Bismillah Kitchen and Curfewed nights in Bangkok
A trip to Phuket and Bangkok was waiting to happen. I've been living in the South East Asian region for the last five years and yet I haven't travelled to these tourist clichés on the map of Thailand. Perhaps one main reason why I was not eager enough about visiting these places was their commonplaceness--everybody goes to Phuket and Thailand. From Singapore, going there is as clichéd as being a heterosexual.
When the plane was about to land in Phuket International Airport, I looked out the window and the surface of the Andaman Sea that spread beneath us presented itself like an immobile expanse of boredom, a blue bedspread, rumpled as a grandmother's creased cheeks. At the immigration, the visa officer looked bored and stern. No swadika, no smile. Hello, is this Thailand, I wondered. Thankfully, visa was free (The Red Shirt's troublemaking in Bangkok had hit tourist traffic throughout Thailand) and it straightaway meant a saving of 3000 bahts for me. I suddenly felt lucky and wallet-wise, marginally closer to Donald Trump (remember I am a journalist married to austerity, not a banker or a businessman).
Once inside the air-conditioned cab, I asked him a few questions and he said a lot of yeses with smiling nods. It simply meant that the conversation was flowing in only one direction--mine. The road to the town was in great condition, which coursed through the hill-like greenery-filled landscape of the island. My wife felt a bit pukish but my daughter and I were okay. Sporadically, the road was flanked by single-storied houses, shops and business establishments. On the way, interestingly, I saw more mosques than temples.
In the afternoon, we took a stroll on Ao Patong--a three-kilometer stretch of sandy beach. Some Western tourists were relaxing on chaise lounges, barbecuing their bodies or sipping their drinks under colourful parasols, a book spread on their knees. Clichés, I know, but what do you expect on a beach? Young couples and surfers played with the waves in the shallow waters, their smiles and laughter adding mirth to the somber sea.
On the beach, a little later a man came. He was Thai. “Where are you from?” The same question. I replied. He showed me a piece of paper. He was collecting funds for Tsunami victims. I had my doubts. He could be a fraud. I apologized and waved him off. It is easy to dismiss a request when you talk to a man from behind sunglasses.
In the evening, the lights came on and the streets magically came alive with people in cars, in tuk tuks, on scooters, on foot. There were touts everywhere: men and women asking us to buy stuff, dine at sea food joints or get massages. Every few steps, a tuk tuk driver or his agent would offer us a ride. A mini truck passed by slowly, with young boys on board in shorts mocking a Muoy Thai sparring, advertising for a super championship match in town. There was music and noise everywhere, the sheer liveliness of a place that thrived with human interaction, energizing the participants and onlookers alike. And I thought, dude, where are the protesters?
Where is the unrest? Later, I saw a story in the Phuket Post (30 April- 13 May): Phuket backs the PM. “More than a thousand Phuket people delivered a handwritten letter to Go Wichai at the Provincial Hall on 19 April (hoping)…that the letter will encourage PM Abhisit (Vejjajiva) and his party not to resign and dissolve parliament…” In short, the Phuketites were for business and for normalcy.
Taking in the festiveness, we walked up to Jung Ceylon, a modern shopping complex where all your StarBucks, MacDonalds and Carrefours are. We did some shopping in Robinsons and Carrefour and grabbed our dinner in the Jung Ceylon's food court, and that's where I made my greatest discovery: an Indian food stall named Bismillah Kitchen.
Amid all kinds of Thai food represented there, I was glad to find Indian food represented too. Also, this was the only food joint that displayed a halal sign, indicating that their food was kosher. Coming from Singapore, we were spoiled as Singapore has hundreds of halal certified food stalls and eateries. The stall was being manned by a young Pakistani man, Hassan. We ordered our dishes in Urdu and felt quite at home. The microwave-heated food was miraculously delicious (rice, dal, potato with peas and a bowl of meat with gravy; the pudina chutney was amazing) and so inexpensive that I decided to come there for all our subsequent meals.
Over the next few meals, I got to know a little bit more about Hassan. He was from Punjab and instead of venturing to Dubai or London as most of his countrymen do, he moved to Thailand. “There are lots of opportunities here,” he said. He was happy to see someone from the subcontinent. “Saheb,” he said, “I hardly see any Pakistanis come here. They seldom get out of the country.” “True,” I said, “There are reasons for it”. Then we talked about politics. “What is sad is that in Pakistan, Muslims are killing each other because of politics,” he said. Hassan was not very educated but he knew what was going on in his country.
Changing the topic, I asked him, are there a lot of Muslims in Phuket? “Oh, yes,” he said, “and they are very strong.” “How?” I further pressed him. “They are strong in business and they have a lot of clout.” Perhaps that explained why I saw so many mosques in Phuket.
Then he complained about a neighbouring stall owner who sold Thai food: she sold both chicken and pork and yet had the temerity to brandish a halal sign on her stall to attract Muslim tourists. “How could she do it?” Hassan said. When asked if he would complain to the authorities; “No,” he said, “But next time they come on inspection, they will take action against her.”
I promised Hassan that I would write about his food stall. He was thankful. On the last day, he gave a free treat to my daughter: Milkmaid poured over a hot parantha. “Yummy,” my daughter declared.
For our remaining days in Phuket, we avoided the tourist traps and did more of the same--walking around, shopping and more family bonding over food and siestas. We even gave the Phuket Fantasia, a nightly dinner buffet with a Las Vegas-style show, a miss. Each ticket costs around 1800 bahts.
The night before we left for Bangkok, I took a stroll down the Soi Bangla, Patong's liveliest party zone. The road was flanked by drinking holes and was crowded with tourists and street performers. Amid pulsating music, I could see mostly Western tourists drinking beer in bars and young girls and ladyboys pole dancing for the patrons. Some touts tried to entice me to attend free sex shows that I refused with my polite nods. The market-like open air atmosphere on the Bangla Road gives one a totally different experience, unlike the closed door revelry of Singapore's Duxton Hill or Hong Kong's Wanchai district. Good for those who like this kind of stuff.
After landing in Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport, I remembered Bangkok's old airport that I had once transited through. Compared to Suvarnbhumi, the old one had more character. The new one was huge and awesome but it looked utilitarian.
We spent three nights in Bangkok, each night under curfew. But in the condo where we stayed, we never felt anything was amiss. The city looked peaceful and calm and there were no rising columns of smoke to be seen in the skyline nor were there any wailing police sirens renting the air. But when we switched on the telly, we saw news about the unrest in Bangkok. It seemed so surreal; beyond the patina of calm was news of troublemakers that the television brought to people's drawing rooms.
The condo, in the heart of Bangkok, eerily seemed like a Green Zone, with its swimming pool and tennis court on the fourth floor and salons, restaurants and massage parlours on the ground floor. So self-sufficient.
The night before we returned to Singapore, we had our first foot massage of the trip. My wife and I, sitting beside each other were being fawned over by the masseuses.
As we moved away from Bangkok, we hoped that complete peace would soon return to the city. This magnificent city, the city of Emerald Buddha, deserved it. And I also told myself that Bangkok was not an ordinary city: there was something about it that needed more exploration. Back in Singapore, I remembered Bangkok as a girl to whom I have only said hello. I knew I needed to converse more with her.
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