner who could not have received a very good education. His verse, even though melodious and partaking of common speech, was simply “market verse.” Besides, Sunthorn Phu had two bad flaws, namely, drunkenness and amorousness. To these was added the unusual pride and arrogance which caused him to offend the future King Rama III and thus earned his “dark period” during that rein. This theory of the “dark period” of Sunthorn Phu was a double-edged knife : While it made the poet appear in a bad light , it also hurt King Rama III’s reputation for having done the “people’s poet” an ill turn.

Two later critics, Chant Khumvilia and Prince Chand Chirayu Rajani tried to deny some, or all, of these charges against the poet. Especially, Prince Chand’s theory was diametrically opposed to that of Prince Damrong. Accordingly, two myths of Sunthorn Phu have been created. However, Prince Chand thought that he was a world-class bard like Chaucer or Shakespeare.

Sunthorn Phu was both an innovator and man of his times. In his travel poems there was a concern for autobiography as literacy form. The poet mixed facts with self-projected images in such a way that he might be writing autographical fiction. A woman poet accused Suthorn Phu of having written fictitious stories for ignorant people. This latent criterion of truth immediately was detrimental to the imagination. And indeed, poets after him were no longer inventive. They just took up Jakata tales and added scanty backgrounds to them. Because of this ban on “lies,” the element of fiction was entirely missing until the Western novel from was introduced nearly a century later.

But, on the other hand, his attitudes towards women was less than enlightened.

In his “Maxim for the Conduct of Ladies,”Sunthorn Phu, the “Thai Shakespeare,” wrote in 1855: “Take small, graceful steps when walking outside.” Do not “swing your arms back and forth” or “allow your breasts to swing or raise your shawl as you go.” When speaking with others, “do not raise your voice or rasp.” He also said: “Do not run fingers through your hair...Do not stare at anything, particularly a man, to the point where he can tell what’s going on in your mind.”

On married life Sunthorn Phu advised women:

Love and be faithful to your husband
Be humble in front of your husband
When you husband goes to bed, wai him at his feet very night without fail.
When he aches and pains, massage him, then you may go to sleep
Get up before your husband and prepare water for him to wash
While your husband is eating, sit and watch him near by so that when he needs something he does not have to raise his voice. Wait until he finishes before you eat.

Early Life of Sunthorn Phu

Sunthorn Phu was born in 1786, nineteen years after the sacking of Ayutthaya by the Burmese and four years after the establishment of Bangkok as the new capital city. Whilst the holocaust was still vivid in his mind, he witnessed two wars being simultaneously fought against the enemy, namely, the actual battles throughout the Fist Reign. Sunthorn Phu spent his childhood and adolescence in the Palace of the Back, as his mother was a wet nurse to a princess of that Palace. At about twenty, he wrote a story in verse titled Khobutr for a prince. This was evidently modelled after King Rama I’s Unarut and Ramakine, but with a difference. There was, in it , an emphasis, on knowledge and education as well as on forgiveness of one’s enemies. This would become characteristic of his works. [Source: Sunthorn Phu: The Poet of Four Reigns, Thai Ministry of Culturesakchaip.tripod.com/bookworm/sunthorn

In 1807, he made a trip to see his father who was ordained a monk in Rayong. This resulted in a travel poem in the nirat genre, titled Nirat Muang Klaen. Later in the same year, he accompanied a prince of the Black Palace to the Buddha’s Foot Print in Saraburi. He wrote about the experience of this trip in Nirat Phara Bat. In these early works, Sunthorn Phu showed himself a master of the klon form as well as an excellent storyteller. The two travel poems, however, relied more on outward descriptions than on inner thoughts and feelings. But already he had introduced his two major themes, namely, the impermanence of things and the inconstancy of women and men. These he would turn to time and again with changing perspectives.

When Sunthorn Phu left for Muang Klaeng, it was after he had been imprisoned for an affair with a court woman named Chan. Incidentally, the death of the Prince of the Black Palace in 1807 gave him an opportunity to marry this woman. But the married couple were highly temperamental. On leaving for the Buddha’s Foot print by the end of that year, he wrote that his wife had been angry with him for more than one month. They came back together, but eventually broke with each other for good. With this wife he had son named Pat to whom he ascribed one travel pome.

The poet was destined to know many women. This was not done as the aristocrat’s polygamous practice, but he picked and lived with one women at a time. And he never blamed any of them for the fact that they could not live together. The only wicked woman he ever showed was not a real person but his own creation, namely, Mora in Chanthakorop. This woman who, in sudden sympathy for the ugly bandit who his had lost his army for love of her, gave him the sword to kill her own husband was parody of the faithful Sita in King Rama I’s Ramakien.

Sunthorn Phu Offends the Future Rama III

Sunthon Phu was thirty-five years old when he entered the royal service in the Second Reign. He was given the title of Khun Sunthorn Voharn and house at Ta Chang, near the Grand Palace. Sunthon Phu greatly loved Rama II but had some issues with Rama III. King Rama II (ruled 1809-1824) or Lertla was every inch a poet and daily spent long hours writing poetry of peace and a son who took charge of all material interests on his behalf. This son, prince Jesdabodin and the future King Rama III, was also a remarkable poet and was in the King’s poetic retinue together with Sunthorn Phu. There was a royal pavilion built on the Chao Phaya River where the King composed his Ramakien, Kun Chang Kuhn Phan,Sang Thong , and others. [Source: Sunthorn Phu: The Poet of Four Reigns, Thai Ministry of Culturesakchaip.tripod.com/bookworm/sunthorn

There is well-know story of how Sunthorn Phu came to offend the future king. Prince Jesdaboin who evidently had considerable respect for Suthorn Phu as a poet, showed the latter the part of Sang Thong he had written before he actually presented it to the King. Sunthon Phu quickly inspected it and voiced approval. However, when Prince Jesdaboin read the beginning of Canto five containing the line, “The King (Thao Samont) then thinks of fulfilling his daughter’s wishes…” Sunthorn Phu raised the question, “what did they wish for?” the Prince had to change his line to, “the King then thinks of getting his daughters married.” Though the line was improved, the relationship between future king and poet was impaired forever.

This was the story that Prince Damrong used to support his theory about the misery and homelessness of Sunthorn Phu after the death of King Rama II. What appeared like deserving punishment for the poet’s misdemeanour towards the future king in time became a stone around the royal neck of King Rama III knowing him to have had great tolerance in religious matters, among other things, this conjecture has lost its credibility.

Sunthorn Phu Starts the Phra Abhai Mani

The 30,000-line Phra Aphai Mani is regarded as Thailand most famous literary work. Sunthorn Phu began it about 1821. He proceeded with care and made a good plot for it. But he did not have much time for this work, for he had been given royal command to contribute to the great epic Khun Chang Khun Phan. Considering the part of the epic that was assigned to Sunthorn Phu, he probably was not yet a major poet, at least not in the sebha genre. “The story of Plai Ngarm” lay outside the main plot. However, Sunthorn Phu availed himself to the opportunity and turned it into one of the best sections of the epic. The episode is an educational story complete in itself. In it, the hero is seen from birth to manhood. [Source: Sunthorn Phu: The Poet of Four Reigns, Thai Ministry of Culturesakchaip.tripod.com/bookworm/sunthorn

At one point in the story, Plai Ngarm went to visit his father, Khun Phan, in prison. Sunthorn Phu must have lent to the hero his experience of going to see his father in Rayong, at the age of twenty. As for the prison life, the poet seemed quite familiar with it. So when Plai Ngarm pleaded to stay in prison with his father, Khun Phan said him vehemently :

No son, you cannot stay here.
The prison life is full of suffering.
It’s like a living hell
Where severe punishment never cases.

Interestingly, Sunthorn Phu portrayed King Panvassa in Khun Chang Khum Phan after his beloved King Lertla. Seeing young Plia Ngram, King Panvassa thought of granting royal pardon to Khun Phan who had already been imprisoned for over ten years. But he was in immersed in poetic composition :

In a trance, he was composing fold drama,
He came to a difficult point, could not unravel ;
He forgot to proceed with the royal business
And distractedly made his way to the bedchamber.

Suthorn Phu continually thought of King Rama II all his life. Passing by the royal pavilion on the Chao Phya, he lamented his Lord and Master. Even late as 1842, when he made a trip to Great Stupa in Nakhon Pathom, he fervently prayed for the King’s soul. At an uncertain date in the Third Reign, Sunthorn Phu wrote Nirat Inao about the sorrows of the young hero over his windborne wife Butsaba. The wife had been carried away by an angel as his punishment for the hero’s vacillating heart. Unlike the other nirats,this work was written in the third person. The hero’s thoughts and feelings were described rather than acted. Besides, the poet used as unusual quick rhythm and flowery style. It was as if the hero of King Rama II’s Inao were held up for scrutiny, in anticipation of the novel form. As a parody, it was subtler than the know parody of Inao, namely, Phra Maha Montri’s Raden Lundai. Thus Sunthorn Phu showed his lifelong attachment to King Lertla. His loyalty to the King took the purest human form.

Sunthorn Phu as a Major Court Poet

The Third Reign (1824-1848) was the period in which Sunthorn Phu led the most eventful and varied life. Judged from his literary output, Sunthorn Phu became a major poet and wrote his great nirats as well as his masterpiece Phara Abhai Mani. It was also the period in which the poet was ordained as a monk. There is a belief that he was twice ordained. If so, his ordination in 1824 could either be his first or his second. But it is clear that he went into monkhood right after King Rama II’s death, presumably in fear of royal menace from then new King. He spent some time at Wat Rajaburana. Meanwhile, King Rama II’s Queen Kunthon put her two sons under the poet’s care, since he had taught her eldest son, Prince Arporn, in the Second Reign.[Source: Sunthorn Phu: The Poet of Four Reigns, Thai Ministry of Culturesakchaip.tripod.com/bookworm/sunthorn

However, Sunthorn Phn seemed restless and soon left for Ayutthaya in 1827. He mentioned something about being harassed while at Wat Rajabrana. On the way to Ayutthaya, he passed the royal pavilion by the river:

In front of the raft, I see the Royal Barge.
Tears flow at thoughts of the pass
With Phara Chameun Wai, I received You on my Knees,
Then followed You onto Barge of the golden Throne

After his return from Ayutthaya, he became absorbed in alchemy and magic medicine for longevity. He made several trips in search of these. He, therefore, wrote for his two princes a series of worldly maxims called Phleng Yao Thawai Owat, almost like lessons in absentia. Then in 1831 he went to Phetchaburi again and wrote Nirat Mung Phet, based on the cumulative experience of many trips to that place. Nirat Muang Phet together with Nirat Phunkao Thong are considered his best poems in the genre. This is easily understandable. Both are characterized by an equilibrium of the outward journey and the inward one. By then, Sunthorn Phu had become a master who could turn a travelogue into a work of art. In 1834, he went to look for magic medicine at a deserted temple in Ayutthaya. He wrote a poem in his son’s name called Nirat Wat Chao Fa

About this time, he got a new patron, Prince Lakkhananukhun, who was the son of King Rama III. This probably made him take up the writing of Phra Abhai Mani again. Such a big programme needed support and readership. Incidentally, the Prince’s elder sister was also much interested in the story. This was Princess Vilas who,later, was given the title of Krommun Absorn Sudathep. The Princess was a favourite daughter of King Rama III. The King built for her a temple called Wat Thepthidaram or the Temple Angelic Daughter. The temple was completed in 1839, and Sunthorn Phu was invited to stay here. He was, therefore, given the opportunity to write most of Phara Abhai Mani and Singhakraiphop, probably for the Princess.

Sunthorn Phu wrote about the time he came to Wat Thepthida in Ramha Philap (Lamentations):

Oh, how everything was against me then!
Even white ants made their way to my bedroom.
They ate the mat and destroyed all my books.
It was distressing to think of those books!
And the yellows robes I used to wear
Had holes in them like my weeping eyes.

In Ramphan Philap, he described a most unusual event. At Wat Thepthida, he dreamt of an angel. She came to him and led him into the Chapel where he saw : A stone Buddha as while as down, / Flanked by two gold Buddhas, in dresses / Which shone like yellow rainbows. The angel had to leave the earth. She asked the poet to follow her to heaven. He thought that perhaps he would soon die, so he left church in 1842. But the one who died, in 1845, was Princess Vilas alias Krommun Absorn Sudathep, still young and ever beautiful-Sunthorn Phu’s angel.

In 1842, he made a trip to the Great Stupa in Nakon Pathom and wrote Nirat Phra Prathom. There is a doubt whether by then he had already left the church. An ambiguity of tone is inherent in this nirat. Some critics believe all the great nirats were written when the poet was in the monkhood. This certainly is one of Sunthorn Phu’s greatest. It could be explained that the poet made the trip as a monk, but he wrote the work as a man. Compared to Nirat Phukhao Thong and Nirat Muang Phet, this nirat employed dream and memory to the loves as well as reviewed his life. By far his greatest devotion was to King Rama II :

I salute the Pagoda of the Holy Relics :
May the true religion live forever.
I make merit, so the Buddha helps me
Increase my power to attain enlightenment
And I’d like my words, my book.
To preserve, till the end of time and heavens,
Sunthorn the scribe who belongs
To the King of the white Elephant.

Sunthorn Phu Later Life

The last phase of Sunthorn Phu’s life began in 1842, the year he entered the service of prince Issaresrangsan, the future Second King Phra Pin Kloa. It also came to an end in 1855, with the poet’s own death. At the age of 66, the poet was created Phara Sunthorn Voharn. He held the position like that of the Poet Laureate. [Source: Sunthorn Phu: The Poet of Four Reigns, Thai Ministry of Culturesakchaip.tripod.com/bookworm/sunthorn

Suthorn Phu probably spent his last year teaching some royal children. It was sedentary life which did not induce much great writing. The nirat- writing period was over, since he did not travel any more. He needed the actual journey both to perceive and to recall memories of the past. It seemed he suffered a decline of creative powers, or obscurity as a result of changing taste. There is evidence for the latter.

Sunthorn Phu died in 1855, at the age of 70. The date was unknown. By then, he must have passed over, but, not for very long. It was printing that caused a quick revival of Suthorn Phu. For, in 1870, a foreign printer named Dr. Smith started printing Phra Abhai Mani in serial from for the public. This printer made so much money from it that he and other people went on printing the poet’s works, including the nirats. It made Sunthorn Phu the most popular author ever.

Modern Literature in Thailand

Modern life was the theme of books such as Phudi (The Genteel) by Dotmai Sot (1905-63) or Songkhram Chiwit (The War of Life) by social realist Si Burapha (1905-74). Specific social ills, such as inadequate education, were documented in Khammaan Khonkhai's Khru Ban Nok, translated by Genhan Wijeyeaardene as The Teachers of Mad Dog Swamp, or in the revolutionary writings of Chit Phumisak and the progressive poetry of Naovarat Pongpaiboon. [Source: Library of Congress]

20th century Thai writers have tended to produce light fiction rather than literature for a burgeoning literature market. But increasingly, individual writers are being recognized for producing more serious works, including writers like Kukrit Pramoj, Kulap Saipradit, (penname Siburapha), Botan, and others. Some of the their works have been translated into English. The Isan region of Thailand has produced two notably sociocritical writers in Khamsing Srinawk and Pira Sudham. Notably, Pira Sudham writes in English.

Thailand has had a wealth of expatriate writers in the 20th century as well. The Bangkok Writers Group is currently publishing fiction by Indian author G.Y. Gopinath, the fabulist A.D. Thompson, as well as non-fiction by Gary Dale Cearley.

Rattawut Lapcharoensap and Other Modern Writers

Kukrit Pramaj (1911-1995) was a politician, writer, classical dancer and film actor. He appeared in the film The Ugly American and wrote the acclaimed novel Four Reigns, which he said is about “a life my ancestors and myself have lived rather fully.” The famous Thai author S.P. Somtow wrote Jasmine Nights. The novelist Pira Sudham has laso been priased.

Pramoon Unhathrop (1920-1988) wrote The Story of Jan Dara, which appeared in 1964 as a magazine serial and was made into an acclaimed 2002 film. The Story of Jan Dara (2002) was about a sex-obsessed rich family living in Bangkok in the 1930s. It the story a boy who has an affair with his father’s new wife.

Rattawut Lapcharoensap was born in Chicago and raised partly in Thailand. He mines both his homleands for materials and uses his dual cultural perspective to offer fresh inisghts on both places, and in doing this he has won several awards. The short story "Cockfighters" is regarded as one of his best works. and other standout pieces in the collection.

“Sightseeing” by Rattawut Lapcharoensap (Grove, 2005) is a collection of seven stories told mostly from youthful perspectives that often depict westernization playing out on the once isolated shores of Thailand. "Farangs" (Thai for "foreigners") tells the tale of a cross-cultural teenage romance. In "Cockfighters," a downtrodden father goes up against the local hoods in their village. "Don’t Let Me Die in this Place" concerns a cranky old American forced to live in Bangkok with his son’s family. In the haunting title story, a spirited mother going blind and her college-bound son take a beach holiday together. Combining poverty with the lush and juxtaposing political machinations and social inequality, Lapcharoensap demonstrates why he is a new writer to remember. [Source: Bookmarks, May-June-2005]

Darin Strauss wrote in the NY Times Book Review: "When he’s really going strong, Lapcharoensap is a commanding, animated tour guide, and a lot more than that—he can write with the bait and hook of genuine talent. At his weakest, however, he leans on exotic atmosphere and little else."

Carlin Romano of Knight Ridder Newspapers: “Raised in Bangkok, Lapcharoensap could not have known his boat — a first book of short stories written in English — would be lifted to wide reviews by the tidal waves that killed so many countrymen and destroyed his aunt's beach hotel, the inspiration for one in this collection's opening tale. But to read his seven subtle and tone-perfect stories set in Thailand is to absorb Thai humanity more strongly than stick-figure reporting permits. It's to think not, "It could have happened here," but that, in the one great human tribe, "It did happen here." [Source: Carlin Romano, Knight Ridder Newspapers, Friday, January 28, 2005]

The author establishes his control straight off in "Farangs" (Thai for "foreigners"), the opening piece about a half-Thai, half-American teenager with a pet pig named Clint Eastwood. The young man lives at his mother's beachside hotel and keeps falling in love with foreign girls. Every August, Mom wearies of farangs: "You give them history, temples, pagodas, traditional dance, floating markets, seafood curry, tapioca desserts, silk-weaving cooperatives, but all they really want is to ride some hulking gray beast like a bunch of wildmen and to pant over girls and to lie there half-dead getting skin cancer on the beach. ..." Uncle Mongkhon, who runs an elephant-trekking business, drips similar vinegar. When his nephew's sexy American pal shows up in her bikini to ride an elephant, he snipes: "What if I went to her country and rode a bald eagle in my underwear, huh? How would she like it?"

Brad Zellar wrote in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "After two relatively weak offerings—the obligatory yarn about the pernicious influence of Western culture and another dealing with the poverty and squalor of Bangkok—he reels off a string of five impressive efforts, several of which display a degree of compassion and perception that is rare in a writer of any age." Priya Jain wrote in Salon.com: "Lapcharoensap’s boy narrators are so fully realized that you want to stay with them, even when the towns, back stories, and plots around them change. They are sweetly innocent and often brutal in that innocence, barely blinking at the adult tragedies unfolding around them."

John Burdett and Bangkok 8

John Burdett—a former lawyer turned novelist now in his sixties— writes novel’s set in Bangkok’s red light district. These novels Bangkok 8 (Knopf, 2002), Bangkok Tatoo (Knopf, 2005) and Bangkok Haunts (Knopf, 2007) feature Sochai Jitpleechep, a Thai police detective and devout Buddhist, who isn’t shy about bending the rules and serves as a part time papasan at his mother girlie bar. Between 2003 and 2007 Bangkok 8 sold more than 100,000 copies in the United States in hardcover and paperback according to Nielsen BookScan; rights to the novel have been bought by publishers in 19 other countries. Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts made it onto best-seller lists on the West Coast of the U.S.

Some love Burdettothers don’t. Laura Miller of Salon.com described Bangkok 8 as a deliciously fresh breath of air in the often musty halls of detective fiction. Michiko Kakutani, writing in The New York Times, bridled at the books grotesque, voyeuristic scenes and found the female characters not remotely credible. The New Yorker described Bangkok Tattoo as a “giddy, occasionally over-the-top performance but mesmerizing: a comic tour of the underbelly of Bangkok in pursuit of both a murder and the sublime... The plot showcases Burdett’s sly riffs on Third World stereotypes, Buddhism, and the gustatory pleasures of fried grasshoppers.” The story revolves around a prostitute and the killing of her top john, who turn out to be a CIA agent and a cover-up that involves separatists in southern Thailand.

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: “Burdett explores a side of Thai society that has long fascinated Westerners: the apparent willingness of large numbers of women here to sell their bodies without obvious shame; and, in a country where brothels are illegal, the willingness of the police, the government and the society as a whole to look the other way. Make no mistake, Mr. Burdett’s books are fantasy.A murder victim in Bangkok 8 is killed by snakes that snap out of hibernation when the amphetamine-laced ice in which they are packed melts. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, October 24, 2007]

“Yet his writing is also keenly anthropological. He explains the improbable presence of Buddhist shrines at the entrance to many sex bars. He takes us inside brothels, behind the bar, upstairs into the private rooms and downstairs into the members-only sections of Bangkok’s “saunas.” When Mr. Burdett takes the reader to a red-light district during daylight hours, we trust that a bar might really smell like pine-cleaning fluid blended with stale beer, cigarettes and cheap perfume. [Ibid]

“Mr. Burdett delivers this grab bag through his narrator, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a cop whose mother was a prostitute and whose father was an American soldier during the Vietnam War. Sonchai is a cultural interpreter par excellence, a cross between Descartes and a Thai palm reader who has flashbacks of travels to Europe with his mother and her various client-lovers. “I still feel very Thai, despite my straw-colored hair and sharp nose,” Sonchai says in “Bangkok 8.” The narrator’s frequent reflections on Buddhism complete the cultural melange. Mr. Burdett himself meditates one or two hours a day. Burdett has also completed what he said would be the final installment in the Bangkok series. The book will touch on Myanmar and send Sonchai to the Golden Triangle to investigate a Thai general suspected of running a methamphetamine factory there.[Ibid]

“It’s hard to imagine how the broad and nuanced canvas Mr. Burdett paints in his books could be conveyed on the big screen. But Millennium Films, which recently produced ‘John Rambo,’ the fourth movie in the ‘Rambo’ series, in Thailand, has optioned ‘Bangkok 8' and is serious about making the film, Mr. Burdett said. John Thompson, a producer, is currently scouting locations in Bangkok. He said that James McTeigue, the director of V for Vendetta, had been hired to direct, and that production would begin in 2008. [Ibid]

John Burdett’s Life

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: Burdett “is from a humble background, at least by the standards of his native England. The son of a London policeman, he traces his family back through carpenters and stonemasons on the eastern outskirts of London. Theres scant trace of a cockney accent to his speech, but the class consciousness and tinges of resentment of Britains stratified society remain; he no longer considers England home. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, October 24, 2007]

“They still ask you what your father did for a living at a perfectly ordinary dinner, so they can establish what place you are in their Hindu caste system,” Mr. Burdett said as he clutched a glass of beer with ice, a combination, popular in Thailand, that might startle an Englishman of any class. As a lawyer he earned a small fortune in Hong Kong, quit his practice and began writing novels. He now divides his time between Bangkok and a stone farmhouse on the banks of the Lot River in southwest France.

He often makes final revisions to his books on the veranda of his French home, with only oak forests, vineyards and sunflower fields to distract him. It’s difficult to imagine a place farther from the pulsating streets of Bangkok. “The distance forces the imagination to work, Mr. Burdett said. It becomes an imaginative exercise rather than a factual research exercise. It’s a good mental trick to play if you can.”

Perhaps owing to his jaunts in France, Mr. Burdett is able to leap to and from far-flung locales and cultures. Readers are transported from the seediness of a Bangkok brothel to the splendor of the Place Vendme in Paris. The corrupt Bangkok police colonel who appears in all three books listens to Wagner on his way to the official opening of the whorehouse he helped finance.

John Burdett’s Stomping Grounds in Bangkok’s Red Light District

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times: As “Burdett ambles down a street packed with girlie bars, he passes two women in skimpy outfits waving their hands excitedly and calling out, John! John! There are plenty of johns around ; this is Soi Cowboy after all, one of the better-attended red-light districts in Bangkok but the bar girls are waving to John with a capital J, their author friend and confidant. Mr. Burdett waves back. [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, October 24, 2007]

“Mr. Burdett is neither judgmental about prostitution nor particularly probing about its sociological impact. His personal view is that there is nothing to justify. “Prostitution is the oldest profession that we know of, and it isn’t going to go away,” he said reflexively. “The only time it’s ever gone away is in police states, and even then the police state had to be at its most hysterical.”

In a survey two years ago the Ministry of Public Health counted 13,833 establishments in Thailand bars, karaoke joints, guesthouses, massage parlors and coffee shops, among other places ; where prostitutes and their clients met. Mr. Burdett’s books focus on the relatively small slice of this market that caters to Western tourists, a subculture of freelance bar girls who rarely work under pimps and who not infrequently marry their Western clients, blurring the line between pickup joints and sex for hire.

As part of his research he has traveled to the stilt houses in northeast Thailand, a Lao-speaking region known as Isaan that is the home turf of most of Bangkoks bar girls. In his books we meet the families these women support financially. “It’s the story of the country coming to the town, “Mr. Burdett said, peering down the length of Soi Cowboy where the neon lights are so bright they cast shadows. “Here in this street every single one of the girls you speak with will be from Isaan, will be originally a rice farmer.”

In his writing and in his life Mr. Burdett is comfortable around the Isaan migrants. He can name the different types of fried insects they like to eat: crickets, grasshoppers, silkworms, scorpions. He describes his companion, Nit, to whom Bangkok Haunts is dedicated, as an “extreme country girl.” Once the Bangkok series is over, Mr. Burdett says, he wants to diversify away from police thrillers. But he’s quite content staying in Bangkok. “From a novelist’s point of view its a gift,” he said, “because you’ve got so many different things, so many different themes all coming together. It’s a crucible....Wherever you place the camera in Bangkok is interesting...This is the only city where the humidity kills you, where the heat and smog make your nose bleed, and you say, “I’m never leaving.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance, Theatre Academy Helsinki, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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