Friday, 14th August 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Curious Encounters of the Human Kind – Southeast Asia

Posted on 07. Oct, 2015 by in Books, Curious Encounters of the Human Kind

Curious Encounters of the Human Kind – Southeast Asia

Curious Encounters of the Human Kind – Southeast Asia
(Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, The Philippines)
True Asian Tales of Folly, Greed, Ambition and Dreams

Buy the book:
Amazon US
Amazon UK

Explorer’s Eye Press. Geneva. 2016.

ISBN: 978-2-940573-14-1      Kindle
ISBN: 978-2-940573-12-7      Print on demand
ISBN: 978-2-940573-13-4      Ingram


This is the fifth book in a five-book series of unusual (and true) personal travel tales.

What’s the attraction of coffee that’s been digested by a civet? Can 200-million-year-old fossilized freshwater shark dung bring you good luck?  Why do boys like to make things go bang — hey, lemme try the AK-47!?  Why is the belching and slovenly widow of Laos’s first president so possessive about the animal she considers her white elephant?  How did Vietnam’s last elephant hunter, at the age of 90, get a lucrative sponsorship deal for a tonic that makes men more powerful? Did a love potion help a Filipino politician become governor? And what role did an absurdly-rich, secretive American businessman (who enjoyed deflowering virgins) have in creating Vietnam’s golf boom?

This is Southeast Asia as you’ve probably never imagined, full of curious people, startling happenings and unexpected moments of humanity and introspection, giddiness and solemnity, avarice and ambition.


Editorial reviews 

“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 Tunnel Vision

“The spirit of Kipling in contemporary Asian journalism.  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, and Bangkok Haunts

“A fun, and funny, introduction to some of the most interesting people, places and sights of South and Southeast Asia.  A must-read for all serious travellers.” Jonah Blank, author of Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana through India and Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras

“If anyone can pull off something as innovative as Curious Encounters, it’s Paul Sochaczewski. Expect pellucid writing, insightful irreverence and universal truths elegantly presented, in a genre that defies categorization.” John Keay, author of When Men and Mountains Meet, India: A History, China: A History, and Mad about the Mekong

“Most of Paul Sochaczewski’s curious encounters start out as intelligent travel writing, exploring hidden corners of Asia and characters very much out of the ordinary.  But this series works on a more complex level, he frequently zooms in out of left field with a curious tangent, a sensitive reminiscence, a provocative opinion, a new way of looking at events that already are beyond most “normal” travelers’ tales.  I read each story feeling refreshed, enlightened, and curious to see what the next stage of Sochaczewski’s journey will bring.” Judith M. Heimann, author of The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and his remarkable life and The Airmen and the Headhunters: a true story of lost soldiers, heroic tribesmen and the unlikeliest rescue of World War II

“Constructed on a base of strange but true personal travel adventures, Curious Encounters adds elements of history, an edgy sense of humour, mysticism, political-incorrectness, current affairs and memorable characters you’ll wish you had the pleasure to meet on your travels.  Consider each book in this series like a good curry — the result is more than the sum of its parts; each tale has its own zing.  Travel with these books to the little-visited corners of Asia, and savour them.” Jason Brooke, director of The Brooke Trust

“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 Civilizations Museum-Singapore, author Batik: Creating an Identity

“In this series Sochaczewski explores the hidden corners, the forgotten people, and their surprising tales.  All the personal traveler’s tales in these volumes are captivating, all filled with humor, drama and insight, with an edgy take-no-prisoners voice; you won’t find anything else like this on the bookshelf.” Jeff McNeely, chief scientist, International Union for Conservation of Nature

“Sochaczewski is a world-class searcher, reporter, and observer who has criss-crossed Asia for forty years, pausing in the most unlikely places and finding extraordinary people.  The essays in this insightful and witty chronicle present a rich tapestry of eccentric nobles, self-serving naturalists, scoundrels who will make your teeth ache, celebrity monks and memorable folks whose stories are too good to be true.  But they are.” Christopher G. Moore, author of the Vincent Calvino novels, and Heart Talk

“The Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series is a delicious stew of improbable characters and intriguing stories, served up in thoroughly pithy style, and with a hearty dash of irreverent humour.” Tim Hannigan, author of Raffles and the British Invasion of Java and Brief History of Indonesia: Sultans, Spices, and Tsunamis: the Incredible Story of Southeast Asia’s Largest Nation

“The Curious Encounters series is proof positive that a writer/traveler can immerse himself in Asian cultures and yet remain objective enough to write extremely entertaining and often irreverent articles and colorful stories about what he has experienced.  From Indonesian mystics to Burmese white elephant hunters, 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

“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 sacred forests protected by spirits, 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, and more how-about-that-wonderful than you perhaps imagined.” Harry Rolnick, author of The Chinese Gourmet, The Complete Book of Coffee, and Spice Chronicles: Exotic Tales of a Hungry Traveler

“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, Emmy-winning filmmaker, author of Einstein’s Brain, The Edge, and Mindhunter



Exploring Thailand’s love of magic amulets, talismans and spiritual-gadgets.

He’s notched up 298 pachyderms, and a lucrative product endorsement contract.

Communist leaders use the animal to co-opt the power and prestige of Buddhist kings.

Releasing the macho urges with a bang in Cambodia.

Searching for the perfect dung-delicious civet coffee.

Vietnamese artists search for that enigmatic smile.

Vietnam’s street kids learn the restaurant business.

The king, the architect, and the scoundrel who created Vietnam’s golf boom.

Ready-to-use potions help politicians turn on the charm.


Sample Chapter (Excerpt)

Communist leaders use the animal to co-opt the power and prestige of Buddhist kings.

Boun Somsy, with a painting of his white elephant that was liberated by the wife of the country’s first president.

Boun Somsy, with a painting of his white elephant that was liberated by the wife of the country’s first president.


Capturing a rare white elephant usually brings luck and fame, and it did for Boun Somsy, at least for a while.

Then, as sometimes happens, a couple of wannabe-royals stepped in and rained on his parade.

This is a tale of prophetic (and sensual) dreams, an unexpected windfall, how an areligious communist government usurped a potent religious symbol, and, as is so often the case, nature conservation.

In December 1983, Boun Somsy had a dream in which a beautiful woman, “dressed like a god,” came to his simple house and told him to “go find a diamond.”   In his village of elephant hunters sixty kilometers from the southern Laotian city of Pakse, Boun interpreted her cryptic instructions as telling him to “go catch a white elephant.”

The problem was that Boun, then 39, had never caught any elephant, which is a bit like telling a couch potato to go run a marathon.

Nevertheless, Boun instructed his wife to refrain from combing and oiling her hair, which would have made his hunting ropes slippery.  Boum and his elephant-hunting friends slept rough in the forest in a simple shelter. On the fifth night of the hunt for the Lao equivalent of the Holy Grail, Boun had another dream.  Same beautiful woman, similar message. “I will give you this mansion,” she said, gesturing towards her estate.  The next morning Boun spotted and captured a juvenile female elephant.  On bringing the dirty animal back to the village and giving it a good scrub, he saw that it was “the color of old bamboo,” a rare and holy white elephant.

Devotees, some from distant villages, came to pay homage to his white elephant, leaving behind offerings and some much-needed cash.

News of his special elephant spread and a Cambodian elephant trader offered him ten “normal” elephants for the white pachyderm.  But before Boun could close the deal a government official named Sali knocked on the door of his village house with the Laotian equivalent of “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”

Sali and four white elephant examiners inspected the animal and gave Boun the good news that he would have the honor of donating the auspicious beast to the citizens of the fledgling People’s Republic of Laos.  In olden days the animal would have been offered to the king, but Prince Souvanna Phouma, the nation’s top-ranking royal, had been deposed as prime minister by Kaysone Phomvihane in 1975, making commoners Kaysone and his wife Thongvinh de facto royalty in the social hierarchy.

Boun was instructed to ride the people’s elephant to the capital of Vientiane, a journey that took 29 days.

He was offered no compensation, nor public gratitude.

The reason that Kaysone Phomvihane and his ethnic-Vietnamese wife Thongvinh wanted the white elephant is both completely understandable yet somehow paradoxical.

Here’s the conundrum.  The white elephant is seen as a religious miracle, a descendant of the holy white elephant which Queen Maya dreamt entered her body nine months before Prince Siddharta, who was to become Buddha, was born.  The white elephant historically represents the power of the Buddhist kings of the region, and the kings of neighboring Burma, Thailand and Cambodia fought a series of wars between 1549 and 1769 dedicated, in part, to stealing each other’s white elephants.  Kaysone Phomvihane (whose name derives from a Pali word describing the four sublime states of mind achieved by a Buddhist monk), the first prime minister, and later president, of communist Laos, simply wanted to be viewed as a fair, righteous and powerful king.

Or, more likely, observers suggest, his wife Thongvinh Phomvihane wanted to be viewed as a fair, righteous and powerful queen.

Through a well-placed Laotian friend I was given a rare interview with semi-reclusive Madame Thongvinh. Her husband was a Pathet Lao, Vietnam-supported, revolutionary hero, and today his self-satisfied and well-fed portrait appears on the country’s currency, and an eight-million dollar museum has been built in his honor. To use an American simile, meeting Madame Thongvinh was like getting an interview with Martha Washington.

Looking like a frail seventy-something woman who had just woken from a nap, she was guarded and reticent.  She wore a worn, not overly-clean housedress. We sat in her comfortable house on the outskirts of Vientiane.   She spoke neither French nor English, and my friend translated.  After pleasantries on my part, greeted with stoic silence and the reluctant offering of a glass of water on hers, I asked about her white elephant.

“Why do you want to know?” she grunted, followed by a sailor-quality belch that threatened to wilt the plastic flowers in her living room, where most of the wall space was taken up by photos of her and her husband during their glory days, alongside one dramatic photo of her white elephant.


(Please see the book for the rest of this chapter, including how the conversation with Madame Thongvinh played out — hint: she doesn’t like to share her toys —  and to learn whether I got to visit her white elephant.  This chapter includes sidebars explaining the religious, cosmological, and historical importance of the white elephant, explains how the Anglophone term “white elephaant” got started, and clarifies why not all sacred white elephants are white.)


Buy the book

Available as Kindle (ebook) and paperback at To order please click here.