Writing crime fiction set in Thailand presents a conundrum. I want to showcase the beauty and culture of the country and its people. But writing about crime means exploring the underbelly of the place, the seedier side that only makes it into travel guides under ‘Dangers and Annoyances’.
Take my current draft novel, working title Down by Pattaya Bay. Most of the action takes place in Pattaya on Thailand’s central coast — not the sort of place I’d recommend to anyone as a holiday destination (although more than a million tourists a year would beg to differ).
So I decided a couple of characters should come from Kanchanaburi in the west, a town Roo and I first visited in 1992. Kanchanaburi is probably most famous outside Thailand as the site of the Bridge on the River Kwai and the Death Railway, built by the Japanese during WW II using Allied Prisoners of War and indentured Asian labourers.
But there’s more to Kanchanaburi than its wartime history. The riverside town is charming — floating discos and karaoke bars notwithstanding — the people are laid-back and the food delicious, especially the freshwater fish. The province, also called Kanchanaburi, is rugged and picturesque, home to wildlife sanctuaries where wild elephants and even tigers roam. Erawan Falls. Tumeric Stream. Tiger Cave Monastery. Hellfire Pass. Golden Dragon Temple. Three Pagodas Pass. The names on the map alone make it sound alluring.
For all these reasons I chose Kanchanaburi as a secondary setting for my current book and, just after Buddhist New Year last month, my family and I paid a visit to the place specifically to scope out settings for my book.
In addition to local colour, I was interested in visiting a place I’d read about called Wat Tham Seua — the Tiger Cave Monastery — as the setting for a scene involving my heroine Jayne Keeney and a Thai Buddhist monk. The trip to the monastery brought home the importance of checking out a setting first-hand, rather than relying on other people’s accounts.
Here’s what the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand (2005 ed) has to say about Wat Tham Seua and the neighbouring temple of Wat Tham Khao Noi:
“These large, hilltop monasteries about 15km southeast of Kanchanaburi are important local pilgrimage spots, especially for Chinese Buddhists. Wat Tham Khao Noi (Little Hill Cave Monastery) is a Chinese temple… Adjacent is the half-Thai, half-Chinese-style Wat Tham Seua… Both are built on a ridge over a series of small caves. Wat Tham Khao Noi is not much of a climb, since it’s on the side of the slope. Seeing Wat Tham Seua means climbing either a steep set of naga stairs or a meandering set of steps past the cave entrance.
“A climb to the top is rewarded with views of Mae Nam Khwae on one side and rice fields on the other. Wat Tham Seua features a huge sitting Buddha facing the river, with a conveyor belt that carries money offerings into a huge alms bowl in the image’s lap. The easier set of steps to the right of the temple’s naga stairs leads to a cave and passes and aviary with peacocks and other exotic birds…”
In fact, Wat Tham Khao Noi is a hell of a climb, especially if you continue past the summit of the hill up five spiral staircases to the top of the pagoda — where the dizzying views are truly spectacular. Wat Tham Seua, by contrast, has a funicular railway, making the ascent a breeze.
The LP’s description also fails to capture the fairground atmosphere of the quirky Tiger Cave Monastery with its glitzy, gargantuan gold Buddha and garish concrete tiger. Devotees can buy all sorts of offerings, including little dishes of baht coins to feed on to the conveyor belt that drops the coin into the huge bowl at the Buddha’s feet. Low-tech, high-kitsch, gloriously Thai!
I had planned to set a rather solemn scene at Wat Tham Seua, but having been there, I’ll be setting the scene next door in the more tranquil grounds of Wat Tham Khao Noi.
Still, I’ll find a way of bring the Tiger Cave Temple into the story, too…
This post also appears on my other blog.