Could it be that the road to good intentions is often paved with hell? That’s how it feels as I ascend a jungle-clad knoll at the southern end of Pak Nam Pran Beach, Pranburi, at a pace that probably would make a narcoleptic snail blush. Step after faltering step, I heave myself up the rocky path towards the coveted view until, finally — as my glasses threaten to slide of my glistening face for the umpteenth time—I reach the summit. After reflecting on my aching calves and rocketing temperature for a self-pitying second, I take the time to look around. To the south and west, the limestone peaks of Khao Sam Roi Yot and Kui Buri national parks trail off into the distance before giving way to even wilder territory at the Burmese border. Meanwhile, pristine sand stretches for kilometers to the north, the lapping waters of the Gulf of Thailand filled with kitesurfers, who look like oversized multihued tropical butterflies to me. I’m only 220 kilometers from Bangkok, but it might as well be a thousand.
It is an average and orderly Saturday morning at Hakata Station in Fukuoka. Clutching their expertly packaged bento boxes, travelers form civilized lines at designated queuing spots as trains arrive and depart with millisecond-perfect precision. Amid this tableau of politesse, however, something out of the ordinary is about to happen. As a guest on the Seven Stars in Kyushu—Japan’s first (and so far only) luxury sleeper train—I had spent the 15 minutes since boarding exploring the plush interiors of one of the world’s most expensive iron horses. So preoccupied had I been with the wall hangings, paper-panel windows and handcrafted furniture in my state-of-the art cabin, I hadn’t noticed that our imminent departure had attracted a whooping mass of onlookers to the previously moribund platform. As we rolled out of the station to a wall of sound created by flag-waving fans, the adulation displayed at every stop gave me a taste of the uplifting and seemingly random nature of Japanese fanaticism.
In the face of continued tumult across the region, nobody would argue that it has been an uplifting year for the Middle East. In April, however, leading figures in the UAE’s recently established space agency expanded on plans to send an unmanned probe to Mars, providing a timely boost to Arab pride.The exploration would produce the first ever truly global picture of the Martian atmosphere, according to Omran Sharaf, the Mars Mission project manager. “This is the first holistic study of the Martian climate and how the layers of atmosphere fit together,” he said.
In the heart of Melbourne, Australia, just off its bustling Chinatown, lies a part of the city that will forever be Beijing circa 1966. With propaganda artwork decking the walls and a cocktail list advertising drinks such as the ‘Imperialist Running Dog’, a bar named Double Happiness seems happy to promote the cult of Chairman Mao Zedong. Particular emphasis is placed on ephemera and slogans from his Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) – a scorched earth attempt to purge capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society that ended up paralysing the country politically, socially, economically and – ironically –culturally.
Like other icons cut down somewhere close to their prime, early death has lent Elvis Presley a gauzy otherworldly allure. Had he lived, Elvis would have turned 80 this year. Yet it is impossible to imagine him reminiscing about his raucous early days at Sun Records with chat show hosts Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien, doing a crooner’s take on the Great American Songbook, or even pottering around the garden at Graceland for some dour reality TV catastrophe. Truth is there was never anything particularly earthly about Elvis. From his birth in a Mississippi shotgun shack and his thrilling rise to fame to his drawn-out demise and shockingly wasteful death at the age of 42, his short life played out like a Grecian tragedy with sky-scraping highs anchored by soul-crushing lows.
Watching prisoner practise their Muay Thai skills in a makeshift boxing arena inside Bangkok’s notorious high-security Klong Prem prison is a spectacle to behold. Moo, a convicted drug runner, and Pod, a debt collector in the Thai capital’s notorious Nana Plaza red-light district, who is serving a life sentence for murder, were relaxed and humorous a few minutes ago when we spoke to them ringside. Now they burn with intensity—their hooded eyes fixed on their sparring partners, as they rain vicious blows with feet, knees and fists upon the bag. “Most of them will be here until their hair grows grey,” says Surawuth Rungrueng, the guard largely responsible for encouraging the development of boxing in Klong Prem. “Muay Thai and the respect it affords them is one of the things they can hold onto.”
With his saturnine disposition and sunken, brooding eyes, Bob Velez has features that scream biblical suffering. Ruben Enaje, his near neighbour in the Filipino barrio of San Pedro Cutud, meanwhile, has the quiet grace of the divine: a long, wavy mane shrouding a mouth that projects words that veer between softly spoken and inaudible. Completing the trio is Victor Caparas, a notorious local tearaway, whose unkempt beard, muted manner and troubled, thousand-yard stare give him an aura that is part beatific, part Charlie Manson. There may be only one God in Christianity, but in this part of the Philippines, there’s no shortage of candidates for the role of Jesus Christ.
The fat, red man has a faraway look in his eyes. He is naked, his modesty shielded only by his right arm, which extends coyly across his lap. Motionless, he never shifts from his perch on the boardwalk of the old wooden house, where he wistfully observes the activity on the Bangkok Yai canal in the neighborhood of Thonburi in the Thai capital. Such eccentricity is commonplace at Baan Sinlapin (the artist’s house), the centrepiece of the community of artists at Khlong Bang Luang. The community, which boasts vintage antique galleries and a few small exhibition spaces, is dispersed around a string of wooden stilted buildings linked by a plank walkway along the canal. Local artists use the atmospheric venue as a workspace and their efforts are showcased at regular exhibitions. The house is also home to fascinating resident pieces of work – including the corpulent canal-side daydreamer.
At first I was afraid, I was petrified. Not only was I failing to come to terms with the gear/clutch/gas equation on the vintage Vespa I was driving at various malevolently busy and dusty intersections on the way to Highway 1, the music in my own head had also gone curiously awry. This, my long anticipated first foray out onto the open road on one of the iconic Italian scooters, was meant to be a valedictory moment — the moment I finally got to live out a dream nursed by a lifelong admiration for the sharp aesthetics of Mod culture. I would cruise into the countryside like a latter-day equivalent of Jimmy from the movie Quadrophenia, snatches of The Who, Curtis Mayfield and Motown sound-tracking this smooth progress in my imagination. Yet here I was, juddering hopelessly across a wave of traffic on one of Saigon’s myriad plug ugly arterial roads with Gloria Gaynor ’s gay disco classic looping psychotically on my in-cranium sound system. I’d had my doubts about this mission from the off. While the prospect of piloting…
BY RIGHTS IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN ONE of the proudest moments in a musical career spanning more than forty years. After working happily, but in relative obscurity, for decades as a cover band entertaining the Vietnamese diaspora in Houston, Texas, the last thing Con Ba Cuc (aka the CBC Band) expected was to be brought to the attention of hipped-up music collectors around the globe. That was until Mark Gergis tracked the band down to ask permission for two long- forgotten tracks of theirs to be used on an account of Saigon’s pre-1975 rock and roll scene he was in the process of compiling for the US-based world music specialists Sublime Frequencies. Yet, despite receiving their mysterious champion warmly, the group Rolling Stone magazine hailed as the ‘best band in the orient’ back in 1970 seemed perplexed by the renewed interest in their oeuvre. “We came in with the recordings and they hadn’t heard them since 1970,” recalls Gergis. “They weren’t all that impressed either. They were like, ‘it sounds terrible. Do you want us to re-record it for you?’”…