Saturday, March 31, 2007

Saying good night to Bangkok’s night bazaar


Tonight may be the last night for a Bangkok institution that ranks among the Thai capital’s top five tourist attractions.

ON TUESDAY night, a dozen expatriates gathered at a beer garden in Suan Lum Night Bazaar to mourn the uncertain death of a Bangkok institution.

The tears were for fear the popular Suan Lum Night Bazaar located in the heart of the Thai capital would be bulldozed to make way for a high-rise commercial complex consisting of a shopping mall, offices and hotel.

According to the organiser of the gathering, Nima Chandler, a 30-something American who manages the well-known Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok, the lively bazaar is one of Bangkok’s top five tourist attractions.

“There is something here for everybody – Thais, tourists and expatriates – and you can get things that you can’t find anywhere else,” said Chandler.

What you can find in the bazaar are about 3,700 booth vendors hawking products such as wallets, Thai designer clothes, fake Liverpool jerseys, pirated DVDs and papier-mache heads of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and offering services like fortune telling and massage.

There’s also the Joe Louis Traditional Thai Puppet Theatre, La Roue De Paris (French Ferris Wheel) and a beer garden with nightly concerts or sports screenings.

“This is the only proper night market in Bangkok,” declared 55-year-old Charlie Mallanoo, who owns three booths selling Thai souvenirs.

“The other night markets are not convenient.”

Nearby there’s the Patpong night market. But as Mallanoo said: “If your wife needs to go to the toilet, she would have to use the one in the naked bar (go-go bar).”

Chatuchak Weekend Market, Bangkok’s other famous market, the vendor noted, is also inconvenient as it is too far, too crowded and too confusing. And it's open only on weekends.

That night, strolling through the labyrinth of booths and alleys, there was no indication that the animated night bazaar was breathing its last.

However, at the bazaar’s entrance, a notice states: “The Crown Property Bureau has scheduled the area to be closed for redevelopment. Any person who resides and makes use of this property is required to move your belongings and vacate by March 31, 2007, otherwise legal action will be taken.”

But most of the vendors are confident the bazaar will remain open for two to three more years.

“Nobody knows what is going to happen to Suan Lum,” said Chandler.

Though Mallanoo echoes Chandler’s observation, he’s certain the night bazaar, which sits on the largest plot of land in Bangkok’s central business district, will remain in business until the courts hear out all the suits surrounding its fate.

The parties involved in the tussle for the bazaar are the owner of the 20.3ha land, Crown Property Bureau, which manages Thailand’s royal family’s assets; Central Pattana, which operates Thailand’s largest shopping mall, Central World Tower; and P Con Development, which opened the night bazaar in 2000 after obtaining a short-term lease to develop 6.4ha of the land.

“We will remain here. I don’t think the King’s property bureau will do any harm to the people here,” said Mallanoo.

Central Pattana, which was awarded a 30-year lease to develop the land, thinks otherwise.

“We are quite confident of developing a landmark to promote the good image of Bangkok,” Nattakit Tangpoonsinthanee, Central Pattana executive vice-president for marketing, told the media last month.

What happens when Central Pattana goes ahead to builds what most people believe will be Thailand’s tallest skyscraper?

“The 3,700 (bazaar booth) owners will get together, and we are going to do something,” said Mallanoo.

If indeed tonight is Suan Lum Night Bazaar’s last night, Chandler hopes her Tuesday gathering is not its final farewell party.

“It is so sad that a place like this that draws people might not have an official goodbye,” she said.

(Published in The Star on April 31, 2007)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Highlighting the Isaan people through his cartoons


Cartoonist Padung Kraisri has made a name for himself for his character Noo Hin. Padung uses his creations to portray the people in Thailand's forgotten backyard, 19 provinces with a collective name of Isaan.

THE most famous maid in Thailand is Noo Hin, a 15-year-old girl who manages to perform her household chores while hunting down lizards to eat and rescuing her employer from an evil supermodel.

The naïve and cheeky maid en-thralls about a million Thais who follow her comical adventure toiling for her 19-year-old filthy-rich and busty employer, Khun Milk.

Noo Hin is a cartoon character created by Padung Kraisri, a 47-year-old cartoonist from Ubon Rat-chathani in Thailand. In 2006, the popular Thai comic strip, Noo Hin, was fleshed out into a blockbuster movie, Noo Hin: The Movie.

The cartoonist, like his creation, is from the northeast, which for many tourists, according to the travel guidebook Lonely Planet, is Thail-and’s forgotten backyard. The collective name for the 19 provinces that make up the northeast is Isaan.

For Padung, Noo Hin is the embodiment of Isaan. Her characteristics – honest, diligent and yet naïve in a positive way – reflect the Isaan people. And with her very square nose, and dark skin, she has the typical look of Isaan people, the cartoonist noted, adding: “But the Isaan people are cute in a certain way.”

Milk, her Bangkok-based employer, is beautiful and sexy, while Noo Hin is diminutive and plain.

“Most good-looking people come from Bangkok. But I did not have the intention to portray Isaan girls as not so good-looking.

“It is just the way I drew Noo Hin,” explained Padung.

Lonely Planet states that “this colossal corner of the country continues to live life on its own terms: slowly, steadily and with a profound respect for both heritage and history.”

Padung agrees, saying that despite Isaan’s unforgiving climate of persistent drought, its people have always remained in the region.

“And they have kept their way of life. That is why many people feel that the real Thailand is in Isaan,” he said.

The northeast also has its own distinctive celebrations such as the Bun Bung Fai (Rocket) Festival, were villagers construct large skyrockets of bamboo, which they then fire into the sky to bring rain for their rice fields.

Drought has made Isaan, where rice planting is the main economy, the poorest region in Thailand. The people's poverty is also compounded by a high birth rate. And their plight gets more difficult with each generation, as a family owns only one or two rai (1,600 sq m) of rice field to distribute among numerous children, explained Padung.

So, like Noo Hin, when the children get older they have to migrate to bigger towns, especially Bangkok, to earn money. And in general, Bangkokians have a negative perception of northeasterners such as most bargirls are from Isaan.

“Most Isaan people have very little education, so they get the dirty jobs (housemaid and construction work) that no one else wants to do. They’ve become the driving force that keeps things moving,” says Padung

There are positives coming from Isaan, he insisted. And these are reflected in a poster he designed for Coca Cola’s advertising campaign The Coke Side of Life which was launched in Thailand in January.

Padung was ecstatic when the beverage company approached him to illustrate the northeast region as it was an opportunity for him to show Isaan’s positive side.

His Coca Cola artwork, which is plastered in billboards all over the northeast, include the Rocket Festival, a little kid riding a buffalo in a rice field (this represents 80% of how the Isaan people live), people in ghost masks for the Phi Tha Khon Festival, khoon (cheerful yellow flower of Isaan) and Isaan musical instruments.

In the middle of the artwork is his most famous creation, Noo Hin, who he insists is not a maid but a house manager.

(Published in The Star on March 24, 2007)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Don't cry for me, Thailand


IN A video clip on, the ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra confessed that he was a bit lonely. “Which is normal for a person who worked a lot and now does nothing,” he explained in Thai in the video shot in London.

About five minutes into the eight-minute clip on the website, which is blocked in Thailand, the former premier is portrayed as a people’s champion. It ends with a woman kneeling in front of Thaksin and crying her heart out.

The ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Thailand’ video is a testament of the military junta’s failure to execute its mission completely after launching a coup d’etat against Thaksin on Sept 19, 2006.

The hope was that the coup would expropriate Thaksin and his corrupt regime, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political analyst at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, in his analysis of Thailand halfway through the junta’s one-year timeframe to relinquish power.

“Thaksin is not in the country but his influence can still be felt in Thailand. He is making noise. He’s got a website now. His people have just come up with a magazine.

“And his Thai Rak Thai party is still around, prosecuting (the interim Prime Minister) Gen Surayud (Chulanont) for land encroachment,” said Thitinan in an interview.

The exiled politician, whose views Thai television stations have been prohibited from airing, is still a figure to reckon with as the military junta failed to deliver the coup de grace on his political life.

“For example,” said the political analyst, “there is no real serious effort to prosecute Thaksin for corruption.”

Another reason, according to Thitinan, is that the Surayud interim government has proven to be very weak, indecisive, inert and inept.

“Now it is going to a point where not just the cabinet is a problem, but the Prime Minister himself. His leadership is lacking,” he noted.

“Thaksin is a leader who knows how to get things done. Surayud does not know how to get things done.”

The military-appointed Prime Minister’s dismal performance is paving the way for a growing likelihood of a Thaksin comeback to Thai politics. The billionaire has vast resources – not only financially – but also a personal network of loyal supporters and advisers with ideas.

And it is not in Thaksin’s nature to call it quits.

“This is a guy who is a monopolist at heart. And he is used to winning. When he loses, he will say ‘lets play another one',” Thitinan said, adding that the former premier is also possessed with the self-belief that he can change Thailand for the better.

On how Thailand would have been today if the Sept 19 coup did not happen, he hypothesised that “in Bangkok things would have turned physically confrontational and would have invited the coup anyway”.

Six months after the inevitable coup, the political analyst said, there was a growing frustration among Thais – whether in Bangkok or in the countryside.

“Nobody is happy with Thai politics, as the situation has become murky and volatile,” he said, adding that the country remained deeply divided between pro- and anti-Thaksin factions.

In a nutshell, the academic noted that Thailand has a bungled post-coup management, an incompetent and inept interim government which does not have a clear policy direction, a problematic constitution drafting process, and an election which is supposed to be down the road but with many pitfalls along the way.

The next six months, predicted Thitinan, will be worse. “More uncertainty. Very murky. Prolonged instability,” he said.

And there’s also a possibility of another coup.

“The coup makers did not get the coup right. When you have a coup, you are supposed to really wipe the slate clean. But this coup did not achieve very much,” he explained.

It is an unstable post-coup Thailand with “different factions clamouring to have a piece of the pie.”

And there are certain factions in the military who think they have to launch an incumbency coup.

“If it happens, it would be led by different people but going in the same direction (as the Sept 19 coup),” he said. “It will not be a coup to re-install Thaksin.”

(Published in The Star on March 17, 2007 and AsiaNews on March 23-29, 2007)

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Where a burger is worth its weight in gold


The humble burger gets a luxurious makeover in Bangkok

IN rural Thailand, 6,600 baht (RM700) can buy you half of an adult buffalo.

At a Polynesian-styled franchise restaurant in cosmopolitan Bangkok, you get a beef burger for the same amount.

Not just any beef burger. A Trilogy Burger as Trader’s Vic restaurant in Bangkok Marriott Resort and Spa calls it.

The Trilogy Burger is the most expensive burger in Thailand and probably the world.

What is it made of, you ask. Gold?

Actually, yes. The Trilogy Burger is sprinkled with edible gold leaf. It also features Matsusaka beef, morel mushroom, black truffles and foie gras.

The idea of serving the most expensive burger in Thailand was baked in the kitchen of Bangkok Marriott’s executive chef Simon Beaumont and executive sous chef Kevin Thomson about two weeks ago.

Their gastronomic inspiration arose from recent events in Bangkok such as the one million baht (RM102,000)-a-head gourmet dinner and 540,000 baht (RM57,300) Valentine Day’s cocktail, which is a Martini containing a dazzling heart-shaped ruby instead of an olive.

“Instead of copying (other restaurants which charged a million baht or 540,000 baht) we thought of doing something a little closer to a price our guests could afford,” explained Thomson at the resort that is along the Chao Phraya River.

“Our burger costs only 6,600 baht which is about US$184.”

But why is the Trilogy Burger expensive? It is reasonably priced, defended the sous chef, when you factor in the ingredients used.

The Matsusaka beef is 6,600 baht (RM700) a kilo, morel mushroom (13,500 baht or RM1,434 a kilo), black truffle (8,800 baht or RM934 a kilo), foie gras (2,000 baht or RM212 a kilo) and the gold leaf (220 baht or RM23).

When the two chefs were discussing which meat they were going to use for the burger, both of them looked at each other and said “Matsusaka.”

“No meat other than Matsusaka,” declared Thomson, adding “it is even better than Wagyu and Kobe beef.”

The chef admitted that even some of the five-star resort’s guests are unfamiliar with Matsusaka beef. And he had to explain to the diners about the meat.

“In Japan, a Matsusaka cow listens to classical music, eats oat, drinks beer and is massaged with sake for three years. Then it ends up on our table,” he said, quickly adding “it is a wonderful life for three years.”

“When I come back, I’m coming back as a Matsusaka cow, definitely,” he quipped. “Beer everyday ? cannot complain about that.”

Once the two chefs decided on Matsusaka, they complemented it with luxury products like truffle, morel mushroom and foie gras. “They marry well with the beef,” Thomson explained.

The gold leaf is included to add colour to the rather darkish-coloured burger. Also, the Thais believe the colour gold brings good luck.

The Englishman beamed confidently when asked whether he was confident the Trilogy Burger would sell.

“The guests staying in a five-star hotel are not short of money,” he noted. “And sometimes they want a luxurious item that they can’t get at home.”

But a burger at that price?

“It’s a steal,” he shrieked. Some of the guests, he said, were amazed at how cheap the burger was.

For example, he added, in the United States, it would cost US$160 to US$180 (RM561 to RM631) for a Matsusaka steak and that is without the foie gras, truffle and morel mushroom.

Trader’s Vic restaurant has sold seven burgers since the item went on the menu seven days ago on March 1. Seven, according to the chef with 19-year experience, is a pretty good number for selling a US$184 burger.

The number of Trilogy Burger sold, noted Thomson, reflected that the residents and tourists in Bangkok are as cosmopolitan as those in cities like New York, London and Tokyo.

So how did the burger taste? Arooy (Thai for delicious).

The hand-chopped Matsusaka beef and seared foie gras melted in my mouth with the truffles and mushrooms marrying harmoniously. And it went well with a cool Singha beer.

Try the burger the next time you’re in Bangkok. You'll get all the ketchup for free.

(Published in The Star on March 10, 2007, in The Nation on March 21, 2007 and AsiaNews on March 23-29, 2007)

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A faceless Grim Reaper lurks


A glimpse of the lives of Thais living in South-East Asia’s most lethal conflict.

ALMOST every other day, I receive reports of killings in Thailand’s deep South from The Nation newspaper’s SMS news alert.

A soldier killed, and a child injured, by a bomb at a house in Yala on Monday. Separatist militants shot dead a Muslim teacher and a Buddhist woman in Narathiwat on Wednesday. An ice cream vendor was shot dead and beheaded by Muslim insurgents in Pattani on Thursday.

I then delete them.

Like most Bangkokians, I’ve become inured to the Muslim separatist insurgency in the southern region, where about 1.3 million ethnic Malay Muslims form the majority of the population in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces bordering Malaysia.

At least two people are killed a day in the conflict, which has taken 2,000 lives since 2004.

Last Saturday, I was in Pattani town, about 1,000km from Bangkok, to get a feel of the lives of those whose deaths might be SMS-ed to me.

Twenty kilometres into Pattani province, at a petrol station, I was one of the few non-Malay faces in a crowd of women in tudung (headgear) selling food that were typical of those in Malaysia’s east coast states and men with goatees and wearing white skullcaps.

Who among them is a separatist, I wondered as I entered a restroom, fearing I could be shot in the back any time.

My fear arose from a two-hour briefing the night before by a high-ranking Pattani-based Thai Buddhist government official at Songkla town, which is 110km from Pattani town.

“Don’t go to Pattani. Andtaraai (danger, in Thai),” cautioned the 51-year-old man, who for security reason wanted to remain anonymous.

He said my Chinese face would make me a target. His warning was justified in the wake of the Chinese New Year bombings in southern Thailand that targeted Thai Chinese.

He revealed that in Pattani province he had to travel in a bullet-proof car escorted by two police outriders.

“If I can help it, the only two places that I will go to are my house and office,” he said, adding that government officials, soldiers and policemen were potential targets of bombs and bullets.

Pointing at my rented vehicle, he said: “Andtaraai”. Its licence plate indicated the vehicle was not from Yala, Narathiwat or Pattani.

“There are no Jawi inscriptions on your car,” said the man, whose car was plastered with Malaysian Education Fair stickers because the separatists were partial to Malaysians.

The provincial capital of Pattani is a sleepy town that resembles Kota Baru, albeit on a smaller scale. Except for the occasional rumble of Humvees with a mounted 50-calibre machine gun, and the heavily barricaded government buildings, there is little hint that the most lethal conflict in South-East Asia is played out in this town.

It lulls visitors into a false sense of security, that it is not wracked by bomb blasts, shoot-outs and beheadings. But faceless andtaraai lurk.

"Muka chomi tapi tak tahu kalau hati chomi (the face looks nice but we don’t know whether the heart is nice),” said Suriani, a 34-year-old Thai Muslim, in the Kelantanese dialect, echoing Thai Defence Minister Boonrawd Somtas’ statement that Thai intelligence was clueless to the identity of an enemy that refused to show its face.

She nervously nodded when asked whether her civil servant husband was a target of the insurgents who kill Muslims they suspect are government collaborators.

The Thai woman, who has relatives in Kelantan, related that the military had to escort frightened Buddhists living in villages to town to protect them from anonymous militants.

“Muslim villagers are also afraid to go to town as they fear the military may kill them,” she said.
Her guidelines to surviving the restive south include: Don’t travel after 5pm as insurgents may booby trap the road with sharp objects and then gun down the occupants of the immobilised vehicle.

Avoid eating at food stalls patronised by soldiers, policemen or government officers.

On that Saturday, there was no SMS announcing death in the deep South. My mobile phone didn’t have any reception in the three Muslim-dominated provinces, so that it could not be used to detonate bombs.

The next day, The Nation reported that a 28-year-old Muslim was gunned down in front of his house in Pattani by a group of gunmen who drove up on motorbikes and opened fire.

(Published in The Star on March 3, 2007)