The Book

Krung Thep, the City of Angels

Because of severe air pollution, it is difficult to believe that any angels remain in Bangkok. The taxi drive into the city on the so-called expressways seemed endless. The traffic barely moved, and it took nearly two hours to reach the Amari Hotel. On the way, I noticed the low, dark clouds and realized that I had miscalculated when the rainy season would end-monsoon season was still holding sway, with daily heavy showers in the early evening.

But it was wonderful to see some Thai friends again. One of them, Panja, a travel agent, makes the arrangements for my stay in Thailand, secures my visa for Myanmar, and books the flight to Yangon. Panja is one of the victims of what the world refers to as the "Asian Economic Crisis." He had bought a new apartment in Bangkok just before the financial crisis began and the real estate market went into free fall.

Although the origin of the economic collapse may lie in the lack of transparency and accountability that also spawned corruption, nepotism, and cronyism in Asian countries, I cannot help but feel ashamed of the role Western financial institutions (e.g., banks, investment banks, and investment funds) played in this catastrophe, with the full knowledge of their central banks and governmental supervisory authorities. Our financial institutions participated in and profited from the currency and securities speculation that were important factors in the implosion of several Asian currencies and economies. In the last few years and decades, millions of Asians like Panja, through hard work, sacrifice, and education, had slowly moved into the new middle class of their respective countries only to find their dreams shattered within a few weeks. I believe that the Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan and his colleagues in Europe and Japan knew all too well what their financial institutions were doing in the currency and derivatives markets.

In Bangkok, the ongoing overhead construction of highways and railroad tracks has caused monumental traffic jams and contributed significantly to air pollution. Tourists realize this when they see pedestrians, especially women, covering their faces with handkerchiefs and traffic policemen wearing face masks as protection from exhaust fumes and dust. But the city is still a shopper's paradise, with merchandise from all over the world at reasonable prices.

BUYING SUPPLIES AND BOOKS

Before leaving for Burma, I needed some supplies: a flashlight, some film, and Imodium and Bactrim for diarrhea. Lariam, allegedly the best protection against malaria in Burma, I did not buy; although it has to be taken only once a week, it causes me to feel feverish and drowsy. Two malaria specialists, one a Burmese and the other a Japanese, whom I met on a later trip, strongly advised against taking Lariam. They claimed that its effectiveness was limited and that it could cause severe depression. In Thailand, most medicine can be bought without a prescription, and this includes Prozac, Rohypnol (the so-called knock-out, or date-rape, pill), Dianabol (an anabolic steroid), and all antibiotics as well. All drugs cost a fraction of what they cost in the West.

Bangkok's bookstores carry a wide selection of the most interesting books on Southeast Asia, including some reprints of older books by foreigners on early travels in this region. In browsing the books on Burma, I noticed a cover photo showing a Western woman dressed in Shan clothes and stretched out on a bench. The title was Twilight over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess, by Inge Sargent. I gained the impression that it was one of those inane accounts written by possibly neurotic Western women who, not finding a husband at home, escaped spinsterhood by marrying a foreigner from some remote province in a faraway land and then claiming that they had found Shangri-La, for which they should be envied by all the happily married folks back home. Skimming through the book, I concluded that I was not too far off the mark with my estimation, but I would later come to regret not having brought this book along because I would meet some characters who would closely approximate those in this autobiography.

Then a bright red paperback with bold black-and-white letters and a golden dragon caught my attention: Lords of the Rim-The Invisible Empire of the Overseas Chinese, by Sterling Seagrave, who has also published a book on Madame Chiang Kai-shek. This book resembled one of those colorful best-sellers so prominently displayed that it dominates every bookstore everywhere, which reminded me of what I read in a Thomas Mann essay years ago: don't read best-sellers. However, this particular book could have been useful to me, as I would find out later.

After I returned to Bangkok from Burma, I discovered that the Shan Princess book was not available in Bangkok bookstores anymore; however, I did buy the Seagrave book and found it helpful in understanding the diversity and the complexity of overseas Chinese communities in Asia and the competition that exists between the various groups, except that the author seemed to like the idea of conspiracies orchestrated by secret Chinese societies. But though conspiracy books may sell well in America, he tended to overlook the invaluable contributions that many Chinese engineers, physicians, teachers, and the numerous well-educated employees and civil servants make to the development of their respective Southeast Asian countries.

I needed to find something to read, something interesting and entertaining, for my long train rides, and I was happy to discover The Gentleman in the Parlour, by W. Somerset Maugham, which is an account of his travels through the Burmese Shan State and into Thailand and from there on to Viet Nam. The Shan State? That was my destination. What a lucky coincidence! The British were the world's great travelers long before international travel became popular, and their travel reports were exceptional: Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, and E. M. Forster are well known worldwide; not so famous though equally good are Peter Fleming, Francis Younghusband, Charles Allen, Eric Newby, Robert Shaw, Osbert Sitwell, Harold Acton, Austin Coates, Gavin Young, Maurice Collis, Norman Lewis, and many others.

Nowadays, getting a visa for Myanmar is easy for tourists; it takes the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok a day, or even less, to issue it. For businessmen it is more complicated, and for journalists it is next to impossible. Having completed my shopping, and with tourist visa in hand, I was ready to fly to Myanmar.


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