We were back in Bangkok, Thailand again from Tuesday, March 5 until Monday, March 11 so Anna could give five separate talks at the 2019 APAO Congress. Regular readers of this blog would know that we frequent Thailand quite often. In fact, we were only in Bangkok about eight weeks ago and I’m going to be in Phuket, Thailand once more at the end of the month, so to read more about the convivial chaos that constitutes staying in Bangkok for a week, just take a look at one of the previous posts based there, most of which are from the past two and a half years. This time, however, instead of a massive rant detailing each day, I’m just going to write about a few HIGHLIGHTS accompanied by a bunch of photos.
We were staying at the Pullman Grande Sukhumvit, right near Sukhumvit MRT, Asok BTS, and just a few doors down from the notorious Soi Cowboy, as well as Soi 23 so, despite the fact that Anna was going to be exceptionally busy for the bulk of our time there, I wasn’t short of options for travel or entertainment. The hotel itself was really nice, but they allowed smoking in the rooms so every time we opened the door we were greeted by a waft of the aroma of stale cigarettes.
Anyway, our first full day involved Anna attending and speaking at the congress while I just traveled to nearby areas of the city to have a look at a few shops that interested me until it was time to come back, get changed, and meet up for dinner with some of Anna’s colleagues, our friends, Rosa and Roberto from Spain, and some other attendees of the congress at a really good Thai restaurant. I spent the bulk of the time drinking beers and chatting with Roberto, often amused at his reactions to some reasonably spicy local dishes, all the while everyone else did the necessary networking that happens at dinners like this, until it was time to head to a bar for more drinks. The dinner and drinks had been organised by one of Anna’s Singapore colleagues and a lot of Singaporeans don’t tend to do things by halves when they are entertaining foreign guests, even when they themselves are also visitors. Case in point, we were going to be having drinks at CRU Champagne Bar, a relatively exclusive rooftop bar in Centara Grand at Centralworld, where all of the doctors would be pouring from magnums of G.M. Mumm, while I stuck to the only beer they had, Leffe Royale, a strong Belgian ale that cost ฿1290 (US$40.80) for a 750ml (25.36 fl. oz.) bottle. Good thing we weren’t paying, but it did lead us to HIGHLIGHT #1: CRU Champagne Bar has a strict dress code for entrance to the top level which, among other rules, forbids people from wearing thongs/flip flops/slippers. A Chinese tourist wanted to enter and she met every other aspect of the dress code, however, she was wearing what looked like a pair of thongs one would purchase from a discount store, adorned with plastic jewels. Security wouldn’t let her in, but she wasn’t perturbed. “They’re real diamonds, very expensive, wah!” she screamed over and over again, but the security guard figured nobody would glue diamonds that large to a two-dollar pair of slippers and refused her entry. I considered suggesting that she borrow a lighter off somebody to prove the “diamonds” wouldn’t melt, or even better, try cutting a hole in the glass balcony with them, but in the end she gave up, relegated to the second-top floor, which really wasn’t that much different. In fact, Anna and myself probably spent more time on that level with some of Anna’s friends that also couldn’t get upstairs due to their attire.
Anyway, here’s how it looked:
The next couple of days involved Anna giving talks while I just looked around different parts of the city, just entertaining myself, then attending conference dinners in the evening. On the Wednesday evening this involved going to the Seafood Market & Restaurant, a place with the slogan “If it swims, we have it” and this is where we experienced HIGHLIGHT #2: This place is absolutely enormous and they have a lot of live seafood, some of it on ice and some of it in tanks. The premise is that you choose the seafood you want and how you’d like it cooked and it is brought to your table. At one stage we were all sitting around with a few beers when I saw a giant lobster trying to escape from the container in which it was being kept. I pointed it out to Anna and she came to the conclusion that we had to get some photos of them. Anna first wanted a picture of her hand next to one of the lobsters for some perspective, followed by her standing with them, however, between shots a nearby fish flipped up in the air, scaring the bejesus out of Anna and causing her to emit a rather loud scream that got the attention of pretty much everyone in the restaurant. She tried her best not to laugh too much for the second photo, but it was a little difficult:
On Friday night, the plan was to meet up with my old mate Tim Howard, a friend I grew up with who lives in Bangkok, yet is almost never around when I’m in town, a similar problem he faces with me whenever he visits Singapore. I met up with him and some of his co-workers in a really small bar and we had a couple of beers before going to the Ratchada Night Market, also known as the Train Market. When we arrived we went in through some dodgy back entrance and got ourselves some great seats early in one of the many bars before a huge Friday night crowd arrived. The beers were going down quite well and Anna eventually joined us, but neither her nor myself had eaten yet besides a small plate of pad thai, however, Tim and his colleagues had had a few burritos earlier, which leads us to HIGHLIGHT #3: No, this highlight wouldn’t be the tourists who made their children piss into plastic Coke bottles because they were too tight to pay ฿3 (US$0.10) to use the public toilets. It was the food, but for amusing reasons. To begin with, I love eating mala, a super-spicy Sichuan food out of China. Yes, it’s hot, but I can handle chili pretty well, plus I love the numbness mala gives your mouth while still burning a little. Some more about mala:
Mala sauce is a popular oily, spicy, and numbing Chinese sauce which consists of Sichuanese peppercorn, chili pepper and various spices simmered with oil.
Regarded as a regional dish for Chongqing cuisine and Sichuan cuisine, it has become one of the most popular sauces in Chinese cuisine and spawned many regional variants.
The term málà is a combination of two Chinese characters: “numbing” (麻) and “spicy (picant)” (辣), referring to the feeling in the mouth after eating the sauce.
The precise origins of the dish are unclear, but many sources attribute its development to night markets in Chongqing that targeted pier workers in the 19th to 20th century. The strong flavour and thick layer of oil helps preserve foods and removes the unpopular smells of the cheap foods, such as solidified blood, beef stomach and kidney, which were usually served to pier workers.
Anna and I had decided to grab a bite to eat while the others remained drinking at our table in the bar so naturally I was kind of excited when I found mala crocodile skewers. I purchased one, Anna didn’t want any, and began to eat, but before long it occurred to me that I had forgotten one vital point — Any time we eat Sichuan food, whether it is hot pot or just meat dishes piled with chilis, we’re generally in an air-conditioned restaurant, not outdoors in a crowded market with the temperature still well above 30°C (86°F). After finishing my skewer I could feel my head getting warmer and warmer and before long I was sweating profusely and with diluted pupils due to a combination of the spiciness and the environment in which I was consuming it, my face resembling that of someone who had just experienced some kind of religious epiphany. I’m not kidding!
It would take a while for my sweating to decrease, yet we’d only just begun eating. There was a stall nearby our table that specialised in ribs, but these weren’t any old ribs, these looked more like the spine of some animal, probably a buffalo or something, served in a bowl with a sauce consisting predominately of chopped green chilis. They were available in several sizes and if you got the large ones, as some families were doing, you received what amounted to a tripod of backbones, the tip of which was at about eye-level. We ordered a small portion, still a substantial amount of vertebrae, as well as some vegetables, donned our plastic gloves and began gnawing away. I got a little too into it, my perspiring face soon greasy with bits of fat hanging from it and meat stuck between my teeth. It didn’t help that the gloves were a little small for my massive hands, my busted pinkie tearing one of the loves as I put it on. Still, the ribs were great and I was determined to finish as much as I could, however, I accidentally inhaled a piece of chili up the back of my sinus, leading to a sneezing fit that continued for about 10 minutes, with Anna starting out laughing hysterically before getting genuinely concerned for my wellbeing. The sneezing eventually ceased, we finished the ribs, and made our way back to the bar, me covered in a combination of sweat, grease, fat, and snot.
A look at those ribs:
Anna was free on Saturday so we did a bit of shopping, but she was exhausted that night, although I wasn’t so I headed around to the Clubhouse, a sports bar I love, and ended up watching Scotland lose to Wales in the Six Nations rugby with two Welsh guys, one whom was celebrating his 47th birthday, the other celebrating his divorce. These were two of the most British guys you could imagine, eating nachos with a knife and fork, that sort of thing, and it was a hilarious night, but as I was walking home, part of the footpath collapsed and I ended up rolling an ankle and sprained my wrist, as well as quite badly injuring my thumb in the process of catching myself. The thumb is actually still quite painful now.
The plan for Sunday was to meet up again with Tim and his wife for dinner. That morning Anna saw a report on Al Jazeera about a Thai stencil artist called Headache Stencil, Thailand’s equivalent of Banksy. A little bit more about Headache Stencil:
Headache Stencil is a pseudonymous Thailand-born street artist and political activist. Dubbed Thailand’s version of the British graffiti artist Banksy, Headache Stencil is known for his satirical graffiti art depicting the military officials of Thailand who took power in 2004.
Headache’s works first appeared on the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai in 2014. He became more widely known in January 2018 with his graffiti of the Thai junta No. 2 Prawit Wongsuwan’s face inside an alarm clock, a jab at the lack of financial transparency by the generals, who was struggling to explain his collection of undeclared luxury watches. In March 2018, he was in the spotlight for his graffiti of a black panther crying tears of blood, a reference to the case of a Thai construction magnate who was later charged with poaching one of the protected cats during an illegal safari hunt in a national park. In September 2018, he depicted Thai junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha as “a lucky cat” with a paw raised to rake in money.
His nickname “Headache” alludes to the pain he hopes to inflict on the mighty.
This leads us to HIGHLIGHT #4: A Headache Stencil exhibition, the final highlight of this trip. His latest exhibition, Thailand Casino, was being held at WTF Gallery, right near where we were having dinner. If you want to know more about the exhibition or the art itself, it’s probably best to take a look at the link, but here is what we saw there when we limped on over:
The exhibition was really interesting, dinner was a fun night, especially meeting Tim’s wife and son for the first time, and the fun continued afterward at an awesome little bar called The Iron Fairies.
As always, we had a blast again in Bangkok. It was great to finally get to meet you, Nuth, and apologies to all the old friends and students that I wasn’t able to meet up with on this occasion, but we’ll try our best to next time we’re in town, which probably won’t be all that far in the future.