The Sukhumvit Book Club is an attempt to celebrate writing, in all its forms, on Bangkok and Thailand at large – we’ll be reviewing novels, guide books, essays, literary maps, poems and essentially any writing that pertains to dear old Siam.
Whether it’s a newly published tome or Maugham’s The Gentleman in the Parlour, we’ll be reading it and writing about it.
If you’ve written something on Bangkok, published or unpublished, and would like us to review it, please email email@example.com.
On to our second book in the series…
A Geek In Thailand
A Geek In Thailand achieves what most guidebooks seldom manage: it totally over delivers.
Presented as an alternative guide to Thailand, it’s part of Tuttle Publishing’s series of ‘A Geek In…’ books that have also covered Korea and Japan.
The cover art is, while colourfully eye-catching, very familiar: Wat Arun, a Muay Thai fight, a bowl of red curry, a tuk tuk, a floating market – I could go on, you know the score.
The layout too is equally tourist-friendly; it’s split into 7 chapters, which are each respectively split up into concise sub-chapters. There’s a wealth of beautiful photography found throughout.
For all intents and purposes, it looks like a coffee-table book — or at least a guidebook to dip in and out of at will.
However, the breadth of the subject matter covered and the considered, sophisticated interpretation propels A Geek In Thailand far above any Thai guidebook I’ve ever read.
Much more than just a run-down of ‘what to do in Thailand’, this book thoroughly explores the Thai culture and psychology through both the eyes of the author and the many people he interviews.
Chapter 3 – The Unique Thai Character – is a particular standout, probing such enigmas as the Thai smile, mai pen rai, the role of religion, tribalism, the Thai ideal of beauty, and the various ethnicities and regions that make up the Kingdom.
The role of foreigners in Thailand is also explored, and Houton – a Brit who’s lived in Thailand for 7 years now – is well-qualified to talk on the topic. Particularly resonating is a page in which he discusses his experiences working as a manager and employee in the Kingdom – anyone who’s been thrust into employment over here without a nuanced understanding of the Thai work culture will be able to empathise.
His self-awareness is palpable as he discusses his time managing Thai staff in Phuket,
In an almost all-female office, my brusque, no-nonsense northern English ways, combined with belligerent, arrogant youth meant that my requests, with glorious hindsight, could definitely be delivered with a touch more ‘wan’ (sweetness).
Houton’s personal insights are peppered throughout the book though they always complement his subject rather than distract from it. The book took marginally less than 3 years to write, Houton tells us, and the sheer detail and level of research is really quite impeccable.
There’s no shying away from ‘difficult’ topics either — politics and Thailand’s fractious relationship with democracy is also studied.
While A Geek in Thailand will be nothing short of an education for short-term tourists, the book also offers a lot for the more seasoned Thailand expats and experts too. Sections on dance, the westernisation of Siam, a deconstruction of Thai cuisine and even Muay Thai (or the ‘Science of Eight Limbs’) are just a few that go beyond the knowledge of a layman.
From a touristic point of view, the final chapter – Visiting Thailand – is invaluable as far as a ‘what to do in…’ guide goes. Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai are studied in detail with maps and plenty of recommendations for activities included.
In short, we highly recommend A Geek in Thailand. It’s concise enough to be read in a few sittings while being dense enough to intrigue and educate all but the most knowledgeable.
For anyone looking to reignite their love affair with Thailand, A Geek in Thailand could be the book to start that for you.
We spoke with author Jody Houton about the book.
How would you describe the book and who is the intended audience?
‘Alternative’ and ‘more than…’ are words I like to use to describe A Geek in Thailand.
Although there are stand-alone sections, with familiar topics, like Thai Food and History, I found my interpreting and deciphering of certain bits of information led to a more sociological and psychological overarching theme in the book than in other guide books.
I wanted it to fill the void between generic Lonely Planet-type guides, and books, both fiction and non-fiction, written by often duped, bitter, twisted Western men on the seedy side of Bangkok. There’s not all that much in the middle; anything for the young families that emigrate here, or the tourists who want to genuinely learn more about Thailand; its people, its national character, even the movies and music.
I wanted to write something for those who holiday in Thailand for two weeks every year, but didn’t know where to begin to learn more about the country.
I wrote this book for my 27-year old self, I suppose, which is when I first arrived on a three-month holiday, and knew absolutely nothing about a country that seemed so alien, yet welcoming, and so chaotic, yet calm.
What was your most interesting Thailand discovery during the project?
That was actually something quite abstract, and relates to what I was saying about an overarching ‘voice’ or interpretation that evolved the more I read and wrote – that of the ever present desire to find the ‘calm in the chaos’.
Partly by necessity, I suppose, there’s a chaos, and willful abandon, in most aspects of Thai culture, or at least that’s how it’s perceived. It is in the pursuit of, at best, harmonizing, and, at worse, trying to not pull your hair out, in dealing with those elements, which is at the heart of understanding and even enjoying these conflicting experiences.
Thai culture encourages an appreciation, or tolerance, of extreme stimuli: chaotic assortment of ingredients in foods; cramped living quarters, pavements; complex hierarchies in families, and the workplace; tangled messes of telephone wires – but it all works, somehow.
There’s a chaos in most aspects of Thai culture, but it is in the finding of the calm, whether by adopting a mai phen rai attitude, or managing to work within the chaotic lines, that is needed. When I began to formulate this idea of the ever-present ‘calm within the chaos’, I began to see it in every aspect of Thai culture, and, for me, that was absolutely fascinating.
All photos are from ‘A Geek in Thailand’ with permission of Jody Houton