Sunday, 16 December 2007

Saraburi's Sunflower Fields

We were wilting in the not-so-cool-season sunshine but the sunflowers couldn’t get enough... A trip to witness the scenic splendour that is Saraburi province’s sunflower fields comes highly recommended. Tantawan, as they are known in Thai, are grown as a commercial crop there and in bloom from November until March, when farmers harvest them for their seed and oil.

Apart from reaping what they sow, local farmers also have a sideline: charging visitors a meagre 5 baht fee for the right to explore. Stroll among the plant's tall green stalks, get your picture taken with your arms around the neck of a flower, as if it’s an old friend, and admire the sweeping yellow vista that comes framed by the area's rolling limestone hills. Nice.

We visited on a glorious December afternoon, a public holiday across the Kingdom. But while the crowds were out en masse, they were still vastly outnumbered by armies of vivacious yellow plants, all in formation, each one bright and big, round face inched hungrily toward the sun. Some visitors stood and stared. Others wandered into the far reaches of the field, immersed in reverie. Most though - friends, families and lovers - took to posing playfully for photographs, heads bobbing above a sea of vivid golden yellow – the King’s colour.

Like the students laughing, exuberant and joyous, while triumphantly grappling a flower head and each other. Or the young mother hoisting up her young child as the father strives to snap the ultimate mantelpiece photo. Nearby, an elephant lolled its head, languorously, while children nearby posed inside giant plastic sunflower moulds, pulling ‘V’ signs. Off in the distance a lone spirit house stood sentinel, meadow spirits swarming, invisibly, in the ether around it...

We wandered beneath a multi-coloured canopy lined with stalls. Resembling a village fete, there was a range of colourful local produce for sale: fruit juice, fruit wines and sunflower-themed knick-knacks ranging from hair-clips to umbrellas. Our favourite was the local honey stall, on top of which was sat a large beehive, a cloud of disgruntled bees buzzing anxiously above it, disputing their eviction. Deliciously sweet, we bought a small Sangsom bottles worth for 60 baht. A couple of stalls down, we then procured some fresh sunflower seeds. Filled with mineral content the disk seeds – the hundreds of spikes that fill the face - are a stunning source of protein (50 baht a bag). They also made a fantastic snack for the less than two hour drive home…

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Living in a Bangkok Box

I don’t normally go in for self-diagnosis, but all the symptoms are there: I’ve got Bangkok cabin fever. While knocking around my room just recently, usually when hung-over, I’ve been overcome by this overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. Restlessness snowballs into this sudden urge to smash the contents of my room into a trillion tiny pieces. I can’t breathe, there’s no where to go. I begin conversing with the bugs that keep marching for the sugar-coated sanctuary that is my fridge top. As they climb down the walls, I’m literally climbing up them.

Why? Because like millions of others in Bangkok I choose to live in a shoebox. And, no, not a long Michael Jordan size 17 shoebox, but a narrow toddlers training shoe shoebox. A Bangkok estate agent would probably disagree: they’d call my 32 square metre studio ‘cute’, ‘cozy’ or ‘compact’; a ‘highly functional space perfectly attuned to the demands of modern city living’ or some such rot. It’s not. That’s a lie. It’s a fucking prison cell. Ok, I’m exaggerating, slightly. Take away the Hi-speed Internet, Cable TV and chic modular furniture, THEN it’s a fucking prison cell. “Yes, but it looks good” you say. Yes, I retort, but aesthetics matters not a jot when you can’t see straight because, instead of breathing God’s good air, you’re recycling your own for 12 hours on end.

A midget with a penchant for sniffing his own feet may relish life in here, but not me. I’m endlessly falling over tables, tripping over shoes, backing onto cupboard doors. The sound of a glass smashing, or of me yelping as I yet again stub my big toe (the left one usually) frequently echoes down my ironically much more capacious corridor. And this grim parable of 21st century Bangkok living only gets worse. In a SE Asian take on ‘Birdman from Alcatraz’ I’m forming bonds with my studio’s biosphere: playing chase with lost geckos, observing the behavioral patterns of ants, having mercy on those bugs that resemble cute cockroaches. This isn’t right. Humans SHOULD NOT be made to live in so confined a space. Not unless we’ve killed grandma anyway. Frankly living here it sometimes feels like I may as well have, when in truth my only crime is ranking only a couple of notches above pauper on the socio-economic ladder.

Don’t worry about me though. I’m plotting my escape. However, rather than furrowing a hole through the wall with my toothbrush (which I've considered), I’m taking the sane tack and looking for a new place. And what can I afford in Bangkok? Well, unless I move to the back-end-of-Bangkok, I’ve discovered the answer is another dull functional box. Arrrh! Another room I’ll struggle to swing a Siamese cat in without getting viscera all over the generic cream walls (that's probably a deposit breaker). Aarrh!!! This isn’t fair. Look around you – Bangkok is in the throes of a building frenzy. Glam new hotels and shiny new condo developments are popping up faster than genital warts after a Nana Plaza shopping spree. Many of the latter sell out in days, before they’ve even begun building. Who buys them all? Moneyed Thai and expat speculators who buy-to-let and, when they get around to it, lease them out. There seems to be plenty of space, so where’s mine?

Of course some of you will say ‘Oh, shut up’. But you don’t understand. I’m an Englishman. My home is my castle. I should be able to play King. Oh look! – there go more fucking ants. Off with their heads!

Monday, 5 November 2007

Montonn Jira at Club Culture

Through a heaving mass of khaki clad revellers, marches a handsome DJ dressed in Soviet era outfit and furry hat. Accompanied by staccato drumrolls and a squad of new model army girls wielding toy guns, his ascent to the stage yields screams of adulation and, within seconds, he’s shooting down the crowd with an assault of earsplitting minimal techno. Locked onto the rhythm, bodies succumb, syncopating themselves to the rolling beat.

Nope, not a louche warehouse party in Moscow or Berlin, but Bangkok’s very own Club Culture on Saturday night. The occasion: Montonn Jira – Thai luk krung model, actor, heartthrob and minimal DJ – was playing host to an imaginative Smirnoff Experience sponsored event entitled ‘The Revolutionaire’. The dress code was militant, and, wow , the girls in their khaki slacks and face paint were looking especially disarming. “Since we were kids, we’ve grown up with Montonn. He’s so cute” said one foxy Thai foot soldier daubed in thick camouflage stripes, suggesting that perhaps it was ‘Montonn the pretty boy’, more than ‘Montonn the musician’ that made tonight such a success.

Not that I cared. After him, Bangkok Impact - a one-man disco-tech outfit helmed by an acid casualty from Finland - sounded stunning. Somewhat strange to see the subterranean chaos of minimal shoehorned successfully into a swanky corporate event, but still a great night. No revolution but certainly part of the much needed war on terrible.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Burma's Protesting Pooches

Forget Benji, the Littlest Hobo, or ever-so loyal Lassie. While these iconic mutts have earnt respectable footnotes in the annuls of fictional TV history, a few wretched pooches in Burma have just trounced them, not by rescuing small children from burning houses or anything, but by heading straight for the bone-afide history books.

Dissident doggies, politicized pooches, the hounds of Burmaville, call them what you will - a small pack of street dogs in Burma are protesting against the despicable regime by prowling the streets with pictures of the four tyrannical generals around their necks. This at a time when, after the armies brutal crackdown, people daren’t or can’t voice their disgust.

Piss off home Lassie – humanity has found a new best friend.

Protesting Dogs Are Now on the Regime’s Wanted List, by Saw Yan Naing writing
for Irrawaddy, October 12, 2007

The Burmese authorities have a new enemy to hunt down—dogs which are roaming Rangoon with pictures of Than Shwe and other regime leaders around their necks.

A resident of Shwegondine, Bahan Township, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that she saw a group of four dogs with pictures of the regime’s top generals around their necks.

Sightings were also reported in four other Rangoon townships — Tharkayta, Dawbon, Hlaing Tharyar and South Okkalapa.

Some sources said the canine protest had started at least a week ago, and was keeping the authorities busy trying to catch the offending dogs. “They seem quite good at avoiding arrest,” laughed one resident.

Associating anybody with a dog is a very serious insult in Burma. Spray-painters are also at work, daubing trains with the words “Killer Than Shwe” and other slogans.

Irrawaddy Homepage:

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Silom's Breaks Bar

Clubbing in Silom is hard to get enthused about. It's a torpid scene at best. There’s the wishy-washy house of Silom Soi 4’s Moroccan grotto-like Tapas, or the vapid hip-hop of Luminous (a joyous den that’s seemingly ignorant to the joys of Grandmaster Flash or Pharoahe Monch or any other hip-hop luminary). Delve into the sweaty armpit of neon sin, Patpong, there’s Soi 1’s Twilo – louche haunt of the 1am temptress, sleazy merry-go-round of shouty hip-pop covers – or the minimal techno beats of the diminutive Funky Dojo’s which straddles it. None inspire me, most agitate.

However, in Silom's less than flourishing foothills, up a rarely beaten path known as Soi 2/1, hides an untamed beast which refuses to be cowed into commercial submission, and which registers narely a blip on the radar of Patpong’s predatory off-duty hookers and their grievous prey. Its name is Breaks Bar. And while diminutive in club size and status, it’s a fucking giant judging by the pleasing rumbling sound we found emanating from its dimly lit belly on Saturday night.

The night was called Light Low Down – a 'Britpop, rock, punk, alter and breakbeat' affair the flyer informed, helmed by DJs with anonymous names like Oaky, Mix, and the slightly better EroticBoy. With a dearth of light and an excess of kids in trendy shirts it felt like a dinghy London house party. But in a good way - minus the inane chattering pillheads and people snorting lines of K off every available horizontal surface. When not waving their hands or hugging friends, everyone was jumping around like bad-tempered two-year olds during a dizzy spell.

The DJ – don't know his name but he new his music, how to cut records and wore a yellow cap – was verging on sublime, throwing at us an assured, hyperactive, and above all fun set that touched on every just about contemporary music reference point worth referring to: electro, hip-hop, breakbeat, garage rock, slices of 90s pop. Ok, so 45 seconds of Right Said Fred’s ‘I’m too Sexy’ was just plain wrong, but so many gems (Chemical Brothers 'Salmon Song', Simian, Daft Punk, Justice, many more) meant all was more than forgiven. My friend succinctly summed up the concensus: “I’d go back every weekend if I knew he was playing”.

With rows of lopsided 12” covers hanging off the walls, Breaks Bar is clearly a space crafted by aficionados, for aficionados. Good for them. The problem with most clubs in Bangkok is their mentality. They pander to the sonic simplicity of the masses - no, they pander to their idea of what they think is the sonic simplicity of the masses (even the tastes of the musical philistine are more sophisticated than clubs give them credit for). They drop the element of surprise, reducing DJs to posturing human jukeboxes who rather than deserving of our respect and applause deserve only repeated short sharp jabs to the eyes with blunt chopsticks. For those sick with this musical malaise, who fancy cocking a proverbial finger at Bangkok’s insipid clubbing establishment, or who just plain and simple like good filthy dance music:

Breaks Bar

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Free Burma!

Free Burma!

A month ago, after a small-scale revolt in Burma ostensibly over hikes in oil prices, I wrote an upbeat piece about the rise of citizen journalism in the country.

This was before the Burmese monkhood decided to take up the role of political agitator after the first wave of protests was quickly snuffed out, before government troops started barricading roads, before the major upsurge in press coverage that resulted in surreal levels of press and public interest, before the crackdown, the shooting of innocents and disappearance of thousands.

For those of us who have long supported the democracy movement in Burma, and long followed this story of ever more depressing circles, what materialised in subsequent weeks was akin to a dream – the people of Burma were standing up against tyranny, and governments, heads of state, NGOs and the public were all watching. On CNN and BBC World it was the lead story all week. Commentary from exiles, experts and brave people in Rangoon accompanied an endless litany of images of burgundy protestors padding barefoot thorough city streets.

The usual international “whimpers of dismay” that accompany most news from Burma - and that I bemoaned in my blog post - had become a deafening shriek. Front pages the world over - Time Magazine, The Economist, The Times, The New York Post. Daily protests of solidarity and lobbying of governments. “The age of impunity is over”. The revolutionary crescendo was palpable. Perhaps the interest was rooted partly in the lyricism of the powerful imagery, for some dare I say even in the drama, but there was a tangible sense that this domestic and world uprising was coalescing into a tidy conclusion: the imminent downfall of this loathsome regime.

But the world isn't tidy. One week later, and Burma is all blackout. The junta has regained its grip. Yes, UN enboy Ibrahim Gambari has met with the Generals and Aung San Suu Kyi but only after being used as propaganda tool, being sent on a sightseeing tour of remote Northern Burma. We await his report later this week, but after past visits yielded announcements that the junta was ready to “turn a new page”, I am prepared only for more false hope. On networks like the BBC, commentators in Bangkok clutch at revolutionary straws, saying the fact that Gambari met with Aung San twice - the second time after seeing the generals - is reason to be cheerful. I would laugh if this wasn’t so wrong, so depressing.

As for the protests? I am awe-inspired. It means the thirst for change is strong. However, neither religious zeal, nor the will of the people are a match for an army bloated with weaponry, all thanks to a state policy of spending more on arming itself than on public health and education combined – this despite having no external enemies. China, Thailand, Russia and India hold some sway over the generals - but why would they when lucrative energy deals and gas pipelines are either up and running or in the offing. No diplomatic disgust, no UN scolding, no ASEAN chastising, no public displays of distaste, will turn back tanks, or alter the general’s course. They will continue to act with impunity, until, I believe, death.

And, so far in the red is their karmic balancesheet, I think someone needs to bring it about. That's right, good old fashioned assassination. While inspired by the valor of Burma’s monks, the stark truth is that the saffron revolution needs to be accompanied by an army green one. Defection like that of the 42-year-old chief of military intelligence in Rangoon’s northern region (story here), provide some succor – there is dissent in the ranks, and hope of soldiers turning on the generals. That said, footage I saw this morning on BBC World, of troops encircling and kicking protestors as if a pack of rabid dogs, suggest this is unlikely.

The monks and people of Burma are emboldened to fight but need help. Now we need the soldiers to look in the mirror and ask who they are: soldiers loyal only to despicable despots? Burmese? Buddhists? Human beings?

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Thai Truck Art

Like a warrior truck straight out of Mad Max, this dystopic lorry sped into my life on the road back from Ko Chang. This was one vehicle we were more than happy to defer too. Industrial Bad-Ass. There I was happily entertaining fantasies about the inhabitants being a violent gang of outlaws who prowl the highways looking for innocent people to terrorize (like the film), when they waved at me! Bah! Anyway, you gotta love the lurid auto-art that adorns lorries, trucks and coaches here. It's also common in India - another subcontinental hand-me down?

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Syndromes of a Censoring

Like all countries, Thailand lionizes certain things: TV stars, pretties, wealth, light skin, jatukrams, fame, men in green uniforms. However, it’s a shame that some things seem to miss out almost entirely on the veneration; especially when, in the world arena, they’re among the things most talked about when it comes to Thailand.

Take film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The Thai Board of Censors spuriously refused to approve his latest film Syndromes and a Century for release unless he agreed to remove four scenes. Few Thai filmgoers know him from Adam, even less have seen his films.

However, from film festivals to the popular press he's often lauded and applauded further afield. To coincide with the UK release, the Southbank BFI – which is London’s, and probably the UK’s, premier film institute – has seen fit to give him his own season, while a review in British newspaper the Guardian yesterday awarded it its highest 5/5 rating, calling it “profoundly mysterious, erotic, funny, gentle, playful, utterly distinctive”. The esteemed film critic who wrote it, Peter Bradshaw, believes Weerasethakul to be “approaching the league or Kiarostami or Haneke, two of modern cinema’s great practitioners”.

I don’t know about that. What I do know is that his gay themed romance and 2004 Cannes Jury award winner, Tropical Malady, was difficult, languorous, baffling and yet quite, quite brilliant. In its second half – a folktale about a shamanic shape-shifter, in which tigers and talking monkeys roam an enchanted forest - it drifted into the realm of pure, almost transcendental art. It wasn’t a perfect film, but its surrealism, its cosmic potency left me mesmerized.

Back to the review:

“If you want a film as challenging and exhilarating as the most weird and wonderful exhibition, if you are bored with all the usual boilerplate material coming out of Hollywood, or even if you're not, then this is a film for you. Try it.”

We’d love to. But, because of the authorities idiotic insistence that "sensitive" scenes involving doctors kissing and drinking liquor, and Buddhist monks playing a guitar be cut, and Weerasethakul’s subsequent and entirely justifiable decision not to allow his work to be "mutilated in fear of the system", it’s not being released here. In a country that prides itself on its artistic creativity that's both tragedy and travesty.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Phil Hartnoll at Club Culture

One of Bangkok's many glories is being able to lurch from enjoying indigenous pastimes like shots of yaa dong (magic herbal whisky) at a guerilla bamboo shack one minute, to watching a globetrotting DJ clicking away at his laptop the next. Which is exactly what we did last Friday when throughly amiable techno-innovater Phil Hartnoll, of seminal dance act Orbital fame, came to Club Culture.

Dressed in regulation techno apparel - fresh skin head and a sports vest - he arrived, he grinned, he bashed away at his laptop (he may have been paying his gas bill for all we know, but he looked busy). He had the DJ pageantry spot on. He dripped sweat, he chewed gum like a Hacienda pillhead circa '89, he waved his hands like a madman attached to a nosebag filled with ketamine. And, with his blistering set of fresh breakbeat techno interspersed with classic Orbital tracks like Chime and Halycon and the Doctor Who theme, we loved it.

They're late (busy week) but here are a few pictures:

Perhaps it was seeing it buzzing, but Club Culture - with its subtly exotic style, comfy raised sofa and floor cushion lounging areas, decent dance floor and superlative sound and lighting -has grown on me. However, I still only give it 1 year at most: its too remote to attract passing hipsters, a bitch for newcomers to find, and, during the week, rarely worth venturing to on the off chance that it'll be buzzing. A message to Bangkok's busy clubbing graveyard: spades to the ready!

Monday, 10 September 2007

Adventures in Yaa Dong 1

Down an anonymous Soi at the end of my road is a shack that sells a potent brew. Called Yaa Dong, it’s a dark brown liquid made with secret blends of Thai herbs and whisky. Long considered a low prestige tipple for the upcountry classes, it’s served in little shot glasses and said to have medicinal-verging-on-magical powers.

On Friday night I took two friends to said shack en-route to Club Culture. Of course, being adventurous sorts, we had to try it. The urge to try a drink with names like ‘Never Flacid’ and 'Moaning Mistress’, and rumoured to enhance sexual performance to such a degree it could ‘make a monk leap over the temple wall in search of romance’ was far too strong to resist.

When we arrived a flurry of exuberance broke out. A group of upcountry types sat huddled inside a scruffy wooden cabana were thrilled that the Friday night entertainment – us – had arrived. Perhaps in retrospect an ominous sign, they were all sipping on more sane blends of watered down whisky. Lined up in front of us were three glass bottles with red fabric stoppers and different labels in Thai script. Each was less than half-full with a sinister dark liquid containing what, at first glance, looked like dead beetles and the corpses of other strange forest roaming insects. Grim. On closer inspection however, it appeared to be just pickled twigs, stalks, shoots, pieces of root and bark. Fuck it.

"We want the one that gives you power please”. The shack lady grinned knowingly, as if she’d more than once known that ‘power’. She poured a measure into a small shot glass and then topped it up off with some more whisky. One laconic stir and she slid it across the bar with the aloof finesse of the finest Wild West saloon bartender.

No hanging about. 1, 2, 3… slam.

"Arrrrrgh,… water! water!…. (water arrives)... Mmmm”.

"What’s it like?”

"Mmmmm not bad. Earthy,.. it has a good flavour..”

"OK, another please”.

1, 2, 3… slam.

"And another"

1, 2, 3… slam.

All was good. No palpitations or urge to spew. No ghoulish hallucinations running at us from within the darkness. Just the same upsurge in energy and warm bodily glow felt after necking any searing shot. We shook hands with our new friends, paid up and went to Club Culture all abuzz.

Fast forward 1 hour - and a couple of drinks - and our quaint alcoholic virility booster is spoiling the party. My friends girlfriend has gone abit lunatic and retreated to the ladies toilet. She's huddled over a sink filled almost to overflowing with... well, you can guess. A few minutes later and, with the elegance of a pair of disorientated tramps who've just been banished from the local off license, they're staggering down the steps of Club Culture and into the balmy night. I haven’t heard from them since. I on the otherhand was ok. Until dawn that is when I too purged my interiors, right down to the last delicious drop of bitter green bile.


Monday, 3 September 2007

Broadcasting Burma: The Rise of Rangoon's Citizen Journalists

In this age of savvy citizen journalists, instantaneous images and 24-hour rolling news it’s rare for Burma’s plight to make the news. Why? The fact that the blighted country is run by one of the world's most repressive regimes might have something to do with it. Those who report news deemed critical of the ruling Junta not only themselves potentially face years of grisly torture in notorious prisons, but too run the risk of their families being persecuted.

However, there’s also another factor behind the conspicuous silence: Burma has a communications network so antiquated that few citizens could report a story to the outside world even if they dared. While the ruling Junta have failed by virtually every measure when it comes to raising the health and prosperity of their people, they’ve been astoundingly successful in past years in ensuring that their people stay locked off from the outside world. People with phone lines, internet, digital cameras and mobile phones are rare - even among the few who can afford them. And an extensive state intelligence network carefully monitors their contact.

As a result, the main means for getting news out of the country has long been bold (often reckless) journalists posing as tourists, or the human equivalent of carrier pigeon, only slower: pro-democracy activists seeking exile in neighbouring countries, or destitute and often malarial refugees pouring across the porous Thai border with horrific tales of rape, murder and destruction at the hands of the military junta. News agencies like the excellent Chiang Mai based The Irrawaddy and NGO’s like the laudable Free Burma Rangers, have long been zealously documenting and reporting these kinds of atrocities along the border. Occasionally footage has backed up the claims, and - when the suffering captured is deemed horrific enough - has resulted in a fleeting 30-60 second spot on international news networks, followed by a public whimper of dismay.

However, last weeks demonstrations in Rangoon against oil price hikes, and their capture on film, may be part of a new organic trend developing within Burma. Shaky images of peaceful protestors being manhandled into waiting trucks by gangs of junta sponsored thugs suggest that internal dissenters against the regime are getting bolder in their attempts to bring their country’s plight to the world’s attention. Within hours they were beamed across the world on CNN and BBC.

And this is better than seeing none at all.
Why? Because harrowing pictures like these may prove to be the much needed catalyst necessary to bring about action by the international community. Already the footage has caused an upsurge of interest in Burma on networks across the world, and Jim Carrey of all people has just released a call for Aung San Suu Kyi to be released.

Citizen journalism has arrived in Burma. And, while the risks to those who courageously capture the deplorable realities of life today in Burma are great, the potential rewards to the country as a whole are greater. Images today speak louder than words. Let’s hope in Burma’s case, the UN and its members are listening.

Watch Youtube videos of the anti-inflation demonstration in Rangoon HERE and HERE.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Cinematic Bangkok: The City of Angles

New York has Woody Allen’s Manhatten. London has 28 Days Later or Passport to Pimlico. Rio de Janeiro has City of God. Vienna The Third Man. What film does Bangkok have?

Tearing back into town in a taxi from Suvarnabhumi airport at 5am last Monday morning, a maniacal driver sits at the helm. A pulsating Luk Thung song pours from the car stereo. The sky is a brilliant radiant blue, the bristling concrete cityscape nothing less than majestic. And, as we soar above the city on the expressway, for a few seconds my eye is a cinemascope tracking the scene, and I wonder: what film does Bangkok have?

In my opinion it deserves many. I’ve long thought Bangkok to be a cinematic city. By that I mean, that it seems, despite its insatiable grey concrete fetish, to have a visual vivacity that lends itself to moving image. It’s the distressed, choked, mottled, dilapidated look of almost everything. It’s the unremitting heat, the merciless equatorial light, the blistering pace.

Travelling through the city, pretty much every red light throws up something that stirs: ramshackle food stalls set up against dilapidated street walls, the hue and hustle of Chinatown's dimly lit streets, the surreal neon carnage of Khao San Road and Soi Cowboy, the crumbling posters within shop front facades, the howling symphony of combustion engines that is the city’s soundtrack, the sweaty drawn faces that each tell a pent up story of drudgery. If only some film director would agree with me, a ride on the city’s raised Skytrain could yield an awesome tracking shot: the swathe of dense fertile green that is Lumpini Park being guarded by the King Rama IV statue, as the train twists round towards Siam Square glimpses of the faithful praying below at Erawan Shrine.

Sleazy, loud, brutal, raw, gritty, majestic: this messy metropolis has so much potential!

Why then, is Bangkok so poorly visualised in film? The Thai film industry produces around roughly 50 films each year. And, while many use Bangkok as backdrop, very few attempt to capture it in all its messy, motley glory. Most typically tackle history, horror, romance, comedy and action (or a mixture of the above) while glossing gleefully over pertinent social, political and environmental tensions. Those that do depict Bangkok present it as a sanitized middle-class milieu inhabited by middle class people dwelling in middle-class apartments. Rarely do you meet the diversity of Bangkok’s social strata, or, on a more visceral level, get a sense of its sheer size, noise, claustrophobia and grime. Or of its opportunity.

An excellent essay by Robert Williamson called ‘In Search of Bangkok’ suggests this is for a variety of reasons: partly Thailand’s long-standing ambivalence to the idea of the city, partly because the Thai film industry typically uses the visual techniques of advertising to depict the city as people would like it to be rather that as its experienced, and partly because most Thai audiences don’t want films that mirror their lives or raise social commentary. “Film here need not appeal to the viewers sense of self”, he says, “and consequently many filmmakers overlook the way in which Bangkok’s physical landscape may reflect something more internal”.

Of course this is too broad a generalization. There are exceptions.

Wisit Sasanatieng's wonderfully whimsical 2004 film Citizen Dog is one of them. With strong aesthetic nods to Amelie and The Wizard of Oz, it tells of Pod – a country boy – being lured into the city. A fairytale metropolis drenched in splashes of saturated dayglo, here Bangkok is a city of opportunity, whose vivid colourings seem to represent the distant allure and pull of vibrant city life to rural folk. Unusally we get see a wide-angle Bangkok skyline, and meet the people who roam the streets: traffic police zealously directing traffic, people squeezing onto packed buses, young garland sellers weaving inbetween traffic. However while the city looks a dream, life in Bangkok certainly isn't, and Sasanatieng tells us so throughout through surreal motifs: fingers getting severed on factory lines, cycle helmets tumble from the sky, piles of plastic refuse touch the sky, and city dwellers grow dog tails! While highly stylized using CGI, Citizen Dog is one of the few films to truly tussle with Bangkok.

Less optimistic, both Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s offbeat crime thriller 6ixtynin9 and the moody meditation on urban loneliness and love, 2003 film Last Life in the Universe, are also notable. The latter especially - with its quirky storyline about a Japanese librarian residing in Bangkok and considering suicide - reflects a migratory trend rooted in reality, and his alienation relevant questions about the assimilation of foreigners into Bangkok society. It also benefits from maverick cinematographer Christopher Doyles shifting, oblique camera work, which captures an eerily empty Bangkok in all its chaotic, ramshackle splendor wonderfully. Set mostly in a trendy Bangkok boutique hotel room that resembles those found in all major cities, his latest film, Ploy, also goes some to way to expressing the architectural monotony and banality that's resulted in Bangkok as a result of its hotel building boom.

There's also the foreign contingent: The Beach (humdrum Khao San guesthouses with wafer thin walls and psychotic neighbours), Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Bridget teaching incarcerated prostitutes to sing ‘Like a Virgin’), and The Man with the Golden Gun (a boxing match at Ratchadamnoen Stadium). But what do they offer really beyond shorthand Bangkok scenery and cultural stereotyping?

One ‘foreign’ film in which Bangkok I think really shines, is Wong Kar Wai’s sumptuously shot and highly stylized In the Mood for Love. A chaste love story set in 1960s Hong Kong, the crew struggled to find suitable locations there where the appropriate period-style architecture remains intact. The backstreets of Bangkok’s Chinatown did, and Wong Kar Wai along with cinematographer Christopher Doyle artfully exploited them for most of the films exterior shots. To ravishing effect I might add. Among many mesmerizing scenes, there’s one in which the lovers played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung softly pad along a darkly lit alley and a camera tracks them from within a building – that’s Bangkok. And it looks brilliant!

Which parts of Bangkok do you think are the most cinematic? And which films have done it justice? And why does this veritable feast of urban imagery remain still largely untapped by filmmakers?

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Bangkok Frescos

Sweltering, hungover Saturday afternoons are made for pissing around with photoshop. In the space of 20 minutes I knocked out these Bangkok frescos. Move over Michelangelo.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Wat Ton Sai: my beautiful brush with Buddhism

On Monday morning I sat on my balcony picking candlewax off my toenails and leg. Nothing kinky I’m afraid, merely the hardened debris from a brief Sunday night visit to a small but spellbinding temple called Wat Ton Sai (On Nut Soi 29).

It wasn’t a planned trip. When it comes to organized religion, I’m a disbeliever of Richard Dawkins-esque proportions. My faith has the firmness of a mangrove swamp in monsoon. Imagine my astonishment then when within minutes of agreeing to go, I found myself walking three times around a thin but lofty bot (ordination hall) while clutching a bunch of fresh orchids, a burning candle and three sticks of fragrant incense.

I wasn’t alone of course. Sunday marked the start of Khao Phansa (Buddhist Lent) here, and the small barefoot crowds of young and old walking in a clockwise direction with me were here to mark it with the ritual ceremony known as wien tien.

It made for a stunning scene. A fringe of towering palms encircled us. Beyond, a gaping night sky was incandescent with torn sheets of downy clouds, lit up from behind by an alabaster moon. On the temples paved terrace, the softly-lit faces of freshly hatched kids marched through the darkness beside maa or por (mother/father), giggling with repressed delight as their incense sticks excreted plumes of sweet-smelling smoke. Each time we past the intricately gabled front porch, people wai-ed the large, gleaming standing Buddha image interned inside on a gilded platform. Once our rounds were complete everyone proceeded to adorn the temples front bai sema (sacred boundary stones) with their impermanent offerings of flame, fragrance and flora:

Squeeze this potent picture inside a bottle and you could power an engine fuelled on exoticism for a thousand years or more. No lie. It was the kind of eerie and strange and inscrutable scene the early 20th century travel writer Norman Lewis, would have scribbled about long into the night while sipping Gin and Soda off a verandah somewhere in Old Siam.

As fiercely as this ceremony rekindled my fondness for beautiful Buddhist ritual, it also lead me to an upbeat conclusion…

Thailand is a nation currently uneasy about its love affair with Buddhism. Materialism, laissez-faire monks and the lascivious allure of coyote girls, are just a few of the apparent foes of, what is not officially the state religion, but many protesting monks have recently made clear they would like to be.

Why bother? Here, etched in the solemn faces of this crowd, was proof that while temples today are less visited than malls, Siddhartha will have his faithful for many moons to come.

Saturday, 28 July 2007

Chonburi's Edible Charms: Khanom Jaak and Khao Lam

Most of the potbellied pilgrims seeking sleaze in Pattaya, probably wish the road that leads there was lined with rows of soliciting young women. It’s not you’ll be relieved to hear. Instead those traveling south along Sukhumvit Road encounter merely a humdrum procession of shophouses, semi-wilderness, factories and the fairly nondescript town of Chonburi. Oh, and if you haven't fallen asleep and look closely a small local market going by the name of Talat Nong Mon.

Here an unremarkable procession of cramped stalls and shops houses sell a remarkable array of entirely wholesome things to get your teeth into. The focus is on dried seafood snacks and sweets. It’s something of an essential pit stop for Bangkok daytrippers returning from the beach. Never ones to miss out on an opportunity to indulge in yummy local produce, they stock up on treats for family, colleagues, friends and, of course, the two-hour journey home.

Most interesting of all, especially to the foreign eye, are the short tubes of bamboo for sale. Those and the long strips of rolled palm leaves that sit smoking gently on small charcoal grills. These are called Khanom Jaak:

For 30 baht you can pick up a bundle. Peelway the crispy, crumble-all-over-your-car-floor leaf and inside lies a sooty viscous treat comprised of palm sugar, coconut (maaa prang), rice flour and, well, I’m not quite sure what else. It’s earthy and starchy and, in short, divine.

The bamboo tubes that resemble a crude mortar device from the Vietnam war are Khao Laam (Nong Mon): sticky rice mixed with coconut milk and black beans that's squished inside and steamed over a strong fire.

If you buy some, stand back! Wow at the prowess of your strong-armed female vendor as she cracks each one open for you with a sledgehammer. In our plastic packaging obsessed age, the 100 % bio-degradable warpping is half the charm, but if you don’t mind biting morsels off a knife and the glutinous consistency - aroi jang dee teesot..

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

How about it?: A YouTube Live Political Debate in Thailand!

America's hubris and geopolitical blunders sometimes astound me. Its obsession with the Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans of this world reviles. That said, I couldn’t help but admire and ever so slightly envy on Monday a country in which videos can freely be posted by members of the public on public internet sites, and then used to interrogate presidential hopefuls on live TV.

Over the past couple of weeks the American public have been recording themselves asking questions directed at the Democratic presidential candidates and then posting the video on the user-generated site. The results were screened by the CNN editorial team but nonetheless lively and impressive: lots of pertinent, probing and heartfelt questions that, beamed live across America for a live presidential debate on Monday night, really kept Clinton, Obama and co on their proverbial toes.

Questions came from, among others, a mother with a son on a second tour of duty in Iraq, a lesbian couple looking to get married, a man who calls his gun “baby”, NGO workers in Darfur, and a melting snowman concerned about global warming. Gender, race, taxes, religion, war and global warming were all touched on. Instead of dull political plateaus this debate was vibrant, fresh, revealing, even fun.

It may well herald the dawn for a new era of political debate. One of the Youtube founders speaking on CNN (didn't catch his name): “this event will change the entire environment in which political debate is conducted, will be a reference point for future user-generated debates, not just in the US but across the world”.

Can you guess where I’m heading with this?

Thailand, Youtube, the looming reconciliation.

Youtube has been unavailable to internet users in Thailand ever since the ICT Ministry (or MICT) blocked it for refusing to remove clips offensive to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Their grievance was understandable, but they handled it badly. It revealed to the world a slowly creeping trend of increased internet, and wider, kneejerk censorship here. The negative publicity only heightened international concerns about the dictatorial regime's intentions regarding the return to democracy.

Word has it that YouTube will be returning soon, allbeit under the all-seeing Orwellian eye of the MICT. And when it does, what better way for the interim government to avoid the awkward kiss and make up reconciliation, than by going for a full on embrace and plotting a repeat of the historic live US TV debate?

Think about it. Allowing a televised debate in which Thai Youtube users (presuming it does return) field questions at the party candidates would be a stroke of self-deprecating brilliance, a publicity coup that (1) would help prove to the world that the interim goverment is serious about restoring democracy, (2) respects freedoms and diversity of opinions, and above all (3) has a bloody sense of humour. Simultaneously it would engage and encourage young internet-literate Thai youngsters to get involved in the political process.

The irony, the wit, the charm of it. And yes, the unlikelihood!

Saturday, 7 July 2007

The Cure: Live in Singapore August 1st 2007

The Cure are one of those bands that during my melancholy tinged youth people at school ripped the piss out of you for liking, but most secretly did. Come into class sporting a black 'Boys Don't Cry' t-shirt on mufty day and the feral class alpha male would dish you a dead arm while imitating Robert Smith's inimitable moan. Only later, while queuing for lunch, would he reveal that he quite likes 'Lovecats', or that his sister has the limited edition 12" of 'Close to Me'.

Of course, with their big back-combed buffants, skillfully misapplied lipstick, and mercurial front man Robert Smith, they, and anyone who fell for their unique brand of angst pop, were easy prey. However, I defy anyone to not find at least one Cure song they like. As surely as I cannot be a polar bear, it's impossible (Cure fans: song?, the rest: ignore me).

Anyway, my point? The heavily-flanged soundtrack to my pubescence are playing live in Singapore on Wednesday 1st of August. I can't go but tickets are still available - a sad indictment of modern Singaporean tastes of course, but great news for languid Cure fans out there. Having seen them not so long ago I can assure you that ever-widening Robert Smith's voice is ever-enthralling:

Whats your favourite Cure song or album? Mines 'Disintegration' - an elegaic opus of textured, tortured late 80s pop melancholy that, aside from relatively sanguine efforts like Lovesong, sounds like it was recorded from within the tumbledown ruins of a Mary Shelley cathedral.

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Shanghai Inn: Chinatown, Chestnuts but no Concubines...

I recently had the pleasure of staying at Shanghai Inn - a sumptuous, techni-coloured little Chinese-themed boutique hotel out in Chinatown...

Located up some escalators just off manic Yaowarat Road, the hotel exterior is nothing to write home about, and aside from free wireless throughout there's little in the way of frills. However, as you can see from these pictures I took (all except the bottom right one in the collage above) the interiors are a decorative riot.

Left to right, back to front, top to bottom, everywhere you look you're confronted, and in turn charmed, by dreamy Oriental kitsch: rooms are like the set of a romantic Beijing Opera, or tacky Shaw Brothers martial arts movie; red lanterns are elegantly strung out long palatial corridors; while gorgeous coloured parasols float midair in the lobby's central atrium as if by some age-old spell.

In a city teeming with Thai-motif obsessed hotels its great to find one infatuated with the Far East. Me being a shameless fantacist, I kept hoping Gong Li in full ceremonial dress would bound around a corner looking lustful, or that a wall-climbing, sword-wielding Zhang Ziyi would storm into my room and lunge at me in my Imperial antique four-poster bed....

Where was I? Ahhhh yes, the rooms.. The're not especially big or bright (the absence of a reading lamp irked me), and, with the ornamentation not feeling quite as good as it looks, I'm not sure I'd recommend a long stay, but guys, if your looking for a place to ravish or romance your current concubine or ruling Empress, this is it!

Shanghai Inn: 479-481 Yaowarat Road, Chinatown

On a loose thematic tangent, for equally lavish Chinese period drama, only on screen, seek these out:

Raise the Red Lantern - Gong Li at her demure best.

Ju Dou - Gong Li falls for a peasant. Trouble at the hands of a pre-teen tearaway with a daft haircut ensues.

A Touch of Zen - the definitive supernatural swordplay flick from master King Hu. 3 hours long but worth it for the bamboo forest scene alone.

Come Drink with Me - King Hu/Shaw Brothers classic about a feisty sword wielding chick. Crouching Tiger owes much to this movie, not least the brilliant teahouse scene.

Dragon Gate Inn - I love this movie! Not the remake, but the original from 1966. Sadly, very hard to find but I'm not lying when I say its seminal.

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan - Cult Shaw Brothers film about sexy sword-fighting hookers with overt lesbian tendencies (shameless screen shot below).

I mention these because many are available at the many DVD/VCD shops around the corner from Shanghai Inn, including a vast, wondrous array of Shaw Brothers re-releases. I know, cos I got carried away and bought a stack of them. The DVDs cost 150 baht and come with Thai or Mandarin audio, plus Thai and English subtitles. For tie-in snacks instead of the usual boring popcorn, pick up some roasted chesnuts from one of the many vendors on Yaowarat Road. Concubines I can't help you with.

Tuesday, 3 July 2007

Thailand, Skin Colour and the 'Voice' Chocolate Sandwich Bar Debate

This billboard advert for, what my Thai teacher tells me, is a chocolate sandwich bar called 'Voice' raises an inner chuckle each time I pass it at Sala Daeng BTS station, where its currently getting an ambling audience of hundreds every two or three minutes. More important than my momentary amusement twice a week, or the taste and texture combo of a sandwich bar I'm postively itching to try, are the questions it raises about skin colour - a national obsession here in Thailand.

One thing is sure: this advert would kick up a storm about race in my homeland, the UK (and wider Europe, and the US for that matter). The Guardian would have palpitations, it'd make the evening news, heads would likely roll.
And, that's if it got past the UK advertising standards authority:
"Marketers should be aware of the potential to cause serious or widespread offence when referring to different races, nationalities or ethnic groups; even apparently light-hearted humour revolving around racial stereotypes has the potential to seriously offend. Marketers should consider carefully the likely acceptability of their intended approach."
So here in multi-hued Bangkok what, if anything, is wrong or in bad taste about this advert? Has this the potential to seriously offend? And did the marketeers behind it consider carefully the possible consequences of using skin colour to sell sweets?

In the adverts favour, it doesn't suggest what is commonly held here in Thailand - that dark skin is lowly, undesirable and the unofficial uniform of the poor. In fact, here the chocolate skinned boy stands centreplace, is in fact synonymous with the bar's bliss-yielding chocolaty core. This is, as any discerning sweet tooth knows, the best bit, the piece de resistance, the payoff for indulging in even the most miserable of wafer bars.

If anything, here its pale skin that's cast in a disparaging light: the 'sii khao' (white) boys seen suggestively sandwiching their 'sii dum' (dark) brother are the tough, brittle outer biscuit - the bit that usually disintegrates into an annoying avalanche of crumbs but, because it’s flavorless and bland, is entirely expendable and so briskly scuffed into the carpet while nobody's looking.

Ok ok, so this argument is wafer thin (scoff, scoff). However, my point is that this ad isn't incendiary, not in Thailand anyway: it’s meant to be humorous, is in a puerile unimaginative rather lazy way, and is unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence amongst Thais.

That said, just because you invoke skin colour to sell confectionery in a benign, non-offensive manner, doesn't make it right. No matter how innocuous or innocent or light-hearted your message, does race really have any place in advertising, especially the marketing of a product whose core consumer is likely to be children? Isn’t skin colour already too much a Thai national obsession?

Monday, 2 July 2007

The Gentleman Arrives...

Welcome to Bangkok Parlour - an ill-thought out, barely conceived, embryonic blog about stuff with a Bangkok slant. I’ll say it straight: this blog will not find me shoveling sleaze, posting prurient pictures or spewing sordid accounts of any pear-shaped conquests as if trophies. Nor will I go out of my way to criticize a place I mostly adore. It’s not that I’m incapable, or that Bangkok isn’t sometimes maddening - it’s just plain and simple not my style.

Instead, my self-appointed mission is to hand you soft-focus (hopefully never sneering) snapshots of Bangkok as it appears through the viewfinder that is my skewed, quixotic, messy, damaged mind. Everything and anything that inspires me, that raises my passions or provokes will get the treatment: clubs in Bangkok, drinking, film, music, news, food, politics, museums, culture, religion, anthropology, Thai movie posters, love. It may take a straight news-orientated path, or have me sprinting down meandering, whimsical backalleys. Whatever route I do choose, the aim is to celebrate much more than to critique Bangkok.

The blog title 'Bangkok Parlour' was inspired, rather impulsively, by a book entitled 'The Gentleman in the Parlour' by author Somerset Maugham - a wonderful, elegant, sympathetic first-hand account of his journey through Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam back in 1930. I read it recently and it chimed with why living here appeals, in part at least: “it's great to become the creature of the moment, clear of all ties and to owe nothing but the score of the evening”. Selfish? Absolutely. But there's more to it than that.

Bangkok Parlour - Coming Soon...