Second books are often like second albums. Too many musicians and writers pour their heart into their first work and then simply dial it in for their sophomore release. Local mainstay and longtime Haps contributor Chris Tharp manages to avoid this pitfall with a follow up to his enjoyable first book, Dispatches from Korea: Six Years on the Peninsula (2011), with a travelogue, this time beyond the Korean borders, in The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia (Signal 8 Press. 386 pages).
In his second collection of essays, Tharp gives us a glimpse into what many would argue is the proper way to travel. If you’re looking to read up on yoga retreats, luxury spas or Full Moon parties, you’re flipping through the wrong pages. Tharp’s adventures fall right in that beautiful in-between where the potential for a brawl in a Japanese punk rock bar sits just two or three chapters away from a two-day trek through one of the poorest regions of western China. Tharp weaves his way through 10 years of Asian vacations, sampling the local tastes while avoiding the well-beaten traveler cliché at every turn.
As Tharp works his way across the continent, he’s accompanied by a varying group of friendly faces. These sidekicks provide a collection of distinct voices that help to humanize the experience and emphasize the jarring differences between each location. The sprinkling of a little local history and backstory also gives each of Tharp’s escapades a stronger foundation, allowing the reader to become more deeply immersed in the journey. If it weren’t for the dates in the chapter headers, The Worst Motorcycle in Laos could easily have come across as tying together one long, meandering trip around Asia.
Tharp has a great knack for leading us to the gray in a black/white situation. Which came first: the rioting of the Islamic Uighurs in western China or the open discrimination they receive every day from the dominant Han? At one point, Tharp witnesses the utter destruction of Little Boy at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The following stroll through the city takes him to a four-story porn shop where man’s depravity is on display in another form altogether. Each level of the shop gets more decrepit and perverse in a sort of mirror image of Dante’s descent. The H-bomb and that shop represent two of man’s most contemptible acts. Or does that shop (and the sexual attitudes it represents) act as a release valve that allows Japan’s pristine beauty to thrive in every other corner of the country?
It’s these large, existential questions that I myself most enjoy in Tharp’s prose, but there are smaller head-scratchers to be found hidden in the pages. Questions like: who is more honest, the morally decrepit father-son combo working their way through the red light districts of the Philippines or the morally superior traveler that slips out after a promise and kiss, knowing all along that he would never return to that island or to that girl?
Don’t expect answers or even strong opinions. Tharp presents the trip, the stories and a little history behind them, but he thankfully steers away from passing too much judgment on the people he meets along the way.
Come by HQ Gwangan at 8pm on Saturday, April to pick up a copy of The Worst Motorcycle in Laos: Rough Travels in Asia by Chris Tharp. Can’t wait that long? Head over to Amazon.com and grab it along with Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea.
Photo: Mike Dixon
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