Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Working Week

Yesterday saw me finally cross the threshold of the Nation newspaper and meet with the editor, who was very understanding about my recent, unintended sabbatical. As with newspapers elsewhere, the Nation does seem in a state of crisis following the lay-off of a large chunk of the workforce last year, so they were keen to quickly put me to work.

No sooner had I stepped out of the longest taxi-ride I've ever had (the driver having to stop a total of three times to ask directions), I was back in another taxi and hurtling across town to the Thai-Japan Stadium, where a charity football match was underway in support of earthquake relief in Haiti.

Local football is undergoing something of a boom in Bangkok at present. After years of adoring European teams (in fact, football is generally the first thing anyone will want to talk to you about - it's just like home!), Thais are starting to get passionate about local teams, following a sudden sponsorship blitz. Hoping to capitalise on this for charity, the chairman of Bangkok United FC arranged four matches over two nights, with top teams slugging it out for a good cause.

Well, I assume they were top teams. As a Turkish cameraman said to me afterwards, Thai teams have a long way to go before they reach World Cup standard. Actually, that's not quite how he said it. But there certainly was a lot of half-hearted running about with only the occasional inspired twirl of the ball.

Even the crowd didn't seem that enthused, despite the efforts of duelling cheerleading squads (or men with drums and megaphones, as I call them). It was only when the game came down to a seemingly never-ending run of penalties (I really didn't realise every player got a free shot at the end of a match) that the mild-mannered man beside me started jumping and down and hurling abuse at either his team or the other. And even then everyone else in the crowd just looked embarrassed.

The highlight of the evening, for me, was hanging precariously on to the back of a motorbike taxi as it hurtled through lawless traffic to the nearest Skytrain station. Once I had resigned myself to imminent death, it was immensely exhilarating. I tried to look stoic and dignified but my eyes were watering in the smog.

Today, as there was nothing else for me to do, I was sent to observe a seminar on a new bomb-detector the Thai military has just paid millions for. This is it:

Actually, that's not it. That's a version made by a budding scientist, intending to show how the real thing is a hoax. Basically, the GT200 is supposed to be able to detect absolutely anything that is potentially dodgy, from bombs to illegal immigrants. The metal pole at the end (represented here by a car antenna), will swivel in the direction of anyone who is doing something that they shouldn't. It's hoped the device will be very useful in the troubled South (which no-one is supposed to talk about, so hush!). Each one costs over a million baht and has been bought from this UK company.

This afternoon's seminar (which was in Thai, so I may have missed a few key points) featured a panel of scientists making jokes about how unlikely it is the GT200 can detect anything, particularly given it's powered by static electricity. As the man next to me said, you'd think, for a million baht, they'd at least include a battery.

However, the panel stopped short of openly criticising the military, who stand to lose face over the debacle. Other detection techniques and their limitations were explained and then compared to the GT200, which can detect all of the following:


Ammunition, black powder, propellants, C4, C1, C2, PE4, Semtex, RDX, TNT, PeTN, Nitroglycerine, Dynamite, Picric Acid, Tetryl, Hexogen, Octogen, Chlorates, Perchlorates, Slurry Explosives, Water gel explosives, Emulsion explosives, Rubber explosives, Nitroguandine, DNT, Ammonium Nitrate, AMFO, ANNIE, TATP, gunpowder, nitrate, MNX 194, PAX explosives 21/25/28/41, RSRDX, Amatol, Baratol, Comp A, Comp B, Comp B3, Comp A-5, TNB, CH6, Cyclotol, Detasheet, Gelatin, H6, HBX, Minol, Octol, PBX, Pentolite, Tetrytol, Torpex, HMX


Cocaine - Cocaine [ powder and liquid ], Crack, Cocoa Leaf, Cocaine based medicine.Heroin - Heroin, Heroin Based medicine.Cannabis - Marijuana, Cannabis, Hemp, Large tobacco shipments [ leaf and cigarettes ] Plant Amphetamine/D Methamphetamine/Ecstasy LSD, PCP, Shaking Head, Ecstasy, amphetamine, d-meth.Opium Opium based medicine, opiates, opium, morphine Poppy plant.Mesaklol. Mandrex. Kiptogan. Ketamine


Uranium Acetate, Human Bodies, Gold, Ivory, Poison, Currency, Tobacco


from a distance of 700 metres on land, 500 metres underwater and 4 km vertically. The antenna will simply swivel and point in the relevant direction. Astounding.

Now picture a serious-looking regiment carrying these devices as a bomb-laden plane flies over head.

The latest theories for how the device actually works are a) telepathy or b) quantum physics, the latter being completely incomprehensible and therefore beyond question.

I was hoping to bring you an update on my tailoring adventures today, but alas my tailor is running behind schedule. I am nonetheless assured that hotpink tweed plus-fours will be all the rage this season.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The View From My Hotel Room

Well, let's see. There are about six lanes of traffic going in all directions along an askew collection of concrete conduits; there's an apartment building on which countless satellite dishes reel before a hot sun; there are balconies coloured by drying laundry and occupied by air-conditioners; there are a rusted and ramshackle collection of tin huts that seem to have fallen against each other by the edge of a railway, as if having toppled from a passing train; there is the new skeleton of a building, draped in a green canvas sarong; and, yes, there is Bumrungrad Hospital.

The tragedy, of course, is that I don't have much else to write about at present. I was discharged from the hospital on Tuesday, which was good timing as the poor bloke in the bed next to me had just developed some rather nasty secondary infection. I can't tell you how excited I was to return to my hotel room. Until I realised the hospital bed was actually more comfortable than the one here, which also didn't go up and down at the push of a button.

Back in my own clothes, which seem a little looser than I remember.

The exact nature of my disease seems a little unclear. Essentially, something nasty flattened me but they didn't quite catch what it was. As a result, I have to take every antibiotic under the sun for the next fortnight. That large Singha waiting in my fridge may be waiting awhile. Sigh.

Yesterday was pretty tough going, probably not helped by coming off all the additional meds they had been pumping me full of for the last four days. My sole achievement yesterday was managing to stay conscious throughout the latest Farrelly Brothers film. (Which is a perhaps not unimpressive feat.)

Today has been better and I've managed to be upright for the last four hours or so, so hopefully tomorrow I'll finally make it into the newspaper. Only a week late!

I did take a brief wander outside last night, after dark, to find some bland, vegetarian food (two qualifications that severely limit my Thai intake) and found myself passing the numerous dodgy DVD stalls. Considering something to stave off cabin-fever, I was quickly directed away by the stallholder. His phone had just rung, the ringtone that of a siren. 'Police come,' he said. 'Big trouble.' As I wandered on, I traced the word as it passed along the stalls. Some packed up quickly, shoving their goods into plastic bags, others simply walked off and left their empty DVD cases to fend for themselves. By the time I walked back, nobody was buying anything and half the stalls were bare.

The upshot of which, of course, was I had no disc-like entertainment of dubious legality (and I'm certainly not referring to titles such as "The Dog Game", of which I am content to never learn more about) to while away the woozy hours.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bangkok, Interrupted

And it was all going so well.

Yet, here I am, flat on my back with a plastic tube in each arm, wearing ill-fitting green pyjamas, listening to my neighbour flick through trash cable TV shows, feeling very sorry for myself.

Oh, how I tutted as embassy staff expressed shock that I was eating at street markets. (Even as I photographed each meal for future forensic evidence.)

So, what happened to the last four days?

Well, Wednesday and Thursday were passed very pleasurably, with much wandering of markets and shopping malls, an embassy function and the obligatory visit to Pat Pong. (More of that another time.)

Then early Friday morning, I woke in a high fever, sure I would be found broiled in my own sweat when the maid came to change the sheets. I have possibly never felt so rubbish.

My first thought, of course, was to blame my new keep fit campaign. For the last three days I had run 4, 4.5 and finally 5 kilometres in the tropical hotel gym. Sparks were coming out of that treadmill, I was sweating so much. On the Thursday, having run 5 km, I may have forgotten to drink any water afterwards. But I did drink a pint of Heineken, several glasses of white wine and four beers at a Pat Pong nightclub. On reflection, not the best way to replace those lost fluids.

Blessed with rather generous travel insurance, come Friday morning I decided to stumble over to the Bumrungrad Hospital (whose name, in part, summons up what might ail a large part of their tourist clientele). The place was empty and it was all terribly efficient. Within minutes, I'd been tapped for blood, wheeled away for x-rays and finally sent packing with a return appointment, some paracetamol and antibiotics.

Saturday night, when I seemed to be getting worse, I staggered back.

There was more of a crowd this time around - a woman next to me crying out in German, some murmuring in Thai and a British couple loudly accusing each other of not doing enough to help their sick child - but I was quickly, and rather worryingly, admitted.

The first diagnosis was my favourite. This was supplied by the ER doctor: sinusitis and unrelated stomach pain. As my sinuses were one of the few parts of me not hurting at that moment, I thought it a courageous call. Sadly, a head x-ray (really, do people get their heads x-rayed?) proved him wrong.

I think one of the nurses may have signed my arm.

I was wheeled away to my bed, which is actually no less comfortable than my hotel mattress, with the added bonus of moving up and down at the touch of the button. Also, people bring me food, which suits me rather well.

Every couple of hours I'm brought: a bowl of tasteless soup that reminds me of (and probably has the same nutritional value as) bathwater; a glass of something sweet and red that is so revolting it must be good for me and a glass of something tangerine that is either salty orange juice or sour carrot juice. All in all, a quite unique menu.

My second diagnosis came courtesy of the ward doctor: acute appendicitis. I must have looked rather startled, when she began explaining she would start prepping me for surgery as she immediately began to back-pedal. I assured her I didn't have appendicitis. In fact, as far as I was aware, the appendix was on the other side of my trunk.

My third diagnosis, hastily supplied on the back of the last, was dengue fever. This carried a little more weight and, minus the telltale rash, my symptoms were a good fit. That saw me through until morning, as I realised what a blessing and a curse complimentary WiFi is. Good: contact with outside world. Bad: googling outside world for prognosis.

My fourth diagnosis, at around 8am, was "typical tropical fever". Which was vague enough to be no comfort whatsoever. Honestly, try googling that. Even WrongDiagnosis won't give you anything.

My third doctor decided Dengue Fever wasn't likely and sent me for an MRI of my barbed-wire-knotted intestines. I've never had an MRI before. It was at once rather meditative and space-age, as I practised stillness while impossibly fast things encircled me.

(Although I was rather distracted by the label, directly below the laser, that read: LAZER! DO NOT LOOK AT IT! To me, this was much the same as writing WARNING! READING THIS MAY BLIND YOU!)

The contrast injection was less pleasant. My mouth filled with lead and my whole body simmered. When they wheeled me out I worried I was seeing double, but it was, thankfully, merely a strange and discomfitting choice of wallpaper. (Two identical lines, one slightly fainter than the other and a few millimetres to the right.)

Since then, I've been visited by the infectious diseases expert - a relaxed American-accented bloke who always stood sideways to me and very deliberately didn't shake my hand - and a chuckling Gastro, who told me 'no worry, this we can fix!'

Which, you know, is kind of what you want to hear in a hospital.

On the downside, it'll be tomorrow before we discover whether any of the antibiotics they've been pumping me full of are chasing the right bacteria. And at least two days before they let me return to my hotel room. Which means I'll miss at least the first three days of my placement at the Nation, which was the whole point in my coming here. More worryingly, the Gastro suggested a week of self-medicating (and not my usual, preferred variety) might be needed before I'm back on my feet. Gah.

Anyway, tomorrow, if you're lucky, I'll tell you about Pat Pong. But you've probably heard those stories before. Hospitalisation, now, that's original!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Thailand Day 3

Clearly, a hard day's reading newspapers on Monday took a lot out of me, as I didn't crawl out of bed until sometime around 9.30 this morning. With that, my intention to explore (before meeting an 11am deadline at the Australian Embassy) was transformed into the sort of intention that paves roads to the sort of places no-one hopes to go.

I have been disappointing myself a lot recently. Take yesterday evening, when I failed to make it to my hotel happy hour because I was running 4km in the gym. I look in the mirror and don't know who that man is. Yes, that one, with the sweaty mop of hair, trying to catch his breath.

Today's main activity at the Embassy (aside from prying gossip from the Thai staff) was watching the Ambassador being interviewed by an Australian TV journalist based in Bangkok. The interview took place just up the South Sathorn Road in a very swanky hotel - I think we walked about two miles of white-washed corridors - on a set carefully decorated with stuffed koalas and kangaroos (supplied by the Embassy and carried by yours truly).

The Ambassador seems a lovely bloke and very relaxed, introducing himself as Paul and not batting an eyelid when the TV presenter pulled a businessman out of the shadows for an unscheduled chat.

I can see why the Australian diplomatic staff seem so at home here, as there is a similar deliberate unhurriedness in the Thai character. Nothing should be any fuss and nothing done quickly. Crowds drift sleepily down train station stairs and escalators during peak hour, tutting at anyone bouncing impatiently on the balls of their feet. (That's me, by the way.)

A friend who has lived in Thailand for some years has remarked on how frustrating this can be when it comes to actually getting anything done. There is an ingrained notion that the perfect state of being is whatever the current state of being is (which is unusual, considering how frequently governments plunge in crises - or perhaps explains how governments allow themselves to plunge into crisis). Anyone who might have a complaint is often regarded as rocking the boat.

Speaking of boats, this evening was spent bouncing upriver (or possibly downriver) to a riverside bar with a fantastic view of Wat Arun - or the temple of the Dawn. The Chao Phraya is still a working river, with half-mile long barges being towed beside gaudy tourist vessels. Around dusk, its waters were dark grey beneath a light grey sky, a dirty red sun slurring its way West. Occasionally silver fish leapt clear of the boat's surf, although my friend Donovan explained this was not necessarily to escape the dubious quality of the water. He himself swam through it last year as part of a triathalon, only to be knocked towards unconsciousness when he surfaced into a floating two-by-four piece of timber.

Aside from Wat Arun itself, the main attraction at dusk is watching tourists with massive cameras fail to snap a perfect sunset shot. I counted about a dozen, all of whom departed disappointed as soon as the last of the sun was seen.

Nearby is the Wat Pho temple, a large building entirely occupied by the world's largest sleeping Buddha. The temple was closed, but we glimpsed some of the divine being's golden rump through a narrow window. It was hard not to draw comparisons with the poses held by the muddied figures sleeping outside the temple grounds.

From there, we wandered through the kilometre-long flower markets, down several of the sort of alleys you only walk down if you're sure where you're going. Small children rode plastic vehicles along broken, muddy paths. These were the Indian alleys, in one of which we found Punjab Sweets, where we ate some superb vegetarian curries and drank sweet, spiced masala tea while the staff skipped through their favourite songs on ancient Bollywood DVDs.

Watching my step in the alleys as we left, I thought about the contrast between these cramped shops and those I had worn my boots out in earlier in the afternoon. The walk from MBK Centre to Central World Plaza was around 3 kilometres, taking in every possible consumer delight. I quite literally became vertiginous in the latter shopping mall, rising above six gleaming white stories of brand-name stores.

Many cities are capable of such extremes of luxury and poverty, but in Bangkok both seem to live so closely and (for some) comfortably side by side. An expensive mansion may sit beside a decrepit block of apartments, or a field of rubble in which beggars sleep. As we cruised the river last night, for every stunning riverside property, there was another whose wooden boards rotted and sagged, tipping inevitably towards the grey waters.

Anyway, here's a picture of me drinking from a coconut:

Monday, January 18, 2010

Possibly why some Farang won't eat from street vendors...

I went with this one in the end, although it was just as tempting to use the more succinct "Stir Fried Crap" or the brutally simple "Crap Curry".

Of course, the crimes I've been wreaking on the Thai language are far worse. And the food was some of the best I've eaten since arriving, although I put my egg count for today at about 10. The trials of a vegetarian in Bangkok, it seems, include returning home vaguely ovoid.

The most notable eggs of the day ("Eggs of Bangkok" - that's what I should have called this blog!) belonged to the Spicy Preserved Egg salad that accompanied my egg pad thai. Black and somewhat gelatinous, they really are quite special. Sadly, I am yet to locate the dish I once had in Macau which featured a large number of the beasts deep fried and shrivelled into anthracite oysters.

On the positive side, considering my running tally, I'm sure tapping two dozen eggs a day really can't be good for you.

Thailand Day 2

By god, it was hard work getting out of bed this morning.

Whether this was down to a very enjoyable evening drinking with a long-lost friend, missing sleep on Saturday night, or the sleeping pill I took to locate a doze on the harder-than-the-tiles mattress, I can't be sure. Perhaps it was simply the thought of going to work.

Well, I say work. Today was actually spent at the Australian Embassy, meeting people who occasionally seemed less sure what I was doing there than I was. My co-intern and I bounced from department head to department head, regularly feeling envious of the life of a diplomat. At least, envious of the occasional 3 year stints they pull overseas. Not at all of the countless years they spend in Canberra. Canberra. I have more than once considered a career in the diplomatic service (no, don't laugh), but that word has always been enough to quash such a career in the idle-fancy stage.

The Australian Embassy is an impressive building, floating on a murky pond on the South Sathorn Road. Clad in golden tiles and draped in green ivy, it seems a monument to every sporting team our nation has ever fielded. (Actually, gold is the Thai king's colour of choice and the ivy just sort of grew there, so this is coincidence rather than Ocker patriotism.)

Most of the staff are Thai nationals, which is understandable, given they come at a bargain rate. Most can expect to earn a tenth of that earned by any staff covered by Australian pay conditions. Nonetheless, they seemed very friendly and helpful to us interns as we spent a relaxing day reading newspapers.

A lot to get my head around for my forthcoming gig at a local paper, considering how fractious Thai politics is, but more perplexing is the use of red to highlight certain words in headlines. It seems as if the reader can't be expected to bother reading a whole headline.

The Sky Train is proving invaluable, with a trip across the city proving reasonably quick and painless during rush hour. Although the crowds at Siam, as I changed lines, did suggest there would be less of the rush and more of the hour. Still, a few minutes later I was packed in for delivery to Sala Daeng.

On the way home, I stopped by Pinky Tailor, with a view to buying a blazer. Unlike the other farang (foreigner) traps, his shop is hidden away at the back of a retail complex, and I was pleased by such a lack of attention-seeking. The assistant was also very relaxed and remarkably forthcoming, indicating self-proclaimed woollen fabrics with hidden polyester. He didn't even try to nail my boots down as I made for the floor. Promising, I thought. If all works out, this year I will mainly be wearing tweed.

A tweed snuggie, obviously. For working from home. (Doing what most people call freelancing, but I like to call "pyjama work".)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Checked in.

So I failed to find lunch, but am at least in my hotel room.

I actually walked the length of Soi 2 (the next street up in the red-light district I call home) to find a coffee shop at the Atlanta Hotel where I'd heard they do excellent vegetarian food. It's about a 15 minute walk from Sukhumvit Rd, and you're in the sun the entire way, fending off taxi drivers who can't believe you'd be walking in that direction if you knew where you were going.

Twice I nearly turned back, but ultimately found this lovely little retro hotel emblazoned with a "No Sex Tourists" sign above the door. My kind of place, I thought. Unfortunately, today they had another sign at the cafe entrance saying they were only serving hotel guests - although the management would make exceptions. The waitress in charge would not be moved, however, even as I dripped sweat on her tiles. (Or perhaps I mean "particularly as I dripped sweat on her tiles.") You can only eat there if you have already eaten there, it seems.

As I left, I noticed the sign was two-sided. On the reverse it warned only hotel guests were allowed to smoke in the cafe. Unless the management say they can. Just my luck to be there on a no-eating, as opposed to no-smoking day.

As consolation, I bought myself a $2 pint of Singha and drank that for lunch. It went very nicely with the coconut ice-cream I had for breakfast.

Thailand Day 1

I've been in Bangkok less than two hours and I've already allowed myself to be ripped off by a taxi driver who tried to convince me to take up smoking while hacking phlegm every hundred metres along the highway. I must have seemed a soft target when I accepted his rather cloying handshake and he blinked approvingly through his smoke.

As we wandered across the four (mercifully) empty lanes on the way in from Suvarnabhumi airport, he revealed he had just woken up from 4 hours sleep in the back of his cab, which is apparently par for the course 5 days a week. Returning home only cost him money, he explained, mimicking money-grabbing wife and offspring at some length, before bemoaning how expensive Thailand has become for anyone who grew up here (in decreasingly subtle refrains). Cleverly, he didn't fall for my decreasingly subtle references to being a poor student and in the end I felt obliged to pay twice as much as I needed to.

I am telling myself he earned this by allowing me to sit in the front and by being entertaining enough to keep this sleep-starved poor student awake for the 30 km drive in.

It's been fourteen years since I was last in Bangkok and it's hard to know which of us has changed more. Admittedly, I'm wearing marginally tidier versions of the same clothes I wore last I was here and my hair is still no shorter (if a little higher), but to an 18 year old on his first trip overseas, the city might have been on a different planet. I remembered it being low and cramped and overrun with noise and people and lights.

At six this morning, the night was lifting off the city, although it continued to linger in the foggy streets, but it wasn't the same city. As my taxi driver said, it's become a tall city, teeming with glass and steel and concrete at alien altitudes. A new underground system and skyrail have edged the city toward a cleaner sort of modernity. But, turning onto Soi 1, there were already stalls setting up and people spilling onto shabby, already-humid streets.

The hotel, at first sight, was a little grim. At the very outskirts of "urban and cosmopolitan" Sukhumvit, it was barely distinguishable from countless other decaying white apartment blocks. I began to question the hotel's key claim to be located in the heart of the central business district. This could certainly be true, if your business happened to be the sex industry. No wonder my driver didn't fall for my poor student shtick. Clearly someone had pinned "sex tourist" to my luggage.

Ah well. Incidentally, I also discovered, unlike the map the hotel supplied, that the streets here don't jump from grubby Soi 3 to swanky Soi 21 in the space of a block. In retrospect, I should have been a little more suspicious.

Research? I hear you say? Well, I'm researching now, belatedly.

In fact, I may go for a little fact-finding mission now.
(picture by UweBKK)