'Bangkok 8' author John Burdett talks to bar girls ... and everyone else in town

'Bangkok 8' author John Burdett talks to bar girls ... and everyone else in town

Bangkok's top thriller writer reveals his favorite haunts. And, yes, he still goes to Soi Cowboy
John Burdett
Author John Burdett now divides his time between Thailand and France.

John Burdett has made a living off Bangkok's notoriously twisted underbelly. The British-born author has written three popular thrillers based in the capital -- "Bangkok 8," "Bangkok Tattoo" and "Bangkok Haunts." Each follows Thai police detective Sonchai Jitplecheep as he sets out to solve various murders in some of Bangkok's scuzziest corners. The latest book in the series, "The Godfather of Kathmandu," will be published in January, 2010.

The books have earned critical acclaim for their realistic portrayals of Bangkok's dark side -- as well as their thorough examination of Thai culture. We spoke with Burdett about Buddhism, bar girls and the unique qualities that make Bangkok such a rich environment for fiction.

CNNGo: What do you love most about Bangkok?

 The people. One never need be alone here, and most Thais are happy to tell you their life story after five minutes of knowing you. It is a novelist's dream.

I have been visiting Bangkok for more than 20 years. I first started coming here in 1984 on R & R from Hong Kong and loved it immediately. It was a different city then, far more laid-back and exotic.

CNNGo: How is Bangkok different from other Asian cities?

 Thailand was never colonized, so its culture is mostly all homegrown, and for that reason it is very authentic, despite the 21st-century surface, which is largely illusory as far as the Thais themselves are concerned. They may all have cell phones and iPods, but they also go to the temple once a week and have the same superstitions as their parents and grandparents.

It's really Hong Kong that is different. The only place similar to Hong Kong is Singapore and for the same reason: the British empire. Bangkok has evolved without too much help from the Raj.

CNNGo: How should outsiders who want to better understand Bangkok get to know the city? 

 I am afraid there is no substitute for learning the language and culture: living here and becoming a part of it, rather than living the typical expat life. There is no shortcut, but the rewards are more than worth it.

CNNGo: Describe your ideal day in Bangkok

I get up about four in the morning to write, then often study some Thai and reply to e-mails. I take my girlfriend out to lunch, sometimes to a Thai restaurant, sometimes to a farang one. 

In the afternoon and early evening I often visit old friends who have provided me with most of the stories for my books -- of course I am talking about Soi Cowboy and Nana. Later I will often have a meal with a close friend, go home to my girlfriend and watch TV until we go to bed. 

An ideal day is also a typical day for me. I'm a very lucky man.

CNNGo: Why is Bangkok often associated with its red light districts when there's so much more to the city?

 Misperception arises from a kind of cultural blindness. In the West we think that people who visit and work in red light districts must be of a certain type. We have no idea how different attitudes are. 

Ninety percent of Thais are Buddhist, but that is not the same as saying that many Westerners are Christian. Most Thais leave school at age 15 or 16, at best; many in effect stop going to school after age 10. The result is that Buddhism is the only overview they have, the only means of interpreting the world. To them everything is to do with karma, patience, tolerance and freedom from mental slavery. 

To understand what you are seeing in Bangkok, you have to bear this huge cultural difference in mind. That way the whole city opens up, whether red light districts or temples or whatever.

CNNGo:What are some of your favorite Bangkok hangouts?

 I love the river, the Mandarin Oriental for its unashamed nostalgia, most of the bars in Soi Cowboy, Giusto's restaurant and most of the cooked food stalls starting at Soi 39 Sukhumvit and working up to Soi 11. I play a lot of pool, so most of the pool bars are in favor with me.

CNNGo: Does Bangkok still inspire you?

Bangkok is more inspiring as time goes on and I relate to it on a deeper level. Southeast Asia is one of those few places with rich histories that have not yet been over-exploited by Western academics. There is something new and startling everyday.

Newley Purnell is a freelance journalist in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the New York Times, on AFP, ABC News Radio, ABCNews.com, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, and more. He has been blogging at http://newley.com since 2002.

Read more about Newley Purnell