Bibliophile reviews Borderlines (travel) by Charles Nicholl

Subtitle: A journey in Thailand and Burma
Year published: 1988
Genre: Travel (non-fiction)
Setting & time: Thailand and Burma, 1986

The Story: Nicholl recounts his three month journey to Thailand in search of enlightenment in a forest temple. Instead he found the reality of Thailand, a land of contradictions where drug smuggling and prostitution exist side by side with ancient rituals and traditions and no-one seems to find anything unusual about it. He meets Harry, a Frenchman who trades in all sorts of commodities (although he denies being involved in drug smuggling) and accepts his offer of a guided tour of the Golden Triangle in return for picking up his Thai girlfriend and chaperoning her while Harry is off on an expedition to connect with people who can sell him gemstones. Katai, the Thai girl, turns out to be a complicated and intelligent young woman who is very conflicted about her relationship with Harry. Together the three explore the borderland between Thailand and Burma before Nicholl sets off for the jungle temple where he finds, if not exactly what he was looking for, then at least an insight into Buddhism and a bit of relaxation before his return home.

Technique and plot: Nicholl has the journalist's instinct for a good story, and that is probably what led him to accept the offer of a stranger to journey with him into the Golden Triangle. The account of the part of the journey spent in the company of Harry and Katai reads like a novel, and in fact had I not known this was supposed to be non-fiction, I would have taken it for one. Besides his instinct for sniffing out a good story, Nicholl also has ability to tell a good story, so that a rambling journey full of periods of waiting becomes an interesting exploration of feelings and relationships, interspersed with adventure and even some danger. The jungle temple episode serves to show Nicholls's final disillusionment with what he seems to have seen as the old mysterious and spiritual east – at least he doesn't seem to have got any enlightenment there, although he did acquire some insight into Thai beliefs and thinking.

Rating: An interesting journey in the Land of Smiles. 3+ stars.

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