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Wednesday, December 24, 2003

First news update from Bangkok

It has been two days now in Bangkok. On one hand it felt like a blink of an eye, but on the other it appeared as though it has been forever since I returned. Thailand always evokes such contradicting reactions in me.

I had forgotten how busy Bangkok was. The traffic here is unbelievable. Nearly half my waking hours have been spent in the car, sitting in traffic. It was good that I didn't have to drive. I have long ago lost my ability to navigate Bangkok traffic, not to mention the changing landscape of the city.

Bangkok is heavy on one's senses. Mine is almost overloaded. I feel increasingly as though I am an autistic child in need of a shut down. The streets are clogged with vehicles, the sidewalks full of people, the buildings close together. There are just too many bloody people in this city. And I haven't even started on the noise yet. Close you eyes and imagine a room full of kids practicing on the drums and other extremely loud musical instruments. The noise of Bangkok is worse than that scene you've just conjured up in your head, at all hours.

Bangkok also takes a toll on my emotions. I am reminded of everything I have left behind, the good and the bad. Seeing family and old friends again, those who are still living the life I had rejected, I couldn't help but rethink my choices and look down the road not taken, imagining what would have met me at the end of it.

Thailand is such a study in contradiction. There are so many things that are familiar, yet others are now utterly foreign to me. My mother told me today that I held myself like a Farang, a foreigner. I was startled. What do you mean I held myself like a foreigner, I asked her, indignantly. Then I realized how bow-y everyone around me was. Thai people have a habit of rounding up the shoulders and slouching a little, in deference to others with higher social status. Security guards do it when opening doors, waiters do it while bringing food or refilling water, one must do it even while standing in the company of other people of higher status or age. I am almost certain thieves also bow when taking your money. Bangkok is a city full of polite bowing birds. If you were a chiropractor, this city would be a gold mine waiting for you! As for me, my shoulders were squared, and my back straight. I was ready to face anyone on the same level. I am indeed holding myself like a Farang.

Even my own mother tongue has betrayed me. I spoke today to one of Bangkok's grand doyennes whom Mother and I ran into at lunch. During the conversation, I used a few words and phrases that were simply not polite enough for the situation. I wasn't trying to be improper, those words simply came to my mouth as if they had not passed properly through my brain. I could see them leaving my lips and hanging momentarily in space before dropping off, denying me a chance to take them back. I have become such an embarrassment.

It is deceptively easy to get into the rhythm of things here again. Yes, the city is a mad cacophony of senses, but it has become increasingly benign as I get used to it again. It is easy to close ones eyes to everything happening outside, especially when you are being driven around in a quiet, air conditioned, and comfortable car.

I was reminded of how comfortable life in Bangkok was. I don't have to deal with a constant search for the next parking space, or carry heavy bags full of my new acquisitions. Someone brings me water when I am thirsty. Someone cooks for me when I am hungry. This life is good. But then I remember the main reason I didn't want to live here. In Thailand, life is extremely comfortable for some people, the rest of them are just perpetually damned.

I've always known that Thailand is an extremely hierarchical society. I grew up in it. However, knowing it conceptually, now that I live far, far away, and facing it again on a day to day basis are two different things.

Today began with a trip to a hairdresser with Mother. Her salon is in the Peninsula Plaza building, next door to the Four Seasons hotel. This little place is known as the bastion of old money, and a hotbed of society gossips. As I walked into the small four-seat salon, the hairdresser and I engaged in our well-cultivated ritual of racing to “Wai”, putting one's hands together chest level in show of deference, each other. It was a little game we always played, and yesterday, we had another one of our little duals, greetings and laughs were exchanged, and we were both happy with the proper deference we showed each other. All was well, and indeed ridiculous, with this world.

After our respective hairs have been properly coiffed, Mother and I went to lunch at a place called Lunch Time. The tiny unassuming restaurant is tucked into a quiet and well hidden corner of the Peninsula building. The menu is written in Thai on a blackboard. The food here is quite simple, even inexpensive. But it is the style of food served in upper class households; each item on the menu is served as a set, with its proper, albeit simple, accompaniments. This is where all the society doyennes take their lunches, on her way to or from said hairdresser or one of the exclusive jewelers in the building.

I had Kanom-jeen Nam-ya, a plate of fermented noodle with fresh and pickled vegetables served with a spicy curry of minced fish. The Kanom-jeen noodle has a slight and pleasant sour taste from the fermentation and, for some reason, is entirely unavailable in the US. The curry was very nice, complex, spicy, and properly fishy, if a bit cold.

If you happen to find yourself in Bangkok shopping in the famous Ploenjit area, I recommend this little place for lunch. It is inexpensive, and utterly free of other tourists. You would need to ask someone to translate the menu, but that won't be difficult. And if you saw a well-dressed and bejeweled, albeit tastefully, lady in her mid 60's whose look vaguely reminds you of me, and whose hair have been freshly set, you probably have just run into my mother. Don't bother saying hello though, when approached by a bumbling and strange Farang, Mother would surely pretend she doesn't understand a word of English.

After lunch, we went to a huge fair on the outskirt of Bangkok. The fair is a brainchild of our current Prime Minister. I am not normally a big fan of this man, because of this and other equally stupid antics of his, but I must salute him for this admirable enterprise. His idea was to create supplemental income for villagers in the provinces, by letting each village come up with their special product. The government provided them some capital, and helped set up a shop in each province to peddle the wares. A big fair in Bangkok is to be set up once a year, where all the products are sold to Bangkokians and foreign visitors. The project, and the fair, is called OTOP, One Tumbon (village) One Product.

To say that the OTOP fair is huge would be an understatement. It took place at a rambling conference complex called Mueng-thong Tani. Almost every village from each of Thailand's 74 provinces is represented. The wares they sell range from tea-scented fermented eggs to gorgeous silk fabrics.

I was lucky to be in town during the fair. Should you ever find yourself in Thailand in December, I highly recommend making a trek out to it. You can take the Sky Train out to Mueng-thong Tani, and there are shuttle buses to take people between the station and the fairground.

The range of products on sale here is simply mind boggling. There was one whole isle selling only deep fried durian chips. I kid you not. Another isle is les frères Majumdar's idea of Valhalla, a whole isle selling only freshly deep fried pork crackling with an array of dipping sauces and relishes.

There are also stalls and stalls of beautiful silk fabrics and prêt à porter. I bought some gorgeous sarongs and fabrics made of naturally dyed silks. The color of those silk fabrics are tastefully subdued, as the dyes used are entirely from natural sources such as tree barks, leaves, and fruit and berry juices. A particularly pretty sarong I bought was dyed with, among other things, the core of jackfruits!

There was a huge hall dedicated entirely to edible products. I didn't know Thailand make so many different kinds of wine! They were all mediocre, mind you, but the range was impressive nonetheless.

Specialty foods from every province are on sale here. Dark sausages, a boudin noir of sort, from the north. Shrimp paste from the south. Sweet “moo-yong” pork from Isaan. Positively incendiary fish kidney curry from the deep south. Golden strands (Foy-tong) from Ayudhya. Even the Kanom Morgeng from Petchburi, which David Thompson made such a mockery for the meal I had at Nahm. Luckily, the ones on sale here are so distant from the disgusting pile of mush served (for 10 quid a plate) at Nahm.

I bought everything in sight. Luckily, this was Bangkok, so it was my driver, not me, who made the three treks back to the car to deposit my acquisitions.

As any scheme concocted by the government, this one was launched with a big fanfair, but it is a bit lacking in the follow-through department. The villagers were left to their own devices in deciding what to make and sell. The result includes some truly sadly misguided attempts at being artsy and crafty.

There are also truly traditional products that the villagers have decided to “modernized” to fit the taste of city dwellers and foreigners. The results were sometimes ghastly. For example, there were only a handful of stalls selling naturally dyed silks, the others use synthetic dyes to create brightly or neon(!) colored silk fabrics which could have well been produced in a factory. These villagers didn't understand that preserving their traditional ways would have been better both for them and their bottom-line.

I wish there were people with some sense of design and marketing to guide them. Don't get me wrong, I don't want them all to be molded in the design sense of Ikea and Crate and Barrel. A good design or product consultant would be able to help them adapt the folk sensibility into products that can be useful or beautiful in other contexts as well.

After the fair, my mother and I went on yet another shopping errand to Central, a famous department store in the center of the Bangkok. We then decided to stop for dinner at the Greyhound Cafe in the store. The cafe is rather sleek and modern looking. The menu is a hybrid of some western and Thai dishes. Despite the cool, modern look, the Thai items on the menu are quite nice. I ordered Kao kab Nam-prik Pla-too, rice and a shrimp paste relish, which was somewhat similar to the relish I made for some of us in London, except that it was served with pan-fried salted fish instead of crispy fish, and there was no caramelized belly pork here.

My mother ordered a Miang Kway-tyo Moo Sub, a wrap-your-own sort of fresh spring roll. The dish came with a square pile of freshly cut flat chow-fun noodle, with some lettuce, a relish of minced pork, and a green spicy and sour sauce of ground green chilli, lime juice, and a bit of fish sauce. To eat it, you take a bit of the lettuce, over which you carefully lay a sheet of fresh noodle, on goes the pork, then the green sauce, wrap it up, and chow. It was very nice.

The star of the meal was the dessert. The dessert bowl came with an icy slush of coconut juice at the bottom, with some “ruby” water chestnut chunks on top, with some julienned fresh coconut flesh, and a spoonful or two of coconut milk over everything. This is an upper class version of the classic “Crispy Ruby” or “Tuptim Krop” which you could find on any street corner. The “ruby” is made of small chunks of fresh water chestnuts, rolled in a bit of red coloring and then in sticky rice flour. The rubies are then boiled quicky in syrup, resulting in red, gooey on the outside and crispy on the inside, balls chestnuts that do somewhat resemble the name. On the street, these rubies are served with some sugar syrup and ice, and a bit of coconut milk to finish. Greyhound's version was vastly superior. I highly recommend you try it if you made it there.

I waddled down to the waiting car, and got home in time to play with my nephews before they had to turn in for the night. Life is good


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