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Some people find international travel exciting, some find it broadening, some find it tedious, and some find it the subject of careful academic study. This latter group is made up primarily of teachers and scientists, and the records of their travels can be counted on for two things: hyperbole and detachment. Witness this sentence from the opening pages of "Bangkok Journal: A Fulbright Year in Thailand," by Stephen A. Garrett:
"Bangkok obviously isn't a particularly beautiful city - piles of refuse could be seen littering the highway and the areas off to the side - but there was a rather compelling air to it nonetheless, a striking admixture of the mysterious and the commonplace."
"Admixture" is one of those words that a writer will throw in to show the reader that he knows there is another word that means "mixture."
In the same passage, Mr. Garrett says that the air was "so heavy and moist that one could almost reach out and touch it." You can reach out and touch any air at all - moist, dry or otherwise. Wave your hand through the air right now if you think I'm kidding. What we have here is an author who, accustomed to the dry language of the political scientist, struggles to engage his reader with colorful descriptive prose and falls just short of the mark.
There is also, in this book, a structural problem which is inherent in any journal. As we read through the various entries, we encounter information and incidents which have nothing to do with anything else and are only included because... well, they did happen.
The author is invited on a trip upcountry but is unable to go. The author meets somebody and records that person's name and what he or she said, though what they said is not particularly interesting or apropos of anything else in the book. In a personal journal this sort of thing is to be expected, and the rules of academic writing stress completeness and thoroughness, but for a casual reader interested in a good story, journal digressions can be quite distracting.
But there are reasons for casual readers to plod through the mundane portions of this book, and those reasons are the author's academic specialty and the particular time he was resident in Bangkok.
As mentioned earlier, Mr. Garrett is a political scientist, and his Fulbright grant happened to place him in a Bangkok university just two years after the student uprising of October, 1976, possibly the most important expression of popular political awareness, and the most brutal and uncharacteristic response to popular political awareness, in Thailand's history.
Imagine being a college professor just four semesters after gangs of government sponsored thugs (named "khrating daeng," or Red Bulls, who gave their name to the popular energy drink) stormed the campus of a major university and beat, hanged and burned to death scores of students, all of them unarmed and most of them women.
Granted, Mr. Garrett was teaching on the other of Bangkok's two great campuses, but still, his candid and informed conversations with fellow lecturers and his students give the reader a remarkable and valuable insight into the political atmosphere of the time, an atmosphere still just as noticeable today as that tactile Bangkok air.