Thursday, February 28, 2013


I'm traveling in Africa for work this month and then attending Left Coast Crime (March 21-24), where I'll be on the "foreign affairs" panel. I'll be back to blogging in late March.

Author of Monkey Love and Murder

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

An Alpine Adventure

By Supriya Savkoor
Vista from Courmayeur
One early September, about a decade ago, we’d headed to Italy to attend a wedding, flying first into Milan where my brother and sister in-law received us. They had a planned a little pre-wedding weekend excursion for us, since we had only ever visited Italy’s usual hotspots (Florence, Venice, and Rome). We had never heard of the little towns they’d told us we’d be visiting, nor had we done any research beforehand, nor had we discuss it much. A few beautiful places that they wanted us to see, and we were grateful for the pampering.
We rented a van and drove the 220 km (roughly 140 miles ) ride northwest at high speeds through lovely hilly territory, where every few hundred yards a castle was pointed out to us. At first, we ooh-ed and aah-ed at the mere thought of being within walking distance of a real-life Italian castle, but after about a dozen such sightings, we were amused and soon a tad disinterested (only a tad). (Except for the wedding we attended in a beautiful little church in a stunning castle near the famous sparkling wine-region of Asti. (Side note: It’s sparkling wine, not champagne, which is French. The Italians, we learned, and quite possibly the French, are very particular about that distinction.)
When we reached our first destination, Courmayeur, a little dot of a town in the Italian Alps, we were stunned. The breathtaking view outside the balcony of the little studio-condo where we stayed was, excuse the cliché, picture perfect. Like a Swiss postcard, only better. Vast expanses of rugged, snow-capped mountains and valleys that started within a millimeter of our balcony and went on forever. Clean, crisp air that we found ourselves breathing in like a sort of nectar along with an absolute stillness that only deepened our awe.

Santuario Notre Dame de la Guérison
in Courmayeur, Italy

 Our first day, we hiked around the quiet little village and took pleasure in the simplest of things: the many colorful flowering plants hanging from window boxes outside many windows. The cool, clean water flowing from spigots that we had to pump, in lieu of the boring old fountains we were accustomed to in the States. The winding narrow roads with the somewhat rustic but gorgeous edifices to one side and a steep drop plunging into the infinity of the Italian Alps on the other side. We drove around quiet, empty roads and byways, from the snowy white peaks to the lush green valleys where we stopped to marvel at a distant steeple atop an 11th century church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. We got a little lost but eventually found our isolated but elegant destination, a restaurant where I got my first taste of raclette, a sort of grilled cheese that to this day astounds me. It was my first introduction to a dish completely dedicated to only glorious, superb cheese, one of my very favorite foods. And with no other seasonings or accompaniments, not even bread, it was the perfect homage.
From there we were on our way, skirting the Swiss Alps, some 4,800 km (or 15,000 feet) high, atop the highest mountain in the Alps. The weather was sharp and crisp, the air a bit foggy and chilly considering the time of year. Soon, we crossed what has to be the most hospitable border into France by way of an 11 km (7 mile) tunnel beneath a mountain and leading us into the penultimate of picturesque towns—Chamonix, France. 
Jonathan M
Chamonix, France

There, we drank in the old world charms of cobblestone roads lined with wrought-iron lampposts and hanging flower pots; little canals situated between buildings, reminiscent of those camera-ready sights in Amsterdam; lovely boutiques full of pottery and all kind of tantalizing, one-of-a-kind trinkets; patisseries with chocolate fountains and buttery pastries; delicatessens with Italian meats and cheeses; shops dedicated to fondues (sigh); and an idyllic town square straight out of a fairy tale. All this against the backdrop of the most wondrous vistas that, little did we know at the time, are among the world’s oldest and most famous ski resorts. (Case in point: the first Winter Olympics were held in Chamonix back in 1924.)

From our Alpine weekend, we headed to Asti (the sparkling wine capital of Italy), not far from the tiny town (and large castle) where the wedding took place. And then on to Genoa, the beautiful port city in which Christopher Columbus was born. It was a most magical vacation, definitely kickstarted by our own sort of Alpine honeymoon that weekend in paradise.

Overview of Chamonix, France, nestled at the base of the Alps.

addedentry / Owen Massey
Gare de Chamonix


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Central Asia’s International Metropolis - Almaty, Kazakhstan

By Kelly Raftery

So you are living or traveling in Central Asia. You have had your fill of historic sites like Bukhara, Samarkand, Merv or Osh  You have experienced nature at its finest at Lake Issyk-Kul and in the mountains outside of Bishkek. But, you find yourself longing for something less meaningful and more decadent. Time to head off to Almaty, Kazakhstan for a long weekend!

The Kyrgyz and Kazakhs consider themselves “brothers” and rightly so. The languages are mutually understandable and the two peoples share a common history and culture. The Kyrgyz were mountain people whereas the Kazakhs lived on the steppe. The difference between Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan today boils down to two key words: natural resources. Kyrgyzstan has a bit of gold buried deep in its mountains, whereas Kazakhstan is awash in oil and gas as well as considerable quantities of minerals including: uranium, chromium, lead, zinc, manganese, copper, coal, iron, and gold. Kazakhstan also exports diamonds. When the Soviet Union fell apart, western nations and multinational corporations were tripping over each other to invest in Kazakhstan, which left Kyrgyzstan far behind in terms of investment and economic development.

Esentai Tower, part of the Esentai Mall Complex.
Almaty is a modern, glittering city, the most cosmopolitan in Central Asia. While there is some evidence pointing to nomadic settlements on the site of Almaty, the city really only began to take shape when the Russian Empire fortified Fort Verniy in 1854.  A few decades later, the entire city was destroyed by an earthquake. Under the Soviets, Almaty was rebuilt and became the capital of the Kazakh Republic. After independence was declared in 1991, it remained Kazakhstan’s capital until 1997, when the central government was shifted north to Astana. So, there is not much by way of history to distract you from shopping, theater or just relaxing. The city is less than 100 years old.

Zenkov Catherdal.
Almaty remains the financial and cultural center of Kazakhstan and a wonderful city to explore. There is luxury shopping at the Esentai Mall, where you can catch a movie on the IMAX or grab necessities from Gucci, Fendi or Louis Vitton.  If your shopping needs are simpler, Almaty’s main market is called “Zelenyi Bazaar” or the “Green Bazaar.”  You can stock up on snacks there or simply people watch, a few hours in a bustling bazaar is never a waste of time. Right across the street is the Rakhat Chocolate factory and just a short walk away is Zenkov Cathedral, situated in Panfilov Park. The cathedral, built in 1907, is the second tallest wooden building the world. After seeing the cathedral, take a walk around the rest of Panfilov Park, which was named for a World War II infantry unit that defended Moscow. You’ll take in a visually startling memorial to fighting men and if you think ahead, you can pick up some flowers at the bazaar to leave at the eternal flame, which commemorates the fallen of both the Civil War (1917-20) and WW II. As you walk further, you will see other statues to other Almaty notables and a memorial to Kazakhstan’s Afghan War veterans.

Memorial to the men who defended
Moscow during World War II.
Once you are done exploring the park, Almaty has museums to visit, an opera house and theaters.  If you prefer outdoor sports, a world-class ski resort and the highest-elevation outdoor ice rink in the world are just a short drive away from the center of the city. 

Holiday Inn, Almaty.
To make your stay comfortable, visitors can chose hotels such as the Holiday Inn Almaty, Hotel InterContinental or my favorite for original name, the Best Eastern Hotel Dostyk. All these hotels are lovely, with swimming pools, tennis courts, spas and sumptuous restaurants. If you feel more daring, you could rent a fully-stocked apartment instead and live as the locals do. Depending on how long you have been in Central Asia, you might want to try some of the international cuisines that Almaty has to offer at Mad Murphy’s Irish Pub, The American Bar or Cooshy Sushi. If you feel particularly extravagant, you could visit Bellagio, where Presidents Bill Clinton, Vladimir Putin and Nursultan Nazarbayev have all dined. If you are new to Central Asia, I recommend you try some authentic Kazakh food, at Gakku Kazakh or Zheruik, where you can sample manty, beshbarmak or shasklyk.  

Almaty, Kazakhstan offers more than just a weekend getaway, if you  can visit, you are in for a bit of modern adventure!  

Monday, February 25, 2013

Crete—A Weekend With Myths, Legends, and History

Heidi is taking the week off, and so we have a guest today. H. S. Stavropoulos was born and raised in a small Greek Village in the middle of Oakland, California, and writes about being born in America to Greek immigrant parents and living between those two worlds. A frequent visitor to Greece and having hundreds of relatives there, H. S. Stavropoulos writes stories that describe life in Greece, Greek food (of course!!), the wealth of Greek culture, mythology and traditions, and the complex and wonderful Greek people. 

The wonderful thing about visiting my family in Greece is that when I need to escape for a weekend getaway, I have hundreds of islands to select. I’d always wanted to see the Palace at Knossos, so Crete it was.

I flew in and grabbed a cab to my beachfront hotel. I spent the day swimming and as the day drew to a close and I walked along the shore listening to the gentle sound of waves lapping against the sandy beach, a single white flip-flop was tossed among the waves. I reached it and kicked it onto the beach, continued my walk, and eventually headed back to my hotel.

Sunset over Heraklion
I awoke to the sun shining into my room. I opened the window to admire the sea view. But today was not a beach day, today was for an archeological tour. I hopped on a local bus and headed into Heraklion, where I transferred to another, headed to Knossos. Arriving at Knossos, I walked the short distance to the gate, paid, and entered the heart of the Minoan Civilization.

The day was hot and dusty and filled with the cries of peacocks. I’d never seen peacocks in the wild and for a time I was enthralled watching them, almost forgetting that they weren’t the reason I’d come.

Knossos peacock
I walked to the palace with its red columns and frescoes of dolphins, bulls, and bull-jumping youths. The colours were bold and vibrant and the artistry magnificent.

I walked around the complex and was amazed that the site covered 20,000 square meters. The palace is a multi-storied structure with multiple floors, innumerable corridors and colonnades. I wondered as I peered down several levels with zig-zagging staircases that reminded me of an Escher painting whether this wasn’t the basis for the myth of the labyrinth.

The Palace of Knossos features in many myths about the Minotaur and the Labyrinth. In Greek, minotaur, means the “bull of Minos.” Minos was the King of Knossos. King Minos commissioned the great architect, Dedalos to build the labyrinth to house the Minotaur. But the King kept Dedalos prisoner to prevent him from revealing the layout. Dedalos fashioned two sets of wings from feathers and wax. He and his son, Ikaros, escaped by flying off the island of Crete. Ikaros flew too high and the sun melted the wax and he plummeted into the Aegean Sea.

Knossos Palace
Another myth surrounding the Palace is that of Theseus slaying the Minotaur. Crete required a tribute from Athens of young men and woman to be sacrificed to the Minotaur. Theseus, the son of the King of Athens, vowed to kill the Minotaur. If he succeeded, he would change the sails on his ship to white to alert his father, Aegeus. When Theseus returned, he forgot to change the sails, and his father jumped to his death from the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, thereby giving his name to the Aegean Sea.

One modern theory is that the word “labyrinth” can be associated with the double headed axe, the labyrs, used throughout Crete.

As I walked about the palace, I thought of these rich stories filled with symbolism and tragedy.

I waited in line to view the alabaster throne, surrounded by reclining griffins painted on the walls of the room. I saw ceramic jars taller than myself. A double horned limestone sculpture, the symbol of the sacred bull, stood in an open area with tourists vying to be photographed in front of it.

Double horns at Knossos
After spending the better part of the day at Knossos, I returned to Heraklion, where I toured the open exhibits of the Heraklion Archeological Museum. The museum houses the actual frescoes from Knossos along with many of its findings. Items from other sites on Crete are also included. The Phaistos disc has always fascinated me with its hieroglyphic symbols arranged in a spiral that has never been translated.

The next day I explored the city of Heraklion, once owned by ancient Venice. Along the stone walls built to fortify the city, I wandered past a large structure with vaulted ceilings and arches then walked to the old harbour. At the end of the pier I came to the Venetian fortress. I entered the cool and dark stone fortress and then walked up to the top of the battlements overlooking the sea.

Venetian fortress in Heraklion Harbour
I walked back towards the city and entered a pedestrian street filled with shops. I wandered through a pedestrian mall and cross streets until I reached a magnificent fountain in the center of the shopping district surrounded by cafes and restaurants.

The Morozini Fountain is an ornate 17th-century Venetian fountain used to supply water to the fortified city. Water flows from the mouths of four lions into the base of the fountain.

After eating lunch, I went to the tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, the writer known to most Americans for his story, Zorba the Greek. He is supposed to have lost the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature by one vote to Albert Camus. Camus is reported to have said that Kazantzakis deserved it more.

Kazantzakis is buried outside the walls of the city of his birth, as he requested, since the church would not allow him to be buried in a cemetery. The epitaph on his grave reads, “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

I ate at a seaside restaurant as the sun glowed orange as it set over the sea. That night, I mused over the sights I had seen on this too quick jaunt to Crete, knowing that there was much more to see and experience on the largest of Greece’s islands. The next day would see me on a plane returning to Athens.

Remember that white flip-flop I found on the beach? It inspired a story that will be published in Fish Nets, the second anthology of the Guppies Chapter of Sisters in Crime, which will be released in early May 2013.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Off the Beaten Track: Thailand in My Bookcase

We're pleased to host Caron Eastgate Dann as our guest poster this week. Caron is a writer, university lecturer and journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of The Occidentals (as Caron Eastgate James), a novel set in 19th-century Thailand, and the non-fiction book  Imagining Siam: A Traveller's Literary Guide to Thailand. Caron was born in New Zealand and also brought up in the US and the UK. She lived in Thailand in the 1990s, where she worked as a teacher and a journalist, before returning to Melbourne in 1999. She blogs regularly at

I have an entire bookcase devoted to my collection of more than 200 books in English on Thailand. I have novels and short stories, travel writing, travel guides old and new, architecture, politics, history, memoirs by Western expats, popular culture, academic studies, picture books, children’s books and more.

My publisher used some of the books in my collection to form a montage for the cover of my non-fiction book, Imagining Siam: A Traveller’s Literary Guide to Thailand. This was problematic, as it took a year to get all the copyright permissions to use the covers—I even had to find the original designer of my own book’s cover and ask him if we could use it (he said yes).

My bookcase.
For my collection, I scour second-hand stores, online as well as brick-and-mortar bookshops, for likely volumes. I also buy new books in English about Thailand as they are published.

I started to collect these books when I lived in Thailand in the 1990s. The original Asia Books store on Sukhumvit Road in Bangkok, with its rickety stairs leading to several floors of books, was my haven in those days. I also belonged to the Siam Society, which had a library of 20,000 books on South-East Asia and which would allow me to borrow books for a month at a time.

Before I wrote my historical novel, The Occidentals, set in 19th-century Siam, as Thailand was known then, I did six months of full-time research, which meant reading and indexing all the relevant books I could find. In those days, before the internet, this meant compiling a hand-written index-card system, which you can read more about here.

In this blog, I would like to share with you some of the titles from my treasured collection.

Best find
One of my most exciting finds was a small, innocuous-looking book with a plain purple cover and what looks like the title part of the original dust jacket cut out and stuck to it. I bought this book for $88.80 US in 2006, via the internet from a bookseller in Ohio.

The book is a short novel called Simo: The Story of a Boy of Siam. The author is Pastor Dan F. Bradley, born in Siam in 1857, the son of the missionaries Dan Beach Bradley and Sarah Blachly Bradley. The book was first published in 1899 by The Ram’s Horn Company, Chicago, and is thought to be the first English-language novel set in Siam.

The first novel written in English
that was set in Thailand.
The title page says that Bradley is the president of Iowa College (now Grinnell College), so this edition of the book must have been published during his presidency, between 1902 and 1905, though there are no dates within, only that it is copyright 1899, to the publisher, Fred’k L. Chapman.

Most unusual
Walt Disney’s Siam (1958) is a bizarre book written to accompany Disney’s Oscar-winning 1954 film of the same title in its documentary series The World and Its Inhabitants. Its author, Pierre Boulle, was the same one who had written one of the best known novels set in Thailand, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1952). Boulle is a strange choice, since his dark prose in that novel is the opposite of a Disney treatment.  Boulle went on to write Planet of the Apes (1963).

Walt Disney’s Siam is written as a strange, fantasy-style guided tour, translated from Boulle’s French. It reveals itself to be also an anti-communist tract (the Cold War was at its height at this time). The Chinese in Thailand are presented as living in “smelly hovels” in “dirty and narrow” alleys where they run “miserable shops” (Boulle 1958:48). In comparison, the Siamese are presented as a simple yet happy people (close to the European stereotype of the noble savage), whose educated class speaks Western languages and wears European clothes.

I find this to be quite a sinister book, despite (or perhaps because of) its Disney logo that conjures associations with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. My copy appears to have been a library book, and inscriptions in the front say “Bangkok 1964” and “Presented by Mr. and Mrs. R. Davey, October, 1981”.

The elephant in the room
Yes, it’s Anna Leonowens, the school teacher who was employed to teach some of the royal children and wives of King Mongkut in the 1860s, and whose story was made famous in the romanticised musical, The King and I.

Leonowens has been vilified for telling lies about herself and for sensationalising aspects of her time in Thailand and criticising the King. I don’t want to elaborate on that here, as I have written about Leonowens extensively in Imagining Siam and in an upcoming article in the Journal of Oriental Studies Australia.

I do have multiple editions of her books, including The Romance of the Harem and The English Governess at the Siamese Court, though my budget doesn’t extend to purchasing a first or early edition.
I also have many books about Anna, including both editions of the most recent biography, Bombay Anna, by the US academic Susan Morgan. (Get the second edition published by Silkworm Books, which has interesting updates on the first  edition, published by University of California Press.)

My most interesting vintage book in this section is actually more about Anna’s son: Louis and the King of Siam, by W. S. Bristowe (Chatto & Windus, 1976). This is the first book that alerted me to the fact that there was more to Anna’s real story than was portrayed in the largely fictional The King and I. I borrowed this book many times from the Siam Society in Bangkok in the early 1990s, then made do with a photocopy that a friend kindly made and bound for me. I was delighted when, in 2007, internet shopping allowed me to buy a copy of the first edition for myself.

Most beautiful
I have glorious picture books on Thai architecture, food, maps and travel. Three of my favourite in this category are:

Thai Graphic Design, compiled by Anake Nawigamune (River Books, 2000).
I bought this book while visiting my old home town of Auckland, New Zealand. My friend from school days, Yvette, was taking me on a tour of the best second-hand book shops there, and I saw this book on display in the window. I am interested in the design of logos, film branding, and so on, so this suited me perfectly and has a marvelous retro feel to it.

Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, by Philip Cornwel-Smith, photos by John Goss (River Books 2005, second edition 2008).
I worked with the author of this book, Phil, at Bangkok Metro magazine in the late 1990s, so I was curious to see his book. It didn’t disappoint. Apart from Phil’s amazing attention to detail in finding out about myriad aspects of Thai popular culture, the funky design and hundreds of photos are terrific. When I worked at Metro, one of the many mysteries of life in Thailand that we liked to discuss was why the cats all had short, twisted tails, and why it was so hard to find out why. I was amused to see Phil had researched this phenomenon, and in Very Thai he concludes that it is a genetic deformity, and, thankfully, not a result of mutilation.

The Grand Palace, by William Warren, photos by Manop Boonyavatana (The Office of His Majesty’s Principal Private Secretary, 1988).
I sourced this book online and was lucky to find a pristine copy. Warren and Manop were given extensive access to the Grand Palace in Bangkok, to many areas not open to the public, including the Inner Palace, or Nang Harm. The large-format book contains intriguing photographs inside the old residences of the many wives of King Chulalongkorn, who ruled from 1868-1910, and who was the last Thai king to keep what westerners call a “harem”.

Travel guides
It’s difficult to find old travel guides. This is because they are often updated regularly, and people throw away their old copies and buy the new one. Luckily, I kept my first Lonely Planet guide to Thailand (1990). It’s interesting to compare that older volume with the later guides. Discussion of guides formed a chapter in my book, Imagining Siam.

I was lucky enough to find a copy of a 1950 book, A New Guide to Bangkok, published in Bangkok by the Hatha Dhip Company and compiled by Kim Korwong and Jaivid Rangthong. It is a revised, illustrated edition of the original 1949 volume that was an almost-instant sell-out.

It’s great that some publishers in Thailand are reprinting classic old guides as well as travellers’ memoirs, and these are an important part of my collection, too. The Kingdom of Siam 1904, by A. Cecil Carter, for example, was reprinted by the Siam Society in 1988, while The 1904 Traveller’s Guide to Bangkok and Siam, by J. Antonio, was reprinted by White Lotus in 1997.
Antonio’s guide reminds us how difficult travel used to be in tropical countries such as Thailand:

The Occidentals and its German translation.
At a place called Puei Heng, some six days’ journey by bullock cart from Pak Preo through the jungle, there are numerous mines of stephanite…Travel in the interior to the foreigner is fraught with great difficulty and inconvenience…For instance, whenever business necessitates a visit to the interior, the system employed is to procure kwien [sic] (bullock carts) in which travellers deposit their luggage while they make the journey on ponies and, by easy stages, meet the caravan at certain spots where they may tie the pony to the back of the kwein in which they may accommodate themselves in case of rain” (Antonio 1997:57).

I could go on and on about my collection: amazing memoirs by intrepid explorers in centuries gone by; modern travel tales of east meets west; historical and contemporary novels released by publishers that recognise Thailand can be the setting for a million fabulous stories; a small but growing collection of writing in English by Thais; superbly researched scholarly books; histories and collections of historical photos.

Many of the older books I have reveal Western prejudices and assumptions of superiority that seem so wrong today. Yet I believe these books should continue to be read uncensored, because they are part of a literary and cultural history that should not be rewritten, but that can provide valuable lessons in our progress (or otherwise) toward non-racist thinking and a more inclusive, peaceful world.