Initially Empress of Asia was supposed to end on the Death Railway outside the town of Kanchanaburi in Thailand. It made sense historically that Harry's story would wrap up there -- during World War II it was where thousands of Allied POWs died from disease, starvation, overwork and torture -- but my very logical plan was complicated by the fact that I hadn't been to the place. So in July 2001 I talked Rick Maddocks into coming with me on a no-budget research trip; Thailand is Buddhist, after all, and Rick really likes Buddhism.
We spent some time in and around Kanchanaburi, visiting Hellfire Pass, the bridge on the River Kwai, the Allied cemeteries and the Jeath Museum, and I took lots of pictures and lots of notes. It was all very helpful and sobering. With a couple of days before we had to leave for Singapore, we decided to head west towards Three Pagodas Pass on the Thai-Burma border via the town of Sangkhlaburi, which was supposed to be very pretty.
A journal excerpt (the original of which is incredibly hard to read)
"...We switched buses, started up the winding, often-in-first-gear road to S'buri, past the huge lake formed by a dam in 1982, and saw floating Mon villages around every couple of corners. The driver was surprisingly cautious -- maybe it was the rain. The odd big Buddha and army camp. Got to S'buri at 3:30, had thought of carrying on to Three Pagodas Pass straight away, only half an hour each way, but decided the morning would be a more comfortable time. So we went out of the red muddy parking lot, turned right down the road in the direction a kid on the bus -- who only started talking to me in the last five minutes, he's a hairdresser in Bangkok, his grandfather was Burmese but moved the family 30 or 40 years ago because of the fighting; Karen rebels were an issue even in WW II -- had said to go when I asked about Burmese Inn. Straight, wide road. Said a few sawatdee-kraps to the legions of kids getting out of school, beige Cub uniforms with knee socks, girls in typical white blouses, blue skirt, bobbed hair.
"The inn's owner arrived, a tall, moustached Austrian, gave us a usually 500-baht place for 350 because it was the rainy season -- it rained in varying degrees the entire time we were in the town -- with hot water and a TV, neither of which were useful because the power was out that evening and at 8 we just went to sleep. But there were still a couple of hours of daylight at that point so we headed for the Mon village, all the way up the main road again and then down a long side road (under construction by a Caterpillar and a dozen guys the colour of red mud) with yer basic hill-tribe huts all the way along on our left. One with a booming stereo. Rick was concerned about mosquitoes, having just read that northern Kanchanaburi Province is one of the most malarial spots in Thailand, so we each had a cigarette (my first in probably 5 years) to ward them off. Just before the bridge two friendly dogs trotted out of their yard, one like Chloe crossed with a Corgi, the other the same but flat tan. Followed the path -- half washed-away at that time of year -- to the endless bridge, my God, the scene was so crazily picturesque: longtail boats and dozens of floating houses, some with adjoining flower garden rafts below our end, then the villagers crossing in their striped sarongs, most of them with red or yellow umbrellas. A boat went under us, headed for elsewhere on the gigantic lake, one of the passengers bailing madly, the rest quite complacent.
"We crossed, helped by our dog friends, who whined a lot. Bridge slippery under my wet flip-flops. The other side had a grid of paved roads, traditional thatch huts closer to the water, moving up to big cement houses and shops on the main road, but still bamboo fences and dogs and chickens and running kids ruling the place. Nobody really looked at us. There was a handicraft market there somewhere but we never found it. The most trouble came from the groups of five and six dogs that would come growling out of many of the houses, itching for a piece of our two dogs, who would stand beside our legs and try to get us involved. After four or five tense encounters Chloe and companion had to run back the bridge, and we carried on. Found a big metal-roof market building but it was all crackers and detergent, so we crossed over the bridge again in the drizzle, passing no end of construction workers and school kids carrying those stacked lunchboxes. The lake was a gorgeous green, the mountains misty if not hidden completely by cloud. Guys out in boats were throwing nets and dogs and roosters were sounding off. Back up the hill, Chloe and companion were back at their house and very excited to see us, yipping, jumping up, and Chloe actually bit my elbow, though the skin wasn't broken. Without power we fumbled around the bungalow with a too-tall candle that kept falling over, Rick discovered an enormous spider (it really was) in the bathroom, but eventually we hit the hay with the noisy drone of all the insects outside. There's a fashion around S'buri to wear your pinkie toe outside the strap of your flip-flop."
We went back to Canada and I wrote my climactic Kanchanaburi scenes, but after reworking the chapter many times it became clear that the book would need a different ending entirely - instead of looking in the Kanchanaburi cemeteries for a dead Michel Ney, Harry would come to Thailand in search of the living article, and the Burmese Inn in Sangkhlaburi seemed as likely a spot as any in which for Michel to hide out. And so the above journal entry was wrung dry, and had Harry crossed the bridge or entered a bungalow I think the entry's every detail would have found its way into the novel. Coudreaux Guesthouse, incidentally, is named for Marshal Ney's country home, the Château des Coudreaux, which at the time of Ney's death was housing three hundred and sixty Prussian soldiers.