“Under the Bright Sky: A Memoir of Travels through Asia” by Andrew Scott

Andrew Scott Andrew Scott

In this collection of travel stories, Canadian journalist and photographer Andrew Scott takes us on a lively romp through China, Japan, Laos, India (twice), South Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Indonesia and Turkey. The congenial Scott exhibits just enough seriousness when it’s needed and is always sensitive to the people he meets, refreshingly non-judgmental and patient, although he admits that this insouciance sometimes took a good deal of effort on his part to maintain.

Covid-19 may have killed off a lot of actual travel, but this book, relatively short at 200 pages, makes one look forward to shedding the caution and dusting off the suitcases. For me, the most interesting chapters were Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Laos. Laos in 1991, particularly, stood out as a country almost stuck in a 1950s time-warp because of its awful history of internecine conflict and the rule of the communist Pathet Lao with its attendant repression. Hill tribes, with aid from the United States, were still fighting the communist government and growing opium. Vientiane, the capital city, still had its “stately, tree-lined avenues” and “rundown colonial buildings erected by the French”, but not much new construction. Travel arrangements, Scott had been told, were “haphazard”, especially to fly to Luang Prabang, the old royal city:

 

Sometimes tourists could go there, sometimes they couldn’t. Sometimes the plane flew; sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes two planes flew.

 

When he finally gets a flight, it had “mysteriously doubled in price.”.

Despite various vicissitudes, which included an encounter with “a hairy tarantula as big as my outstretched hand” and finding a wad of unclaimed cash in his hotel room, which he spends, Scott leaves us with a picture of “a huge Buddha … protective but alien” and the sound of chanting monks. The visit to Laos was was undertaken at a sad period of Scott’s life, soon after his Vancouver-born Chinese-Canadian wife Shiane had died of cancer at thirty-seven. Here one is reminded of Peter Matthiessen’s Snow Leopard, an account of a journey to Tibet which was also occasioned by the death of the author’s wife and may be seen, perhaps, as in part a meditation on death. Scott does not go into his grief quite as far as Matthiessen did, but there is a rather melancholy tone brooding over his Laotian journey which he can’t escape. “I don’t know what had possessed me to think that travelling around Southeast Asia would help me get over my loss,” he tells us, “but I was wrong. It was too soon. I was travelling like a ghost, unable to connect or engage, a prisoner of my delusions.”

Laos, “this forgotten country”, as Scott calls it, didn’t provide closure, but his sojourn there made him realize that “my sorrow would pass—or not. It was time to rejoin the world.” The trip to Laos was, in a way, an extension of his account of China, when he had taken his wife, already ill in 1987, to visit relatives she had never met and to see her ancestral village; sadly, it turned out that his wife’s aunt was also suffering from cancer. Shiane wanted to make the journey to China “for self-awareness … she was determined to see, for the first time, the world of her ancestors.”

Other trips were taken in the company of his partner Katherine, beginning with India in 1995; they married in 2010 after numerous travels together, which Scott saw as a good way to test the strength of a relationship. The visit to Laos showed Scott that in spite of “the vast differences between us of place and race, of wealth and social condition,” yet “here we all were, under the same bright sky, doing the best we could.”

 

Under the Bright Sky: A Memoir of Travels through Asia, Andrew Scott (Caitlin Press, January 2022)
Under the Bright Sky: A Memoir of Travels through Asia, Andrew Scott (Caitlin Press, January 2022)

Scott’s experience in Sri Lanka evoked a different response, although in the background, as in Laos, there was conflict, this time between the Sinhalese and Tamils. However, “Nothing on this trip was turning out the way I’d expected,” he tells us; “in truth, everything was better than expected.” Again, Scott’s trip had more than just traveller’s curiosity behind it—this time he was accompanied by his father, who had been there fifty years before serving with the Royal Artillery and was “raring to check out his old haunts,” one of which was the famous Galle Face Hotel in Colombo (built by the British in 1864), where they were staying. Scott’s relationship with his father had been somewhat rocky in the past, but he’s “just along for the ride, hoping to get to know him—and thus of course myself—better,” referring to them both as “old souls.” Again, Scott discovers something he didn’t expect, as the journey doesn’t turn out to be the usual father-son bonding story, “but was simply about friendship. About reinvigorating ours.” They do this by going to places that neither has visited as well as Scott’s father’s “old haunts”, and includes a visit to the science-fiction writer Arthur C Clarke, “sitting at his keyboard in a sarong.” The Sri Lankans, Scott writes, are “a gentle, outgoing, physically beautiful people,” who are the real attraction of this country, in spite of the numerous beautiful temples, shrines and old colonial buildings.

In addition to the usual traveler tales about interesting people, food (there’s a lot of that) and places, Scott also manages to make readers feel the physicality of the places he visits by his descriptions of landscapes, both urban and rural, as well as providing just enough historical background for readers to contextualize. In Thailand, he writes of a “valley bottom” which “was matted with low willow and birch shrubs. There were wildflowers in profusion: monkshood, paintbrush, red columbine, bluebells, harebells, fireweed and river beauty.” We are shown “brave armies of gnarled, stunted white spruce and subalpine fir,” which “marched up the mountainsides, but soon surrendered, leaving the terrain to marmosets and rock ptarmigan.” Scott’s lyrical descriptions of vegetation and flora are sometimes so lush and detailed as to make one think he was channeling Alexander von Humboldt in his Personal Narrative!

He is aware, too, of the differences between travelers and locals; after dining on “wonderful seafoods” in India, he “became very conscious of the contrast between our tourist lifestyle and that of the people who lived here,” and relates a story about a man sleeping on cardboard who asks him “in stately English” whether he has eaten well, and when the “startled” Scott says he has, merely replies “That is good to hear,” and goes back to sleep. It’s vignettes like this which make Scott’s book stand out somewhat from the usual travel narratives.

Scott’s mind is wide-ranging, and the touch of personal grief adds a poignancy to the sections on China and Laos. His “philosophy” of travel is straightforward; “most serious travellers,” he says, “were internationalists. The spirit of co-operation fired them up.” It’s “nationalists” who presented a problem, people who emphasize the importance of physical borders; for Scott, “to risk one’s life defending a line on a map … was a sad fate. A flag was just a flag.” Unfortunately, these words were written before the Ukrainian war, but are still, in a general sense, true enough. In any case, Scott says “I recognize the need for borders, but prefer invisible ones instead of barbed wire.”

I missed Cambodia (he does mention Angkor Wat) and wondered why Turkey should be included in a book concerned largely with Southeast Asia, but these are minor carping criticisms. Scott includes some color photographs as well as black-and-white illustrations in the body of the text; I noted particularly the elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, the floating village at Ayothaya in Thailand and the pictures taken in China showing the rural village and stone house in Guangdong where Scott’s wife’s family originated.

Scott’s acute sense of the humanity that we all share shines throughout this book as he tries to answer the questions “Why is it so difficult for us, as a species, to accept one another?” and “how long were we likely to survive without mastering the basic skill of co-operation?” These are simple, even obvious questions, but perhaps “internationalist” travelers can suggest some answers, as Andrew Scott admirably does in this book.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.