Friday, November 25, 2016

"It's Thailand"

In the small beach town of Ao Nang, down a nondescript alley, wedged between trinket shops and Thai massage parlours is a most incongruous establishment: A shooting range. Despite being the size of a (small) 7-11, this plucky storefront boasted “SHOOT GLOCK!” and “TRY SNIPER RIFLE!” and displayed a conspicuous pile of hardware on the front counter by the lounging tout. Given the complete lack of soundproofing, not to mention any apparent reinforcement to the back wall of the shop (behind the plywood targets), we momentarily assumed that these were airsoft, or video games, or...well, anything sensible and sensical. But this is Thailand. At our slightest expression of interest, the tout leapt into action, proclaiming “THREE-FIFTY SEVEN! REAL MAGNUM!!” and swung an enormous Smith and Wesson revolver into view. “You shoot!” he encouraged, fumbling a handful of thumb-sized cartridges onto the counter. For just over a thousand baht, with no waiver, no training, and no personal protection whatsover (to say nothing of the unfortunate neighbors) you too can go Dirty Harry on the mean streets of Krabi.
Drive the front of your car and
don't wait for your turn, it'll never come.
Welcome to Thailand. It’s a thrumming country on the cusp of joining the first world, and in a pell-mell hurry to get there. The result is a national culture of devil-may-care pragmatism where a tenuous “it works” is the status quo. When we gawk at the rough edges and obvious potential for catastrophe, Thais seem to approach things with a combination of blithe optimism and zen fatalism. With a little practice, we’ve learned to adopt their standing cultural shrug and just say “It’s Thailand.”

A glance into the streets perfectly captures this this state of affairs. Bangkok traffic is famous for its relentless melee of cars, delivery vans, tuk tuks, scooters, food carts, and jaywalkers. The lane lines are a suggestion at best, as drivers form new lanes at will and impatient scooter riders fish ladder up the wrong side of the street. Pedestrians cross with reckless confidence and the ubiquitous traffic cops appear to direct cars essentially at random. And yet, it mostly works.

The neon lights and cheap speakers are all part of the fun.
Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the resigned disregard for Bangkok’s intractable gridlock--and the character of Thailand more generally--than the tuk tuk.  As we experienced on our tuk tuk food tour, they’re not meaningfully different than a bathtub with three wheels and a two-stroke engine. The driver straddles the front wheel, gearshift between his legs, and tears along with two terrified passengers sitting atop a bench seat that conceals the fuel tank, a pressurized gas canister essentially strapped in with hose clamps. Hop in, hold on, and don’t think too hard. Admittedly, the tuk tuk ought not to exist. It is not the product of a regulatory loophole, or a savvy compromise between four wheels and two. It lacks the maneuverability of a motorbike, and any of the safety or comfort features of a car.  The tuk tuk exists solely because tourists ride them, and tourists ride them because it’s fun (or “sanook”, if you want to dig a little deeper into the Thai national character.)

It's called a "Thai kitchen" and that refers to where it is,
not what it's cooking.
Cooking up a storm may well include cooking in a storm.
Even thinking that the tuk tuk exists as clever evasion of regulations or codes is, itself, a misread of Thailand. Instead, think about a place where asking for permission simply...isn’t considered. “Thai street food” is a common phrase you’ll see in cookbooks and travel shows but the real truth seems to be that in essence it’s *all* street food. Got a rolling cooler and a hibachi? Congrats, you’re in the restaurant business. Even for places with a fixed address, the average Bangkok restaurant seems like a hermit crab; it scuttled off the street to try out a storefront. Indeed, many hole in the wall spots stay true to their roots (or perhaps just maximize table space) by annexing the back alley for a fry kitchen. Those guys under the canvas tarp, sweating and toiling at woks over blazing charcoal blast furnaces jury-rigged from oil cans, they’re not hobos. They’re whipping up today’s special while getting blasted on pirated mp3’s and cheap hooch.

We have a dozen more examples, of course, from the jungle “Monkey Trail” constructed with a perilous economy of lumber to the Mad Max “long tail boats” powered by salvaged V6’s, crankshaft and all. When we marvel, sigh, and say “It’s Thailand”, it’s not a pejorative. In the race to hop aboard the first world economy train, everything is a first draft and there’s plenty of time to edit later.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Headless Buddhas and Floating Markets

Our first full day in Bangkok was not actually in Bangkok, but 40 miles north in the ancient capitol city of Ayutthaya. Pronounced “Ayudaya” (or “Iudea”), it was a sprawling, cultural center, royal residence, and seat of regional power from the 1300s to 1700s. Early Dutch ambassadors to the court of King Narai in the 1600s particularly remarked on the carefully planned city layout, and masterful use of rivers and canals for trade and logistics (and when the Dutch are impressed by your locks, you’ve done something right). Our understanding from the (somewhat scant) information at the site is that the city sat at the confluence of three rivers, and used the rivers, tidal flood plain, and purpose-built canals for a sort of water pressure arbitrage, resulting in an ability to shunt the flow of water at will around many miles of waterways. So, something like Amsterdam, Versailles, and Venice, rolled into one. They could even use the system for defense, arranging flows to flood surrounding fields at high tide and making the city effectively un-siegable, so add Mont Saint Michel to that list too.

Our first stop in Ayutthaya was, appropriately, a temple: Wat Chaiwatthanaram. Many of the best preserved ruins in the city are the ancient wats, of which there are 26 in the roughly twelve square miles of the old city center. The wats are striking -- my first impression was dominated by the sense of utterly exotic “otherness”. The tiered and spired prangs and stupas can’t be mistaken for any other culture; even if you don’t immediately recognize them as Buddhist, one glance is enough to know that we’re not in Kansas anymore. After the initial tableau sinks in, the next thing to notice are the Buddhas: 120 seated Buddhas ring the outmost wall, and every single one is missing its head. The signage at the site itself handwaves as much as is possible for a sign at a national historic landmark, something to the effect that the Buddhas once had heads, but now do not. Preston and I were both struck by the degree to which this seems to sweep a tremendously significant cultural event under the proverbial rug. The actual event was the sacking and razing of the entire city of Ayutthaya by the Burmese, in 1767. In addition to destroying the town, they desecrated the wats, making a particular effort to decapitate the Buddhas. In Thai and Buddhist culture, this is even a graver insult than it seems: the head is considered the most sacred and elevated part of the body so even touching someone’s head would be taken as deeply disrespectful (decapitation, of course, rather overshadows that).In Krystal and my travels, we found that Europeans don’t seem to miss a chance to point fingers about who has been setting fire to their city. Whatever the exact reason for glossing over the history lesson, we agreed that its notable absence says something just as interesting about the culture as its presence would have said about history.

After Wat Chaiwatthanaram, our next stop was to check off one of the reasons we were here in the first place: elephants. The Ayutthaya Royal Elephant Kraal, once a place for capturing and taming elephants as working animals, now houses a conservation program called Elephantstay. We’ve done the reading on elephant treatment and exploitation, as well as ethical managing of the animals. Some of the things I read suggested that elephants were innately not ridable and required brutal treatments to break before being suitable for riders. However, a lengthy conversation with a young animal conservationist at Elephantstay suggests that the situation is much more nuanced. She mentioned that one of the major challenges of running a conservation effort in the modern age is fending off ill-informed critiques and hate campaigns from self-proclaimed animal rights activists. Working elephants continue to be culturally important, and their utility to jungle people creates incentive to maintain habitat and a viable population. Conservation and breeding programs also need captive elephants to be visible and celebrated in order to create public awareness needed to fund species-wide efforts. I didn’t have time in our brief conversation to raise the question of the crushing process, but it’s clear that the relationship between laboring animals and conservation is complex. If it’s any barometer, the passion from the Elephantstay folks combined with their success (including scientific papers and 66 successful births) suggests that their view is well worth listening to.

Our final stop of the afternoon was the floating market. Nothing historical, just fun and funky and a bit touristy, but aimed more at Thai tourists than internationals. Previously, our local contact had provided advice for farang eating in Thailand; if the place has more than one table, it's probably a reasonably safe bet. A single table place, in his estimation, is the same kind of place that'll chill the fish on ice, and happily serve the same ice in your drink. With that as our working definition of a gringo-safe lunch spot we waded into the market. Eventually the smell of food and (unintelligible) shouts of a hawker drew us across a bridge and under a low canopy. Something grilling? Check. Noodles? Check. More than one table? Check. No other white folks? Er... check. We came for real Thai food, let's do this. As we sat down (shoes off, cross-legged on the floor, natch; in for a penny, in for a pound), a young woman showed up with menus. As we started to peruse, another young woman with another menu. Then a man, then a flurry of people and menus seemingly appearing from everywhere, and a shouting din as they all pressed for the merits of their various dishes. Our estimation had been wrong -- it wasn't a single restaurant but an all-out noodles-and-curry brawl from individual vendors. Our orders were met by counter-offers and one-upmanship (Why chicken? My shrimp better! No two rice, three!); I felt like I was one wrong hand gesture away from accidentally buying soybean futures or a hundred shares of a derivative swap. Eventually, orders placed, they all retired to their corners and within minutes dishes made their way from small stalls and even anchored boats to our table. Oh, and the woman with no menus at all and just a steady drumbeat of "LE-OH, LE-OH"? Yeah, turns out LEO is beer. Yes please. So -- a tableful of handmade dishes, enough rice to make it respectable, and beer for 5? That'll be 520 thai baht... or about $14.50 USD. Thailand, I think you and me are gonna get along just fine.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

House Special

One task that has proven surprisingly difficult is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the one that we've had in the works for the longest. Even before planning for this trip began, we've wanted to emulate the trick used to good effect by some of our widely traveled friends, who have on different occasions gotten their hands on a wallet card, lovingly handwritten  and carefully folded, saying something to the effect of "house special". One was in Mandarin for a unicycling trip to China, which they presented to the waitress or chef at off-the beaten path restaurants as a conversation starter and invitation to authenticity, a way to break out of the assumptions that might be built up around a group of laowai appearing in a restaurant that doesn't get too many foreigners. Another such card is handwritten in Thai is presented by way of passport or shibboleth at any putative Thai restaurant in the States, for the amusement and possible the vetting of the chef. (I suspect his is less of a request and more in the manner of a doctor's note, to the effect of "The gringo can take it. Make it Thai hot.")

An attempt was made, but this is *not* "the special of the house" 
There's lots to love about this idea, even apart from the unexpected menu items it might introduce us to. To our mind, it seems like a good way to break the ice and show respect for the culture and the establishment, and maybe learn something that passes by those relying on the "grunt and point" school. It seems like it should be a universal concept -- "Chef's special." "The special of the house." "The chef's favorite." What your restaurant is known for. As these increasing generalities are attempting to gesticulate at, we have never been to Thailand before, we want to see what they want to show us.

As it turns out, however, this little exercise started teaching us things about the culture even before we got to Thailand. Simply put: We still haven't managed to get one. I first inferred that we were swimming against the tide when the first puzzled reaction of a Thai-born friend was "How special?" Googling produced no clear answer, always an ominous sign that things are more complicated--indeed, usually a clue that you're asking the wrong question.

I also talked about the idea with a Thai flight attendant on the DC to Abu Dhabi leg of my flight. She was (perhaps stereotypically) enthusiastic about sharing her country and culture, but when I tried explaining our project, she was nonplussed. After some cajoling she eventually wrote down a phrase, but never seemed to click with the concept. When I had an opportunity to have the phrase translated by our expat host he explained, with a knowing laugh, that the result was "I want a plate of delicious food."

It has been instructive in that it caused me to re-think the basic project, from the perspective of the recipient. Perhaps, if I'm honest, the simple phrase "house special" is presumptuous, even brusque. It assumes a lot about the situation. As our expat host explains, the Bangkok dining scene is untroubled by market forces. It is perfectly possible, even likely, to see four noodle carts in a row, all selling the same dish. This would be unheard of in a culinary market where competitors attempt to distinguish themselves and restaurants and even individual chefs pride themselves on superior or even signature dishes. Instead, restaurants in Bangkok seem to exist primarily for the purpose of providing food to a notional hungry passerby. Although frustrating to our preconceived goal, this is actually a philosophy that I can appreciate.

The idea may not be a complete bust, however, because further discussion with our host lead to a more culturally meaningful area where such pride of place will come to the fore. In Chiang Mai and Krabi, respectively, Northern and Southern traditional cuisine will be on display. Chiang Mai is famed for complex, milder dishes that blend sweet with savory, whereas Krabi exemplifies the southern cuisine where spice is life and your safety is not guaranteed. So in Bangkok, perhaps the best you can do is ask for (and almost certainly receive) a plate of delicious food, but it seems that asking for "good northern cooking" or "good southern cooking" may evoke the right spirit.

Fried green chiles with chicken; Ayutthaya floating market
(Photo: Brittany Morton)
Finally, a discussion of Thai cuisine would not be complete without talking about rice. While we in the West think of Thai food as spicy, flavorful dishes of meat and vegetables and curry, over here it has repeatedly been made clear that the real place to start is with the rice. It is the staple grain crop, and the implicit, assumed background for every dish. The "entrees" that we're familiar with in an American Thai restaurant would be more properly thought of as flavoring for the rice in a Thai household. Want to eat authentic Thai? Order a lot of rice, and just one entree for your table. In fact, rice is even in the colloquial language: a standard idiomatic greeting, similar to the American "what's up?" is "gin khao reu yung?". The literal translation is "Have you eaten [rice] yet?" (the "rice" is implicit in the question). As Anthony Bourdain observed, if you have eaten today, how bad could things possibly be? And if you have eaten, of course you ate rice.

On Vegetarian Meals

"Nothing bad ever happens to a writer. It's all material." ~ Garrison Keillor

>Etihad Airways, in-flight somewhere between DC and Abu Dhabi.

Perhaps it's pure pragmatism that they give the vegetarian entree as a default to anyone who is asleep when the cart comes around. Part of me wonders if it's also because sleeping people don't object.

After surfacing from a fitful half sleep, I'm pleased to notice that a tray has appeared in front of me. I am less pleased to gradually realize that the questionable smell troubling the cabin (and my dreams) is emanating in part from my tray. Nonetheless, spurred on by a nagging hollow in my stomach and Mr. Hooten's admonition that "food is fuel", I peel back the foil to find...trouble. Breakfast appears to consist of okra and malice, with henchmen of shredded vegetables that seem to have been "cooked" without specifying a particular mode of cooking.

Blinking back bleariness, I conclude that this is probably not actually intended as breakfast (time zones being what they are), but then, I've never asked myself what breakfast is in the UAE. Still, I assume the mini Hershey bar accompaniment is not part of a balanced breakfast in any country.

I don't consider myself a picky eater, but running a serious sleep deficit and with a case of cotton mouth, this was rough sledding. After extracting the white rice and making a game stab at the vegetables, I declared defeat and looked for an exit strategy. I suspected I was in good company when I noticed that my seat mate had set his aside after opening each of the dishes but doing little more than pushing them around. This impression was confirmed as I pantomimed to ask if I could set my plate on his in the unused the middle seat. He reacted initially with a look of alarm when he thought I was offering him mine, which turned to bewilderment when he thought I was asking if I could have his uneaten portion.

We piled the dishes in the middle and shared a world weary shrug that made me wonder if every language has a phrase for "Eh, can't win 'em all".

You had me at S̄wạs̄dī

Flag of Thailand.svg
We're blowing the dust off our little corner of the web here: Rambling Rovers has been in hibernation since our shared ramble in Europe nine years ago. We've both had trips individually, but the process of bouncing ideas off each other is what really makes the fodder for this blog.

For this trip, we’re headed East. Our friend Brittany has family who are expats living in Thailand and we've been talking for years about going to visit them and explore the country. In the way of many plans, it stayed as a “maybe some day” thing, until they mentioned they might be returning to the States soon. With a deadline staring at us, schedules for our traveling companions suddenly cleared up: funny how that seems to work.

As travelers (and observers) from a Western background, we've long wanted to get to Asia. I subscribe to the parallax theory of understanding a thing: multiple perspectives help you comprehend it better, and the more and further apart the better. For an American, Europe is a substantial dose of new perspective, but Asia is, well, half again a world away.

As a first Asian destination, Thailand has some special character. Being smaller than China and India, Thai culture is less exported in the west: other than pad thai or The King and I, many Americans have less sense of what to expect of it. Similarly, because it has never been colonized (a fact that Thais are fiercely proud of), the culture is both unique and ancient. We don’t know exactly what to expect, and that’s part of the fun.

So, Thailand, here we come.