Samuel Maruta and Vincent Mourou wouldn’t be the first characters to create magic from a humble bag of beans. However, the duo behind Marou: Faiseurs de Chocolat – Vietnam’s first and, thus far, only line of single-origin chocolate bars – have enjoyed a fairy-tale rise every bit as vertiginous as Jack’s beanstalk. Retailers in a host of international markets including France, Japan, the UK and Sweden now stock their five-strong range of chocolate bars. Culinary big-hitters such as multiple- Michelin-starred-chef Michel Roux and Willie Harcourt Cooze, the British celebrity chocolatier, have given their approval. Meanwhile, Marou has starred at international events – Paris’ Salon Du Chocolat, for one – and has secured a host of awards at prestigious chocolate events across the globe.
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.
The passenger door slams, the driver revs the engine and we leave the little airstrip in our wake. The tiny, single-propeller seaplane that brought us here is doing an about turn in preparation for the journey back across the Arabian Gulf. And it won’t be back anytime soon. I’m well and truly in the care of the Sharjah Police. “I think you’ll find your quarters pretty comfortable,” says the captain, Hamid, a gruff bear of a man as he ushers me into a low-rise building. I’ve done nothing untoward. Rather, I’m here to investigate one of Sharjah’s hitherto unsung natural attractions.
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.
In the depths of the Cambodian jungle, there are things that go bump in the night… and things that go bump in the morning, like the ominous thuds that are suddenly sounding on the underside of our boat. We are puttering our way along the Kampot River towards the Teuk Chhou Rapids, around 8 kilometers from the center of the charmingly somnolent little town. Once there, we will swim in crystal-clear pools, sway gently in riverside hammocks, and receive free skin-removal treatments from fussing, matronly monkeys. As the boat passes underneath a clump of coconut palms that jut out almost horizontally over the tranquil water, a loud disturbance beneath the craft becomes obvious. “There aren’t crocodiles in here, are there?” a fellow passenger asks nervously. “No, the boat just ran over some discarded coconut husks,” laughs Wee, our captain, as the boat steadies and continues to cruise upriver.