Saturday, May 31, 2008

There’s Thai food and then again there’s Thai food


WHAT’S the absolute must to pack for a first-time Malaysian visitor to Bangkok? Okay, besides a condom.

Based on a conversation I had with two Malaysians currently visiting the Thai capital, it is instant mee.

An overprotective mother from Sabah brought enough instant noodles to feed the survivors of Cylone Nargis because she’s apprehensive her beloved would not be able to stomach spicy food. A man from Johor was warned of the difficulty of obtaining halal food.

Harvinder Kaur, a 52-year-old Malaysian who conducts Thai and Indian cooking courses in Bangkok, agrees that Malaysians have a habit of packing instant noodles (especially curry laksa flavour) whenever they travel.

“This is because they have the misconception that Thai cuisine is too pedas (spicy),” notes the owner of Mrs Balbir, a popular north Indian restaurant along Sukhumvit Soi 11/1 in Bangkok.

“Thai food has four flavours – sweet, sour, spicy and salty. And even if a Thai cook uses cili padi, the dish is not over spicy as the spiciness is balanced by the other three flavours,” she explains.

In Bangkok, I’ve been stumbling over Malaysian tourists, as it is the school holidays back home.

The other day, I met a pakcik from Johor who looked lost and hungry. His vacationing family had been surviving on instant mee.

When I gave him the phone number of Fahmi Sabri, the 26-year-old co-owner of Cili Padi – the only Malay restaurant in the city – the pakcik was so grateful. It was as if he had been told the secret location of the crystal skull which Indiana Jones was seeking in Peru.

If you’re looking for halal Thai cuisine, Harvinder, who also offers courses in halal Thai food, suggests Sukhumvit Soi 3 or Arab Street. The restaurants in Soi 3 not only serve Lebanese or Egyptian food but also halal Thai food.

“What is there to eat?”

That, according to Harvinder, a Bangkok resident who has been hosting Malaysian guests for the past 30 years, is the favourite question of her countrymen.

“Many of them – even regular visitors to Thailand – complain that there's nothing to eat in Bangkok. And the only dish they know is tom yam,” she relates.

I agree. The first dish on the tongue of a Malaysian when ordering Thai cuisine is tom yam goong.

But there are the sophisticated Malaysian tourists who know Thai cuisine.

At the cafe in Jim Thompson House – a popular tourist attraction named for the man behind the global brand of Thai silk – I observed a 30-something Malaysian woman ordering Thai dishes for her parents.

“Do you want green curry or red curry? OK, we’ll have roast duck with red curry,” commanded the woman, who is probably a singleton.

“We should eat Phad Thai (stir fried noodle). Do you know that Phad Thai is a classic Thai dish?” she asked her parents.

The 50-something Thai tour guide sitting at the next table rolled his eyes. Later, I spoke to him and he declared that the food in the cafe was not authentic.

“If it was real Thai food she wouldn’t be able to eat it. It would be pet mak mak (Thai for very, very spicy),” he explained, beaming with national pride, and adding to the spicy stereotype of Thai food.

Harvinder is less harsh in her views.

“(Jim Thompson restaurants) serve Thai cuisine which is 70% authentic. But if you dine there you get an idea of the kind of Thai food tourists can accept easily,” explains the woman, who also has a website,

“Not many people can eat authentic Thai dishes such as som tam (papaya salad) with smelly river crab.”

Harvinder’s top five Thai dishes that she recommends to Malaysian tourists are: tom yum goong, crab fried rice, phad thai, chicken green curry and fish grilled in banana leaf. Every time she picks this menu, her guests will go “wah!”

Well, to stave off a pet mak mak dining experience, tell the waiter: mai pet (not spicy).

It is lighter than a dozen packets of instant noodle.

(Published in The Star on May 31, 2008)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Gearing up for a right royal fight


LEAVE the monarchy out of politics, warns Surayud Chulanont, a member of the Privy Council (the royally-appointed group of advisors of the Thai king).

Media should boycott politicians who involve the monarchy in politics, urges Admiral Sathiraphan Keyanon, the Navy Commander-in-Chief.

Armed forces remain concerned about politicising the monarchy, cautions General Anupong Paochinda, the Army chief.

THESE breaking news flashes by The Nation on its website early this week beg the question why Thailand’s revered royal family is being dragged into politics.

According to Worapol Promigabutr, Thammasat University associate professor of sociology and anthropology, a political force in Thailand which he calls the oligarchy (politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen who benefited from Thailand’s previous coups) is playing the explosive royalist card to destabilise the four-month-old Samak Sundaravej government.

“The oligarchy has failed to rally the masses by using methods such as money (paying protestors) or issues (fortune teller predicting chaos or Manchester City fans emblazoning Thaksin Shinawatra’s name on the national flag during a match in England) against the Samak government, so now it is using the revered status of the monarchy to stir up emotions,” explains Worapol.

“If there is popular unrest, the oligarchy can use it as a pretext to overthrow the Samak government (which is a coalition government led by the pro-Thaksin, People Power Party or PPP).”

Central to the running political battle between the Samak government and the oligarchy is the government’s plan to amend the army-drafted constitution that was approved by a slim majority in a national referendum on Aug 19, last year during military rule.

“The 2007 constitution favours the oligarchic power and it would do anything to block any attempt to rewrite it,” Worapol notes.

The oligarchy’s current punching bag is Jakrapob Penkair, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. The 41-year-old firebrand politician is accused of offending the monarchy in his speech delivered at a talk organised by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in August last year.

Last week, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which in 2005 and 2006 led street protests against then prime minister Thaksin for alleged disrespect of the monarchy and corruption, issued a statement saying the current “puppet government” was tolerant when certain ministers expressed views that were “perilous to the monarchy”.

“To allow people like this to stay in the Cabinet is a threat to the constitutional monarchy,” the PAD added.

Jakrapob is accused of lese majeste (a French expression which means ‘insulting the monarchy’) because “when you attack Jakrapob, you are also attacking the Samak government and the PPP,” notes Worapol.

“The hope is to ignite the people’s anger and direct it towards the Samak government, and that the people would go take to the streets to in protest against it,” he explains.

“For the Thai people, the royal family, especially King Bhumibol Adulyadej, is semi-sacred. And when they hear that Jakrapob has insulted the monarchy it will stir negative emotions against him.”

On the night Jakrapob gave his controversial talk at the FCCT in Bangkok, Worapol was also a guest speaker.

“My memory tells me he did not criticise the royal family. That night Jakrapob tried to be an academician by giving an analysis of Thailand’s patronage system during the Sukhothai period (1238 to 1438),” the sociologist recalls.

Jakrapob has defended himself in a television programme, saying the accusation rose from a translation error from English to Thai.

The phrase “patronage system” was mistranslated into “royal patronage” so when he criticised the patronage system it was translated as if he was criticising “royal patronage.”

Despite his explanation, Jakrapob’s critics have continued to attack him.

To get an idea on how this lese majeste controversy will play out, let's look at The Nation’s breaking news flashed in the later part of the week.

DAAD to back Jakrapob all the way, says Jatuporn Prompan, a member of Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship, an alliance of anti-coup organisations which Jakrapob co-leads.

Jakrapob to hold press conference on Monday. This news flash announced that the embattled politician plans to distribute translated copies of his speech as proof of him having no intent to violate the revered institution.

(Published in The Star on May 24, 2008)

Saturday, May 17, 2008

What’s in a name?


WILL you buy an English-language fiction book written by a Thai named Trirat Petchsingh?

Trirat, the author of Thai Mangoes (a collection of 19 stories set in contemporary Thailand), does not think so.

“Imagine a farang (Thai for westerner) in a bookstore in Thailand who sees a book that's got a Thai name on it, he probably will not want to spend 400 baht (RM40) on a local writer as Thais have not written an internationally renowned English-language novel,” explains the 58-year-old author.

Trirat is seriously thinking of using a pseudonym for his second book because he believes a western-sounding name has tremendous impact on selling a book. “Maybe Clive Van Petsing as it has an European sound to it and it is related to my name,” says the diplomat’s son who was called Clive when he grew up at the age of six in England.

Thailand, notes Trirat, is not the place for English-language writers to flourish, as there are only a handful of English book readers and publishers.

“The number of English-language writers you can actually talk to is zilch. You’re by yourself. This is the big handicap in writing in English (in Thailand),” laments the author who teaches English in a private secondary school in Bangkok, adding that in his country English is subsidiary to the national language.

Thai Mangoes, which was published last year, is the culmination of his conversation with Pira Canning Sudham, a Thai author, in the early 1980s.

“This was a guy whose English was not as good as mine – as he learnt it later than me – but he had authored tons of books written in English. And I thought if he can do it, so could I,” recalls Trirat who studied civil engineering in Sydney.

Inspired, the budding writer, who at that time was a sub-editor with The Nation, purchased a book on how to write short stories.

And he began sending short stories to a writing competition organised by Asia Magazine, the now-defunct weekend magazine.

In 2000, Trirat submitted a manuscript of his best 12 stories to two Thai-based book publishers.

“The response was dead silence,” recalls the former journalist who also worked with Bangkok Post and Reuters news agency.

Six years later, S. Tsow, a Thai-based farang writer, told him about Bangkok Books, which is an European-managed publishing company based in Bangkok.

The publisher, after reading his manuscript, requested that Trirat provide more stories. And at short notice he managed to write seven stories.

Bangkok Books published 2,000 copies of Thai Mangoes. And so far his 395 baht (RM39.50) book sold 300 copies (on the average one book a day).

On why there was a market for Thai Mangoes despite his contention that his name could not sell books, Trirat said: “a reviewer for the Phuket Gazette told me that people were buying my books because there were not many English books written by a Thai.”

The publication of his fiction boosted Trirat’s confidence to write the great English-language Thai novel.

In the last five years he has researched the novel, reading books such as English Intercourse with Siam in the 17th Century, Ayutthaya: Venice of the East and Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time.

You’ve got it right. Trirat is in the midst of writing a historical novel set in 17th century Ayutthaya during the reign of King Narai that saw Siam opening up to European powers.

The novel, which he hopes to complete in a year’s time, is tentatively titled The Sunlit Palace and it deals with the European elements in 17th century Siam. “For the book to be marketable abroad, it must not only be based on Siamese elements,” he explained.

The main character, Constance Phaulkon, who is King Narai’s chief minister, is a Greek.

“He has to be a farang because one day – I’m only joking – when it becomes a Hollywood movie, the producers will not want an Asian playing the lead role,” he said.

A young Siamese nobleman, Luang Petch, who is Trirat’s alter ego, is a counter to Phaulkon’s European perspective.

Well, will you buy a historical novel with a Siamese character named Luang Petch?

(Published in The Star on May 17, 2008)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The smell of a coup is in the air


THE gut feeling of a Thai journalist who covers the military beat is that a coup is in the offing.

“You might think it is nonsense. But I can smell a coup,” says Wassana Nanuam, a Bangkok Post journalist who recently published a Thai-language book on the 2006 coup called Lab Luang Prang (Secrets, Deceptions and Disguise).

“When you cover closely the key men (who are essential to stage a coup), you can see in their eyes, words and behaviour that they are thinking seriously of staging a coup,” explains the 39-year-old author in an interview on Tuesday at the army headquarters in Bangkok.

Coincidentally, that morning, Thai Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej visited the army headquarters, giving rise to speculation that his visit had something to do with a coup.

Certain quarters speculate that the recent military drills conducted at night in Bangkok had spooked Samak into thinking that the Thai Royal Army was preparing to bring down his three-month-old government. The next day, government spokesman Vichienchote Sukchotirat told reporters: “The rumours came from those who oppose the government. We have just worked for three months, and rumours about this keep flooding in. But the truth is that no coup will be staged.”

In past Thai coups (18 since 1932, the year Thailand changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy), Wassana notes, the army chief and the commander of the First Army Region played crucial roles.

“The army chief because he is the commander-in-chief, and the commander of the First Army Region because he controls troops based in Bangkok,” explains the journalist who also authored a book on the 1991 coup.

“The First Army Region is called the coup unit as it has (soldiers and tanks to take over the Thai capital).”

In her latest book, the then army chief Gen Sonthi Boonyaratkalin revealed that only he and Gen Anupong Paojinda, then commander of the First Army Region and now army chief, plotted the coup which ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Sept 19, 2006.

The current First Army Region chief is Lt-Gen Prayuth Janocha, who was among key officers behind the bloodless 2006 coup. On Wednesday, Prayuth insisted that it was improper for government critics to call for a coup to end the country’s political crises.

However, he warned that with severe conflict, lack of unity and lack of loyalty to the monarchy, Thailand might once again reach a point where a coup was inevitable.

“If it’s going to happen, it will happen. It depends on events at the time. What has to be considered is how to prevent it from happening,” he was quoted as saying in The Nation.

Wassana, who covered Prayuth’s press conference, believes the commander is serious in stating that it is the military’s duty to protect the monarchy’s honour (especially against moves that were in contempt of the royal family).

She adds that Anupong and Prayuth have a close brotherly relationship, are of one mind and are loyal to the royal family.

“Many people think that Anupong is loyal to Samak. But there are those who think that he is doing what Sonthi did to Thaksin,” she reveals.

Despite warnings of a coup, the then prime minister did not believe that his army commander would betray him. Thaksin assumed Sonthi owed a debt of gratitude to him for his army chief appointment.

“It was Sonthi’s military tactic to pretend that he was loyal to Thaksin,” explains the author. Thus, Secrets, Deceptions and Disguise.

On her belief the military may launch a coup, Wassana lists several reasons: Thaksin may intervene in the military reshuffle in September, Samak plans to amend the military-drafted constitution, and moves by certain groups to drag the monarchy into politics.

The pretext for the next coup will be different from that in 2006. The Sept 19 coup, according to Sonthi, was necessary to prevent violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Thaksin.

“This time a situation will be created to increase tension between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces,” Wassana predicts.

“The military will not intervene when the mobs clash violently, but will use the bloodshed as a pretext to launch a coup.”

Her gut feeling tells her a coup may happen around July or August.

(Published in The Star on May 10, 2008. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Fall in love at your own risk


DO NOT fall in love with the first go-go dancer who comes over to you. Despite the warning, which appears in websites on Thai nightlife, that is what a guy – usually a white heterosexual male – visiting Thailand for the first time will do when he goes to a go-go bar.

“The guy does fall in love with her. He gets laid!” Bangkok expat Dean Barret wrote in “He then has an affair with her lasting for a few weeks or maybe even longer.

“It might end happily, but as he hasn’t bothered to learn any of the language, culture or history of Thailand it mostly likely ends in disaster.”

The farang (Thai for Westerner) can’t help falling in love because he has “not seen anything like it”.

“He walks into a go-go bar full of gorgeous women – with perfect body, long black hair, light brown skin and almond eyes – and they welcome him with that beautiful Thai smile and make him feel like a king,” he explains.

The relationship, however, ends in a disastrous marriage, notes Barrett, a 65-year-old American writer who authored books such as The Go-Go Dancer Who Stole My Viagra And Other Poetic Tragedies of Thailand and Skytrain to Murder.

The farang (usually in his 50s, 60s and 70s) discovers his wife (usually half his age) actually has a Thai husband.

Or he spends half a million US dollars on a huge tract of land (which must be under her name – in Thailand, farangs are only allowed to buy condominiums) to build a marital home and she later kicks him out.

The classic horror story told over and over in go-go bars as a tale of caution is the one where the go-go dancer has a Thai boyfriend and they have a sinister plan to kill the farang husband for his money.

“This happens quite often in Pattaya. You read in the Pattaya Mail about a guy who falls off the balcony and the police call it a suicide. But the article mentions that the man has his hands tied behind his back and a black stocking over his head,” Barrett relates.

The marriage ends in disaster because these guys do not speak Thai, make any effort to learn Thai history and culture and the psychology of Isaan women (most go-go dancers are from Thailand’s north-east).

“For these women, the mother is number one and not the husband as she owes her mother her life. And she will do anything to provide for her mother,” he explains.

But if the farang speaks enough Thai and understands the psyche of a Thai girl, he is more likely to meet the right girl and have a good life with her.

Asked whether the farang who marries a go-go dancer faces the stigma of marrying a prostitute, Barrett said: “No, because they are nothing like a prostitute.

“In New York City, where I lived for 14 years, prostitutes are these pathetic creatures who huddle in the cold at Holland Tunnel trying to catch the New Jersey guy going home after work to his wife who he is bored with.

“Those are hookers and they are not particularly friendly. It is not like that in Thailand. They are much like a girlfriend even if you pay her money.

“And she'll wai (a respectful Thai greeting) you in the morning.”

The feminazi (who Barrett describes as a fat, white woman who constantly complains she's invisible in Thailand because no farang man pays attention to her) thinks otherwise, accusing Western men of exploiting the go-go dancers.

“But the girls have told me: ‘What do they (feminazi) think when I work in a factory outside Bangkok hunched 12 hours a day over a machine putting little electronic parts together for a fraction of what I earn in a nightlife establishment'?” he says.

Feminazi lashes back in Thai-based Internet forums, saying a 60-something farang only has access to her beauty and youth because she wants access to his ATM.

“Just say the feminazi is completely right,” Barrett argues. “But if they (the old man and the go-go dancer) are happy with their relationship then that is their business.”

(Published in The Star on May 3, 2008)