The Cotterill/Tierney Saga, The Early Days

January 28, 2012

I’ve never been one to approach travel from the planning perspective, preferring instead simply to set the basic process in motion, and then let it evolve as it will. Thus, when I arrived in Thailand, I had made no arrangements beyond the air ticket and the first night’s accommodation, figuring that as I was arriving late in the evening, the last thing I would want to do was cast about for a reasonably priced room in a foreign country, especially one in which I know only two words of the language, “hello” and “thank you”. (Technically, I suppose, that’s three words, but let’s not split hairs.)

I had been in touch with several friends who had had some experience of Thailand, and I was waiting to see who might write back to me with some suggestions that sounded too tempting to pass up. When I finally checked in at the airport-adjacent hotel, sometime around midnight, I checked my emails and found a note from author Timothy Hallinan (The Queen of Patpong, Breathing Water), suggesting that I get in touch with a  couple of his fellow writers, Christopher G. Moore (Spirit House; Asia Hand), who is based in Bangkok, and Colin Cotterill (The Curse of the  Pogo Stick, Killed at the Whim of a Hat), who lives on the Gulf of Siam a day’s drive south of the capital. As it happened, Christopher was leaving for Burma to do some research for his next Vincent Calvino novel, but Colin emailed me back and said if I was up for making the trip, he could offer me a bunk in his guesthouse for a couple of nights. There were a couple of caveats: his place, he said, was a long way from anywhere that could remotely be considered a tourist draw; and I would be sharing my digs with six large and rambunctious dogs (as it turned out, there were four large and two small dogs, although he was spot on about the rambunctious part). Still, he allowed, the beer was cold, and that is no small thing in the tropics. So, one long bus ride, and one mildly terrifying mini-bus ride later, I arrived in the small seaside town where he lives.

Colin had suggested that I give him a call shortly before my arrival (surely, with my charming
personality, not to mention my two words of Thai, I should be able to borrow a phone for a local call, right?), and he would pick me up wherever the mini-bus dropped me off. That proved unfeasible, as none of the hardy tourists on the mini-bus had a mobile phone that worked in Thailand. I was deposited rather unceremoniously on a small concrete island amidst the lanes of traffic, the
mini-bus accelerating smartly the moment I cleared the door, nearly taking my trailing foot along with it.

In a small kiosk at the edge of the road, about thirty feet from where I stood, sat a group of four men, all of whom were grinning and calling to me, and waving me over. What with the undisciplined and seemingly endless traffic, it took me about five minutes to cover that thirty feet. As it turned out, none of the group spoke English, although one of them was able to ask me “Where you go?” Another
of the four, clearly the leader as he was wearing a uniform, asked me something in Thai, which of course I didn’t understand. I guessed that he was a cop. Or a postman. Or a boy scout leader. Good uniform, though.

I pulled out my piece of paper with Colin’s number on it and said “Colin Cotterill, my friend”. The
fellow looked at me and said “ Colin…my friend” back to me. He didn’t even try “Cotterill”. I pointed helpfully to the paper, on which was printed Colin’s phone number. Gamely, he entered the numbers into his cell phone, and got some generic phone company recording. At least I assume that is what it was, as he handed me the phone to listen for myself. Meanwhile the other three guys got in on the act, passing the paper around amongst themselves, scratching their heads in consternation. One even scrutinized it upside down, but I opted not to mention that to him. Then a guy seated astride a scooter at the edge of the gathering seized the paper, held a finger in the air as though he had just had an “aha!” moment, and rode off on the highway shoulder (against traffic, I might add), taking with him the only means I had of getting in touch with Colin. No worries, though, he was back in about five minutes with the paper sticking out of his shirt pocket, this time with the number rewritten in his own hand, and without the leading three digits that comprise the Thailand country code. The uniformed fellow took the paper back and redialed the number; still no luck. I noticed however that he had missed entering one number that motorcycle dude had written very lightly. I made a motion which I hoped would convey that I would like to borrow his phone for a moment, and he handed it to me happily. I tried the number once again, this time adding the lightly pencilled final “1” and sure enough, an English voice answered.

“Bruce, where are you?”

“Um,” I said, looking around, “I’m on a main highway, I would guess the main highway, in a small kiosk across the road from what appears to be the bulk of the town.”

“What can you see close by?”

“Well, there is a pink building on the corner, and a green one with yellow trim, and a sign that looks like it might be for pizza…” Everything I could see had only Thai writing, naturally, of which I can read not one whit, also naturally.

Ultimately, it was decided that Colin should talk to one of my compatriots, so I handed the phone back to the man in uniform. There was a lot of nodding, a few sentences of Thai, and then the uniformed fellow hung up. “Fitty baht,” he said. I had no earthly idea what he was talking about. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a two twenty-baht notes and a ten-baht coin, about $1.50 in US money. “You give,” he said, motioning me to give that amount of money to the motorcycle guy. I was fine with this, I would like to note. Without the motorcycle guy I would likely still be sitting in the kiosk, soliciting alms from passing tourists. So I pulled fifty baht out of my wallet and proffered it to the fellow in question. “You come,” he said, motioning me to his bike. Okay, I thought dubiously, now what? He motioned me to get on the back of the bike, which I did with great reluctance, and he started to accelerate out into traffic before I had even gotten a good handhold. Thankfully, he immediately stalled the bike, whose tiny 125cc engine clearly was none too happy about its oversize farang passenger. His companions hooted and catcalled from the kiosk, a chorus of ridicule easily understood no matter the language. The second time was the charm, and we sailed off into the six lanes of traffic, somehow making it across all six without incident, although I would not have bet money on that at the outset. He dropped me off in front of a place I truly did not expect to find in the small town, a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. I was seriously thirsty, so I ordered a large Pepsi from the smiling counter girl, and no sooner did I have it in hand, than Colin Cotterill walked through the entry door.

Small World

January 16, 2012

It seems that virtually every time I am somewhere far afield from my customary stomping grounds, I run into complete strangers with whom I have some strange hitherto-unknown connection. They a) live where I live, b) grew up where I grew up, c) know some of the same people I know, or d) all of the above; more importantly, the conversation inexplicably drifts in a direction that exposes those connections. This has already taken place twice in the four days I have spent in Thailand, and I have every expectation it will happen again.

The first one was on the tourist boat that plies its way up and down the Chao Phraya River, stopping at popular venues six or eight times along the way: Chinatown; Wat Phrao; Wat Arun; and a wealth (and I use that word literally) of high-zoot hotels. The boat was pretty full, and I had what would have been a window seat, had there been any windows. The seat beside me remained unoccupied until a pair of young women, obviously traveling together, meandered their way down the center aisle. For some reason I knew they were Japanese. I suppose it was the style of dress, because no conversation passed between them. One of them sat next to me, the other one found a seat across the aisle. When it came time to pay, I held out a bill which was not only larger than the amount needed for my ticket, but also larger than what was needed for two of us. I must have looked askance at my less-than-expected change, at which point the ticket-taker asked “Two, right?” Um, no actually. “Sumimasen,” the girl beside me said, and then realizing she had spoken in Japanese, hastily modified it to “Sorry!” She then paid for her ticket, and the ticket-taker refunded me the appropriate amount.

“Nihon-jin desu ka?” I asked (“You are Japanese?”). She did a double take, clearly not expecting to hear Japanese, especially from a non-native, after which I told her that I live in Saitama. “Really, where? I live in Saitama too!” I went on to tell her that I live in Niiza, a neighborhood of Saitama very close to the Tokyo border. If the wind is right, you can spit to Tokyo from my balcony. As it turned out, she lives two stations past mine, in Tokorozawa, and we routinely ride the same train back and forth to downtown. We have never met in Japan; it took a nine-hour flight and a desire for river travel at precisely the same moment to engineer this particular collision.

Later that same night, I was having supper at my new favorite Thai restaurant, May Kai-dee’s, which doubles as a cooking school for foreigners who would like to learn a bit about the foundations of Thai cuisine. The food is all organic, all vegetarian for that matter, and hands down the best Thai food I’ve ever eaten. The fact that a healthy (in both senses of the word) helping runs about $2 is a major bonus. The restaurant was understandably quite full, and as I was dining alone, the server asked if I would mind sharing my table. “Not at all,” I replied, and I was joined by an American woman named Jen, who had just finished the cooking class, and was now about to sample the dishes she had prepared. She insisted that I try her concoctions, which looked and smelled very fine indeed. Her massaman curry was so delicious I resolved to have that the next time I ate at May’s. Anyway, we got to talking in the middle of our munching, and it turned out that she was from Philadelphia, or rather the west Philly suburb of Manayunk. As it happened, the Manayunk local railway ran right behind my house when I was a kid, and countless times my brother and I flouted our mother’s authority and hiked along the tracks, heading for the old arched bridge that crossed the Schuylkill River. It was possible to lift manhole covers between the tracks and climb down into the structure of the bridge, and then dangle your feet over the river, from a height of perhaps a couple hundred feet. My poor mother would have fainted dead away if she had had any idea. Jen knew all the station names along the way, and could likely have picked my house out of a lineup. Once again, a weird confluence of circumstances conspired to engineer a collision half a planet away from where one might have reasonably expected one.

Small world, neh?

Bangkok First Impressions, in Pictures

January 15, 2012

The canal bridge by my hotel; wait until you see what's underneath!


Alligator-sized monitor lizards...


Wat Phrao Buddhist Temple


Seated golden Buddhas at Wat Phrao


Part of the Reclining Buddha at Wat Phrao


Top-hatted Guardian, Wat Phrao


Across the river, Wat Arun under ominous skies...


Golden temples everywhere...


Night One in Bangkok (and the world’s my oyster)

January 15, 2012

Pretty much everything I know about Bangkok comes from the mystery novels of three writers whose work I admire very much: Timothy Hallinan, John Burdett, and Christopher G. Moore. Because their books focus upon hard-line criminal activity, I have perhaps cultivated a stronger impression of the city’s seamy underbelly than I might have otherwise, and thus less of an impression of any other facet of The City of the Angel. And, I have to say, I was quite curious as to how reality would square up against my preconceptions.

I wound up here partly by design and partly by chance. Having spent a month in Indonesia around this time last year, I really wanted to get back to Southeast Asia in a big way. By midwinter I find myself craving the tropics, both for the weather and for the longer hours of sunlight that seem to elude me both in Japan and in Prince Edward Island. Bangkok, I am happy to say, is far enough south that it will not disappoint on either count. The chance part factors into the equation by virtue of the fact that a flight to Bangkok was about $100 cheaper than a flight to Singapore, and since I had never been to either place, Bangkok won out.

I arrived late in the evening, after a pair of flights, the first from Tokyo to Seoul, the second from Seoul to Bangkok. The first flight was close to empty, and I had a whole row of seats to myself (literally the whole row, window to window). As I had gotten up fairly early in the morning, I took the opportunity to pretty much snooze my way to Korea, awakening once to have a look for Mt. Fuji’s peak peeking up through the clouds (no luck there), and once to have a bite of lunch. The layover in Seoul was fairly short, a bit more than an hour. I realized upon arriving that I had neglected to bring any Korean money, and it seemed kind of silly to use my American Express card to buy just a bottle of water, so I contented myself with reading at the departure gate, and hoping that the flight attendants would bring the cart around with something to drink early on in the flight. This time the plane was close to full; my seatmate was a young Korean woman named Jeong-Lye (I hope I have spelled that right); she spoke quite good English and we spent most of the six-hour flight in conversation. We chatted endlessly about her job, my comparative lack thereof, our respective homes and families, and anything else we thought of; it made the flight go by very quickly, at least for me, and I hope for her as well.

Entry into Thailand could scarcely have been easier. I had had one tiny glitch when checking in for my first flight in Tokyo, in that my return flight was two months away, and a Thailand visa is good for only thirty days. I explained to the ticket agent that I intended to spend some of that time outside the country, and would not overstay my visa. A hasty call to somebody (presumably someone official) secured the necessary waiver, with the suggestion that if the Thai immigration folks balked at my far-off departure date, I should explain the situation to them in exactly the same manner. In the event, though, I was simply asked to fill out a short form, smile for a photo, and welcomed expansively into their country.

At the taxi stand, a lovely woman named Pen offered to intercede for me with the gathered taxi drivers, and was able to score for me a rate only about 50% higher than I would have paid if I had done it myself. At that, it was only about $4, so no major harm came of it. The taxi driver was driving a personal Volvo, an older model in fine condition (no markings and no meter, though, not a good sign); he took me to a pretty deserted area of town, and promptly got “lost”. I was beginning to get just a wee bit nervous, but Pen had been so sweet, I could not imagine that she would have me sold into slavery on my first night in Bangkok. Still, I was beginning to feel minor twinges in the areas of my vital removable organs (I really have been reading a lot of mysteries!). And then the hotel magically appeared between a couple of houses, not especially different from its neighbors, and not particularly well marked; I was quite pleased to see it nonetheless. It was clean, it was comfortable, and it was reasonably priced; I wasted no time in powering up the a/c, having a cool shower and plopping onto the small but surprisingly comfortable bed. All I had managed to glean about Bangkok was: a) it was steamin’ hot, even at 11pm; b) the people, to a one, were smiling, friendly and helpful; and c) hotels were not always where you would expect to find them. Further discoveries would have to wait until the following day.

On the Road Again

January 9, 2012

Tomorrow I leave on my midwinter break, this time to Southeast Asia once again. Last year I spent a month in Bali, and loved every minute of it (except perhaps the case of Bali Belly that I contracted on my final day there, putting my presence on the return flight in peril). That trip also offered the side benefit of taking me away from Japan in time to miss the Tohoku earthquake and ensuing tsunami. In any event, that part of the world really appeals to me: great beaches; a welcome warm break from the chilly Tokyo weather; friendly people; bargain-basement prices. What’s not to like?

Last year, I had a beachfront hotel room in a small family-run place in Nusa Lembongan, a small island off the coast of Bali. It had an attached restaurant and an infinity pool just steps from the beach. This place ran about $15 a night. I was talking with Marie, a Danish girl I met poolside, and asked her how she liked the place. She considered my question for a moment, and then replied “It’s quite nice, but a bit pricey, don’t you think?” Intrigued, I asked her where she had found cheaper digs, certainly not in Denmark! She laughed and replied that places along the beach in Thailand and Cambodia were sometimes $8 or $10 a night for perfectly pleasant accommodations, albeit perhaps a bit off the beaten path. She really liked the food as well, and mentioned a couple of hotels where a fine tropical breakfast of fresh fruit and homemade breads could be had for less than $1.

Then over the Christmas holidays my friend Elias went to Thailand and Cambodia, and sent back atmospheric reports of sunrise at Angkor Wat, and tiny floating fishing villages along the Mekong. I was hooked, so to speak, and tomorrow begins the “reeling in” process. I will fly into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport, and likely stay in the city for a few days to have a look around and decompress after the long flight. Then, depending on my mood, I will either head for Ko Phuket, a small island off the coast of Thailand, in the turquoise Andaman sea; or, I may choose the road less traveled, and take a short flight to Rangoon, Burma (aka Myanmar), and from there make my way by steamer and ferry up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay and Pegan. Burma may be the last country in the world without a McDonald’s, and that can’t last long; I’d quite like to visit a place that has been that much unmarked by “progress”.

Also on the (very loose) itinerary are side trips to the aforementioned Angkor Wat, and probably into Laos as well. I have it on good authority that the Laotian capital, Vientiane, is one of the great secret finds of Southeast Asia, and I want to find out just why that is. I have gotten Lonely Planet guidebooks for the countries in question, and I will peruse them on my new Kindle (arigato, BookPage!), along with the books I have lined up for my next month’s Whodunit column in BookPage.

Sayonara for now!


Manglish, Version 1.12

January 8, 2012

As regular readers of Mysterious Orientations well know, one of my favorite things about being disoriented in the Orient is the wonderfully wacky mangling of the English language by the locals. Sometimes it is a hilarious misspelling (“No Smorking”); or it can be an oddly worded, but still understandable sign (“Be Careful of the Bee”). Sometimes it is understandable, sorta, but the details are a bit dubious, as on this great fire procedure sign in a Kyoto hotel: “In the event of fire, assume the low position and breathe through the bottom.” This is a technique I have not mastered, at least not the inhalation part.

Anyway, I have rounded up a bunch of pictures of over the past year, and it is now my intention to share them with you. If you have seen some of these before, please excuse the duplication; I am going through all my photos and adding them as I find them.

In Japan, embarrassment is worse than losing your foot, apparently.

Try bringing this in your carry-on luggage!

Profound or inscrutable? You be the judge.

How does one measure loveliness?

"I'm Gonna Happy, I Gave You Love Sick"

No doubt the path followed by the usual suspects...

Odd name for beauty salon...

Packaging for a toilet seat cover

What do you think this means?

Scary Pre-school; no English, but in this case it may not be necessary


T-Shirts are among the major Manglish culprits

Be sure to ask for DogTar wine by name!

Baked cookies? This changes everything!

It is fortuitous, the anhydrous entrance...

What can one possibly add to this?

I can't even guess what they were aiming for here!

Ya gotta love the balcony of no frippery!

I wonder how wide the seats are in travel class?

That's kinda charming

No hyphen shortage in China...

Wow! Bread AND Food!

Hopefully not as a menu item!

English is fine, product perhaps less so

Could this be, by any chance, "Frog Legs"?

Could be an MP3 Playar, I guess, but kinda looks like a SatNav...

What do you imagine "cracking nano foam" actually does?

Words to live by...


An oddly named Japanese health supplement


Or perhaps white?


This gem comes from my friend Eric van den Ing

Akemashita Omedeeto! (or as you Anglophones say, Happy New Year)

January 7, 2012

It has become a Japanese New Year’s Eve tradition for me to go on a celebratory bus tour with Saki and Masako (and fifty-odd other well-lubricated revelers). Typically we leave Tokyo in late afternoon or early evening, merge onto the crowded highway, en route to our first (and arguably most important) destination, the service area pee stop. There will be at least a couple of those along the way, as the median age of the group is well into the, um, golden years. By midnight or thereabouts, we arrive at a temple or shrine, to bow our heads in supplication to the pantheon of Japanese gods for a happy upcoming year, and to divest ourselves of five-yen coin offerings wherever an opportunity presents itself. At the appointed time, we make our way back to the bus, bound for the coast to freeze our butts off awaiting the first sunrise of the year.

This year we went to Ise Jingu, several hours drive south of Tokyo, near the bustling port city of Nagoya. It is said to be the home of Yata no Kagami, the Sacred Mirror, one of the holiest of Shinto relics. The mirror is not for mere mortals to see, however, as it reflects capital-T Truth, and as highly regarded Western Lama Jack Nicholson once observed, “You can’t handle the truth!” The shrine dates back at least fifteen hundred years (although some estimates place its beginnings as early as a couple of centuries BC), and it is faithfully reconstructed every twenty years. There are two building sites adjacent to one another, and the shrine alternates between the two; the new building is completed before the old one is torn down to ensure a seamless transition of the deity within. The next rebuilding will take place in 2013.

Note: if you click on the pictures, wait until they reload, and then click on them again, you can see quite a large high-res version, perhaps four times the size you see here.

Ritual washing of hands before prayer


Paper lanterns with Ise Jingu crest, or "mon"


Old World courtyard in purples and yellows


Awaiting their turn to pray


Sake casks, a part of the ritual that resonates with me...

The village adjacent to Ise Jingu stays open until the wee hours, offering food, incense, charms, and various handcrafts (thankfully, no cheesy T-shirts). One shop that caught my fancy had a selection of colored thread or string, intricately woven into watchbands, belts, toys and charms:

Where it begins...

Are these cute or what?


My personal favorite, the Puffer Fish

The food was pretty amazing as well, especially the fish. The happy guy pictured here is grilling smallish silvery fish in their entirety. You eat the head, the tail, the fins, even the bones. He cuts them into pieces with heavy-duty scissors, and puts them on a plate, upon which customers descend in a decidedly un-Japanese feeding frenzy:

1000 yen for a big box o' fish, about $12


Hung out to dry...


Those who live by the sword, dry by the sword...


Town Square Pavilion


Back across the wooden bridge to the bus...

In the morning, a cloud bank hung on the horizon, and it seemed unlikely that we would get to see the sunrise. But my luck held out (I am batting 1000 thus far), and the juxtaposing of sun and clouds made for a dramatic and auspicious beginning to the New Year:

Akemashita Omedeeto!


The Tokyo Motor Show

January 7, 2012
“Kuruma otaku” (car geeks) of Japan, in whose number I proudly stand up to be counted, eagerly await the biennial Tokyo Motor Show. 2011 marks the third time I have made the pilgrimage. The 2007 show was amazing, easily the largest and most diverse gathering of new cars I have ever seen at one time. The 2009 show, not so much; thanks to the lagging economy, many of the major players bowed out, leaving lingering doubts about the future of the auto industry as a whole. For 2011, however, the auto makers are back with a vengeance, displaying daring (and often downright weird) prototypes, high-zoot luxo-rides, and a wide variety of crossover “lifestyle” vehicles. Many of these offer non-mainstream fuel sources: hybrid gas/electric; plug-in electric; solar; CNG, and more. If r-and-d guys ever find a way to extract power from the stars, it is a safe bet that a Suzuki Starlight, a Nissan Nebula or a Toyota Twinkle will grace the Tokyo Motor Show the following year.

In the time-honored tradition of letting the pictures do the talking, here are some photos of this year’s (okay, technically last year’s) Tokyo Motor Show:

Tokyo Big Sight, Home of the Tokyo Motor Show


The Tokyo Big Sight saw sculpture


There are cars, and then there are CARS


Tokyo FM was on hand, or more to the point, "on ear"...


Cruising around the gymkhana area, note the cool blue Renault


My next car, if they make a convertible this color...


BMW makes eco sexy!


But they may have lost the thread with the new matte-finish paint...


The show's most anticipated vehicle, the Toyota FunVII


Time out


Count on tiny Daihatsu to bring some fun to the show...


This Daihatsu makes the Nissan Cube look positively spherical...


Suzuki channels its inner Citroen


Is it a really small car? Is it a really big CD player?


Honda steps up its game


R2D2 on steroids


Channel your inner hippie with VW's new microbus


Smart car, with optional cheese grater grille and roof


These colors just shouldn't work together, but somehow they do


I like this Nissan a lot; let's hope it sees production!


Possibly the prettiest (get ready for this...) Mazda (!) ever

And, if a new car is not on your horizon in the immediate future, perhaps I can interest you in a motorcycle, a scooter, or a push bike: