Cooking and eating indescribable offal. With a smile.
21st March, 2002
"What do you think of Thailand?" I asked my companion on the tour to the Bridge on the River Kwai.
"I'm disappointed. I was hoping to something more authentically Asian."
She was from mainland China.
I like Thailand. I like the kind-hearted people, the ancient proud culture, the kingdom
that was never colonised, the buddhistic respect for life, but all these things can be hard for
the modern visitor to locate. You come looking for Asia, and all you can find are alternatives.
The problem is this. The Thais, eminently sensible people that they are, have
observed tourists come and go in their hordes this last ten years and more, and have determined
exactly what it is we want and where we want to go. Their idea
is that we come here wishing to have nothing to do with Thais and Thailand
whatsoever. And if that's what we want, by God they'll provide it for us.
My friend Caroline was wandering happily through ordinary streets,
seeing the Thai people going about their lives, that is to say, the daily day-long task of
cooking and eating indescribable offal on the pavements, that appears to be
the sole focus of everyone's attention. The locals continually stopped to tell her, the Shopping Centre
is over there! Are you looking for the Shopping Centre? Come, you must be lost, I shall take you to the
Shopping Centre!. The Shopping Centre was an air-conditioned hypermart full of western-style shops. Where else
would a westerner want to go?
You look like you could use a cheap suit, Sir!
I had planned on taking the train through the heart of rural Thailand, real Thailand
to Chiang Mai; to go trekking in jungles; to survey the richness of the eco-system;
to commune with the hill-tribes in their simple ancient way. But after three days in the heat,
I said. It is too hot, it is too hot, it is too damned, steaming, stinky hot in central
Thailand, and it's only going to get worse. It's not their fault, it's mine.
I have the physiology of an evolved Irishman:
once the temperature gets above 30 C I do not function. So off we go in a flight to the south
to the sea and a cooling vodka and lime.
I chose Phuket, the centre for Thailand's world class diving. I should have suspected something
though, when I booked my accommodation:
"You'll love it", the Thai travel agent told me, "it's just around the corner from PizzaHut and MacDonalds!"
"And some Thai restaurants too, no doubt.".
"Ha ha, um, I guess, maybe".
A large number of Thai restaurants now anticipate what a
tourist must surely want by not serving any Thai food, but instead serve what they think a westerner
might think Thai food ought to be like. Plus burgers, just in case, and a version of Spaguetti
Bolognaise that represents the citizens of Bologna as the Enemy of Mankind.
Good Thai food,
which is invariably found in shabby, open walled little places down sidestreets,
is superb, of course. It's healthy, tasteful and also does wonders for blocked sinuses
after a SCUBA dive . The larger tourist-oriented restaurants and hotels, being unable to differentiate
themselves on the authenticity of their burgers, have turned meanwhile to themes. One hotel dresses
its waiters like Ugandan paratroopers, perhaps they stage a coup every evening at 7.30 and 10.
Another restuarant plays traditional Thai music, much like other traditional Asian music
- you think they're still warming up, when they've already reached the most poignant movement.
Only the different Asian ear and sense of scale demonstrated in this music could possibly
explain Thai (or Japanese, Malaysian etc) pop music. All you need is one writhing androgenous boy-child,
six gogo girls, and the soundtrack of a cornered ferret pleading for its life, and you've got a hit.
Or am I thinking of Hear'Say.
Thai Man not Allowed in Room, Thai Woman 200 Baht
I came to Patonga, the SCUBA diving centre on Phuket for a few days submerged. Patonga is of course
an unbelieveable shithole, a beautiful beach despoiled and turned into the most crass resort development possible.
I knew it would be, and as I'm not spending my days here, but out on a dive boat far out in the
limpid, tropical island flecked sea, I don't have to look at it too much.
Alas, Patonga is filled with young couples who actually booked
their two week annual sun holiday here, and I see them walking, bemused,
wondering what went wrong
and frequently aguing, in German:
"Warum sind wir im diesem unglaubliche scheiss-Lunker?"
"Du hast den Booking gemacht!"
And so on.
Bangkok, Oriental City
I was given advice on what to do in Bangkok:
"Leave within five picoseconds before you're overwhelmed by the stench",
was the favorite, followed by
"Watch your bags, don't drink from the toilet, truss yourself up with a thin steel gauze to be sure,
oh god they're onto me, save yourself!", useful that, oh yes of course we had this
"There is a massage, they call it uh body-body, a er young Thai girl, she has skin like silk ho ho ho" according to The
Frenchman, predictably, with last place going to
"Groove on, Captain Funk!", from 'Disco' John TerraVolta.
So what about Bangkok?
Thick, hot air;
textured, coloured air; heavy and human and the stench of the drain;
motorscooters in the alleyways; people in the alleyways, always; cooking - everything, recognisable
and unrecognisable being cooked all the time everywhere: civilisation, people, talk, laughter, life:
civilization, welcome back and I love it.
There is life everywhere, smiles and consideration everywhere and we
tourists hardly matter there outside a few small ghettos. How could we in a city of six million and a culture of
millenia? And the river taxis Rule.
Bangkok is an entry port to the other world. Quick, get out of
it if you like, it is too hot and the pollution is thick enough to be a new energy source,
but I like it. The heat, the smells, aye, the life of it. Nothing fake about
Bangkok: this is Asia. And I haven't even found the brothels yet.
A dive boat
Bridge on the RiverKwai