All posts by Ann Bennett


My last post was about my 1988 trip to Kanchanaburi with my mum. Another time I’ll share more photos and diary entries about our adventures in Songhkla and Hat Yai in Southern Thailand, and our week in Burma during the 1988 military crackdown. Now I’m getting back on track with the inspirations for Bamboo Heart, by posting about my four days in Penang in 1985, my only visit to that beautiful island.

Straits of Malacca Penang 1985 no 2 001
Straits of Malacca Penang 1985

It made a huge impression on me, enough to stay with me for decades and inspire the setting for two story-lines in Bamboo Heart, separated by fifty years.  I would love to return one day.From photos and videos I’ve seen of modern day Georgetown, it is transformed from the low-rise, low-key atmospheric port I visited full of streets of shop-houses and colonial buildings into a to a bustling modern city of glass skyscrapers, although I understand that all the colonial buildings and Chinese shop-houses have been carefully restored and preserved.

Below are some photos of Georgetown that I took in 1985, and which inspired the sections of Bamboo Heart in which Laura visits Penang in 1986 on her quest to find more about her father’s past and track down the elusive Joy de Silva.

Georgetown Street scene 1985 001
Georgetown Street scene 1985
Pen Kong Temple Georgetown 1985 001
Pen Kong Temple Georgetown 1985
Georgetown suburbs 1985 001
Georgetown suburbs 1985
Street Scene No2 Georgetown low res 001
Street scene, Georgetown Penang 1985

My visit to Penang  was on a Bangkok to Bali Rover with Trailfinders, my first experience of travelling outside Europe. We had started out in Bangkok, visited Ayutiyah and Pattaya in Thailand, then boarded a night train to Butterworth in Malaysia. According to The Man in Seat 61, the trains look just the same now as they did then. I remember a fantastic night’s sleep on linen sheets and a cheap tasty meal washed down with Singha beer in the restaurant car.

Berths in 2nd class carriage in sleeper train – Bangkok to Butterworth
Thailand-train-restaurant-2 Restaurant Car

At Butterworth we took the ferry to Georgetown – a great lumbering square boat. There wasn’t a road bridge then. I remember crossing the straits at sunset, standing out on deck in the warm evening, and watching the red sky and the mountains behind the town coming closer.

Straits of Malacca Penang 1985 with  boat 001

We took rickshaws to the Cathay Hotel, which features in Laura’s story in Bamboo Heart. I remember it being a shabby old Portuguese Villa, once beautiful and imposing, but even then very run down. The rooms were huge and high ceilinged, and it was unbelievably cheap. I don’t remember now whereabouts it was in Georgetown, but in the book I set it in a busy quarter, full of loud bars and cafes. I’ve googled it and it now has a certain shabby-chic cachet – described in the New York Times as follows: ‘You could say that the Cathay Hotel comes up short in just about every category. Except for that most elusive, yet most important measure of a hotel’s allure: character. There, the Cathay Hotel gets six stars.’

Here is my picture from 1985. My camera obviously didn’t like to tropical climate! All the photos from that trip came out dull and dark.

Cathay Hotel Georgetown 1985 001

I would certainly have stayed at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel, but all we could afford was a coffee on the terrace. I think that coffee probably cost far more than a night at the Cathay Hotel. I made up for it by having Tom stay there on his first night in Georgetown.


We hired a jeep and toured the island, drove through the suburbs of Georgetown, into the hills and over to Batu Ferringhi, a beautiful white sand beach, which even then was fringed with modern luxury hotels. Here are a few photos I took of Penang beaches on that trip. Those beaches inspired some of the important scenes in the book, featuring Joy and Tom (I hope that isn’t a spoiler!)

Batu Ferringhi beacn Penang 1985 001

Batu Ferringhi Beach Penang 001 Beaches in Penang. I believe this one is in Batu Ferringhi

We also took the funicular railway up to Penang Hill to see the wonderful views across the shimmering straits towards Butterworth and the mainland. I remember eating satays in the little cafe there. I have used this location in both Tom’s story in the 1930s and Laura’s 1980s story.

Waterfall on way up to Penang Hill 1985
Waterfall on way up to Penang Hill 1985
Gardens on Penang Hill 1985
Gardens on Penang Hill 1985
View from Penang Hill no 2 1985 001
View from Penang Hill no 2 1985
View from Penang Hill over Georgetown 001
View from Penang Hill over Georgetown

We also visited the Penang State Museum and Art Gallery (this isn’t my photo, but again, a key scene in the book takes place inside this bulding)


The below photo (which is mine)  of rickshaw riders resting in the trees near the museum in Georgetown inspired another scene in the book, I won’t say which one… if you’ve read Bamboo Heart, you’ll be able to guess.

Rickshaw-wallahs resting in sun Georgetown 1985 001


Bamboo Heart wins Book of the Lunar Year on Asian Books Blog

Fantastic that Bamboo Heart won Book of the Lunar Year – Year of the Horse – announced yesterday on the Asianbooksblog with further information on comments received by voters posted today…

Book of the Lunar Year: full results

As announced yesterday Bamboo Heart by Ann Bennett has won the poll to find Asian Books Blog’s Book of the Lunar Year.

Most people simply voted, but some included comments explaining why they’d made their choice. Here are some comments typical of those made about Bamboo Heart:

The story is gripping, the characters well-drawn and believable and it is very well written. 

A truly compelling read.

This was such a moving story, beautifully told, balancing a flavour of the place and time with a deep involvement in the lives of interesting, well-drawn and, above all, credible characters.

A wonderful uplifting read – a new perspective about the death railway.

Read more »

Posted by Rosie Milne at 13:13 No comments:

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Book of the Lunar Year: Bamboo Heart

 The winner of the inaugural Asian Books Blog Book of the Lunar Year, in the Year of the Horse, is Bamboo Heart, by Ann Bennett, with 34% of votes cast.
Congratulations Ann!!!

Blog readers have said some lovely things about Bamboo Heart. Full analysis of the results, and comments from voters, will follow tomorrow.

Bamboo Heart Inspirations 1988 SE Asia Trip: Kanchanaburi Part 2

Sunset on the River Kwai 1988

It is a while since I had time to do any posts to my Bamboo Heart insprations  blog. Here are some more photos from the Kanchanaburi sections of my 1988 trip with my mum. First up are the ones from the  photo gallery on my  website. You’ve might have seen all these before..

vehicle used for building death railway 1988 001
This vehicle was near the bridge on the river Kwai in 1988. I don’t remember noticing whether it was still there in 2010 when I visited again with my eldest son, Ollie. This is what I wrote about it in 1988:‘Saw the old railway engines they had on display – most interesting was the converted truck they used to build it. It had been a road lorry and they’d simply put the chassis on top of the railway wheels, and it could be converted back to road use at any time. It was really battered and old-looking, and with half closed eyes you could see it chugging up the railway through the jungle, or pampas loaded with half-starved men and their tools.’
We also did a lot of travelling around the province by bus, visiting the Erewan Falls and Sai Yok National park. The region is wild and beautiful, craggy hills covered in jungles, lakes, waterfalls.

Mum under an enormous teak tree near Kancnahaburi 1988

The teak forests in Sai Yok National park in  Kanchanaburi province were felled for sleepers on the Death Railway, but the forests were replanted in the 1950s.

Wat Tham Khao Pun, Kanchanaburi 1988 001
Wat Tham Khao Pun, Kanchanaburi

This is us at  cave temple near Kanchanaburi – I have scribbled Wat Tham Khao Pun on the back of the photo. More details about the cave temple from Lonely Planet here .It is quite near Chungkai camp, where my Dad was imprisoned for several months between December 1943 and June 1944 (link to my website page for more details)  .Chungkai camp also is the main setting for the railway scenes in  Bamboo Heart.

Not quite sure why Mum was wearing ankle socks in this photo! Maybe she had blisters? Can’t quite fathom that one. My diary doesn’t say much about the caves …’crossed the river by ferry and were driven through the baking hot countryside towards the hills. Then walked up to a cave temple. It was lovely and cool inside and you could walk a long way down the corridors and passageways. Really weird rock shapes and every so often a Buddha in a cavern...’

Caves near Kanchanaburi 1988 001
Caves near Kanchanaburi 1988

One day we took a train from Kanchanaburi on the railway to as far as it went at Nam Tok. I used passages from my diary about that day for the trip Laura and Luke take in Bamboo Heart. I will type them out in full and include a link to them from my website, but here’s a small section: ‘up to the station to catch the Kwai train. It arrived about half an hour late. Only 3rd class tickets available and the carriage was very bare – painted brown with old-fashioned adverts on the walls and wooden seats. The windows were wide open and we got a good view of the countryside. Miles of paddy fields, cassava plantations, bananas, then jungle encroaching. 

View from train along tressles - resized

Crossed the Kwai bridge, then trundled across the plains towards Burma, following the valley of the Kwai river. The valley narrowed and went between two cliff faces. The railway had been blasted and chipped out along here. Then the train slowed right down and we began to cross a ledge built of wood and raised on stilts above the river. It was about half a mile long. Quite hair-raising…

Next time I will blog about our adventures in southern Thailand, including in Phuket where we stayed in the On-On hotel (years later used as the set for the dive of a guesthouse in the Khao San road in the film of the Beach)…

Bamboo Heart Inspirations: My Travels: Bridge on the River Kwai trip 1988

Lonely Planet tweeted a picture of all my guide books last week.


Anyway,  that got me browsing through the old Lonely Planet  Thailand guide by Joe Cummings that I used on my 1985 and 1987-88 trips.

The 1985 trip was with Trailfinders -(they catered to budget travellers then); the Bangkok to Bali Rover – all on public transport. We didn’t spend much time in Thailand -just Bangkok, Ayuthaiya and Pattaya (which even back then was the epitome of sleaze). But that journey gave me a taste for the country and a desire to return and linger.

Monks at Wat Arun bangkok 1985 001
Monks at Wat Arun Bangkok 1985

We also spent a few days in Penang on our way down Malaysia – which I’m going to cover in a later blog – that was the inspiration for the chapters on Penang in Bamboo Heart.

Our 1988 trip was eventful to say the least.  After Kanchanaburi and the Death Railway, Mum and I went on to spend a week in Burma – the week of 13th March 1988; the very week that there were protests and a military crackdown, tanks and guns on the streets of Rangoon and a curfew. Pretty scary. This YouTube clip is narrated in Burmese, but it shows what happened and how frightening that was. I’ll blog more about our Burmese adventure later too!

Back to the beginning: I met Mum in Bangkok -I had arrived there via India and Nepal and was just back from jungle trekking in the hills of Northern Thailand. Mum had also come via India where she’d visited Bombay and the Ajanta and Ellora caves near Aurangubad all on her own. Very brave for a lady of over sixty who prior to that had never travelled further than France.

Mum and I stayed in a bit of a dive, the Swan Hotel, pictured here. It is still going strong today although  has clearly been updated and refurbished. Back then it was rather grotty, it’s chief attraction being its location; it was virtually opposite the grand old Oriental Hotel (famous  haunt of great men of letters, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad). The poor old Swan hotel was, sadly, not as grand, and the backpackers who stayed there weren’t very illustrious, but it was  just back from the Chao Phrya river – and it had a swimming pool. The two essential things for a stay in Bangkok.

Swan Hotel
Swan Hotel Bangkok

We did the usual things – visited Jim Thomson’s house, the Grand Palace, the Royal Barge Sheds on the river, all the temples including Wat Arun and Wat Po; we  ate fantastic fresh fish in Silom village, watched classical Thai dancing and sampled aromatic Thai cooking from  food-stalls off the Charoen Krung Road. We didn’t stay in Khao San Road,  (the backpacker’s default destination and immortalised in the book and film the Beach). I didn’t think Mum would like it, but I had spent one night there when I first arrived from India. My diary says that I stayed in the Riverside Guesthouse on Khao San, but I can’t find any trace of it now. I can’t remember a great deal about it either. I know I went there with a Swiss girl I had met on the flight and we shared the cost of a room.  It must be this guesthouse that is the inspiration for where Laura stays in Bamboo Heart.

Grand Palace Bangkok 1985 001
Grand Palace Bangkok

Mum and I took a boat trip along the klongs (canals) in Thonburi – below is a lovely (not) photo of me on the boat. Nice glasses which had photosensitive lenses – so heavy they kept toppling off my nose, and weren’t that photosenstive at all. You could go inside the hotel from a sunny street and find yourself bumping into things and tripping up steps because the lenses still thought it was bright sunlight! Not quite sure why I had such short hair either – I remember having it cut by a barber in Connaught Squre in New Delhi, and I was probably his only female customer ever.

Bangkok - Klongs 1988 001
Boat trip along the klongs in Bangkok Feb 1988

I meant to get on to Kanchanaburi on this post, but I think I’ll have to leave it until the next one. I’ve just been reading my diary entries for our stay in Bangkok and will end here with our journey to Kanchanaburi. I could have sworn we went on the train, but no, we caught an Air -Conditioned bus from a bus station on the edge of Bangkok having struggled through the rush hour in a sweltering taxi. Here is my diary entry. I have forgotten about most of it, but the VT guesthouse is the inspiration for where Laura and Luke stay in Bamboo Heart.

‘We passed through lush green countryside, palms and coconut groves, then low hills. All the time I was thinking about my career dilemma [NB – I still am!….I’ll leave that bit out as it is boring ]... At Kanchanaburi we decided on the River Kwai hotel. A mistake. It feels a bit like a cross between a hall of residence and a brothel. I don’t think room service is on the cards! Went next door to a posher hotel for dinner. It all started very nicely -lovely service and a nice dining room, but things went drastically down hill when the waiter bringing our food slipped over on some water just next to our table and he,  the tray, plates and everything else went crashing down, missing me by an inch. Then the two men at the next table asked us to join them. We couldn’t refuse without being rude. Had to sit there while they practised their apalling English on us, which consisted mostly of the names of Arsenal and Man United footballers. They insisted on paying for the meal, so we quickly left, leaving 200 baht on the table. Crossed the road for a coffee, but fared no better. It was the Valen-Tine pick up joint where a Thai girl singer in black mini skirt and stilettos droned from the stage and the waiter told me I was beautiful and asked if I wanted a man friend!

Retreated to our hotel room which is very hot, bare and I think infested with bed bugs.

Wed 24th.

Bad night owing to traffic roaring past -without silencers. it is far noisier than Bangkok. Also extremely hot and stuffy. In the morning set off in search of a more peaceful place, and after much walking up to road towards the Bridge on the River Kwai, backtracked onto a little back road and found a lovely spot, the VT Guesthouse – little bamboo huts built out onto the river Kwai, run by a young couple with two little kids…..’

More about the VT Guesthouse and the River Kwai next time, but here are some pictures..

Mum on the hut beside the river Kwai. The hut features in Laura's story.
Mum on the hut beside the river Kwai. The hut features in Laura’s story.
River through branches resized
View of the River Kwai from the platform of the hut




Bamboo Heart by Ann Bennett

My first ever review from a professional reviewer – Raelee Chapman of the Singapore Review of Books. Very pleased indeed with that! Just stumbled across it whilst googling…

Singapore Review of Books


Ann Bennett’s Bamboo Heart begins with Tom Ellis, a captive of the Japanese working on the Death Railway in 1943, in solitary confinement. It is in these opening pages and the narrow confines of his pit prison that we learn what gives him the will to live. Tucked in his chest pocket is a photograph of a young Eurasian woman from Penang, Joy De Souza – this is but one of the threads in Bennett’s first installment of her WWII trilogy.

Bennett has given us a hybrid of sorts with alternating narratives between Tom Ellis and Laura Ellis, his daughter, a lawyer living in London in 1986. Tom’s narrative involves several non-linear time-splits of his pre-war life as a lawyer in London living out days of drudgery, and then as a young man managing a rubber plantation in Penang. Here we get a real sense of Tom’s paradisiacal life in…

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Bamboo Heart – Inspirations Part 2

At the end of the Second World War allied  intelligence services surveyed newly-released prisoners of war with so-called liberation questionnaires. My novel, Bamboo Heart, started life when I discovered my father’s liberation questionnaire in the National Archives at Kew. It was an amazing moment when I first saw it; written in his perfect copper-plate hand in pencil, it answered so many questions I would like to have asked. From that moment I knew I had to write about his experiences as a prisoner-of-war on the Death Railway in Thailand.

This discovery was the culmination of a lifetime’s quest to find out what had happened to my dad during the war. He died when I was only seven, and growing up I became increasingly interested in his past. He hardly spoke about the war, having started a new life with my mother on his return to England in 1945. I was interested enough to travel to Kanchanaburi to see the railway in 1988. On that trip I fell in love with South East Asia, but found out very little about what had happened to dad there.

View from train along tressles - resized

I took the tragic events Dad described in his questionnaire as the basis of Tom’s story in Bamboo Heart. I wanted to write about those events from the perspective of one man, within the framework of a fast-moving narrative. My aim was to bring those events alive without it feeling like a history lesson.

The scenes I was describing were harrowing. So to lighten the mood, I broke it up with flashbacks to Tom’s pre-war life in colonial Penang, where he fell in love. I also introduced a parallel modern plot, the story of Tom’s own daughter’s search for the truth about the war. For Laura’s story I drew upon my own life as a disaffected young lawyer in the eighties, and upon my memories of those times. The novel touches on the Wapping Riots, which I remember well as I lived in North London at the time. Co-incidentally the first day of serious rioting was 15th February 1986, the anniversary of the Fall of Singapore.

I tried to tell a story of hope and survival, to examine the reasons why some survived the worst of ordeals and others sadly did not. I also wanted to show what an important role history plays in all our lives; how powerfully our family’s past affects our own choices and values.


My research for Bamboo Heart taught me so much more about the war in the Far East than I had expected.. Continue reading Bamboo Heart – Inspirations Part 2