Elephant’s Leg


THE EXCESS BAGGAGE OF SHOPPING IN THAILAND
This turtle died after eating a plastic bag

This turtle died after eating a plastic bag

Forget everything you learned in your Lonely Planet phrasebook about how to greet people or how to buy two train tickets to Chiang Mai.

Probably the most common Thai phrases I use is “mai ao thung” (I don’t want a bag). I say this almost every time I buy something in a shop in Thailand. If I do need bags, I frequently repackage them so that my goods fit in one or two, rather than three, four or even five, and give back the superfluous extras.

They are handed out with everything. I don’t need a plastic bag for a bottle of water or a packet of tissues. I obviously don’t need one for an ice-cream. I absolutely don’t need one for a four-pack of paracetamol. (All real examples).

And even when they are necessary, they are over-used. A single bag is not going to split open if you buy two 1.5-litre bottles of water, so it doesn’t need to be double-bagged. And what’s with these chain stores’ insistence on separating items based on category? That sealed bottle of ketchup is not going to spoil my sealed packet of ballpoint pens. Don’t give me two bags for them! Why does alcohol go in one bag, and soft drinks in another? Furthermore, I don’t need four plastic straws for those four beers, and I certainly don’t need a straw for my large bottle of water.

Thailand is awash with plastic bags. According to the Pollution Control Department, 5,600 tonnes of plastic bags are produced in this country every day. Nobody seems to care about that. The customers don’t give it a second thought when their packaged sandwich is placed in a plastic bag, which they then place inside another plastic bag they already have! And the shops evidently don’t care either, even if massive corporations such as 7-Eleven should be seen to apply environmentally friendly practices. Making matters worse, recycling efforts nationwide are minimal to say the least.

Staff at these shops react in different ways to my unorthodox words and behaviour. Some just ignore me, perhaps thinking the farang said the wrong thing, and dish out the plastic with aplomb anyway, and then look offended when I re-pack or return unwanted bags. Others react as though I’m a risk-taker, asking me if I’m “sure”, shooting me a look that suggests I’m either weird, or brave, or both, to walk out of the store carrying a single bag with six items in it. The nicer ones thank me, as if I’m being benevolent to the company by returning the bags.

Koh Larn landfill

Koh Larn landfill

As with many things, changing practices requires a change of thinking on a mass scale. Of course, my home nation, the United Kingdom, used to be just as bad, but most shops there now either charge for plastic bags or at least don’t give out bags unless they are asked for, and the general populace now either reuses bags or hand-carries if they can. Perhaps companies here in Thailand would be nervous about the former approach, fearing customers might eschew a store that charges for bags and shop at a competitor instead, but there’s no reason the latter approach couldn’t work. It would at least make the customer think if they do actually need a bag, rather than just blithely accepting whatever they are given.

Apparently, last Saturday (August 15) was a nationwide bag-free day. It was the first of what is intended to be a monthly event, when every 15th day the major supermarket chains refrain from handing out bags unless they are expressly requested.

I didn’t realise this occurred until two days after the event. It was minimally promoted, if at all. And, looking back, I did visit a supermarket on Saturday (Tops) and, lo and behold, it has been business as usual in the bag-dispensing department.

To its credit, Tesco Lotus did embrace the campaign, and it reportedly spared the use of 1 million bags as a result. A million bags! In one day! Just take a moment to let that sink in and you will understand the scale of the problem.

I suspect this campaign – if it even continues – will be embraced the same as other do-gooder campaigns are in Thailand, i.e. not at all. Look at “Car Free Day” – every September, Bangkokians are offered free public transport for one day, but the roads are just as busy as ever. And there have been any number of campaigns aimed at improving the lawless nature of the traffic in this city, yet the situations is just as dire as it ever was.

The plastic bag problem persists because it its consequences are out of sight and mind for the ordinary person. Once it has been binned, the bag is forgotten, and the customer doesn’t think about the landfills that blight parts of this beautiful land, nor that they are a major contributing factor to the floods that often threaten this city, as they gum up sewers and irrigation canals. Even further from their mind is the threat they pose to wildlife, especially marine animals that die after mistakenly eating them.

There’s little I can do to improve the situation, and I realise my one-man war is in itself a futile gesture in a city of 10 million people. But I would like to improve my Thai skills, so please, retail staff of this kingdom, at least give me something else to say at the checkouts than mai ao thung!



SIX OF THE BEST: BANGKOK RESTAURANTS

Continuing my “Six of the best” series marking my six years in Thailand, I present my pick of restaurants in the Bangkok region (in no particular order).

1. GOLD BAY LEAF (upper Sukhumvit)

Hidden gem

The power of word of mouth is evidenced in this excellent eatery which, if you didn’t know it’s reputation, you’d probably walk straight past, thinking it just another of the thousands of shophouse diners found all over the country.

Folding tables, check. Plastic chairs, check. Barely decorated walls, check. So far, so unremarkable. But tiny, open kitchen capable of whipping up miracles from a menu of more than 100 items, both Thai and international? Check, absolutely.

Chef Chai Boonlert is classically trained and has worked at several top-notch hotels, but the pride he takes in his work dictates that he no longer wishes to cook someone else’s recipes, or follow someone else’s menu. Consequently, he set up the Gold Bay Leaf – a modest affair, for sure, but one that he has absolute quality control over.

With no advertising budget and no big-name print reviews, Gold Bay Leaf succeeds on personal recommendations and social media buzz. In other words, the kind of reputation you can only earn with results. Try it for yourself.

Gold Bay Leaf, Sukhumvit Soi 101/1, Bang Na, Bangkok

Nearest public transport: Punnawhitthi or Udom Suk BTS Map: click here

Open: 5pm-3am daily, except public holidays

Tel: 02 747 6381 Web: https://goldbayleaf.wordpress.com/ Continue reading



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



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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THE THAI SMILE: LOST IN BANGKOK, FOUND IN KO SICHANG

Ko Sichang offers Thai countryside atmosphere and attitudes by the sea

Thailand’s image needs all the help it can get right now. Last month’s dramatic footage of bomb sites and gun fights across Bangkok played out internationally and many countries have yet to lift their travel warnings to the erstwhile Land of Smiles.

For sure, confidence has been rocked, and even beyond the photos of war on the streets, the reputation of Thai people as gentle, benevolent Buddhists has been tarnished by displays of downright ugly behaviour during such fractious times.

Whether the protesters promising – and almost succeeding – to turn Bangkok into a “sea of fire”, or their opponents cheering and swearing as the death toll neared a hundred, there was precious little positive humanity on display.

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