No. 18: “All the Wrong Places” by James Fenton

Travel Blog  •  Frank Bures  •  05.14.06 | 11:53 PM ET

To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1988
Territory covered: Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea and the Philippines
James Fenton is not only one of the great characters of travel writing, having starred as the poet-sidekick of Redmond O’Hanlon in his Into the Heart of Borneo. He also happens to be one of the great travel writers, having authored classics of the genre like The Snap Revolution, about the chaos surrounding the fall of Marcos in the Philippines. At the time, the entire region was convulsing in the Cold War, and having been given an award for “traveling and writing poetry,” Fenton had to pick a place to go. “Looking at what the world had to offer,” he wrote, “I thought either Africa or Indochina would be the place to go. I chose the latter, partly on a whim.” Once there, Fenton watched governments rise and fall, and many of his stories in All the Wrong Places read like semi-comic thrillers. They are required reading for anyone traveling through Southeast Asia who wants to understand the background against which their travels take place.

Outtake from All the Wrong Places:

I thought, Kapuscinski has scripted this. I looked around for him. It was like his account of the fall of Haile Selassie, only speeded up so that what had taken a year or so—a gradual elimination of the court—seemed to be happening in seconds. There were soldiers in the audience, but they seemed unusually pensive. Imelda was now standing at the side, talking quietly to some journalists. I went over, but again when I reached her I was completely stuck for a question. When asked about when she would leave, she looked in the direction of her husband and said, “You’d better ask him.” One of my colleagues must have spent the last two nights at Camp Aguinaldo. He stank of old clothes, and I noticed the moment when Imelda smelled him, turned up her nose, and decided enough was enough; she was going to leave the room.

For more about James Fenton, check out his stories in Granta, a profile of him by Dana Gioia and his personal Web site.

—Frank Bures is the books editor of World Hum.