*Note: A friend asked me, not long ago, if I had read any Thai literature. I had to say no. Even though I’ve been living in The Land of Smiles for years, I had never actually read a book by a Thai author. Surely, I said to myself, there must be some translated books out there, but having found them, which should I choose? I picked Letters from Thailand mainly because I liked the title. There’s something very personal about a book based on letters. And so my journey began…
This is how Letters from Thailand begins, simple yet so powerful one cannot help but be instantly moved.
The book is written in the epistolary style, comprised of 96 letters, from 1945 to 1967, all dated according to the Chinese calendar. It tells the story of Tan Suang U, a Chinese immigrant, his journey to Thailand, his hope for a better life, his determination and courage and most of all, his unfailing love and devotion to the mother he left behind.
Luck and a lot of hard work are the keys to Suang U’s fortune. Adjusting to his new life proves to be a challenge he is perfectly capable of overcoming. He has friends who help him and before long he is married and running a profitable business.
His letters are an account of his life in Thailand, from bathing in the khlong at sunrise, to dealing with his Thai employees.
The main theme of the novel is that of the immigrant trying to build a better life for himself, while at the same time holding on to the traditions of his own people. That proves to be very difficult for Suang U, as the times change and he finds himself alone in a world of people who have adapted and try to live with the changes.
Suang U clings to the old ways, trying to instill in his own children the education he was given as a child in the Chinese village of Po Leng. He frequently remembers passages from childhood and thanks his mother for the way in which she has raised him and Younger Brother.
The narrative flows easily and the story is told from a single perspective, that of Suang U, keeping things simple and orderly. The book was translated from Thai and the translator did a very good job, as there are no disparaging paragraphs or ideas, and ties the whole story into a coherent and believable experience.
On a more personal note:
Having lived in Thailand for years, I could relate to a lot of the experiences the main character went through and I found myself laughing out loud in places and nodding my head quite a few times, for many of the stories he committed to paper all those years ago are still valid to this day.
Reading this book made me remember the day I arrived in Bangkok. The heat was the first thing I got to experience. That moment when I stepped out the airport was my first and one of the strongest memories about Thailand. Within minutes my shirt was sticking to my back and my skin felt clammy and hot and I found it difficult to breathe.
Many years have passed since then. I got used to the heat and humidity (not a fan of cold weather anyway) and many other things, like the spicy food, geckos running up the walls in the house, the snakes and monitor lizards in the yard, and the list goes on.
For someone who has never been to Thailand this book can be a good place to start finding out about the country. Even though no amount of reading can compare with the experience of living here, Letters from Thailand is a book I would recommend to anyone who wants to get an idea of what life can be like in The Land of Smiles.