Friday, February 15, 2013

Off the Beaten Track: A Mekong Mystery



Photo by Lili Chambers

Our guest this week is Diana Chambers, the author of Stinger, a romantic spy thriller with a twist set in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the sequel, The Company She Keeps, CIA officer Nick Daley recruits a new agent—“E” Walker—and sends her on a twisting trail that ends in Iran. In the third of the series, Into The Fire, the characters will reunite on a dangerous mission to rescue her kidnapped daughter from a powerful adversary in southern China. Diana has traveled widely and recently returned from a research trip to the Mekong region of Southeast Asia, visiting new and familiar places. Her connections to the area run deep. Way back when, an importing business here led to a Hollywood design career, which led inevitably to writing. She loves spicy food and her bag is always packed.


Available from Amazon
Sometimes in the dark of night I wonder if I became a writer as cover for my secret passion: travel. Not that I don’t love sleeping in my own bed and hanging out with my dog, but there is a world out there that draws me. I may have spent another life on the Silk Road, for I am hard-wired to explore and often find my stories emerge from these settings.

While researching my first Nick Daley spy thriller, Stinger, I followed Marco Polo’s old route south from Kashgar in China’s Far West through the Karakoram Mountains to modern Pakistan and Afghanistan. The sequel, The Company She Keeps, took me and my characters on a twisting—and twisted—path that ends in a part of the great Persian Empire that is now Iran.

Available from Amazon
Another branch of the Silk Road led to India through remote, semi-tropical regions of southern China: an area I’d never visited! So why should I be surprised that my third Nick Daley thriller would be focused here?

In Into the Fire, Nick joins up with his former agent, Eve Walker, to rescue her kidnapped daughter in a distant corner of China’s Yunnan Province. The reason she is being held in this jungly Mekong locale is the mystery at the heart of the story. And thus the heart of my research.

A wild river with parts still unnavigable, the Mekong is its own mystery, descending from the mountains of Tibet through Yunnan and southeast Asia. My scenes will take place in the upper Mekong, where the river defines her people more than a passport. Where the Yunnan peoples are related linguistically and culturally to those in Laos, Myanmar, and northern Thailand. In conducting their rescue operation, Nick and Eve will encounter mixed loyalties and mixed motives.

Mekong view from Luang Prabang,
Laos
After finding her daughter, they will flee down the Mekong, known as Lancang in China. Our journey will trace a reverse course, taking us upriver to a small Lao port from which we will ferry west to Thailand. Nick has a history here, with links to the “secret war” conducted during the Vietnam conflict—which the Laos call the Second Indochina War, following their earlier anti-French struggle. Thailand had its own communist insurgency at the time and the US military and CIA were involved. In my story, a former Air America pilot based in Thailand will provide covert support for Nick and Eve and drop them in southern Yunnan.

Ready to explore, we meet our trim mahogany boat in Luang Prabang, Laos, on the Mekong’s eastern shore. The river can be treacherous, especially when high waters hide its jagged rocks and boulders. The waters are low now and we can see the dangers our captain must navigate as he slips through a narrow channel or hugs a bank to avoid sand bars or rushing currents. And maybe even a rare Siamese crocodile.

Mekong river boat: Captain's
wife and (great) cook
Our hip young guide, Phang, navigates his own course, straddling the traditional Lao and online worlds. Born to a rural family, he has leaped generations already in his short lifetime and I sense he feels a bit dislocated. Despite radical change, Laos remains a totalitarian state, like Vietnam and China. However, Phang views the government as a fairly benevolent force, tripling salaries of village teachers, opening the land to private ownership, the Internet—and tourism. In an attempt to protect the culture, relationships between Lao citizens and foreigners are forbidden, but people are free to get rich. 

On our “slow boat” we have entered what Phang calls Lao time. What is the rush, anyway? Pitying the speedboat passengers in such haste, I sink into a rare luxury: quiet relaxation with nothing to accomplish. Nothing but watch the world go by. And chat. Phang tells us of whiskey villages where people ferment alcohol from sticky rice and yeast, later seasoning the brew with scorpions, snakes, or centipedes. The blend is 65 proof: “Cheap and strong.”

Samples from "Whiskey Village,"
Laos
The more I look, the more I see. Lives are lived on this river, in every kind of vessel from rusty buckets to cargo barges. I look for my characters’ escape boat, as well as others for their pursuers and various bad guys. I see great boulders and hidden coves that may offer shelter—or danger. As the story unfolds in summer, I think of the rain that will overflow these banks of rice and corn, melons and peanuts. But there will still be the gold miners sifting through muddy sediment, the fishing poles and nets, maybe even the banned dynamite. The hillsides will be ever thick with bamboo, banana, mango, and teak trees…a verdant, electric green that can turn almost black as steep cliffs of impenetrable jungle press in upon us. Mysterious. Forbidding.

Mekong village, Laos
The day ends abruptly at dusk as the captain can no longer navigate without radar. We pass the first night in Pakbend, Laos. After climbing steep steps up the mountain, we are shown just how high the mighty Mekong can rise! Across the dusty road from our guesthouse, the restaurant owner greets us in easy American English. We learn he spent ten years as a monk in the capital, Vientiane, before marriage. As with Islamic madrassahs, Buddhist monasteries provide education to boys with limited options. I think of my young monk friend, Boun, in Luang Prabang. So hungry to learn.

Laos border post
A river cruise is such a gentle way to travel and we are almost disappointed at the end of the second day to reach Huay Xai, Laos just across from Chiang Khong, Thailand. Here the Mekong becomes the international border, as it does later with Laos, Myanmar, and China. We had wanted to continue up to the Yunnan port of Jinghong, but following the murder of some Chinese sailors last year—by Burmese and Thai drug dealers—China has closed its part of the river to foreign traffic.

Refusing to concede defeat, we will spend a few days in north Thailand, and then, like Nick and Eve, proceed with our mission to Jinghong. By air.

But that’s another story.

22 comments:

  1. Diana,

    Thanks for the wonderful post about a far-flung and little known branch of the Silk Road! I look forward to reading your novels, they sound fascinating! Best, Kelly

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    1. And thank you, Kelly, for your lively and creative site! BTW, I have an as yet unpublished romantic suspense novel set in early Gorbachev Russia, so also share your interest in Mother Russia.

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  2. Diana,

    Thanks for posting with us. The Silk Road has fascinated me for years, and I'm looking forward to reading your books set on the various routes. Even today, most of it is difficult to get to for most people--unless they read about it.

    Thanks again!

    Beth

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    1. Thanks for having such a great site, Beth, as well as your interest in my work! I'd love to know where in southern China you teach...?

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    2. Sorry for the delay in replying, Diana. I've taught in two places, in Guangdong province and also in Guizhou province. During school breaks, I've traveled to some of the Silk Road destinations, including some places in far western Xinjiang and Xishuangbanna in Yunnan. It's a fascinating region and a great setting for a book!

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  3. Diana, you have completely whet my appetite for such a travel adventure! I'm also fascinated by all the locations you've set your books in so far. Curious as well to know more about many of the details you mention above. How does the Lao government enforce the rule about no relationships with foreigners? (And what kind of relations exactly? "Can't we just be friends?") And also the tidbit about the linguistic and cultural relation between the Lao, Yunnan, Myanmar-ese (?), and nothern Thai---are they genetically related as well? What's the history behind that? (Possibly a topic for another post, I'm guessing!) And lastly, the photo of the captain's wife...are those stripes on her back? Looks like it at least. Again, this is just an amazing journey---thanks so much for sharing it with us!

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    1. Hi Surpriya,
      Love your questions! Laos is still a police state, however benign, and I'm sure Big Bro keeps an eye on at least enduring romantic relationships between Laos and foreigners. I too am fascinated by the cross-border cultural links and yes these peoples are genetically related as well. The captain's wife is wearing a striped t-shirt:-)
      Thanks again for your interest!

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  4. Diana, What interests me most -even with such a wonderful travel tale - is where you got such an adventurous travel passion, and how you have grown to ignore the pesky parts of non-touristy travel that I have to work so hard to accept. Your derring-do and open spirit of adventure are wonderful to read about - Susan Shea

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    1. Thank you, Susan, for reading and following my adventures. I guess I really am hard-wired to explore...but still work hard to keep a sense of humor about the "pesky parts" of travel.

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  5. What a great post...terrific adventures...

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    1. Thanks, Janet, for reading! Writing this piece was a wonderful way to transition back to reality and keep these adventures alive.

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  6. Your intriguing tale about your adventure-research trip makes me want to dive into your books. Thanks for the post.

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    1. Ahh, Patricia. Who does not envy your intimate connection with Italy?! Thanks for your kind words--and having such a great site!

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  7. Thank you for the interesting post. I, too, have always been fascinated with the Silk Road. I don't know why, but as a kid, I always wanted to go to Samarkand. Just before the fall of the USSR I had the good fortune to visit both Samarkand and Tashkent. I can't wait to read your books.--Happy travels

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Julie. Something about the romance of the Silk Road...and aren't you lucky to have visited Samarkand and Tashkent! Have not been there, yet, but did set a scene in another novel in Tashkent. Just the names are so poetic!

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  8. Oh my, Diana, you make me nostalgic for my years traveling that area, wistful for memories clouded by time, stories never written, and destinations never reached. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks, Mark. Yes, travel does connect with a sense of time, both historical and personal. We follow the paths of so many lives before us, and can only regret those paths not taken.

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  9. Diana, you make research look like so much fun. Thanks for taking us on this exciting ride through Nick Daley's world. I enjoyed your first two books and am looking forward to his (an Eve's) next adventure.

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    1. Thank you, Heidi, for inviting me to visit your site, which is a testimony to your guiding spirit and just so evocative and rich!

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  10. What an adventure, Diana. I love to travel, too, but have never been to the darkest reaches of South East Asia. And probably am too timid to venture there. You rock! Can't wait to read the novel that results from this trip.

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    1. Thank you, Malena, for your kind words. I suspect you would love Asia:-)

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  11. As all of you writers know, it is a thrill when someone reads--and comments--on your work! So thank you all so very much. I only just discovered these responses, a week late. I have been buried in a polish of my ms The Star of India, which was the other focus of research on my Asia trip. Set in end-of-the-Raj India, it is based on the life of Nancy Valentine, a rising young actress whose romance with a dashing, Cambridge-educated maharaja leads her into a world of palaces and jewels, but also intrigue and murder.

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