When I bought books for an overnight train ride recently, one of them I’d already read, I was living in Bangkok when Jim Algie’s Bizarre Thailand came out; it was in my personal library until I gave away excess baggage weight when I returned to the states. But I enjoy owning books written by friends so I bought a replacement copy. Halfway through my 22-hour trip, I opened it and found a whole new book waiting for me.
When I still lived in Thailand, I was entertained by the glimpses into the bizarre and the grotesque that Jim provided, but the details of the book I ignored because they were all around me, every day. When I first read the small descriptions and insights that Jim provides, I shrugged. Yeah, yeah, right, let’s get on with it. But now I live in Seattle, returning to Bangkok once a year, and what delighted me most about Bizarre Thailand on my second reading is how well the book conveys the special quality of ordinary life in the Kingdom.
Where else but Thailand would a government coup be announced on TV with the words, “We have taken control of the city. Apologies for the inconvenience”? Or would the decision to replace gunfire executions of prisoners with death by lethal injection be celebrated at one of Bangkok’s grimmest prisons with performing pop stars, dancing ladyboys and the release of “more than 300 balloons to symbolize the spirits” of executed prisoners in the past? Or would gifts of toys, candy, and flowers be left for dead foetuses on display in glass jars at a grisly medical museum exhibit?
One of the people I like best in Bangkok is wonderfully profiled in the book’s fifth chapter, along with the information of where old CIA “spooks” hang out and where to hear Peter Driscoll and the Cruisers play British rockabilly (terrific musicians, by the way.)
Close to Bangkok’s neon and noise is a quiet community where people go out in boats after dark to view thousands of fireflies flashing in the night—far from bizarre Thailand. In a nearby province, tourists are taken for overnight hikes in the jungle by seasoned troops, and farther down the road, a dude ranch waits to indulge the Inner Cowboy that lurks within many.
Thailand’s deeply rooted respect for the supernatural is brought to light with anecdotes of a former Prime Minister making offerings to the God of Darkness, and the author’s girlfriend approaching a fertility shrine with trepidation, certain that she would become pregnant as a result. And the longstanding rivalry between Cambodia and Thailand is made clear through the prejudices of that same girlfriend, whose personality is so strong that at times she threatens to take over the book. (Throughout Bizarre Thailand, Jim persistently shows the face of Thai women as smart, strong people—whether they are the country’s leading forensic expert, a transgender Thai boxing champion, or the founder of Empower, a group that educates sex workers.)
Where to find vegetarian food during Buddhist Lent (look for the yellow flags on street vendors’ carts), where to have your fortune told (take a translator), where to gain merit by buying a coffin for a destitute corpse (Wat Hualamphong), where to have a drink in Chiang Mai at a place where your money is going to help the female staff have regular days off, sick leave, and Social Security (the Can Do Bar)—these are some of the details that underpin the stories of the eccentric and sometimes sinister people who are unveiled in Bizarre Thailand. And these details are the ones that will enrich your stay in the Kingdom, whether you’re there for a week or for the rest of your life. Thank you, Jim Algie.~Janet Brown