When Shakespeare Came to Koh Samui – via Chatbot

Our regular contributor, award-winning writer John Borthwick has fun imagining what might happen if William Shakespeare and other great scribes were to visit Thailand via a chatbot app.

Thailand, often shrink-wrapped by marketing tag-lines and so many S-words: Land of Smiles, Singha, sand, sex and so on. In search of fresh descriptions of this fine destination I logged into AI – artificial, alleged intelligence – to see if literature’s hottest wordsmiths could beat the common cliches.

I asked an AI chatbot to “do” Thailand in the style of famous writers. First off, the 19th century Australian bush poet, Banjo Paterson. Within 30 seconds the lit-bot was off and balladeering:

In Bangkok’s streets where the people meet,
The tuk-tuk’s beep and the vendors greet,
With a smile so wide and a heart so sweet,
In the style of Banjo Patterson’s beat

Ouch! Verses purple as the Aussie weed, Paterson’s Curse. Thailand’s great capital deserved truer grit than that, so I keyed-in “Bangkok, by William Burroughs” — a scary thought. The ghost of the mordant, American Beat novelist soon came out, growling.

The streets are alive with a frenetic energy that pulses through the veins of the city, drawing in the unwary and the curious alike. From the seedy bars of Patpong to the glittering temples, Bangkok is a place of extremes, where the sacred and profane collide in overload, a city that takes you to the limits of sanity and beyond.

Mercifully, Burrough’s dark prose wasn’t in his infamous Naked Lunch style, but it was still way better than the usual over-curated travel tropes. On a roll, I prompted the bot to have a go, improbably, at “William Shakespeare on Koh Samui”. The Algorithm-upon-Avon courteously obliged and poetically opined:

Here on this isle, a stage for love and fate,
Where travellers come to seek a new estate,
And where, amidst the shimmering tropical light,
A play of passion doth unfold each night.

Here Romeo and Juliet may meet,
Beneath the swaying palms and tropic heat,
Their love a flame that doth the world defy,
And passion deep that doth the soul untie.

Tropical tosh, agreed. But let’s give credit where it’s due: the bot was flash as a rat with a gold tooth when it came penning instant iambic pentameters.

Sticking with Thai islands as seen by British scribes, I dropped the radical novelist Jeanette Winterson into Koh Phi Phi. The AI voice switched to third-person voice, schmooze mode.

It was a perfect escape. She had come to Phi Phi to find solace, to escape the pressures of everyday life and immerse herself in the natural world … time seemed to stand still, Jeanette felt at one with the world around her. She closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of the sun on her skin and the soft sand between her toes.

If one could sue an algorithm, Winterson surely would have it up for aggravated banality. Undeterred, I pressed on, proposing a visit to Phuket by that superb chronicler of Tudor England, the late Hilary Mantel. The chatbot reckoned,

Mantel would see the layers of history that have shaped this island. From the ancient trade routes that brought Chinese and Indian traders to the recent influx of Western tourists seeking sun, sand and sea. She would delve into the darker side, where the excesses of tourism have taken their toll. She would see the towering resorts and flashy nightclubs, and the impact they’ve had on the island’s ecology and culture.

Fair enough. And not a swaying palm, mad monarch or headless ex in sight.

Hilary’s AI tale, however, proved more convincing than the next take, novelist Lee Child’s hard man Jack Reacher on the lam in mystical Phang Nga Bay.

Reacher, on the run from a dangerous criminal organization takes refuge in the caves that dot the bay … he discovers clues that lead him to a hidden treasure, and must use all his skills to outwit the criminals and claim the treasure for himself.

More like the blurb for Biggles Goes Troppo than Jack the avenger strikes again.

I persist with the “hero on holiday” theme, curious to see how Jo Nesbo’s Oslo detective Harry Hole might see a Thai airport.

A den of thieves and smugglers, where the worst of society came to hide. He made his way through the crowds, scanning for signs of trouble. He could smell the fear and desperation, a heady mix that made him feel alive. And then he saw her. A young woman, standing alone by the baggage carousel …

The AI bot had gone AWOL. Nesbo Noir had landed in Phnom Penh 1978, not the Chiang Mai of today. Instead, I dialled-up Chiang Rai, this time as from the pen of rock group Cold Chisel’s roadhouse poet, Don Walker.

I caught a plane to Chiang Mai
A city full of colour and light,
Temples gleaming in the sun
A thousand years of history, it’s a sight.

No cheap swine with a three-day growth could have done worse. Moving on, my final searches, Pattaya as seen by Salvador Dali (“where palm trees grow upside down”) and Hua Hin banged out in rap (“Yo, dude, listen up …”) were beyond comic, even for a robot.

Over a Singha and a dish of spicy somtam I reverted to old Banjo Paterson for an exit algorithm algorhyme:

So let us raise a glass to Thailand’s land,
With its beaches, rice fields and jungle grand,
And to the people who make it so damn grand,
In the style of Banjo Patterson’s command.

Sweet. Except that in Banjo’s time “Thailand” didn’t exist. The country was still Siam.

AI — must do better?

All images (c) John Borthwick.

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