Friday, February 29, 2008

Bangkok Tourists: Exotic Silom.

As a Valentine's Day gift, Bordeaux booked a night for us at a hotel in Silom, a stylish urban neighborhood near the city center. It's an area that we both like, and one that we thought we knew well. Yet spending the night there revealed a different side to the streets of Silom.

Bordeaux had booked a room for us at the Luxx, a boutique hotel on a leafy soi off of Silom. The stylish room was perfect for our night away. A huge bed with crisp cool white sheets, refreshingly spare decor, and a wooden bathtub with a rain shower.

In search of lunch, we came across a Hindu temple that we had never seen before. The air around the temple smelled sweetly of incense, and the sidewalks were crowded with tables of offerings, garlands, and lottery tickets. Down the street we visited the Kathmandu Gallery, which was showing a mix of work by some very witty Thai artists.

For lunch, we ate at a hole in the wallacross from the temple called Khrua Aroy Aroy. It's a popular little curry house, with a long lunch counter at the front of a small tiled room. Their greasy laminated menus show a mix of Thai regional dishes, from massaman curry to khanom jeen. I ordered the khao soi, a Northern Thai style curry dish that's somewhat difficult to find in Bangkok. The soft chicken and rich spicy broth were piled with delicious crispy noodles; seasoned with onions and pickled vegetables, it was an incredibly tasty dish.

After lunch, picked up sweets at a nearby Indian bakery, and set out to explore the neighborhood. We wandered around the busy sois of the neighborhood. Up Silom Soi 20, we found a busy market, where citrus tinted fruits were stacked in piles. A woman flagged us down, trying to get us to buy Thai gay magazines, but we politely declined.

After a rest and a coffee, we went out for dinner at Eat Me, a chic restaurant and gallery. Set back from Thanon Convent in a palm shrouded compound, the atmosphere at Eat Me was seductively tropical. We sat on a long patio balcony, where jungle leaves cast shadows across bare concrete walls, and black fans swirled the air above every table. Over a long and leisurely evening, we had a lavish spread of dishes: duck spring rolls, herb braised fish, salmon and tarragon, which we paired with exotic cocktails. The highlight of the meal for me was perhaps the dessert, three scoops of creamy ice cream in spicy flavors: a refreshing milky lemongrass, a fiery ginger, and a potent chili vanilla.

A solid night's sleep was followed by breakfast, which was brought to the bed on wooden trays.

Silom is a neighborhood that I enjoy, but not one that I often think of as being particularly exotic. Exploring the alleyways and hidden corners of the neighborhood revealed that side to me. In a way, Silom has got it exactly right: it's stylish and hip, but refreshingly tropical. It offers cosmopolitan charms, while still harboring delicious Thai flavors. It's the combination that makes Bangkok the amazing city that it is.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Spirit tree on Soi Lang Suan.

Even in one of Bangkok's most urban enclaves, venerable old trees are still shown proper honor.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A room at the Hotel Nefertiti, Amman, Jordan.

Twin beds in the Hotel Neferititi; any guess which one I slept in?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Bangkok Snapshot: Abandoned Fruitstand.

During the day, mobile fruit stands offer chilled refreshment from the steaming streets of Bangkok. At night, they appear as strange lanterns, the icy glass boxes glowing in the hues of tropical fruit.

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Editor's Note: I wanted to mention that I am also providing writing and photography for a local blog, called My BKK. It focuses on the eccentricity of life in Bangkok, which is a nearly inexhuaustable subject. The entries take a similar format to my "Bangkok Snapshots," and focus on all aspects of daily culture in the Thai capital.

I would also like to thank Write to Travel, for featuring me as the Travelblog of the Week. I'm always surprised to find that anyone other than my boyfriend actually looks at this blog, so I was thrilled by the honor.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Bangkok tourists: Phra Arthit.

Tourists get a pretty bad rap. They're considered ignorant, out of place, careless. And I'll admit- when I'm on the skytrain and I hear some tourists complaining about how dirty Bangkok is, or how backwards Thailand is, I get pretty annoyed. But being a tourist can have its virtues. In mid-January, Bordeaux and I got a day off of work for Teacher's Day. Since it was a Wednesday, we couldn't use it as an excuse to get out of the city. Instead, we decided to become tourists in our own city, and to take a Bangkok mini-break. For our destination, we visit the relaxed and funky neighborhood around Soi Rambutree and Phra Arthit, where tourists and Thai students mix in cafes and bars. It's the area where I stayed when I first came to Bangkok, and the place where I began to realize how beautiful the city is. It was a wonderful opportunity to act like tourists, and enjoy the simple exotic pleasures of our tropical home.

After checking into our favorite guest-house off Soi Rambutree, we headed for coffee on Phra Arthit. It's one of my favorite streets in Bangkok: lined with fig trees, and curving between hip art cafes and the churning Chao Phraya. There are so many good coffeeshops on Phra Arthit, picking one is always a difficult choice. We considered On Art and Coffee and More, but in the end chose Ann Sweet, a small cakeshop we hadn't visited before. We savored lattes on the sidewalk as the sun set, sketching and reading as the light faded from the whitewashed walls of the nearby fort.

For dinner, we ate at Rakk. I had eaten there on my first day in Bangkok back in June; they served me one of the spiciest, most delicious green curries I've ever eaten. We opted for that again, but in a playful fusion dish of green curry spaghetti. Though not nearly as spicy as my first curry, it was still very tasty. The more exciting half of the meal was a fried fish in Thai herbs. The crispy white fish was covered in lemongrass, chili, banana flower, and peanuts, and garnished with fresh mint. The combination of crisp produce and crunchy fish was perfect, and brought alive with the spicy flavors of the Thai herbs.

At night, we soaked up the touristy atmosphere around Soi Rambutree. We browsed at tacky t-shirt shops, and bought a few cheap souvenirs. We stopped for strong cocktails at Sripoom, a funky student bar with an extensive list of tropical cocktails. Afterwards we stopped for dessert on the street, where we ordered a rich, greasy banana pancake.

In the morning we went for breakfast at Ricky's, a popular backpackers cafe. The extensive menu has delicious breakfasts and sandwiches (I've never tried their Thai or Mexican dishes), served in a tiny two story building themed to a early 20th century Chinese shophouse. Since our last visit, they'd expanded into a neighboring space: though not as intimate, it carried the theme, with dark wood, red silk lanterns, and faded Chinese advertising posters. They serve some of the most amazing muesli I've ever had- crunchy oats flecked with sesame seeds and coconut, and always served with a delicious mix of tropical fruit- but this time I opted for the banana french toast. Thankfully, it wasn't a misstep. The thick, battered slices of bread were delicious, with a sweet creamy banana coating. It paired perfectly with their rich, flavorful coffee.

Before heading back to our normal life in Bangkok, we stopped at the colorful smoothie stand on Phra Arthit. We'd seen them before, and always felt tempted by their display of glistening fruit. Bordeaux got a mix of tropical produce, but I opted instead for a simple mango smoothie. Though the getaway was intended for us to feel like tourists, it had reminded me of how lucky I am to be a local here. Our night on Phra Arthit reminded me of what a great city I live in, how charming, exciting, cosmopolitan, and exotic it is. The creamy mango smoothie was the perfect tropical endnote.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Blue dress, Zanzibar.

I can't imagine what social function required such attire, but it certainly was a pretty sweet dress.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Roadtrip Diptych.

Clean plate at a waffle house; National Forest style.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Coca-Cola Spirit House; Conclusion to Gods and Spirits of Thong Lo

After I started the series on the gods and spirits of Thong Lo, I realized that it was in part a way of working out some thoughts about modernity and globalization in Thailand. It's a topic that's been on my mind recently, but it's something I've been thinking about for years, since I first learned of spirit-houses.

I first became familiar with them during college, while living in Los Angeles. I ate out infrequently in Thai Town, a nondescript area of Hollywood with a lot of hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurants. Some of the grander properties had shrines out front: small but beautiful Thai-style houses, laden with fresh fruit and draped in flowers.

In 2003, I was assigned a sculpture project on pattern making. Since I had no experience with sewing patterns, I opted to go for something architectural. For some reason, my mind turned back to the elaborate shrines I had seen in Thai Town. I researched them, and learned that they were called spirit-houses: miniature homes meant to provide a refuge for spirits that were displaced when people developed land. People tend the houses, offering food and drink to the spirits that reside within. I read that spirit-houses used to be made mostly out of wood, but as development in Southeast Asia exploded and the forests thinned, they were increasingly being made out of concrete. The connections between ideas of displacement, modernization, and loss of tradition intrigued me. For my sculpture project, I built a spirit-house out of used cardboard. It was a Coca-Cola spirit house, with red and white soda-pop tiles dripping over a cardboard frame.

Recently, I read an interview with an Australian photographer about his work in Thailand. The photographer complained about Bangkok, how he had come looking for the exotic, and found a city just like every other. He lamented the loss of tradition, which he saw as the result of consumption and consumerism. He felt that soon Thai culture would disappear completely in the face of Western influence. While I too have nostalgic feelings about the loss of traditional cultures, and understand that hegemonic forms of globalization are troubling, his comments annoyed me. In part, I simply disagree with him about Bangkok; it's an extraordinary city that is just as unique as it is global. Beyond that, I think that it's a colonizing gesture to look at an 'exotic' culture, and wish for it to remain 'traditional'- while he likely doesn't expect the same of his own. But most strikingly, I found his suggestion that Thai culture is something static, able to be bulldozed in place of something new, to be completely incorrect. Thai culture (like most cultures) is inherently dynamic. Part of what makes Thai culture so vibrant is the degree to which it is a result of the merging of different cultures. Thai cuisine, which seems so distinct, is largely the collision of local, Khmer, Chinese, Indian, and even Portuguese (in the desserts, anyway) influences. Globalization isn't something that's going to wipe out Thai culture- it's what's gave birth to Thai culture in the first place.

The spirit-houses themselves are actually a great symbol of resilience. Buddhism is, after all, a foreign import- and the spirit-houses that link back to older traditions managed to survive. Thong Lo is one of the city's youngest, hippest, most moneyed streets in Bangkok- and yet people still create spaces for gods and spirits among the luxury condos and cutting-edge shopping malls. The spirits of Thong Lo don't linger as relics of a 'traditional' past, but thrive as living forces in the lives of modern people. And really, aren't spirit-houses about making way for something new while not losing touch with the old?

In the end, my thoughts came back to the spirit-house that I had made nearly five years ago. I don't think I fully understood what I meant when I created that Coca Cola spirit-house, but perhaps I know better now. I had made the spirit house out of non-traditional elements, out of ugliness. I thought it might be an indictment against modernization, but in the end, it was a beautiful object, with lush red and green tiles glistening over an ornate corrugated frame. The beauty of my recycled spirit-house had a meaning I hadn't intended. The materials and tastes of a culture may change, but isn't it possible that the spirit stays the same?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Gods and spirits of Thong Lo: #4, Chic Style of J Ave Spirits

One of the interesting characteristics of spirit-houses is that they should match in style and tone the larger development they are built for. Simple country homes may have simple spirit-houses, soaring high-rises have strange modernist forms. The well-styled spirits of Thong Lo's J Avenue obviously need a stylish home, so they have this chic white abode.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Gods and Spirits of Thong Lo: #3, Scarred Deities of the Underbrush.

Not all the gods and spirits of Thong Lo glint from marble pedestals, or glisten in pooled spotlight. Some guard the street at sidewalk level, from under fallen leaves and branches.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Gods and Spirits of Thong Lo: #2, Spirits of the Local Laundry.

Located at the darkened end of a narrow alleyway, the vibrant colors draped on this spirit house make it stand out from the shadows like a neon flame.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Gods and Spirits of Thong Lo: #1, Ganesh of the Parking Lot.

Enthroned above rows of parked luxury sedans, Ganesh guarantees traffic safety.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Blue doors of Taos.

I sometimes wonder how I would write my blog if I didn't live in Bangkok. Would I be able to search out good street-food in Cape Town? And what would a 'Colors of Los Angeles' series look like? But I'm sure wherever I live I'll find things that inspire me. Even the home state that I left behind is rather exotic. Every time I tell someone that I'm from New Mexico, they tell me what a beautiful state it is- even if they've never visited. And it really is. When I was in New Mexico in May and June, I got to revisit some of the more interesting locales in the state. One of the highlights was a visit to the Taos Pueblo, where I took these photographs. I'm drawn to certain colors, so many of photographs from the visit centered around the contrast of these blue-green doors against the ochre of the adobe.

The pale blue color around doors is a New Mexican tradition, brought by the Spanish, originating in the Middle East, India, or further abroad. It's meant to keep the home free of malignant spirits; if nothing else, the milky hues provide the eyes with a cooling respite from the earthen adobe walls.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Cakes for Chinese New Year's.

The cool season in Thailand has scratched by this year with little rain, but surprisingly warm days. The effects were starting to get to me. Dust caked to the sidewalk, pollution layered on buildings like thin coats of gray paint. Early last week, a cool moist wind curled into the city and thankfully it carried rain. The first pelting drops of drizzle washed away the grime and dirt, and revealed the beautiful Bangkok underneath. In the faint purple mist, the city came alive in technicolor: waxy tropical leaves dripped dark green, traffic lights bled crimson on the slick tar-black roads. In this city of candy colors, I stumbled upon a temporary cake factory on my daily commute.

I pass by the Khlong Toei market on the way to and from school five days a week. As I've written before, it's often a good spot for strange sightings. But I had never seen anything like this. Ordinarily, there are a number of different stands, operating fairly distinctly: someone selling women's fashions, another with piles of marigold offerings, a small team dishing out plates of curry to waiting customers. But on Monday, it appeared that everyone was working together, operating like pieces of a machine. Children folded rose colored tissue paper into bamboo baskets; women tipped long ladles, overflowing with creamy white batter; marathon lifters transported them over to metal steamers, where another man waited for them to bake; after an old man fanned them cool, a small team packed them up in boxes and cherry-red plastic and sold them to the line of waiting customers. The result: fragrant banana cakes for Chinese New Year's.

It would have been ridiculous to admire this whole process without taking some home, so I bought one each for Bordeaux and I to enjoy at home. The spongy white cakes were a friendly welcome into the New Year.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Lonely landscapes of the LA zoo.

Many people complain about the LA Zoo. They say it's too small, too strange-- they favor instead the massive animal amusement park in San Diego. But the LA zoo seems just the right size to me. With its overgrown landscape, it seems almost to be a massive, primeval garden-- making it all the more surprising when you turn a corner, and come across a Sumatran rhino or a Bactrian camel.

Perhaps because so many people overlook it, the grounds of the LA zoo are often quiet, and perfect for exploration. The further back in the zoo you walk, the farther you get from the minor crowds, and the more you escape into the manicured wild.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Sand-vendors on Ko Samet.

One of the most distinctive aspects of life in Thailand is that food is present in all public spaces. So it was no surprise that the beaches of Ko Samet had their own street food vendors. But rather than pushing carts or peddling wagons, these men and women marched the shore line with bamboo baskets balanced across their shoulders.

In the morning, vendors carried baskets with crispy grilled chicken and delicately balanced hard boiled eggs. For a slightly less healthy breakfast, some of the vendors walked around with baskets heaped with sugary pastries and jelly-filled donuts.

In the afternoon, vendors made noodle dishes and spicy salads. After being beckoned from a bar table or from under a sun umbrella, these traveling chefs would lower down to the sand and quickly prepare a meal. Their baskets were like tiny, traveling kitchens, loaded with jars of fresh ingredients and a range of utensils for cutting, mixing, and pounding.

Not all vendors trudging the white sand were selling food, however. I had thought it odd that there were no souvenir stands on Ko Samet- so it made sense that a walking vendor would try to fill that gap. This one sold simple Thai instruments.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Ko Samet Colors.

Last weekend I escaped the gray smog that had swallowed Bangkok, and traveled south to Ko Samet. The trip was worth it for the colors alone; foamy turquoise surf washed over blinding white sand, and fuchsia bougainvillea burned against a lush backdrop of emerald palms. After a day of exploring, I came across this electric blue spirit house, draped in pink ribbons and plastic marigolds. Shaded beneath it were offerings from the tropical isle: pale green bananas, and giant white seashells.