|Slithering South Reviews
|This review appeared in The Nation:
A River Less Travelled
By Steve Van Beek
Wind & Water Publishing, Hong Kong
Reviewed By James Eckardt
After a quarter century in Thailand, I consider myself an old hand, but when I was just a callow college sophomore in New York, Steve Van Beek was romping through the hills of Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer. In 1969, he passed through Bangkok to visit a Thai friend and "forgot to leave". He brought with him the Peace Corps ethos: learning to read, write and speak Thai, making a serious study of the history and culture of his adopted country, and moving into a simple wooden house in Thonburi on the Chao Phya riverbank.
For 18 years, he made his living as a writer and then, feeling stale at the age of 43, came up with the idea of paddling a small boat down the Ping River to the Chao Phya and down to the sea - 720 miles, the length of the Rhine. His language skills and immersion into Thai values - politeness, tact, consideration for others, and a huge sense of humour - would see him through an epic 58-day voyage.
"A tropical sun filtering through the trees did little to warm a chill December wind that blew through the windows of the songtaew," he opens his account of his journey to the headwaters of the Ping. "A high passenger compartment burdening the bed of a battered pick-up truck, the songtaew had bussed villagers through remote northern hills for so many years that it was no longer a match for the rough roads. Its whining, straining engine was barely audible above the groans and squeals of its tortured body as it lurched from deep rut to deeper pothole that pitted the red mud moon-road that wound through the jungled hills."
Now this is damn good prose. And the narrative rollicks on like this for a full 426 pages. Slithering South is, in fact, the best travel book ever written about Thailand. The only book I can compare it to is Six Years in Siam, by J Worthington-Smyth, written in the 1890s when the means of travel for the young Brit Thai-speaking author were ox cart, elephant back and sailboat.
Steve Van Beek takes us back to an earlier Thailand as he paddles, in a badly built 11-foot teak boat, down the upper Ping. He puts up at night in the thatched huts of various hilltribes. Physically, this is the most demanding part of the trip, the river being only 15 feet wide, shallow, overgrown with thorny mimosa, and clogged with weirs, fishing traps and small dams. Van Beek also has to come to terms with his balky boat and his own clumsiness. But his physical description of the passing riverbank pageant is nothing short of sublime - an intensity of vivid observation that he keeps at perfect pitch throughout the journey
In time he falls into a pattern, putting into a riverside village at dusk, asking for shelter at the headman's house, bathing, sharing the family's food, touring the village the next morning, then pushing off further down the river. Being an extreme specimen of farang - blond-haired and blue-eyed - and arriving on such a preposterous boat, Van Beek always provokes a huge amount of attention. Despite growing mortally weary of being onstage all the time, he handles himself well, joking with the children, discussing village affairs with the adults. Some villages are doing well - growing fruit, raising pigs, making roof-tiles - others are in terminal decline, with rice crops and fish catches falling.
It's a tribute to the Thai character that, while he meets a few jerks, the author is consistently received with warm hospitality while his offers of payment in the morning are spurned with smiles. It's also a running joke that every village warns him that the people two days journey south down the river are jai rai and jai dam - evil and black-hearted.
In Chiang Mai, he learns from Thai friends that in the case of the lake area behind the Bhumibol Dam, the threat is indeed true: the nature reserve teems with outlaws, fugitives, poachers. In an agony of indecision, Van Beek accepts the loan of a revolver, overcomes his fears, and pushes on.
Beyond his lyrical descriptions of the river and colourful portraits of its people, Van Beek's third triumph is his honest dissection of his own wildly careening emotions. After surviving fearful encounters with several dubious characters in the lake wilderness, he is stuck in a long, lonely, hot paddle across open water when he's struck by a mental crisis:
"My mind seemed to meld with the monotony of paddling, but instead of the expanded memory I'd previously experienced, they manifested themselves in a monomania that I would come to call 'The Furies' like those that assailed Oedipus after he slew his father ...
"It differed from the 'voices' of schizophrenia because its chief component was rage ... Psychic garbage that had never been fully expelled was now laid out in painful detail. Hurts and betrayals were hashed and rehashed, assuming an intensity they'd never had in real life. Dreadful and inescapable, it was no doubt the transference of the anger I was feeling at the strangers I was meeting, but it was irrational and misdirected and all the more disturbing for it."
It's only when he reaches civilisation beyond the dam that the Furies depart. The rest of the trip is fairly easy - down the wide river through Tak and Nakhon Sawan and Ayutthaya - his main obstacles being pollution and dead dogs and smart-ass teenagers: "Hey, farang, get an engine for that boat!"
When he reaches the sea at Paknam, he is 15 pounds lighter than his city self, bronzed, muscled, with hands cramped claw-like over his paddle. He reflects at the end: "What had begun as a journey about a river, became a journey about people. Although I often shunned them, they had welcomed me with overwhelming generosity. Most moving was that those who had the least, shared the most. And when I would later return to their villages I would be welcomed as an old friend."
The Bangkok Post
STEVE VAN BEEK, WRITER, FILM MAKER,
AND MAN OF THE RIVERS
Reviewed by Harold Stephens
For eleven years Steve lived on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. It was a simple wooden house in Thonburi on the opposite side of the river from Bangkok. It was here he was able to study the river, and where he fell in love with the river. In Slithering South he wrote, "The river so intrigued me that I tore out my bedroom wall, and filled the space floor to ceiling with glass. Still not satisfied, I sawed a window in the floor so I could watch fishermen scooping nets in the dark waters beneath my house . . . And then I built a bay window over the water so I could look up, down, and across the river, my box seat on its activities.
Steve's descriptions of the river are powerful. "The river swarmed with life every hour of the day, the tumult ceasing only after the neighborhood watchman had struck his iron gong twelve times. A few hours later, long before the sun illuminated the Temple of Dawn a few yards downriver, the din resumed. Sampans piled high with vegetables, double-decked riverboats, elephantine barges, freighters, water taxis, and river buses noisily dodged each other, their propellers churning the river's surface to a froth in the dark, damp, gelid air."
Long before Slithering South came his book The Chao Phrya: River in Transition. It's a textbook on the river, with everything from tidal flows to the amount of the silting that takes place in the river. There is not question that Steve has a love for rivers and waterways, and he write about this love with conviction. It isn't only the Chao Phraya that fascinates him, however.
What makes Steve's writing so exciting, and interesting, is that he gets to the heart of the matter. On his Chao Phraya River trip he put up at night in the thatched huts of various hilltribes. For excitement there was more that fighting the river and its currents. There was the real danger of meeting up with renegades, that included outlaws, fugitives, and poachers. In an agony of indecision, he accepted the loan of a revolver for his protection and continued the voyage.
Steve reflects at the end at the end of Slithering South: "What had begun as a journey about a river, became a journey about people. Although I often shunned them, they had welcomed me with overwhelming generosity. Most moving was that those who had the least, shared the most. And when I would later return to their villages I would be welcomed as an old friend."
After Steve Van Beek arrived at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River on that trip his hands remained in a claw-like grip and he could hardly open them, and for a while he wondered if he would ever may be able to. A quarter of a century before, these same hands suffered through another ordeal. Steve Van Beek was practicing to be a concert pianist. Quite a contrast, from the concert halls of Portland Oregon to the wilds of the rivers of Southeast Asia.
Steve Van Beek is a man of contrasts. He has a deep curiosity about everything - music, art, culture, languages, history, archaeology and adventure. This curiosity has lead him to write some of the finest books on Southeast Asia, from adventure and guides to art and literature.
And we are all the better for it.
"Brilliant. Don't let this one 'slither' away."
Bernie Cooper, Guide of Bangkok, Dec. 13, 2001
"Always fascinating…a wonderful book."
Donald Richie, Japan Times, Dec. 23, 2001
"an adventurer's tale in a style seen none too often…"
"…the river ties dozens of fascinating encounters with rural
Thais into a cohesive patchwork quilt."
"...Thai culture rarely experienced by foreigners and even less
frequently written about."
Bangkok Post, Austin Berry, Jan. 19, 2002
"The reader is rewarded with a personal journey as well as an
(at times) harrowing voyage into the unknown that is at once hilarious,
information and entertaining."
Thailand Tatler, Jan. 2002
"What Steve Van Beek has done is to put down a significant marker
in this field for other writers to follow, and in doing so has enriched
the literary landscape of this enigmatic land."
Ron Emmons, Guidelines Chiang Mai, March 2002.
"…this is a book for anyone, but especially for those who have
spent some time in this country. You will meet a host of personalities,
many of whom you will be able to smile at and think, "I know someone
just like that'"
Graeme Monaghan, Chiang Mai tourist guide, March 2002.
"…accomplished what no Thai or farang had done before. He'd
measured the Realm's heartbeat."
Bangkok Post, Bernard Trink May 3, 2002
"…the most remarkable thing about Slithering South is the distinct
lack of machismo and boasting that too often defines adventure writing.
Van Beek's prose is evocative without lapsing into cliches, and
the author's willingness to detail his own physical and emotional
failings make it easy for the reader to identify with him."
His portraits of villages are poignant in their clear implication
that this is a way of life that is dying out altogether…
Van Beek's frank tone and extensive knowledge of his subject make
Slithering South, mandatory, and pleasurable, reading, not only
for river enthusiasts but for those seeking insights into the past
and future of Thailand."
Jonathan Hopfner, Thailand & Indochina Traveller, March-May 2002.