Starred Book Review, Seven Years Late: Sightseeing, by Rattawut Lapcharoensap

A lot of the hotels at which I have stayed in Thailand have small lending libraries, books cast off by backpackers concerned with offloading every unnecessary extra gram of weight. One usually reads only one book at a time, unless one is doing it for a living, so there is really no need to carry extras around, particularly when there are ample opportunities to pick more books up along the way. The deal typically works quite simply, for every book you donate to the library, you can take one out. Thus far, it is not a revenue generator for the hotels, although that cannot last, I fear. As you might expect, there are lots of Dan Browns, Clive Cusslers, out-of-date Lonely Planet guidebooks, self-help books, and the like (and by extrapolation, rather fewer of the Murakamis, Therouxs, Iyers, and Mahfouzes than I had hoped). Once in a while, however, one runs across a gem. I had just finished Alexander McCall Smith’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, and it was ready to enter the public domain as trading fodder; that is when I happened upon a book called Sightseeing, by an author with a borderline unpronounceable name, Rattawut Lapcharoensap. This was the Australian edition of the book, as near as I could gather, but it had something of a bootleg look about it, with blurbs on the back cover from folks completely unfamiliar to me. That said, they were intriguing, intelligently crafted comments, so I thought what the heck, and effected the swap.

I tend to read real paper-page books (as opposed to Kindle or pdf apps) when I am traveling by bus or train; I don’t know why, really, but it seems fitting and proper, a bit less digital in what is surely an analog-era mode of transportation. So, that said, I opened up my battered copy of Sightseeing at the beginning of the Bangkok-Ranong bus trip, a coast-to-coast all-nighter. I will say at the outset that I read the book in one sitting, although in truth I was something of a captive audience, as there was nothing to see out the window, and my seatmate had promptly kakked out for the duration.

The book is comprised of six short stories and a novelette, each a vignette about the ever-shifting relationships among Thais and their families, their friends, and the hordes of foreign visitors to their country. Two in particular resonated with me, the first titled Priscilla the Cambodian, in which two young Thai boys befriend a Cambodian refugee girl squatting in a shanty town adjacent to their housing development. Sensing the impending fall of Phnom Penh, the girl’s father, a dentist, had capped all of her teeth with pure gold, everything that was left of the family fortune: “When she smiled, it sometimes looked like that little girl had swallowed the sun.” When some of the local Thai men (including the boys’ fathers) torch the camp in a fit of xenophobia, Priscilla is left homeless, but nonetheless optimistic. It is not the first time, she reasons, and it likely won’t be the last. And even though she knows who burned her house to the ground, she offers up a most amazing act of kindness and friendship, working a loose tooth back and forth in her gums until it releases, wiping it clean on her pants, and offering it to the young boy who had befriended her.

In another, Don’t Let Me Die in This Place, a cantankerous American grandfather reluctantly comes to Bangkok to live with his expat son, the son’s Thai wife, and their two children (whom he calls “the
mongrels”). Grandpa has suffered a stroke, and he is decidedly unhappy about his lack of mobility, the heat, the food, the culture shock—pretty much everything. Each one of the family members makes accommodations (even the grandfather, albeit grudgingly), but things never seem to quite gel for them. And then a local fun fair takes place, the proceeds going to support a local temple, and the monk in charge of the bumper car ride somewhat inadvertently advances a meeting of minds and spirits that nobody, least of all the reader, could have foreseen.

If you are going to Thailand, you need to read this book. If you have been to Thailand, you need to read this book. If Thai culture resonates with you at all, you need to read this book. If you like to laugh out loud and are willing to allow yourself to be moved to tears, you need to read this book. I cannot imagine how it escaped my attention for all these years, and I am really curious to see what Rattawut Lapcharoensap comes up with next.

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