Eight Thailand writers you need to care about

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There are more writers in Thailand and more writers who write about Thailand than there are Top Charoen Optical stores around the nation. For a writer to stand out from the crowd, he has to have paid his dues. The writers I've chosen to highlight here cover a variety of styles and niches, from travel and lifestyle to hard news and investigative journalism. These aren't the only Thailand writers out there, but these are a few of the writers I make a point to read, even if it means searching for old stories.

Newley Purnell not only has the best name of anybody I've ever heard of, he is also a solid writer who has been published by the likes of the New York Times and AFP. I like Newley because he's a blogger and he comes across as as a cool kind of guy who has life sussed. I particularly enjoyed reading Newley's NYT article about Khaosan Road.

Andrew Drummond has written so many great stories. He is at the very top of the tree when it comes to Thailand writers. He is published by everyone from The Times to the Daily Telegraph. Check out his recent story about Thailand’s “ruthless marriage market”, written with Ian MacKinnon, another writer whose work I was recently turned onto.

I first came across Andrew Spooner after he wrote an article for the Independent about how dangerous Thailand has become. I and a number of others were somewhat critical of the article, but Andrew was good enough to respond to our criticism and he made a solid argument for his case. I've since met Andrew and he's a decent bloke. It was because of his response on this blog that I looked into other work he has done. Check out "Homestays in northern Thailand".

I urge all of you to go and read Jonathan Head's story about "Thailand's wealthy untouchables". It's such a great piece and is one of many that Jonathan has written over the years. A regular down at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand, Jonathan is an active member of the media in Thailand and he does a tremendous job in his position of Southeast Asia correspondent for the BBC.

I try and read as many Thailand blogs as I can. I enjoy keeping up with people's lives, similar to how you would with a soap opera. Reading Bangkok Pundit is different because he's one of the only Thailand bloggers who puts current affairs before himself. Of course he has opinions, but you'd never read a blog post about BP's pet cat or what he had for dinner last night. He strives to bring together a variety of news sources, Thai and foreign, as well as adding academic insight into news in Thailand. The blog is updated almost as regularly as The Nation's breaking news section.

There have been so many books written about Thailand. You walk into any bookshop and you simply can't escape the variety of books with unimaginative titles. One of my favorite authors is John Burdett. He's one of the few Thailand authors who can tell a compelling story with wonderful style that doesn't get bogged down with cliches and tired formulas. John Burdett is so much better an author than the majority of the people who have churned out a novel while in Thailand. Like Jake Needham, whose crime novels are gripping stuff, John Burdett is a former lawyer. His style is a little more fluid than Needham's, however. Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo are must-reads.

There are travel writers and then there's the guy who wrote the book about travel writing in Thailand and Southeast Asia – literally. Joe Cummings' travel guides for Lonely Planet are the stuff of legend. It's because of him that countless travelers found their trips a little bit easier to manage. He has written so much that he now has tendinitis in one of his wrists. A trooper, in every sense of the word.

Within a week of meeting Cynthia Barnes she'd shouted at me in her office and made me hate her. It took a while, but I eventually grew to enjoy working with Cynthia and she taught me a great deal about travel writing. Having read a number of her pieces, I have a real respect for her work. Last time I saw her she was about to embark on a trip to Iraq. I haven't heard from Cynthia for a while, but I gather she is still based in Bangkok. She can appear rather fierce, but once you get over the initial fear she's a lovely lady. Read her "Confessions of an elephant polo junkie".

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24 thoughts on “Eight Thailand writers you need to care about

  1. This is a depressing article as it points to the quality — lack thereof actually — of good journalists reporting from here.

    Drummond and Spooner, though specifically the former, are two sensationalist tabloid journalists. [Slander will not be tolerated. This is a place for discussion, not defamation. — MC]

    Drummond is an ambulance chaser of the worst sort, a sensationalist journalist who will always be sitting around like a vulture whenever a foreigner dies or molests a kid just so he can get a major payday from expat papers. He has the market cornered on that sort of thing.

    If you knew what good journalists are capable of you wouldn't be spotlighting these two jokers.

  2. great post! will check out the other writers.

    i loved bangkok 8, bangkok tattoo and bangkok haunts!

  3. I'll have to agree with Jonathan and BP – but as you say yourself, they aren't the only Thai writers out there.

    Just to mention Shawn Crispin, Daniel Ten Kate, Marwaan Macan-Markar and the great Seth Mydans.

    And the rich list of Thai writers writing for (domestic) English-language media publications.

    Just to mention The Nation's Tulsie.

  4. For sure. There are more writers than I can give credit for here. Shawn Crispin in particular does a grand job.

    As for slating Drummond and Spooner, people have their own agendas there.

  5. Your powers of identification fail you Matt. I ain't Cleary. But thanks for the welcome anyhow!

    I'm only familiar with Spooner through that misguided fear-mongering piece he wrote for the Telegraph about how "Thailand is one of the most dangerous places on earth", so I withdraw my comment on his work. I don't know it well enough to judge fairly.

    If Drummond is at the "top of the tree" then there are some low hanging fruit on said tree.

    Let's define terms.

    Sensationalist: subject matter, language, or style producing or designed to produce startling or thrilling impressions or to excite and please vulgar taste.

    That describes 90% of his stories. If you consider titillation, playing on stereotypes and selling sensationalist pieces to rags like the Sun to be good "journalism", then he's your man. Crispin and Co are so far ahead of his ilk there's no comparison.

    Just a little perspective for those who would otherwise be completely mislead by the topic of your post.

  6. How come you don't name a single Thai writer ???

    Have you heard of Chart Korbjitti? Read "the Judgement" and you will learn a few more things about Thailand.

    Pira Sudham the most famous Isan writer ?

    Win Liaw-warin?

    All available in English and also writing in English.

    Tut tut tut…


  7. Drummond gets a lot of stick, but in my mind he works damn hard to chase those stories down and follow them up.

    I should really have included Crispin on this list, but he's not the only one and this list isn't definitive. Also, this is the kind of discussion I wanted.

    Roger, this is not about Thai literature. I included an author because I think Burdett is one of the few foreign writers who stands out.

    If you'd like to write me an "Eight Thai authors you need to care about" I'd publish it in a flash.

  8. Nice to see my name dragged through the mud again but it's worth pointing out that before you start slagging someone off make sure you get your facts right.

    For the record – I've never written for The Telegraph and have never had a single story published in any UK tabloid. My background is mostly as a travel and features writer. I am the author of Footprint's Thailand book and also of several travel articles on the country that have appeared in the Guardian and the Independent.

    My article on Thai murders focused on the lack of good advice given by the UK govt regarding the dangers in Thailand. It was widely applauded. It was mocked by a coterie surrounding someone called Steven Cleary. Cleary felt that my article was factually incorrect. His evidence was based on a conversation he had with a provincial police officer. I asked Cleary for interview tapes or to meet this police officer. His response was a montage of oddball histrionic abuse. My evidence was based on UK govt, Thai govt and UN stats.

    So, let's not let the facts get in the way of anonymously abusing someone on a blog, hey?

    Regarding the list – Phil Cornwel-Smith, author of Very Thai is one of my picks.

    Ian MacKinnon (Guardian's correspondent) and Drummond also wrote a great piece on murdered ex-pat Isaan husbands in last weeks Guardian.

    Matt- thanks for the big-up and good luck in Timor.

  9. I've asked Matt to remove a comment made about myself that is a complete lie.

    The poster "Having a Laugh" stated I had compared Thailand to Iraq in a piece I had published in Jan 2008 in The Independent on Sunday on murders of UK citizens in Thailand.

    At no point do I compare Thailand to Iraq in this article.

    To claim otherwise is a complete fabrication intended to damage my professional reputation.

  10. Oh boy. I don't mind taking some stick because I give a lot of it. But as one writer says, one or two people (with lost faces I might add) have an agenda.
    I'm willing any time to answer criticisms on any story, as is Andrew Spooner, a splendid chap.
    Yes I get 'down and dirty' its an absolute necessity to see what really goes on.
    Anyone can check out my website to see whether I have time to chase amblances, or just google my name coupled with a country in This region

  11. Andrew S: You are correct about the comparison I included not being in the original article. My memory was influenced by the various discussion threads that your article prompted.

    I would like to see evidence of where this was "widely applauded." The coterie to which you refer would have to be incredibly large if mockery of your article only came from those quarters. Google the article and look up the various discussion threads, particularly Thailand-based, and you'll see that the response is not favourable.

    If memory serves, the post was even openly questioned here before the webmaster came up with the SEO-driven idea for this post.

    The Spooner article itself, in the opinion of this reader, put some facts along with a huge amount of speculation in the context of a titillating tale leading people to draw the wrong conclusions about Thailand. It started with the sub-headline asking the reader: "Why doesn't the British Home Office warn Britons of the danger of traveling to Thailand?" While you could defend yourself on the accuracy of your numbers, I think your article was lacking in the perspective it offered readers. Most Britons I know who read that had a laugh at the portrayal of Thailand as some sort of danger hotspot.

    It's no wonder that the amount of text Spooner has churned out in defense of that article has completely eclipsed the amount of text the original contained.

    As for tabloid journalism, if that's your cup of tea, then drink it. Selling stories to the Sun newspaper about Gary Glitter, and running to the scene every time a Thai woman has her foreign husband knocked off so she can shack up with the motorcycle driver may well be considered journalism — or by Matt's lights put you at "the top of the tree" — but to me it's just sensationalist and ultimately empty stuff. I'm not saying that's all that Drummond writes (I recall a very good series exposing a boiler room scam, but that was some time ago), but it seems like a substantial chunk of it. I don't begrudge him it. Heck everybody's got bills to pay, but I wouldn't be as effusive with my praise as Matt.

    I'd much rather read some of the other writers on this list, Crispin, Jonathon Head, etc. To me that is real journalism, but it's all subjective of course.

    I'll close this before I get accused of being part of a vast conspiracy to malign two industry stalwarts.

  12. 'Having a Laugh' and/or 'Enough is enough' I suspect is a wannabee with little or no connection with foreign journalism or journalists in Bangkok and would no doubt be laughed off field if he endeavoured to join a conversation with a group of them.
    Actually I believe that has already happened, and he is gouging out a living teaching English to people who know no better.
    I am here officially for 'The Times' prior to that 'The Observer'.
    However I have worked tabloids and have no problem with that as do the majority of the population of th UK.
    I still can and do work to some of their agendas.
    But when I press a certain button on my computer my stories generally hit the newsdesks of most newspapers. It does not discriminate unless I tell it to.
    Just the same as AP, AFP, Reuters etc. – who, shock, except they send all their stories to the tabloids.
    The boiler room story btw was for the tabloids. The Times readers just got a longer read.

  13. In terms of top teams in Bangkok I would have included Andrew Marshall who often works with Philip Blenkinsop for 'Time' etc,
    Michael Sheridan the Sunday Times Asia man, Adrian Levy, who spends a lot of time out here and in Burma, inter alia.

    As for the Gary Glitter' tabloid' story, when he was last in court the BBC had two teams in HCMC one lead by Head, the other by Harding.
    Last week the BBC were positively screaming for film and sound on this.
    'Having a laugh/Enough is enough' would of course have known this!

  14. And finally Andrew Spooner's article on British tourists in Thailand written many months ago was confirmed last week by a report by the British Foreign Office.
    Reaction to it, apart from Pattaya type Brits 'Gawds its ore dangerous down the Balls Pond Road', has bee very positive here too on forums.

  15. Most of the responses to my piece were led by people who could barely write a coherent word about it or – much like the person above – seemed to enjoy misrepresenting it. I was perfectly happy to answer any critics but most fled to the far-flung corners of the blogosphere when I tried to engage in rational debate. I offered to meet people, consider other evidence and to discuss anything. What I get in response is anonymous posters deliberately misquoting me and slandering me and my colleagues. Hardly the stuff of rational, sentient beings.
    And the facts still remain – British citizens die, go missing or are murdered in Thailand. In addition almost 6000 Thais are murdered every year – a truly appalling stat. Assassination has long been used by the Thais to settle to disputes – go and hang out in Phetburi and you'll get the picture. However, as I said in my article many people who visit the kingdom experience no danger whatsoever.
    What can also not be denied is that Thailand is a country with a long history of dictatorships, massacres and coups. As I write this everyone seems to be bracing themselves for the next round of bloodletting.
    So, to attack me for pointing out a few hometruths is just absurd and a bit pathetic.
    Finally the stuff directed at Andrew Drummond is totally ridiculous. Have you really got nothing better to do than slag off journalists? You claim both Andrew and myself have an agenda – we both admit to that – what is yours?

  16. I would imagine that nearly all the news 'correspondents' that live in Thailand are here because they like the place in some form or another. I doubt any correspondents has been sent here against his or her will. Many others will presumably just have set up here and other fixed up 'strings' before they arrived. As a journalist in another place I admire the 'writers' who have survived in Thailand over the years as it is not easy being a freelance. Easier if your like Jonathan Head, a full-paid up correspondent. But surviving as a freelance is an ulcer-inducing and sometimes demeaning trade. One thing I wonder, are there currently any female corresondents in Bangkok? Or is it just for the guys.

  17. I am also incredulous that you have no writers of Thai nationality in this list! Whilst many Thai writers write in Thai, their novels are also available translated into English. If you think Bangkok 8 is worth recommending, you should certainly also have Thai writers such as Chart Korbjitti and Rattawut Lapcharoensap on this list. If anyone is interested in other Thai novels to try, I recommend the list of past SEA Write award winners – you can check this at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SeaWrite_Award

  18. Hey, it is good to know there are other Thai writers out there. I'm a Thai writer. But I don't write of history or non-fiction. My books are fantasy.

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