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Saturday, December 27, 2003

Bangkok Report IV, part 2: Sanitized street food!?

I accompanied my parents to a birthday party of a friend of the family at the club.

The club, or as we called it, Sports Club, is Royal Bangkok Sports Club. It was founded over a hundred years ago by King Rama V, who endowed it with a large plot of land in what is now the center of the shopping district in Bangkok. The club also owns and operates a race track on Sundays, bringing in huge revenue.

Membership of the club is hereditary, so my siblings and I are entitled to becoming a member here, as will the generations after us. New members are accepted, though very rarely. It is considered the most exclusive in Bangkok, since even money couldn't buy one's way into it.

In fact, being a member of the club is such a big deal that my mother and I had a big row over it a few months ago. I came to the US before I was 21, which would have been when I was entitled to become a member, therefore I had to postpone my membership for a few years. A few months ago, the club informed us that it was time that I either became a member or I shall loose the place that they had kept for me.

Taking up my place would have cost a good chunk of money for the initiation fee. I had no intention of paying it, as I don't plan to go back there, nor would I let my mother pay. I told her she could give ME the check, I was sure I could come up with some ways to use up the amount, without much trouble.

Apparently, despite the fact that I had been telling her repeatedly of my intention to the contrary, Mother was still under the illusion that I would at some point come home. It took the rejection of my “rightful” place at the club that she was finally forced into facing the fact that I would not be coming home after all. Needless to say the irony was entirely lost on her.

Entering the club, one feels as though one has been transported to old colonial days. A security guard opens the car door, letting you into the long open lobby, looking over huge green lawns and plush greeneries, where people are lounging about on wicker chairs, drinking from tall, sweaty glasses of iced tea while munching on dainty sandwiches and gossiping in hushed tones, with uniformed waiters hovering about. There is a perfectly manicured lawn for Lawn Bowling, a large Olympic size swimming pool, squash courts, tennis courts, a small golf course, a cricket court, a football and rugby field, and riding tracks. There are uniformed custodians at every corner waiting to assist you in whatever they could. There are tennis-ball boys standing in attendants at the four corners of a tennis court to chase after the balls for you.

Going into the club is like visiting a relative's house. Tonight was my first time since I came home on this trip, I put my hands together in a wai as soon as I got out of the car and saw someone my parent's age that I knew. He wasn't the only one though, so my hands stayed in the wai position for the whole walk along the lobby lounge area, with my head bowing down to touch the tips of my fingers every time I saw someone I knew. There must have been at least twenty of them. I felt like a Thai Airways stewardess greeting each passenger on a 747.

Life is indeed slow and genteel here. Most members have been coming here all their lives, and the staff stays on for a very long time. When I was growing up, the club was always a safe place that we could be left for a whole day to roam around and play anything we liked.

Just over on the other side of the wall is a tenement block of subsidized housing, just a step above the slums. In fact going to one of the club facilities, one has to drive through a small soi (side street) crowded with these housing estates and tiny shops.

The difference is horrifying. But it is also such a fact of life here that hardly anyone notices or raises an eyebrow, least of all anyone who belongs to the club.

Thailand can be so heartbreakingly beautiful sometimes, but other times, she is simply heartbreaking.

Back inside the club, everything was as it used to be. The party was held in one of the private rooms, which was turned into a miniature street hawker market for the night.

A number of famous street food vendors have been brought in from all over Bangkok. It was the upper class's idea of slumming! Each vendor brought their whole setup, including stoves, signs, cooking utensils, dinner wares for an added sense of authenticity albeit a heavily sanitized version. Stalls were set up to one side of the room which opened to a long balcony so the fume from all the cooking wouldn't affect the members.

On offer were Hoy Tod (fried pancakes of mussels, eggs, green onions, and bean sprouts), Kanom Pak-kad (little squares of turnip cakes stir fried with eggs, green onions, and bean sprouts), Gra-poh Pla (fish maw soup), Kway-teo Kua Gai (stir fried flat noodles with dried squids, chicken, pickled turnips, and other vegetables), Kow-mun Gai (Hunanese chicken rice), Nuea Satay (beef satays), some fresh fruits and a huge birthday cake.

The setup was just like a real market, minus the sidewalk, the trash, the stray dogs, and the glasses of iced water of questionable provenance (hence the fun, really). We went up to the stalls and ordered what we wanted. The food was cooked to order, then we took them back to the waiting tables to eat. Everything was great, I even got my hands dirty by stir frying a few things myself. I literally had one order of everything! I was more than stuffed at the end of the party, conveniently, I hadn't planned on having any cake anyway.


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