Go Beyond Words - An Interview with Richard S. Ehrlich

12 Feb 2021

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Richard S. Ehrlich is a journalist based in Bangkok and has been reporting news from Asia since 1978. Originally from San Francisco, California, he is winner of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award.

Hi Richard, you are based in Bangkok. How long have you been there and what was a deciding factor to locate yourself there?
I moved my base from New Delhi to Bangkok in 1989 because after 10 years reporting from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, it became time for a change.

In 1989, the Russians withdrew from Afghanistan and that 10-year-long war was one of my main stories, going back and forth covering the U.S.-backed mujahideen guerrillas and the Soviet-backed Afghan Marxist regime.

Coincidentally, in 1989 Cambodia and Vietnam made it easier to get visas.

So I moved here because I wanted to stay in Asia.

Bangkok won as default because I could then cover news in Indochina and elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Now I hope to stay here forever because it is obviously paradise.
Richard S. Ehrlich
Richard S. Ehrlich in Bangkok during April 2020.

credit: photo © copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

Have you been to Koh Phangan, what are your thoughts on the island?
I've visited some islands and beaches but not Koh Phangan yet.

But I've heard lots of cool things about it, so I hope to wander there soon.

I grew up in California on the coast, so beaches are normal and I'm lured more easily to unusual mountains and hills and places that are more isolated and ancient.

Ever been to a full moon party?
I came of age in the so-called Summer of Love when we had free, outdoor *love-ins* which were *a gathering of the tribes* including Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead etc., so that for me is what an outdoor party is.

Alas, from what I've seen and heard of full moon parties, they aren't quite the same, so no, I haven't gone.

But if you like them, then sure, totally indulge.

Hedonism has its rewards.

How did you research the book “Hello My Big Big Honey!” Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews? Was it eye-opening spending time in the bar girl world?
When we heard that bar girls were receiving love letters written by their male customers after they returned to America, Europe, Australia etc., we went to bars in Bangkok's Patpong, Soi Cowboy and Nana zones and asked bar girls for their letters.

We ended up with hundreds of love letters from men all over the world.

Most of them were mindless and just basic raunchy declarative sentences.

But some of them were pure poetry, literary gems, such as the French guy who wrote to his bar girl, "I would be your dog, just to look up at you," and "You are the dream of my sleepless nights."

So we took off everyone's names, deleted the dates, and changed "Paris" or whatever city, to "France" or whatever country, so people's confidential info would not be published.

Then we quoted the entire text of the men's best love letters verbatim.

To balance this, we interviewed bar girls and published their verbatim replies in a raw Q and A -- question and answer -- format.

Some girls received great letters but we skipped their interviews because they weren't that profound.

Similarly, some girls didn't receive usable letters but eloquently and poignantly expressed themselves in the interviews we used.

The array of bar girls included some who really were in love with their foreign boyfriend, or lied to them just to get money from as many as she could, or had just survived a suicide attempt because she saw her foreign boyfriend with another bar girl, or a bar girl who knew about AIDS but said she would go to bed with a man even if he didn't want to wear a condom, because she needed money.
hello my big big honey
A Thai bar girl with "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters
to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews, by Dave Walker
and Richard S. Ehrlich.

credit: photo © copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

What do you find fascinating about the ‘underworld’ in Thai culture?
The most twisted interviews were with an American bar owner and a British bar owner.

The Thai bar owner was very businesslike.  He said he had these bar girls, some foreigners fell in love, and it was no big thing.

But the American boasted about how he would go upcountry into villages, looking for girls, and lay down $100 bills, and the girls would line up.

Then he would bring them to his bar in Bangkok and play porno videos to teach them what to do.

He even had a questionnaire that he gave customers to fill out and rate their bar girl.

We published everything he said and did.

The Brit was even weirder.

He said he didn't wear a condom and wasn't afraid of AIDS because he used toothpaste on himself afterwards.


That's just the one tiny detail of his shocking published Q and A.

Plus we included an interview with a mama-san who checks each girl and told us, "fat can't dance" and she also squeezed and rejected lactating mothers.

A conservative Thai woman who translates the men's letters for the girls, and a Thai sociologist at a university also gave an overview of how prostitution in Thailand is totally different than in Europe and the States.

“Hello My Big Big Honey!” Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews
thai culture
Vietnamese prostitutes in a Ho Chi Minh City park in 1990.

credit: photo © copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

Your book ‘Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex’ includes many of your previously unpublished notes, what was the decision maker to publish them now?
I have been reporting from Asia in 1978, and over the years had lots of stories that I wrote for newspapers but only in 1,000-word versions.

Every foreign correspondent has their collection of insane, wild, incredible, illegal, shocking, vivid and intriguing stories but nowhere to tell them in a fuller elaboration except in a book.

After my newest collection of quotes from months of interviews with the last CIA officer to evacuate Vietnam at the end of the war, and updates about an American in Afghanistan who was convicted and jailed for torturing Afghans in Kabul, I decided that I had a great set of stories that had four big themes holding them together.

As a result, the title "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex."

These are from Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York.

rituals killers wars sex
 Richard S. Ehrlich's newest nonfiction book, Rituals.
Killers. Wars. & Sex. ~ Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam,
Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York.

credit: photo © copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

What can people expect from this book?
The easiest way to describe what is in this new nonfiction book is to simply list the table of contents.

Chapter 1 is Rituals.
This takes you to experience sky funeral vultures in Tibet where undertakers are hacking up four Tibetans and feeding them to vultures.
Plus three interviews with the Dalai Lama who describes how to jump out of your dying body into a living body, and his search for Mao Zedong's reincarnation.
Interviews with hashish-smoking holy sadhus in India and Nepal reveal why they get stoned and what they perceive while zonked.
Calcutta's "untouchable" Dom caste funeral pyre undertakers talk about India's racism while they are cremating upper-caste Hindus.

Chapter 2 is Killers.
You meet one of the Dalai Lama's monks who was previously with him inside the Potala Palace in Lhasa before stripping off his robe and joining Tibet's armed rebellion, violating his oaths and happily killing communist Chinese.
Then comes an interview with the CIA's most macabre paramilitary officer, Tony "Poe" Poshepny, who tells why he demanded -- and got --the bloody, chopped-off heads and ears of enemy communist Pathet Lao during the U.S. war in Laos.
That bleeds into interviews with James "Mule" Parker, the last CIA officer in Vietnam who admits the CIA knowingly employed fake, lying Vietnamese spies and were fooled into thinking Saigon would remain an independent city after North Vietnam won the war.
The international "Bikini Killer" Charles Sobhraj who killed backpackers in Thailand, India, Nepal and elsewhere is interviewed in prison in New Delhi along with an Australian woman who arrives to marry him, plus details of his trials and escape.
You meet India's "Bandit Queen" Phoolan Devi during an interview in prison in Gwalior and she describes why she murdered dozens of Indian land owners in revenge for being raped.
Jonathan "Jack" Idema is interviewed when he arrives in Kabul, Afghanistan, threatening to kill foreign correspondents who cross him,and is then imprisoned for torturing Afghans who he wrongly suspected of hiding Osama bin Laden.

Chapter 3 is Wars.
This allows readers to experience the elaborate chaos and deadly slaughter caused by Americans, Soviets & mujahideen in Afghanistan starting with the Soviet invasion and occupation and withdrawal, up through the U.S. invasion after 9/11.
Readers are also brought into the guerrilla war by Islamists in India's Kashmir and the civil war in Sri Lanka led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam insurgents.

To lighten all this you have Chapter 4, Sex.
You meet Peri, a New York stripper who tells why she takes off her clothes for money.
And Michelle, a prostitute who worked in Peepland on 42nd Street and describes in hilarious detail the convoluted lives of the women who work there, their customers, lovers, bosses and the deranged and degraded personal lives they live.
There are lots of reviews where you can read other people's

impressions on the book's site at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B086Y7D48L and enjoy free excerpts. You can also order the book -- printed or as an ebook -- for delivery to you on Koh Phangan or anywhere else.

Vultures devouring the chopped up corpses of four people
during a Tibetan Sky Funeral on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet, in

credit: photo © copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

Living in Bangkok, do you often make notes or write down observations about Thai city life?
Oh sure, I report for international media and my published stories immediately appear in a continually updated archive of my work going back decades at https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com which also features 10,000+ of my photographs of Bangkok and elsewhere in the world, grouped by country.
For all the [redacted] things that can't be exposed in news media or nonfiction books, there is my other book titled, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo."

This portrays a 22-year-old mental patient who is abducted from San Francisco by her abusive psychiatrist

Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo
and brought here to Asia.

Sheila's fate? Unexpected amid a coup.

I'm sure some of your readers will identify with Sheila Carfenders' life.

Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo by Richard
S. Ehrlich.

credit: photo © copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

Here on Koh Phangan there are a growing number of digital nomads who probably include writers. Do you think it is beneficial to be somewhere like this natural island to inspire writing? Why, why not?
Yes, definitely. The best thing for everybody is to not live in the country they were raised in.

Unless you are a total street freak who digs big cities and Blade Runner behavior, then nature is the place to be.

I would return to California's Big Sur and further north and live in the forest on the rocky coast if I could be a foreign correspondent there.

San Francisco's legendary Haight Street.

credit: photo © copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

What locations do you find most inspiring to be?
Any place that is extremely medieval.

Hieronymus Bosch streets and people and creatures and activity.

The Kathmandu Valley is good for that.

So is Kashmir's Srinagar.

Or slices of Europe.

Any simple, basic advice for writers living in Thailand?
Don't spawn kids.

Dwell in vipassana and your imagination.

And leave us with your life philosophy?
I'm a devout animist, so my life philosophy would be: go beyond words.

Cambodian tank soldier in 1989.

credit: photo © copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich

Jonathan "Jack" Idema in Mir Baceh Koht, Afghanistan, before
he was arrested, convicted and imprisoned in Kabul for kidnapping and
torturing Afghans who he wrongly accused of knowing the whereabouts of
Osama bin Laden.

credit: photo © copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich


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