A week ago or a bit more, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I met Kam. She was sitting outside the men’s dorm at the Christian university where I was staying (that’s a whole story in itself!), and chatting with my pal Guan. I noticed that Kam had a guitar on the bench next to her, and I asked if she could play it. She could, and did. And man, could that girl sing! We recorded this song, a popular Thai tune, on my little Canon pocket camera. Although the camera had limited video capabilities, and there were all the background noises one might expect outdoors on a warm Chiang Mai night, it was nonetheless magic! My friend Khae, who is less technologically challenged than I, was able to load the video onto facebook, something that for whatever reason had eluded me, but I have managed to figure out how to get it into Mysterious Orientations all by myself (cue the applause…).
One of the small weirdnesses of traveling to Thailand is that upon arrival by air, you receive a 30-day visa, but upon arrival overland, you get only 15 days. Presumably this is to urge small-budget travelers on to their next destination in the most expeditious manner: “…lovely to have you here for a few days, please close the door behind you when you leave.”
I ran afoul of this rule by arriving back from Cambodia overland to meet Saki in Bangkok. I wanted to be in Thailand for a further 30 days, but was allotted only 15; thus, after spending a few days in the capital and a week at Colin Cotterill’s place on the Gulf of Siam, I had to make a border run to renew my visa. Up until then, I had not spent a lot of time in Malaysia, and, as we were in the south of Thailand anyway, it seemed quite logical to catch a flight from Surat Thani to Kuala Lumpur, and spend a few days there having a look around. Saki had been to Penang, in the north of Malaysia, but never to KL, so it promised to be a new experience for both of us.
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting of Kuala Lumpur, perhaps a smaller version of Bangkok: 24/7 speeding traffic, blithely ignoring traffic signals and lane indicators; lofty high-rises adjacent to open-sewer slums; throngs of scuttling tourists, locals, hawkers and beggars at every turn. The reality of KL was quite different: polite drivers moved smoothly on well-surfaced roads and highways; high-rises were on display in abundance, to be sure (including the one-time world altitude champ, Petronas Twin Towers), but the Third World slums were nowhere in sight; Gucci, Fendi, Cartier and Rolex offered their wares in a high-rent district that would have slotted in perfectly in Ginza, Manhattan or Knightsbridge; hawkers and beggars were conspicuously absent, and the tourists were a small minority, easily discernible by virtue of their remarkable lack of style compared to the locals.
Because Malaysia is a Muslim country, many of the women dress conservatively, often in baju kurung, a loose fitting full length dress, and hijab. I had thought I might find this a bit oppressive, even as a visitor, but in fact it is quite an attractive (and oh-so-colorful) style which has grown on me a lot. The covering offers protection from the sun, and it is very lightweight, wicking away perspiration and keeping the wearer relatively cool in what can be a very hot and humid country. By comparison, my sweat laden t-shirt and jeans felt like a woolen pea coat and long johns, perhaps not the optimal choice of dress a scant few degrees north of the equator.
I have long thought that architecture is one of the finest of the fine arts, with many of the best examples surviving thousands of years (the stone cliffs of Petra, the ruins of Ephesus, Macchu Picchu, etc). I gravitate more toward the modern expression of design, though: the Sydney Opera House; Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. To that august group, I would like to add a couple of Kuala Lumpur landmarks, both of which bowled me over when I saw them up close: the Petronas Twin Towers, 452 meters (that’s about 1483 feet, or more than a quarter-mile tall, for the metrically challenged) of Space Age design that requires a two-block remove to photograph in its entirety with a normal pocket camera; and the National Mosque, with its origami-inspired blue roof that has become one of the most visited sights in the city, by Muslims and infidels alike.
In a week, I feel as if I only scratched the surface of the surface of this attractive and modern city, and I am strongly looking forward to a return visit. As it happens, KL is one of the hubs for AirAsia, and a cheap layover spot en-route from Tokyo to Bangkok. So, all other things being equal, when I return to Thailand next spring, I will first fly in to Kuala Lumpur, and have a bit of a look-see at some of the parts of the city I missed this time around.
Here are some of the promised pictures of my week in the company of the above referenced-humans and canines (the first seven are human, mostly, and the remaining six are dogs). The location is a small fishing village on the east coast of Thailand, overlooking the Gulf of Siam. As you will be able to see from the pics, I am working very hard to keep you entertained, at the expense of my own personal enjoyment; such are the rigors of a writer’s life…
Since last year around this time, the Cotterill Compound, then home to one amiably irascible mystery author and six rambunctious dogs of dubious breeding, has morphed rather dramatically in several dimensions, not limited to those of time and space. One year back, I stayed in what was then the main house, a large detached studio apartment with a big porch overlooking the Gulf of Siam no more than twenty meters to the east. A two-car carport, a semi-outdoor washroom, and a nicely-appointed maid’s quarters completed the suite. There was, however, no maid in sight, and none on the horizon.
A one-room artist/writer studio, a few steps away, housed volumes of Colin’s books in several languages, award plaques from various writers’ organizations, and an artist’s desk piled high with drawings (both finished and otherwise), rendered in a style that can be much easier illustrated than explained (however, if you are reading the Braille edition of Mysterious Orientations, there is a bit of Gahan Wilson in the characters, more than a bit of Charles Addams in the quirky humor–there is a reason why his UK editions are published by Quercus–and overtones of Maurice Sendak or perhaps Ed “Big Daddy” Roth in the expressions of those individuals caricatured by his sharpened quill).
The day I left, ground was broken on what would someday be his new house. I got to see the architectural drawings of the place, and it all looked very two-dimensional to me: no color, no texture, just a bunch of geometrically-oriented lines that looked for all the world like, well, an architectural drawing.
So, you can begin to imagine my surprise, when I arrived this year, upon seeing a large edifice of yellow and white concrete, red tile roof, and broad expanses of glass. Barely two weeks finished as of my arrival in January, it looked to be an integral part of the grounds, as if it had been secretly in place the whole time.
A few other additions rounded out the roster of changes: Ei and Jo, the Burmese couple serving as housekeeper and jack-of-some-trades respectively, and Kyoko, Colin’s new wife, fresh from Japan!
Add to that mix a pair of Japanese guests: Saki, visiting me from Tokyo for a couple of weeks of her annual holiday; and Keiko, a long-time friend of Kyoko’s who flew in from Singapore on her way home to Kyoto. The boys were seriously outnumbered!
Stay tuned for the photos, or better yet, pick up a copy of GQ, the Chinese edition, which will feature Colin’s new digs as one of its “Foreigners’ Homes in Thailand”, coming soon to bookshelves all over the Middle Kingdom!