Bangers and splash: writing and water festivals in Bangkok
Sean Thomas, interviewed by Paul Oswell
Sean Thomas is an author and journalist. He has written a series of action thrillers as Tom Knox and most recently, as S.K. Tremayne, under which name he has published international best-selling psychological/supernatural thrillers such as The Ice Twins. He often retreats to Bangkok to work, and Shandy Pockets caught up with him in the departure lounge as he came to the end of his latest visit.
Shandy Pockets: We're both long-time fans of Bangkok, and you go there regularly to work and write. I've never really equated it as being a city with tranquility and quiet space to create - how do you make that work for you?
Sean Thomas: With the possible exception of my own flat in Camden, London, Bangkok is the BEST place, for me, to write. It is quite boring during the day, unless you REALLY like shopping malls and traffic, so there are few distractions. Consequently, you work, as there is literally nothing else to do. Yet the city comes alive at night, in all ways, so when you want fun and drink and company, it's all there, as a reward for your toils. I believe William Faulkner once told the Paris Review that brothels are the best places for writers to work - for the same reason. Tranquility by day, amusement and company by night.
I know you write there a lot, but has Bangkok made it into any of your books as a backdrop? If not, is it somewhere you plan to incorporate in the future?
It features in one of my Tom Knox novels, the Bible of the Dead (called The Lost Goddess in America). The location is the precise area I stay, sois 2-24, Sukhumvit Road, with all its sordid glory and excellent restaurants. It was fun writing shootouts and car chases in my favourite bars and backsois.
One of the things I most love about the city is living like a prince for not much money and doing things I can't afford/justify at home - tailored suits, massages, wet shaves, etc. Do you indulge yourself while you're there? Do you have any favourite/regular places?
I indulge myself simply by staying in a hotel for four weeks, where all chores are taken care of: the room is cleaned, the curry arrives via room service, the pool and gym are there for me to unwind (or think up new ideas). Other than that I am fairly frugal, apart from getting all my laundry done. And wine. I buy lots of wine. And great seafood. OK, I'm not that frugal. By the way the hotel I use, Dynasty Grande, on soi 6, Sukhumvit, is an absolute bargain. Perfect location, yet quiet. 4 star semi-luxury for modest 3 star prices. A total gem.
Do you go and look at any of the new wave of bars/restaurants? I know there are craft cocktail bars and the like now (Iron Faeries, etc) which seem a bit out of place in my mind...do you think there's a drift towards these places which could be seen in Shoreditch/Williamsburg/insert gentrified neighborhood of your choice?
I've got a good friend in Bangkok, Sarah Chang, who owns bars and restaurants (her husband's restaurant Issaya is superb - try it). She takes me to these places. They're fun. Iron Faeries is a hoot. I have no idea where it is. I just get in a cab and go there - after 10pm, or the traffic is hellish. (It's at 394 Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lor), just for info - SP)
Are you a fan of street food? If so, what's your favored spot? I like the street up near the Royal Palace, outside the big hospital (Sangkhalok) - the best places are anywhere close to where low-paid workers/students are, right?
I don't really do street food, I know I should. But there is one exception. The best street food in the world is the famous woman who makes the famous yellow curry outside the temple with the lovers swing seat in the old town, near the royal palace as you say (I did mention that I wasn't very good on geography). People queue for hours to eat her food. She cooks with three woks. Genius. (This is Jay Fai - SP)
Preferred mode of public transport? I like to take the odd motorbike taxi just to get the adrenaline up.
Tuk tuk by day, Skytrain if shopping, taxi after ten. The motorbikes are lethal. Avoid.
I always say that Bangkok is one of the few places in the world where you get way more hassle as a single man than a single woman. Would you agree? What are your avoidance tactics? I walk fast with a mean look.
Yes, just put your earbuds in and walk fast (not always easy, Bangkokians walk SLOOOOOOWLY, because of the heat). The katoeys/ladyboys can be quite aggressive if they are in the mood. That said, all the ones I have met personally are sweet as can be, and I'm sure 99% are wonderful human beings. The Thai tolerance of sexual eccentricity - and human quirkiness - is a truly great thing. Seen at its best in Bangkok.
Best dining experience if money is no object? Sra Bua in the Kempinski might just nudge it for me.
Sra Bua is the best upmarket resto, agreed. Issaya (mentioned above) is also great. Nahm I found a little underwhelming. But the very best food I have tried is cheap (by western standards). The Swan restaurant on the junction of sois 4 and 6, Sukhumvit. Fab.
You've been there during Songkran (the water festival where water pistols are encouraged). How annoying is it when you're just trying to get around?
Extremely bloody annoying. Bangkoksters tend to leave the town during the festival, and they have good reason. You can't move without getting zapped with water and thereafter acquiring some hideous eye infection. If by mistake I find myself in Bangkok at the right time, I hunker down and stay in. It would be fine if it was just one day, but it's not, it now stretches to nearly a week. Very tiresome.
Finally, what's the weirdest thing that's happened to you in Bangkok? Off the top of my head, I once had some guy trying to give me a standing thai massage while I was at the urinal in Radio City (RIP). I'm sure you've got better.
God, too many to think of! Bangkok is great for oddness. Probably the most memorable was when a Thai company published my first Tom Knox thriller, the Genesis Secret (long before I became S K Tremayne). They invited me to the Bangkok Book Fair (a big thing) and gave me a bound golden volume of the Genesis Secret, in Thai, to present to the Crown Princess in person. As she came round I tried to do a bow, but I've never done a bow, so I sort of fell over. It must have been quite a sight, a nervous British writer flailing on his knees in front of Thai royalty while clutching a golden volume of his thriller about ritual disembowelling in ancient Kurdistan. The Crown Princess was very nice. She pretended not to notice me half sprawling on the floor, and took the book from my shaking hands with a gracious smile.
Sean Thomas is an author and journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter.