Tuesday, January 30, 2018

From Farang to Gwei Lo

Oct. 29-Nov. 1

The last few days of our sojourn in Bangkok were OK. They were fun enough, but Bangkok just isn’t as interesting or as inviting as Chiang Mai or even Chiang Rai.

Traffic is loud, dirty, pretty brutal in fact. Sometimes it’s much easier (and safer) to climb the equivalent of three flights of stairs to use an overpass to avoid the crosswalks of a major intersection.

But there is still plenty to see on the street: Shops, restaurants, massage parlors of all kinds, shopping malls, and hotels.

The highlight of the end of the trip, though, was a 16-hour stay in Hong Kong. 

On Sunday, the 29th, we took a late morning walk that brought us to Soi 8. This street is familiar to us from our last stay in the area. We stopped for breakfast at a place that may be called Viva. 

It’s a bar with a vast deck around it, where you can sit to watch the activity on the soi.

The utility company was working on power lines. Men on bamboo ladders were working on wires in the tangle above the street. How they could tell one from the other wasn’t clear to me. 

At one end of the block the man on the ladder was pulling wire out and handing it to a colleague on the ground. At the other end, the ladder man was installing new wire.

We decided to go for health food. I had a waffle with jam and whipped cream. It also came with some fruit and honey, which made it healthy.

Joanna had a similar plate, Hers had two small pancakes and even more whipped cream. More fruit too, so it was balanced.

Later we went to dinner at a place we knew from a year and a half ago. Larry introduced it to us.

It’s called Cabbages & Condoms. It is run by the Population and Community Development Association, which began as an advocate for the use of condoms for birth control. In Thailand, as in many countries with high birth rates, families are often so large that they lose all chance of emerging from poverty.

More recently, though, the group’s message has focused on disease prevention.

Part of the message is to overcome stigma. The gift shop includes rolled condoms on sticks meant to be used as artificial flowers. 

At the entrance to the dining room, mannequins made up to look like superheros wear clothes made completely of condoms.

The name of the restaurant, I once read, is intended to suggest that condoms should be as comfortable a subject to discuss as vegetables.

The food in the place is excellent. We split a grilled fish and some stir-fried vegetables. 

I hope the fish in the pool next to our table didn’t mind that we were eating their cousin.

When you get the check, instead of after-dinner mints, you get complimentary condoms.

Monday, our last full day in Thailand, we took it easy. 

We had a date to meet Larry and Noi at a restaurant called the Fat Cow, about a half-hour metro ride from the hotel.

Joanna was thinking about adding a Thai-themed charm to her Pandora bracelet. We found a department store called Emporium, one stop east of the hotel on the SkyTrain, that had Pandora merchandise.

We left for Emporium in mid-afternoon. It was easy enough to get to. The Asok stop for the train is around the corner. We take that one stop to a station called Phrom Phong. You can walk right from the station into the store.

Joanna wanted an elephant. It’s the national symbol of Thailand, and done right it could be quite interesting.

Well, Pandora just didn’t get it. The store had an elephant charm, which looked like a fugitive from a Walt Disney cartoon. For some reason, the store had nothing else relating to Thailand.

The Fat Cow, on the other hand, was a winner. Larry told me it’s Noi’s favorite place.

The place is run by an ex-pat. I think his accent is British.

The menu has various options, but the emphasis is clearly on hamburgers. 

Like most of the beef we’ve seen in Thailand, it is grass-fed and imported from Australia. It is delicious.

I had mine medium rare. I know we’re not supposed to do that, but hey, I love beef when it’s red inside.

We had a big platter of fries to share and, when that was gone, ordered more. 

It was perfect bar food to go with another of the emerging collections of interesting beer. The bar had no taps, but otherwise it was like drinking beer at some of the better places back home.

There were brands I didn’t know. I had an interesting IPA called Showdown from Outlaw, which may may have been developed by a Thai company but for legal reasons is brewed in Laos. 

The big brewers in the country have backed laws penalizing the manufacture, sale, and possession of craft beer. 

There was an American style pale that reminded me of a milder Sierra Nevada. Joanna liked that one, and finished it for me while I went on to another.

We had to get up early on Tuesday, even though our flight wasn’t to leave till 3:15.

The early rising was my fault. 

When you enter Thailand, you fill out two forms. One the immigration officer keeps; the other you keep to surrender on your way out.

I lost mine, and had no idea what kind of line I’d have to stand in to get a replacement. 

When we went to check in, before noon, I asked the lady at the counter what I should do. 

Just fill out a new card, she said.

Where do I get one? 

Oh, I can give you one.

Problem solved.

As a result, the wait at the airport was longer than the flight. We were in the air for about two and a half hours. As Gregory put it when we met him in Bangkok, long enough for one movie and a TV show.

Hong Kong International on Lantau Island is one of the better airports of the world.
It’s efficient; service is great. It’s well marked.

We had a 16-hour layover. All the United flights leaving Bangkok on the afternoon of the 31st had layovers in Hong Kong. 

Most were four or five hours. The longest, 16 hours, would let us rest for the night between flights. It would also put us into the Regal Airport Hotel.

We had stayed there for a night at the end of our trip to Hong Kong in 2012. We loved the place.

After we entered the terminal at Suvarnabhumi in Bangkok, we didn’t go outside until we had cleared Customs at Newark. The Regal is connected to the terminal in Hong Kong by a corridor.

We followed a half dozen monks who were apparently also rooming at the hotel.

Hong Kong time is an hour later than Bangkok. That put us at the gate a little before 6. Less than two hours later, we had cleared immigration, checked in, and were in the restaurant sampling a local craft brew. 

There is a Hong Kong craft brewery called Gwei Lo, a Cantonese term of contempt for Europeans. As far as I can tell, that translates as “Ghost Guy.” But it is usually rendered in English as “Foreign Devil,” which conveys a better idea of the connotation.

If I see anything called “gwei lo,” I have to try it. 

The bar had two ales, a pale ale and an India pale ale, from Gwei Lo. 

I had the pale first. It was good. Not a strong mouth-filling flavor, but a good bitter edge and some perfume. 

I could have enjoyed more than one of them, but moved on to the IPA, which was more to my liking. The flavor and fragrance were not very different from the first, but were more intense.

Joanna liked the pale ale better. She liked it so much that she actually ordered a bottle for herself. That’s unheard of. 

I thought she was reordering for me. But no, she was ordering one of her own—and she finished it. She had never done that before.

She brought the bottle home as a souvenir.

We had gotten used to the smaller portions served in Thailand, so we ordered too much food.

Had we known how much was going to be on each plate, we would have asked for one and divided it, the way we do at most American restaurants.

I managed to get through half of the bangers and mash on my plate. They were tasty enough, and I probably ate more than I needed, but even so I had to waste too much.

Our flight out the next morning was scheduled for 11:15 with a 2:45 p.m. arrival in Newark. The plane was late getting to the gate, and the doors didn’t close till almost noon. 

We landed in Newark around 3 and were back at Joanna’s house around 5. 

Gwei Lo beer in Hong Kong. Who knows? Maybe by the time we get back to Thailand there will be craft beer called Farang.

I’m sending this on November 2, the Day of the Dead. Think well of the ghosts, gang.


Sukhumvit Redux

October 27-28

We have a neighborhood in Chiang Mai now, between the Tha Phae Gate and the English bars on Ratchapakkhinai. It feels like we’re getting one in Bangkok, too, along Sukhumvit Road.

A year and a half ago, on Joanna’s first visit to Bangkok and my second, we stayed at a hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 6. Hot water was a problem there (it kept trailing off) so we didn’t want to go there again. But we liked the environs.

This trip we stayed first at Centric Place, a hotel in a small side street that no one could find. It was maybe a mile from here, but in a very different part of town. 

It was OK, but it was a hike getting anywhere interesting and if we had to hire a ride back, forget it. The drivers had no clue.

Now we are in a hotel that has been open only a few months, the Connex Asoke. I’m paying a bit more, but still less than the best rate I can get in Fairfield, N.J.

What’s more, it has everything we want: air conditioning, of course, but also space, isolation from street noise, and above all, water pressure. 

We’ve been out for strolls to some familiar places, including Soi 8, which has our watering holes from the last trip. Chuvit Garden, the lovely park dedicated to the Lord Jesus Christ and owned by Bangkok’s principal brothel owner, is a short walk down Sukhumvit Road from here.

Now that we know the neighborhood a little better, getting here next time may lose some of its comic side.

It’s funny. We did the trip from Chiang Mai back to Bangkok only a year and a half ago, but I had forgotten most of the details. I should have read my blog as a necessary review.

You go through a security check at the terminal door of the Chiang Mai airport. This is the only place I remember doing that.

We got to the airport too early to check in. Apparently the carrier, Nok Air, has its computer programmed to allow check-ins a maximum of two hours before departure.

So we went to a coffee shop for drinks and pastry, which would serve us as lunch.

We went back to the desk at 12:30, then stopped for more coffee near the gate, before we went through a second security check and waited for boarding to start.

So we got into Don Mueang Airport at Bangkok just fine.

That’s when everything, including me, started to get a little screwy.

We came out of baggage claim and ran into a woman asking if we wanted a taxi.

Yes, we did. We followed her, and for some stupid reason, I expected her to point the way to the taxi stand. 

No, way. She led us to a desk marked “airport services” (in English only). 

You never accept rides from people hawking them at airports, or just about anywhere else. But like a rube, I went along.

We said we wanted to go to Sukhumvit Soi 16. 

They quoted 700 baht. It actually took a couple of seconds to hit me. That’s $21 American. There’s no local cab ride in all Thailand that costs that much, even before gasoline prices started to fall.

We went outside and followed signs. They led me to a waiting room where I received a small ticket with number 264 on it. No. 230 was at one of the desks at the time.

I had a vague sense of deja vu. I probably blocked this out of memory. It was a lot clumsier and slower than even the cab stand at Newark.

Even so, it took maybe five minutes, ten tops, to be called. They brought in a driver, who led me outside, where Joanna was waiting with the bags.

I handed him the paper with the address of the hotel.

We got to Soi 16 all right, and then he was lost. We went down the alley too fast to read numbers or signs. 

We told him to slow down. We told him to stop and ask another cabbie for directions. We told him to phone the hotel. He went down the block and then up and around. 

He missed the place two or three times before he pulled into a driveway off Sukhumvit and talked to the security guard there. 

He turned around and seemed to be heading back into traffic. 

We said, no, we’re getting out. We’ll get another cab.

As I’m stepping out of the door, two young women come to the car. They are wearing printed aprons that say “Connex Asoke.”

I shook the first one’s hand. I am so glad to see you.

I had thought the guy was pulling that old cab trick of driving us around to run the meter up. 

To his credit, though, the hotel is hard to see and is in an unexpected place. It really isn’t on Soi 16, or at least doesn’t appear to be. It is at an intersection of another road, Ratchadaphisek, and Sukhumvit. 

Soi 16 begins a little farther down Ratchadaphisek on the far side of the road. Maybe it picks up again like some of the crazy intersections in New York, like the corner of Waverly Place, Waverly Place, and Waverly Place in Greenwich Village, where the street goes in three directions, or just below Herald Square, where Sixth Avenue is labeled Broadway and Broadway is identified as Ave. of the Americas.

The ladies walked us to the hotel, where we checked in and waited for Larry, who showed up around 4.

We walked to a craft beer bar appropriately called Craft. It was closed. 

This was, after all, the second day of the funeral rites for King Bhumibol. Although there was no official prohibition, the government had suggested that alcohol sales be discontinued on the 27th as well as the 26th. 

Craft seemed to have taken the suggestion.

We backtracked and stopped instead at an English-style pub named for Queen Victoria. The taps were nowhere near as interesting as Craft’s, but the pub did have the pale ale called Old Speckled Hen.

We went for dinner at the Bella Napoli, the Italian restaurant on Soi 31, where we went year and a half ago, during our last stay in the Sukhumvit area. That’s when we met Larry’s friend who had just returned from Nepal.

This time, Joanna had spaghetti with white clam sauce. I had pizza di bufala. Mozzarella made from buffalo milk is delicious, so I go for that every time I can. 

Larry’s pizza had a hint of sausage, if I remember right, and was also excellent.

Then we called it a night.

Next morning Joanna and I went for an early walk that took us to some familiar places. We stopped at Chuvit Garden and later passed Soi 8. 

The Skytrain runs over Sukhumvit, and below the track level is a pedestrian walkway about two stories above the ground. 

Joanna noticed an access stair with an escalator that would take us to the walkway. 

It’s easier and safer to cross the road that way than to try the lights and crosswalks. Drivers here don’t always stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, even when lights are red.

Anyway, that’s how we got to the far side of the main road, where the odd-numbered sois are. We passed the Pink Pussy souvenir store, and Joanna remembered that Doilanka, a shop that serves wonderful Thai coffee, was in one of the alleys around here.

We started to look for it down each lane we passed.

After a while, I was sure we had passed it. Joanna, though, believed it was in Soi 1. 

She was right, of course.

Pom, the owner, wasn’t there, so we left a note for him in the guest book on the counter.

Joanna doesn’t drink coffee, so she tried something new, steamed milk flavored with coconut water. It was a little rich and sweet for her taste, she said.

I have been often drinking iced coffee in the heat, so I had an iced Americano. 

We shared a scone made with cottage cheese, and that was breakfast.

By the time we walked the mile or so back to the hotel, we were soaked with sweat.

We stayed out of the heat at the hotel. Half a scone doesn’t last all that long, and we knew that dinner wouldn’t start till 6 at the earliest.

The cafe in the lobby serves breakfast and lunch, so we went there for some rice porridge. That’s where Joanna got the photo of the day.

We sat there till 4, when Larry joined us again. 

Craft was open this time. The bar’s website says its Soi 23 location has 46 taps. 

That sounds about right. The beer list consists of a photo album. When one beer runs out of stock and a new variety replaces it, a guy comes around and subs the new beer’s label for the one that just ended.

They are mostly, or perhaps all, imports, because craft brewing is illegal in Thailand.

We sampled a few. I settled on Tall Poppy India Red Ale, from New Zealand. Red IPAs are some of the best brews in the world. This one, not so much. 

It was interesting, but strange. It tasted of almost burnt grain and bitter cocoa. I don’t know if that was from the hops, or if they had indeed brewed it with unsweetened chocolate. 

Brew Dog Punk was a mild IPA from Scotland. Scotch ales tend to run sweet, but this one was properly dry, as an IPA should be.

Joanna’s favorite, and mine, from the bunch was Fresh Squeezed IPA from Deschutes in Portland, Ore. This had the hoppy pine scent and flavor, as well as a touch of hop citrus.

Joanna was craving green vegetables, and as expected, Larry knew the right place.

We took a short cab ride to get there. I can’t remember the name or address of the place. 

It serves a fusion of Thai and Cantonese.

And that’s what we had. 

There was Cantonese fried chicken, stir-fried greens, and stir-fried mixed vegetables.

Larry ordered several hot dishes. I remember mushrooms in various shapes, pork, beef (I think), and a few other things. Many of these dishes were fortified with hot red and hotter green chiles.

With all that heat, we really needed the white rice and the Heineken. Well, at least I did.

After dinner, Joanna was feeling sleepy, so Larry and I saw her to the hotel and walked up Sukhumvit a short way to a mall called Korea Town.

The Beer Galleria had a selection of bottled imports. I had one called Arrgh. I chose it mainly because it had a pirate cartoon on the label. 

I remembered the sign in the Neptune brew bar in Livingston, Mont.: “To err is human; to arr is pirate.” 

As an inspirational message, it can make you want to teach cuss-words to a parrot.

Flying Dog Easy, a pleasant session IPA, put the cap on Saturday night.

I went back to the hotel and slept.

Sleep well, gang, and sweet dreams of pirates and hops and cabbies who can find their way around.


Thursday, January 25, 2018

Royal Funeral, Empty Streets

October 24-26

Chiang Mai is one of the most charming places I have seen. There are temples everywhere. There are something like 300 Buddhist temples in and around the city which has a population of about 150,000.

The temple walls may be dark teak or white masonry. The tile roofs rise at a sharp pitch. The eaves and points of the gables are topped by carvings—sometimes birds, sometimes feathery abstract silhouettes, sometimes small nagas, the fantastic snake guards.

Carvings in the gables are painted gold and inlaid with mirrored glass that catches the sun.

The roof tiles are colorful. A frequent color combination is red, green, and orange. That is the color of 7-Eleven. 

Could that be why the franchise became so popular here? Buddha blessed it? Or maybe people thought they were going to church.

We leave tomorrow morning, and as usual, I wish we were staying longer.

The city is half closed today for King Bhumibol’s funeral. Many people from all over the country have descended on Bangkok to catch a glimpse of the proceedings. 

Others are watching on television. As a result, we encountered very light traffic when we went out for a stroll this morning.

The park by Tha Phae Gate is usually filled with people playing with the pigeons. The birds are so used to being fed that they will land in people’s hands to peck food. It’s a popular photo op, like Trafalgar Square.

We were able to cross the road on the far side of the moat with little difficulty. The last time we tried to cross this road, a year and a half ago, a man on a motorcycle delivery vehicle stared me in the eye and ran a red light in front of us.

We followed what I later learned is Tha Phae Road. We passed more temples, including one, Wat Bupparam, with a small stupa dressed in gold foil. Monks were setting up displays of flowers, possibly for a ceremony relating to the king’s funeral.

Most businesses were closed along the road for the funeral day, but we found a place to stop for coffee.

We saw a sign for China Town and while we were heading that way, we came to the Warorot Market, the sprawling neighborhood of stalls and shops next to the Ping River.

We had been here before. It seems to be the chief marketplace for the locals, at least in this part of town. 

Many of the stalls were shut, but many more were open. Televisions were tuned to the ceremonies in Bangkok.

We took a tuk-tuk back to the hotel and began watching the funeral procession for the king. All the Thai stations are carrying the same live program.

A long funeral cortege accompanied a chariot bearing an urn containing the king’s body to the cremation site. The chariot was drawn by files of men in red. At the top of the chariot, there was a monk reading scriptures.

It was a very slow march: Foot forward on the trap, foot down on the bass. A complete pace could take a full second. 

Somehow they got horses to conform. There were only a few, and they were clearly reluctant. Their heads bobbed up and down with impatience. 

Once in a while a horse broke stride and reared out of line. But the rider brought him back.

There was an array of uniforms. Many were Euro-style, with peaked caps. 

Several units wore large egg-shaped hats that look like the black bearskins of palace guards in England, but the hats don’t appear to be furry. The similarity is heightened, too, because the black hats are worn with red tunics.

Others wore the same hat and tunic in blue. Some had red hats and white coats.  

A unit formed of all three colors made a Thai flag: Thin red stripe, thin white, wide blue, thin white, then thin red.

Other uniforms may be based on traditional Thai styles—peaked helmets and full trousers, similar to the clothes worn by figures in old paintings and carvings. Some of these guys carried spears.

I gather from an article in the New York Times that the cremation will begin at 10 tonight.

We leave for Bangkok tomorrow afternoon and have no idea what we’ll run into there. At least a quarter million people have traveled to the city for the funeral, and for the many rehearsals that have been televised over the past couple of weeks. 

The procession that will take the king’s ashes to the Temple of the Emerald Buddha takes place on the 27th. That’s the day we get back.

We will be some distance from the palace, in a hotel off Sukhumvit Road. It’s a Skytrain ride and a water taxi trip to get to the palace.

The streets around the palace, we hear, have been thronged, but very orderly. The Thai people genuinely loved this king.

His picture was just about everywhere when he was alive. Now it is absolutely everywhere. The caricature of the day was taken in a small air-conditioned shop of the Jhaban Road, where we had stopped for a quick beetroot juice. 

One of the activities of the past few days has been to find who will be open on the funeral day. Archer’s, Annie’s, and the U.N. will be closed. 

Cooking Love has a sign up that it is closed Thursday and Friday.

It looks like Lert Ros will be open to serve dinner, but we ate fish there last night. Girasole, the Italian restaurant not far from the hotel, will open from five to ten. Maybe we’ll go there.

No one is permitted to sell alcoholic beverages on the 26th. Many will be dry for a while longer.

I haven’t had pizza in a week.

We went to Girasole for pasta and wine on the 24th. 

Joanna had a craving for calamari, and they did a pretty good job of it. It came with a tomato sauce with garlic, olive oil, and possibly a bit of anchovy.

The spaghetti Bolognese was OK. A little sweetness, but not enough to spoil it.

We followed that with ravioli in a marinara sauce, which had a small but very satisfying bit of heat.

The only red wine they serve by the glass is a South African blend of cabernet sauvignon and something else. It was far too acidic to drink by itself. 

Food, though, even a little bread, made it much more palatable.

Breakfast has varied. We stopped one morning at Archer’s where I had an English breakfast (complete with tomatoes and baked beans) and Joanna had the healthy option: yogurt, muesli, fruit, and honey.

Another morning we went to Top Coffee for more cheok.

Yesternight, the 25th, we went to Lert Ros for fish. We reprised the stir-fried vegetables in oyster sauce (a broth that goes very well with the grilled fish, by the way) and tried a dish of pork and fun si, a transparent capellini made from mung bean flour.

I didn’t care for the last one so much. The pork was like pieces of hot dog.

Lotus, the Macau cable channel, had a “Godfather” marathon yesterday. We caught part of Part II before we switched to coverage of the funeral preparations. Later, we  tuned back to Lotus for the beginning of Part III. 

Coppola was once one of my favorite film-makers. I even sat through “Apocalypse Now’ and enjoyed parts of it. Godfather III was the start of his decline. 

Then came “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” when he was so focused on weird shadows that he didn’t bother to direct his actors. How can anybody get Anthony Hopkins to act as a block of wood?

The funeral procession has reached the cremation site. 

Using platforms raised and lowered by hand cranks, attendants have transferred the urn to a cart and then, after a march several times around the crematorium, to the place where it will be burned.

The crematorium is a huge structure called phra meru das, the size of a small palace. It represents Mount Meru, the site of Buddhist and Hindu heaven. It is the same symbolism as the towers of Angkor Wat.

This one was built specifically for King Bhumibol and will be consumed when he is cremated.

No one is permitted to sell beer or any drink containing alcohol today. I have a few cans in the fridge. I can’t carry them on the plane, and I don’t trust baggage handlers. So I will open a few to keep them from going to waste.

Bhumibol lived 88 years, 71 as king supporting projects and programs that lifted the fortunes of Thailand. His life was good. 

Life is good.

Stay well, all.