When I moved to Thailand in 1996 to help set up a school, I took a 3 month rent on a small room in a new hotel near my work. On my floor there was only one other resident, a very well-dressed, attractive woman in her mid-20s. We soon became friends, leaving our doors open and popping in and out of each other’s rooms to chat, gossip, eat, drink beer and smoke.
Lek didn’t seem to work, but attended college every day to learn how to cook, went out most nights and, frankly, seemed to have more disposable income than I had. This was surprising for two reasons; firstly, most Westerners employed in Bangkok with work permits earned three or four times what the locals earned. Secondly, while there were many Thai kids with rich parents, they tended to be fair-skinned, whereas Lek was dark-skinned and from the impoverished Southern provinces of Thailand where a long-running terrorism campaign to secede from Thailand and join muslim Malaysia had damaged the area.
I asked her about it, and she told me straight: she had an older, Western boyfriend called Mike who was posted to work in Thailand in some big engineering project. Mike was married, but his wife was back in England with their kids. Mike paid for the apartment, her college course and took care of her living expenses. In return, she was his mistress. She was to be available for sex, going out to parties or weekends away. The sole stipulation was that she was not to have sex with anyone else (a wise move; in the late 90s, HIV was rife in Thailand). She didn’t love Mike, although she liked him – she viewed it purely as a business relationship. Mike, however, did get jealous of me (until we lied and told him I’m gay); I found lots of Westerners who had mistresses or picked up prostitutes deluded themselves that they were emotionally involved rather than simply buying a service.
Before I’d met Lek, I had always assumed that prostitution was a sordid business of trafficked or abused women being forced into it by a pimp. It had never occurred to me that it could be voluntary. I asked Lek if she felt exploited. “Absolutely not”, she answered. She explained that she had a sister, a year younger, still living in the home village “in the jungle” (as she put it). Her sister had four children by a man who beat her when he was drunk, and who forced her to wear a veil. “I have a nice apartment, I’m getting an education. Mike is a good guy who treats me well, we go to parties where I meet lots of people, I’ve learned English and have friends from all over the world. This is freedom – don’t pity me.”
Who was I to argue?
It made me wonder, though, why we still get so squeamish about sex. If someone works with their bodies to entertain by dancing, or gymnastics, or sports, we don’t pity them. Neither do we condescend to other people who look after others’ physical needs for money – we don’t pity a person who cooks food or others, or cuts their hair, or massages their aches, or looks after their teeth. So why do we look down on people who voluntarily offer sexual services?
For some reason, I’ve talked about this to a few people lately, even though I’m no longer a veggie and was never a vegan (my farts are bad enough as it is).
Anyway, most Thais are buddhist, but love eating meat and seasoning otherwise veg dishes with nam plaa (fish sauce), which is the local equivalent of salt. Their perhaps-spurious rationale is that they didn’t actually kill the animal, and not eating it would be a waste. I regard this as playing somewhat fast-and-loose with the conventional theories of supply and demand, but I am not an economist.
At some point, most Thai people will become extra-buddhist for buddhist lent, or joining the monkhood to make merit for a dead parent or some such (assuming they’re not in the small muslim or christian minorities). So every Thai person understands the idea of vegan food. This will always be respected; to give meat to a monk or someone who has requested “religious” food would be a grievous sin.
The magic words to unlock a world of vegan cuisine in Thailand are “Pom [if you’re male]/ Dee-chan [female] kin ahaarn jair”. “Jair” is the key; it rhymes with “air” but has a slightly shorter vowel.
Any meaty-looking stuff in your resulting meal will be tofu (the smegma of Beelzebub, in my opinion) or mushroom. Soy sauce will be used for seasoning instead of fish sauce. If you want to avoid MSG, say “mai sai churot”. “Spicy” is “pet”, not spicy is “mai pet”.
There you are. Job’s a good ‘un. Of course, watch out for refreshing beers, most of which are clarified with isinglass like everywhere else in the world (and which would be strictly off-limits to monks, anyway).
The current crop of trouble-makers are the Red Shirts – supporters of ousted and exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Shinawatra is a deeply unpleasant scumbag businessman turned politico. After his election, a programme of extra-judicial killings of suspected drug-dealers was ordered, with many photos appearing in the press of bodies shot at close range through the back of the head while miraculously resisting arrest while they had their hands and feet tied.
A raid on a mosque in muslim Southern Thailand left 50 prisoners dead after they had been stacked like logs on the back of lorries in the heat for hours. Thaksin said that it was the mens’ fault for weakening themselves through the Ramadan fast.
So there’s nothing to love about Mr Thaksin, except… except… he was elected by a landslide, was the first Thai Prime Minister to serve a full term. He introduced a range of policies that reduced rural poverty by half in four years, the country’s first universal healthcare program, and his re-election in 2005 had the highest voter turnout in Thai history. He was ousted by a military coup while overseas allegedly because of corruption (which he almost certainly was; corruption is epidemic in Thai politics). That’s the trouble with democracy, you see; sometimes, the people vote for idiots or villains.
The group opposing the Red Shirts, the PAD (Yellow Shirts), are the group that shut down Bangkok airport in 2008, causing incalculable damage to the Thai economy during the peak season. They are widely believed to be supported by the Queen and represent the elite of the country—the traditional old guard of aristocracy. Wikipedia sums it up perfectly:
“The Asian Human Rights Commission has noted of the PAD and their agenda that, ‘although they may not describe themselves as fascist, have fascist qualities.’ Citing the claimed failure of popular democracy in Thailand, the PAD has suggested constitutional amendments that would make Parliament a largely royally-appointed body. It has openly called for the military and Thailand’s traditional elite to take a greater role in politics”.
What the whole sorry situation shows is that while Bangkok is a primate city full of millionaires, Porsche cars, skyscrapers and aircon shopping malls, the rural poor in Thailand (most of the people) are as marginalised as ever. The traditional elite pretended a romantic idolisation of the farmers while either ignoring or despising them (much like Russian communists’ relationship with their peasantry), so the poor had to look to a nasty, authoritarian telecoms billionaire to hurl them some cash to buy their votes.
Meanwhile, we hope that my wife makes it safely back home before some idiots shut down the airport again.
I’ve been hibernating over Consumerfest in my wife’s family farm in Chiang Rai, on the lush green mountainous fringes of the Golden Triangle (the border of Thailand, Laos and Burma) where I could pick starfruit, limes and bananas from trees in the garden. (It’s not all idyllic of course: AIDs and prostitution have a terrible effect on the area as I documented in my inaugural blog post Harvesting the young rice.)
On Consumerfest eve, one of my sister-in-law’s cows had a baby (which we called “Christmas”) and, this being Thailand where “if it’s got four legs and it’s not a chair, we eat it”, the placenta was too good a raw material for a meal to be left in the fields.
So here’s how to cook cow placenta soup.
Wash it thoroughly
Boil for an hour to soften it
Cut galangal and herbs, add to pot
Chop all into bite-size pieces
Simmer for an hour
Serve with minced raw buffalo in its own blood
Add toast and coffee for a delicious Christmas breakfast
How did it taste? Not as nice as it sounds, but not too revolting, actually. It reminded me of liver with its offal taste and also of heart’s chewy texture. Basically, the cheaper cuts of meat that most of the UK abandoned fifty years ago when most people got rich enough to eat chicken and other less internal cuts of meat. The minced raw buffalo is like spicy steak tartare.
Christmas dinner was more traditionally English: I barbequed six chickens stuffed with sage and onion, and we cooked roast potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower with Christmas pudding and cake.
My Bangkok next-door neighbour and friend, Steve Van Beek has some spaces left on his fantastic kayak tours in South East Asia. I can absolutely recommend these; Steve has lived in Thailand for thirty years and I’ve met no-one else who knows the language, culture and geography as well as he does.
Prices below cover all accommodations, transportation, inflatable kayaks, equipment, meals, and guiding. They don’t include transportation to the starting point, visa fees, nor accommodation before or after the trip. It also assumes a minimum of five paddlers. Please contact Steve directly if you’re interested.
Jan. 16-29 (Wed.to Sun.) and Feb. 13-17 (Wed.-Sun.): Five days paddling through the 4,000 islands created where the Mekong, barred by a fault line, braids to 14 km. wide. The geologic slip has created Southeast Asia’s largest waterfalls (more water than Niagara) an obstruction which blocks navigation. US$940.
Jan. 25-27 (Fri-Sun), 2008: This trip combines the beauty of the foothills surrounding Luang Prabang with the charm of paddling into one of the most beautiful towns in Asia. We’ll sleep in homestays and experience village life, visit a beautiful waterfall, run some rapids, visit a quiet Buddhist monastery, and pay our respects at the grave of one of Asia’s most fearless explorers, Henri Mouhot. Along the way, we’ll see how villagers and fishermen utilize the river in their daily lives. US$490.
Cambodia: Siem Reap recommendations
While I’m busy recommending South-East Asian fun, I recall that I had a tricky time finding recommendations about Cambodia that weren’t aimed at cheapskate backpackers or sex tourists. So here’s my recommendations; I don’t claim that these are cheaper or better than their competitors, only that they met my needs. They were accurate in August 2007.
Siem Reap hotel
I stayed at the Golden Orange hotel. It’s US$1 by tuk-tuk to the main bar street or a 15 minute amble, and costs US$20 per night (for the twin room, rather than per person). I booked three nights and got a free airport pickup and free breakfast every day.
Rooms were very clean, with aircon and ensuite with hot shower, a fridge and free water. There was free internet. The staff arranged my tuktuk driver for three days, my bus to Phnom Penh and a massage, all at decent prices. I was so comfortable, I extended my stay by a night.
Only slight downside is that the owner’s wife has a small pet dog which patrols the second floor at night. It’s entirely harmless, but can bark occasionally so light sleepers should ask for a different floor.
Siem Reap restaurant and dancing
I thoroughly enjoyed the apsara dancing upstairs at the Temple Bar. It was free to those eating or drinking. The US$5 Khmer buffet was very good, too— as was the fish amok served in a coconut.
I was very well fed round the corner from my hotel at La Volpaia, which was recommended to me by an Aussie NGO worker. I had great Italian food in aircon splendour, and a glass of good (chilled!) red wine, for about US$12.
For breakfast, I enjoyed watching the world passing by on Sisowath Quay from the pavement tables of Rendezvous, a French establishment.
I’ve long been an admirer of the art of Chalermchai Kositpipat, who was one of the prime movers to break Thai buddhist art away from slavishly following tradition and modernise it. So when I heard that he is building a temple called Wat Rong Khun in his home village in Chiang Rai, I was delighted to receive an invitation to look around it.
Chalermchai’s temple is pure white (see gallery), which makes it shine magically in the Thai sun. The entrance to the main prayer hall has a disconcerting sea of hands, reaching out from hell to beg for help.
Then came the obligitory mug to the camera with Ajarn Chalermchai and get some beautiful signed prints of his paintings which he sells to raise money for the building work. This is a fabulous place, and well worth a visit if you’re in Chiang Rai.
In Nongyow’s home village, Moo Baan Farm, like any other Thai village, there’s no such thing as privacy. People walk in and out of each others’ houses from dawn to dusk. (And, if they’re still there after sunset, will very possibly sleep there, too.)
Consequently, you never eat on your own. In the village, people rarely say “hello”; they greet each other with “kin khow reu yang?” (“Have you eaten yet?”). If the answer is negative, you sit down and join the host.
So when I rashly promised to cook traditional English Christmas dinner for the family, I knew that I was probably cooking for an unknown number. Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation (and you never know …) here’s an illustrated guide on how to make roast pork, stuffing, potatoes, boiled vegetables, and Christmas pudding for an indeterminate amount of people on a two-ring gas burner.
When I lived here, I thought Bangkok at Xmas was nice and cool – and would wear a long-sleeved shirt instead of short sleeves. Actually, it’s monstrously hot and humid. So, after a day seeing old friends and getting our bodies used to the time zone, it was off to Hua Hin to the beach and some cooling sea breeze.
We’re in a lovely hotel that we always used to stay in; it’s impeccably clean, with a lovely pool and it’s a five minute amble to Hua Hin beach.
The days go like this: get up, 7.30. Breakfast by the pool at 8. Kids in pool at 8.30. Join kids in pool at 9.30. Drag kids out of pool for lunch at 12. Lie down in room 12 – 1.30 (sun too hot) then down to the white-sand beach. Showers at 5pm, then out to eat spicy seafood dishes at 6 (the food here is enough to make a grown man cry in happiness).
Then, to help recover from the exhausting schedule, we go out for massages (both Marina and James fall asleep during theirs) and finally put the kids to bed at 9.30, after which Nongyaw and I drink beer, read, chat and watch the moon above the mountains from our balcony overlooking the pool.