The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen
Extraordinary Asian People and Places, and Things that Go Bump in the Night
Editions Didier Millet. Singapore. 2008.
The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen is a non-fiction collection of some 70 essays and articles which describe rarely written-about Asian people, places and events; most have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Wall Street Journal, CNN Traveller, Geographical, Travel and Leisure, Destinasian and other leading publications.
Meet the last elephant hunter of Vietnam, who has reached Michael Jordan-like status through a very Asian-accented product endorsement. Understand why 19th century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who spent eight years in Asia, has a better claim to the theory of natural selection than Charles Darwin. Meet the homeless man in Hawaii who has the résumé to prove he’s the real last emperor of China. Learn why isolated Indian villagers are angry at the Monkey God Hanuman for not returning their sacred mountain. Bargain for good luck on the Philippines “amulet island”. Learn why the white elephant is being used by Burma’s generals to try to justify their hold on power. Ponder the disappearance of Bruno Manser, a Swiss Robin Hood who vanished in a Borneo jungle while trying to help the downtrodden Penan tribesmen stand up for their rights. Play golf on the world’s highest course. Speak with the Sultan of Yogyakarta and learn about his love affair with the Mermaid Queen.
“The humanity of Somerset Maugham, the adventure of Joseph Conrad, the perception of Paul Theroux, and a self-effacing voice uniquely his own.”
Gary Braver, bestselling author of Skin Deep
“What a discovery! That rarest of writers; he has discovered an eternal assemblage of arcane explorers, putative emperors, frivolous mystics, sacrosanct elephants and, yes, miracle workers. Fascinating portraits, a book for everyone who knows that the Mysterious East is alive and well.”
Harry Rolnick, author of The Chinese Gourmet, The Complete Book of Coffee, and Spice Chronicles: Exotic Tales of a Hungry Traveler
Paul has the extraordinary ability to find hidden and overlooked stories and reveal them as meaningful and profound.
R. Ian Lloyd, National Geographic photographer
“The spirit of Kipling in contemporary Asian journalism. Paul Spencer Sochaczewski is an old Asia hand of incomparable experience and penetration. In these essays and stories you will discover perceptions and details that rarely find their way into any travel guide. This collection is essential reading for anyone who wishes to pass beyond even the unbeaten track, right to the heart of Asia.”
John Burdett, author of Bangkok Eight, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts
“The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen is a gem – some 70 gems actually, each true story constructed with a fine touch and disarming insight. On one level, the stories tell of Paul’s personal quests – looking for Hanuman’s mountain, for example. He downplays the physical hardships and goes forth with a skeptical eye, disrobing poseurs (like the guy who claims he is the last emperor of China) and standing up for the little guy (like the rural folks in Sarawak who fought Big Timber and won). He has achieved something extraordinary, something all writers could emulate: to his core reporting he adds layers: a touch of history, a sprinkle of mythology, an insight of philosophy, a handful of (relevant) trivia, a large grain of post-modernist thinking, even a smidgen of geopolitics. The result is like a series of curries in which the ingredients add up to more than the sum of its parts – rich, satisfying, spicy, other-wordly.”
James Clad, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia Pacific; professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University, and author of Behind the Myth: Business, Money and Power in Southeast Asia. During the 1980s he covered environmental issues for the Far Eastern Economic Review
“If you think you’re getting to grips with Asia during your expat posting, this brilliant collection of essays and articles will both humble you and take you farther along that path of discovery. Written over more than three decades, they reveal the incredibly wide-ranging travels of a writer to little-known corners of the continent.”
“What a journey! Travel writing par excellence, in places that are surprising, magical, whimsical and delightful. Off the beaten track, wry humour, a delight to read. Relentless probing, bringing the stories to another, more acutely felt, sensitive level. Underlying his wit the author shows up the impact of industrialization on nature, the need for conservation and the effectiveness of ‘modernisation’ techniques as practiced by some Asian governments.. Always interesting, unexpected and thoroughly entertaining..”
New Straits Times
“Peeling away the layers of the bizarre, unknown and mystifying, [a bit like] French nouveau vague films.
“He finds in everyone he meets a story, and he retells each one with sympathy, humour and grace. It is this abiding curiosity and enthusiasm that makes each story in this collection such a beguiling read.”
“Humour, a great store of background knowledge and the storyteller’s art — a look in forgotten corners which conveys a side of the continent that many fail to find. Sochaczewski finds the quirky in the mundane, seeks our oddities and anomalies in the natural world and the human condition, and even when he doesn’t find what he’s looking for the search itself becomes a fascinating story.”
“A voyage of discovery, Sochaczewski’s stories unveil situations and characters most of us never imagined. One of the best bits of philosophy in the book comes from the late Sultan of Yogyakarta, commenting about his love affair with the Mermaid Queen: ‘You can’t always ask a western question in an Asian situation. Believe the story or not, but don’t try to analyze with your Cartesian mind.’ Similarly, the author encourages the reader to ‘switch modes’. Sochaczewski writes in layers – like a curry – adding a touch of history, a sprinkle of mythology, a philosophical insight, a clutch of (always relevant) trivia, and even a smidgen of geopolitics. Good reporting, well told.”
National Museum Volunteers (Bangkok) newsletter
“A memorable journey into the unseen world of Asia…hard to put down this one-of-a-kind book.”
“Paul Sochaczewski skips about Asia like a Monkey God hopping from mountain to mountain, bringing back life-prolonging peaches while annoying the gatekeepers. Whatever you do, follow him on this journey!”
Lee Chor Lin, director of National Museum of Singapore, former curator of Asian Civilisations Museum-Singapore, author Batik: Creating an Identity
“In nearly 40 years of exploring Asia’s forgotten corners, Paul Sochaczewski has investigated some of the most important and not-often reported issues in nature conservation. He delves into the disappearance of a Swiss Robin Hood-type character who helped local tribespeople in Borneo fight for their rainforest homes. He examines the ecological foundation of modern ethnic headhunting, the plight of mother-of-pearl divers in Indonesia who drown because they are given poor equipment by Chinese traders, how “miracle rice” ruins Bali’s coral reefs, why Indian religious leaders teamed up with conservationists to re-green Krishna’s birthplace, and whether the concept of “green golf” is an oxymoron. All his tales are important, all filled with humor, drama and insight; you won’t find anything else like this on the bookshelf.”
Jeff McNeely, chief scientist, International Union for Conservation of Nature
“Having grown up in Asia, I am deeply indebted to Paul Sochaczewski for his unique ability to reawaken the memories of the humanity and humor, wonder and reality of this magical part of the world. These stories leap off the pages and head straight into your heart. The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen is one of the finest gifts you could possibly give to yourself and to your best friends.”
Andy Sundberg, United States presidential candidate (1988), former worldwide chairman of Democrats Abroad, founder American Citizens Abroad, U.S. Naval officer, co-founder of Burlamaqui Society.
“In my line of work, I’ve been to a lot of places, met a lot of people and done a lot of things. Yet I never tire of living vicariously through Paul Sochaczewski and his writing adventures. He keeps finding these wonderful details that miraculously open up entire worlds to be explored. Paul is the last of the Great Hunters, only instead of trophies, it is stories he brings home for our admiration, wonder and delight.”
Mark Olshaker, filmmaker, author of Einstein’s Brain, The Edge, and Mindhunter
“Sochaczewski is blessed with a relentlessly probing curiosity, an easy-to-read writing style and a sensitive soul. His explorations of the remote jungles, far-flung archipelagoes and quirky characters of Asia leave us with fascinating accounts that mix natural history and modern-day reporting to investigate old fables and inspire new ones.”
James Fahn, author of A Land on Fire: The Environmental Consequences of the Southeast Asian Boom, executive director of the Earth Journalism Network
“This is travel writing with a quirky difference. Admirers of Paul Spencer Sochaczewski’s serio-comic novel Redheads, set in the jungles of Borneo, will already know him as a dedicated environmentalist with a taste for off-beat characters and exotic settings. This collection of personal essays introduces a fascinating collection of real-life figures, ranging from a homeless man in Hawaii who claims to be the true last emperor of China to a group of Burmese monks who have trained cats to perform acrobatic tricks..
William Warren, author of Jim Thompson: The Unsolved Mystery and The Tropical Garden
“In the great tradition of Asian reporting. The humanity of Somerset Maugham, the adventure of Joseph Conrad, the perception of Paul Theroux, and a self-effacing voice uniquely his own.”
Gary Braver, bestselling author of Skin Deep
“Sochaczewski is a world-class searcher, reporter, and observer who has criss-crossed Asia for thirty years, pausing in the most unlikely places, finding extraordinary people, and along the way has gathered and shaped an insightful, witty chronicle. His essays are filled with a rich tapestry of eclectic, original nobles, wannabe royalty, naturalists, Hindu gods, and Buddhist monks. He is a knowledgeable guide to an often obscure world, revealing Asian cultures often themselves on the brink of extinction. In a hundred years, books like the Sultan and the Mermaid Queen may be our only reference to belief systems and a way of life that have gone extinct.”
Christopher G. Moore, author of Heart Talk, and the Vincent Calvino novels
“The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen is proof positive that a writer/traveler can immerse himself in Asian cultures and yet remain objective enough to write extremely entertaining articles and colorful stories about what he has experienced. From Indonesian mysticism to a Hawaiian would-be Chinese emperor, the descriptions are spot-on. There is something in these articles and stories that reminds me of the writing of Paul Theroux – not as cynical, perhaps, but the author is just as able to look at events with a clear, unsentimental and yet sympathetic eye. You won’t regret a moment spent reading these tales which perfectly capture the allure and spice of the places visited.”
Dean Barrett, author of Memoirs of a Bangkok Warrior
“For three decades Paul Sochaczewski has been trawling Asia for lost white tribes, Hobbits, dancing ghosts, the Last Emperor of China and dancing temple cats, reporting back with tales of hilarity and insight. He’s also been at the forefront of efforts to raise awareness of Asia’s great environmental diversity, documenting the struggle of indigenous tribes in Borneo to save their precious forest, and has championed “Darwin’s shadow”, that other great of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace. This collection captures the diversity of Asia in all its colorful, and often funny, glory.”
John Clewley, Bangkok Post columnist
“What a discovery! Paul Sochaczewski is that rarest of writers, who knows that the real “Asian miracle” isn’t malls or computer geeks. In his years traveling the continent he has discovered an eternal assemblage of arcane explorers, putative emperors, frivolous mystics, sacrosanct elephants and, yes, miracle workers. When Sochaczewski finds them, in Javanese palaces or mile-high golf courses, they are caviar (or sweetened bird’s nest) for his fascinating portraits. A book for everyone who knows that the Mysterious East is alive and well.”
Harry Rolnick, author of The Chinese Gourmet, The Complete Book of Coffee, and Spice Chronicles: Exotic Tales of a Hungry Traveler
“A wonderful book about traditions and beliefs in Asia. Sochaczewski has that rare gift to bring history and fable to life with respect and affection. This book should be required reading for politicians and people in NGOs concerned with Asia — indeed for anyone seeking a better understanding of life and culture in this most fascinating part of the world.”
Daniel Navid, international environment and development law expert, former UN diplomat and secretary general of the International Wetlands Convention
“Rich pickings from the unexpected corners of the Far East. What makes The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen outstanding must surely be the inquisitive mind, the compassionate tone and openhearted admiration of the author towards his subjects. Whatever landmarks you already have on Asia, this book sweeps you to new frontiers.”
Cynthia Wee-Hoefer, daughter of Asia, freelance writer
“Among this book’s fascinating stories about the people and natural history of South East Asia, we learn that the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace may have a better claim to the theory of natural selection than Charles Darwin.”
John G. Wilson, author of The Forgotten Naturalist:. In Search of Alfred Russel Wallace
“Only a lifetime of ambling through Asian cultures could enrich a writer to this degree and enable him to infuse his writing with local lore and wisdom in the manner Paul Sochaczewski has done in this colorful and insightful collection.”
John Everingham, photographer, publisher: Artasia Press, Dragon Art Media
“Having seen at least a thousand films from Hollywood, France, Italy, England, Germany, Japan, China, and Russia during my seventy-odd years of life, I had come to assume that I had a pretty good idea of what goes on in the world. This delightful book, The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen, has completely (and thankfully) demolished that naïve notion. It is a vast tapestry embroidered with real peoples, places, and customs far more exotic than any of the quaint ‘travelers tales’ of ancient times, and any reader who takes it home is a lucky one!”
Daniel Quinn, author of Ishmael
“Paul has the extraordinary ability to find hidden and overlooked stories and reveal them as meaningful and profound.”
R. Ian Lloyd, National Geographic photographer.
“As a mystic healer I understand the spiritual power of the Mermaid Queen, and have on occasion merged with her strong presence. In this book Sochaczewski has managed something quite extraordinary – he has taken exotic, sometimes esoteric subjects and made them interesting and accessible. His writing peels back the layers of myth and reality, revealing a sensitive, humorous and insightful core of humanity.”
Ama Lia Wai-Ching Lee, Pemangku Maha Jeroh Sandat, mystic healer, dancer, chronicler
“Sochaczewki is obsessed with were-tigers, seductress mermaids, tiny forest men and one particular beetle-loving Victorian naturalist who changed the way we look at the place of man in the universe. Ho hum. But as you read these fabulous stories, you realize that he has another, higher, obsession: getting to know people. Whether they’re from Brooklyn, Burma or highland Borneo, Sochaczewski shares with us their voices and their stories. And afterwards he goes golfing.”
Peter Schoppert, author of Java Style, head of external relations for McKinsey & Company
“Storytelling with a heart of adventure in mind and spirit, unveiling many unknown aspects of Asia ”
Aristides Katoppo, editor of Sinar Harapan
“Paul Sochaczewski’s writing combines good travel writing, humor, and environmental consciousness. His stories focus on the human and natural phenomena which make Southeast Asia arguably the most interesting part of the world to live in; he writes about the unusual characters and situations which he encounters with gentle irony. He wears his deep familiarity with the region lightly, smoothing the path into this dauntingly complex area for the reader with no previous experience here.”
John Miksic, associate professor, National University of Singapore, author of Borobudur: Golden Tales of the Buddhas, Indonesian Heritage encyclopedia, Encyclopedia of Malaysia, Kraton Surakarta, Icons of Art: National Museum Jakarta
“The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen is delightful and fascinating– a fun, and funny, introduction to some of the most interesting people, places and sights of Southeast Asia. Never met a real-life hobbit? Come search for them on the Indonesian island of Flores. Worried that your golf game is beyond human redemption? Meet a Japanese monk who uses Zen to unlock the secrets of a supernatural putt. Think a white elephant can only be found in Disneyland? Let Sochaczewski show you how the military autocrats of Burma are seeking out a rare beast to balance out their bad karma. If you can’t travel to the rainforests of Borneo and the minefields of Cambodia, pick up a copy of The Sultan and the Mermaid Queen and come along for the ride!”
Jonah Blank, author of Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: A Classic Journey through India, chief policy advisor for Asia – U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
“This book is full of ‘good heart’ and surprising news from parts of the world that don’t always play by Cartesian rules. Paul Sochaczewski wears his knowledge as lightly as an invisible cloak, but there is a lot to be learned from these finely-wrought tales of faraway places. I recommend you buy this book and savor it.”
Thomas Bass, author of Vietnamerica: The War Comes Home, The Spy Who Loved Us, The Eudaemonic Pie, The Predictors
JUMPING THROUGH BUDDHIST HOOPS IN BURMA
Tina Turner does it, Tom Cruise does it, so does Arnold. Is the Middle Path suitable for trained felines?
INLE LAKE, Burma
“Come on Brochette, jump through this hoop. Arnold Schwarzenegger can do it – it can’t be that hard.”
My friend’s ginger cat in Geneva was doing what cats everywhere do – exactly what she felt like. Which at this moment was not jumping through a hoop.
I was trying to accomplish a similar coup de persévérance to that which some monks in Burma have achieved. Teaching cats parlor tricks. But Brochette wasn’t buying it. What did the monks have that I didn’t?
Lots of patience and an abundant supply of Friskies, as it turned out.
I was introduced to the famous Burmese jumping cats at the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, on Inle Lake.
The “jumping cat monastery” is a key stop for the trickle of tourists who visit Burma. There I met Venerable U Nanda, 25, one of a dozen resident monks.
“It’s easy to train cats,” he said, somewhat reluctantly putting down his Burmese comic book. With a large dose of ennui he explained that you simply start when they’re kittens, scratch them under the chin, say kon, and reward them with kitty treats.
Obviously, it works. Every 30 minutes or so, when a group of visitors would accumulate, San Win, an assistant in the monastery, would put the cats through their paces.
“What’s that one called?” I asked, pointing to a black and white tabby.
World-weary U Nanda explained “That’s Leonardo di Caprio.”
“And this one?”
“Can I try?”
I held the wire hoop, in front of Arnold Schwarzenegger,” paradoxically one of the skinnier cats in the temple. I gave him a little nudge, ordered him to kon, and after he jumped I rewarded him with a biscuit.
Meanwhile Tina Turner was curled up on my backpack, asleep. “Don’t leave your things on the floor,” U Nanda instructed. “She pisses everywhere.”
After a while U Nanda started to open up. Perhaps he saw that since I wasn’t going to go away he might as well have a discussion. I was interested in Buddhist history, he was interested in conjugating English verbs.
Throughout our conversation, the abbot, Sayadaw Kite Ti, 68, kept his distance and read a book. I don’t read Burmese, but from the pictures of cowboys and horses I could be pretty sure that it wasn’t a religious text. He didn’t glance up as visitors stuffed relatively generous contributions into the offerings boxes.
A few days later, I trekked an hour up a butterfly-enhanced forest path on Mount Popa, arguably the most mystical hill in this most mystical of countries, to visit a hermit monk named Venerable U Sumana..
Hesitantly, I approached the cave and saw a young monk preparing a fire. I asked if I was disturbing him. Popping in unannounced suddenly seemed like a stupid idea — the last thing I wanted to do was get in the way of his accumulation of karma points. Nevertheless, for a recluse, U Sumana was remarkably outgoing. He had finished his morning prayers, he explained, and invited me to sit on the ledge and chat.
Venerable U Sumana took over the cave that had been the home of U Germany, a legendary monk who meditated in this damp, isolated ledge for 50 years. U Sumana had few possessions, few clothes, and his diet consisted of a handful of rice and some vegetables. To me such isolation, deprivation and rigor would be purgatory. I like my diversions too much – Beethoven, a fine wine, golf, pizza, and the company of friends. U Sumana though had a different view of his adopted home. “It’s shady and cool. It’s easy to get water. I’m in the middle of nature and there’s no one around to distract me from my prayers.” He had bright eyes and an easy smile. He explained he had seen this cave in a dream, and journeyed here from distant Mon state.
My rational, Cartesian mind was racing. “But what do you do all day?” I asked.
Venerable U Sumana, 30, explained simply: “I meditate.” Sometimes sitting. Sometimes moving.
He showed me his walking meditation. Very, very slowly, I tried to replicate his movement – I roll from my heel to the toe and hold the opposite foot in the air before placing it down. I concentrate on the action. He explains that this type of practice, called zingyan shouk chin, will clear my mind. Help me to develop patience. Just like training a cat, perhaps.
Back at Inle Lake I sought out U Nanda. I felt I had unfinished business with the young monk, a feeling that there was more to him than a saffron-robed feline-inclined impresario.
“You again,” he said when I walked in. He wasn’t hostile, but he wasn’t overly welcoming. I deliberately avoided the handful of curious visitors watching Brad Pitt and Michael Jackson leaping about on the linoleum. “Tell me about the temple,” I asked. And he did. He showed me around the 160-year-old monastery, the oldest on Inle Lake. Proudly, he turned on lights so that I could better see the six two-meter tall Buddha images made out of lacquerware, and the gilt-encrusted wooden statues and carved pillars. He took me into the abbot’s room to show me old, sacred Buddha images. In half an hour of looking through different eyes, the monastery for me had evolved from a tourist site into a combination art museum and place of worship
“What do you do?” he eventually asked me.
“I’m a journalist.”
“Then tell people the monastery is more than cats. It’s Buddha.”