Travel Books

Travel Books: Indonesia

Trying to stay on the cheap while travelling, I was relying on eBooks I could get from Toronto’s Public Library as reference for travel material. It soon became clear, however, after searching for “Indonesia” in the Library’s collection, that Indonesian books aren’t high on the list for serving Torontonians public interest. An amazing discovery, I know.

So, it meant I had to spend money on a book (Gasp). It became a mission:  looked for a decent book on Bali for a while. There were some that got high praise, Under the volcano by Cameron Forbes, plus others which came out of the 1930s (Bali’s golden era, when ex-pats and artists set up here) – but thought there themes might be too specific about an aspect of Bali (one on gamelan music, for example) or from a too distant era.

So, I went with this one below, and swallowed hard as I forked over a few bucks.

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It’s a decent enough book, providing a survey of the island’s history, including a glimpse at Holland’s colonial past on the island. Found it wavered into academia in parts and detailed hierarchies of the royal family over time (ex. this prince was married to this caste, which if you remember is non-royal caste that contained a third cousin from a previous marriage with his second cousin from royal lineage. Huh?). Sometimes it felt as tangled as trying to sort out the starting point of Internet traffic.

Overall though, found it a decent primer to learn about how the island’s image as this idyllic backdrop was largely cultivated by ex-pats, and isn’t entirely relevant of the actual Balinese culture.

Book I started but didn’t/couldn’t finish 

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It’s a story about poor kids growing up in Sumatra and looking for inspiration in their lives. It was a decent enough book, but I found it a bit too simple and fairy-tale like. Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, and so I gave it a pass. From what I gather, it’s a bestseller in Indonesia. Who knows? I might have another shot at it.

Books I’d like to read (if I can get over my cheapness)

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Meant to be a good history of Bali and gets praise from others ala: “If you only read one book on Bali, make it this one”. Since I’ve already read one will that spoil it?

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Set in 1965 in Jakarta, follows story of a journalist around the time of the attempted Communist coup and Sukarno’s iron fist clamping down on it with wholesale impunity. Estimates are that he killed over 500,000 suspected Communists. It was also made into an early 80s film with Mel Gibson.

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Travel Books: Cambodia

Good books I read while I was there: 

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Told by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge – a woman whose family lived in Phnom Penh as it was overthrown. Her father was a government employee from the previous regime, and so was led out to the Killing Fields. It’s a harrowing book. She recounts how desperate her and other families and children were, as well as the inhumane treatment from soldiers of the Khmer Rouge. I thought it gave a really good background into how extreme the country had become – as she describes how the entire population of Phnom Penh was cleared out and forced to work in the countryside. And, as a young girl, she of course was considered a jewel of the new Khmer movement, and enlisted in a work/military camp – only to be eventually liberated by the Vietnamese. It’s graphic, and I found it hard to read for the brutality in some parts, but a good read for a sense of how far the country swung from sanity.

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Written by another survivor of the Khmer Rouge period, but rather than a first person account, he interlaces his experiences of that period with modern day interviews with the former Khmer Rouge general who ran the S21 jail (the torture encampment where Rose and I went). He had the chance to interview Duch, because Duch was on trial for his crimes as the head of the Security prison. (He was indicted with a life sentence in 2012). Thought it was a good read, not only for a better understanding of what exactly happened during this time, but also for insight into how someone could allow torture, executions and other crimes while being able to sleep at night. The writer’s idea is that Duch was math obsessed, and revelled in the incorruptibility of numbers – and so, when given orders to wipe out a group of people, he saw it as numbers on a page – an equation – rather than people with lives and families. Also, backs up Hannah Arendt’s idea of  the”Banality of Evil”.

Books I want to read (but couldn’t find them through the library and right now am too cheap to buy) 

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Washington Post journalist who interviewed past Cambodian leaders (not only Khmer Rouge) and lays a historical idea down of how something like the Khmer Rouge could have happened at all.

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Written by New York Times journalist who covered the fall of Phnom Penh with his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran. Their story and relationship after the country’s fall was the basis for the 1984 film: The Killing Fields. This is the book or story (it’s only 112 pages) on which the film is based.

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Voila, that brought our time to a close in Cambodia. I really liked visiting the temples near Siem Reap and our time chatting with Kim-San, our guide, and hotel owner who led us through Angkor Wat, Thom and Ta Prohm. I thought they were amazing to walk through and see, and I really liked our chats.

For the rest of our time in Cambodia, I wasn’t as excited about. I don’t have enough chops to say the whys and hows, only a gut sense. And mine was that it is changing, but I didn’t feel it was as vibrant as Vietnam or as peaceful and friendly as Laos. I know, these are huge opinions for such a short time spent there, but there it is for now.

Travel Books: Vietnam

Rose and I catch a ton of tips, bits, and ideas about where we’re currently travelling and where we’re heading thanks to the widest web in the world and even real people! (Amazing, I know. Don’t believe it? It’s vrai.)

One of these things we’ve both accumulated are books. Not physically, thankfully, because we’d never pass the weight restrictions on airplanes.

Instead we’ve each read a bit on the places we’ve gone or are heading, aside from just run of the mill travel guides. Though, to be fair, Rose’s approach may be more indirect through an aside in a Robert Ludlum novel, a single mention in a Scandinavian crime novel or when Jack Reacher says anything about the Vietnam War.

Nevertheless, the point still stands.

From fiction to non and beyond, I thought I’d add a section related to some of the books about the countries we’ve visited which either one of us found insightful, handy, hilarious, or a comforting read on the toilet.

As we meet people along the way, I find I ask what they’re reading as much for conversation as a recommendation, and thought, well, why not pass along my own.

I recognize all of this is probably delusional, considering my family and Rose’s are our main fanbase, on this thing – but who knows, someone three steps removed from family might crack out of the woodwork, and instead of kind encouragements like: “I’m reading your blog!”- might find something actually helpful.

Also, since most of our posts are about US, US, US, I thought too, it might be nice for a change to lead you to some professional writing that could offer more sustenance. Rather than observations here like: “Hah. We saw a monkey today, and I think it was circumsized!.”

So, with that in mind:

Good books I read about Vietnam on this trip:

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Pho,pho,pho. Plot follows a pho vendor who secretly operates his pho stand outside of Communist vendor bureaucracy. Nice insights into cultural change after the Vietnam War and openings for entrepreneurship after 80s economic reforms. Plus tasty descriptions of Pho inspired us to make it even more imperative to order it wherever we went in Vietnam. And for bonus marks the author is Canadian. Rose suggested I may have given her an easier pass, because of that. Could be. But still a good one.

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Historical background on both Indochina wars, plus insights into why the U.S. carried on from the French when the odds of victory looked dim. Really good- def recommend for background on the Vietnam War and prior colonialism of the region.

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Author was a soldier in Vietnam. He relays stories about his time and impressions of  his platoon. Book is broken up into different stories, relating to a single event he remembers – written in a way that’s almost an elegy. Found it interesting, and of course, sad to get an understanding of how it looked to someone who at first was on his way to Canada to protest the war, then decided to opt back in. (I know more Canada. I’m making up for lack of CBC coverage here.).

Books I’ve read a while ago that I want to reread after visiting:

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Journalist who covered the War, and wrote this book in 1977, which a lot of authors give high praise. I remember it being an interesting account, but now that I’ve seen some of Vietnam I want to have another crack at it.

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This book was for sale all over the place in Vietnam, including tons of bootleg copies. Plus Graham Greene had huge references in the Embers of War book I also read. Read it before and liked the noir feel of the thing, the fatalism of the older main character, and the idealism of the younger American. Now, time for an encore, I think.

Books I haven’t read but heard good things

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Recommended by someone we met travelling. Based on a Vietnamese guy who left and came back, and finds he doesn’t fit in.

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Only know this is written by a former Vietnamese soldier. Haven’t got to it yet, but hope to at some point when I’m not reading about the next place we’re going. Based on that, the odds don’t look good for me right now. How about you? Are summer blockbusters, going to the cottage, friends, excitement, latin named frothy drinks, swimming and drinking beer poolside and general hopefulness after a brutal winter getting you down? This book might be just what you need.

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And, there you go. The start of my book club.

Good thing you quit yours Oprah, and are safe and sound with a magazine (I think she did, didn’t she?). There’s a new chief in town, and if our 15 viewers a day have anything to say about it, I think we may…we just may have 16 viewers by end of summer.

Believe that.