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...