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Jul 05

Books in Chiang Mai

Down a side alley in Chiang Mai, there are two competing used book stores. Gecko Books is owned by an American with a sharp accent and aloof demeanour glaring intently at a closed circuit TV monitor. Behind Gecko is Backstreet Books, run by a Irish ex-pat who had been living in Chiang Mai for the last ten years. Both stores have an amazing collection of English books – most genres, from the classics to the modern – all at A$10 or less. I had just purchased Arthur C Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise from Backstreet Books when it started raining heavily outside. So heavily, in fact, that the lights went out. I peered out into the alleyway and all I saw was darkness. The whole of Chiang Mai, it seemed, had been hit by a blackout.

Not willing to endure the prospect of walking back in the rain and in the dark, trying to avoid the street traffic, I walked back into the store and sat on a step. In front of me, the Thai lady behind the counter was frantically searching for a stash of candles with a cigarette lighter. Everywhere else in the store was pitch black. The Irishman came cautiously bounding down the stairs, and soon there were four candles stuck on the front counter. The candles were already half burnt down when they were lit, casting piles of books in a flickering, murky orange glow.

“Does this happen often?”
“Unfortunately, yes. You’re Australian, aren’t you?”

Most Asians had been picking us for Japanese. Must be the hair.

“Yes we are.”
“Which part? … I’ve been to Melbourne a few times.”
“So how long have you been in Thailand?” Cheryl asked.
“Ten years.” He paused. “It’s nice here… like when you get booked by the cops, they don’t take it personally like in Dublin, or Melbourne. Like, you do something wrong and they’re all ‘who the fuck do you think you are?’ But here, it’s different. I was coming back from Cambodia, doing 140 when the police pulled me over. He was smiling, and after he fined me, he asked me if he’d like a cup of tea.”
“Yeah, people don’t lose their tempers here. Cutting in on someone on the road, ’tis perfectly legal y’know. Actually, a few months ago a friend did this…” he popped up his middle finger and waved his hand in the air, “and got shot in the head for his troubles. He lost his cool, and so the Thai guy did as well. Thai guy was carrying a gun. It was just there.”

He pointed vaguely over the shoulder, like it had happened in the next street, which it may well have. He chatted for a little while about how hard working the Irish and Chinese were. Then he talked about his trade, buying books by the hundreds overseas and shipping them back to Chiang Mai. He didn’t have the latest Harry Potter though, didn’t want to step on any toes. “There’s a few new book stores around town, let them sell it. People gotta make a living you know? Otherwise…” he held a finger to his head and flicked his thumb as though cocking a trigger.

The lights next door in Gecko flickered back on. “Oh, the lights are back for everyone except our store.” The Irishman walked to the fuse box and fiddled around. One by one the lights came back on and we bid him farewell.