Take this brother / May it serve you well
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful.
I really don’t – but I guess it will come across a little that way.
I don’t win things. I know that everybody says exactly that but I really don’t. Okay, I won $754 the first time I played Lotto. What a killer game thought I – and I spent several thousand dollars over the next few years trying to do it again before I stopped, and made what I thought would be a difficult-to-comply-with resolution to thereafter avoid the weekly what-if flutter.
It wasn’t and I don’t. Mostly.
Nobody I know really wins Lotto. People in rural towns win it. Not urban wastrels like myself – people who’d be as likely to blow it in a year or two on irrational artistic black-holes, or funding hopelessly wonderful but always marginal records, as I’ve tended to do in years past when I have a sudden wad of cash. Other people buy houses, I give the money to recording studios in what must be the most fiscally foolhardy action possible in a nation of where a gold record is unlikely to cover the cost of the giveaway T-shirts let alone anything more substantial.
Then my uncle won first prize in Lotto, but sadly only as a part of a large consortium. This, it occurred quickly to me, meant he had expended his – and you may argue the whole family’s – random-chanceness on about enough to make an only just measurable dent in his annual – not excessive – outgoings.
This week however both Brigid and I won. My wife makes me feel like a winner every day, but what I’m trying to say is that is, we both won a prize.
And from the same magazine – Bangkok 101, easily the best visitor aimed magazine in this town – and, really more importantly, only one of two that doesn’t seem to crawl around Patpong or Soi Cowboy’s gutters, cater to overweight Irish pub dwellers, or, and I don’t know which is worse, project some sort of post-Raj expat lifestyle complete with Polo Ponies, privilege, and columns complaining about everything in, and explaining how ‘they’ should fix large parts of, this supposedly not-like-home pisspot of a city/country. Fuck off. Really.
BKK 101 has, unusually, perhaps uniquely, for English language magazines in SEA, humour, depth and style, and deserves the plug (if you are coming this way…) I’m giving it here.
So yes, two prizes. Quite different.
The first was a riverboat cruise. A moonlit dinner – which they awkwardly pitch as romantic – and boogie set against a moving backdrop of the famed sights on the Chao Phraya River, on one of those monstrous neon and gaud adorned floating restaurant barges that trek up and down the river that defined and still defines this city, every night after dark. A kind of poor-mans inland loveboat.
And of course, normally wild horses…
However, we decided to walk the plank on the Pearl of Siam if only to take the piss, and duly booked, making a mental note not to eat too much of what would doubtlessly be horrendous, reheated, spiceless and Farang-friendly (marginally) Thai food, and thus avoid any chance of food poisoning wrecking the second won prize, a dinner for two at the minimal-fab and normally silly expensive Bed Supperclub.
After a drink at one of the city’s great secrets, Balco, that elusive and almost unique thing: a well priced bar with an an impressive view of said river, we joined the queue of flip-flop and tourist market t-shirt wearing Australians, Southern Europeans, Koreans, Chinese and Japanese, and staggered on, wondering repeatedly if perhaps we should’ve stayed in the rooftop bar long enough to miss the gangway being raised.
But we didn’t and here we were, I imagine because we were on a freebie, being gracelessly ushered into the bowels of the big boat, where the windows were only marginally above the water-line, to our table – naturally number 13.
I looked anxiously for life jackets and exits. Having happily noted both I sipped my luminous-pink jelly-like welcome drink. It tasted like the syrup found in those cans of fake cherries which Brigid, who knows these things much more-so than I do, says are really olives dyed pink, mixed with some FDA approved solidifying agent and extra sucrose to kill (or create perhaps) the flavour.
The Japanese and Korean tour parties we were sharing our semi-submerged deck with seemed quite impressed as did the smiling evangelical couple from Idaho across the way, in their matching his-and-hers tan safari outfits.
Brigid thought briefly about a cocktail until I mentioned the local spirits that sell for 150B per litre in the 7/11, and we both settled instead on a Singha.
The boat was still docked when we were invited to eat. We wandered cautiously to the front of the deck, where a throng of our fellow deck dwellers were semi-silently pushing and shoving each other to maximise their own suzerainty over the large platters of salmon sushi and prawns. To my eye, there seemed to be enough for all, but the party of elderly Koreans at the front were taking neither chances nor any bullshit from an equally aged grouping of Japanese.
Perhaps the rift ran deeper than the fish.
As I waited for a moment of calm, this caught my eye:
I moved on.
The larb-gai – or a rough approximation of it – actually looked ok, so I added some to the side of my plate and then went to the prawn cakes (with plum sauce it said – I could see none at all). I made a point of ensuring that everything I took looked very well cooked – I sidestepped the fishy looking salad – and I sat down and nervously put a small piece of the chicken in my mouth.
It was good. Really quite good.
Brigid pointed to the prawn cakes and nodded. They were even better.
Feeling a little more assured – and hungry – we returned to the buffet and added curries and more. I returned twice and then found the fabulous green sweet sticky rice(-ish) stuff. I was drawn back to that platter twice more.
Then, it’s Thailand – the food is always at least serviceably good, right? Well not always around Silom, Khao San or Lower Sukhumvit, but this was better than that. It even had above tourist levels of spice in a city where most Western visitors usually order that dish called Pad Thai – with no spice – and think they’ve had Thai food.
Meanwhile, we were on our way. We’d left the River City dock without me noticing but I did notice that the mid-western evangelists had managed to score a couple more pink welcome drinks and were getting noticeably louder as the sugar hit. The world over, American tourists, especially those from the vast bits between San Francisco and New York, always involve the whole room in their conversations, whether intimate in detail or not.
Please, nobody feed these two Redbull.
The band, or at least I assumed it was a band – we only had a remote audio feed down in the bowels of the boat – lurched from a creaky take of Feelings to the perhaps a little inappropriate Don’t Cry For Me Argentina, during which the singer paused and said, in a broken mid-Pacific accent:
‘On the left is a temple’
And indeed there was: a very bright big one. Lovely.
‘On the right is a church – it is very old.’
Yep – the Japanese and Korean massive though, seemed more interested in the numerous TVs, which had odd footage of people levitating in India and flaming coffins being tossed into the sea in Taiwan.
We went upstairs.
There we found – on the roof deck – the folks who had obviously paid to be there, unlike us.
The slowly passing shore scene was rather glorious – this river, night and day, is quite something and the various temples, 19th-century Portuguese churches and more, were lit and very photogenic. Then, day or night, they are always quite splendid. I forget just how much so until I see them again and am as similarly awed as I was the previous 200 times I’ve done so.
That said, the lighting at night adds another spectral dimension.
Some people took lots and lots of photos for Facebook, and rotated quickly back and forth with camcorders producing – you just know – moving images that cause instant head twisting nausea as you try to follow them on the single occasion they’ll ever be looked at by anyone.
Most people – about 80% – just looked bored and gazed formlessly into the darkness or at the band. Australians do this a lot. I guess when you have Ayers Rock, The Sydney Opera House and that submarine in a playground half way down the Hume Highway – several hundred miles from the Ocean and in a town which also oddly calls itself the Jazz Capital Of The World – it takes a lot to impress.
In New Zealand, we have a wonderful harbour but no man-made constructs at all to get exciting and breathless about, so we tend to be more easily awed by this sort of thing.
The band were perched in a tiny spot at the front of this deck, and were enthusiastically finishing their set with something they said was from the ‘fabulous Manhattan Transfer’. Perhaps it was in another life.
The crowd, however, were mostly grim-faced – stony – and looked completely disinterested in their surroundings and the band.
At the front, a middle-aged ocker couple with a teen son – who probably wasn’t consciously trying to emulate Kathy Burke‘s Perry – were having a domestic tussle which had ended in a silent standoff. It was obvious that he – Perry’s dad – simply didn’t want to be there. A reasonable guess may be that he’d wanted to go to Patpong and she’d insisted on the boat.
Or perhaps he came home late from Patpong the night before with lipstick on his privates and had no idea – he said – how it had arrived there.
He tried to hug her. She pushed him away and he skulked off.
The PA farted a couple of times and then burst into life, and the original recording of the always appropriate redneck love song Achy Breaky Heart arrived loudly. Perry and his mum rose and began line dancing in front of us.
‘Tamworth’? Brigid mused.
More temples passed as – oblivious – they shook their butts and rotated in perfect tandem. They’d done this before.
The band returned and announced:
‘It’s time to rock’n’roll’
… and banged instantly into All Shook Up. Nobody on the deck moved. The singer, who seemed to be on the last gig of a disappointing career, looked nervously at the crowd and then back at the band. They’d lost the moment. Elvis might satisfy the German tour groups but this lot were having none of it. Killing the musical faux pas without sentiment, she announced happily that the next tune was: Achy Breaky Heart.
Perry and mum were back up in a heartbeat.
As it finished the singer asked, ‘Who likes Lady Gaga?’
Perry and mum didn’t but were quickly replaced by a hot-blooded young Latin couple – doing some well-practised moves they’d picked up from some old Enrique Iglesias video.
The rest of the deck seemed unmoved by any of it. They sat.
Next to us stood a happy power drinker. He was ordering – and swiftly sculling – Singhas in lots of two.
Drowning his package deal depression maybe – or just a pisshead….
As soon as we docked Brigid and I ran to get a cab. There were few – just the normal smattering of you’d-have-to-be-nuts tuk-tuks and the meter-is-broken tourist touts – so we went into the Sheraton, adjacent to the dock, to try and find a kosher one out the front.
I’ve never been to an Indian L’Oreal convention before.
I have now. Swarms of bejewelled Indian hairdressers and overly coiffured sales people with that unique South Asian take on the 60s Roy Orbison cut wandered past.
Then through it came a note-perfect chorus of Please Please Me and we saw, in, a mostly-empty bar, the fab four – or at least a Thai replica of said band, knocking out Lennon-McCartney classics (and a George tune or two).
They took a break and I took a snapshot of John. He was cool. ‘We know all their songs’ he said. ‘Hang around – we do requests’.
We looked at the bar menu. 350B for a Stella. Fuck me. I decided to order a Ferderbrau, the German-styled weissbier made with mixed results – but almost drinkable – by Singha. It was only 220B, which is only about 220% more than you’d pay for a pint in a non-hotel bar. It came. It was a 200 mil glass. One wonders how The Sheraton can justify a 1200% markup over wholesale. That said, I’ve travelled long enough not to ponder these things too much.
Who the hell drinks in hotel bars. We do I guess, and there was a smattering of other faux-Fab-4 fans ordering as well. One round probably pays the whole band.
The band struck up and asked for requests – the words Revolution Number 9 almost left my lips but instead, they formed around Birthday – since it was Brigid’s.
Second verse, same as the first – except it’s not.
Just under twenty hours later we found ourselves walking into Bed Supperclub.
Bed is very famous. With some justification.
There is one in, I think, Florida and, newly, one in Paris I understand. I’d been several times before, the including once to see the former lead singer of Culture Club play a set of cheesy electro-ish house, which, given George’s history, had evoked an inevitable feeling of pathos. Time (Clock of the Heart) indeed.
I loved Culture Club and the way they slotted into both the pop charts and the alternative post-punk scenes credibly and so effortlessly. It was sad to see where he’d ended up.
That said, the nightclub side is an amazing venue to see a DJ – the best sightlines on planet earth – from huge continuous wall sofas on a mezzanine – an incredible sound system and a large efficient bar. It works.
The Laurent Garnier gig was one of the best electronic shows I’ve ever seen. Mindblowing.
This, however, was the first time we had eaten in the other half, the all-white restaurant tube which looks like a set from some 60s spaghetti sci-fi movie or Woody Allen’s Sleepers.
As we were ushered to our ‘bed’, the pouting waiter, who looked vaguely ridiculous in his harem pants, as if he too had stolen something from an old set, this time an MC Hammer video complete with one of those ridiculous Kid’n’Play haircuts, said:
‘Tonight is Model Night!’
Whoa – and as if on cue, a couple of towering, spindly legged, picture perfect, things sauntered gorgeously in and sat at the far end of the almost endless bed which doubled as a place to eat – albeit at a specially placed table – no bedding down with the hoi polloi for these gals.
‘And later – salsa dancing…’ Hammer continued, albeit with a bored sneer obviously directed our way. We rapidly removed the meal voucher from his view.
I ordered a beer, a Paulaner. It was only twice the standard beyond-Bed rate, and we sat down with the menu. Predictably the DJ seemed to be limited, as policy I guess, to a selection of tracks taken from the odious Buddha Bar albums – awful, wispy collections that plague almost all the more ‘fabulous’ restaurants in South East Asia.
Sound sophistication comes in an incredibly overpriced box it seems.
A perfectly formed German couple 1 in pristine white flowing resort wear, as you do in Asia I understand, arrived with whom I assumed, from looks, to be the woman’s elderly mother in tow. They said – very, very loudly so we could all hear – that they were thrilled to be back. We were supposed to be impressed. They were regulars.
Arriving with your bemused old mum may have trashed that.
Would you bring your ancient relative – one who looks like she’d rather be in slippers with Coro Street (as I admit I would’ve been after a couple of hours) – to a very twee and pretentious joint where one is expected to lounge fabulously on huge white beds and eat messy food balanced awkwardly between your lap and the unstable white thing they’ve designated as a table?
MC Hammer pursed his lips and told us firmly it was time to order. Now. Complying with the instruction and still a little in awe of his overstated and briefly fashionable – about 22 years ago – pants, a look completed this time by a pair of curled-toed Aladdin slippers, we both opted for the three course set menu and took, as our main, the recommended Waygu burger – medium rare.
Without uttering a word, Hammer strutted back to the kitchen.
The dishwasher came on. Really, really loudly. It blended badly – nay, drowned out – the ambience of the sub-Yoga beats of the Buddha Bar discs. The gaggle of models sat silently rigid a few metres aware – blank-faced and utterly perfect. The waiter took them something that looked like limp lettuce.
The food arrived. I have no idea what my starter was – it was that memorable. We ate it and forgot it the moment our plates were cleared.
The mains then appeared, about the same time as the first part of a floor show began.
Three guys dressed as something – one was in a plastic bag – came out and the words projected on the screen behind informed us all that we were about to see an interpretation of an ancient Brahman legend. The guy in the plastic bag climbed out and handed it to one of the others. He then peered knowingly upwards, as the third picked up his pre-positioned acoustic guitar and began to forcefully strum with implied meaning.
What it implied I’m not sure.
Very slowly, stretching out each syllable so we could savour its meaning, he began to sing:
‘Imagine there’s no heaven, It’s easy if you try…..’
My gag reflex was automatic. I tried to hide it but that simply meant the reflex mutated into a muted guffaw – and Brigid told me to behave.
He continued at a pace obviously designed to give us the personal mental space to reflect on the profundity:
‘No hell below us / above us only sky…’
I looked at the models – they were still stony-faced but had shifted a little – I guessed they had found some meaning in the words, perhaps finding the link between the ancient Brahman legend and Lennon’s turgid third form verse.
I took a bite from the Waygu burger and gagged a second time. As the song faded and the three performers very, very slowly shuffled away, heads down – as the solemnity of their message demanded – a lump formed in my throat.
It came from the solid congealed knob that was the medium rare Japanese-raised burger pattie, and it quickly became lodged in the back of my mouth and refused for a moment to move. Panicking, I eventually forced it down with more of the expensive German lager.
The thought that the very last thing I was ever going to hear was a tune written by a wildly rich junkie in a mansion in Surrey telling me to give away all my possessions – sung by a man who had just climbed out of a plastic bag, choked fatally by a burger served by a twat who looked like MC Hammer, crossed my mind briefly.
I looked at Brigid and she was having the same, possibly the worst high-end food in Bangkok, moment as I was and struggling to consume the flavourless play-dough textured lump. And, worse, the pattie was an odd colour. What was it? Who knows? We gave up.
The Germans next to us seemed all good, though. Happily, they’d found meaning in the show and were still clapping furiously. Across the way another European couple – English we thought – had set up a video camera on a stand and were capturing the whole evening. I wondered how the neighbours and family in Scunthorpe would deal with a two-hour movie that included two New Zealanders in the background clasping at their throats and throwing down German lager in an attempt to gather another breath.
Or would it, as with almost every video shot on holiday anywhere, simply languish in a box for a few years, or on a hard drive, unwatched and forgotten until eventually dumped.
Forget was what I wanted to do with the rest of the meal. However, Hammer insisted we have the pudding. I opted for one of those chocolate thingys with the hot melted middle bit that just about everyone everywhere did in the mid ’00s. Brigid chose the sticky rice and mango. This is Thailand – even the soi dogs can knock up a passable rendition of the national dessert if pushed.
Really, we should have left when we could. The actors returned dressed as monkeys and then began to belch squawky noises to sub-Hendrix electric guitar riffs – very Thai. Not.
You really forget what people will do to entertain tourists.
And the pudding arrived. My dry brown furry lump had a slightly softer brown lump in the middle and Brigid’s was an impregnable block of seemingly long-coagulated white and orange, parts of which perhaps used to be rice in a former life.
MC Hammer tossed a customer comments questionnaire onto our table. We really couldn’t find words. ‘Unique’ was the only word we could find.
I looked – the models seemed to be enjoying the faux-Hendrix. They were hot for the impending salsa.
Briefly, we mentioned to each other that the food on the Riverboat, which we had dreaded, was in another league.
We worked hard to find words to best describe Bed and only came up with the obvious ones: twee, facile, insubstantial, overpriced, tacky and so on. Brigid perhaps caught it best when she said it felt like the sort of joint a hairdresser would open.
Then again, some of my best friends are hairdressers….
Would I go again? Bed, uh, no. At least not to eat – it was awful beyond awful on every level. The Loveboat, maybe not because I’ve done it now, but there are worst ways to spend $40 on fairly reasonable food, take in one of the world’s great rivers – quite gob-smacking at night – tempered by some voyeuristic humour.
And, hell, it was almost free. I am ungrateful.