Monday, 28 January 2008

Back Down to Earth!

Air travel whisks us from one world to the next with so little chance for reflection. Yesterday I was in Bangkok, swept up in its twenty four hour frenzy, and five days before I was in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Today, after a more prosaic bus journey, ten hours door to door, I’m home in the village and coming back down to earth.

Phnom Penh was a big surprise. During my absence of five years, much progress has been made in making it the lovely city it once was. Outside the Royal Palace, the roads are as smooth as the ubiquitous Cambodian pool tables, the parks along the elegant French avenues are colourful and well kept and the paintwork is fresh on the ornamental lamp posts and railings. There’s evidence of money around but smart new cars stand in stark contrast to the old style cyclos and the ordinary people who still look as though they've had hard lives.

The palace itself is of course an extravagant confection, a mere fairy tale with a dark history, but its glitter is spectacular especially when lit up at night.

Returning to Bangkok I had a meeting at Asia Books about the distribution of my next book to be called, ‘My Thai Girl and I’, which was very exciting. It’s the story of me and Cat setting up home together in the North East of Thailand, interspersed with various ramblings about Thailand.

I then rushed from pillar to post having photos scanned onto a memory stick but now having got home can find absolutely nothing recorded on said memory stick. Computronics are making a fool of me again! And I delivered to Asia Books another 500 copies of my novel ‘Thai Girl’ which is still selling well.

Every evening was full and I couldn’t manage a quiet night in. By chance I bumped into my old friend Greg in Sukhuvit, having a few weeks back bumped into him on Koh Chang when he should have been in England. He’s a big bloke to bump into, as is my dear friend and gastronome Roger Le Phoque with whom I shared a jar or two.

Then there were the literary luminaries. First was Canadian Bill, a university prof of Eng lit. I saw him together with Christopher Moore, author of about twenty Bangok novels (or is it thirty), whose latest is to be filmed with Keanu Reeves as Calvino, the hack detective of the story. Looks like he’s about to hit the jackpot.

Next up was Jerry Hopkins whose biography of Jim Morrison sold two million copies, not to mention one on Elvis and Yoko Ono and a more recent tome published in Singapore called ‘Asian Aphrodisiacs’. Jerry has seen it all and is a great raconteur. He has a Thai wife and a home in Surin not far from us but spends most of his time in Bangkok hitting the keys.

Finally I met up at an undisclosed location with two big internet stars, boasting regular readership in the hundreds of thousands, namely the mysterious Stickman and Dave the Rave no less. That was an evening and a half!

Google any of these writers, perhaps adding ‘Bangkok’ and you can find their websites and learn a little more about them.

The evening with Jerry was special as he took me to a bar in Sukhumvit Soi 8 where on Wednesdays and Thursdays a remarkable group plays rock and roll. Lead man Peter’s middle years didn’t stop him belting out the lyrics in a white silk suit thirties style with wide trousers and patent leather shoes, supported by two very accomplished Thai guitarists and a farang drummer.

It was a great performance. Where two or three are gathered together, obsessives like him are keen to entertain us and entertainer indeed he was. More than just a musician, he held our attention with his strong stage presence and a delightful patter in which he told us the day of the week Buddy Holly or PJ Proby had written the number he was about to sing and what they’d had for breakfast that morning.

He took us back more than a year or two, willing us to dream, dream, dream that it’s possible still to get one’s kicks on route sixty six. Which reminds me, I’d love him to read the blog I called, ‘You Can Score On Route 24’ as it contains a spoof of ‘Route Sixty Six’. I can almost hear him singing it.

‘If you ever plan to motor east,
Of Thai girls you’ll soon find a feast.
In Buriram and Sisaket,
There’s many waiting for you yet.
You can score on Route 24.’

Well maybe!

On getting back home to the village in Surin, I had that familiar feeling that everything round the house is in chaos. I’m not saying it’s all because Cat’s got stuck into her next new project though. You see she’s gone into retail catering and has been at the school for the last few days selling fruit and banana pudding and things to the kids and teachers.

She’s madly busy and I’m quite impressed as she really seems to be making a profit. As I’ve paid for all the stuff, should I ask if she’ll hand over some of the cash to me… or would I rather stay married?

Anyway it’s hot and dry and earthy here as it always is, a world apart from Bangkok and even Phnom Penh, but I’m really quite enjoying coming back down to Earth. I’m glad I came back the slow way too. And now I’m going to have plenty of time for reflection!

Saturday, 19 January 2008

There´s Fish In Them Rice Fields!

In the last few days, we’ve been having fish deep fried in vegetable oil and they’ve been delicious. They’re only small but they go crispy right through so you can eat them whole including the head, without having to pick around for bones. And they’re even tastier because we get them for free.

When I was new in these parts I once asked Cat why she was wanting to put green netting all the way round the family fish pond. To deter theft?

‘No, it’s to stop the fish escaping,’ she said without so much as a blink.

It’s sometimes difficult to know what stories to believe in Thailand but this one was true. Certain types of small fish can migrate across land and if they sense that the water’s greener on the other side, they’ll give your fish pond the push and move off elsewhere.

What’s also extraordinary is that while more than half the year here in the North East of Thailand is absolute drought with no rainfall, when the rains come the flooded fields are soon teeming with fish. And not only fish… there are crabs, shrimps and shellfish of several varieties, just like at the seaside.

There’s a super-abundance of protein in the water, all of which disappears with the dry season, though it’s still possible to find crab holes and to dig them up even when the fields are dusty and dry.

This cycle of feast and famine thus creates a need to preserve surplus fish for the dry season and the chosen means is fermentation. The plaa raa that results, sometimes called rotten fish is an important part of the local diet. Poor families eat their rice with plaa raa and little else and to a non-local it smells utterly disgusting.

Strangely though they all love it and pla raa and the purple land crabs are an essential part of that great Isaan dish, som tam. This is a salad made with shredded green papaya and if you can persuade them to serve it without plaa raa and chili in volcanic quantities, it’s a great dish indeed.

At the end of November the rains are over and the fish will soon be gone, though not quite yet. Cat has been out in the fields with her boots, a bucket, two little cousins and Pepsi, the dog and has come back with kilos of fish and crabs. She has precise local knowledge of where to find them and she’s never happier than when she’s burrowing in the mud to find this excellent free food.

She has absolutely no need to bother doing this dirty task and I like her all the more because she so loves doing it. But then if she were the sort of wife who sat at home preening and painting her lips pink, then I wouldn’t have chosen to be with her in the first place.

Cat is a rich and enthusiastic source of information on rural life here and for me she is the link between my urban, western lifestyle and the place in which I now live. It would all respects be pretty meaningless without her.

(Posted from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.)

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Gates to Nowhere

Some time ago I blogged about the social obligation to build a big wall with flashy gates if you manage to build a modern house that's a cut above the rest. It's a statement of status and wealth as much as Prado and Gucci.

The usual order for construction is first of all thousands of tons of soil, then the wall, follwed by the gates. In this case they've done the soil but seem to have forgotten the wall. If they do the wall, I'll bet they run out of money and never build the house. And if they do the house, they'll probably start by doing the roof first.

Where's the postman going to put the letters? They've forgotten to put up a box.

All This And Cheese Too!

Back home in the village, I'm reviewing my photos of Koh Chang and couldn't resist posting a few more. They were taken on the trip I took on the wooden boat, the Thaifun.

It was a long day and we motored down to Koh Wai and Koh Mak, just as Ben did in one of the final chapters of "Thai Girl". It was a superb day as always and good to escape the commercialisation of Koh Chang for some truly remote spots, nonetheless quite busy between Xmas and New Year.

A day or two later the temperature dropped and it was blowing half a gale. I wondered what the Thaifun did as it was not at anchor. It was in the papers that tourists had to be 'rescued' from Koh Wai as they were stranded there by the high winds. What a place to be stranded.

It's all very beautiful as you can see and here on Koh Chang there's cheese too. I haven't been able to buy chesse for ages as the big Thai supermarkets in Surin don't stock it except by the ton. Here at Anna's supemarket there's quite a good selection. And at Oodie's Place pizzas as well!

Why did I come home? At least it's not for long. Tomorrow I take the overnight bus to Bangkok and on Saturday fly to Phnom Penh. I haven't been to Cambodia for ages and it should be good. There may be a temporary lull but then a torrent of blogs about that too.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Long Beach KC

In my previous post, I deplored the poor standard of development on Koh Chang, my favourite island to the east of Bangkok, but perhaps I should now balance this a bit by saying that there are still some beautiful quiet spots to be found.

If when you land at the ferry, instead of turning right you turn left down the eastern side of the island, you will find it undeveloped and beautiful. Mainly coconut, rubber and fruit plantations, it is still much as it should be though there are some nice places you can stay.

If you keep driving and turn left down the long peninsula before Salak Phet you can enjoy many spectacular views before reaching Long Beach. Here you will find the 'Tree House' which is an example of exactly how a tropical beach resort should. Like the first 'Tree House' on Lonely Beach, it is built substantially of wood and bamboo with grass roofs. It blends perfectly with its surroundings and in a few days it could be removed and the environment returned to its original state, a huge contrast to the massive reinforced concrete structures that are being built elsewhere.

The road to Long Beach is a bit challenging, but so much the better as it deters all but the most determined seekers of solitude. I hope this place receives an adequate flow of business though, as unlike the others it deserves to succeed.