Elephant’s Leg


SIX OF THE BEST: THAI MOVIES

With late April marking the anniversary of my move to Thailand, and with this year marking my sixth anniversary, I have decided to compile a series of “Six of the Best” features encompassing my hobbies and interests, which I have enjoyed during my time here. I will start with films made in, or set in, Thailand. The list is in chronological order of the year of production.

1. MUAY THAI CHAIYA (2007)

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The first Thai film I saw after moving here remains one of my favourites. I watched Muay Thai Chaiya (simply Chaiya/ไชยา in Thai) almost as a token – “I’m in Thailand so I should watch a Thai film” – but I had a similar experience to when I watched Fight Club for the first time. Expecting a simple beat-’em-up, I was given so much more. Chaiya is, on the surface, a martial arts movie, but its narrative charts the coming of age and moral corruption of three pugilistic brothers as they move from the idyllic southern district of the film’s title to ’70s Bangkok to chase big bucks in the ring.

The three brothers’ fates take differing turns; one’s boxing career is cut short through injury, another pursues legitimate championship aspirations, and the third is drawn into Bangkok’s lucrative but increasingly dangerous underground fighting circuit. Organised crime influences all three, and their competing egos and influences make for a blood-soaked morality play of love triangles, sibling rivalries and childhood bonds. Chaiya culminates in an absurdly violent climax that some of Japan’s more notorious splatterhouse directors would be proud of, yet it is testament to director Kongkiat Khomsiri’s work that it somehow doesn’t come across as unrealistic. (Kongkiat would later direct another of my favourites, Slice – see next entry).

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2. SLICE (2009)

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A brave bit of local filmmaking in a country which prefers its movies to be as formulaic and safe as possible, Slice (Cheun/เฉือน in Thai) was unfortunately, but predictably, buried at the box office as its opening week competed with typical but profitable trash such as Haunted Universities and Bangkok Traffic Love Story. True enough, the gore-spattered Slice is no date movie, but its intelligence, sophisticated plot, stylish cinematography and unflinching depiction of Bangkok’s and Pattaya’s underbellies deserve attention from the more discerning movie buff.

Aforementioned director Kongkiat Khomsiri’s horror/thriller begins as a blood-soaked urban serial killer flick, with a mysterious caped avenger slicing up sexual offenders around Bangkok. With the police baffled, they release a jailed hitman who they believe might be able to crack the case. As the identity of the killer becomes clear, the film morphs from whodunnit to an explanation of why’d-he-do-it, with flashbacks to a tortured rural upbringing leading to innocence truly lost in Pattaya.

For a country so concerned with its image and “face”, Slice‘s uncompromising depictions of vice, paedophilia, immoral cops, sex tourists, the impunity of the upper classes and the effects of this disturbing cocktail must make for uncomfortable viewing for a lot of head-in-the-sand Thais. It’s clear why this was commercially trounced by movies about pretty girls chased by ghosts and office girls finding love on the skytrain, but for viewers who like to be challenged – disturbed, even – Slice is highly recommended.

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3. ETERNITY (2010)

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This modern production of a classic Thai tale stars young, beautiful co-stars Ananda Everingham and Ploy Cherman as ill-fated clandestine lovers. For western perspective, pitching Ananda and Ploy together is the Thai movie equivalent of a Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie pairing (although, no, they did not become a real-life couple afterwards).

Eternity (Chua Fah Din Salai/ชั่วฟ้าดินสลาย in Thai) tells the tale of Yupadee and Sangmong, the twentysomething wife and nephew, respectively, of wealthy, older rural landowner Ni Han, who embark on a doomed affair in 1930s Siam. When Ni Han learns of the tryst, he “sentences” the lovers to be chained together – in other words, to be bonded for the eternity of the movie’s title. At first Yupadee and Sangmong laugh off the punishment, as in fact being together at all times is what most young couples want. But soon enough, the peculiar curse of literally never being able to part starts to take its toll. As the prospect of this being a permanent arrangement dawns on them, and when Yupadee falls ill, the true horror of the situation becomes increasingly apparent. The vengeful Ni Han, the only person with the key to unlock the chains, remains vengeful to the last, refusing to release his traitors even in the direst of circumstances.

Eternity was originally a book by Malai Choopinij, published in 1943, and was first adapted to film in 1955, and then again in 1980. A TV series then followed three years later. Having not read the book nor watched its previous screen incarnations, I can’t comment on how this 2010 movie compares, but it is a powerfully performed period piece, and while the “doomed lovers” theme is nothing new, this is a way Western viewers may not have seen it told.

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4. LADDALAND (2011)

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It seems there is a new Thai ghost movie every other week, and very few of them rise above the level of formulaic dross. Laddaland (alternatively Ladda Land, or ลัดดาแลนด์ in Thai), though, dares to be something a bit different. The majority of Thai horror movies rely on – and succeed despite, or perhaps even because of – unimaginative tropes of pretty young things being scared by pale-faced vengeful spectres and/or rural animistic myths. Plot development is often of scant interest, and the special effects usually look like early ’90s experiments with CGI. But Laddaland, released in 2011, served as a reminder that Thai moviemakers are capable of helming intelligent, character-driven horror, and that the audiences can respond at the box office. The film was a critical and commercial success, and has since been turned into a hit stage show, so it is a shame similar efforts are not more routinely made.

Director Sophon Sukdapisit, best known for Thailand’s most famous horror movie, Shutter – one of many Asian fright flicks to get the Hollywood remake treatment (evidence of the original’s worth) – delivers what is, on the surface, a simple haunted house story. Something lurks in the housing estate of the film’s name, a development which attracts a middle-class family when they relocate from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. The father, Thee, gets a new job and buys a property he can’t really afford, thinking  a move and a showpiece home will be the answer to family’s problems – namely a dissatisfied wife and a spoilt, distant teenage daughter.

Suffice to say, a Laddaland home is not the panacea Thee envisaged, especially as it comes with unadvertised supernatural extras. Or does it? Sophon focuses on his characters’ doubts over their own sanity as the scares intensify and the mystery deepens. And with something very wrong going on in Laddaland, but nobody quite sure what, Thee stubbornly keeps his family in the new home he is so proud of, which of course only harms their relationships further.

Laddaland is primarily a horror movie, but as it concentrates more on how people are affected by a haunting, rather than the haunting itself, it rises above most of the pack.

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5. THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012)

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This dramatisation of the Indian Ocean tsunami as it hit Khao Lak in Phang Nga province, and specifically the real-life story of one Western family caught up in it, boasts towering acting performances, terrifying disaster scenes and fantastic cinematography that captures, in turn, the tropical beauty of southern Thailand and the sheer scale of the destruction wrought on the region on December 26, 2004.

Some critics decried the fact that the narrative focused on privileged Western tourists when so many locals were affected just as badly, or worse, but to me this is a rather blustering attempt at political correctness. Privileged Westerners feel physical pain and emotional anguish for loved ones just the same as anyone else, and if it takes English language and the casting of well-known faces such as Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts to boost the reach of a film with such a poignant theme, then so be it.

Yes, some 250,000 people perished in the tsunami, but that The Impossible focuses on just one family actually increases its emotional punch, as it’s a tale that anyone with a spouse, children, parents or siblings can relate to. It also “gives back” in that many of the Thai characters and extras are portrayed by real-life survivors of the catastrophe.

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6. ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013)

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All cities of a certain size have seamy underbellies, and Bangkok’s is seamier than most. However, it is not as seamy as Western filmmakers have traditionally depicted it. Still, seedy, dirty and dangerous Bangkok continues to be a big screen trope, with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Only God Forgives diving head-first into a melange of gore, crime, revenge and vice.

The base ingredients may be familiar, but Refn’s style may not be. As the film’s American protagonists mix with with local antagonists, the culture clash is illustrated with flair. The in-your-face opening credits are redolent of 70s’ Hong Kong actioners, but the squealing synthesiser-led soundtrack evokes ’80s Western thrillers and horrors. The unrestrained depictions of violence are inkeeping with latter-day Hollywood “torture porn”, while the characters’ stoic reactions to said violence and frequent pregnant pauses take their cues from Japan’s crime noir master Takeshi Kitano.

The plot revolves around Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American drug dealer operating out of Bangkok, using a muay Thai promotion as his legal business front. When his brother Billy is brutally murdered in a revenge attack, Julian’s mother flies in and demands revenge of her own. As Billy’s murder was permitted – and overseen – by Chang, a local police chief, he too becomes a target. But the American family and their associates may have picked on the wrong policeman in Chang, who despite taking the right side of the law in terms of his targets, is more than liberal in his use of violence against them.

Only God Forgives begins with a brutal Thai boxing match, shifts quickly to a brothel and progresses soon after to murder and the morally dubious police force. While the stall seems to be set out in predictable fashion, it is the movie’s delivery that is highly unorthodox. At times drenched in garish reds or blues, with that jarring score and bouts of psychedelia, it can be a difficult watch. But as familiar as the themes may be, Only God Forgives ends up quite unlike any previous mainstream depiction of Bangkok. You may love it, you may hate it (critics were divided in such a way), but you will definitely remember it.



FINAL BELL TOLLS FOR LUMPINEE BOXING STADIUM
The infamous "bear pit" inside Lumpinee Stadium

The infamous “bear pit” atmosphere inside Lumpinee Stadium

One of the world’s most iconic sports venues closed last Friday, with the ringing of the final bell for Bangkok’s Lumpinee Boxing Stadium.

It was to muay Thai what Madison Square Garden is to boxing and wrestling – a venue steeped in history that fans would make pilgrimages to and competitors would dream of fighting in.

Opened in 1956, Lumpinee would go on to rival the older Rajadamnern Stadium in terms of prestige, both as a venue and a championship (the championships of Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums are among the most respected in the sport).  However, I always preferred Lumpinee. My first visit there remains one of the most vivid cultural memories I have had.

Back in 2005, while backpacking with my step-brother Andy, we attended a Lumpinee fight card just days into our two-month stint in Thailand. On a budget, we opted for the cheapest tickets, the so-called third-class section, and we were so glad we did. Continue reading



ANOTHER YEAR IN PARADISE

Sorry to use a cliché, but the past 12 months have continued to be spent in tropical Thailand, and while Bangkok lacks the beaches and tranquility that most would associate with an earthly Eden, it has, for the most part, been a year that was good to me.

What a shame that the country’s political scene is once again threatening to spoil 2014 almost as soon as it starts, but for now my focus is on what did happen, rather than what might, as I sum up 2013.

FAMILY

Grandma taking a break from one of our treks

Grandma taking a break from one of our treks

Thankfully, all my loved ones remained fit and well last year, including my three 80-something grandparents. Most importantly, my Scottish Grandma, who has always been full of vigour, has remained so since the death of Grandpa in 2012. If anything, she has thrived, having now been freed from the duties of caring for him virtually full time in the decade or so before he passed away. She has travelled, met her great-grandchildren and been busier than ever in her community. On top of this, when I visited her in June, we enjoyed some brisk walks amid the glorious Highland scenery and she set a pace that would put many people half her age to shame. Long may this continue!

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MY BOOK DEBUT: TO THAILAND WITH LOVE
To Thailand With Love

To Thailand With Love

Having been published in newspapers and magazines, I have now, with the release of To Thailand With Love, completed the trinity of print media.

I have been referring to it as “my book debut”, rather than “my book”, as I am just one of several contributors to TTWL. It is the latest in the “With Love” series, edited by Nabanita Dutt and published by Things Asian Press of San Francisco, which combines travel writing with guidebook-style pointers and listings. Typically, the writers provide features on travel experiences in the country and append info for the reader to visit the destination for themselves, should they wish to. Previous “With Love” books have focused on Burma, Cambodia, Japan, Vietnam and North India, while a Nepal edition was published concurrently with the Thailand release.

Quite apart from my involvement, I would recommend any of these books if you plan to travel to one of the countries covered, or if you generally have an interest in them. The “With Love” entries offer a slew of out-of-the-ordinary stories and ideas which you might not find in more traditional guidebooks, nor hear from “ordinary” tourists.

I have three stories in the Thailand book, covering a wander around Khlong Toey Market (a totally authentic fresh market with lots of weird sights and smells), a trip to Bangkok’s Middle Eastern quarter (you can be transported to Arabia for three Sukhumvit sois and eat some things you won’t find elsewhere in Thailand, including sheep’s testicles), and dinner at a “jungle food” restaurant in Phatum Thani (crocodile, cobra and much more is on the menu).

There’s plenty more to digest from the other writers too, divided into chapters covering food, must-see attractions, spirituality, hidden treasures, shopping, remote destinations and tips on local life, volunteering and more. Complementing all this is some quite charming photography by Marc Schultz.

To Thailand With Love is available at Dasa Book Cafe in Bangkok, from Barnes & Noble in the United States, and can be shipped worldwide from Amazon. If you would prefer to order a copy from a bookstore of your choice, the ISBN numbers are ISBN-13: 978-1-934159-11-8 and ISBN-10: 1-934159-11-5.



5 FOREIGN FOODS THAT THAILAND DOES VERY BADLY
Yuck!

Yuck!

Thailand justifiably has a reputation for producing some of the world’s best food, and as with any national cuisine, the best Thai food can be found in the country itself. Thais who travel will often bemoan the inferior quality of Thai food overseas, while foreigners who have visited here will never look at another country’s green curry in quite the same way again. Hell, I once had the misfortune of ordering a plate of pad Thai in Manchester and finding they substituted tamarind sauce for tomato ketchup!

Yet exactly the same logic can be applied in Thailand – if you’re looking for good foreign food, you might be best off going to the country in question. Just because the local food in Thailand can be mind-blowing, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the kitchens of the Land of Smiles can perform similar culinary feats with dishes from abroad.

People who grow up with a certain type of food know it best. Add in the scarcity of certain ingredients in certain countries, plus how relatively new some foreign food is to Thailand, and stir in some peculiar local twists, tastes and takes on foreign dishes, and you have…

5 FOREIGN FOODS THAT THAILAND DOES VERY BADLY

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BALI HAIS AND LOWS – 5 DAYS IN INDONESIA’S TOURIST HAVEN
Balinese Hindu architecture

Balinese Hindu architecture

Last month I travelled to Bali, Indonesia, in what was primarily a social visit, as I have a friend who lives and works there. It hadn’t really occurred to me to visit Bali before, being that is an uber-touristy destination, but I figured that I would see more than beaches and bars with the combination of a local friend and my own inquisitive style of travelling. And so it was. As expected, the main tourist area of Kuta didn’t hold my attention, but some other parts of the island – unfortunately time constraints limited me to the south – were charming.

My thoughts on what I saw of Bali are as follows. It is not a chronological travelogue; more like a scrapbook of impressions and recommendations. Continue reading



THE VALUE OF VAGINAS
An acceptable way to wear fur

An acceptable way to wear fur

The amazing response to my last post was quite an eye-opener. Initially, my blog was just a way to share my general musings with friends and family back home after I moved to Thailand. I wasn’t bothered about page views, although I’d had some good critical feedback on some past pieces. Even so, the most views my site had had in a day previously was a little over 200. But my “10 ways expats can avoid being mistaken for tourists” post has now picked up more than 3,300 views!

Since I’d only posted it on my own Facebook page and sent an email to a few people I already knew, I was very pleasantly surprised by this. It was my own experience of something going “viral”, and while 3,300+ views is a pretty modest stat in modern internet terms, it was achieved through the branch of “shares” on Facebook, Twitter and the link being posted on various forums. While technology has changed a lot in recent years, the adage remains that the best kind of advertising is a recommendation, so for my work to be publicised by people I don’t know whatsoever is a nice seal of approval.

As I hadn’t had particularly big numbers before, I hadn’t looked much at the referrers, search engine terms, and so on, but when I got the huge spike in views, I had a look at the WordPress stats page to see how people were finding their way to the site. I had a few surprises and laughs at some of the search engine terms that had directed people here, but one word in particular stood out because it cropped up over and over again.

Vagina. Continue reading



10 WAYS EXPATS CAN AVOID BEING MISTAKEN FOR TOURISTS
Nice tan!

Nice tan!

Everybody needs somebody… to look down on, and few lifeforms get less respect than the lowly tourist. In Bangkok, they are easy to spot – bright pink skin, dripping in sweat, wearing a Chang Beer T-shirt and scratching their heads over folding maps and the BTS ticketing system. Tourists are naïve, vulnerable, confused and trusting – everything that the noble expat is not! But to the average Thai conman and opportunist, every foreigner is a potential tourist, and to every tourist, anyone of their same colour is likely one of their kin. But the resident farang is a wiser, nobler and all-round higher class of foreigner, and we must flaunt our status with our behaviour and habits. However, this is something that can only be cultivated over time, with experience – unless you consult my handy guide to…

10 WAYS EXPATS CAN AVOID BEING MISTAKEN FOR TOURISTS

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MOMENTS, EVENTS AND PEOPLE THAT DEFINED 2012

As the end of last year approached and people started talking resolutions and fresh starts, and so on, I thought I didn’t really have much to report from 2012. My work had remained much the same, I had no new love interests, I continued to live in the same place, I had only one visitor and I’d only taken one foreign holiday. However, I had a browse through my Facebook friends list and phone contacts to jog my memory and it turns out 2012 was actually pretty packed, albeit mostly with small moments, but perhaps a long list of different – and mostly happy – moments is a good year after all. On that note, in no particular order, I present the people, places and things that shaped the past year for me. Continue reading



KO LANTA – NATURAL BEAUTY RUINED BY UGLY PEOPLE

Island-hopping fun in Ko Lanta

If it’s the people that make a place, then Ko Lanta’s beauty is merely superficial.

An Andaman Sea island district in Krabi province, inevitably it boasts clean, warm sea water, miles of beaches, countless palm trees and a laidback atmosphere that attracts many visitors.

However, such assets lose their allure once a visitor experiences human failings on Lanta that range from merely unprofessional through to dangerous and even criminal.

I love Krabi. In fact, I’d probably rank it my favourite Thai province outside of Bangkok. So I will doubtless return, although I’ll lose no sleep if I never set foot on Lanta again after a shambolic final day which involved worry, danger, frustration, anger and eventually the police.

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