Hope your trick is a real treat . . .
Hope your trick is a real treat . . .
I asked my friend Noom once if he believed in ghosts. Silly question. They’re real, so why wouldn’t you believe in them? I also asked if ghosts scared him. He scoffed. Nothing scares Noom. Of course, his pronunciation of the word ghost comes out sounding more like goats so that makes sense. Nothing too scary about goats.
With Halloween just around the corner, I revisited the subject with him just to make sure. Because my plan for the day was to visit Thailand’s most famous ghost’s shrine: The new home of Mae Nak, a rather nasty piece of work if you ever got in the way of her and her man. Hmmm, actually that sounds like most fish . . . but on with the story.
Mae Nak’s tale is often told in Thailand. Mothers use her to scare their unruly children into behaving. There have been more than twenty movies made telling her story, each a box office hit. And her tale formed the basis of an opera, too. Ask any Thai you know and he’ll tell you about Mae Nak. The details of her story tend to change from one telling to the next, but the basis is always the same: She’s one pissed off bitch and you don’t want to get on her bad side.
Nak lived with her husband, Mak, along the canal by Wat Mahabut. They were very much in love and as straight folk do, went at it like rabbits until Mak knocked Nak up. (Chill. I know the whole breeder sex thing is terrifying, but that’s not the scary part.)
So Mak is in the army and gets sent north for several months, leaving Nak to fend for herself. He returns home finally to find his wife and new baby waiting for him. Before they get a chance to have reunion sex, Nak cooks Mak his favorite meal and accidently drops a spoon on the ground while cooking his dinner.
Unknown to Mak, Nak died while he was away. So did the baby. But Nak knows she’s a ghost and uses her ghostly powers to extend her arm to pick up the dropped utensil. Mak sees her magic arm trick, doesn’t stop to think just how much fun that little trick could be, and instead flees for his life.
Typical of a woman scorned, Nak goes ballistic, blames the neighbors, and starts killing them all off in all sorts of grizzly manners. And then takes off after Mak. Eventually a powerful exorcist comes to the rescue and convinces Nak that in a future life she will be reunited with her husband, and so the ghost voluntarily leaves this world for the afterlife.
So, okay, I never said it was a good ghost story, just a famous one. The Thai people love the story because of Nak’s love and devotion to Mak. And as scary of a ghost as she is, she is also viewed as a spirit who can help locals who visit her shrine. For some reason, she’s especially good at helping pick lucky lottery numbers.
Her shrine is on the grounds of Wat Mahabut by the On Nut BTS station. The shrine itself is behind the wat along the Phra Khanong canal. The small wat didn’t seem to be doing much business the day we visited, Mae Nak’s shrine proved to be quite popular. As soon as you enter the wat’s grounds there are dozens of vendors selling toys and fancy woman’s dresses in addition to the regular temple offerings of incense, lotus blossoms, and garlands. Visitors to Mae Nak’s part of the grounds buy the outfits to present to her as an offering and her small statue (with a creepy looking Chucky look alike baby) is surrounded by the dresses people have left there.
The main shrine is located in a green wood building; a smaller shrine with pictures of Mae Nak instead of a statue is located just outside. Her statute sits in a small room toward the back of the building while there are two large trees in the front area growing through the roof that people have encircled with colorful cloth ribbons. Wishes are written on small slips of paper and tucked underneath the colorful fabric.
You’re not supposed to take pictures of Mae Nak’s statue (no problemo doing so of The Buddha at any wat, but lets show some respect for minor ghosts). I decided to summons the Thai within me and disregard the rules, but did so surreptitiously. So the photos I shot were on the sly and didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. Noom normally has no problem laughing at rules himself, but when he saw me shooting the pix of Mae Nak, he kept his distance. There may be nothing that scares him, but evidently that doesn’t mean you should take foolish chances.
Back outside there are dozens of lottery ticket sellers under a pergola and closer to the canal about a half a dozen fortune tellers who all seemed to be doing a brisk business. You can also buy small live fish to let go in the canal as a form of offering, and there are several large vessels along the water for burning incense sticks.
The other areas of the wat’s grounds contain a few unusual shrines and religious statutes worth taking a look at. And the canal area is a serene spot perfect for a short rest and a bit of daydreaming. The wat is not one that touri flock to, but if you are looking for a suitable Halloween outing in Bangkok, go say Hi to Mae Nak and her spooky little baby.
My folks instilled a love for reading in my brothers and I. Those bastards. I read a lot. On the average, I read three to four books a week. Mostly Harlequin romances (kidding). Mystery and thriller genres do it for me in fiction, anything historical or political works in nonfiction. Right now I’m polishing off the crop of Republican presidential nominee candidates’ ghost written books, which I think still qualify as nonfiction. I don’t intend on voting for any of those crazies, but it is interesting to see just what level of craziness they are willing to admit to. It’s a pretty high bar they’ve set.
Fiction-wise, there are a few authors I really enjoy and scoop up their latest as soon as it available. In paperback. I can afford the hard cover edition, and if it’s thick enough to last at least half a plane ride to Asia I’ll pick up a new release for the trip. But since Tom Clancy quit writing, there are seldom any hardback books of sufficient length for the flight (and yeah, I know he just wrote a new one. Read it already.) For most authors I’ll wait for the paperback edition. And hope the author is popular enough for one of the discount chains to carry his books so I can pick one up for around seven dollars instead of the ten dollar going price these days.
And why am I telling you this? (Besides that it’s my blog and I can post whatever the hell I feel like?) Because for some odd publishing quirk a lot of the hot authors’ newest books are available in Thailand a few months before they are back home. So every trip to SE Asia means at least one trip to a bookstore to stock up on titles I won’t see yet back home. I get a hard-on when Jeffery Deaver has a new one out that I can snag early in Bangkok. If it is a Lincoln Rhyme title, my stiffy would make Viagra proud. And I’ll even cough up enough baht for that book in hardback.
Paperback books in Thailand are not cheap. They average about ten bucks each, but unlike back home the price fluctuates in Thailand. From one title to the next. Sometimes you’re lucky and they run 275 baht. Other times they’ll be 360 baht. I’m not sure how they figure the difference or why they are not a standard price like in the U.S. And Canada. And the U.K. But then that’s Thailand for you.
Asia Books tends to have sales so I try and check one of their branches out first. On this trip I scored David Baldacci’s latest on sale for 220 baht. And at the airport they had a buy 2 get 1 free promotion so I even stooped as low as purchasing a Clive Cussler novel. Clive’s books are a quick read, a single setting usually for me, and though I’ve been reading him since high school his books show up at the used book store often enough and in large enough quantities that I usually wait.
And that’s one of the draws of Chiang Mai. Tons of used bookstores. So I not only grab a few dozen books while up north, but trade in those I’ve finished rather than carry the load back home with me. It’s a pain in the ass to haul a library around the planet with you. If I see another touri engrossed in a book similar to whatever I just finished reading, I’ll usually offer mine to them. You can tell if the person is a real reader. Their eyes light up at their sudden good fortune.
I don’t like to throw a book in the trash, even if it was a trashy novel. It just doesn’t seem right. I tried to leave a book I’d just finished on the plane once when I landed to transfer in Taipei. But when I went to board the next flight, they had my book waiting for me. Kudos to EVA, but ya know: thanks for nothing.
I’m not a luddite and in fact am a bit of a techno-junkie. But I just can’t get my brain wrapped around the idea of a Kindle. Call me old fashioned – which is a lot nicer than what most people call me – but a Kindle is not a book. It’s a piece of plastic that lights up. I think they should have made the original product more like a book to lure book lovers in. But then as quickly as technology advances that probably would have been a nonstarter for the industry. The iPad will end up replacing the Kindle. Like next week. Regardless, I’ll be one of the hold outs who demands a paper version until they force me to go electronic.
So if you are an avid reader and need yet another excuse to ignore the rising cost of travel and make the trip to Thailand, now you have one: Michael Connelly has a new Harry Bosch title coming out next month.
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I really should be posting another wet ass for this week’s end, what with the continued flooding, or threat thereof, in Bangkok. But then catching up with news from home I see that some of the latest polls have the republican party seriously considering a black man for their presidential nominee. Obama is the devil, but evidently enough of a worry they are actually thinking they may have to run another black man against him to score a win. Even if they’ve picked the whitest black guy on the horizon. Those crazies really are asses. And to prove it, good ol’ boy Newt is even gaining in the polls.
Seems like a good week to wash all that crap out of your mind and commune with a gorgeous hunk of meat, and his nice little butt.
Noom, my bar boy friend and current love of my life, has turned into a traveller who lounges. And of course, I take full responsibility. Wait. Hold that thought. I can lay the blame at Air Asia’s feet instead. Their inability to figure out how to take a credit card on-line as payment for a set of tickets brought about Noom’s new found preference in air travel. He probably never heard the long defunct carrier Western Airlines’ famous slogan, but subscribes to the notion wholeheartedly when it comes to the joy of hanging at an airline’s lounge: it’s the only way to fly.
When Noom and I have flown off together in the past, it’s always been on Air Asia, the airline I love to hate. Air Asia is Walmart with wings. They pursue the type of person as a customer that I generally try to avoid in life. But, they’re cheap and so always came up the winner for short flights within SE Asia in the past. Noom was always content with the carrier, not knowing any better. But this time around we flew Bangkok Airways. Which bills itself as Asia’s boutique airline. And does a pretty good job of trying to live up to their slogan. In my opinion. In Noom’s they far exceeded expectations.
Noom generally considers minor little annoyances like airline schedules beneath him. He assumes since he is Thai his fellow countrymen will hold the plane for him if he’s running a bit late. That Air Asia usually is running even later themselves feeds his belief. I knew he’d enjoy the airline lounge experience but didn’t want to give the game away in advance so resorted to telling him a little white lie. As far as he knew the plane was leaving an hour and a half earlier than it was actually scheduled to take off. No problemo. Noom made sure we were a half hour late anyway. Even with my rushing him.
Once at the airport though it was difficult to hide the actual flight time from him. “Why you tell me 8 o’clock?” he asked, just a bit peeved over only having time to go back for thirds at our hotel’s breakfast buffet. His wasn’t a rhetorical question, but then he figured it out before I could reply. And scoffed. “You not that smart,” he informed me not willing to give up any points for what he assumed was an attempt at a sly move on my part.
But the nice thing about Noom is that he doesn’t hold a grudge, and willing puts up with my shit knowing if necessary he can arrange for some payback later. So he happily led the way through the security check, proud of his vast knowledge of the workings of Suvarnabhumi Airport and pulled his normal stunt of having packed what for anyone else would be banned creams, lotions, and gels. The Thai TSA girls surveyed his collection, and as usual with him, carefully packed it all back in his carry-on and sent him on his way laden with all the goodies the terrorists of the world would like to smuggle on board the plane they plan on blowing up.
Noom thought he had the airport thingy down to a science. Until I led him away from the gate and to Bangkok Airways’ lounge. “Where we go?” he asked a bit confused. He knew where we were supposed to be going and yet I was leading him elsewhere. Had it been him leading us off track it would have been of no concern. He’s Thai. That supersedes and negates all when in Thailand. But with a crazy falang obviously lost, who knew what could happen? When I opened the door to the lounge and ushered him in he gave me a not very trusting look, which disappeared quickly when he saw the interior. “Dis nice,” he proclaimed still unsure of why we were there.
So I explained it to him. Or explained the airline lounge thing to him. I built up the exclusivity of the experience without telling him that all passengers on Bangkok Air get lounge access. He took to the idea like a fish to water. Status has a grand place in his world. And when I pointed out the refreshments were free, he fell in love. And settled in. For life.
And all was good in Noom’s world until he thought back upon previous flights we’d taken together. Which earned me a bitch slap. No, an actual physical one. “Why we fly Air Asia?’ he demanded, his question reeking derision at the mere mention of the low cost carrier. Good thing I’d already decided to boycott Air Asia because it was obvious I’d never manage to get Noom to board one of their planes again.
We were headed to Luang Prabang, visiting Laos being one of Noom’s Grand Desires in life. His family, several generations ago, came from there and he felt the need to discover his forefathers’ land. But that need of the soul quickly took a backseat to the airport lounge experience. When it was time to head to the gate to board, his disappointment was obvious. I could see the little gears in his mind spinning, trying to figure out how he could skip the flight in favor of a few more hours in the lounge instead. He finally gave in, checking to see if there was further opportunity for enjoyment to come. “In Lao,” he phrased carefully to ensure I understood both the importance and point of his question, “we get lounge again?”
I laughed. And made sure he understood that’d be when we flew back to Bangkok and not upon arrival. The flight itself was short. And an old-hat experience for Noom who has become quite the frequent flyer since we hooked up. But Bangkok Air gained a few more points when they quickly passed out a rather mediocre food tray they’d decided to call breakfast.
Having flown on Air Asia enough times, Noom had to check. He leaned over and whispered quietly, “Free?” When I confirmed his good fortune he smiled. And then bitch slapped me again with a disgruntled, “Air Asia!”
Needless to say, for our flight back to Bangkok, for once Noom was the one making sure we arrived at the airport in plenty of time. And once again he basked in the airport lounge experience. I pity any customer in the future who decides to take Noom on a flight somewhere and makes the grave error of not flying Bangkok Airways.
A haole boy in Thailand surrounded by Nigerians and ladyboys – though technically ladyboys are a different species rather than yet another nationality represented in the mix – eating Arabian food that can only be summed up with the Hawaiian superlative ‘Ono’; welcome to the Sukhumvit Soi 3 world of Little Arabia and one of my favorite treats in Bangkok. I love Thai food. And gain a few pounds on every trip I make to the Kingdom from overindulging. Easy to do. Hard to pass any streetside cart and not sample whatever in the hell it is they have for sale. Half of what I eat in Thailand I haven’t a clue as to what it is. The other half I don’t want to know. But it’s all good.
Still, even with Thai food, there is a point where it becomes too much of a good thing. Then my system craves some variety. If the comfort of familiar food is the call, I stop in any small cafe and grab a club sandwich. Not that I eat them back home, but the bread qualifies as familiar. What that particular restaurant decided qualified as a club sandwich, not so much. They always get the three slices of bread right. What separates those three slices is, in Thai tradition, up to you. Fried egg seems to be a favorite for one layer among most Thai chefs. Chicken shows up fairly often too. (And according to Thai cooks, the egg comes before the chicken. So case closed on that one.) But when I’m really looking to pig out and make my mouth happy I head over to Sukhumvit Soi 3.
There are several restaurants in Bangkok I like. I’ll hit them a few times each year though not necessarily on every trip. Sometimes it’s a matter of who I’m with. Sometimes it’s all about location; none are so spectacular that I’ll trek across town to dine there. But at least once on every trip I head over to Little Arabia and get my fill. And my wallet stays full regardless of how much I end up stuffing into my gullet.
From Sukhumvit down to where the infamous Grace Hotel squats there are about a half dozen shawarma stands. They are easy to find, just follow your nose. Dodging ladyboys looking to score, nefarious Nigerians looking to scam, Arabian men in flowing white robes on the prowl (many for the aforementioned ladyboys), and overweight Arabian women who have the good sense to hide all of that poundage beneath a loose fitting hijab, the small eateries offering chicken or beef shawarmas perch precariously along the sidewalk on both sides of the soi. Fussy diners may take a pass concerned over the exposed meat on vertical spits that sit out all day absorbing the diesel fumes wafting over from the car clogged street. But those fumes just add to the flavor. So does the cigarette ash repeatedly dropped from the end of the smoke the old Arabian guy whose stand is closest to the Grace. He smokes non-stop. And is too busy to flick his ashes away so instead they just fall where they want. And they usually want to fall into the sandwich he’s preparing. So you might want to give his stand a pass.
Shawarmas are an Arabian version of a burrito. Except without the beans. Folded into a similar thin flour-based wrapping, each holds a handful of chicken or beef drizzled in a yoghurt sauce. Tomatoes are usually added, at some stands a dill pickle spear adds a tang to the treat. My second favorite stall throws in a few french fries for the starch. The heavily spiced meat – with or without the diesel fume flavoring – is delicious. And for 50 – 60 baht apiece, you can eat until your belly bursts.
I first ran across this gastronomical treat in Amsterdam. But wasn’t quite as impressed. That undoubtedly had to do with the side of fries it came with. Which were covered in a humongous glob of mayonnaise. When in Rome . . . so at least in Bangkok that white oily gross crap is not a part of the meal. I occasionally run across a shawarma vendor back home, too. Hit the right neighborhood in San Francisco and you’ll find a vendor or two. But they just don’t taste the same. Maybe it’s the lack of heat and humidity. More likely it’s the lack of petroleum flavoring.
My favorite shawarma stand is across the street from the Grace, about midway down the soi. The old guy who runs the stall is a showman. He takes great pride in his little restaurant and everything he does in preparing your order is done with a flourish. And he doesn’t smoke. As much as I love eating the food, I love watching him prepare it even more. A true artist. But like most artists, he’s temperamental and his hours of operation are at his whim. Sometimes his stand is not there. Sometimes he’s open until the wee hours of the morning, or when the last possible slice of meat has been removed from the spit. When I make the trek over to the soi and he is not open for business, I move down to my #2 stand.
The food is just as good at the shawarma stall directly across the street from the Grace Hotel. The floor act is what’s missing. But to make up for it, the stall’s owner has about a dozen rickety plastic tables with even less substantial seating spread down the soi. He’s a younger guy, just as proud of his little joint as the old guy is. Unfortunately, like a lot of Arabs who shouldn’t be, he’s also proud of his manly body. He has an affinity for wearing skin tight burn-out T shirts – the kind you can see through – that not only accentuate his hairy torso, both front and back, but provide absolute proof that the only blubber packed on the meat at his stand is on the cook. But a fat cook is a good advertisement. And you can always grab a chair facing away from his work area so you can dine without being disgusted by the view.
All of the shawarma stands tend to do a brisk business during the day, but really get buzzing late a night. The bargirls who work the area drop in frequently, the drunk touri who didn’t find the lass of their dreams stagger up and order a few sandwiches too, wiling to settle on a different kind of meat for their night’s entertainment. I usually make it an early dinner before heading off to the bars. Or better yet, if I’m already headed back to my hotel I’ll grab a few extra to go and have a delicious late night snack later in my room.
If you are in Bangkok, looking for a quick and cheap meal and don’t want to have to try and identify what food is being offered, take a trip over to Sukhumvit Soi 3 and try a shawarma or two. You’ll be hooked. And will agree that ono is the best way to describe one of Bangkok’s most delicious streetside treats.
Not that it isn’t the big story in Thailand right now, but the flooding in Bangkok is quickly consuming my blog’s entire front page. That’s a potential for knocking pix of hot guys off, and seriously, priorities need to be maintained.
Assuming I can figure out how to do this, this little post will be a sticky, a permanent post on the front page for the next few days. Though I may change the photo. It’s that priority thingy again.
Meanwhile, I’ve started a ‘Bangkok Flood Update’ page (um, look to your right – no, on your computer screen – under ‘PAGES’). I’ll be posting updates and pix there. Unless all I manage to get is more photos of stacks of dry sandbags.
[This post has been unstuck now since it appears the danger to the touri areas of Bangkok has past.]
“Water high,” exclaimed my taxi driver as we headed into town from Suvarnabhumi Airport. “Water. Up, up, up!” A middle aged and overly excited gent, he used his hand to show the water levels. Just in case I didn’t get it.
“Your hotel,” he added, with a bit too much glee in his voice to my way of thinking. “Water. Up, up, up!”
Huh. Damn. About time.
They postponed the Royal Barge procession that had been scheduled for last week (thanks to the flood); they postponed Tawan Bar’s silver jubilee celebration that had been scheduled for this week (thanks to the flood); hell, even my hotel postponed their Loi Krathong celebration and that wasn’t scheduled to occur until late next week (thanks to the flood). And so far flood-wise: Nada. Zip. Zilch.
Maybe I was finally in luck. According to my taxi driver, my hotel was under water. That made sense. The prime minister had finally admitted that the government couldn’t control Mother Nature and that all of Bangkok could expect to be flooded. She even declared a five day holiday to celebrate the event. It’s probably the only celebration planned that won’t get postponed. Fortunately I was travelling light. And looking forward to wading through knee high water to get checked in to a hotel a block away from the Chao Phraya.
The flood dominates the news on TV. Pictures of helpless locals knee deep in water are a constant. Predictions of just how bad it will be for Bangkok come fast and furious, each becoming more dire as the high tides approach. At the airport in Chiang Mai a special flood alert area has been set up to provide travellers with the latest news. And yet, finding out what really is going on where it matters is impossible. Yes, I feel for the thousands of locals whose homes have been overrun by the water the government diverted their way. But I’m on holiday. And the world revolves around me. So will someone tell me if I’ll be able to drink my way through the bars on Soi Twilight over the next few nights?
Rumor has it that any place in Bangkok will be flooded soon. All of the bars, not just Classic Boys, will have shows with boys swimming under water. Tourists are changing their plans. Many yet to arrive have cancelled their trip. Bangkok Airways is even issuing vouchers for those who wish to reschedule their flights. With a smug smile Air Asia’s only response is an insincere, “Sorry” while they count all the additional baht they’ll make over interrupted travel plans. Expats in Pattaya report, with glee, that the residents of Bangkok are fleeing to their little town, proud that they can finally act like that cesspool has a purpose beyond cheap sex.
But little evidence of the flood waters is on hand to greet me as I land at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Only a taxi driver spreading the same alarm everyone else has settled on. Flying out a few days earlier the airport looked like a parking lot as locals planted their cars for the duration, high above the expected flood levels. That hasn’t changed. But now, coming into town more and more elevated roadways are being used for vehicle storage. The long lines of taxis safely parked along the tollway seem to announce it really is serious. My driver’s non-stop mantra of “Water, up, up, up,” convinces me I’m finally going to be blessed with a travel tale to tell for years to come.
But turning onto Charoen Krung Road I find it is still dry. The sandbags stacked to the side of the lobby entrance are still basking in the sun. I get assigned a room on the 26th floor, the highest in the building. Maybe management is filling their rooms from the top down in order to keep their guests dry? I’m happy to have scored a great view until I consider if the flood hits and is as bad as everyone seems to think it will be, a power outage will mean 26 floors of stairs to climb. Maybe I’ll just hang out at the third floor bar for the next few days and watch the river run through it.