By Steph Lam
I of the Sun, by Richard Arthur, follows the author’s travels as a 22 year old from England to Thailand, through Vietnam and Cambodia, and eventually back to Thailand. In turns shocking, suspenseful and intriguing, the book is anything but a boring read.
Most of the book can be summed up in three words: sex, booze, drugs. Presenting an attitude to women that can only be described as repulsive, most of the narrative is consumed by casual sexual encounters, lots of alcohol and drug abuse. The rest chronicles other activities such as ventures into nature, hikes, tours and terrible bus experiences. Occasional pages of philosophical ruminations also punctuate the prose and although most read as pseudo-meditative, some passages on the human will and consciousness surprisingly ring of wisdom hard-earned through extended travelling.
Granted, the book has earthy, detailed and vivid descriptions of places in South East Asia, valuable in their own right, as the process of finding the vocabulary to express such unique sights and sounds in English must have been a difficult one. Stunning scenery, remote villages and hikes are described in energetic and captivating language, just as the haggling and crowded atmosphere of cities are unflinchingly recorded.
Readers looking to travel to Thailand will find useful accounts of islands and beaches, such as Ao Nang and Phi Phi. Stories of near-death cave exploration experiences and kayaking expeditions that refused to end before sunset keeps the narrative exciting, and sobering accounts of the near-fatal accidents of the author’s friends make one admire the fact that the author is alive to tell his tale, especially given his frequent abuse of drugs and alcohol.
Interesting social observations also crop up. People are superficially but vividly sketched out throughout the narrative. From members of the Thai mafia, to men who practically live on the streets, to fellow Western backpackers, the author encounters and describes a wide range of characters. Interactions with local Thai people result in some cultural insights, such as the practice of obedience shown by younger people towards their elders in return for guidance and support in Thai culture.
However, the book fails to be a worthy recommendation on account of its attitude to women. With the description on the back cover of the book using the phrase ‘loose women’, one cannot expect too much, although this still doesn’t lessen the shock of reading the occasional written description of a woman as a ‘slut’ or a ‘whore’. But limiting the book’s transgressions on morality to those two words being used would be a very reductive and false thing to do. At best, the contents of the book reflect the character of a man who threw himself into the atmosphere of irresponsible living that the more affordable countries of Asia allow travellers to sustain.
Not one for delicate sensibilities, it is nevertheless a book from which one could learn a lot, even if it is only how not to travel.
Photograph: Richard Arthur