Sunday, August 28, 2005

Blocked in Harlem

I've been wide awake since 6 o'clock this Sunday morning and the sun is streaming through my London home. The first thing I did when I returned to my beloved city last night was buy a copy of Time Out in preparation for making the most of this Bank Holiday weekend in the capital. But this beautiful weather is maddening because I have a cold brought on by the constant leaps back and forth between air-conditioned cold and humid heat in Thailand and I can't do anything today except sneeze and cough and be a miserable, unsociable cow. Perhaps I'll stay in today and catch up on a month's worth of blog reading. Uh-oh, just got a dinner invitation. Spluttering and sneezing over food at Harlem. Will I pass? Let's see how I feel over the next few hours.

Later: well, I felt good enough to go to Harlem and drink Cola and eat some rather good corn fritters with garlic mayo. Despite the bad reviews, the service was speedy and good, the music mellow and not invasive, and the food was comfort-eating great. This may have been because it was rather empty for a Sunday lunchtime.

But I did duly return home afterwards for the rest of the day and night to do nothing other than read magazines in bed and surf the net.

Scroll down to the Thailand entries as photos are slowly appearing.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Winding down

We're back in Bangkok, winding down before our flight back to London tomorrow. We're staying at the Bangkok Marriot where we've been indulging in some wonderful treatments at the Mandara Spa: yesterday an invigorating facial with green tea and grape seed; a vigorous foot massage with reflexology; a mud bath; and a Thai herbal steam. Later this afternoon we're having a relaxing aromatherapy massage (me) and a more energetic traditional Thai massage (him). The treatments in Thailand are much cheaper than in London so we're taking full advantage. See you when I get back!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Thai spice

We've just returned from a full day learning to cook Thai cuisine at the famous Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School run by renowned chef Sompon Nabnian and his wife Elizabeth. I've always wanted to cook Thai food at home but have always been intimidated due to the large number of ingredients needed. But today's course completely de-mystified Thai cooking for me and I'm eager to try out some of the basic recipes we learned today when I return to London.

Thirteen of us attended Chiang Mai's The Wok restaurant and listened and watched as instructors demonstrated various dishes for us and explained all the different spices, herbs and sauces used in Thai cookery such as holy or purple basil, tiny red chillis, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce and palm sugar.

Then it was our turn to cook: at thirteen separate work stations we cooked Thai hot and sour prawn soup (tom yam goong), green curry with chicken (gaeng kheo wan gai), Thai fish cakes (tord man plaa), Thai fried noodles (phad Thai), minced pork Northern style (nam prik ong) and water chesnuts with sugar syrup and coconut milk (tab tim grob). And ate it all ourselves.

The day was great but was slightly marred by some of the other tourist students (from Canada, Scotland, England and Australia) who kept complaining at every opportunity: the food had too many chillis, or they wouldn't eat anything "with a face", or they were allergic to fish and shrimp, or they didn't like coriander. These same whiners chatted amongst themselves throughout the entire demonstration too. It made me wonder why they attended the course -- or indeed how they survive eating in Thailand.

Oh well, I'm now off to cool down at the Oasis Spa again where my partner will have a head, shoulder and back massage and I will have an intensive protein hair conditioning treatment with head massage.


Tomorrow we're back to Bangkok.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Monk chat

Like most of Thailand, Chiang Mai is a city full of temples, and with Buddhism being the major religion, that means we've also seen alot of saffron-robed, shaven headed monks too: monks buying and using mobile phones, monks hanging out with their non-monk friends, monks clipping each other around the ears, monks browsing in the markets looking at the things for sale.

At first I was surprised by monks engaged in such ordinary and consumerist behaviour, but then I learned that in Thailand training to become a monk is considered a rite of passage for most teenage boys, usually after military service. It is not unusual for them to train for several months -- earning spiritual "merit" for themselves and their families -- before returning to "civilian" life.

In some notorious cases, senior-ranking monks in this country have been accused of murder, rape, gun-running, drug-dealing, carousing in bars and flaunting Mercedes and Rolexes.

Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai is a spectacular chedi that once stood at 90 metres but was toppled to 60 metres by an earthquake in 1545. It's here that we first encountered the phenomenon of Monk Chat (Monday to Saturday, noon to 6:30pm), giving lay people the chance to chat with monks about Buddhism. Thai culture, and any other topic, in English.

Monk Chat was free, but carried a large enough warning on a signpost, giving rise to the realisation that there could be "bad" monks:

"Notice: The Monk Chat Club wants to inform our foreign guests for your own benefit that you are advised to chat with the monk who carries his ID card only because he has passed proper training in Buddhist knowledge and manners. If you encounter any monk who has been impolite or has caused you any trouble, please write his ID card number on a piece of paper and put it in the comment box [below]. The Monk Chat Club will not be responsible for any trouble that may arise if you talk to any monk who carries no ID card outside of the specified area."

We also visited Wat Umong -- a gorgeous temple set in a tunnel complex amid the tranquil mountainous forests surrounding Chiang Mai.

The temple was built in the late 1300s by a king who wanted to keep his brilliant but deranged monk Jan accessible at all times. Jan tended to wander off into the forests to meditate, so the king built a wat and decorated its tunnels with murals of trees, flowers and birds to simulate Jan's beloved forest.

Monks had attached Buddhist maxims in English and in Thai to all the trees around the wat:

"With each day passing, what have you been doing?"

"Merit making calculate to impress is not real."

"It's easy to know a man's face, but it is difficult to know his thought."

"A fool thinks of survival of his body at the expense of his spiritual death."

And my favourite:

"Indulging our senses and drinking salt water are alike: the more we partake, the more our thirst grow."

I'm afraid to say we have been doing nothing but indulging our senses in Thailand: there is so much to see and do and eat. This afternoon, for example, we indulged in a luxurious 2-hour spa treatment involving Thai massage, hot herbal compresses and aromatherapy massage at the Oasis Spa, owned by an American ex-pat who has settled in Thailand. And we plan on having several more treatments again at the Oasis and also when we return to Bangkok and stay at the Marriot Spa Hotel. But more on these later.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Chiang Mai siesta

We hired a taxi driver and spent the morning wandering around a few of Chiang Mai's numerous Buddhist temples or wats and then the city's culture and arts museum for a history of Chiang Mai and the region since prehistoric times. Chiang Mai is a large city but seems much leafier and sleepier than Bangkok and is surrounded by mountains. I miss Bangkok's buzz as I'm a city girl at heart, but Chiang Mai feels very much like a much-needed respite.

Right now, it's a sunny and sultry 4:30 in the afternoon. It seems amazing that only a few days ago much of downtown Chiang Mai was so submerged underwater due to an abundance of monsoon rain that people were wading through the city with the water up to their waists or crossing it in boats and we thought we would have to postpone our trip north.

My other half is having a siesta in our quiet little hotel, the exquisite Rachamankha, that looks and feels like a former nunnery -- all white-washed walls, dark wood and terracotta courtyards -- and I'm in the hotel's colonial-style library -- complete with full-colour, hardback books on Japan, New York, Paris and London, Hip Hotels, a Miller's Antiques Price Guide 1992, and, of course, Thai cooking and history -- surfing the internet under a whirring wooden ceiling fan.

We'll be visiting the bustling Night Bazaar tonight to look around and perhaps do a little shopping, but as we're here for five days we're not feeling any rush to see things and are enjoying taking things leisurely. They're English football crazy here in Thailand so we've caught a few premiership games on TV over the past couple of weeks. So tomorrow night may find us in a Chiang Mai pub watching the Arsenal game!

I'm taking so many photos. I wish I had the facilities to upload some of them here. Until next time...

Friday, August 19, 2005

Into Lanna

We took the overnight sleeper train northwards into the old kingdom of Lanna, "the land of a million rice fields", through glistening green paddy fields and mountains made slate grey in the monsoon rain, and past dark brown teak houses on stilts, and arrived at the town of Lampang, 100km south of Chiang Mai.

Lampang is not a tourist destination but an ordinary northern Thai town where my partner's brother teaches maths, music and English at a private school. So we strayed off the tourist path to spend a few days with him in this sleepy town. Surrounded by mountains, with wide, clean boulevards lined with advertising hoardings and shops, and big 4-by-4s and pickup trucks rumbling by -- this looks and feels much like a town of strip malls in the middle of the Colorado Rockies.

We've spent our time hanging out: eating by the river that cuts through the town in noisy resturant bars with names like Santa Fe, Relax, Soul Fly and The Sand Bar, watching young Thai rock bands belt out covers of The Eagles, The Beatles, Dire Straights, Robbie Williams, Dido and other bland MOR songs. The alternative entertainment in the town is karaoke, including hostess karaoke.

The northern Thai cuisine is much hotter than we've eaten so far: lots more fiery chillis that are, luckily, easily washed down with glugs of Sang Som, a sweet Thai rum. We've eaten: mushroom tom yam spiced with coriander, lemongrass and chillies; deep-fried shrimp and lemongrass cakes skewered on lemongrass stalks; marinated and deep-fried beef strips with deep-fried bitter herbs; soft-shell crab tempura; fresh mango with sticky rice sweetened with coconut; savoury candy floss on top of pineapple rice; herb-stuffed pork sausages that are famous to the region; and the best chocolate ice cream I've tasted in a long time. In fact, the chocolate ice cream I've eaten everywhere in Thailand is rich, creamy and more than 70% cocoa solids.

We took a songthaew -- a converted pickup truck with two facing rows in the back -- to Lampang's peaceful and deserted Buddhist temple Wat Phra Kaeo Don Tao, where my partner claims to have achieved Englightenment helping two saffron-robed monks carry a petrol-driven lawnmower up the temple steps. He didn't want me to help, saying it would hurt my back, but I'm sure it was really because he didn't want to share the good karma.

Offerings in front of broken stone Buddha statues included fruit and food, but my favourites were a plastic bottle of mineral water and a pair of gardening shears. We also caught a glimpse of a golden Buddha through a locked but ajar wooden door. I took a photo but will have to wait until I return to London to upload them and hundreds more to this Flickr.

But what affected me most was the overwhelming quiet and serenity, strolling around the temple grounds and sitting under a tree in an empty courtyard until we noticed huge yellow ants crawling around our feet.

Another serene temple was Wat Phra That Lampang Luang, containing Thailand's oldest standing wooden structure, faded 16th century murals, a stunning green and blue chedi with gold-embossed oxidised copper panels, elegant golden Buddhas reverentially clad in saffron robes, intricately carved wooden panels, and a gaudy shrine to the Hindu elephant God Ganesh.

Yesterday we took a hot herbal sauna at the formal sounding Lampang Medicinal Plants Conservation Assembly. We sat in separate tiny, tiled saunas much like shower cubicles as wafts of herb-infused steam were sprayed over us for an hour. Thoroughly spaced out, we sauntered barefoot along a path of different-sized pebbles designed to massage the soles of the feet. I could have made many meditative rounds of this path, but I was driven away into our songthaew by clouds of big black mosquitoes draining the blood from my arms and legs as I walked. It was my own fault for forgetting to spray myself with Deet after the sauna.

We returned to chill in our luxurious hotel -- the excellent Wienglakor, Lampang's very own Overlook Hotel -- before heading out to the Night Bazaar with food stalls crammed with everything from deep-fried maggots and fluorescent, gelatinous, cubed desserts to small plastic bags of curries-to-go and pork scratchings.

Today we're on our way north to Chiang Mai.

Sunday, August 14, 2005


On our second night in Hua Hin, after eating at a seafood restaurant jutting out on a squid jetty pier over the sea, we wandered down Soi Bintabat -- a busy narrow street crammed with hostess bars at which Thai girls and lady boys sat and drank, calling out to groups of farang men and even couples like ourselves.

We were intrigued by one bar, whose entrance was filled with 8 or 9 (fully-dressed) girls dancing energetically to a fantastic soundtrack of the Buzzcocks, Fine Young Cannibals, David Bowie (yeah!), Blondie, The Rolling Stones and, um, The Cheeky Girls, and cat-calling "Hey handscome! Come inside!" or to their regulars "Hey Simon!"

They invited us to sit inside. We sat at the bar, ordered Thai whiskies and vodkas, and watched the girls entice in a variety of English men, a number of whom appeared to be regulars. The female bar keeper was very friendly and told us that she and most of the girls were from Isaan -- a poor northeastern region of Thailand that had been renowned for its prostitution services to American service men on R 'n' R leave during the Vietnam War. Most of them had been previously married to Thai men and had children now being looked after by their grandparents in Isaan.

She told us that a girl for the night costs 1000 Baht or around 25 US dollars, plus a 200 Baht or 5 dollar bar fine. As she chatted to us, we watched as the girls -- all around 18 to 24 years -- and their Western clients disappeared down a sidestreet across from the bar and into a private room.

The bar keeper and the other girls had no problem with us just hanging out and chatting with them, and even urged us to dance with them. Later on a couple of Western girls dropped by for a drink and a chat with the girls who were delighted to see them. In fact, the girls danced and chatted amongst themselves during quiet moments as if they were just hanging out on a girls night out. At one point street seller entered the bar with some clothes for sale. The girls took great delight in trying them on before buying. When a blind woman came begging, singing into her amplified mic, the girls rushed to give her their small change. At the beginning of her shift, a girl arrived and bowed quietly and joined her two hands together in respect before a small Buddha shrine on the wall by the bar.

The bar keeper showed us some photos of the girls dressed in traditional costume from last year and pointed out all those who had gone abroad -- to Sweden, Norway and Switzerland -- with their farang boyfriends. She herself had a boyfriend from London who visited her 3 or 4 times a year, but she had never been abroad.

The guys who came in ranged from friendly, white-haired English and Scottish men who were very popular with the girls and spent their time drinking and flirting, to other elderly men who dropped in for a drink with their much younger Thai girlfriends who were former bar employees, to single young men intent on business, who didn't even stop for a drink but quickly disappeared with a girl, and to gangs of burly intimidating tattooed men in their thirties on a rowdy and drunken lad's night out who the girls seemed keen to avoid, passing them off to two of the newest girls so that they could continue chatting and dancing and wait for better clients.

The bar is owned by a Thai woman and her English husband. They came by halfway through the evening: the woman to supervise the girls and the man to chat away in his strong Cockney accent with the customers (though interestingly we didn't get more than a "Hi", though we probably didn't look like their typical customer!).

I have to admit, several hours of being surrounded by such tiny, pretty, young and flirtacious girls put enough of a dent in my own sense of femininity, self-esteem and self-confidence that I had to leave.

There has been lots of analysis of this type of prostitution and sex tourism, but what was interesting for me as a woman was to be able to chat with the girls involved and to see it in action (more or less) with my own eyes. A powerful experience I will not forget.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Seafood on the beach

Since we got to the seaside resort of Hua Hin, we have been eating the best seafood I have ever eaten: buttersoft squid cooked in a variety of ways from marinated and steamed, through barbequed, to stir-fried; sweet barbequed whole lobster dressed in a spring onion and chilli sauce; grilled king prawns; green-lipped mussels; and steamed crab. And we have been eating in some great places too -- the kinds of places we see in Wong Kar-Wai movies (even though his movies are set in Hong Kong!): roadside plastic-tabled cafes; sitting on the white sandy beach at beachside restaurants with the crystal clear tide rolling in and watching Thai families bathe in the sea fully-clothed like Indian families in India; and in the heart of a bustling night market where deep-fried soft-shelled crabs, packs of sliced pineapple and watermelon, whole barbequed white fish, pirated Hollywood DVDs, fake designer tishirts and cheap trinkets are sold both to Western (farang) and Thai tourists.

Hua Hin is on the Western seaboard of the Gulf of Thailand, 190km or 118 miles south of Bangkok. It is one of the oldest beach resorts in Thailand, dating back to the 1920s, but still retains an under-developed, old-fashioned ambience. There are some Western tourists here, especially from Holland and England, but it is mainly a resort for weekending Thai. As a result, during the week it is largely empty, and during the weekend it is full of Thai. Which is perfect!

Friday, August 12, 2005

Muay Thai

We managed to cram a lot into our short stay in Bangkok, including a trip to the ancient capital Ayutthaya -- a city founded in 1350 and crammed full of breathtaking and imposing yet completely ruined bell-shaped chedis, corncob-shaped Khmer prangs, reclining and seated Buddhas and temples or wats. We took a slow boat cruise back down the Chao Phraya river and saw once again how important water living is for Bangkok residents. Both sides of the river were lined with wooden stilt houses, elegant mansions, temples, boat yards and breweries such as the Singha beer company.

We also spent an afternoon riding the SkyTrain and metro, visiting the various shopping malls that young Bangkok residents love to hang out in -- eating bowls of fish ball noodles and drinking Coca Colas, paid for with pre-bought redeemable coupons, in the food courts. We shopped too: Asian movies are very cheap for Westerners to buy here, and as most have English subtitles, it was easy to buy many of them at 2 GBP a pop. We bought: Kim Ki Duk's Samaritan Girl (Korea), Kazuaki Kiriya's Casshern (Japan), Pisuth Praesaengaim, Oxide and Pang-Shun's Bangkok Haunted (Thailand), Apichatpong Weerasethakul's The Adventure of Iron Pussy and Tropical Malady (Thailand), and Park Gi-Hyeong's Whispering Corridor (Korea). We were struck, however, at how all the electrical and leather goods are at Western prices and therefore beyond the reach of most Thais.

More food was eaten -- dishes such as green papaya salad, chicken green curry, chicken skewers with satay sauce, lime ice juices with sugar and salt (like in India) were particularly memorable.

And on our last night, we were able to catch a Thai boxing match at the Lumphini Stadium, sitting on rickety wooden benches and completely surrounded by Chinese men taking and putting on bets on which boxer would knock the other out per round as well as who would be the overall winner. It was like being on a trading floor on the Stock Exchange with men shouting over each other's head, hands flying, deals being made over three or four fingers, men yelling into Bluetooth headsets. The situation was surreal and rather more exciting than the boxing matches themselves.

And we spent much time simply strolling the streets tucked beneath the Expressways and SkyTrain bridges that swoop across the sky like a scene in a science fiction movie: narrow pavement streets crammed with stalls selling pirated CDs, VCDs, DVDs, music cassettes, Diesel jeans, Tag Heuer watches (select your fake watch from a thick illustrated catalogue!), Louis Vuitton or Gucci handbags, plus the usual tourist trinkets sold by deaf mutes signing to each other; makeshift noodle stalls, plush Indian-owned fabric stores and tailors, Tesco Lotus and 7-11 mini-marts, Starbucks, smoothie bars, Baskin Robbins, and inumerable massage parlours complete with "private room and bath"; elderly blind men and women walking slowly up and down with amps on their backs singing into microphones; men playing droughts on biro-marked cardboard and using bottle tops for counters, sitting on crates; streetside cobblers and seamstresses, snack sellers (dried fish or chicken on a skewer, bags of freshly cut pineapples) and marigold garlanders (for temple offerngs) fighting for space in every nook and cranny; and on the roads, tuk-tuk drivers -- "Where you going? You want tuk-tuk? Where you going?" -- driving their rusting and noisy auto-rickshaws alongside sleek silver and black BMWs, Hondas, Toyotas, 4-by-4s and big hulking pickups.

I will miss this colourful, dynamic city. But now we're in the beach resort of Hua Hun for a few days, eating lots of seafood, strolling along the white sandy beaches, lolling around by the pool reading, and chatting to the girls at the local hostess bar. Blissful R 'n' R, but more later!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Living on water

Away from the cramped tenement blocks and high-tech apartment mansions of Bangkok's city centre, a longtail boat took us through the intricate, meandering canal systems of Thon Buri, east of the Chao Phraya river that bisects Bangkok, and gave us a glimpse of other ways of Bangkok living: in rickety wooden houses, some bowing in the middle so alarmingly that I was sure they would cave into the canal or khlong at any moment, balanced on damp stilts, with endless curtains of laundry drying from every window and balcony and from wooden poles suspended over the water. As we cruised around, we saw men submerged waist deep in the water fishing with sticks and strings, people washing themselves to cool off from the heat. Mini shrines and small temples or wats at every turn; floating markets selling Cola, coffee, trinkets and vegetables.

It is easy to see how Bangkok was once a floating city. In the 1840s, 90 percent of its population of 40,000 lived in houses built on rafts, even before stilt houses lining the river and canal banks became popular. At the end of the of the 19th century, Bangkok was known as the Venice of the East.

Bangkok is also a city of temples. 95 percent of Thais are Buddhist and The Grand Palace and its Wat Phra Kaeo is the most ornate -- temple buildings, altars and figurines encrusted in gold, lavishly painted murals of mythological scenes and a tiny Emerald Buddha. We also visted Bangkok's oldest temple originating in the 16th century -- Wat Pho -- featuring a magnificent 150 foot long gold gilded reclining Buddha with mother-of-pearl inlaid feet.

We almost didn't get inside The Grand Palace. This city of angels is also a city of deceivers. At the palace, a suited man claimed the Palace was closed and urged us to go to another fee-paying temple and some shops. "Trust me, I'm the palace manager!" he exclaimed. He had told the people in front of us that they couldn't go in the Palace because they were wearing the wrong shoe -- they weren't.

We take the high tech SkyTrain and newly-built and underdeveloped metro system everywhere here and feel like we're on the set of the movie Bladerunner. The SkyTrain is particularly convenient for us as it starts at the Shangri-La -- our fabulously luxurious 5-star hotel in the Old Farang quarter.

But we also find taking the passenger boats along the river to different parts of town very easy. We went by boat to Chinatown which was predictably and marvellously a maze of narrow, bustling and noisy alleyways crammed with stalls selling fabrics, fake watches and "designer" clothing, plastic trinkets, green and black tea, gold jewellery, glossy pink and white dumplings, an array of nuts and pork scratchings, candy floss, CDs, DVDs and electrical goods, flowers from lotus to marigolds, wicker baskets filled with red, green and orange chillis or pak choi or cucumbers. It was colourful, fun and exhausting.

We've just visited two old, traditional Thai teak house -- Jim Thompson's House and The Siam Society -- and now we are recuperating from the humidity and heat in the air-conditioned Black Canyon Coffee house off Sukhumvit Road drinking frothy, frosty coffees and surfing the internet.

We're off shopping now and then hope to visit a Thai boxing match tonight. Tomorrow we're leaving Bangkok for four days of chilling in the sun on the beach of Hua Hin.

Monday, August 08, 2005

City of temples and ping pong

I'm writing this from an internet cafe in Bangkok that costs 20 baht or 50 cents an hour, surrounded by teenage Thais playing online video games such as Warcraft III and Command and Conquer. It's 8 in the evening, a warm 86 degrees with a 90 per cent humidity. It's just been raining -- it's monsoon season -- but not much.

Of course, I have to start with the food. This is Planethalder, afterall!

Over the last few days, we've eaten glossy, dark green, stir-fried morning glory, bright orange red crab curry -- the meat oozing out of the shell, and a white-fleshed, meaty snakehead fish cooked whole and brought to our table sizzling on a bed of coals at Sombook -- a seafood restaurant that enticed us inside with aquariums full of live crab and fish awaiting their gastronomic fate. We've eaten noodle dishes in roadside, family-run cafes, most satisfyingly near the Grand Palace amid wafts of dried shrimp and other dried fish. We were diverted through backstreets by our tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) driver who took us to a place filled with other mislead tourists to eat overcooked grilled king prawns and sea bass.

I also had my second best Japanese meal ever, after my exquisite birthday meal at Matsuri a few days ago. We took the Bladerunneresque SkyTrain to Silom -- one of the main shopping roads in the city -- and found Aoi -- a tiny Japanese restaurant tucked anonymously in a sidestreet or soi that looked like a small and traditional ryokan or inn, with sliding doors, dark wood and tatami mats, and filled with visiting Japanese tourists and ex-pats. There we feasted on deep-fried lotus root with minced pork tempura, deep-fried smelt whiting fish wrapped with mint, tuna belly sashimi, eel with teriyaki sauce, soup and pickled vegetables. All followed by fresh fruits and green tea ice cream.

After this meal, we drank Cosmopolitans and vodka tonics at a bar on the predominantly gay road of Silom 4, and watched the world go by, including a Western man, who we presumed was his female partner and a Thai lady boy at the table next to us. The man was all over the lady boy, much to the annoyance of his partner who eventually began to cry. We never found out the outcome of this curious menage-a-trois. They were still there when we left.

In adjacent roads (Patpong 1 and 2), we've also been offered -- by men and the occasional woman -- the various delights of pussy ping pong, pussy water, pussy candle, pussy tire, and if these failed to delight then: "You want darts? You want balloons?" The women inside gyrate impassively and go through the motions of their various tricks. And we've seen girls lined up for all sorts of pleasure outside bars on roads where police patrol but often turn a blind eye because, we've read in the local newspaper, many of them are involved in the industry such as demanding protection money even though both practices -- prostitution and protectionism -- are illegal here. We've also seen ubiquitous old, bloated, tattooed Western men with their much younger and prettier Thai girlfriends.

We've also taken boat trips along the Chao Phraya and gorged on wats or temples which stud this dazzling city at every turn. But more of this another day.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Off to Thailand

We're packed and ready to go! Holiday reading? Many of you can see my reading list on the right, but for those who read this blog in a feed reader we're taking, between the two of us, two guidebooks, Orhan Pamuk's Snow, the first volume of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, Ryu Murakami's In the Miso Soup and John Burdett's thriller Bangkok 8.

It'll be easy to continue posting to Planethalder while I'm away, but I may or may not have the inclination, so...

See you in three weeks, if not before.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Today is my birthday, but as we're flying tomorrow and I wanted to finish packing tonight, we celebrated in intimate style last night. We started in the Na Zdrowie Polish Bar, tucked into a tiny, narrow alleyway behind Holborn tube station. Then we strolled around the corner to Matsuri, where I was treated to a romantic and lavish meal.

The Japanese restaurant was stylish, sleek and contemporary, with high windows, high ceiling, lots of wood and clean lines. We were warmly welcomed -- Irasshaimase! -- and waited on attentively by waitresses in rustic grey and black attire complete with pinafores, headscarves and Bluetooth headsets. Every member of staff bade us goodnight as we left.

The menu had a dizzying array of choices -- most of which we wanted to try -- so we plumped for the Kamakura set dinner of five courses, from which we chose: Appetiser -- soft shell crab and salmon tataki (sashimi-style, lightly roasted salmon); second course -- assorted prawn and vegetable tempura, and assorted sashimi (salmon, tuna and a white fish); main course -- grilled sea bream and a rare fillet steak with various sauces, plus plain white and garlic fried rice and pickles; miso soup; and dessert -- green tea tiramisu and an assorted fresh fruit salad (including strawberries, papaya and pineapple). We also drank Kirin beer, green tea and Sakitini (complete with green olive).

Every item was beautifully presented and melted in the mouth like butter. I have never eaten so well in my life. Thank you, honey.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

City of sound

I'm working from home today, and the sounds I'm hearing through the usual London din right now include: a gentle breeze rustling through the trees, the joyous after-school whooping of children in the street, a distant drone of an aeroplane streaking through the light blue sky, the shrill bells of an ice-cream van playing out the tune of O Sole Mio (or perhaps really, Just One Cornetto), the laughter of a woman on her mobile phone.

What I can also hear: a cacophony of police sirens, the electric grating of a lawnmower, the pounding bass from a car's amplified stereo system, a querulous argument between a man and a woman and the confused crying of the two small children with them.

Sometimes this city gives me pounding headaches, but there are some beautiful sounds to be heard if I care to listen.