Crime Scenes: a new anthology of short Oz crime fiction

After diligently blogging my way through Thailand between December 2015 and the start of the year, it’s taken nearly a month after returning home to catch my breath for long enough to post again. My excuse, if you need one, is that I’ve been too busy integrating the material and ideas I accrued on that trip to Thailand into my work in progress, aka ‘the PhD novel’. However, my killjoy of a highly responsible supervisor has advised me to set aside the creative component in order to focus on my next academic progress report over the next few months.

Crime ScenesNot that I’m blogging to procrastinate the academic writing. Perish the thought. No, I’m blogging because I’ve got exciting news. My Scarlet Stiletto winning short story, ‘The Teardrop Tattoos’, will soon appear in Crime Scenes, a killer new anthology of short Australian crime fiction due to be released in March.

Crime Scenes features short stories by some of my favourite Australian crime writers, Leigh Redhead, David Whish-Wilson, PM Newton, Peter Corris and my partner Andrew Nette, together with authors Carmel Bird and Tony Birch, who are not usually associated with the crime genre, and emerging crime writers Amanda O’Callaghan, Eddy Burger, Melanie Napthine and Michael Caleb Tasker.

Here’s what some of Australia’s other leading crime writers have to say about the anthology:

‘A gripping ensemble of dark delights.’ MARELE DAY

‘Highly original stories, many using the standard elements of cop, crook, crime and punishment and yet producing fresh and intriguing tales. People who like reading crime stories will love this book. Australian crime writing is soaring.’ GABRIELLE LORD

‘A clever, diverse and exciting collection of some of Australia’s finest new crime writers as well as gems from more established voices. If this is the future of Australian crime writing then the genre is in good hands’ ADRIAN MCKINTY

Crime Scenes is edited by Zane Lovitt, whose award-winning debut The Midnight Promise, is a collection of interconnected short stories. It is published by Spineless Wonders, a company devoted to short, quality fiction produced by Australian writers.

As Andrew points out on his blog, anthologies of Australian crime fiction are a rare thing, which makes this anthology something of a special event. You can even pre-order Crime Scenes at a reduced price here.

Stay tuned for news on plans for the launch in early April.

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On location: Bangkok 5

I’ve been reading Into the Badlands by British writer John Williams, an account of his two month road trip exploring ‘the underbelly of the American dream’, based on interviews with his favourite American crime writers. At one point, he drives through Chicago’s Hegewisch neighbourhood with Sara Paretsky, who points out a house she imagines as the childhood home of her fictional PI, VI Warshawski. I smiled when I read this, relieved to learn I’m not the only writer who feels compelled to find housing for people who don’t exist.

imageIn Thailand, I needed to find two houses for my surrogate character: one where she lives with her family in the northeastern province of Sisaket; another where she spends the later part of her pregnancy in Bangkok, together with other surrogates. For the former, I chose one in a strip of humble wooden houses, where people serve food out front at night. For the latter, I chose a place off Thanon Sukhumvit in downtown Bangkok.

Little more than a dirt road in the 1960s, Sukhumvit has become one of Bangkok’s busiest thoroughfares. Today it is lined with shopping malls and upmarket hotels, a Skytrain line running above it. Smaller roads that intersect with Sukhumvit are known as soi: odd-numbered soi run north of Sukhumvit, while even-numbered soi run south. Off these numbered sois, in turn, is a network of even smaller lanes, many of them cul-de-sacs. It’s like Sukhumvit is the main river, the sois the major tributaries, and the lanes the creeks — the roadmap a palimpsest of the old canal system that comprised the transport routes back when the city was a swamp.

When I first arrived in Bangkok for this field visit, I stayed in Sukhumvit Soi 11, where I’ve often stayed before, though my erstwhile favourite hotel is now a hole in the ground, slated to become a condominium. When my family arrived to join me, I relocated to the Atlanta Hotel in Soi 2, something of a Bangkok institution, a bastion of morality, despite its proximity to some of the city’s sleazier areas. This time around, I’m in a laneway off Soi 22 in an apartment-cum-hotel, with established trees in the garden and a pond filled with frogs as big as my hand.

imageWhile much of what makes Bangkok unique is disappearing beneath the ubiquitous shopping centres — I never imagined this city could look like any other Asian metropolis — some of its charm endures, at least for now. For example, you can turn down a soi off a thoroughfare like Sukhumvit, walk past the seedy bars, dodgy massage businesses and 7-Elevens, and before you know it, find yourself in a residential enclave, where tall, lush trees dangle aequal roots like beaded curtains, sparrows chatter, squirrels scuttle along the electric wires, and dogs of indeterminate breed (and in varying states of neglect) alternately laze in the sun and bark at strangers. I’m staying in one such enclave; my surrogate character lives in another.

Space is at a premium in Bangkok, where affordable housing takes the form of tiny, two-room condominium apartments in areas where dotted lines on maps indicate that the mass transit system will one day arrive. The poorest live, if not on the streets, then in corrugated iron squalor along the railway tracks. It is surprising, then, to find many low-rise, free-standing houses in the sois off Sukhumvit, albeit hidden behind high fences and even higher trees. A Thai friend says such properties are owned by the country’s richest families; many are left empty, others rented out. This explains why some places look less glamorous than the location and infrastructure suggest.

imageIt’s in one such house off Sukhumvit that I decided my surrogates should board, a two-story, free standing property with an ageing bench swing on the porch and clothes drying on racks in the courtyard. The house is walking distance from a Skytrain station, a couple of stops from where an IVF clinic might feasibly be, making it easy for the surrogates to attend their medical appointments.

As I walked along the soi, I tried to imagine how my surrogate character would feel about her temporary home, what might intimidate or, alternatively, comfort her. Certainly, the implied wealth of such a location — the houses with their ornate gates, flags flying from security guard boxes — would be intimidating. Likewise, the busy bar and restaurant at the mouth of the soi, which attract upmarket crowds. At the same time, she would be perhaps comforted by the plant- and birdlife, the familiar accents of the security guards and street vendors, the sight of the monks making the rounds with their alms bowls. She, or one of the other surrogates, might discover that a security guard working nearby was from a neighbouring village. They might convince him to share some of the green mangoes that overhang the front fence of the property in exchange from some of the yam ma muang they plan to make with it.

imageIn addition to finding the surrogates a house, I also found them a temple, and several eateries and, later today, I will visit a park where I imagine them going for strolls in the cool of the evening.

Not all my characters have housing. For some, it’s enough to give them a street or even a suburb. But it’s helpful for me in animating the Thai characters in my novel to have a sense of their material circumstances.

I’m curious to know if other writers do similar. Does it help you to have real world points of reference in terms of where your characters hark from and/or live? Or do you carry their entire worlds in your head?

 

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Not strictly speaking on location: Koh Chang

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I spent the festive season up to New Year’s Eve on Koh Chang, Thailand’s second largest island, southeast of Bangkok near the border with Cambodia. While not strictly ‘on location’ for my PhD novel, I do have a part-drafted Jayne Keeney novel, containing scenes set on Koh Chang, albeit nearly 20 years ago. With this in mind, I thought I’d blog a few notes about the place while it’s still fresh in my mind.

The first thing to note is neither my partner nor I recognised anything from our previous visit in 1997. We remembered arriving at the height of Thai New Year festivities; having trouble finding accommodation, we ended up in a guesthouse run by a highly strung Brit who shouted at her guests for leaving wet footprints on the floor. Later we moved to a bungalow on the beach, though neither of us remember it being as close to the high tide line as the bungalows on White Sands Beach today. Seriously, the merest rise in ocean levels and most of the development on that beachfront will tumble into the sea.

In fact, there’s a sense of impermanence about most of the development on Koh Chang. The interior of the island is rugged mountains and dense jungle, a good deal of the coastline shale and mangroves. Most of the land and surrounding sea are protected as part of the Muk Koh Chang National Park. The development, though substantial, is low-rise and generally small scale. I got the impression — especially sitting in the back of a songthaew as it wound its way up scarily steep slopes and around perilous hairpin bends — that the island could shake off the hotels and restaurants, the clothing stores and beer bars, as easily as an elephant shrugs unwanted passengers from its back after a bath.

imageI experienced the latter firsthand. On Koh Chang, whose name means ‘Elephant Island’ in Thai, the elephant experience is a huge (no pun intended) part of the attraction. We booked a date with the island’s namesakes to celebrate Miss (now) Ten’s birthday. On the advice of the folks at Explore Koh Chang, we went with Ban Kwan Chang, which is affiliated with the Asian Elephant Foundation. Our two-hour package gave us a lengthy ride through exquisite jungle, with Miss Ten replacing the mahout and riding on the elephant’s head for part of the trip; and an elephant bathing experience in a clear jungle stream that was way deeper than it looked, as I discovered when shrugged unceremoniously from the elephant’s back. Despite my near-drowning experience, it was enormous fun. Our mount, Phoupei, was 35 years old, with mottled ears and a fondness for bananas. Our mahout was a local, though another hailed from Surin, famous for its elephant muster.

At the risk of generalising, the Koh Chang locals are a pretty friendly lot. I only had to visit an establishment more than once to be greeted like a friend; and people seemed to respond particularly warmly to my clumsy attempts to speak Thai (discounts on songthaew fares, for example). The island attracts the usual economic refugees from the northeast, who work in the ubiquitous bars, restaurants and Thai massage businesses. There are also a few leathery farang expats, and a significant number of Khmers among the population, including Rei, our guide on the Five Island Tour we did on Christmas Day.

We embarked on the tour from the pier at Bang Bao in Koh Chang’s south, a place so picturesque, we returned a couple of days later to shop and eat lunch at a seafood place overlooking the water. The cruise was bumpy at first, but the swell had settled by the time we reached the first snorkelling spot at Koh Yak Yai. Rei put Miss Ten’s (and my) nerves to rest by guiding us, using an extra lifejacket as a towing device. We saw some nice blue and green corals among the more degraded stuff, and some beautiful tropical fish. The second snorkelling stop was a bit freaky on account of the jellyfish — thankfully not the dangerous box jellyfish we’d been warned about — but the benign ‘scratchy’ ones that are nonetheless disconcerting when you plough through a bloom of them. The highlight was Rei feeding the fish (rice) so they swarmed around us, the ubiquitous black and yellow striped variety, plus gorgeous purple parrot fish.

imageAfter lunch and a stopover on the beach at Koh Rang, home to a cast of hermit crabs, we stopped for some line fishing. This seemed to be the preferred activity of the Russians who made up the rest of our tour group, and there were plenty of photo opportunities for them as they reeled in yellow fin, ‘big eyes’, grouper and even a parrot fish. Miss Ten caught a ‘big eye’ with her dad’s help — much to her excitement. But no one was a match for the captain, Mr Yod, who seemed to hook the fish effortlessly with a handheld line. While we went snorkelling for a third time, the guys on the boat cooked the catch for us to eat — as I said to Miss Ten, the freshest fish she’s ever likely to eat.

The highlights of the third snorkel were gorgeous purple and blue giant clams, known evocatively as ‘hoi meu seua’ — ‘tiger’s hand shells’ — in Thai, anemone fish, and a stunning black fish with white spots, that I suspect was a many-spotted sweetlips.

imageKoh Chang’s rugged landscape also lends itself to waterfalls and we visited the main one at Khlong Plu on our last day. I have a vague recollection of having been there in 1997, but I hadn’t remembered how lovely it was to swim in its cool pools, even with the ‘pla phuong’ (salmon-like fish) nibbling at your feet. The site was busy, boys and men challenging each other to climb higher up the surrounding cliffs to plunge into the water, me trying to convince Miss Ten not to follow their lead. All the same, the crowd did not detract from the beauty and serenity of the place, the backdrop of falling water and cicadas, the air filled with butterflies in blue, green, orange and yellow.

A national park ranger showed me video on his phone of the same spot at the height of the rainy season and it was unrecognisable, the air filled with mist, a river, white and churning, where the pools now were.

imageI realise I’ve hardly mentioned Koh Chang’s beaches. They’re nice. Not spectacular, like those in Krabi, nor as imposing as those in Phuket, although they do have swings, which are pretty damn fabulous. Our favourite swimming beach was Khlong Phrao/Chai Chet on account of the shade (for me) and lack of rocks (for Miss Ten), though we enjoyed staying in Kai Bae, with its cheap Thai restaurants, fresh fruit stalls and family-friendly vibe. White Sands was way too crowded, and Pearl Bay downright creepy, though I did manage to take one of my best photos of the holiday there.

imageThe other thing to note about Koh Chang is the wildlife: monkeys using overhead wires to travels between scavenging sites; cockroaches the size of puppies; fire ants and mosquitoes (damn them all to hell); sea eagles; and the Asian Koel, whose dawn cry was so loud and insistent, I’m astonished my travelling companions managed to sleep through it.

I suspect Koh Chang will continue to develop, if the constant backdrop of construction noise along the west coast is anything to go by. It’s romantic, I know, but I could equally well imagine the environment fighting back. A rise in sea levels and the beachfront bungalows became a new Atlantis. A quiet tourist season or two, and it feels like the lianas, creepers and vines could snake their way down from the mountain slopes, wrapping everything in their path in lush green foliage, until there is nothing but jungle again.

 

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Top Australian crime reads 2015

It’s that time of year for ‘best of’ lists. Usually a ‘top five’ or ‘top ten’ proposition, I’ve decided to go with my top six Australian crime reads for 2015, seeing as how it makes for a neat collage.

First, some stats. In 2015, I read a total of 23 crime novels and three true crime/non-fiction books. Of these 26 titles, 17 were written by Australian authors and 19 were written by women. Fourteen were released this year. Of the 2015 releases, my picks are:

PIC_Top Aust crime 2015

Resurrection Bay by Emma Viskic (Echo Press), set in Melbourne and on Victoria’s southwest coast, is a noirish tale featuring a profoundly deaf protagonist; a stunning debut.

Garry Disher’s The Heat (Text Publishing) is a lean, taut thriller — rather like I imagine the protagonist to be — that finds professional thief Wyatt in Noosa to steal a painting.

In another impressive debut, JM Green combines a gritty take on inner city Melbourne with gallows humour in Good Money (Scribe).

Ann Turner’s background as a film-maker shows in her debut novel, The Lost Swimmer, a compulsive psychological thriller set in gorgeous Mediterranean locations.

Anna Jaquiery’s new Serge Morel novel, Death in the Rainy Season (Mantle), set in Cambodia, is rich and atmospheric, with an intelligent and satisfying plot.

And my friend and sister in crime Sulari Gentill’s seventh novel in the Rowland Sinclair series, Give the Devil His Due (Pantera Press), is a witty and wonderful read.

ClaustrophobiaI’m also giving an honourable mention to a novel I read this year, which was released last year, Tracy Ryan’s Claustrophobia (Transit Lounge). Ryan’s novel manages to be both beautifully written and teeth-grindingly tense. I also reckon it qualifies as a rare example of Australian noir.

But what about you? What did you read in the way of crime fiction in 2015, and what were your stand-out reads?

I’d also like to take this opportunity to wish readers of this blog a happy, healthy and restorative festive season, however and wherever you spend it. For my part, I shall be in Bangkok…

 

 

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On location: Surin

Surin doesn’t feature prominently in the first draft of my novel. But I seemed to meet a disproportionate number of economic refugees in Bangkok from Surin province: taxi drivers, tuk-tuk drivers, bargirls, a fruit vendor near the railway line on Ploenchit Road, who’d left her eight month old daughter behind to ‘draw from another well’, as the Thais put it. There’s more than one Thai surrogate character in my novel and, given that Surin is the neighbouring province to Sisaket, I thought it was worth a visit.

The provincial capital, also called Surin, is best known for its annual elephant round up, held in November. The town was still wearing its festival finery when we arrived, red banners strung across the street. We didn’t see many ‘foreign’ tourists during our visit — the festival is really Surin’s moment in the sun — although tour bus loads of Thais were visiting the Angkor-era temple of Phanom Rung, in Buriram province, but accessible from Surin.

The temple of Phanom Rung (‘vast mountain’ in Khmer) is the best preserved of its kind in Thailand and a wonder to behold, built on the summit of an extinct volcano, the only point of elevation in an otherwise flat landscape. There is something poignant about coming across the splendour of Phanom Rung in an otherwise humble place. The temple is accessed via a steep staircase, the exterior decorated with carvings depicting scenes from the Hindu pantheon and the Ramayana. The view of the surrounding plains is through a curtain of frangipani trees.

After spending a couple of hours at Phanom Rung, we returned to Surin town, where Miss Nearly-Ten decided she wanted a haircut. We managed to find a place near the morning market, a salon in the front room of the home of a Mrs Kimly. In the tradition of local businesses, the electricity was off when we arrived but quickly turned on. While Miss Nearly-Ten revelled in the full service — shampoo, head massage, haircut and blow dry — I chatted with the neighbours, who were clearly amused to meet a Lao/Issarn speaking foreigner. They were lovely company. All of them had children elsewhere. One had a daughter in Bangkok, another in New Zealand. Unlike the characters in my stories, I don’t speak much Thai. But I can carry on conversations in Lao, which is the dialect in the northeast part of Thailand, and it was a real treat to swap stories with these women.

We spent two nights in Surin, eating both nights at the evening market, which was on the doorstep of our hotel. I even convinced bribed Miss Nearly-Ten to join me in trying the fried crickets, a local delicacy — actually quite tasty in the way that most things are when deep-fried and salted.

Among the most enjoyable and enlightening aspects of visiting Sisaket and Surin was the train travel involved in getting there and away. We caught a 3rd class ‘rapid’ train between the two towns, where the open windows were far more effective than the overhead ceiling fans in terms of cooling. The view took in what many consider to be the ‘real’ Thailand, family rice farms, the paddy reduced to straw tufts at this post-harvest time of year. I saw one family hanging out in the shade while the father raked raw, laundry spread out on the rice stalks to dry.

On the train trip today from Surin to Nakon Rachasima, I saw a man pushing a wooden plough behind a water buffalo. I tried to explain to Miss Nearly-Ten the significance of this ‘poor man’s tractor’, how rarely it is seen these days. Likewise, I pointed out the poor housing lining the railway line, trying to explain that for those who could not afford land, this was often the only housing option. Clumsy attempts to explain what I was myself remembering about disparities in wealth in this complex country.

At the same time, I was amazed by the wildlife we could see, the herons and kingfishers rising from the paddies, the squirrels running along the electric wires. My memory might be faulty, but it seemed to me there is more bird life than I remember in this part of Thailand.

Another striking feature of the landscape were the stations, each pretty and well-tended, titivated with statuary, water features, topiary, portraits of the King — often all of the above.

On the train we snacked on fresh pomelo and pyramids of sticky rice stuffed with taro and wrapped in banana leaves, resisting the grilled chicken. Miss Nearly-Ten’s biggest thrill was the experience of walking between carriages on a moving train.

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Your faithful correspondent at work on the train from Surin to Korat

After nearly twelve hours’ travel, we arrived today in Trat, the jumping off point for my personal leave time. We’ll be spending Christmas on Koh Chang, before heading back to Bangkok for New Year and some last minute location research. Thus, I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the next week or so.

Thanks to those of you who’ve come along for the ride so far. I’ve appreciated your comments and ‘likes’ and look forward to crossing virtual paths again in the New Year.

Meanwhile, I wish you all the very best for a fun and restorative festive season and an excellent start to 2016.

 

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On location: Sisaket 2

While Pra Wiharn remains inaccessible, Sisaket province is home to several other Angkor-era temples, the best preserved of which are the ruins of Prasad Hin Sa Kampaeng Yai, a temple originally built in the 10th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. I had this place in mind as the setting for a scene in my novel and wanted to visit to see if it would work.

The ruins are accessed through the entrance to the modern-day Buddhist temple of Wat Sa Khampaeng Yai, past the manifestations of the Buddha allocated to different days of the week. The ruins comprise laterite walls, posts and lintels, some with their intricate carvings still visible, which once forms the bases for the temple’s towers. The best preserved sculpted frieze is a rare scene from the Ramayana epic (Ramakien, in Thai) depicting the monkey god Hanuman visiting Sita in captivity on Lanka and showing her Rama’s ring to prove he’s been sent by her husband. The frieze is beautiful and the ruins impressive enough to imagine what the temple must have been like.

On the day of our visit, small boys were playing soccer in the grassy grounds enclosed inside the ruins. They greeted as with cries of ‘falang’ (which we’re getting used to in this part of the world) and ‘buffalo’ (naughty, verging on rude). The place seemed to fire Miss Nine’s imagination as well as my own as we wondered around.

A second attraction of Wat Sa Khampaeng Yai is its small, rundown Hell Garden, a collection of faded concrete statues among the trees that line a terrace alongside the modern temple. Unlike the Hell Garden I visited in Chonburi, where the punishments are meted out by Hell guards, here the damned seemed to torture themselves.

An alcoholic appears to be cutting his own mouth as he sucks on his bottle. A woman gnaws on meat as the bones pile up at her feet. A man’s head appears to have grown too heavy to lift, his eyes popping out of their sockets.

(The latter reminded us of an Australian friend saying she’d been warned by Lao friends not to read too much or her head would explode!).

Another figure is crushed, barely visible, beneath a slab of stone, perhaps succumbing to guilt or shame.

Despite being rundown, or perhaps because of it, the place had an eerie solemnity.

As we left, we crossed paths with a mangy, deformed dog that looked as if it should’ve been part of the Hell Garden display. It was even the same patchy white colour over pink skin.

Speaking of deformed animals, we also visited the Sisaket Zoo, a small, miserable collection of birds, reptiles and mammals housed in the ‘forest park’ of Suan Somdet. In the past, I’ve thought of Asian zoos as guilty pleasures, because you could get closer to the animals than you could at home in Australia. Sure enough, at the Sisaket Zoo, you could buy bread and pellets to feed the fish, bananas to feed the deer, sunbears, hippos (?). Miss Nearly-Ten thought it was great, but I found the whole thing cringe-worthy. If I tell you the small herd of deformed cows with supernumerary limbs dangling from their necks wasn’t the worst of it, you’ll have some sense of how dire it was. Some of the sights — a great knot of pythons, a prickle of battle-scarred porcupines, an Indian vulture stretching its wings as though measuring the dimensions of its cage — seem almost too over-the-top for fiction.

Local delicacies, Sisaket Evening Market

Local delicacies, Sisaket Evening Market

Still, the visit was enormously valuable in terms of my research. I got to travel to Sisaket by train, as one of my characters does, and found a quirky hotel where she could stay. I also found a house where my local character could live in Sisaket town. I got to experience several scenes I’d drafted in my novel, including a visit to the Morning Market, watching the monks doing  the morning rounds with their alms bowls, visiting the ruins and Hell Garden at Wat Sa Khamphaeng Yai, and eating at Sisaket’s bustling Evening Market.

(Though I balked at trying the local delicacies of crickets, cicadas, beetles, chrysalis and another insect that looked like a large flying ant, I did try the crickets the following evening in Surin, but that’s another blog post!).

Best of all, I got a feel for the town and its people, described in Janet Brown’s book as among Thailand’s friendliest and ‘very sweet’.

 

 

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On location: Sisaket 1

It was largely on a whim that I decided one of the characters in my novel should come from Sisaket. I first became aware of this town in Thailand’s northeast Issarn region reading Janet Brown’s wonderful memoir, Tone Deaf in Bangkok (2008, ThingsAsian Press). In the 1990s, Sisaket was an affordable weekend escape for her from Bangkok, its attractions including a ‘gigantic food market’, blacksmith shops, and ‘skeins of pale yellow silk…like thread spun from durian’ on every street corner. But it was her last line that stayed with me:

“Go there,” I tell my friends, “and then leave it alone. Sisaket belongs to me.” (p. 105)

Setting aside the clumsy claim to ownership, I sympathise with what Brown is trying to say. Hers is the paradox of finding somewhere special that you want to share, knowing this will change it, not wanting it to change. Somewhere in there you recognise that you are already, irrevocably part of that change.

By contrast, the 2005 Lonely Planet Thailand guidebook describes Sisaket town as ‘perennially humdrum’ (p. 516).

Sisaket province is probably best known as the jumping off point for what is known in Thailand as Prasat Khao Pra Viharn and in Cambodia as Preah Vihear. The Angkor-era temple is located in Cambodia (as recognised by the UN in 1962), but accessed most easily through Sisaket in Thailand. In 2008, when we were living in Phnom Penh, the monument became a flash point for tensions between the two countries, leading to military conflict. As I was writing my novel, I thought about the impact of this conflict on tourism in the area and the economic consequences for local people, and had this play out in my character’s decision to turn to paid surrogacy.

After spending the day here, I’m convinced it was the right place for my character to come from.

We travelled overnight from Bangkok to Sisaket on a vintage 1996 South Korean train that had seen better days (I feel the cockroaches would agree!), arriving just after six as the town was waking to the sounds of roosters crowing, birds singing and dogs barking. We’d booked a room at the rather nice Vijitnakorn Nonpak Hotel but couldn’t check in until midday, leaving us to wander the streets for the better part of six hours.

We started at the Morning Market (Talat Sao) near the station, where I felt instantly at home among the Lao-speaking vendors selling live catfish and frogs, whole pigs’ heads and sticky rice baskets (the skinning of the live frogs made it into both mine and Miss Nine’s journals as the most gross thing we saw today). You could buy at least three different kinds of gourd, purple as well as green snake beans, fresh flowers, and dried strips of cowhide for making jeow bong. There were fruits and vegetables I’d never seen before; and the local equivalent of bouquet garni I wish I could buy at home: hand-made packs of chilli, green peppercorns, kaffir lime leaves and shredded galangal, for instance. Barefoot monks were doing the rounds with their alms bowls, acknowledging donations with blessings, while the food vendors were dishing out sticky rice, grilled things on sticks and offal soup.

We ate breakfast soup (minus the offal) at the Nong Em cafe, where we were served by the eponymous Em, daughter of the owner and graduate of a Bangkok university, where she’d studied English. The decor in the cafe was simple: plastic tablecloths advertising Coke, photos of Buddhist monks and the Thai royal family, a formal black-and-white portrait of an older couple, and on display on a sideboard, drinking glasses, a bottle of  ‘Johnny Black’, and a framed photo of the family taken in front of the Anousavouli monument in Vientiane; a small wooden tailboat, draped in coloured scarves and dessicated garlands, hung in the doorway for good luck.

imageI re-read Brown’s book shortly before leaving Australia, and the other attraction for her of Sisaket was the kindness of the local people. She quoted a ‘Bangkok refugee’ as saying, “They are very sweet.” This was borne out this morning, when I asked about getting a taxi, and Nong Em’s neighbour, Champen, came to the rescue and called one for us. We had the driver, Dtia, take us to the Sisaket Aquarium, which specialises in local fish breeds. Where ritzy aquariums have tunnels through large tanks filled with sharks and rays, the large tank at the Sisaket Aquarium has Giant Mekong Catfish and Chaophraya Giant Catfish, swimming around what looks like the ruins of an underwater Angkor-era temple. As a bonus, you can immerse your feet in tanks by the gift shop and get the dry skin nibbled from your feet by fish that apparently specialise in foot spas.

From the aquarium, Dtia took us to one of the Angkor era ruins of Wat Sai Kampeng Yai, which I was keen to visit as a setting for my novel. Stay tuned for more on this and other novels ideas…

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