Reading Round the World


In Thailand I started with the backpacker novels. Alex Garland’s satirical classic, The Beach, is a useful guide on how not to travel: cocoon yourself with other Westerners, see little of the country, experience nothing beyond the beaches and drugs, never interact with locals, and feel smug and superior all the while.

Richard Arthur’s I of the Sun is more inspirational, although I had covered much the same ground as the narrator by the time I read it. The novel well captures the moodswings of long-term travel: the conceit, one minute, that you have got some rare insight into the local culture, and the realisation, the next, that you know nothing; and the way that you go from being forever impatient to move on to the next town, the next country, the next continent, to hardly being bothered to leave the guesthouse for days on end.

I had never heard of John Burdett until I found one of his Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels in a book exchange on Phi Phi. They are just detective stories, but then you could say that about Chandler too, and they are written well enough and contain more insight into Thai culture than a thousand pieces about “Nineteen Things to Do in Bangkok,” or whatever.

James Eckardt’s The Year of Living Stupidly careers from Bangkok via Phuket to Phnom Penh and took me across the border from Thailand to Cambodia. Once there, and in a radical shift of mood, I started reading Loung Ung’s harrowing account of a childhood under the Khmer Rouge, First They Killed My Father.

In Saigon, it was predictably Graham Greene’s The Quiet American; and that led me on to a bootleg copy of Michael Maclear’s The Ten Thousand Day War, which I bought from a beach vendor in Nha Trang, and in turn to Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, which tells the familiar story from the forgotten perspective of the North Vietnamese conscript: not the fanatical communist usually portrayed but a scared, cynical kid, like the GI’s on the other side.   

In Laos, it was Another Quiet American, Brett Dakin’s account of the two years he spent living in Vientiane and working for the Lao Tourism Authority. It was going on fifteen years since he had written it and it was equally remarkable to see how much had changed as how much had stayed the same.

I turned to old favourites in the States: Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in Las Vegas and Kerouac’s Big Sur in San Francisco. (I had read On the Road for the umpteenth time a few months before.)

image1 (8)

Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries and Matthew Parris’s Inca Kola saw me through Peru and Bolivia, and I had just started Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits when I crossed into Chile. Her memoir, My Invented Country, and Marc Cooper’s Pinochet and Me kept my head in Santiago when I got home.

Hemingway was inevitable in Kenya and Tanzania: The Green Hills of Africa and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Then in Malawi, Jack Mapanje’s And Crocodiles are Hungry at Night taught me a lot I did not know about the paranoid regime of Hastings Banda, while Paul Theroux’s The Lower River made me paranoid about present-day Malawi.

I had read NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, set against the eviction of white farmers and beating of opposition supporters, before I went to Zimbabwe, and read Doris Lessing’s African Laughter – written in the early, optimistic Mugabe years – while I was there. I topped that up after I came home with Lessing’s The Grass is Singing, Peter Godwin’s Mukiwa and The Fear and Alex Fuller’s Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight. In South Africa, then, I read JM Coetzee’s Booker-prize-winning Disgrace and, around the time I saw the cell on Robben Island where he started writing it, Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.

Ian Buruma’s Japanese Mirror is dated now but still relevant. It explained idiosyncrasies like the wearing of white gloves by police officers, train dispatchers, taxi drivers and so on (a symbol of purity, apparently). I had moved on from Tokyo by the time I started Alan Brown’s novel, Audrey Hepburn’s Neck, but whenever I picked it, I was taken back and reminded of details like the cans of hot coffee in vending machines on every street corner.

I was a Law student, like Raskolnikov, when I first read Crime and Punishment, but I bought another copy in St Petersburg at the iconic House of Books on Nevsky Prospekt and re-read it as I walked the streets which Dostoevsky alludes to. By the time I got to Moscow, I had moved on to Martin Sixmith’s compelling history simply named Russia.

Now, freshly home from there, I have a pile of Bulgakovs, Gogols, Pasternaks and Solzhenitsyns to work through.

© Richard Senior 2015

Beer and Losing in Las Vegas


Las Vegas, said Hunter S Thompson in his craziest book, “is not a good town for psychedelic drugs [because] reality itself is too twisted”. It is even worse now.

Elvis is alive and everywhere at once. He shares street space with Spider Men and Optimus Primes, and a man with a sign which reads “kick me in the nuts for $20”.

New York is a few steps from Egypt and Rome, and Paris and Venice are across the street. The Ponte Rialto joins the Campanile to the Palazzo Ducale, and gondolas slide through glacier-blue waters. The Eiffel Tower sprouts from the roof of the Louvre; and New York’s great sights are lined up in a row. It is a bit like the world, but with a lot less walking.


MGM has lions, Mirage has tigers, and all the casinos have cougars. Bellagio has an eight acre lake with hidden fountains which break the surface twice an hour (more often at night) and squirt and dance to music, then stop and retreat underwater.

Luxor is a 400 ft pyramid with a replica sphinx guarding its doorway. Excalibur is a cartoon medieval castle, which would definitely not agree with psychedelic drugs. Paris, Las Vegas (so named in case anyone thinks they have walked by mistake to Paris, France), New York, New York, and the Venetian are amalgams of landmarks in the cities they represent.

If you were as drunk as you were supposed, by tradition, to be in Vegas, you would never quite know whether you were inside or out, or what time of day it was. The shops and restaurants are behind facades which look like a street scene to continue the theme outside, and roofs are painted to look like the sky, and the lighting fools your brain into thinking it is perpetual evening. There are – famously – no clocks to contradict it.


Five per cent of visitors say that they are there to gamble. Ninety-seven per cent actually do gamble. They get through an average $250 a day. It earns the state $9 billion a year.

It is all but impossible not to go in a casino at some point. You might be unmoved by the bright, beckoning signs, uncurious about the fanciful themes, indifferent to celebrity chef restaurants and superstar DJ’s, magicians and singers and dancers, but you will still need to pass through a casino or two to get to the monorail, or just to walk the length of the Strip.

And they are so bewilderingly huge that it is hard to get out once in. You follow the signs to the street or the monorail from one room to the next; you go up and down escalators, through bars, past the tables for blackjack, baccarat, poker and craps, past a hundred slot machines and a hundred more until, finally, you get back to where you started.


It is mesmerising to gaze across a stadium-sized casino at the rows of slot machines stretching away to seeming infinity with their flashing lights and plunky music, and the tables, and the sports books with every game and ever race playing at once on the big screens and a wall full of digital statistics which mean as little to me as the company data they print in the Financial Times.

I saw hundreds of dollars robotically fed into slot machines but never saw a cent come out. I heard one shout of triumph from the tables but who knows how much the guy invested to get there. Some apparently make a living from gambling but it is hard to see how when the odds always favour the house.

There are consoles on the bars so you can carry on gambling as you drink, and plenty of bars so you can carry on drinking as you gamble. Then you can wake up in the morning without even the funds for black coffee and headache pills.

The fountains dance, the lights pulsate, the music pumps and big rigs haul in more beer. It is sleazy, it is tacky; it is overblown in every way. Yet there is something compelling about it, something you cannot help like.

© Richard Senior 2015