This is a transcription of Episode 34 — Thailand.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Season Four, Episode 34 of a Strong Sense of Place. Today we are getting curious about Thailand.
Melissa: A eautiful place that we have yet to visit.
David: It’s true.
Melissa: Although I am very interested in the food which we are going to talk about quite a bit today.
David: And the people seem really nice.
Melissa: Yes. Lots of smiles.
David: Yes. One of the books I read, two of the characters were talking about Bangkok specifically and why it’s so irresistible. One of the characters said, Why do you think it’s so irresistible? And the other character said, I don’t know. I think the bottom line is that it’s so damn human. And I thought that was such a nice phrasing of that.
Melissa: Yeah, that’s beautiful. I thought you were going to say humid, and I was like, not a selling point.
David: It is also very humid. It is. Do you want to do the 101?
Melissa: Yeah, let’s do it. Thailand is a kingdom in Southeast Asia on the Indochinese Peninsula. So picture China on your mental world map and head south. Thailand has four border buddies: Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia, with coasts on the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, which is in the Bay of Bengal. For scale, Thailand is about the same size as France or the state of Texas.
David: Oh, that’s bigger than I thought it was.
Melissa: We call the capital city Bangkok. But the city’s real name is the longest city place name in the world. It’s 21 words, and it means ‘City of angels, great city of immortals, magnificent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnate, erected by Vishvakarman at Indra’s behest.’
David: First, that’s an amazing title. And second, I can see why they shortened it up a little bit. But yeah, it’d be difficult to say. How was your trip to —
Melissa: Yes, I believe that in Thai the shortened phrase is City of Angels. As we alluded to earlier, Thailand is located 100% in the tropics, so it’s pretty hot and humid all the time.
Melissa: But especially between March and May, the phrase unmerciful heat came up in my research, which partially explains why I’ve yet to visit there. The monsoon season runs from June to October. It’s still hot and humid, but with the addition of torrential rains. [sound of rainstorm]
Melissa: But that stormy weather is offset by stunningly beautiful country. In the north, there are hills and forests. There are vivid green rice fields in the Central Plains and the platonic ideal for beaches on the coast with dramatic rock formations, very soft white sand, and a clear aquamarine waters.
David: It is hard to look at pictures of Thailand and not think I should go there immediately.
Melissa: Any picture of Thailand. The terraced rice fields, the beaches, Bangkok. It all looks fantastic. As you might expect, the official language of Thailand is Thai, also called Siamese. Thai is a tonal language, which means that the same word takes on different meanings when it’s pronounced in a different pitch. And there are five different pitches, all of which makes it very difficult for non-native speakers to learn. But here’s something I found delightful. Like in English making compound words is very common. But in Thai, it’s also a little poetic. For example, the word for understand literally means enter heart.
David: Oh, that’s nice.
Melissa: Isn’t that beautiful?
Melissa: So you heard me say that Thai is also called Siamese. That’s because the country was known as Siam until 1939.
David: Yeah. So the Siamese cats are from there.
Melissa: Exactly. Siam gave us a lot of things we might take for granted. The cats?
Melissa: Those cats are mentioned in the Tamra Maew, which kind of sounds like meow.
David: It does.
Melissa: That is The Cat Book of Poems from somewhere between the 14th and 18th centuries. So Siamese cats have been around for a while.
Melissa: And in Thai they’re called Moon Diamonds.
David: I’ve heard story that Siamese cats were originally bred to guard temples. They would walk around on high balconies and leap on the heads of intruders. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like the story.
Melissa: I also read that there is a belief that when someone died, their spirit went into the Siamese cat. Maybe that’s why they’re jumping on people. Maybe in addition to the kitties, there’s the musical The King and I.
David: Of course
Melissa: Which tells the story of a 19th century British schoolteacher who falls in love with the King of Siam. On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got Muay Thai boxing. [sounds of boxing]
Melissa: Which is called The Art of Eight Limbs, in reference to the fact that there are eight body parts you can use to strike two hands, two legs, two elbows and two knees. You could also use your head.
David: Can you?
Melissa: I mean, I would. Keeping it spicy. Sriracha sauce is from Thailand. In 1949, Ms. Thanom Chakkapak started serving a garlicky chili sauce with her meals to her friends and family. They loved it, and they encouraged her to bottle and sell it. So she went to her local monk and she got a blessing to do that. And that’s just what she did.
Melissa: Thailand is the world’s second largest exporter of rice and the number one exporter of Thai cuisine. [laughter] In 2002, the government created a program for gastrodiplomacy to boost exports and to increase tourism revenue. The plan worked. It led to the creation of 15,000 Thai restaurants worldwide, including one all the way up in the Arctic Circle in Svalbard, which is a town we talked about in our podcast episode about the Arctic.
Melissa: In turn, that created a 200% increase in tourism to Thailand. And a third of the visitors said that Thai food was the reason for their trip.
David: That’s amazing. Also, who’s the poor Thai person who got sent to Svalbard Bar to open a Thai restaurant?
Melissa: Maybe they’re relieved to not be so hot anymore. I think we’ve established that there is fantastic food to be had in Thailand, and I will be talking about that in more detail with one of my books. So let’s discuss other reasons to visit.
Melissa: For starters, you could go island hopping to swim and scuba and snorkel and sun. Yeah, there are 1400 little islands to choose from.
Melissa: There are ancient temple ruins galore to explore with massive statues, shiny gold, conical spires, and the one that I most want to visit is Wat Phra Mahathat . It has a really peaceful-looking Buddha head made of sandstone that’s been completely surrounded by the roots of a banyan tree. It looks very magical and fantastical and like it might just start speaking to you. I will, of course, put photos in show notes.
Melissa: You can make friends with elephants at observation only experiences where you can see the elephants in their natural habitats without putting your grubby tourist hands all over them. There are more than 100 national parks where you can hike to mountaintop cave temples, hunt for rare orchids, splash around in waterfalls, and if you’re lucky and light on your feet, you might see green sea turtles, macaques, panthers, tigers, sun bears, and monitor lizards.
David: You want to see the tiger before he sees you, though?
Melissa: 100%. I would love to see a monitor lizard. I think they’re so cool. In Bangkok, after you stuff yourself on street food, you can visit the giant gold reclining Buddha at the temple of Wat Pho, tour the Grand Palace. Explore the city’s canals or sip a fancy cocktail on a rooftop bar overlooking all the neon.
David: That sounds lovely.
Melissa: Or you could visit Chiang Mai, which is northern Thailand, and relax at a butterfly farm, spend a day touring the village of the Karen Tribal Group. This is a tribe of Native women who put the gold rings to stretch their necks. Very elegant and beautiful.
David: I was reading about the Karen in one of my books and the sentence was phrased in such a way that I thought he was talking to somebody named Karen.
Melissa: It’s just one Karen.
David: Very confusing for a second.
Melissa: In northern Thailand, you can also soak in hot springs and just to keep the food vibe going. The food of northern Thailand is different than other parts of the country. So you can try a traditional Khantoke dinner where you sit on the floor at a bamboo table and there’s dancing around you.
David: Yeah, I read that, too, that the Thai food that we are all familiar with is from primarily central Thai. Yes, but there’s also northern Thai and southern Thai. And they’re different
Melissa: And they’re all delicious.
Melissa: Final thoughts and words of warning. In Thailand, it’s illegal to leave your house without underwear on and to drive shirtless. So when you go to visit, keep your clothes on.
David: Okay, that’s it? Yeah.
Melissa: Is that okay? Yeah. You were looking at me like you expected more. I mean, that was a big finish. Keep your underpants on.
David: Are you ready for two truths and a lie?
David: Okay, I’m going to read three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel does not know which one is the lie. Statement One: In Thailand, the traditional way to greet a new baby is to say, ‘Welcome to the world, little one. I will show you the way.’
__Melissa:__That is beautiful. And I love it.
David: Two: In 1989, a Thai janitor started an international incident that has reverberations even today. And three: the largest gold object in the world is in Thailand. For 20 years it was stored in a tin shack.
Melissa: Once again, they all sound true. Good job, Dave. Let’s just take it from the top.
David: Okay. So the baby thing. ‘Welcome to the world, little one. I will show you the way.’
David: Isn’t that nice? I totally made that up. [laugher]
Melissa: Well, you should be in charge of new customs everywhere. That’s really nice.
David: I think they should. They should do that. But in Thailand, the traditional way to greet a baby is to say, look at that ugly baby.
Melissa: No. And then they give him a weird nickname.
David: So ugly. Yes. And they do that for the same reasons. They do that to misdirect thieving ghosts who might want to steal the baby.
Melissa: Wow. So they call the baby ugly so the ghost doesn’t want to take it.
Melissa: Oh, that’s actually really cute. Who’s an ugly baby? Who’s mommy’s little monster?
David: Yeah. Exactly. So the second statement, which is true, is a Thai janitor started an international incident. I have pieced this story together from a few different sources, so it might be a little truthy, but —
David: A little shaky in the fundamentals of truth, but leaning that way. Here’s what I’ve got. This is a true story in three acts. Act one. In 1989, a Thai man starts running into some trouble. He’s got a bit of a gambling problem. Yeah, and he’s starting to get some heat from that. The man is Thai, but he does not live in Thailand. He lives in Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, and he works as a cleaner for a Saudi prince. He decides what he’s going to do to solve this problem is lift some jewels from the prince.
Melissa: This is a terrible idea.
David: Yeah. And he decides that he’s going to go big and go home. [laughter] So he waits until the prince and his wife are out of town. They’ll be gone for months. He goes into the prince’s bedroom. He picks up some jewels and sticks them to his body using duct tape. He stores some of the gems in vacuum bags. That night he hides the valuables all over the palace. And then over the course of a month, he moves the jewels out of the palace and into a DHL package that he’s shipping home to Thailand.
Melissa: I mean, I can understand why he thought it might work — if you’ve seen a movie.
David: That’s the problem, right? Thinking revolving around movie logic. In the end, he would end up lifting about £200 or 91 kilograms of jewelry.
Melissa: Oh, my goodness.
David: One of the items is a 50-carat blue diamond said to be about the size of an egg.
Melissa: How does he think he’s going to fence that without someone noticing?
David: That brings us to Act Two. But before we get there altogether, it’s worth about $20 million.
Melissa: What were his debts? Did he just get greedy?
David: I think he just got greedy. So by the time the theft is discovered, he is already back in Thailand. Act two: our cleaner is back in Thailand. He’s having trouble moving the jewels.
Melissa: Oh, that’s weird.
David: They’re very hot. And his realizing that he is perhaps not thought this whole thing through, but he enlists the help of a shady jeweler. The jeweler pays them a small fraction of the value, and he takes them off his hands. But now the police know what’s going on. Unsurprisingly, the Saudi officials put this together really quickly. The Thai police swoop in. They arrest the cleaner and the jeweler, and they take possession of the jewels. Then the DA justice prevails.
Melissa: I’m suspicious. They said there were three acts.
David: They return the jewels back to the prince in Riyadh. And then things take another turn. The Saudi officials take a look at the jewels. And they say these are fake. Somewhere, sometime somebody swapped out about 80% of the jewels for glass and plastic. Around the same time, a photograph starts circulating. It is the picture of a wife of a senior Thai official. In the photo, she is wearing a necklace that looks so much like one of the missing pieces of jewelry. And when the Saudis start digging into it, they find more than one photo like that. A lot of Thai wives have fancy necklaces.
Melissa: Do the Thai police have sticky fingers?
David: Act three: So it gets ugly from there. Saudi investigators and diplomats are sent to Thailand to get to the bottom of this. Some of those men are shot dead.
David: One of them disappears, never to be seen again. The Thai police say their deaths are unrelated to the gems. The Saudis are suspicious about that. Later, there’s a cable from the US government that says their disappearance might have been tied to Hezbollah. Diplomatic relations are dissolved. Trade stops, Saudi Arabian Airlines stops flying to Thailand. Tens of thousands of Thai are fired from their jobs in Saudi Arabia.
Melissa: Oh, my gosh.
David: It’s said to cost Thailand billions of dollars in lost revenue, both in trade and in tourism. And it is only in January of this year, 2022, 33 years after the original theft, that relationships between the Saudis and the Thais start normalizing.
David: The thief was sentenced to seven years, but released after three. In 2016, he announced that he would become a monk for the rest of his life, to repent for his actions.
Melissa: And presumably to keep him from gambling.
David: Most of the jewelry has never been seen again, and somewhere there’s a blue diamond that’s the size of an egg that’s still missing.
Melissa: What a story!
David: Right? Isn’t that amazing? All right. Third statement.
Melissa: It’s going to be hard to follow that one.
David: Indeed. So the third statement was the largest gold object in the world is in Thailand for 20 years. It was stored in a tin shack.
Melissa: So we know that’s true as well.
David: Yeah. The world’s single largest object made of gold is called the Golden Buddha. As you might suspect, it is a statue of Buddha. It’s almost ten feet tall, and it weighs five and a half tons or three meters and 5500 kilograms. It has not always been obviously gold. Nobody knows who made this enormous thing, but it has existed since at least the 1400s. It used to sit in a temple in a city called Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam long ago. In the mid 1700s, Burma invaded that area. The monks in Ayutthaya were worried about the Golden Buddha and it weighs five and a half tons, so it’s hard to move or hide. But then somebody had an idea. They covered it with stucco.
Melissa: Oh, that must have been so sad.
David: And they painted it and they inlaid it with bits of colored glass.
David: And then the Burmese attacked. By all accounts, the attack was awful. Wikipedia says on the 7th of April 1767, the Burmese sacked the starving city for the second time in its history, committing atrocities that have left a major black mark on Burmese-Thai relationships to the present day. Presumably everyone who knew the statue was gold were either enslaved or died. But the Burmese overlooked the statue. Decades pass. In the 1800s, the statue, still wrapped in stucco, is moved to Bangkok. It outlives its temple there. It’s assigned to a new temple. At the time, the new temple didn’t have enough building to house the statues, so they kept it in a tin shack. And it stood there for 20 years.
Melissa: Oh, and they think it’s just a stucco statue with some bits of glass stuck to it.
David: Historically important, but not precious. Finally, in 1955, they complete a new building at the temple to house the Buddha. They attach the statue to some ropes to move it. They hoist it. The rope snap. The statue drops. Everyone is shocked. And the stucco cracks.
Melissa: Amazing. So cinematic.
David: Yeah. And the workmen realize they’re looking at gold. The statue is, of course, priceless and irreplaceable. But if you were just going to melt it down and sell it for the gold, the five and one half tons would be worth over a third of $1,000,000,000. Wow. And you can see it on February 14th, 2010, a large building was inaugurated at the Wat Tri Meet Temple in Bangkok. The Gold Buddha has a lovely new home.
Melissa: What a great story.
David: Yeah. That’s two truths and a lie. Let’s talk about books.
Melissa: My first pick is The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by Veeraporn Nitiprapha and translated by an editor at the Bangkok Post Kong Rithdee.
David: That is a heck of a name.
Melissa: It is. She’s a heck of a lady.
Melissa: She seems like a wildly creative person. In addition to being a writer, she’s been a jewelry designer and a fashion magazine editor. In a lot of the articles I read, she’s described as indie author, and I’ll put a video of her talking in show notes. She does not speak English, but she’s very dynamic. This is her first novel, and it won the 2015 Southeast Asian Writers Award for fiction.
David: Good for her.
Melissa: Not a bad debut. She describes her book as, quote, a melodrama of shipwrecked romance, which, yes, 100%. It begins as a coming-of-age story of two sisters, Chareeya and Chalika. And it’s set in the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s in Bangkok. So pretty contemporary. Although their experiences are at the heart of everything, this is one of those books that weaves stories within the stories. So all of the side characters that you meet get their own story. And the author is stitching together mythology, fantasy, folk stories, and unlikely adventures. This is a big, sweeping web of tall tales. It unspools in 27 interconnected vignettes. Some of them could be standalone short stories, and it has very dreamy quality. It’s sort of an homage to Thai soap operas. This is acknowledged in the flap copy. The author has talked about that she was a little bit inspired by soap operas. So there’s a love triangle and unrequited love and orphans. There’s secrets and betrayals and sorrow at every turn. One character literally dies of a broken heart.
David: Oh, no.
Melissa: But all of this kind of frothiness was actually inspired by Thai politics. The author said that she was compelled to write the novel in 2010, when the Thai army was cracking down on political protesters. She was very upset by what she was seeing in the news, and that was in contrast to the frivolous love stories that she was seeing in the tabloids. And so that’s how this novel came to be.
Melissa: There’s not a lot about the political side of things themselves in the book, but the personal dramas are playing out against that backdrop of uncertainty and tension and dissatisfaction. All of the characters are disenfranchised in some way. They are desperate for love and security. They’re a little bit haunted by their histories, and they are unsettled by their present circumstances.
Melissa: The word that coming to me when I was reading was ‘lush.’ This story is packed with details and atmosphere. There are lots of references to classical and popular music that kind of underscore what’s happening in the story. Chareeya is the younger, more volatile sister, and she is very sensual. Her apartment is decorated with books and pillows and scarves and color and gauze curtains that blow in the breeze. She cooks elaborate meals with dishes from all over the world, and she’s created a fragrant, very magical sounding garden.
Here is a description of the garden. She’s just been reunited with her childhood friend Pran, and maybe they’re going to be more than friends:
‘He got up and looked out at the garden gauzy in sunshine. Seeing the garden up close in the afternoon hours was different from when he looked at it through the window of his room each morning. It was full-bodied, teeming, lush with life, rambunctious with colour and activity. There were millipedes trudging here and there, light and shadow chasing each other in a strange waltz, fruit flies buzzing like a boiling fog, a parade of ants, leaves trembling in the wind. It took him a long while to realise that these plants not only grew above, under and next to one another, they also grew in one another… When Chareeya had taken him to see the flower named Desire, he had smelled frangipani despite there being no frangipani tree in the garden. He also registered the gentle aroma of pomelo flowers that he had once smelled in a different garden and that often drifted into his room in the middle of the night.’
David: There’s a flower named Desire.
Melissa: With a capital D.
David: I’m not sure if that’s a kind of flower or if she named that specific flower, but I really like the idea that she named that specific flower.
Melissa: Well, then you’ll be happy to know that there is a botanical list of plants at the end of the book where the Thai names are translated into English with little descriptors and also their Latin names. So if you wanted to really go deep into the botanical side of this story, you really could, because I feel like she is representing things with the foods and the plants and the music that she’s talking about.
David: Yeah, I mean, the whole description you just had sort of reminded me of things that I’d read about Thailand, about how sensuous it is.
Melissa: Music also plays a really important role in this story. And there’s a playlist at the back of the book, divided by chapter, so you can actually listen to the pieces that they’re listening to or discussing in the chapter while you read it. Again, she’s creating for us that sensual experience of the book.
David: That’s awesome.
Melissa: Although the action’s taking place in modern Thailand, the narrative style kind of reminded me of 19th-century novels in that there are coincidences and connections between the characters that are revealed, like just at the right moment. I really love that. And there’s more than a little magical realism or fantasy or whatever term you want to use for that. There are inexplicable things happening and no one’s reacting to them like they’re strange.
Melissa: The tone and the reading experience reminded me a little bit of Like Water for Chocolate, which is magical realism set in Mexico in the 20th century, and Deathless, the retelling of the Russian myth of Koshei, the deathless that I read for our Russia episode. So kind of an intermingling of real life and fantasy that doesn’t draw borders between those two things. Things happen in this book, and the story does move forward, but there’s not a traditional plot. If you are a reader who really wants a plot, this is probably not the book for you.
Melissa: This is more about emotions and passions of the characters told in a very atmospheric and immersive way. That’s The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by Veeraporn Nitiprapha.
David: My first book is Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright. So let’s talk about how I got here. This book is not about Thailand. This book isn’t set in Thailand. This book doesn’t mention Thailand. [laughter]
Melissa: I feel like you’ve picked up the cheating mantle for me.
David: But I was doing a little preliminary research and I read that 93.5% of Thais are Buddhists. That is a huge, crazy number. That’s basically everyone who can hold rational thought is Buddhist. There are more Buddhists in Thailand than there are anywhere in the world except for China. But only 18% of China is Buddhists, right? They just outnumber them. Arguably, Thailand is the world capital of Buddhism. And reading that made me remember that I’d seen a book about Buddhism that came out in 2017, that I wanted to take a look at it. So I got a copy and I loved it. And now we’re here.
David: This is a non-fiction book written by a journalist about how the basic ideas of Buddhism hold up against modern science. And even as I say that, I think, wow, that sounds really dry, right? And it’s really not. I think if you’re of a certain mind, this is an illuminating book. For me, it was just one of the best books I’ve read, I’m going to say in the last ten years.
Melissa: I will say that you were very excited about this book while you were reading it. And it’s one of those books where while I’m making breakfast, you would say, I have to tell you this thing I read yesterday.
David: Yeah. Yeah. So I’m going to back up and I’m going to pitch you on the book a little bit differently. So right around the time that I was reading this, this tweet came across ,y desktop. Twitter is, of course, where I get all my wisdom these days. The tweet was, At bedtime the 8 yo told me his teacher said: ‘Think of your mind like a pond full of fish and each fish is a feeling. Try to be the pond, not the fish.’
David: I know. That is so good. That is my new mantra. Be the pond. This is a book about being the pond. This is a book about how maybe it’s a good idea to view the fish with a little detachment. This is a book about how the difference between me and you is this superficial as the difference between the end of one pond and the start of another. And all of that groovy, mindful stuff is presented by a man who’s previously made his living as a popular science writer. He is curious and he writes well, and he wants you to understand what he’s saying. But he’s also not pushing an agenda too hard. He doesn’t even claim to be a Buddhist, although he practices Buddhist meditation. He writes about Buddhist meditation convincingly enough that I wondered what it would be like to go on a meditation retreat, which would be another thing you could do in Thailand.
David: He is taking ideas that are kind of transcendent, something you might hear in a yoga class. And he’s getting you there through the ideas and evolutionary biology and psychology.
David: Yeah. Most of his premise is that the early Buddhists had a good read on the human condition and what to do about it, and that those ideas have just been strengthened by scientific understanding over hundreds of years.
David: So, for example, Buddhism says things like humans can’t be satisfied. And the author points to evolutionary psychology, which agrees with that idea. Humans expect more happiness than they will get from attaining their goals. Gratification evaporates, and that doesn’t stop them from wanting. Evolution has made us that way. It’d be catastrophic for the species if we evolved to eat a big meal and be satiated forever.
David: We are disposed to be hungry, not just for food, but for all things. And the author writes, ‘Don’t get me wrong, natural selection has its virtues, and I’d rather be created by it than not be created at all. Which, so far as I can tell, are the two options this universe offers.’
David: Buddhism says things like, Humans often fail to see the world clearly, and this can lead them to suffer. And science is like, Oh, we got a library about that. The author writes, ‘These feelings — anxiety, despair, hatred, greed — have elements of delusion, elements you’d be better off without. And if you think you’d be better off, imagine how the whole world would be. After all, feelings like despair and hatred and greed can foster war and atrocities. So if what I’m saying is true, if the basic sources of human suffering and human cruelty are indeed, in large part, the product of delusion, there is value in exposing this delusion to the light.’
David: Buddhism says meditation promotes a truer view of the world. And science says, Yeah, it probably does. It helps you be aware of your own thoughts. It strips away the inherent illusions. It helps you see the fish. Buddhism says your self is an illusion. And to some degree science says, yeah, there’s a really complex bunch of systems that make the illusion that you are a single being when in fact you are made of many, many living subsystems, and you yourself are just one drop in a wave.
David: Now a full course on Thai Buddhism would include a lot of things that aren’t covered in this book, things like reincarnation and karma and a family of gods. And the author sort of recognizes those ideas but doesn’t tackle any of that. He is focused on the human condition parts of Buddhism.
David: Robert Wright is currently the Visiting Professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. He’s also the author of four books, including the best-selling The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are and the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Evolution of God, which explores the historical development of the idea of God. Ultimately, this book and Buddhism pulls up to what for me is a really nice place. It’s a place of gratitude and empathy and togetherness and hope and a place where I’m a little bit more like a pond. That’s Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment by Robert Wright.
Melissa: My second book is taking us from the spiritual to the physical. It is Thai Street Food by David Thompson. We eat red Thai curry from a place in our neighborhood at least once a week.
Melissa: And I can put away some pad Thai. But I realised that I didn’t know all that much about Thai cooking and the eating culture in Thailand. So I picked up this amazing book. A little bit about the author. He’s got some clout. David Thompson is an Australian chef, restaurateur, and cookbook author who specializes in Thai cuisine. His Thai restaurants have earned Michelin stars, and he’s about to open a new one devoted to Thai street food in London. This book would definitely be shelved in the cookbook section of the bookstore, but really it’s a coffee table book slash travelogue that happens to have expertly-written recipes in it. If you have no interest in cooking whatsoever, I think you would still enjoy this book quite a bit.
David: So just as a travelogue, it works.
Melissa: 100%. It’s a monster of a book. It’s oversized and weighs almost 6 pounds. Wow. So doubles as a weapon.
Melissa: It’s packed with gorgeous full page photos of Thai people and dishes and ingredients in colorful Thai markets. And the writing! The writing has the urgency of a first-person account from someone who loves the place and is also an expert and really, really wants you to love it, too. It’s really fun and most relevant to our purposes. It made me want to go there immediately.
Melissa: This is how he starts the book: ‘Even a fleeting visit to Thailand can leave you in no doubt of this: Thais are obsessed by food. Talking and thinking about it, then ordering it and eating it. Markets brim with produce and snacks. Streets often seem more like busy restaurant corridors than major thoroughfares for traffic. Food sits happily at the center of all occasions and celebrations: births, weddings making merit, dispensing generosity, and repaying obligations.’
Melissa: He goes on to explain that there are two main parts to Thai cuisine. There’s the kind of food you would eat at home, which is usually served with rice and served on the table family-style. But then there’s the street food that is primarily cooked in markets and served from carts: stir-fried noodle dishes, pastries, deep fried goodies that are too complicated to make at home. For me, I kind of made an analogy to like French fries or onion rings. You could make those things at home, but you probably don’t ,ost of the time. You let an expert make the mess and have the 20 years of experience to get it just right. The recipes in this book are for street food. So while you’re learning about those and frankly working up an appetite and planning your trip to Thailand, you get a really entertaining introduction to the Thai food culture and the unusual ingredients and history and how community works. The contents of the book are arranged by the dayparts so morning, noon and night, because different foods are eaten at different times of the day. And what’s happening in the market and the street food scene really changes throughout the day.
David: Oh, really?
Melissa: Yeah. There’s a kind of regulated ebb and flow of energy and products at different times of the day. The morning it is all about bustle. He describes how you’ll see women riding scooters, side saddle, putting on makeup while someone else is driving them through Bangkok traffic while they’re balancing a big bag of hot fried dough in their laps. Yes, please. Most of the foods cooked and eaten in the morning are little bits of fried savory things. So little breads and dumplings and wafers, fried and sprinkled with coconut. And there’s packets of sticky rice cooked in banana leaves. And then there was this, which I found really delightful. One of the five precepts of Buddhism is to abstain from killing any living being. That means that pork, beef, and poultry had not traditionally been prominent in the Thai diet.
Melissa: But people who want to eat, say chicken pad Thai, can circumvent that by saying that the meat and the market is already dead. They didn’t kill it.
David: That’s a fine line.
Melissa: It’s a fine line, but it’s pragmatic.
Melissa: In fact, most of the butchers are of Chinese descent, not Thai. So that helps them get around this regulation. And this is the part that really got me: Near the exit of the market, there’s often a small stand that has finches in cages and bowls of small fish or eels for sale. These are not meant for eating. They are meant to be purchased and then released back into nature so that you can earn merit and make amends for the sins of shopping and eating.
David: That’s amazing. You can clean up your karma by releasing a finch. That you’ve purchased from a cage.
Melissa: Other passages in the book talk about the curry shops and how they function. He provides an education on noodle dishes versus noodle soups. He explains the stalls that make stir-fry dishes to order. Where you just present yourself in front of this scorching hot wok and point at the ingredients that you want and they throw them in and stir-fry it to order.
David: That’s exciting. Yeah.
Melissa: I’m sure it’s very exciting. Loud and hot and steamy, but also delicious.
David: Yeah. And from the wok to your hand.
Melissa: Yeah. In a couple of minutes. And in some cases like the fish might still be swimming when you point to it. If you like to think about food and read about food, this is like prose poetry. This is just a fantastic immersion into Thai street food and the Thai food culture, even if you never cook a recipe. This is Thai Street Food by David Thompson.
David: My next book is Bangkok 8 by John Burdett.
Melissa: I have wanted to read this book for decades. I’m so envious that you got to read this one.
David: This is a noir book. It’s set in Bangkok and it spares the reader nothing. So let’s talk about that one piece at a time. So this is a noir book. It’s a story about the last good man in a bad place. Our hero, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, is seemingly the only detective for the Royal Thai Police who won’t take a bribe.
Melissa: Good man.
David: Yep. This causes him all sorts of trouble. He’s charming. He’s funny in a very dry way. He knows how to handle himself. He’s also a Buddhist who’s reached a certain level of enlightenment. So there are bits of the book where he just sits down to meditate, sort of empty his mind, and then he reconsiders the crime.
David: Yeah. He’s the son of a prostitute and a Vietnam vet who left town ages ago, so he always feels a little out of place, even in his own city. So there are layers of out-of-placeness that this guy feels. In the opening pages of the book, the detective comes on a murder that is so gruesome that I will not describe it here.
Melissa: I can concur. I did read the first chapter of this book and it was amazing.
David: Yeah. So if you don’t like that kind of thing, I will spare you. If you do like that kind of thing, you should read it for yourself.
Melissa: Yeah. It’s so good if you can tolerate that kind of thing.
David: Yeah. I will tell you that the scene is so dangerous that merely investigating it kills the detective’s partner who is also his best friend. So one moment the two of them are sitting in a car talking about harmony and karma, and the next his partner is gone. And this sets Jitpleecheep on an investigation that he promises others will result in the death of the murderer. That moment in the book is somehow both a surprise and completely in character. This enlightened detective explaining calmly that he will kill his partner’s murderer. So this is a revenge story, but it’s a Buddhist revenge story. [laughter] And you’re going to have to read it to find out what that means. But it’s compelling. I enjoyed it. The story takes place in Bangkok. The book does a really good job of showing you around Bangkok and particularly of explaining why people might love and hate that city at the same time. There are numerous delights in Bangkok. There is also horrific traffic and corruption and tourists. Superstition and the undead make an appearance.
David: It’s easy to see the romance of that city. The story spares the reader nothing. The villain is a bad man, and I don’t consider myself delicate in any way. But the plot of this book hangs on some mighty atrocious behavior. Just stuff that’s just like, Wow. And if you don’t want to read about the sex trade, this is not your book. There’s an entire subplot to this book about the detective’s mother opening a brothel. She’s got ideas and she shares. The author, John Burdett, was a lawyer. He was a corporate lawyer in Hong Kong for 12 years.
Melissa: So he probably saw some underbelly stuff.
David: Yeah, he left that because he didn’t enjoy the life. In an interview, he said, quote, ‘I came to the conclusion that my soul was starving,’ and he moved to Thailand and he married a Thai woman and now he can read the papers in the local language and such. He wrote this book that came out in 2004, and then he wrote five more sequels. So if you like this, there’s a lot more where that came from. Bangkok 8 has action and adventure and romance. It moves. The chapters are very short. It’s punchy. It also has a very strong sense of Thailand and is particularly good at describing the parts that might seem contradictory to a Western audience. If the idea of a gritty thriller with some depth set in Bangkok speaks to you, I expect you’ll like this book. It’s Bangkok 8 by John Burdett.
Melissa: My final pick is Jasmine Nights S.P. Somtow. This is a tragi-comic coming of age novel set in a Thai village in 1963. So the action is taking place against the backdrop of the American civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Kennedy assassination. And you probably wouldn’t think that those things would have a huge impact on a 12-year-old boy in Thailand. But in the world of this story, they do. Our hero and first-person narrator is Justin, a name he has given himself because he prefers it to his long, formal Thai name. His family calls him Little Frog. That’s the nickname he was given at birth. So, in real life in Thailand, almost everyone is given a nickname when they’re born. Similar to telling the newborn baby that he is ugly, children are given a nickname to fool the evil spirits so that they’re not snatched away.
Melissa: These nicknames are usually meant to be diminutive and cute. So things like tadpole, baby chicken, mouse, Little Frog.
Melissa: Out of respect for his wishes, I will refer to him as Justin. His parents have been away in quotes for three years. He doesn’t know if they’re alive or dead, and neither do we. He lives with his wealthy family on a big estate, and he’s primarily cared for by his three aunts, whom he calls The Fates. But their names are — and this is so much fun — Ning-nong, Nit-nit, and Noi-noi. And the three of them bicker and backstab and love each other the way only sisters can. The estate has a huge manor house with servants, a full array of servants. There’s also a ruin where his great-grandmother lives and a modern house for his uncle, who is a gynecologist. All of these little details play a very important part in the story.
Melissa: So by now you should be getting the picture that this story is maybe a little detached from reality. It leans very firmly towards the fairy-tale and magical realism side of the world. And Justin is a strange kid. When he’s old enough, he will be attending Eton in England and to prepare he speaks only English and he will only eat bacon and eggs for breakfast. And he is obsessed with reading American sci-fi, the classics and Greek mythology. He even has a chameleon that he is named Homer. So even though he’s surrounded by his Thai aunties and they’re all speaking Thai and there’s Thai food, no — bacon and eggs, English only.
David: He spends most of his time by himself. He is a loner, reading and wandering around the estate and sometimes visiting his great grandmother in her ruined house with an enormous library. He is often lost in daydreams and visions, and sometimes he doesn’t quite know what’s real and what isn’t. And then neither do we. Is he having a dream? Is this really happening? Is it a hallucination? What’s going on? Then one day, fate puts him on a collision course. The scene is amazing. I’m not going to ruin it by describing it, but it’s equal parts funny and tragic, as much of this book is, he runs into the son of the family’s gardener and is introduced to a young black American boy named Virgil. Hijinks and major life lessons ensue.
David: Homer and Virgil.
Melissa: Yes, there is some stuff going on in this book. These new friends completely disrupt Justin’s solitary routines, and they introduce him to things he had not thought about before, like racism and social class and sex. Because these boys are 12 and 13, they are on the cusp of some stuff.
Melissa: He finds himself confused and confounded on a regular basis, and he experiences some shocking and very difficult life lessons. Although there are some really sad moments, the overall tone of this novel is comic. The three aunts, The Fates, are a hoot. There is a completely over-the-top limbo party that has the whole household in a tizzy for weeks.
Melissa: Because it’s the sixties.
Melissa: The young boys have a very eye-opening experience at a massage parlor. There are lots of scenes of characters hiding in bushes or closets or climbing up trees to spy and eavesdrop on people. They see things they probably shouldn’t. And because these are pre-adolescent boys, there are scenes of sexual awakening that are awkward and sweet and innocent because we’re experiencing them through Justin’s 12-year-old filter. He doesn’t always understand what he’s seeing. And we also eventually learn the truth of his missing parents.
Melissa: This has a very strong sense of place. There are descriptions of the canals and temples around the family’s estate, the gardens and the buildings of the estate itself. There’s an epic storm that I could feel the humidity and the rain. The writing is very cinematic and immersive, and while it starts out very frothy and magical and fun and playful, as the story evolves through this significant year in Justin’s life, it tackles more and more serious issues, and the ending just landed with great feeling. I was surprised at the sincerity of the ending, given the kind of magical, playful start, but it happens so seamlessly and so deftly that it felt right.
Melissa: This story is the semi-autobiographical story of the author.
David: Oh, really? Yes.
Melissa: His grandfather’s sister was the Queen of Siam.
Melissa: And his father was a lawyer and vice president of the International Academy of Human Rights. The author was educated at Eton and Cambridge, and he started his career as a composer. Then in the 1970s, he got burnt out and he became a writer, mostly of science fiction and horror. He has written 40 books.
Melissa: And he’s also a filmmaker and did a TEDx talk on creativity.
David: That’s awesome.
Melissa: That is S.P. Somtow’s Jasmine Nights.
David: Those are five books we love set in Thailand. Visit our show notes its strong sense of place. Com for links and details.
Melissa: I will say that this show notes is packed because Thailand is so visual and each one of the things we mentioned in the 101 and the Two Truths and a Lie has so much more detail that we could have gone into. This is a show notes you definitely want to visit because there is a lot more entertainment there.
David: We should also mention our new project. We just launched a new project called The Library of Lost Time. You’re probably getting it in your podcast feed, but there’s also a version on YouTube that I think is worth your time. It’s an animated and very visual and shows you the things that we’re talking about.
Melissa: And if you visit our website, there are links to more supplemental information because if we’re going down a rabbit hole, we are taking you with us.
David: That’s true. You can find more about the project itself at strongsenseof.com/library.
Melissa: And as always, please let us know what you think of it. I’m firstname.lastname@example.org.
David: And I’m email@example.com.
Melissa: And you are always welcome to send us emails. We love to hear from you.
David: And as always, if you love the podcast, you’d be doing us a favor to leave us a review anywhere you get your podcasts. Mel, where are we headed for our next episode.
Melissa: I am so looking forward to our next episode, although I have to admit I’m having a really hard time narrowing down to three books because we are going on an excursion to hotels.
Melissa: And I could easily talk about 20 books.
David: We will figure out how to manage that next episode, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Heidi Kaden/Unsplash.
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