Monday, 23 February 2009

Around the world in 15 mails - No.7 (Bangkok)

Kops Barter Outrageously

Bangkok, March 22 2005

Happy Easter to you all.

Eskimos rub noses with each other, the Maoris of New Zealand stick their tongues out, Mediterranean types kiss, the English prefer a firm handshake, whilst the Scots head butt each other. Thai girls in the Pat Pong district of Bangkok have an altogether different way of greeting people, involving an outstretched hand and the attempted shake of a more personal part of the male body. As hostesses of the numerous Go-Go bars, from their point of view I guess it's important for them to meet a new member!

It's been an incident packed few days here. On Sunday I visited an enormous market, the name escapes me - it began with C and had about 20 letters after
it. After trawling round it for several hours, I left and lit a cigarette on my way to the Sky train (more on that in a minute). After my final drag, I stubbed the fag out on the pavement and carried on my walk. Two policemen approached me, one clasped my arm and turned me round. I began to have visions of 10 years incarceration, followed by execution (I wouldn't have wanted a Sun newspaper campaign or Blair and his cronies pleading for clemency). After about 20 paces, the second policeman bent down and picked up my spent cigarette butt (he's picked from a group of about six other butts). He turned to me and said "illegal'. I stayed calm and made sure of the stiffest of stiff upper lips. I was taken to a hut where another cop explained my offence and told me I had to pay a 1000 baht fine. I looked in my wallet and realised that I didn't have a 1000 baht BUT in an out of character moment of quick thinking, I remembered that I still had 1000 rupees that I'd forgotten to exchange in India and which was completed valueless to me now. I asked if he'd except these notes and he said yes! The whole episode was conducted with great courtesy on both sides and each party separated feeling satisfied. They thought they'd squeezed cash out of a rich Westerner, I knew I'd off-loaded useless bank notes - everyone's a winner. What I did next was, on reflection, foolhardy but i was overcome with a feeling of civic duty. I set off on my walk again, twenty yards in front of the two arresting officers and every time i saw a tourist smoking, I went up to them and warned them not to stub the butts out, I think I must have deprived the coppers of 6,000 baht and it felt good!

The sky-train is brilliant. It's clean, easy to use, relatively cheap and gives great views of Bangkok. I want Ken Livingstone to develop one for London. Imagine whizzing by being able to look Big Ben square in the face or look down on Westminster. Flying down the Strand you could see Covent Garden from above on your left and the Thames stretched out on your right. I think it would be the perfect blend of 21st century science and London heritage.

Your intrepid reporter decided that as he was in Bangkok, he ought to see what all the fuss was about, regarding the 'skin-trade'. Every other couple on the streets of the area I first stayed in was one half middle-aged to elderly western man and the other half, very young Thai girl. In most cases there was at least a 30 year age difference between them as they wandered round the streets arm in arm. I didn't know whether to be morally outraged, disgusted, happy for them or just plain sad about the whole thing. The latter won the day.

A few nights ago I went for dinner and afterwards, with nothing better to do, went for a stroll into the Pat Pong district. There then followed a number of mistakes on my part. Mistake one was to walk into what can only a be described as a go-go bar shopping arcade (think London's Trocadero given over entirely to strip clubs). Avoiding (mostly) the over-familiar greetings, I meandered through the various levels and when I got to the top realised that I'd lost my bearings and would have to face the whole ordeal again. Tired, confused, thirsty and a touch curious, I decided to enter the Lions Den (mistake two). I went into a small bar with a stage in the middle and booths all around it. The hostess placed me in a booth about 2 feet from the stage and I ordered a whiskey and soda (mistake three). Shortly afterwards, the stage filled with scantily clad girls each with a numbered badge pinned to them. Number 11 was directly in front of me. I'm a naturally smiley person, which generally speaking in Thailand is a good thing because so are most locals and smiling can get you a long way. In this instant though, mistake four was to smile at number 11. When one is brought up in the tradition that 'Manners maketh Man', one feels that it's only right to smile at the girl who's gyrating two yards from ones face. It was either that or look into my ever decreasing W&S. I couldn't help wondering what one of my heroes, Bertie Wooster would have done in the same situation. When the dance finished, Number 11 left the stage and came and sat next to me. It then dawned on me that smiling was an invitation to join me. Mistake five was to offer number 11 a drink, then followed mistake 6 which was to ask her name. Her name and I kid ye not, was Wok, so I realised that this was only ever going to be a flash in the pan and to milk a pun, I'd jumped out of the frying pan and into to fire. Buying a drink and asking her name was tantamount to a marriage proposal. All that said, she spoke good(ish) English and we chatted for some time. It turned out that she came from a poor farming family up in the long-forgotten Khmer part of the North East of the country. Her father had died 5 years ago, her mother couldn't get much work and she had 3 younger brother. She'd been in Bangkok one year and was earning more in a night than her mother earned in 3 months. Most of what she was paid went home to the family. She would have preferred not to have been doing this job but realised that as she had no education and couldn't read or write (which was strange given that she spoke such good English), she had little choice and if she was honest, depending on the customer, she quite enjoyed it. We actually got on quite well! Enough of that, as rugby players say, what goes on on tour, stays on tour.

Sorry, this is turning into a War & Peace mail.

I want to retrace my steps and talk a little about Indian cuisine, which I realise omitted from my previous communication. One of the elements I was most looking forward to in my travels through India was the food and to be frank with you, I left a touch disappointed. Admittedly, for the most part I was eating in travellers hang-outs, not known for their Michelin stars but when I did go to more impressive restaurants, the food wasn't much better than you'd get in your local curry-house. Sure, the breads were fresher (next time you go to the Golden Bengal, order a roti rather than Naan), the tandoori marinades more fragrant and the daals (lentils - the staple of Indian cuisine), in a different class to the rubbish we get served up at

The flavours changed as I moved round the country. In the north, the fare was more akin to what you'd get served up at home - rich massala sauces, mutton, chicken and goat. This Mugali food stems from the Muslim Mogul period. Further south a more Hindi, vegetarian diet is preferred and this is the land of the Thali (pronounced Tarli). A plate or sometimes a large banana leaf with 3 or four small bowls containing daal, yoghurt, chutney and vegetable and a pile of steamed rice with chappatti. This was a real favourite and I couldn't get enough of them. They varied in quality but when you got a good one, you were close to Heaven! Kerala will be remembered for my birthday supper, that wonderful curried duck and fresh fish - easily the best meal I had and the only home (well boat) cooked one too. From Goa, I will remember Tandoori fish kebabs - huge chunks of fresh white fish, coated in a red spicy yoghurt marinade and cooked in the tandoor oven for 5
minutes. Served with a roti and eaten on the beach - bliss. The best drink was the Lassi, a curd and yoghurt based drink, either sweet, salty or fruity. A banana lassi and a chai sets you up nicely for the day. And talking of curds - why don't we have then anymore in England? I'm sure I recall my dearly departed gran separating her curds from her whey? I want to start a campaign to revive the forgotten techniques - getting cracking on that Mum.

Thai food is lovely, I haven't had enough to comment too much yet but two of
the meals I've had have beaten everything I'd tried in India.

Better dash now - have moved to the Travelers district of the Kao San road area. Better go an sit in a bar and try to look cool. Frankly, I'm not sure what's worse the hideousness of the Red light district and the aged curb-crawlers or the University drop out know it alls of the Kao San road - at the least the former had a sort of up front honesty about them!

Lots of love to one and all.


P.S. Not that any of you noticed, or indeed probably care but G.I. stands for Government Issue not General Issue - it caused me a sleepless night when

I realised my typing error - now I can rest easy!

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