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When I set out to write A Good Death, it didn't take me long to settle on Thailand as the setting of much of the book. On the surface, Thailand boasts all the hallmarks of an exotic tropical destination: white-sand beaches; dramatic limestone mountains; a languid, Buddhist lifestyle. Delve a little deeper and you'll encounter a murkier reality, especially in Bangkok, its chaotic capital: abominable traffic, epic pollution and, for my purposes, a culture of impunity among the phu yai (literally, "big people") who are used to having their way, often aided and abetted by corrupt elements of the local police.
The roots of A Good Death stretch back more than 20 years. In the summer of 1991, I was minding my own business as a feature reporter for The Boston Herald when the newspaper's editor-in-chief sauntered over to my desk with a plum assignment: How about accompanying a Boston-area businessman, Jay Sullivan, who was heading to northern Thailand to smoke out a head-spinning deal? What had swayed my editor were two photographs in Sullivan's possession. The first was a wedding-day snapshot of Army Special Forces Capt. Donald Carr, who'd been shot down over Laos in 1971 and listed by the Pentagon as missing in action. The second image, purportedly taken in 1991 at a prison camp in Laos, was of a smiling, jug-eared middle-aged Caucasian man who bore a startling similarity to Carr.
An Old Asia Hand
- I first traveled to Southeast Asia in 1991 on assignment for my newspaper, The Boston Herald. I've since returned nearly 40 times to the region, everywhere from glittering Singapore to war-ravaged East Timor. I've trekked through the mountains of northern Vietnam, driven over a land mine en route to Pol Pot's last bastion, kayaked the River Kwai, run with the Hash House Harriers in Vientiane, bodyboarded Occy's Left on the island of Sumba (the sweetest wave in Indonesia), and spent a week in off-limits Shan State, Burma, inside the fortified camp of the world's most powerful opium warlord. It beats an office job.