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Book Review: Khao San Road by David Young

posted on 13 July 2011 | posted in Books


Going through immigration at Bangkok airport, an officer noticed I hadn't completed my arrival card - there was no destination address. "Where you stay for your trip?". "I'm not sure, it's my first time, I'm sure I can find somewhere". He shrugged, and wrote down just three words for my address: Khao San Road. Even Thai Immigration see this road as an unofficial detention centre for vagrant farangs, miles away from the plusher hotels and shopping plazas of Silom and Siam that the truly moneyed tourists love to pollinate with their cash. And so I went to Khao San Road.

When you see a book titled "Khao San Road", you brace yourself for every travelling-in-Thailand cliché under the hot sun. But this is a David Young book, and in his typical fashion, he creates irreverant characters who go against the stereotypes that are easily conjoured up when one thinks about Thailand. Young's farang characters are incongruous against-type individuals and the story is a bizarre mix of coincidences and occurrences. Blaise Bujold is one such character who would be better off at the Dusit Thani than a backpackers on Khao San Road. He likes to travel in style, has an obsession with the way he presents himself to others, and so finds himself completely at odds with the no-budget accommodation he's installed in.

Young describes Khao San Road's sights and sounds just as I have witnessed them myself. For example: walking down the road, you might hear sudden, and ear-splitting machine gun fire from the darkened lobby of a guesthouse, and worry that some drug deal's just gone horribly wrong; morbid curiosity draws you in until you see it's just a bunch of tourists watching Tropic Thunder at full volume. Welcome to Khao San Road, base camp of the adventurer, or at least, movie addict.

Young's book starts in Sri Navanayok School where a corrupt headmaster is preoccupied with New Champion, a competitor school, and is worried all the kids will move to this new school in the next school year. He needs a plan to improve his own school's standing. And that plan involves recruiting five "handsome" farang English teachers to his school. Where can he find such teachers? Do I need to say the name of this book again? And so the story begins.

We're then introduced to Daniel, a quiet, overwrought 21 year old obsessed with what his dead brother might or might not do if he was in the same situations Daniel finds himself in. He finds himself at odds with the Khao San Road crowd, keeping himself to himself. Until he meets....ah this again. When reviewing books, I don't want to go through the whole story. It's a long, elaborate story - let me tell you what's good and what's bad.

What's Good

I really like the underlying themes Young works on in the book. Khao San Road seems to be such a centre for all the characters, yet there's nothing actually really there. It's a hub, like an airport. And like any hub, people are filled with the dreams of travel, of adventure. Real life is on the edges, out there. The self-obsessed Blaise is also self-aware enough to know life cannot be found on Khao San Road - it exists in obscurity. Love and life is always obscure, surprising, and comes at you from the left-field. This very theme is such an under-explored one with Thailand and I'm glad David targets it. For me, the real adventurer is the obscurist: the guy who lives in Saphan Kwai with his girlfriend who works at the local 7-11. Living the obscure life - where there are no references to your previous existence - that's when you really see life with fresh eyes.

And so Blaise has to deliberately de-rail his life - not get it back on track - in order to find his new philosophy. For me, Blaise was the most interesting character since his voice was the most articulate, and whatever his annoying habits (and he has them), he always had some interesting thoughts. His philosophy - although bordering on cheesy pop-psychology you might hear on Oprah - did hit on some good points from time to time. From Blaise to Merlin to Daniel, everyone seemed to realise that surprising yourself was perhaps the only way to have a true adventure - and that meant sometimes going right out of your comfort zone - far away from the more conventional ideas of what adventure is.

What's Not So Good

It's a David Young book, so you have to suspend belief a lot of the time. I always feel like an author is phoning a friend, going 50/50 or asking the audience when he introduces a coincidence to a story. It's like he loses a lifeline. When they pile-up, a story can lose its shape somewhat since you simply expect anything to happen - and some suspense is lost. However, I can forgive David because his underlying themes are still very interesting, so the plot felt secondary to me when compared to what the characters were actually thinking. There's humour throughout the book, much of which I found enjoyable, though some is a bit of the sad trombone slapstick variety.

Overall

An enjoyable read - I've said this before about Young's books - don't worry too much about the plot - enjoy the style, and enjoy the themes, and you'll get the most out of this book - highly recommended.