Sunday, December 31, 2006

Predictions from a pollster

Thai Takes

Who do Thais believe: the fortune-teller or the pollster?

“I don’t know. We need to do a survey on that,” said Noppadon Kannika, when quizzed on the subject.

His answer is typical of a man who makes a living taking and interpreting public opinion polls. Noppadon is the director of Abac Poll Research Centre at Bangkok’s Assumption University.

What he knows, without conducting a poll, is that a fortune-teller’s prediction is based on mystical power while a pollster’s is on data.

Noppadon’s forecast three days before the Sept 19 military coup was spot on. Leading Thai language newspaper Thai Rath quoted him as saying that there would be chaos such as a coup de tat if the then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra did not step down.

Six days before the end of 2006, I sat down with the utterly deadpan man to get his Thai takes on this year and the next.

What has been the most significant event in Thailand in 2006? I would say, and I believe my fellow Malaysians would agree, the smooth-as-Jim-Thompson-silk coup.

Not for Noppadon. His is the June celebrations for the Thai king’s 60th year on the throne. Abac survey found 92% of Thais were happy during that month despite political impasse (anti-Thaksin demonstrations) and economic crisis (rising petrol prices) wracking their country.

In June, the people’s reverence for the king made them forget their problems.

“They perceived the king doing everything for the people. For example, many royal projects have touched their lives,” Noppadon explained.

The Thais’ happiness level for that commemorative month was the highest in 2006. However, their exhilaration was shortlived. The next month, reality rumbled back into their minds.

The silky coup, according to the 40-year-old pollster, was the second most significant event.

A month after the military grab for power, Abac Poll released a survey that Prime Minister Gen Surayud Chulanont’s administration enjoyed a better image than the Thaksin government. Thais, however, were unhappy as the interim government was acting too slowly on people’s problems and allegations of Thaksin’s corruption.

For 2007, Noppadon predicts the unfolding of a situation that will not be good for the nation.

“We will have a strong people’s movement organised by the previous government around March. But it will lose momentum the following month as it will be the festive month of Songkran (Thai New Year),” he noted.

However, the mobilisation of the masses against the interim government will pick up again in May, which is an idle month for most Thais who take a break from farming.

Noppadon said his prediction of the people’s movement was dependent on two factors – King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whom many Thais regard as semi-divine, and the performance of the Surayud administration.

“Most Thais will not go against the king’s wishes,” he explained.

The deep south?

“The southern Thailand situation will continue,” predicted Noppadon. “No one can solve it absolutely as we don’t have a good system to solve the problem.

Will the coup makers deliver an election next year?

“No, the year after next. The new constitution will not be ready (until late 2007),” he said. “Looks like the coup makers’ promise to leave after one year will not materialise.”

Will the exiled Thaksin launch a political comeback?

The billionaire who, based on an Abac Poll, still commands 20% to 25% support from Thais, has two options.

“The Chiang Mai-based politician can utilise his financial might and political influence, especially from the country’s north-east to force a return to power,” said Noppadon.

“Or, Thaksin can negotiate with the coup makers to settle his family’s slew of corruption charges. And then he will make a comeback when there is a new constitution and conducive political climate.”

In terms of gross domestic happiness, Thais can look forward to the year-long celebration of King Bhumibol’s 80th birthday on Dec 5.

“That will be the beautiful scenario for next year,” Noppadon noted.

However, the pollster also worries that ugly political turmoil lurks in 2007.

(Published in The Star on Dec 31, 2006)

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Same, same ... but different

Fake The North Face jackets sold in shops in Thamel, Kathmandu’s backpacker district, reminded me of Bangkok.

Seeing The North Face, which specialises in outdoor clothing and equipment lines, was like deja vu. A few days before I flew to Kathmandu in Nepal for an assignment, I had seen similar counterfeit jackets in Bangkok’s MBK (Mah Boon Krong) shopping mall.

And walking through the overcrowded streets of Thamel, which was teeming with hundreds of restaurants, guest-houses, internet cafés, travel agencies and shops, I felt as if I was strolling through the packed Khao San road, which is Bangkok’s backpacker district.

The pirated Casino Royale DVDs, the Red Bull t-shirts, the Tibetan handicrafts retailed in Kathmandu and Bangkok also served as reminders that Nepal and Thailand share certain similarities.

Yes, Nepal and Thailand are two distinct countries. The differences are as obvious as a Nepali rupee and a Thai baht.

Nepal has a majority Hindu population while the Buddhists dominate Thailand. The country, which has the Himalayan mountains as a backbone, is landlocked while the country flanked by the Andaman sea has world-famous islands.

There is a gap between the purchasing power of Nepalis and Thais. Just compare the price of their two leading English newspapers. The Kathmandu Post costs Rs 3 (RM0.15) and The Nation 25 baht (RM2.50).

And although Bangkok is a cosmopolitan city, Bangkokians’ English proficiency is limited compared with the Nepalis residing in the developing-world city of Kathmandu.

Take the example of my experience in the genuine The North Face outlet in Siam Discovery Centre, which is one of the high-end shopping malls in Bangkok. Communicating with the attentive salespersons was frustrating as they could only speak limited English.

At the authentic The North Face outlet in Thamel, it was the opposite. The helpful salespersons spoke British-accented English and habitually used the word, “shall”.

Now for the similarities. Thailand and Nepal can proudly claim that in their nation’s history, they have never been colonised. Both countries have a monarchy.

The present kings of Thailand and Nepal ascended to the throne because bullets killed their brother. However, King Bhumibol Adulayadei is revered in Thailand while King Gyandendra is reviled in Nepal.

The 238-year Nepal monarchy may end next year when Nepalis decide on a new constitution. To paraphrase a famous saying, the writing is on the wall for Nepal's royal family.

Well, if you enter any building in Nepal, there are not as many portraits of King Gyandendra as compared to that of King Bhumibol in Thailand.

There’s no escaping Thailand in Kathmandu. There are shops offering Thai food and even ancient Thai massage.

The only difference was the “Gent for gent and lady for lady. That’s Nepali rule.” In other words, unlike Thailand where women are allowed to massage men, in Nepal, masseurs are only allowed to massage their own gender.

That’s an indication of how conservative Nepal is. Or, in the point of view of a conservative Nepali, how “free” Thailand is.

“Freeeer,” said a 29-year-old Nepali, who dragged the word as if to make it more “free” when asked what he thought of Bangkok.

His eyes twinkled when he spoke of his wild experience in Patpong.

“It is not like in Kathmandu. At 10pm, our nightspots are closed,” said the man who was on the flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu.

But as I walked at 2am to my hotel in Thamel, a nightspot blasting the distinctive music which drives dancers wild, made me recall what my Nepali friend had told me.

“Kathmandu can be wilder than Patpong,” he said, and quickly added, “That’s what my friends told me.”

I wouldn’t know. Although I saw a nightspot called Go Go Bar in Thamel, the 1°C nights of Kathmandu persuaded me that the electric blanket on my bed was more appealing.

In bed, I debated whether Nepal’s namaste (traditional Hindu greeting) was similar to Thailand’s sawatdee. It must be somewhat the same as Nepalis and Thais bring their hands together at chest level in greeting.

In this globalised world, Nepal and Thailand are like the slogan on the t-shirts hawked in Kathmandu and Bangkok, “Same, same ... but different.”

(Published in The Star on Dec 24, 2006)

Sunday, December 17, 2006

What’s cooking, Mrs Balbir?

Thai Takes

At about 9,000m above ground, on the Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu, it was a pleasant surprise to find something Malaysian-made when lunch was served.

Was it the spicy prawn rice which had connection to a Malaysian? The mixed fruit? Salad? Bun? Or naan?

It was the scrumptious naan. And a 50-year-old Malaysian, Mrs Balbir, who is the official caterer of Indian cuisine to the airline, prepared it.

Mrs Balbir has come a long way since her salad days when she arrived in Bangkok from Kuala Lumpur as a matchmade bride for Mr Balbir, a Thai Indian, 31 years ago.

In the 1970s, Harvinder Kaur, which is Mrs Balbir’s maiden name, learnt to cook north Indian food from her husband Vinder, and Thai dishes from the streets.

At the Bangkok market, clutching a Thai cookbook, the KL-born woman interacted mostly by sign language with the fishmongers and vegetable sellers to learn Thai cooking and the Thai language.

Picking up north Indian and Thai cooking came naturally to Harvinder as both were similar to Malaysian cooking – Indian and Malay food.

But in Bangkok, she couldn’t cook Malaysian food as tastily as in Kuala Lumpur. For example, when she cooked nasi lemak, one of her favourite Malaysian dishes, the ikan bilis and cili padi bought in Bangkok were different from those in Kuala Lumpur.

“Mother nature grows them differently,” explained the big-hearted Malaysian.

In the mid-1970s, Harvinder opened a north Indian restaurant called Mrs Balbir in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi 11 because she wanted an outlet to release her creative energy. Then, it was one of Bangkok’s handful of Indian restaurants.

She entertained the idea of opening a Malaysian restaurant. She, however, abandoned it as she could not find the necessary ingredients in Bangkok. And there weren't enough Malaysians living in Bangkok for her to establish a core clientele.

In her 31 years in Bangkok, Harvinder remembered only four Malaysian restaurants opening in the city. The first to spring up 25 years ago was a shop that was like a “hole in the wall”.

“The food wasn’t good but we all (Malaysian expatriates) were so desperate for nasi lemak and laksa that we gave the guy (a man who wore sarong) business,” said the operator of

However, the proprietor closed shop as he sold his food “too cheaply”. The next Malaysian restaurant also suffered the same fate as it could not attract enough business.

Aunty Malaysia, another outlet which opened three years ago, was forced to cease operation when the building it was housed in was torn down due to some political mess.

Last month, during the Malaysian Club’s Hari Raya celebration in Bangkok, the members were ecstatic when a Malaysian woman, Georgette, announced the opening of her Kopitiam restaurant.

“We went ‘oh ... at last,” as she guaranteed that it would be a real Malaysian restaurant,” recalled Harvinder.

A word of caution for budding Malaysian restaurant owners. Unlike the thriving Japanese and Korean restaurants in cosmopolitan Bangkok, there is negligible demand for Malaysian food from Thais.

Thais, noted Harvinder, like food which has fresh herbs. They, she explained, do not appreciate Malaysian and Indian food because they do not like anything with ingredients that are not fresh, like curry powder.

But what about green curry, a famous Thai dish?

“Green curry is made of pounded fresh herbs like green lime leaves and coriander,” she explained.

Harvinder should know. She has been teaching Thai cooking for 25 years. It all started because there weren’t many English-speaking Thai cooking teachers. And her added advantage was that she was able to substitute ingredients which were not available in their home country.

Among her students are musician Sting’s chef Joseph Sponzo, and Ainsley Harriott, a British celebrity chef.

Her other claims to fame are: A television show in UBC, Thailand's largest pay television operator, called Bangkok Spice with Mrs Balbir; and she is a former food presenter for Star Plus’ Travel Asia.

And how many Malaysians can claim that the food they cooked was served 9,000m above ground?

(Published in The Star on Dec 17, 2006)

Sunday, December 10, 2006

The two faces of Patpong

Thai Takes

My 65-year-old mother made the sign of the cross in rapid succession as we walked by Bangkok’s Duangthawe Plaza (Boy Plaza), which is also known as Soi Kathoey or Patpong 3.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“Because I was afraid. They were dragging you (into a nightspot),” she replied.

The “they” she referred to were touts – some in drag – who were aggressively promoting nightspots such as Dream Boy, Future Boys and The Boy Bangkok.

As the names suggest, the nightspots were gay go-go bars.

Later, a few metres away at Patpong 1, I had to drag Marilyn, my 22-year-old sister, out of the NaRaYa store.

Patpong is one of my sister’s favourite Bangkok attractions for two reasons: NaRaYa, sought for its silk handbags, and the night market, renowned for fake Red Bull t-shirts and pirated Casino Royale DVDs.

Welcome to the two faces of Patpong: It is an internationally renowned red light district and also a shopping heaven.

And to most Malaysians, it is not at all like Bukit Bintang. Or to be precise, Bukit Bintang is not Patpong.

Recently, Tourism Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said it was unfair to view Bukit Bintang as another Patpong. The Bangkok tourist spot was dragged into controversy when Jasin MP Datuk Mohd Said Yusof likened Kuala Lumpur’s golden triangle to sex areas such as Patpong.

From the point of view of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), Mohd Said has got his comparison wrong, as Patpong is “no longer the Patpong of the past”.

“That was a long, long time ago,” explained Vunsadej Thavarasukha, TAT advertising and public relations department executive director.

“Thirty years ago, yes, Patpong was famous as a red light area where tourists can do ‘monkey business’.”

But now, Vunsadej insisted, most of the go-go bars have shifted elsewhere (i.e. to Nana Plaza at Shukumvit) and Patpong is a place where family-orientated tourists come for food, shopping and music.

A Malaysian who regularly visits Bangkok agreed with Vunsadej’s observation.

“Patpong is slowly catering to families too. There are obvious signs – live music bars and good restaurants – that some parts of Patpong are turning away from the sex industry,” observed the 20-something yoga instructor, who declined to be named. She did not want to be associated with Patpong as it has yet to shed its sleazy reputation.

“I’ve lost count of how many go-go bars and massage parlours exist in Patpong. Outside most of the go-go bars, you can see skimpily dressed females sipping beer and trying to attract customers,” she explained.

Tell that to Vunsadej.

Without batting an eye, he replied, “Yes, we still have go-go bars in Patpong but it is very rare.”

The executive director was more forthcoming on the history of Patpong. He instructed his staff to e-mail a Wikipedia entry.

The online encyclopaedia stated that Patpong got its name from the Patpongpanich family who owned most of the property in the area.

In 1946, the family purchased an undeveloped plot of land on the outskirts of the city.

They constructed a road – Patpong 1 – and several shophouses, and another road – Patpong 2 – was added later. Today, both roads remain privately owned.

By 1968, a number of nightclubs had set up in the area. And during the Vietnam War, it became a R&R (Rest and Recuperation) spot for US troops.

In the 1970s and 1980s, it was Bangkok’s premier nightlife spot and was famous for its sexually explicit shows.

In the late 1980s, the Patpongpanich family rented out small lots in the middle of Patpong 1 for a night market.

It is this night market that the TAT wants Patpong to be known for.

“What Bukit Bintang does not have is the night market. Tourists are attracted to Patpong as there is a place where they can bargain and buy things,” said Vunsadej.

For the yoga instructor, the night market is a Bangkok must-see that she would bring her mother to, but not the go-go bars.

“It will be too embarrassing if my mother asked me what a Ping Pong show is,” she said.

“And she’ll get a culture shock seeing Thai men trying to hustle customers into bars.”

Go-go bars or not, swinging by Patpong is never a drag.

(Published in The Star on Dec 10, 2006)

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Coyote girls feel the heat


She shook her head once, twice, three times. Then the 69-year-old Culture Minister smiled and said, “No, I don't think so.”

She laughed and then repeated, “I don't think so.”

Khunying Khaisri Sriaroon's “no” was in response to the question, “if you were 18 years old, would you have been a coyote girl?”

In Bangkok, at the minister's meeting room that was artistically decorated with Thai oil paintings, Khaisri explained why she did not think so.

“That's an example of how we are made rotten by Western civilisation,” said the Khunying, a Thai royal title given to women.

“In the past, Thai girls used to dress properly. But now they are not careful with the way they dress as they imitate what they see on the Internet and TV.”

Coyote girls are scantily-clad young women who perform the so-called coyote dance moves that are sexually suggestive.

The coyote dancing craze blazed into bars and pubs in Thailand after the release of the movie Coyote Ugly in 2000 which depicted the lives of female bartenders who performed sexy dances in a New York bar to entertain patrons.

In late October, the coyote girls howled into controversy when the Thai Queen expressed her concern after watching skimpily-dressed women dancing inappropriately during a celebration to mark the end of the Buddhist Lent on television.

Queen Sirikit sent a letter to the Culture Ministry saying, “Any shows or performances organised in association with any Buddhist festival should be held with respect for Lord Buddha and Buddhism.”

The ministry then pushed for a new ministerial regulation that would ban students under 20 years of age from working as scantily-clad product presenters and dancers at public events. The proposal, however, was found to be impractical, as many students became coyote dancers to finance their studies.

“Coyote dancing is a profession,” explained Khaisri. “It is a way to earn money. She can do that (dance sexily) and dress like that (in skimpy outfits) inside places like a bar but not in public places.”

The controversy was a baptism of fire for Khaisri who was appointed minister on Oct 8 shortly after the Sept 19 coup. Initially, she was reluctant to accept the heavy burden of becoming the Minister of Culture.

Khaisri told Prime Minister Gen Surayud Chulanont that she was too old for the position. “But he told me it was only for one year. That's why I accepted it,” she said.

The third oldest Thai minister, she also accepted that the Cabinet comprised of old gingers. In the early days of Surayud’s administration, they were called the Ban Bangkhae Cabinet. Ban Bangkhae is a well-known home for the elderly.

The average age of Surayud's Cabinet is 63 years, which coincidentally is his age.

“Most of us are very old. But each comes with experience,” said Khaisri, a respected scholar who is the former president of Siplakorn University, the first university in Thailand devoted to Fine Arts.

The minister wanted to promote traditional lifestyle with special emphasis on the King Bhumibol Adulyadej's concept of sufficiency economy.

“Surayud’s policy is to focus on self-sufficiency and the happiness of the people more than the GDP (gross domestic product) numbers,” she said.

Thais, she pointed out, had become “consumptive consumers”.

“They've become greedier. They live a life where they consume everything and they dress, eat and behave like a Westerner,” she said.

“We are too much influenced by Western civilisation that we've lost our Thai way of life.

“In the past, we used to live humbly and contentedly. We did not need too much money. It is time to bring back that concept to the Thai people.”

Khaisri admitted that back in the good, old days when she was 18, she was a naughty girl.

“I used to swim and climb trees like a boy,” she said. But she was not as naughty as a coyote girl.

(Published in The Star on Dec 3, 2006)