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I used to be a voracious reader. In a way, I still am- however, books and magazines have been replaced by blogs and websites in my current nomadic lifestyle. I want to get back to the good stuff.

Unsurprisingly, travel literature has always been my favorite genre. There’s nothing like Paul Theroux’s to make you want transport yourself to a hot sweaty train in Southeast Asia or J. Maarten Troost’s The Sex Lives of Cannibals to make you want to sell everything you own and move to a tiny island in the Pacific. This genre, this kind of book- it’s travel porn, plain and simple. Hence the name of my new monthly feature.

“Nowhere is as it was before.”

I picked up Tiger Balm by Lucretia Stewart in a roadside market in Cambodia in anticipation of a 5 hour bus ride. It was subtitled Travels in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and described one women’s travels through Indochina in 1989-90, the year I was born. It seemed a perfect fit for someone retracing a similar route 22 years later.

A Look Inside

Tiger Balm is broken into 12 chapters describing different portions of the author’s trips to through Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It’s a journey that’s been done millions of times before… so what makes this one special? Stewart was traveling in a politically delicate time when these countries were only just beginning to heal from decades of war, turmoil, and tragedy. In some cases, like in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, she was the first Western woman to visit since the war.

One of the overarching themes of the book is Stewart’s struggles to cut through the red tape of the time and obtain the necessary permits, visas, and handlers (she was rarely ever allowed by the governments to travel without local guides). I remember complaining about the process of obtaining a Thai visa while in Vietnam- a process that took (gasp!) a whole day. Stewart waited months for a visa to Laos- only to arrive and not be allowed to leave the capital of Vientiane.

But of course as in any travel related memoir the destinations are the real stars. Tiger Balm weaves a delicate story of three countries that despite their unique personalities and individual qualities are bound together forever by geography, culture, and history. As Stewart recounts in a proverb recited to her by an elderly Cambodian:

“The Cambodians plant the rice

The Vietnamese harvest the rice

The Laos watch the rice grow”

What I Liked

As I was traveling through Cambodia and Vietnam while I was reading this book, I got the most enjoyment out of comparing my present day experiences with Stewarts’ from so long ago.

I felt especially vindicated by her uneasy response to Vietnam- one that I ultimately shared. She describes her first impressions on the night of her arrival in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City): “I was jumpy, on guard, ready to duck and run.” While she too had ups and downs to her Vietnamese experience, she experienced a sense of desperation when it was time to leave that was all too familiar to me, (who had a mini-breakdown on our final morning.) “For an awful moment, I thought I wasn’t going to be allowed to leave Vietnam. I imagined breaking down into floods of tears and begging the ugly little official on my knees to let me go.”

Also similar to me, Stewart has a soft spot for Cambodia. This is a country that seems to have changed almost immeasurably in the past century and I was fascinated by her accounts. Take Angkor Wat, for example. The author describes her parents’ visit in 1953 where they did not see another human for hours (her parents were British diplomats stationed in Southeast Asia). When the author visits, she is accompanied by guards and must be meticulous about following the paths lest she set off one of the landmines sprinkled across the area by the genocidal Khmer Rouge during the civil war. When I visited, our greatest hardship was trying to time our visit to avoid the teeming crowds of the million tourists that visit the site each year.

Some things don’t seem to ever change though, as Stewart observed that Phnom Penh was one of the few cities in the world where there are more than enough taxis… a phenomenon I commented on many times as well, though with less eloquence.

But most of all I enjoyed the way in which the author writes of sense of déjà vu for a time and place that she had only read about… a feeling I experienced when reading this book!

Other parts of the book that had me screaming “yes!” to a silent bus:

• Stewart observes that rice has significance much greater than that of just sustenance in Indochina. She notes that the word for rice in Vietnamese is the same as the word for food, and that a proper comparison for the importance of rice in that culture is to the significance of bread to Catholics. I love this comparison.

• The book is peppered with observations about the way in which delicate Southeast Asian societies interact with their western visitors… in one example she describes the challenge of trying to explaining anorexia to poverty-stricken Lao.

• The author is frustrated when her Vietnamese handlers take her to a crowded dirty beach rather than the pristine beautiful one nearby… she questions whether it is due to the “oriental passion for crowds or the rather blank incomprehension of the joys of solitude.”

• Steward describes a bus accident followed by a plane taking off five hours late. There was “none of the hostility and pent-up rage which is the inevitable accompaniment to any delay or traffic jam in the west. Everyone was interested, concerned, even excited.”

What I Didn’t Like

Perhaps this is a cultural gripe (Stewart is British) or a generational one, but certain phrasing made me cringe: using the term “oriental,” or the phrase “going native.”

Most annoying of all however was the frequent use of French that I couldn’t understand… with no translation! They were often long, complex phrases that I had to Google to translate, which is no small task when you are reading on a five-hour bus ride through Vietnam.

There was a fair bit of negativity and annoyance in this book. However, upon reflection I spent a fair bit of time in Vietnam being negative and annoyed so perhaps this is a reflection on my disappointment in myself!

And last but not least… the author described a fair bit of her dream sequences. Maybe it’s just me but… I can’t stand reading about people’s dreams!

Who This Book is For

Those who have traveled to the Indochina region or are planning to, those that are interested in cultural nuances of Southeast Asia, those who are interested in the history of the region.

Now It’s Your Turn!

Today I’m giving away my copy to one lucky reader! Of course, um, the winner is not actually all that lucky considering the original state of the copy I bought (a bootleg fake common in so many Asian markets) and the hell I put it through dragging it from country to country and marking it up with my notes. But I still think this book can find a happy new home… and I promise to keep next month’s book in better condition!

To enter, simply subscribe to this blog via RSS or email (below) and leave me a comment telling me that you have done so! One Friday I’ll use a random number generator to pick a winner.

Happy reading and good luck!

Update: Entries are closed. Congratulations to reader Vicky!

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27 Comments...
  • paul | walkflypinoy
    April 17 2012

    hey, another travel lit fan! i love reading non-fiction, especially those about travel memoirs. i’m only starting to discover the rich travel literature about Indochina. (I know!) but i’ve been busy digesting Michael Palin and all his travels. it’s interesting though that the author used bread with catholics. the philippines is catholic yet because food also revolves around rice, i guess that makes us very southeast asian. and yes, our word for rice (kanin) is very close to the word for eat (kain). i’m not sure if there’s a proven linguistic relation there, but there you go. 🙂
    paul | walkflypinoy recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2012

      Hi Paul, insightful comment, thanks! I look forward to visiting the Philippines someday, in part because I think it will be so culturally different from the rest of Buddhist Southeast Asia. And I’ll have to check out Michael Palin!

  • Vicky
    April 17 2012

    Sounds like an interesting read. I had never heard of it before but lately I’ve been particularly interested in reading travel related books (gets me even more excited for my 2 year backpacking trip to start this fall). I’ve read The Great Railway Bazaar and really liked it. I already subscribe to your site.
    Vicky recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2012

      I had never heard of this book either before picking it up at that random book stall… It’s definitely not one of the stars of the genre, but I thought that’s why it might be interesting to review here! And I definitely agree there is nothing like a good travel book (or movie!) to get you excited about a big upcoming trip.

  • Laura
    April 17 2012

    Hi Meihoukai, I loved the book commentary. I want to be entered in your drawing. I think if I win what I will love best is precisely ” The Condition” of the book…knowing that it has been to many places that I yet have not. 🙂

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2012

      Consider yourself entered 🙂 I agree I don’t mind books that are well-loved, its more the fact that it was a pretty poor copy to begin with as its a photocopied bootleg. But still… words on a page… it is a book!

  • Lindsay Cutter
    April 17 2012

    Great Review, I am actually thinking of going to buy it now for my next road trip.

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2012

      Well, if you win you won’t have to buy it! Just make sure to subscribe to win!

  • Gaby
    April 17 2012

    Hi Meihoukai, I’ve subscribed to the RSS feed for a while. I like your blog and your voice in the blog and how you’re able to keep up your blog and create contents while you’re abroad. Having completed my BS and MS abroad in different countries and traveling in between I’ve tried several times to start a blog and struggle (and fail) to keep it. I’d love to read this book; I’m from SE asia actually but haven’t got a chance to travel much of the region. Will be cool to read this and probably visit the places myself… hopefully in the near future! Keep up the good work with blog! 🙂

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2012

      Thank you so much for the kind words Gaby… it’s definitely not easy to keep up a blog while traveling but I don’t consider myself a pure backpacker anymore… I’m a working traveler! The benefits that I get back from it are worth the effort put in tenfold.

  • Caty
    April 17 2012

    Sounds like a great book! I also love travel literature. I just finished a book about Sri Lanka and it was so fascinating because I´ve already been to most of the places the author described,the book was also set today but also had flash backs to the victorian period (1880). I loved to see how things have changed. I would send you my copy but unfortunately it is in German. Can’t wait for next month’s book review. And of course I already subscribe to your blog! =)

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2012

      Thanks Caty! I agree its definitely most fun to read books about places you have been, are going, or are dreaming of going! I can see why that Sri Lanka book was such a hit with you!

  • Karen a Opalka
    April 17 2012

    Ok, gotta go read it now. Initially I thought you were talking more about the rub-on Tiger Balm, rather than the book.
    Have been busy and not checking on your blog. Looking for a rainy day here in Averill Park, in order to check in. Chet is addicted to your stuff. Surely interested in your parents’ visit to places we know well. NEVER would have zip lined, jumped off the top deck of the boat and do the bike thing. Kudos to your parents, as always. We really love them both. Next lifetime, I’d like to be you………

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2012

      Actually, that title (and my love for the rub-on stuff) is what caught my eye about this book in the first place! Maybe you’ll be the winner of my beat up copy 🙂

  • Krista C.
    April 17 2012

    I love travel narrative books, they are travel porn for me as well. I would love to win this well-used and well-traveled copy of Tiger Balm. I subscribe to your travel updates already and I love reading them!

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2012

      Thanks Krista! Glad you like the series title… was worried people wouldn’t “get it!” Ha. Glad I’m not the only one who feels that way!

  • Rachel
    April 17 2012

    I’ll be going to SE Asia soonish and I love reading! So I would very much enjoy getting this book. Your blog is on my RSS feed.
    Rachel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 17 2012

      Thanks for reading Rachel! Best of luck!

  • Grandma Burr
    April 18 2012

    Trip to library or bookstore next on the agenda. Soon as I replace water heater which decided to conk out today. Always something. But the weather is great, Gram E

    • Meihoukai
      April 18 2012

      Well if you win my copy you won’t need to get it from the bookstore : )

  • Sarahsomewhere
    April 19 2012

    Sounds great, I think I’ll have to download this one! I am also a big fan of travel porn!! Thanks Meihoukai, a lovely, thorough review 🙂
    Sarahsomewhere recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 20 2012

      I’d be surprised if you find this for download, it’s quite old! But maybe you’ll win my copy…

  • Fidel
    April 19 2012

    LOL, before reading this, when I just saw the title of your post, I thought it was about the wonders of Tiger Balm. I love that stuff!
    Fidel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      April 20 2012

      I know… the title of the book was what drew me to it in the first place! Love the Tiger Balm.