Monday, 30 March 2009

Shinjuku, Shinjuku

In the heart of Shinjuku lies Lumine Est, a shopping mall adjacent to the JR Station and Metro. Floors 7 & 8 were a gastronomical discovery and the answer to the next few meals I'm sure.
Japan is big on recycling, which is a good thing, and the decor reflects this well. Old frames plus lighting ... and voila you have a great feature wall. The famous have an outlet here as well as at every major area in the city. The row of chairs are in anticipation of the queques at meal time. Unique to Japan, all restaurants worth their salt set out chairs or even benches to encourage customers to wait for a table. Okinawa cuisine is popular and famous for its goya dishes cooked as tempura, or sweetened by soaking in brown sugar. Goya is a gourd with a characteristic bitter taste and considered a refreshing summer dish. Goya is rich in Vitamin C and has been used medicinally in China, India and Arabia for centuries.
An interesting wall of corrugated cardboard painted red. The Japanese take pains in recycling their garbage. The sorting and recycling starts at home and carries on into public places like the parks. Special days are allocated for disposal of inflammables, paper or plastic. Bottles and cans are disposed of in designated collection areas. I just found out today that pieces of paper smaller than a post card are deemed non-recycle worthy. The Paper Museum gives a detailed history of the use of paper in Japan through the centuries as well as the modern challenges of recycling. Of course sushi and sashimi is everywhere . . . presentation being just as important as freshness.Wondered where all the old PC's, CPU's and keyboards went to? In this case a wall. It makes a statement, a reminder of mans excesses polluting the planet.
The famous plastic food of Japan. It certainly helps when you don't know the language. The point and smile method works all the time.When stacked up pipes and meter boxes are painted grey they make stark contrast with large glass sheets . . . most effective decor effect. A tastefully decorated lounge area amidst the restaurants lends a spacious feel. This new interior design concept certainly adds to the trendy ambiance.The romance with all things American still lingers on here in the Land of the Rising Sun. The hamburger is given a Japanese twist with teriyaki flavouring; rice, noodles or fries as accompaniments, shredded cabbage with mayo and grilled onion rings. For desert you have the choice of French pastries, crepes (penchant for all things French as well), waffles or this new wave ice cream - Cold Stone. Creamy flavours of your choice are mixed and folded on a freezing stone surface before your eyes. To add to the fun, the cheerful young girls behind the counter break into little ditties of song as part of the performance. Ice cream served till 11 pm...who could ask for more?
Rushing off to catch the last train (midnight for JR line; 1 am for the metro) is this rare sight of two genteel Japanese ladies dressed in kimono. Special Sunday occasions and weddings are about the only time the kimono is donned these days. The cultural divide widens as modern wins over traditional.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

I love Tokyo in the Springtime

What I love about Tokyo and Japan is its predictability, discipline and above all the respect afforded to their fellow man.

The Airport Limousine bus counter is strategically situated directly in front of the arrival hall exit and the bus stop is clearly marked (in English) just as you step out of the terminal. When you buy your ticket you are informed of the time of the next bus, unlike in some places where you have to pry the information with difficulty.

At the stop, the bus attendants follow a strict SOP (standard operating procedure). They give respectful acknowledgement by bowing to bus driver as he draws up to the stop; tag the luggage giving you the stub, collect your ticket, load the luggage and again bow to the driver as he moves off. Its a simple procedure , but done with finesse.

A recorded announcement in the bus welcomes visitors and advises the use of safety belts. The female Japanese voice with a somewhat stilted English accent reminds that mobile phones are not to be used on the bus 'as it will disturb the neighbours'. However foreigners have been known to ignore this practice.

It was a cold, wet and windy 7 degrees Centigrade on landing at 1900 hrs. The next morning was no better, but the sun did peep through the clouds at noon.Just in time too for the Hanami party to celebrate the Sakura season. The only problem was that the sakura were still a bit shy in blooming due to the weather.The green mats are spread and each person brings some food or drink. This was a cosmopolitan group of students of a Japanese language school. Germany, Switzerland, France, Australia, Canada, USA and Malaysia were represented.
All sharing experiences in Tokyo, all in Tokyo for various reasons and all absorbing the cultural with Japanese friends.

Now all that is required is that the cherry blossom start blooming . . . please!

Jazz on high

For the ultimate Jazz experience and a night view of Bangkok head for the Dome, Lebua at State Tower on th banks of the Chao Praya River.With the view of the river, city and wind blowing through your hair, you wouldn't want to be anywhere else.Add to that a full moon and the band playing Cole Porter favourites you really succumb to the night.Let the strains of Misty, Unforgettable and I've Got You Under My Skin send shivers down your back because you don't want this nigfht to end . . . But you know that it will, and you come back for more . . .

Friday, 20 March 2009

The Kingdom of Ayutthaya

A must-do in Bangkok is the tour of Ayutthaya, going by bus and returning by a cruise down the Chao Praya River. For 1800 Baht (USD 50) this whole day trip is a steal with lunch, pick-up and drop-off at hotel arranged.
This should be followed up by the Siam Niramit show at the Thailand Cultural Center which promises to bring to life the history and culture of the people of Thailand in vivid colour. It simply completes the experience.

After having visited the ruins of Ayutthaya about 8 years ago with my late father, he would have been happy to know that the ancient site is looking better than before due to ongoing rehabilitation and excavation of this World Cultural Heritage site. The Ayutthaya estate, situated on an island, lends to its strategic position and rich rice economy.

The Kingdom of Ayutthaya and then capital of Thailand was established in 1350 AD by King Ramathibodi and lasted for 417 years. Wat Chaiwatthanaram, one of the most important Bhuddhist monastries consists of a main prang (Khmer-type tower) and 4 lesser prangs surrounded by a further 8 lesser prangs, occupies pride of place centrally.

Most of the Buddha images have been looted except for this one trapped in the roots of a fig tree. Headless figures line the Wat as testament to mans' greed and penchant for destruction. The few remaining images of Buddha can be viewed at the Chao Sam Praya National Museum.Back in the day, Ayutthaya was a busy metropolis and welcomed foreign traders, including the Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Japanese and Persians and later the Portugese, Spanish, Dutch and French permitting them to set up villages outside the city walls. The strong Chinese influence is seen throughout the city to this day.

In the sixteenth century, it was described by foreign traders as one of the biggest and wealthiest cities in the East. The pomp and pageantry is well depicted in the Journey back to History at Siam Niramit.

The court of King Narai (1656-1688) had strong links with that of King Louis XIV of France, whose ambassadors compared the city in size and wealth to Paris.

So strong was the French influence on the Thai royalty that the Bang Pa In Summer Palace dating back to the 17th century was built in French architectural style. King Mongkut (Rama IV) revived this style in the 19th century and the result is what you see today.

A Chinese style residence built in China was transported over as a gift to King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in 1889.

The might of Ayutthaya knew no bounds and its vassals included the Northern Shan states of present-day Myanmar, Lanna (Chiang Mai, Yunnan & Shan Sri (China), Lan Xang (Laos), Cambodian Kingdom, and some city-states in the Malay Peninsula. Early on in his reign, King Ramathibodi had seized Angkor from the Khmers.

Malacca and other Malay states had become Muslim early in the 15th century, and thereafter Islam served as a symbol of Malay solidarity against the Thais. As it failed to make a vassal state of Malacca, Ayutthayan control of the strait was gradually displaced by the Malays and Chinese.

In 1569 Ayutthaya eventually fell to the Burmese Kingdom of Tounggoo as part of its 'imperial expansion' plan.

Imagine this apsara / nymph / celestial maiden stepping out of the alcove . . . magical effect in Siam Niramit.

Ayutthaya entered into its golden age, a relatively peaceful episode, in the second quarter of the eighteenth century when art, literature, and learning flourished while foreign wars were fought against the Vietnamese and Burmese. Eventually Ayutthaya fell in 1767 to Burma after a lengthy siege. Ayutthaya's art treasures, the libraries containing its literature, and the archives housing its historic records were almost totally destroyed.

Leaving behind the legacy of ancient Ayutthaya, the 2-hour river cruise afforded time to savour Bangkok au natural along the Chao Praya.

A Wat in downtown Bangkok.
Rama VIII Bridge
Riverine Temple

The 'Bangkok Hilton'

Luxury villa

Bangkok skyline

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Bangkok Dangerous . . . to not so dangerous.

Walking down Soi Cowboy, located close to the intersection of Sukhumvit Road and Asoke Road, brought to mind the 2008 Nicholas Cage movie Bangkok Dangerous. Beware of tuk-tuk drivers offering to take you to sights you have never seen before! The colour red blanketed the street filled with curious men, mainly Caucasians, on a look-see and the local women on-the-prowl all set to tangle. From women-in-black to short short denim shorts, it is obvious that the demand fuels the trade - which is a gainful option to feed a family in poverty back home in the provinces. Watch the moves of the guy in the doorway..... . . . as he gets reeled in!
If other desires need addressing, good eats abound like fried grasshoppers or caterpillars to up your protein intake,. . .. . . a foot massage as you enjoy succulent fresh pineapple and papaya, . . .
. . . retail therapy . . .
. . . or even giving in to the sensuous guiles of the girlie-barber for a haircut, shave and a bit of pampering. To digress a little, a former Thai cabinet minister, initiated a family planning and safe-sex program by promoting the use of condoms, after a visit to provincial areas and noticed the enormous number of children in the villages where the population growth rate was 3.2 percent with an average of seven children per family.
Mechai with condom teddy bear

Mechai Viravaidya, a 67 year old cherubic gentleman of Thai and Scottish parentage, founded his now-famed nongovernmental organization, the Population and Community Development Association (PDA) in 1974 to promote community-based family planning service operating throughout the towns and villages of Thailand. Almost 20 years later, the population growth rate has come down to a 1.2 percent average, or two children per family. It is Mechai Viravaidya who has been credited with Thailand's population being 20 million less than it would have been. His success earned him the undisputed title of the Condom King of Thailand. He is so well-known in Thailand that in rural areas, Thai slang for condom is "mechai."
His premise was simply that "Too Many Children make You Poor", making this the campaign song popularised among the youth. "We use our condom campaign as a means of desensitizing the issue. We make people laugh, we make people able to talk about family planning and not feel embarrassed about it."
He started a restaurant named Cabbages and Condoms (C & C) in Soi 12, Sukhumvit Road well known for its excellent Thai cuisine and eye-catching decor and campaign souvenirs. "Cabbages are very common in Thailand," Mechai explains, "and I wanted to make condoms as common in this country as cabbages."

The C & C tag line . . .

The secret of PDA's success lies in the unconventional approach in playing on the Thai sense of humor. For example, "vasectomy festivals" were held in honor of the King's birthday; . . .

. . . a "cops and rubbers" project where the entire police force distributed condoms to the public; and Captain Condom & "condom nights and festivals" in the red light districts where condoms and safety-tip cards are handed out to commercial sex workers.

Mechai with Captain Condom

"Condom nights" Ops

In 2007, the PDA received US 1 million dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation together with the Gates Award for Global Health for his achievements in family planning and AIDS prevention.

Condom dresses at an AIDS conference.

In May 2008, PDA signed a MOU with Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Singapore to send students from the School of Humanities to Thailand as part of their internship. The plan is to expose students to initiatives to help reduce poverty and foster community spirit in Thailand. True to his quirky sense of humour on safe-sex he distributed T-shirts 'Stop global warming, use a condom' to the students, the same that he gave to former US Vice President Al Gore.

Moving away from the sleaze and risque was a breath of fresh air. For a totally different scene, step into Soi 3 and discover the Arab Quarter of Bangkok.

The aroma of cloves, cardamoms and roast lamb hit you in the face and cling to your clothes. The stainless steel decor, the prefered taste, adds to the glitz. One of the restaurants clears its premises for the congregational Friday prayers as part of a community service.

As if out of a page from a tourist brochure of Dubai, a minyak atar shop or perfumery stands on the next corner. The comfort zone is created with all things familiar.Mandhi rice served with lamb or chicken is available here, of course. The Thai influence is telling when the accompanying condiments is a green chili salsa instead of the usual tomato-based puree.

The Arab tourist sector in S E Asia is growing steadily with the establishment of these ethnic quarters, as they move away from destinations like the US, UK and Europe.