Land of the Lotus Eaters: Norman Bartlett

Norman Bartlett was a widely travelled Australian journalist who came to Bangkok in the early 1950s to serve as Press Attaché at the Australian Embassy. Siam at that time held overwhelming importance as a key centre in a campaign to resist Communist subversion, propaganda and economic penetration in the surrounding region. Bartlett set up home in Bangkok with his wife, and later wrote this book about his experiences. Far from being the stuffy and pompous character we might expect amongst the diplomatic corps of the day, he approached his subject and life with a fresh, unspoiled and open-minded manner which many other writers could learn much from.

Bangkok at that time was somewhere between being a marshy conglomeration of old style living amongst the many khlongs or canals that had been the main routes for transport for some time, and the modern metropolis it is today, with its wide Boulevards and smaller Sois. His descriptions of life then should be familiar to those readers who live in current day Phnom Penh, and maybe point to the way this city will change in the not too distant future.

Early on in this account he comes across another journalist who is on a quick visit, looking mainly for sleaze to satisfy the desires of whatever rag employed him. He treats this fellow with a certain distain, and quotes to him the following: “We’re not doing anything to the country except living in it and liking it. You can’t help it if an itinerant journalist wants to describe it as an international neon limbo of drunks and deadbeats, thieves and whores.” This sentiment again may seem familiar to some expats here, but surprisingly, it isn’t even about Bangkok, or anywhere in Asia, it was written about the cities of Europe!

The author accompanies the visiting hack to a variety of places, the usual dance clubs, striptease joints and opium dens, but treats it all in his usual worldly-wise fashion. In contrast to the wide-eyed sensation seeking visitor, he is decidedly unimpressed with any of this vice, and unlike him is not so disconnected from his subject matter that he can’t enjoy smoking a few pipes while there!

Although mainly about Bartlett’s experiences in Siam, he also journeys to Angkor and writes one of the finest pieces I have ever read about it. As always, he has researched everything thoroughly, and tells the history of the Angkorian kingdom in an easily understood, but detailed way, leaving no stone unturned. There is plenty of information here that I have never come across from other sources.

One example, which may be disputed by modern historians, contends that the demise of Angkor started earlier than usually described. On this subject he states: “Suryavarman died about 1150 and left Angkor with a mighty name and an empty treasury. Angkor Wat had sapped the energy of countless slaves and swallowed the vast treasures wrung from an over-burdened peasantry in an over-expanded kingdom. When the king’s couriers rode between the rice fields, angry eyes glared at them from the shade of wide straw peasant hats and gnarled hands pushed weapons into hiding above the rafters in attap roofs. Provincial governors muttered at the extravagance that that lavished gold and silver, silk hangings and Chinese mosquito nets on the temples and palaces of the capital but left roads unmade and provinces untended. Young men, shut out from secret exotic rites and the hope of high office, grew restless and discontented. As with ancient Rome, so with medieval Angkor, metropolitan luxury and centralized autocracy introduced a slow and secret poison into the vitals of the empire.” This may seem a familiar story to those with some knowledge of more recent history and events.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and although written almost fifty years ago, its incredibly vibrant descriptions still stand out as among the finest ever. As the author states in the prologue: “The new and strange soon become everyday if you live with them long enough”, yet an incredible vividness remains in his recollections long after his time in Siam ended.

Dermot Sheehan

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