Elephant’s Leg


AMAZING THAILAND – THE SLOGAN AND THE REALITY
Nick and I on an "amazing" Koh Chang elephant

Nick and I on an “amazing” Koh Chang elephant

“Amazing Thailand” is the long-running official slogan of the international tourism drive, as well as the ironic quote of choice for the cynical expat when hearing of some latest outrage.

The latest poltical protest? “Amazing Thailand”. Video footage of a bungling and/or corrupt cop? “Amazing Thailand”. Idiotic driving? “Amazing Thailand”. And so on.

Expats are often pretty miserable types. Naturally, when you live somewhere, you see a lot more of the contry’s foibles and annoyances than the average two-week tourist. But that doesn’t mean the tourist experience is invalid or inaccurate. To the temporary visitor, many things about this country really are amazing. Those of us who live here shouldn’t forget that.

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LEAVING THE ELEPHANT: AN ODE TO A HOME

People were incredulous when I told them I lived in an elephant’s leg, but I was neither lying nor quoting from a Dr Seuss book. No, for more than seven years I lived in a building called the Elephant Tower, so named because of its unmistakeable shape. See for yourself:

The Elephant Tower at Ratchayothin

The Elephant Tower at Ratchayothin

I lived in the back legs of that building, about halfway up. Thus, I named my blog Elephant’s Leg because that had been my perspective point for most of the time I have lived in Thailand. Seven years and three months, in fact. My childhood home aside, it was the longest consecutive time I had stayed in one place.

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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. Continue reading



2014: MY YEAR IN REVIEW

The past 12 months have been some of the most fulfilling of my life. I made great strides both personally and professionally, and while death did intervene on a couple of occasions, and threaten on another, 2014 was by far a positive year overall.

The most interesting point, as far as I’m concerned, was my long-awaited return to competitive boxing. Also long-awaited was a promotion I secured in work. My relationship with Fai continued to progress and deepen, and I travelled overseas three times. On a sadder note, I lost two friends, and nearly lost a dear family member.

BOXING

(Mis-spelled) poster for my second 2014 fight

(Mis-spelled) poster for my second 2014 fight

In June, I finally returned to competitive boxing – a mere 17 years after my last match! To put that into perspective, it was a hiatus seven years longer than that which preceded George Foreman‘s famous comeback.

I had been training consistently for a couple of years but for various reasons had not secured a match. But last year, western amateur boxing really took off in Bangkok. Previously, foreign boxers in Thailand had two options – fight in muay Thai, or turn pro and get fed to the lions. Neither option appealed to me, and there has been no obvious amateur programme open to foreigners, so when The Lab organised its inaugural boxing show in June and offered me a spot on the card, I jumped at the chance.

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SIX OF THE BEST: BOXING EVENTS IN THAILAND

Continuing my “Six of the best” series marking my six years in Thailand, I present my pick of boxing matches and events I have experienced while living here (in date order).

1. PONGSAKLEK WONJONGKAM v SURIYAN SOR RUNGVISAI (October 8, 2010)

Pongsaklek and Suriyan have a domestic

Pongsaklek and Suriyan have a domestic

This rare all-Thai derby unfolded in deepest rural Si Sa Ket, with established legend Pongsaklek fending off a ferociously dogged challenge from young upstart Suriyan. It was expected to be a comfortable afternoon’s work for the massively more experienced WBC flyweight champion Pongsaklek, but Suriyan – little-known at the time, and fighting as Suriyan Por Chokchai – fought his heart out, pushing the older boxer to the brink over 12 exhausting rounds. Such was the level of desire exhibited by Suriyan – just 21 at the time – that when his body verged on collapse to the point that he vomited in the ring – and over Pongsaklek – in the midst of a draining 10th round, he took only the slightest of pauses before waging back into battle.

At the time, the feeling was that Pongsaklek must have past his peak to have been pushed so hard by the unheralded youngster, but in fact he would go on to score one of the signature wins of his career (see No. 2), while Suriyan would refine his crudely effective aggression and end up winning a world title of his own. Continue reading



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



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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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.