Monday, November 30, 2009

Ploenchit Fair

So, this past Saturday I took myself along to the annual Ploenchit Fair at the Shrewsbury International School on the Chao Praya River. This is the international community’s annual fund-raising blockbuster event for Thai charities. The Fair is arguably the biggest such event in Asia and is a traditional day for all the family and has been one of the biggest events of the social calendar in Bangkok for many a year. The whole thing remaindered me of my old school fairs back home in ye’ ole Tasmania, only on a much grander scale and with around 20,000 people in attendance, as opposed to the few hundred at Taroona Primary School.

Although it started at 10 am (ending at 8 pm-ish), I didn’t make it there until a fashionably-late 3 pm. Which actually worked out rather well as that was about the time that stalls started discounting their wares, ha ha ha! Everything you would expect to find at a British fair was on offer: ferris wheel, bouncy castle, shoot ‘em gallery, clown, Santa, arts ‘n’ crafts in Petticoat Lane, games, rides, raffle and so on...

On the F&B front, things were none too shabby either. Attendees were able to feast on home-made cakes, fish ‘n’ chips, pies, Thai food, Indian samosa, pizza, burgers, and, of course, plenty of beer! A pint of cider set me back 140 baht and was very delicious, and I found three of them went down quite nicely! I managed to score a lot of my other favourite thing too – books! And boy were there a lot of good ones, particularly of the second-hand variety. I scored a plethora of titles for a few hundred baht. I also managed to weasel my way into free ice cream, popcorn, tea, cheese and muesli....

I was pleased to discover that the “entertainment” side of things was well taken care of too. Although I arrived too late in the day to catch the pipers, choir, yoga performance, belly dancing and magic show on the main stage, I did take in the surprisingly good blues, soul and rock band Celtic Colours and the rock/pop outfit Retrovision.

I do however have to make one small quibble; despite a comprehensive search I was unable to find a toffee apple. This was not acceptable, that was the one thing I felt I had to have to really reminisce about my childhood. Still, I know who the organisers are now, so I’ll be having words with them ahead of next year’s shindig. Or, I suppose I could stop being such a damn winger and open my own store in 2010, selling said item (‘tis for charity after all).

Speaking of, how about a little “background” info for those not in the know. Previously, the Fair was held in the gardens of the British Embassy, which are located on Ploenchit Road in Bangkok. The name has become so well known that is has been retained wherever the Fair takes place. As over 20,000 people attend every year, the size has often forced a change of location. The Fair is planned, organised and managed by BCTFN (British Community of Thailand Foundation for the Needy) along with an army of around 2,000 volunteers! It can trace it roots back to garden fete at the British Club in WWII, with the first full-blown Fair being held in the grounds of the British Embassy in 1956. BCTFN has raised over 45 million baht at the Ploenchit Fair since 2000. This has enabled the Committee to support a vast range of diverse charity projects in all regions of Thailand. The fundamental aim of our support is to promote self-sufficiency and to improve the lives of the needy.

And so... as the sun set behind the stage and out over the river, I settled into my lawn cheer with my pint of ale and enjoyed a rather good Thai cover band do their thing. All why watching a plethora of poor parents try to calm their manic sugar-high tots. Ahhhh, good times. And when the beer ran out and we were all told to 'bugger off' I joined the crowds to catch my pleasant 5-min ride on the ferry back to reality...

Sunday, November 29, 2009

EU Film Festival

So, it was a dull Sunday night and I thought what better way to spend it then by seeing a Luxembourg film, entitled Irina Palm, at the EU Film Festival 2009 in Bangkok (SF World Cinema). My “research” led me to believe the film would be about Maggie: “a working-class fifty-something who in a desperate bid to cover the cost of her ailing grandson's operation plunges headfirst into the underground skin trade of Soho London and becomes a prostitute. With a new name ‘Irina Palm’ Maggie begins working customers with a stimulatory technique so popular that patrons are soon lining up around the block to be ‘serviced’ by her”. I mean H-E-L-L-O with a synopsis like that who wouldn’t want to see it!!!

I was pleased to find that the cinema was semi-packed, I say this not because I’m a weirdo but because the previous two Bangkok (World and International) film festivals I’ve attend screenings of have had rather lacklustre attendance. So it was really good to see the populous of Bangkok finally shunning the likes of Ninja Assassin and going for something of real merit. I hope the trend continues with whichever film festival will grace our local screens next...

In a nutshell, the film did indeed live up to its billing as a naughty-granny comedy, in which an older woman is liberated and rejuvenated by an excursion into vice. Still, “Irina Palm,” directed by Sam Garbarski from a screenplay by Philippe Blasband and Martin Herron, does rise slightly above the silly clichés embedded in its story. This is mostly because of Marianne Faithull, who plays Maggie, a middle-class suburban widow preparing to settle into a meek and marginal old age. To minimize implausibility and avoid making the audience uncomfortable, the filmmakers contrive to give Maggie a specialty that does not involve penetration or face-to-face contact with clients. Instead she sits alone in a room with a hole in the wall and provides a form of satisfaction suggested by her professional pseudonym, which is also the movie’s title. And she’s so skilled that men are soon lining up and insisting on her special services. Things slowly build to a predictable conclusion, and all’s well that ends well. All up, I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

For those of you reading my post now, it’s obviously too late to attend as the film festival ran from November 19 to 29 and Irina Palm was the second-last offering. I’ll now give you a little background so you’re in-the-know for next year. The festival was organised by the Delegation of the European Commission to Thailand and the Embassies and cultural organisations of the EU Member States. This year was the 18th time the European Union Film Festival brings the best of European film to Thailand, offering audiences a world class selection of drama, comedy, romance, suspense and documentary 23 films from 17 European countries feature in the programme of the 2009 festival.

Highlights of the 2009 film festival included award-winning feature films like California Dreaming (Romania), One Beloved Month of August (Portugal), Adventures (Hungary) and Ben X (Belgium). For the first time there was also a grand selection of documentary films such as Citizen Havel (Czech Republic), Sounds Like Teen Spirit (UK), La Paloma-Longing Worldwide (Germany) and Good Morning Heartache (Italy).

Getting there: From the Siam City Hotel take the BTS from Phayathai station two stops (towards Ou Nut) to station Siam, from there follow the signs along the skywalk to CentralWorld then head up to the top floor and you’ll easily find the SF Word Cinema beside a very yummy supermarket and food court. For those more active, you can easily walk there in a flat 15 minutes [ask our doormen for directions].

Friday, November 27, 2009

Culture Vulture

Annual festivals play a big role in Thai life. Besides commemorative and religious celebrations, all sorts of other events go on throughout the year as well. No matter what time or month you happen to be in Bangkok, you’re most likely to find something going on.

This week affords a prime example: World Opera Week. Taking place from November from 23-29 at the Thailand Cultural Centre, the mini-fest features a re-vamped production of La Bohème, Beethoven’s 9th (which isn’t technically an opera but we shan’t quibble) and a newly composed opera, A Boy and a Tiger, by Bruce Gaston. The trio of operas and seven performances were again, like its predecessor, the International Festival of Dance and Music [Sept 9-Oct 11], aimed at helping position Bangkok as a cultural centre for world-class performing arts in Asia.

Please indulge me for a few lines while I rant about the lack of cultural awareness in Bangkok. When I first moved her 5 months ago I was genuinely shocked and pleasantly surprised to find such a thriving cultural scene. In a relatively short amount of time I’ve already attend the symphony once, ballet twice and opera three times, not to mention seeing countless screenings at the cities ubiquitous film festivals [see my post in the coming days about the EU Film festival]. And all for a fraction of the cost back home (Australia in my case). Now I don’t know if the “charms” of Soi Cowboy and Patpong are simply too great to pass up, if the general public just don’t care or people genuinely don’t know about these going’s on, but attendance, both Thai and pharang, is very low. I was embarrassed that Thursday’s performance, by a slew of top international talent, was made to an auditorium only 1/3 full. Still, it’s not my place or desire to counter this cultural malaise that has gripped the masses. I’ll just say that Bangkok is currently a mecca for fantastic shows and I encourage everybody to start attending before the whole thing evaporates out of financial penury.

Now, back to my story... I was fortunate enough to catch Thursday night’s performance of La Bohème, under the direction of Darren Royston from RADA. The performance starred Nancy Yuen [born in HK, and now based in UK/Singapore, Nancy is a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, best known for her signature role of Cio-cio-san (Madama Butterfly). She is currently the residing soprano of Thailand's Bangkok Opera] and Israel Lozano [made his operatic debut at the tender age of 22. Israel went on to studu at John Hopkins and win an unprecedented three prizes in the Plácido Domingo International Operalia Competition 2003] who returned to Bangkok after co-starring in a highly-acclaimed version of Madame Butterfly two years ago, with music by the Siam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Orpheus Choir of Bangkok. Although both the leads were indeed fantastic, I actually found the buxom and bawdy Musetta to be the real draw; she was a scene-stealer from start to finish. The deep-voiced Colline was also a favourite, he sang with real emotion and fortitude.

Although I cannot own at being a connoisseur of opera, I can put my hand up as a bonafide devotee. But I do appreciate that for many, opera is just a sea of overweight performers, strange plots and incomprehensible singing. In fact, the entire opera scene is quite overwhelming and extremely acquired taste. So should you simply resign yourself to the fact that you are not opera patron material? Not just yet. I’m here to tell you that it is an art form that new comers can learn to appreciate. Few people are born enjoying opera from the get go. For most, opera appreciation requires a little study and a lot of patience. Remember, a majority of people in listening don’t understand what the performers are singing either. For true opera lovers, it is not what the performers are saying, but how they say it.

A nutshell, the more operas you attend, the more you’ll begin to enjoy how the performers sing, rather than what exactly they are saying. To ensure a more successful opera experience, start with lighter Italian and Austrian operas, such as Madame Butterfly by Puccini (my personal favourite) or The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, are considered light operas. The recitatives are short and sweet, and the arias are quite melodic. German opera – particularly Wagner – is much heavier, and is more of an acquired taste. Either way, I don’t think it’s restrictive if you simply give it a go. In the famous words of Dr Seuss: “You may like them, you will see!”

So, for those wanting to dip their toe into the world of opera, follow my FIVE simple steps to enjoyment:
• Familiarise yourself with opera terms and formats
• Listen to the opera before attending a performance
• Read the libretto, or words, to an opera beforehand
• Find out the story line of the opera beforehand [Wikipedia is good for this]
• Read about the composer, his influences and historical period.

Explorer Museum

Although I had heard all sorts of wonderful things before going, I was unprepared for just how cool the Siam Bayshore Resort & Spa’s Explorer Bar & Lounge really is. This uniquely designed and fitted out bar is a veritable mini-museum. I was able to leisurely examine up-close a painstakingly collected array of precious antiques, artefacts, sunken treasure, ancient relics, old maps, curios, exploring equipment and paraphernalia from around Asia and the globe.

The bar, or “museum” is it’s referred too in-house, is the brainchild of Kamala Sukosol, president of Siam Hotels & Resorts, and her youngest son, Krissada ‘Noi’ Sukosol Clapp, best known as front man of the iconic Thai brand Pru and winner of a Best Actor award for his critically acclaimed performance in the film “13”. What the owners have done is create a magical and enchanting world, a time capsule if you like, juxtaposed to the hurly-burly of modern-day Pattaya. To my mind, this is the kind the establishment where you can truly step back in time to relive a bygone era when travel was a real adventure and intrepid men and women traversed the oceans blue in search of distant and exotic lands...

An unbelievable plethora of curios from around the globe are on display. Of particular interest are Thai daily household tools and belongings, along with sunken treasures from China and Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital city. Furniture and ornaments take pride of place, such as a 1920s Sino-Thai herbal medicine cabinet, baskets from Mozambique, Tanzanian fabrics, vintage weaponry, magnifying glasses made of horn and ivory, Naga tribal spears, Burmese antique mah jong tables and a Thai pushcart used to sell fabrics. More curios artefacts include vintage cameras, Vietnamese stamps, a forest tiger’s skull, volcanic rock from Bali, medicine ‘tubes’ from Java and a cane made from snake bone. There are (of course) essentials for ship travel too: an English deep-sea diver’s mask, a cast iron chest, a naval telescope and compass. Lastly, there is a canal boat from Thailand’s famous Floating Market. Bangkok was once dubbed as the ‘Venice’ of South-East Asia and such a boat was very much a part of everyday life, selling everything from fresh market food to clothing, toys and whiskey.

Ships that sank in the South China Sea are also of particular interest because many of them were sailing on the Marine Silk Road, carrying wondrous bounties from China. These shipwrecks are veritable time capsules giving us a picture of life in a bygone era. Perhaps the most famous of all is the Nanking cargo which attracted worldwide media attention when it was auctioned by Christies Amsterdam in 1986. The Geldermalsen set sail in 1751, loaded down with 160,000 pieces of porcelain, tea, raw silk, textiles and gold ingots. Sadly, just 16 days after setting sail it hit a reef and sank in the South China Sea. The cargo was recovered and sold two hundred and thirty four years later! At the Explorer Bar you can view the remnants of similar great wrecks, such as the Binh Thuan, Ca Mau and Vung Tau, ranging from the 14-18th century.
More than even a museum and bar, the Explorer is a cosy and inviting lounge (open 9:00 am – 1:00 am daily) where you can just sit-back and relax with a beverage or snack [my tasty sabai-sabai cocktail set me back Bht 190++ and generous club sandwich Bht 195++]; play a few rounds of pool; try your hand at a board game (connect four, chess, checkers); watch sports on the flat screen TV or snuggle up with a good book [an extensive library of books and magazine is on offer]. Best of all, the bar has a great daily ‘Happy Hour’ from 5:30 to 7:30 pm, with a very tipple-worthy ‘buy one get one free’ offer.

To end, I defer to a more eloquent writer, Ping Amranand, an internationally renowned Thai photographer:

“Entering the Explorer Bar & Lounge is like taking a step back into nostalgia, to an era of the gentleman’s club, where in dimly lit corners one can expect to find dusty travellers – gin fizz in hand – regaling each other with stories of their latest adventure.”

Thursday, November 26, 2009


The Siam City Hotel, Bangkok yesterday hosted TWTCON BKK 09: Twitter for Business Conference. The conference focused on Twitter for business and Twitter's place in “social media”. The conference was based around the premise that many companies are nowadays using Twitter to reach and engage customers, influence opinions and activate markets.

Attendees learnt which applications will give them greater opportunities to create revenue and customers, how to use Twitter to listen to what their customers are saying and how to network and share ideas with leading businesses, marketing firms, media outlets, PR executives, key Twitter developers and social media experts.

The day was a grand success with over 400 enthusiastic and pro-active tweeters attending. From 8:00am to 7:00pm attendees listened to Bangkok’s twitting elite talk about using Twitter for business and best practice, they examined case studies, dissected Twitter marketing and, most importantly, how to harness the phenomenal “power” of Twitter. 

Don’t get me wrong, there was a more “personal” side to the day’s proceedings as well, with many people talking about how to use Twitter in human ways to build relationships, instead of just focusing on getting as many followers as possible and utilising marketing gimmicks.

In attendance were many “gods” of the BKK Twitter scene, such as @iWhale and @sugree (who’s just hit 165,000 tweets!!!). The latter was of the day’s highlight, with eager fans staying in their seats until the bitter end to hear his pearls of wisdom. And just what did the prolific Twit King have to say, one important thing: tweet till die!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Beer, Glorious Beer!

Like Whitney Houston and cosmopolitans, the Bangkok beer garden is back, and bigger and better than ever. Although the cool breezes of winter may be infuriatingly sporadic at best, this is one City of Angels’ phenomena that’s reassuringly reliable. Well, at least for a couple months.

My pick of the bunch: the mob at CentralWorld in the heart of hipster down-town. These glorious beer gardens are the annual beer mecca for Bangkok’s hip brew connoisseurs. The big five brands – Singha, Chang, Federbrau, Tiger and Heineken – are all represented.

This year’s high point is Heineken’s Green Space, sitting smugly on the 18th floor (roof) of Zen department store (accessible via 7F elevator). The others are not far away, down below with prime real estate on the busy commercial shopping street; each with ample seating and a large, raised entertainment stage that’s put to good use.
Green Space by Greyhound, offers both ice cold Heineken beer and delicious, fusion food. There’s also live music that includes soft-jazz bands and the occasional “big” name. This is the place the glitterati come to see and be seen.

For something a little more “casual” head down to the square in front of Zen and opposite Big C and Gaysorn. Here you will find a parade of top choices, frequented by a young, aspiring middle class of Thai who want somewhere sanuk to hang out and have F-U-N.

We went for the Tiger venue as it was packed and we like the crowed atmosphere [nobody likes to drink alone].On offer: Tiger pitchers holding 1.5 litres for 170 baht or a 3-litre gravity beer pump giving you beer on tap for just 380 baht. And that’s quite a good deal serving a table of eight thirsty drinkers. Snacks run the gauntlet of popcorn and prawn crackers to papaya salad, meat kebabs, fried rice, steamed fish and whole chicken; all reasonably priced from 20- 200 baht.

The bands on stage are all Thai, preferring to feature Thai pop and rock with just a smattering of Western classics. Don’t let this put you off, the music is surprisingly first-rate and very enjoyable. You will find the spontaneous sing-a-long to Romeo & Juliet by Pru amusing to hear and/or participate in. Although I wasn’t familiar with a single song, I still found myself head-banging and toe-tapping along with the best of ‘em. And after three pitchers was even getting the urge for a little table-top dancin’ and gyrating a la Coyote Ugly [all perfectly acceptable btw]!

Warning: although the spaces are huge, the fights for sofas and front-row seats are truly epic. Seats fill-up as early as 5 pm [especially on Fri night], so try to be there early or have a friend go reserve a spot in advance. Or, do like us and “accidently” bypass the long queue by sneaking in through the back entrance; easily done by feigning ignorance and acting like a simple, non-Thai-speaking pharang. Note – this course of action may result in feelings of guilt and embarrassment and an average table way, way in the back. But, you will be drinking a good hour before those who chose the more honest and straightforward front-door approach.

Either way, sit back, relax and enjoy one of Bangkok’s best “winter” pastimes…

In addition, for those wanting to hit a slightly less crazed beer garden, try the delightful Chang rooftop one at La Villa Shopping Complex located directly beside BTS Ari.

Getting there: From the Siam City Hotel take the BTS from Phayathai station two stops (towards Ou Nut) to station Siam, from there follow the signs along the skywalk to CentralWorld then head in and out to the square on the east side. For those more active, you can easily walk there in a flat 15 minutes [ask our doormen for directions].

Ari & After You

If there’s one thing I really love, it’s dining with friends. Last night the lucky winner was my awesome Thai g’friend Jenny (Sripimol). Feeling lazy after the gym we decide to stay in the area, sticking to Ari where Jen lives and only three BTS stops from moi. I like this part of town, in fact, everywhere north of Phayathai (where my hotel/home also is) towards Mo Chit and beyond is really cool. Swing a cat and you’ll hardly hit a whitie. There are loads of local eateries, shops, parks, markets and so forth.
One of my favourite spots to have brunch, get a manicure or do a spot of shopping is La Villa Shopping Complex located directly beside BTS Ari. Here you will find an Adidas outlet store; Boots chemist; some nick-knack shops ideal for buying b’day presents; a Starbucks with nice outdoor seating; Apple iStore stocked to the brim; several restaurants like Greyhound and Secret Recipe; Gloss nail salon (which my Thai friend Pen swears by!); Bookazine, a Chang beer garden on the roof [see my other post: Beer, glorious beer!] and, of course, a Villa supermarket.
Tonight we opted for a cheap’n’cheerful dinner at Fuji (this is an OK Japanese chain restaurant but not worthy of a blog post) and after, deciding that our eyes were indeed bigger than our bellies, headed upstairs to the legendary After You (open daily 7am-midnight) café for somethin’ sweet. This small but mighty eatery is renowned for its irresistible, mouth-watering desserts. The café is simply decorated with wood, has limited tables (about 10 in, 5 out) and oodles of charm. The café’s all-day breakfast is another highlight that brings in droves of loyal fans who thrive on the French toast, ham and cheese toasted sandwiches (with maple syrup or honey infused into the bread!) and fried egg ‘n’ bacon toast box set.
However, once you're here you do not want to miss their sensational dessert called Shibuya Honey Toast (Bht 165); which consists of a humungous slab of warm, grilled toast slathered in ice cream, cream and syrup. It may bring on a cardiac-arrest, but it’s sure worth it! As for us, as we were already full on sushi, we opted to share a strawberry crumble (Bht 145), and let me tell you folks, we were NOT disappointed!

Getting there: From the Siam City Hotel take the BTS from Phayathai station three stops (towards Mo Chit) to station Ari, from there you went to leave the station on your right-hand side (exit 2) and La Villa Shopping Complex is right smack there. *For those further afield, there is another outlet south of the city just off Sukhumvit, at J-Avenue, Thonglor 13.

Refresh Mind & Body

Drive past Phayathai’s Suan Santiparp in the middle of the day and it looks pleasant enough as a haven from the cities non-stop traffic and noise. It is a place to find peace, tranquility, green space and solitude. Visitors staying at the Siam City Hotel seeking relief from the hurly burly of the city will not be disappointed.
But at daybreak (and again at twilight) it's a very different story. When the gates open scores of locals stream in to take their morning exercise in every conceivable manner. The result is one of Thailand's most eye-catching and endearing spectacles that visitors should not be missed.
In the centre of the park is one of the largest and most active groups. An impossibly energetic and healthy-looking instructor leads a few dozen determined fitness devotees in dancing, jumping, bobbing, high-stepping, thrusting, twisting, gyrating and hopping in time with an unending stream of cheesy pop music. This spectacle takes place from 6:00-6:45 am every morning and is free to watch or join. For those not keen on such an early start, you can also take in an aerobic class in the evening from 6:00-7:00 pm or a more serene tai chi class from 5:00-6:00 pm.
Further into the park an unbroken procession of joggers, power-walkers and casual strollers circle the perimeter road around the lakes, some struggling, some sprinting, some shuffling and others engaging in prolonged preparatory stretching programs that put off any actual physical exertion. Either way, those wanting to work off last night’s phad thai and Singha beer will find this a nice spot to engage in a wee work out.
The park is truly a multi-tasking marvel, in the afternoon you will find some people seeking solitude in the shade, others reading, chatting, eating (a favourite Thai pastime!) or simply lazing on the grass. Then there are the more energetic teens perfecting their disco moves with stylish aplomb, svelte Casanova’s wiggling to an exotic rumba and wiry grannies twisting and stretching on hyper-coloured gym equipment. All set to a back-drop of soothing classical and pop music wafting in the air from loud-speakers [actually not as annoying as it sounds].
Getting there: exit the Siam City Hotel, head towards the BTS but immediately turn right into the first little soi, Lertpanya. Head straight up, about 1000m, until the very end and then turn right again, into the larger soi Rangnam. From here walk down the street about 500m and the park is on your left-hand side. Open daily from 5:00 am – 9: 00 pm, free admission.