"Pom rak khum" [I love you].

The words breathed so quietly into his ear he wondered afterwards whether anything had actually been said. He was happy to let the feeling linger, along with the warmth inside.

At that moment Graham looked out of the window and saw the myriad lights of the city blinking back, this city of angels and demons, which not merely co-existed but too often merged into one another in a baffling but exhilarating way...

Bangkok Burning is available as a paperback or as a downloadable e-book from Amazon.
Bangkok Burning is about a closeted 40-year-old man crippled by anxiety issues and an abusive marriage who finally manages to escape, running away from his lifeless existence on a smile, a whim, swapping his life in South London for the chaos of Bangkok. Graham soon finds himself prey not only to Natasha, the transsexual nightclub schemer he loses his heart to, but in thrall to a slimy American Svengali who owns her.

OutUK: Graham the main character of the book swapped his dreary life in South London for something more exciting in Bangkok. When you lived in Bangkok did you get to know many people who had done the same?
Robin: Swapped dreary South London for Bangkok? Yes, me for one! I was working in a dead-end graduate job and was on holiday in Thailand when I got an interview for a job at Bangkok's answer to Time Out. I was offered the job shortly after I got back to London and packed my bags. I met a lot of fellow "adventurers" along the way. What really informed my writing in the book is that Bangkok, probably like any big city, is a place that attracts people wanting change and the chance to reinvent themselves. In fact, a lot of the people I became acquainted with were probably running away, me to a certain extent. Graham definitely. The only thing with running away is that your problems catch up with you eventually unless you tackle them head on, so that was a kind of hook I used in Bangkok Burning.

OutUK: Gray invested all his savings in a bar, and then he lost the lot - but he gained so much as well didn't he?
Robin: Yes, to an outsider, it may seem Gray took a crazy gamble by giving up everything and moving to Bangkok. But as his mate, Nigel, says in the book, "What are you really giving up?" He was a closeted man trapped in an abusive marriage and he couldn't see himself living out another 20-30 years of that "prison sentence". He had to do something. I think for a lot of people facing middle age, it's a time to take stock and change things or face the rest of your life being unhappy or worse. Graham had the balls to do it and I think that's what the story's about. It takes real courage to change things that aren't working, especially at a certain time of life. People tend to stay in marriages they hate and jobs they detest because they don't have the guts to move on. I hope it's a salutary tale because despite losing material wealth in the end Gray actually finds himself.

OutUK: You worked in Bangkok as a journalist for several years. Did you find everyday life there quite as hard and brutal as Graham did?
Robin: I scratched around doing a variety of jobs for a while but I can't say it was a hardship posting. When you see beggars with no arms and legs, it's hard to complain. I led a pretty gilded life compared to a lot of the local people, because poverty is very real in a place like Thailand. However, Bangkok is somewhere that seems to attract the unscrupulous.

Robin Newbold.
My former partner's dad was a local brothel owner and asked me whether I wanted to meet a "Thai lady". He knew full well I was in love with his son. The whole place seems in a bit of a moral vacuum, with little sentiment, which may be infectious. Life is cheap. I was told you could have someone killed for about the equivalent of £50. If you hear that kind of thing, it keeps you on edge.

OutUK: The city seems to be entirely driven by money - if you have it, you have power, if you don't, you are a nobody. Is it really so stark in reality?
Robin: For a place seemingly wedded to religion, most of the population is Buddhist, I was amazed by how driven by money it is. But I think that's down to the fact it's the Third World we're talking about. Everyone who doesn't have money wants it, those who've got it want more and more. The divide between rich and poor in Bangkok is huge, bigger than I've seen anywhere else. The rich are obscenely so and ostentatious with it, while the poor have nothing. It's sad, but those with money can buy anything in the city, like everything's for sale provided you can pay. When I was living there, a local politician's son, infamous for being a thug, shot up some bar and killed someone, but he never even stood trial. It's definitely one rule for the rich in a place like Bangkok and you need to be careful whose toes you're stepping on.

OutUK: There's a lot of corruption in your book - with the Police taking their cut of bar takings from all the outlets. There's bars burnt down and people killed with little or no investigation. Is Bangkok really so lawless?
Robin: Totally. The city's like the Wild West. Rather than respected, the police are feared. One foreign owner of a local gay bar I used to frequent told me the local constabulary demanded a third of his takings for protection money. He knew he'd be forced out of business one way or another if he didn't comply, especially being a foreigner - who are always viewed as being "rich" in Thailand, despite that often being far from the case. Foreigners are charged double what local people are at many attractions, for example. A policeman's salary only amounts to about £200 month but you always see them driving around in BMWs and Mercedes. That says a lot. In fact Thaksin Shinawatra, who was prime minister when I lived there, now on the run and wanted in Thailand on corruption charges was a former policeman. He was once said to be the richest man in the kingdom!

OutUK: You paint a fascinating picture of gay life there and the sex industry both gay and straight. Would you say it's an industry that thrives there?
Robin: In many ways Thailand's a beautiful country despite the clichés about the sex industry but like a lot of clichés, it happens to be true. There is a thriving sex industry and while a lot of the media seem to represent this as a problem created by Western tourists, apparently 90% of the trade is for local men. It's a poor country and most of the sex workers come from the northeast, the most impoverished part of this Third World nation. Sadly it's simple economics and sex has become another commodity to be bought and sold. I met one local lad who said he used to work in McDonald's for six days a week flipping burgers and earning a pittance, almost like a life of slavery. He turned to prostitution and could afford the latest phone, the fashionable clothes, eat in the best restaurants. When someone puts it like that, who are we to judge?

...Too many men come here and deludedly float along the surface, survey the pretty scene, without ever realising the water is infested with sharks.

When they come a cropper, it's a shock but that's only because they never stopped to ask the reason why...

Photo: ViewApart
OutUK: Did you get to know many ladyboys?
Robin: I first came across the ladyboy scene when I was backpacking around Thailand in 1997. I used to frequent Christie Cabaret Bar on the island of Koh Samui, which was really rundown and dirty in those days before being transformed into a place for honeymooners. In amongst the filth were these elaborately dressed ladyboys putting on colourful shows every night for Western couples. It was weird watching the husbands being dragged along by their wives, yet it was the husbands that didn't want to leave by the end of the night because some of the performers were mesmerising, beautiful even. Having met a number, though, there always seems to be a tragic story in there somewhere. I think most of them want to meet a "good man" and get married as a kind of legitimation but that's obviously not possible in Thailand. And while the country tolerates what they call "kathoeys" (meaning third sex) - they even have bathrooms for ladyboys in some high schools - there's only grudging acceptance. Unfortunately they don't seem to be taken seriously and are expected to fulfil very narrowly defined roles - in hair and beauty or sex work.

OutUK: Were they anything like as focused on self-preservation as Natasha?
Robin: I think a lot of them are tough due to what it takes to transition. A lot of ladyboys are shunned by their families, for example, and I've heard some of them are even beaten. The good thing is that many turn to each other for support and they form surrogate families. The ones I made friends with in Koh Samui all lived with one another. I wouldn't say it was all one big happy family but they were there for each other, had each other's backs. They do seem very determined, however. Noi, one of the ladyboys I met, turned to prostitution to be able to afford the operation to transition. She was resigned to what she was doing but very single-minded. She knew what she wanted and how to get it.

OutUK: The Thai characters in your book seem to want to almost demean visitors - calling them "Farang" amongst other things. Was that your experience in Bangkok?
Robin: Like ladyboys, I got the impression, having lived in Thailand five years, that foreigners are tolerated but not really accepted. There is some weird rule that foreigners can't own private property and there's also the double charging I mentioned earlier, where Westerners often pay more for things than so-called locals. If you live there it doesn't seem to make any difference, you're still viewed as rich. My experience informed Graham's in the book. I think he felt he could live there for years and years and years but still be regarded as a "farang" (foreigner). I love Thai postboxes, they have two slots - one is entitled "Thailand" and the second "other places" like it's in outer space. It's a very monoracial culture that seems to shun outside influences.

"You'll be dazed, appalled, intrigued" - Metro

"Robin Newbold's research, knowledge and experience of Bangkok really comes through in the story" - Goodreads

"A dark, exotic love story... One man's struggle to find himself." - Boyz magazine

Photo: ViewApart
OutUK: Did you enjoy your time living in Bangkok?
Robin: I loved it. I don't think I was one of those foreigners Graham encounters in Bangkok Burning who profess to hate everything about the place but are still living there years later, though it does have that allure. Funnily enough when I was backpacking, I flew straight to Koh Samui and heard loads of travellers' tales about how awful the capital was. I think you either love it or hate it. It's a place that provokes strong emotions. When I did finally make it to Bangkok, I was hooked. It really does attack the senses - the heat, the smell(!), the buzz of the traffic and it's all constantly evolving. You'll have an ancient Buddhist shrine and these spirit houses to appease ghosts, then round the corner it's like being on the set of Blade Runner with hyper modern skyscrapers shooting up.

OutUK: What was best about it?
Robin: Meeting my then partner, Kitcharoen. The book's in his memory.

OutUK: What was the worst?
Robin: It's very hard to be accepted as a foreigner. Bangkok is not like London, which I think accepts all comers. As much as I loved the place, I often felt it didn't love me back.

OutUK: What's been the reaction to this book?
Robin: The reaction's been really good. I'd been working on Bangkok Burning sporadically for the last year or two, so to finally get it published by The Conrad Press was wonderful but to get a positive reception too has been a lovely bonus. One book blogger described it as "bringing the brutal streets of Bangkok to life". I think that nails it as while the novel's about protagonist Graham, the city is also a character in its own right. Bangkok Burning has been nominated for the Diverse Book Award and it's also been entered for the "gay Booker" - the Polari Prize.

OutUK: What are going to write about for your next book?
Robin: My next thriller - Hunted - is going to be set in the mid-1980s. The main character is a policeman trying to come to terms with his sexuality - sound familiar - in the period of Thatcher and Aids. He's also bogged down in an investigation that takes him to the very brink and right into London's seedy underbelly, searching for a missing teenage boy that he knows in his gut has been abducted. His superiors don't want to know but PC Hanwell just won't let it lie!

Robin Newbold's is a journalist who's recently returned to London after living in Asia for six years and has had a number of lifestyle and travel features published by the likes of The Times, Time Out, the South China Morning Post, Asia Times, Bangkok Metro and Traveller.

Bangkok Burning and Robin's previous books, Vacuum-Packed & Bloody Summer, are available from Amazon. Bangkok Burning can also be purchased in paperback from Queer Lit and Gay Pride Shop. You can find out more about Robin's writing at robinnewbold.com.


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