Last week I read Tone Deaf in Bangkok (ThingsAsian Press, 2008), a delightful memoir by Janet Brown. In 1995, Brown–the mother of two grown sons–moves to Bangkok to teach. At the age of 45, she quickly immerses herself into local life and ends up staying six years.
When she’s not teaching, Brown fills her days with learning the Thai language and exploring Bangkok on foot, bus, and motorcycle taxi. She writes about the food, the restaurants, clubs, festivals, and Thai dating customs, which she learns firsthand as she and her Thai language teacher start a relationship.
Her Bangkok stories are rich and vivid, but so are the stories that comprise the Other Places of the book’s title. One of these places includes Nong Khai, a northern town that sits on the Mekong across from Laos. I haven’t met many people who have been to Nong Khai, and certainly haven’t read much about it. (In 1991, I had a week in Thailand to fill before my dad met me in Bangkok. So I spent that time in Nong Khai and loved every minute of it.)
Other chapters set outside Bangkok include two in Cambodia. For me, these two chapters were the most haunting in the book and probably the ones I’ll remember the clearest for years to come. There will come a time in Cambodia where no one will have remembered the years 1975 to 1979. But when Brown visited Phnom Penh in 1997, she met people who had survived the Khmer Rouge. Reading about her trips to the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Museum brought tears to my eyes. Her driver and de facto guide lost his parents in Tuol Sleng.
But the most chilling Cambodian chapter has to be the one set in Khao Pra Viharn, the mountainous area on the Thai-Cambodia border. Pol Pot camped out there until his death in 1998. The trip itself was strenuous, dangerous, and little-traveled. Brown writes:
Giant cobras flanked the entry, and slabs of quarried stone that were almost as long as my body cobbled the staircase that was carved into the cliff. Meadow grass, sprinkled with delicate, aspen-like trees, waved against signs cautioning that landmines were still a distinct possibility.
Through her writing and the beautiful photos by Nana Chen scattered throughout the book, I enjoyed learning about Brown’s time in Bangkok, other parts of Thailand, and Cambodia. Her memoir is short at 155 pages, but it’s rich in both words and pictures.