4 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

Charles Nicholl wants to experience a little of the world so in 1986 he heads to Thailand to take in some of the sights and to learn about the spiritual traditions of forest Buddhism. He was heading to the north of the country to a place called Chiang Mai to visit a temple but the train he was on has just pulled into the Lop Buri. There is much excitement with vendors selling everything from smoked fish to iced drinks in plastic bags.

When the train gets moving again, he heads down the carriages to see if he could find the tall Caucasian guy who had boarded. He was an American and they get talking and it was in this conversation that he heard about Harry. It wasn’t long after that he met him, a slight seedy but formal man with swept-back black hair and an accent that he couldn’t quite place. He recommended a place for Nicholls to stay and they all went back to their carriages

It wouldn’t be long before they were to meet again and as they talked, Nicholl realised that the aim of finding spiritual solace in the temples of Thailand was looking less appealing than the thought of travelling along the banks of the Mekong and into the Golden Triangle and maybe even Burma. It would be a journey that would take him to some of the sordid bars of Bangkok with a German businessman, to partake in the pleasures and pain of opium and to spend far too long in the company of Harry’s girlfriend, Kitai.

I really liked this book, mostly because it doesn’t conform to what you would find elsewhere with travel writing. There is not much detail about the places that he is passing through, but he manages to convey the atmosphere in very few words. Rather this is a people-centred travel experience and what does come across is that he is sometimes out of his depth, not because he is getting himself in trouble, rather Harry is playing a very different game on the fringes of society there. Even though he has a certain amount of naivety in his travels, he is open-minded enough to know that this is an experience that he might never have happened if it wasn’t for the chance meeting on that train. The book is full of the wonder that he sees in the people and places they end up in.

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