Category Archives: Thailand

Deep down and dirty – A weirdly fun weekend in Bangkok

After too many weekend jaunts in Bangkok’s Khao San Road area, we finally discovered the perks of staying in Sukhumvit. 

"No glove, no love."  Sherpa and I at Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant in Bangkok
“No glove, no love.” Sherpa and I at Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant in Bangkok

My husband and I have been to Bangkok at least 10 times over the past few years and it’s embarrassing to admit that we’ve always stayed near the tourist ghetto of Khao San Road. Whilst it’s fun and oh-so-easy, the novelty does wear off (not to mention a growing curiousity about what else is on offer in Bangkok). So before our most recent visa run from Yangon, I asked my Facebook friends where we should stay – and the resounding answer was Sukhumvit, which is also uber farang friendly. One friend specifically recommended the area between Soi 2 and Soi 18 because it’s close to the BTS Skytrain and shopping malls. I was grateful for this advice because Sukhumvit itself is so big that booking a hotel in the “right” spot still felt like rolling a dice and hoping for the best. Anyway, to cut a long story short, we ended up in Soi 3, which unbeknown to us (of course!), is known as “Little Arabia.”

“When did you say your husband is arriving?” my taxi driver asked as he dropped me off at Grand Inn Hotel.

“Tomorrow morning. Why?”

“Ah, nevermind, you’ll be fine,” he said with a grin, and flicked me a 10 baht coin.

Up until then, I’d been gazing out the window at the droolishish range of food on offer (much of which is promoted in trilingual signs comprising Thai, English and Arabic) and hadn’t cottoned on that the Grand Inn Hotel is slap-bang in the middle of a red light district and  a stone’s throw away from the seediest of sex pot destinations in Bangkok, Nana Plaza.

With Ellen at Temptations Ladyboy Bar in Nana Plaza
With Ellen at Temptations Ladyboy Bar in Nana Plaza

After throwing down my bags in our suite (we got upgraded!) I sauntered out at around midnight in search of some big bites to eat. I didn’t want to limit myself to experiencing just one place, so I had half a shawarma at one place before being convinced to have a double with with fries at Dubai Kitchen. As I chatted to the Lahori waiter, I kept swerving around on my seat to take in the exotic array of foot traffic, which included women in burkas and men in shalwar kameez, women with headscarves and huge Amy Winehouse-style hairdos and shockingly bright shades of lipstick, as well as plus size prostitutes who appeared to be both from Thailand, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. According to Lonely Planet, “plus size” is more… erm, popular, in this area… Anyhow, while chowing down my sharwarma,  an elderly man started walking towards me with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth.

Uh oh, he thinks I’ve been sizing him up, I thought to myself.

Bold pinks feature at The Grand Inn Hotel!!
Bold pinks feature at The Grand Inn Hotel!!

“I am a doctor from Lebanon,” he said by way of introduction.

I just nodded, waiting for him to leave or continue.

“Lebanon is a country. It’s near Syria. Do you know Syria? It is a very famous place,” he said.

I was so dumbfounded by how dumb he thought I was (or perhaps women in general?!) that I didn’t know what to say. When I finally gulped out that I was aware of Lebanon’s existence, he seemed not to register.

“We speak Arabic in our country,” he said, while very obviously looking at my legs.

So I dropped the H-Bomb.

“My husband can speak Arabic, though he’s actually from Bangladesh,” I said with a smile.

The man heard that and honestly turned on his heel right away. Within five minutes I saw him engage more successfully with a Russian looking woman – they exchanged numbers.

The Lahori waiter winked at me and I paid up and went home.

Sherpa arrived Saturday morning – he hadn’t been able to come sooner because he couldn’t risk taking a Friday flight in case his newspaper, Myanmar Business Today, hadn’t been put to bed on time. He’d been up at the crack of dawn (and singing at a KTV bar til late!) so he took a nap while I took the train from Nana BTS Station to Siam Square and Siam Parragon – which I know and love for their shopping options. After what seemed to me a very futuristic lunch at Siam Parragon (“The Food Republic” food court doesn’t accept cash – you pay a 10 baht deposit for a card which you put credit on and can use anywhere) I went straight to H&M. However I didn’t fail to notice quite lustily that almost every store on the far more affordable second level appeared to be having a mid-year sale. I adore living in Yangon, but there are certain drawbacks to it. I have large feet so I find it difficult to find shoes that fit me, and as the market is flooded with cheap and not so cheerful Chinese items that can’t withstand much wear and tear, I was down to just one pair of “working girl” shoes (smut intended, ha ha). I rectified that very quickly before turning my attention to purchasing the “basics” I needed to upgrade my sorry wardrobe. Zara and Mango were also having sales – how thrilling to own something from these stores for the first time (which is pretty sad at the age of 33!).

I came home laden with bags and excitedly showed Sherpa. We were heading out to Sirocco Sky Bar – which at 64 floors up, is the highest open air bar in the world! But before that, we needed a reasonably priced dinner and drinks, so we ambled across a few blocks to Gulliver’s Traveller’s Tavern. We sat underneath a revolving red vintage car and drank Redbull and vodkas with our okay-but-not-great meals.

Drinking a "Hangovertini" at the world's highest open air bar
Drinking a “Hangovertini” at the world’s highest open air bar

We weren’t sure how formal the dress code at Sky Bar would be, so it was a relief to see a big sign saying that due to customer feedback, smart casual is alright with them. I presume it used to be stricter in the past – and FYI – management draws the line at singlets dogs, prams and backpacks!

Our ears were popping as the elevator raced up four floors at a time (at least that’s what the electronic sign inside the lift was telling us – plus the fact that it took an incredibly short time to reach the top).

The New York Times described Sky Bar as “the most stunning rooftop bar you’ll ever see” – which is a big call, yes? But I assure you that it cannot disappoint – it’s such a visual treat that it takes a few seconds to take it all in – the view, the circular bar on a precipice that changes colour every 90 seconds, the orchestra, and the glamorous waitresses and clientele. Despite the hype around, it wasn’t packed out, which made it possible to have a drink at the bar and take in a 360 degree view of the behemoth city that is Bangkok.

After the cast of The Hangover trilogy graced the Sky Bar with their undoubtedly hilarious presence, the Hangovertini cocktail was created and named in their honour. Of course we had to have one of those and it was green, weird and lovely – and set us back almost US$20 apiece.

Sirocco Sky Bar, Bangkok
Sirocco Sky Bar, Bangkok

We then moved to the outdoor lounge area and had a glass of wine on gorgeous leather pillows before heading to Soi 11, which has the biggest concentration of bars and clubs catering to the expat crowd in Sukhumvit.

We ate German sausages and watched half a World Cup match before calling it a night – well for that night, anyway…

A funky store in Siam Parragon

A funky store in Siam Parragon

We did some “Sherpa shopping” on Sunday (again at H&M) and then checked out MBK mall, which is just a BTS station away. While waiting for my business cards to be printed, we got our hair cut and then made some bargain basement style purchases and seized the rare chance to eat junk at Maccie D’s, which isn’t available in Myanmar.

Such was our innocence the night before that when a girl thought I had asked a cab driver to take us to Soi Cowboy, I had to ask what that was.

“Um, it’s a hotel,” she said.

Not true! An internet search revealed that Soi Cowboy is one of Bangkok’s three naughty zones – the other being Patpong (which I had been to years ago) and to our utter surprise – Nana Plaza (which could actually be the world’s largest sex complex). So we decided to check out the latter, which is apparently the most adult of all, on our final night in Bangkok. I’m not sure that I should try to justify it, but will simply say that as journalists, we’re curious people and if anything exists, I tend to want to see it…

These mannequins are dressed entirely in condoms! Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant Bangkok
These mannequins are dressed entirely in condoms! Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant Bangkok

And boy did we see it. Amsterdam has nothing on Nana Plaza (to Amsterdam’s credit, that is). We had a beer in a bar called Hillary 4 (I have no idea why there were so many bars called “Hillary” other than a wild speculation that it’s a zany call-out to a stateswoman…), where the waitresses wore hot pants that were skimpier than the width of a belt. Really. One guy kept getting kisses from what seemed to be every woman walking past. It was intense – but we didn’t realise that we weren’t even actually inside Nana Plaza itself.

Nana Plaza is a three storey complex of go-go bars – it’s hard to guess how many, but I think around 50 isn’t an unreasonable estimate. We practically ran inside one of the bars (each with a curtained entrance) because the touts were trying to pull us in different directions. It was almost completely empty and the bored, skinny girls made half-hearted attempts at dancing – some were checking their phones. As we pretty much all know, ping-pong tricks are arguably the hallmark of Thailand’s sex industry. Five ping-pongs cost 100 baht – so I bought one off a waitress (yep, I had had a few drinks by this stage). It seems that these days, the patrons do the “tricks” – I was told to throw one at a girl. I REALLY gulped and shamefully did as she told me. At that moment the five or so girls removed their tops and the one I hit smiled at me. We ran out with our tails between our legs.

We took a breather on the balcony outside before venturing into Temptations Ladyboy Bar. In some ways, this was an easier experience because a “hostess” called Ellen talked to us the whole time and no one got naked. Although Ellen was very full on and we ended up buying her some drinks and a tip to boot, we weren’t scammed or overly intimidated by anyone there. But 30 minutes was enough and we lacked the appetite to check out Soi Cowboy because the scene had made us sad in many ways. We had a sombre late night supper in an Iraqi restaurant and as the quietly spoken young waitress in a headscarf wrote down our orders, I realised that Bangkok is if nothing, an incredibly diverse city.

That night I had a dream that I killed someone – a friend told me later that it was my sense of morality kicking in…

We had time for lunch before our return flight on Monday – and doggedly decided to keep going with the “sexy” theme of the weekend. So we went to Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant, which is an initiative by the Population and Community Development Association to promote safe sex and family planning. The food is terrific and the gift shop has some excellent stuff (though Sherpa says I may have overdone it with coasters that say “No glove, no love” and placemats adorned with daisy-shaped condoms!). Oh  and don’t expect to get a complimentary mint with your (reasonably priced) bill – the waiters slip in a couple of condoms instead.

While walking back to our hotel, we stopped in at Pink Pvssy (yes that is the correct spelling) – which is less of sex shop than an accessories store really. In addition to buying a gorgeous wallet and kaftan, we also got silver, heart-shaped identity tags for our dog (who recently went missing for a night and our cat (or “pussy” if I’m being gross…). I was thrilled to be able to get them because my vet in Yangon had told me she’d have to order them from Thailand.

So to wrap up, we flew back to Yangon feeling a bit better dressed, a bit fatter, and a bit less wide eyed and bushy tailed than we were when we arrived.

 

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Visiting a Bangkok prison

Published in The Myanmar Times on 21 January 2013

'Legs' by Bang Kwang inmate Felix Cheremnykh
‘Legs’ by Bang Kwang inmate Felix Cheremnykh

On a bright December morning in Bangkok, a ferry speeds along Chao Phraya River until only a handful of passengers are left at the final stop of Nonthaburi. Bang Kwang Prison is a short walk and a world away. The maximum security jail is sardonically known as the “Bangkok Hilton” by its foreign inmates or as “The Big Tiger” by Thais (because “it prowls and eats”). The visitor registration area across the road has just been demolished and its outdoor replacement bustles with a wide variety of nationalities and a strong majority of women. There is a hot food stall but few appear to have an appetite.

After providing photocopies of my passport and the name and building number of the inmate I am about to visit, I spend the next hour talking to two women who have visited dozens of foreign prisoners over several years. Julie is going to see a Tibetan monk, whose paintings she sells on his behalf. As well as providing a creative outlet, the earnings help him cover the costs of food and other necessities inside Bang Kwang. Prisoners receive one meal a day and in May 2012, the prison authorities banned food, books, clothing and other items being brought in by visitors. Inmates without access to cash do chores for the richer ones in order to buy food from the prison shop (where queues can be hours long). Other than money (which is deposited to an official after the visit), the only item I can give is magazines – which are also now prohibited. Every page of every magazine is scrutinised by a guard in a small office for exposed female curves: once approved, I am asked to write Luke’s name and building number on the cover.

Choosing magazines from a 7-Eleven the night before hadn’t been easy: while hoping to provide the maximum benefit I could, I knew virtually nothing about Luke and zero of his interests. I bought magazines in three languages; two of which he speaks. Until the night before I hadn’t even known why he was jailed (suffice to say it was for being found guilty of trafficking a large quantity of drugs). When I began corresponding with his sister Emma, she wrote, “You are most welcome to visit [Luke] but I am not sure whether he would like to meet you. I think he will.” Emma said it was her brother’s decision whether he wanted to share his story. He did not wish to do so publicly. Therefore, his name and nationality, as well as the details of the offence have been changed or withheld.

At about 9am my name was called out: it was so mispronounced that it was only because I’d kept my sights in the guard’s direction that I knew to get up from my seat. Some of the visitors from the first session were leaving the prison as I made my way past men doing dust-ridden construction work. Julie told me they were inmates who are so close to being released that it’s deemed unnecessary to keep them in maximum security conditions. Their faces were covered by cotton bandanas. A girl who appeared to be in her early 20s had tears streaming down her cheeks as she walked past me. She was the only person I saw crying that day.

Male and female visitors are lined up separately for a thorough pat-down by the guards before entering the prison compound. The guard in the men’s line grinned after searching an attractive transvestite, who turned on her heel to face us with a glamourous twist.

As we walked towards a room with glass-partitions, I saw people staring into tiny screens in front of curtained rooms. Julie told me that the men behind the curtains were Bang Kwang’s death row prisoners or those who had been placed in solitary confinement for misbehaviour.

As the first visiting session came to an end, two inmates accompanied by guards walked through the open courtyard. The men wore brown cotton prison pajamas and were shackled to each other at the ankles and wrists.

Someone called out my first name and I looked up in confusion. A man wearing a bright Nike t-shirt winked and kept walking. Julie said he must have remembered my name from the passport photocopy tray. Despite being totally inappropriate, I nevertheless felt grateful to see someone smile. I was beginning to understand, on a minute level, how dull life in prison must be.

Although visiting someone in jail undoubtedly provides a better sense of perspective, this wasn’t the object of the exercise. In a city as hedonistic as Bangkok, where tourists can shop, eat and drink beyond their heart’s content, this was something I could do that meant something to someone other than myself.

The following quote by a Russian inmate in Bang Kwang called Felix Cheremnykh is posted on the Luna-Rose Prisoner Support Society’s website: “One day… the office called my name for a visit. That moment in my life is change. I have a chance to go from the cage. I go to talk with the “Outside World,” I go to talk with a real person, not just the other ghosts.”

When I turned to face the booth I had been allocated for the visit, I saw a man smiling into the phone receiver.

I sat down and picked up the phone. I craned my neck to see him properly because the reflection of the glass panels made it difficult to do so – prisoners and visitors are kept far enough away to prevent their hands meeting on opposite sides of the glass. It’s also difficult to hear, because there are about 20 people talking into phone receivers at the same time.

“Hello Luke,” I said nervously.

“My name’s not Luke,” he said, still smiling.

I panicked as I thought of disappointing Emma, who has never been able to visit her brother in jail and was anxiously awaiting news of him.

A sketch by a Russian prisoner in Bang Kwang, Felix Cheremnykh
A sketch by a Russian prisoner in Bang Kwang, Felix Cheremnykh

The man told me that he was from Pakistan, had served eight years and was going home in a month’s time. He said he’d been talking to someone during the first session but was told to hang up the phone before he could say anything else.

I waited about 10 minutes before a second man appeared and sat down on the stool on the other side of the glass partitioned room.

Luke was stunned that I had made contact with his sister. He spoke quietly and without much apparent confidence in English, but seemed glad to have someone to talk to. However he responded to several questions (such as whether he wanted me to pass on a message to his sister) by saying “Never mind” and sadly shaking his head.

Prisoners rise at 5am and Luke said he can’t sleep for more than two or three hours a night because he is “thinking about the outside.” Few fellow inmates share his ethnicity and he said many are nasty. The Thai Department of Corrections’ website, correct.go.th, states that Bang Kwang Prison provides inmates with: “Recreation and entertainment facilities, both indoor and outdoor… These include library, television, radio, video, movies and various types of sports and games. These activities keep inmates strong, provide physical and emotional release [and] enable inmates to experience… self confidence and new and better ways to spend their leisure time upon release.”

However Luke told me that he hasn’t heard a single note of music in Bang Kwang and that other than occasional cooking, he simply sits all day long in a crowded cell. I am the first visitor he has had in more than 18 months.

I hear myself saying that 10 years will pass and that one day he will be free again.

He is desperate to know whether his country has a prisoner exchange treaty, which would mean that he could leave Thailand after serving eight years.

About half-way through the visit, Luke told me that he was set up by a friend at the airport. The pain in his eyes is intense; just as it is when he said that he hasn’t heard from his girlfriend of eight years. He doesn’t believe she will wait for him. I try to reassure him but am later told by his sister that his girlfriend may be responsible for his situation.

Emma also said that Luke’s defense was conducted by a lawyer appointed by Thai authorities.

She described the lawyer as “a doll without any soul.” As his family watched on, the lawyer “just sat there playing with his pen and doing some drawings.” He was hostile towards Luke’s family – never once speaking to them – and there wasn’t an option to appoint their own lawyer. Luke was missing for several months before Emma discovered he was being held in Bombat prison prior to sentencing. His embassy hadn’t been informed.

Heather Luna-Rose, the director of Luna-Rose Prisoner Support Society and the person I spoke to while waiting to see Luke, said, “Over the seven years I have been visiting foreign inmates… I’ve observed many coping strategies and psychological responses.”

She explained that “there is usually a period of adjustment, when inmates are angry at the institution, the country, the justice system and often blame everyone around them for their situation. After a while, many inmates… become more ‘institutionalised,’ meaning… relatively more accepting of their situation… Others succumb to mental illness, such as depression and/or tune out using drugs. After about a decade, the harsh negative effects of incarceration take a heavy toll on most inmates and it becomes much harder again for the inmate to keep going.”

Heather said she sees many men retreating further inside themselves, after being deprived of interaction with the outside world for so long.

I left Luke with the promise to write and headed straight towards Klong Prem Women’s Prison. I had been given the name of a Thai woman serving a 32-year sentence for drug trafficking. Her husband, arrested on the same charge, had been released sometime earlier and was suffering a condition Heather describes as “survivor guilt.” He is reportedly consumed with depression about the fact that his wife and cell-mates remain behind in Thai jails.

It was a miserable sight to see children dozing off in the heat while many of us waited more than three hours for a visit. My stomach churned when I saw a prison guard pinch a toddler’s cheek. There were very few foreigners in the waiting area and applying for a visit was confusing – I missed hearing my name several times.

Ai is less than halfway through her sentence. Yet even though she was sick and had to wait until the next day to be admitted to the prison hospital (which is standard procedure), she was generally upbeat. She spoke with a lot of enthusiasm for Jesus Christ and told me she’s busy working in a factory and taking part in Bible classes (she converted more than a decade ago). She said her fellow inmates are like family to her and that only some of the young ones cause trouble. She greeted some of the missionaries that walked past and I jotted down a letter to pass onto her husband. Ai receives regular visits and was hopeful that she would be granted a King’s pardon the following day. As it turned out, she didn’t.

How to write to or visit a prisoner in Thailand:

It isn’t necessary to obtain permission in advance to visit– if you know the name and building number of a prisoner, you can simply turn up on the days designated for visits (this varies according to the building number). Visitors are not limited to visiting their fellow citizens, however the procedure for obtaining the name of a prisoner varies depending on nationality – try asking your embassy in Bangkok for help. To write to a British prisoner, visit http://www.prisonersabroad.org.uk/get-involved/volunteer.html or email info@prisonersabroad.org.uk

More of Felix Cheremnykh’s art can be viewed on the “Free Felix Cheremnykh” Facebook page.

Bizarre signs – my personal collection

This is immature, yes. But if you’re like me and enjoy a well intentioned but ultimately bizarre sign, then take a look at my personal collection…

1. The temple explodes the chicken cube

Beijing, China

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2. Visit Bangladesh… Before Tourists Come

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3. Virus Internet Cafe… Don’t forget your pen drive!

Yangon, Burma

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4. This door is closed

A guesthouse in Beijing, China

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5. I love Bangladesh clean. The Bangla script says: “It is prohibited to urinate or throw rubbish here.”

Dhaka, Bangladesh

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6. Diapet. Sign on a bus for a product we all know

Yangon, BurmaImage

7. MORE DRUGS… In service of the humanity since 1980

Dhaka, Bangladesh

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8. Toilet Blow… Amazing how one letter can make or break it.

Massage parlour in Bangkok, Thailand

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9. I can’t sleep without you…. Usually it’s “I can’t sleep with you…”

Yangon, Burma

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10. In particular; 3 girls, 1 tall, 1 plumb, 1 in-between.

A sexist, offensive sign with ridiculous spelling by Andrew Seow, King’s Confectionery. FYI, ‘RAB’ is an ‘elite’ police squad who are best known for having a ‘license to shoot on spot.’ Somewhat over the top, to say the least…

Banani, Dhaka, Bangladesh

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11. Super Successful Spoken English

Dhaka, Bangladesh

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Happy Cock? Or is it just the font?!

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam

 

For a massive collection of signs, visit signspottting.com