As a general rule, there is no greater advantage when visiting a foreign country than having the benefit of a local guide. Since 2012, I have met many people around the world whom I then saw again in their home city. That gave me the benefit of visiting Oslo, Stockholm, Vienna, Munich, Sofia, Brasov, Prague, Freiburg, Potsdam, Berlin, the Estonian countryside, Riga, Tel-Aviv, Melbourne, Singapore, Guangzhou and even East Timor (ok, an expat) with local residents, or at least having a beer with them (or 24 beers, each, in the case of Vienna). Unsurprisingly, these places are mostly rich, by international standards, and one certainly meets more German than Thai tourists while travelling the world. But at Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands, I went on a sunrise mountain tour with a Thai tourist – and three Germans, of course. Now that I think of it, I just realized I have never been to a German city where I didn’t know someone!
Educated at a top university in the United States, my new Thai friend vacationed in Norway last summer. Not the stereotypical Thai woman. We discussed the US Republican Primaries instead of having the normal conversation: “Canada cold? Yes, very cold”. Although she was working during the week, we got some lunch at Terminal 21, an air travel themed shopping mall. “Japanese OK? Sure”. As I mentioned in a few of my recent stories, Japan seems to exercise a certain fascination in South-East Asia, and perhaps Thailand in particular. However, Mone lived for about 10 years in Japan and goes back several times a year, so in her case, it might be nostalgia. Anyway, I will go off on a big tangent here.
At a restaurant famous for the tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), I discovered this recipe involving a spicy curry I had never had before. I think it is called Katsu-karē. In a blind test, I would have thought I was having Indian food. I read a bit about it afterwards and learned that curry is now ubiquitous in Japan. It wasn’t introduced by the Indians, obviously, but by the British, mainly the Royal Navy, starting in the late 19th century, when India was part of the British Empire. Amusingly, because of this origin, it seems that in the old days Japanese people considered curry to be Western food!
I’m happy to have tried it, but I was a little jealous of Mone’s “in-my-mind” more Japanese choice, tonkatsu with shredded cabbage.
Another Japanese restaurant, the kind you will find in any posh Thai mall.
Even McDonald’s, known for regionalizing its offerings, gives a Japanese (and a Thai) twist to its Thai menu!
This is the kind of mall I am talking about, Siam Paragon. A kind of mall we certainly don’t have in Canada. Of course there are BMW and Lamborghini dealerships in it, but if you would rather be dead than seen driving such common cars, don’t worry, the mall also has Rolls Royce and McLaren showrooms. And now I will go on a tangent within the tangent.
Admittedly, I don’t know much about kids. But I think travelling a lot changes them. I met a French couple who export Asian art to France and home school their children at least for a portion of the year. The eldest was acting childish with her parents and brother around, but a couple of times she came to talk to me and was completely different, obviously used to talking with adults (small hotel with a common outdoor terrace, so no, not creepy).
“With all these travels, you must have a lot of stories to tell your friends back home?” I said. “No, kids who don’t travel are not interested in such stories.” She wisely replied. About the malls, she said: “Amazing how Thailand is a poor country compared to France, but the malls are nicer than in Paris”. Had I been texting her, I would have guessed I was chatting with a young teenager. But she looked much younger so I asked. 8 years old! Amazing. And since I had asked, she did the same and I told her my age. “No, that’s impossible, you can’t be that old!” was her reply. Thanks kid, you’re my favourite.
Back to tangent #1. By chance, there happened to be a big Japanese exhibit at Siam Paragon.
Uniformed girl bands seemed to be the main event.
Lots of them.
The fan base was very uniform as well. Young, male and nerdy. They knew all the words and all the moves.
Between performances, they lined-up neatly and some accomplished the dream of a life time: talking to an actual girl.
I snapped this shot right at the moment it hit her: “Wait a minute, I’m way too cool to be here…” Too late my possibly extraterrestrial friend, time to go talk to the nerdy boys!
OK, end of all tangents and back to visiting Bangkok with a local resident. The reality is that most of the time, it results in doing more normal everyday things, like going jogging in Melbourne or walking in the Estonian countryside. But occasionally, it goes the other way and the visitor pulls the host into the tourist world, like when I took my Swedish friend Karin to a walking tour of Stockholm. In this case, Mone tried to show me nice things and we went to the Sri Nakhon Khuean Khan Park and Botanical Garden on Saturday.
A large park right in the middle of busy Bangkok where locals come to get a break from the noisy city.
I asked her if she came here often. “First time. I should bring my mother one day”. Funny, but typical, just like the fact that no Parisian would ever go up the Eiffel Tower, unless they were being nice and taking a foreign visitor there.
A floating market. It doesn’t actually float, but there are canals behind the shops, so close enough. Amid the food and arts and crafts stalls, a man was carefully breaking off the shells of coconuts. The idea is to remove all the shell and keep the centre intact, including the coconut water.
“Is this a typical thing people get on week-ends?”, I asked Mone. “No idea, but I saw it on TV once”. Ha! I thought about what I would buy if she visited Ottawa. A beavertail is a sort of waffle sold in the Byward Market, where I used to live. I think President Obama had one when he visited. I guess I would buy one for Mone. Of course, I myself have never tried them. Typical. By the way, I had to beg her to let me use this picture. “I look like a Chinese tourist!” she complained. I’m laughing even as I type this.
I was lucky to have a Thai SIM card in my phone, or I may never have found Mone in Bangkok. Between the time I met her and just one week later, she had pulled an extreme makeover.
One week earlier! I know it looks like a fake picture of her Photoshopped in front of a picture, but it’s real. I took it at a restaurant overlooking a tea plantation.
Finally, we drove the fairly short distance to the Gulf of Thailand for a dinner of fresh fish. Now, that is the one thing Mone told me her family and friends occasionally did. But they eat on the shore, like normal people. However, there is one restaurant that is actually in the Gulf, on stilts. You have to take a small boat ride for at least 15 minutes to get there. Unsurprisingly, that was another first for her.
The ride itself is interesting. The canals are lined with modest shacks, possibly belonging to fishermen, or people manning the canal infrastructure. Just guessing.
But there are also many houses which most certainly don’t belong to fishermen. Mone speculated artists might live here. Or Bangkok residents looking for week-end peace and quiet not too far from town. While there are no roads, all houses appear to have electricity, water and sanitation.
I’m blurry, but I had to use it!
Not any fresher than on shore.
But you get the view.
And the sunset. So thanks Mone, if you come to Canada, I will take you up Montreal’s Olympic Stadium Tower and we will visit Ottawa’s Parliament Hill with a beavertail. All things I have never done before.
Another first for me was staying near Khao San Road, Bangkok’s historical backpacker destination of choice. In at least 6 visits to Bangkok, I had never before even set foot there, as I usually prefer the glitzy malls and easy metro access of Sukhumvit Road. Fun to see; will not return.
You can see that metro – this portion called the BTS Skytrain – on the top right of the picture. Sukumvit Road is a multi level street. Cars and pedestrians on level one, pedestrians on level 2 and trains on level 3. On the left, Terminal 21, where I had lunch with Mone during the week.
Another form of transportation all tourists should try is the river ferries. Very efficient and fast, they avoid city traffic, but are also best avoided in rush hour, as they can get really packed. They remind me of the large boats in Venice: half filled with bored looking locals, sitting down on their way to work, and another half of excited foreigners, standing up, camera in hand. Speaking of which, I wonder how many tourist phones and cameras are lying at the bottom of the river!
And a funny picture I snapped from Mone’s car.
Waterworks employees on standby, with hammocks rigged in their truck.
I hope you enjoyed the positive tone, because my next story is about a country I sadly don’t like at all. Thailand was dearly missed from day one…