English Pies in Bangkok
It’s time to go east again. Retirement gives flexibility on timing with the off-season airfare less than half the holiday season fare. But some things stay the same: travel insurance: £70; vaccinations on three different days the month before and certificate £90 plus the malaria tablets at £44 (only needed because I am visiting Laos) to be continued well after my return. I am not backpacking but I don’t need a plush hotel either, so my friend arranges a large studio room at £25 a night in the district of Sathorn which I know best and where my other friends live. Sathorn is also popular with farangs (foreigners) having 4 international schools there and recently, The London Pie shop which is thriving and includes Harrow School in Bangkok among its clients.
Walking back to the apartment after a lazy day on my own, a very glamorous lady (I can only see from the back) is getting into a taxi. I am very casually dressed in crumpled shorts, tee-shirt etc but I get the look as I walk past as she fluffs her hair and stares at me – why the attention in my dressed down state? My friend explains later, I am a farang of course, plus she rather spoils it for me, pointing out that the female concerned was probably a katoi or lady boy! It’s nice to have a drink at The British Club in Bangkok where over a cold beer, my host informs me that our old stomping ground Patpong, is only a shadow of its former self.
The Beer is still the same
This is my fourth visit to Thailand and sadly the shortest. The Singha (Lion) Beer still tastes good but my ageing taste buds now prefer its arch competitor Chang (Elephant) Beer. There’s time to make a short visit to Laos or Lao People’s Democratic Republic, mentioned on my previous Thai visit as the most laid back place on the planet. An overnight train journey from Bangkok station is arranged with a private double berth but only after website visits and two phone calls lead us to take a taxi to the train station where a first class double berth is suddenly available at Thai Baht 2,414. Bleary-eyed, we leave the train next morning at Nong Khai where a tuk-tuk driver takes us to a travel agent where for another Baht 2,500, we get a visa for me and my Thai friend and a lift to the customs post. Of this, Laos charges Baht 1,550 (£31 or in their currency, 383,000 Kip) At least the agent fills out the brief forms for us and after a rather chaotic crossing, we are in Vientiane a couple of hours later, 25 km from the border. Our driver arrives next morning to take us on a short tour of three temples, one of which Ho Pra Kaew, is the former home of the Emerald Buddha, now in Bangkok at Wat Phra Kaew.
For the first time in years, I send picture postcards which at time of writing have not arrived after 8 days. Makes me wonder how will this compare with a recent airmail letter to Ndola in Zambia which took 2 months to arrive?
It’s Quiet here
Described by my friend as a “modern town,” Vientiane is quieter and cheaper than Bangkok making it unsurprisingly full of farangs. After making a list of reasonably-priced hotels, a friend we meet at the border suggests another one down by the river Mekong, even cheaper at Baht 800 (£16) a night. The room has air conditioning, TV and a balcony where you can watch the sun going down. The friend has settled in Thailand with his Thai wife and needs to get his residence permit renewed, hence the trip over the border to Laos. A mini-bus full of similar trippers leaves for the Thai embassy while we wait for our bus.
Luang Prabang the ancient capital, is a day bus ride away so we decide to stay in Vientiane with its farangs and do Luang Prabang next time. On the way into Vientiane, we pass the impressive Lao Brewery whose lager is OK 5% ABV but I still prefer the Thai beer. Laos is one of the poorest countries on earth and has little industry. As a result, many Laos make a living by regularly crossing the border into Thailand to bring food among other things, back home.
For the first time, I notice grey hairs among the trippers – not surprising perhaps as the hippies of the sixties are now receiving their pensions. These are a lot more generous – in real terms too, than the Thai State Pension my friend now receives at Baht 600 per month. She can look forward to an increase to Baht 700 (£14) per month when she is 70.
Meanwhile in Vientiane, ministry buildings announce their presence in Lao and French where ladies working at these must wear the traditional “sinn” dress. We drive past The People’s Security Museum exhibiting what looks like a water cannon among the military vehicles parked outside. Lunch at a Lao restaurant is interesting where the food is OK but Thai is better. During our meal, the state TV channel repeatedly shows a grainy B&W film featuring communist leaders from the sixties, soldiers rushing into battle, happy peasants working in the paddy fields and patriotic songs that would probably sound familiar if you were in North Korea – interrupted by the occasional riff on an electric guitar.
Being Laos, glutinous or sticky rice tends to be at least as popular as the standard white rice with the former being served in small woven holders. Laid back is relative. Westerners love Thailand because it is easy going, Chinese find Thais lazy, Thais apparently find Laos lazy so it all depends at which end of the telescope you are. Japanese tourists, the model of politeness in Europe have a reputation for arrogance in Thailand where during my stay, complaints by a Japanese tourist about taxis at Suvanahboumi airport lead to protests by taxi drivers where one displays a notice refusing to take Japanese passengers. But I digress.
Back in Thailand, we stop again in Nong Khai to do some shopping. Silk scarves which I had haggled for my daughters down to Baht 330 each in Bangkok at Asiatique, are available at a marked price of 150 Baht. We are hungry, so we visit the well-known Vietnamese Daeng Namnueng restaurant and order a range of dishes including Vietnamese sausages. Neither of us really enjoy any of them. All the 5 dishes are bland by comparison to Thai food – am I getting fussy in my old age?
Thai Food News
My favourite breakfast in Thailand is Joak – a rice soup with pork meat balls and ginger. Add chilli, fish gravy or soy to taste. From a roadside stall of which there are half million in Thailand, a healthy breakfast is yours for Baht 35 (70p) and the prices are marked these days – so you won’t get ripped off. By comparison, a cup of coffee is around Baht 55 – best avoided.
For a change, there are noodles with chicken or crispy fried pork at Baht 40 (80p). Fresh coconut, Baht 20 or 30 and the seller will scoop out the coconut flesh for you. Fresh pineapple, same price. Steamed corn on the cob, Baht 20. Average cost for two dining out in a decent/popular restaurant: Baht 800 (£16) including beer – didn’t bother asking for wine.
A Bangkok riverside restaurant we visit twice – Savoey Riverview where all the dishes are delicious. Full of Thais (a good sign) and my farewell treat to my Thai friends, 6 diners – Baht 2,800 or £56.