Voyageur Q & A with Steve Van Beek

Steve Van Beek has been one of the most celebrated expat authors based in Bangkok for the past few decades. He is about to release a companion book to Bangkok Then and Now called News from the 90s. It’s a 172-page collection of news items from the Bangkok Times newspaper, 1890-1899. The 1890s were a pivotal decade for Thailand and the world. These are the stories you would have read each afternoon, written in a unique style that blends hard news with whimsical accounts

Steve was born on a small farm in Oregon which taught him the cycles of life—birth, death, and everything in between—something he would never have learned in a city. In secondary school and under the guidance of an inspirational teacher, he learned to love language. He graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in Classical History, which as it turned out was ideal preparation for a life as a writer.

Steve is also an avid adventurer and kayaker. Voyageur recently caught up with Steve to discuss his life, adventures, and career.

Did the Peace Corps send you to Nepal, or did you choose to go there? If the latter, why?

I joined the Peace Corps because (a) I wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem and (b) I hadn’t decided what I wanted to do when I grew up (still haven’t) and wanted a couple of years to think about it. Originally assigned to Libya, I balked at teaching English which I didn’t feel did Libyans any good. I protested and was transferred to food production in southern Nepal. In the village, I seldom saw the world’s tallest mountains. Instead, I roasted under a 40-45 degree sun, had no running water, electricity, or toilet, and slept on a low table in front of my mud and wattle house, and it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life.

Why did you come to Bangkok and what do you miss most about Bangkok in the late 1960s?

When I left Kathmandu in 1969, I headed the opposite direction, hitchhiking my way across Asia Minor to Istanbul and spent four months in Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan before returning to Kathmandu. Peace Corps pay was pretty dismal, so my savings soon dwindled to zero. A friend in Bangkok offered me a job at the old Bangkok World. I flew to Thailand, got the job, and forgot to leave. I think my love affair with Bangkok began when I rented a house on stilts in the river opposite the Grand Palace; it is now the Supatra River House Restaurant. The river was endlessly fascinating. Curious about its origins, I paddled a small wooden boat from the headwaters of the Ping to the ocean. The 58-day journey taught me more about Thailand than any book had provided. That started me exploring the other three tributaries and of numerous Asian rivers in Asia. At the same time, my interest in history has extended to Bangkok, resulting in several books on life a century or more ago. What I miss most: the endless lanes that led to amazing experiences.

Why did you decide to stay in Thailand?

I’m not sure it was a conscious decision. Things just kept happening, avenues that led to other avenues…and then beyond them to the heart of Asia. Bangkok was an ideal jumping off point. And, of course, the many friends I acquired along the way.

Historical figures you admire and why?

King Mongkut: penetrating curiosity and open-mindedness.

Modern-day heroes?

No surprise: explorers. Wilfred Thesiger tops the list. Dalai Lama.

If you could have lived at any other time in history when would it have been & why?

Ooo, tough one. The distant past appeals but, then, lifespans were short and brutal.

Most fascinating place(s) you’ve visited?

Headwaters of the Mekong, the Himalaya, old European towns, African game parks.

What places do you still want to travel to and why (from the bucket list)?

Pretty much everything else. Patagonia, Mongolia, a large chunk of Africa, the Stans, anywhere that the city and modernization have not intruded (I know, why have I lived in Bangkok for so long? I have no answer).

Greatest literary influences and why?

Too numerous to list. I’m an avid reader of a broad range of topics. In brief, any writer who understands the music of words, who is more of a poet than a grammarian.

Greatest photographic influences and why?

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams. Supreme, one-shot, patience. Lots of beautiful darkroom work.

River you would most like to kayak down?

Any number of Alaskan Rivers.

What was it like paddling down the Chao Phraya through the middle of Bangkok?

A shock. All I wanted to do was shovel water as fast as I could to get back into the countryside downriver from the city.

Greatest river explorer?

Probably John Wesley Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran who, in 1869, led the first run through the Colorado through the Grand Canyon in wooden boats. Major cojones.

You’ve kayaked in some amazing spots; what were some of your favourites & why?

The Colorado through the Grand Canyon. Four expeditions with a team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences from the headwaters of the Mekong to Yunnan. All were first descents, which meant no one had ever been on the river there before. Amazing scenery, astounding wildlife, hardy people, and otherworldly remoteness that, on the headwaters trip took us 12 days including four days on horses and yaks just to reach the river, through 17,000-foot passes, in a blizzard. A real feeling of adventure in a kayak, on a huge river plowing through four-feet-high waves. The supreme adrenaline rush.

What drew you to write about river life?

My first river journey. The journals that grew into stories. I was interested in how riparian villagers regarded the river: as a benevolent or a malevolent force and how they used or abused the river as a result.

Book you enjoyed writing the most and why?

Slithering South (about the 58-day Chao Phraya journey because it was written for my own pleasure and gave me a chance to stretch my writerly wings.

Why do you find Asia so fascinating?

There’s a vibrancy to it. Small e.g., festivals in the U.S. seem so flat by comparison with Diwali, Phi Ta Khon, or the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Asians seem so much more invested in it as though it is woven into the cultural fabric.

If you hadn’t become a writer, you would have been…?

With sufficient funds, a vagabond. In truth, I cannot imagine not being a writer.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
Paddling a boat down a river on an autumn afternoon.

(Steve has lived in Thailand since 1969; his most popular book, Bangkok Then and Now is about the city at the turn of the 19th century: http://www.stevevanbeek.com/2a1_bangkok_then_and_now_intro.php)