Ootoya: oishi des ne?

P1060345 I love Thai food and one of the great things about living in Thailand is – no surprise here – there is no shortage of great, inexpensive Thai food. 

If Khrungthep is the Mt. Olympus of Thailand then Thai food is our ambrosia and, ignoring the obvious question of who the gods and goddesses are, blended fresh watermelon juice must be our nectar. 

Even with that plethora of good Thai food, from time to time I still want to eat something else.  Just as when I lived in San Francisco I didn’t eat American food all the time so, too, here in Thailand I like to travel around visiting the different huts in the global culinary village.

One of my favorite huts to stop by is the one run by Ootoya, a Japanese chain that specializes in teishoku, or set meals, comprised of a protein, bowl of rice, miso soup, and a plate of pickles.  Ootoya doesn’t do sushi and is largely about grilled items.  The food is fresh, portions generous but not overwhelming, and the ingredients healthy.  Below: Examples of Ootoya’s teishoku, grilled hamburger with onion sauce on the left and grilled saba (mackerel) on the right.

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There are plenty of locations throughout the city, especially in the mid-Sukhumvit area where there are a lot of Japanese expats.

P1060350 One other nice thing is that Ootoya updates its menu regularly.  There are a lot of “spring specials” on the menu, even though the seasons here don’t quite correspond with the seasons in Japan.  It is just nice that we get to see a wide variety of dishes.  One of their winter specials was baked then grilled slices of daikon radish served with a fermented red bean sauce.  So tasty!  Very simple combination but tremendously satisfying.

For spring we have fresh steamed vegetables, served in a steaming basket and sterno stove at your table.  Unfortunately, it takes practically the whole meal for the veggies to get tender!  Short video segment below.

 

P1060258 In other news, we had a brief visit from our friend Tomas recently, right.  Tomas and his partner Jose moved a few years ago from Houston to London and after a short return to the United States are back in London. 

Tomas was here at a conference and fortunately could make the time to meet for dinner at Curries and More followed by some drinks at the top of the Banyan Tree Hotel.

Don’t think that Tawn and I aren’t interesting in accepting their invitation to stay with them on our next visit to London.  Prices being what they are in the British Isles and the dollar’s value being what it is, we’ll certainly take the offer of lodging especially when it comes with a generous serving of Tomas and Jose’s warm hospitality!

 

Babies Galore

P1060247 As mentioned before, many of Tawn’s school friends are settling down and having children.  At least the opposite-sex couples are. 

The other day we hosted several of them on the occassion of Kat coming back to Khrungthep for Songkhran.  Kat and her British husband Dan were married in a beautiful ceremony on the beach in Phuket back in September 2006.  Last June they gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Sophie.  We visited them in Hong Kong when Sophie was just a few days old.

Left: Sophie and I scratch each other’s chin.

Hard to believe it has almost been a year since then and in that year the number of children in the group has grown considerably.  Ja and her husband Tuk gave birth to a lovely baby girl called Namink, a half-year ago and Sa and her husband Job recently gave birth to their son, JJ.  (Which I should probably write as “Jae Jae” to translate more accurately.)

Below, two of the three new mothers: Kat and Sopie on the left and Sa and JJ on the right.  Sophie’s face reminds me of the the Campbell’s Soup Kids except with dark hair.

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Below: Can you see the similarity?

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Maybe it is just me.  Anyhow, we had a fun time with Eddy showing a maternal instinct we never knew he had… at least for a few minutes until he got bored of holding JJ, below.  Ultimately, he needed Tawn’s help.  Good attempt at mustering a smile at only about eight weeks old, JJ!

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As time goes by, I think our gatherings are going to look more and more like the picture below.  Family gatherings, with “family” defined in a variety of ways.  From left to right: Mon, Chris, Tawn, Sophie, Kat, Job (holding JJ), Sa, and Eddy. 

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Crossing the border in Pong Nam Ron

Every ninety days I have to leave Thailand.  Not because I get my fill of the traffic or som tam, but because the conditions of my year-long visa (and most other non-immigrant visas, for that matter) require it.  I can fly somewhere on holiday or even just step across the border and then re-enter: it doesn’t matter so long as I leave Thailand.

Over the past two and a half years most of my border runs have been combined into already-planned travel: Tawn and I take a weekend in Hong Kong, go for a visit back to the United States, etc.  So far, there have been only two times when I’ve had to make a border run specifically because I needed to leave the country: the first was a day-long trip to Penang, Malaysia on August 31, 2006 and the second was about three weeks ago.

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Above: Me at the border with Cambodia in the background.

There are a dozen companies that help expats and tourists conduct border runs to Laos or Cambodia and border runs are one of those topics that have a place in the mythology and folklore of expats in Thailand. 

Down on Khao San Road the backpackers share tips and insights on how to stay here as long as they can, how to work the system, and how to avoid overstaying their visas.  For those just sliding by on tourist visas, even with the recent “crackdowns” restricting those who receive visas on arrival to only ninety total days within a six-month period, there is something called the “three thirties, a sixty and a seven” that can net you just over five consecutive months of stay with minimal effort.

Even for those of us who are here legitimately and hold nonimmigrant visas, the topics of what visa type, where did you get it, and how are you handling border runs is still a common topic of conversation.

The Cambodian day trip is one of the most common border runs.  For about 2,000 baht (about US$65 but rising fast) you can hop into a van or a bus with several dozen expats and make a nine-hour roundtrip to the border.  I’ve been hesitant to make this trip because I’ve heard that the experience is a nightmare.  Not only the hours and hours cramped in a vehicle but then at the border you are attacked by beggars, limbless war victims and children, who swarm to the foreigners like so many mosquitos. 

It is easy to understand why, in a country that is still so impoverished, people would take this route to earn a living, but it is horrifying to know that giving some spare change isn’t doing anything to alleviate their suffering.  Perhaps this is a copout and I’m just a westerner who doesn’t want to come face-to-face with the legacy of genocide, but this does not make for a pleasant day-trip.

When Roka told me about a border run she had taken with a company called Sawasdee Transport and her story painted a very different picture, one that sounded much more promising.

So I emailed the owner, a German named Claudio and he confirmed that there would be room on Friday’s trip.  Please meet the van at the Tesco-Lotus at On Nut BTS station at 7:30 am, he said.

Arriving about 7:15 at the large parking lot, I was at a loss as to which van I was looking for.  White and silver Toyota passenger vans are even more common here than street-side food vendors and since On Nut is the terminal station for the Sukhumvit line, dozens of vans transport workers from the parking lot to destinations all around the eastern side of the city.

Spotting another farang I approached her and asked if she was waiting for Claudio, too.  She was and in just a few minutes Claudio came pulling up in his car and pulled into a space next to three other vans.  A large group was going today, so there would be a total of these three vans plus Claudio ended up having to drive his car to the border, too.

Of the three dozen or so passengers, almost all were Filipino laborers. I have one Filipino friend here in Khrungthep and didn’t realize just how many people the island nation exports to Thailand.  Our van had a British national, the Canadian-Belgian dual citizen I had met a few minutes before, and seven Filipinos, one of which had a lovely voice and quietly sang a capella nearly the whole trip.

I liked the transparency and honesty with which Claudio did business.  The expat community is rife with tales of unscrupulous border run operators who will get you to the border only to discover that your visa or paperwork is not in order and you cannot cross the border that day.  Often that is a waste of money and it is always a waste of time.  Claudio, on the other hand, thoroughly reviewed everyone’s documents in advance of the trip and double-checked before leaving that everyone had everything they needed. 

We headed up to the border, stopping once en route for a toilet break.  The ride was comfortable enough and I read a bit and visited with my seat mates.  The Canadian-Belgian woman had the most interesting story: she had come to visit her parents about two years ago as her father had set up a company in Thailand six years prior to that.  She so enjoyed it that she has spent the better part of those last two years here living with them.  Since the limit on tourist visas using the “three thirties and sixty and a seven” is about six months, she just switches passports every six months and then travels for a few weeks in between to get all the way to the six months.

P1050992 Our destination was the Ban Laem crossing in Pong Nam Ron, Chanthaburi Province.  This is a smaller crossing and less popular with the larger border run operators than another crossing nearer to Khrungthep.  As such, there is much less traffic and, because of the way the border and the casino are laid out, you don’t have any contact with the Cambodian locals.  In fact, it is arguable whether or not you ever really arrive in Cambodia.

As gambling is “illegal” in Thailand, the Thais go to casinos set up right across the border in Laos and Cambodia.  At Ban Laem the casino is actually placed before the true entry point into Cambodia.  The physical order of the border is: Thai border control office, Thai border guard, bridge over the muddy creek that is the actual border (above), casino compound, then Cambodian border guard.  The Cambodian border control office is actually on the casino grounds so clearly the business is there to cater to foreigners doing border runs.

When I say “casino”, by the way, don’t think Macau or Las Vegas.  Think of the local chapter of your Rotary Club with one of their linoleum floored halls filled with folding chairs and faded card tables.  Needless to say, no cocktail waitresses serving free drinks.  No pictures allowed, unfortunately, so let your imaginations run with that image.

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Above: Looking from Thailand into Cambodia, the entry to the casino is just behind the white, circular sign.  There is a red-roofed shack behind that where the Cambodian border guard is located. 

Below: Standing just outside the Cambodian border guard shack looking into Cambodia.  Interestingly, the disparity between income on the two sides of the border is amazing.  While both are rural and poor, the Thai side has nicely paved roads and some development.  The Cambodian side is much worse off.  That might be attributable to the fact that the people coming over from the Thai side never go any further than the casino.

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We were on the Cambodian side of the border for about an hour.  The Canadian-Belgian woman and I tried our chance at the fried rice and then did some duty free shopping.  The best news of all was that Cambodia has no duties on imported wine and, as I learned from the British man on the way back, there really are no practical restrictions placed on the quantity of items you bring back into Thailand, even though the legal restriction is 1 liter of alcohol.  I bought two bottles of a nice Australian wine for 350 baht (about US$11) each and discovered that at the store here in Khrungthep they were being sold for 1789 baht each thanks to Thailand’s 400% duty on luxury goods.

P1050989 This alone is enough to encourage me to make more border runs to Cambodia.  Maybe I can even bring the car and buy a few cases!

We crossed the bridge back towards Thailand, a blue and white sign in Khmer script saying (I assume) something like “farewell and come again”, right.  Who knows, though?  It could have been propaganda denouncing the decadent westerners who don’t do much to actually help the lives of everyday Cambodians.

Below: Looking back into Thailand, the new immigration offices on the right hand side.  The British man was telling me that just a few years ago, the offices were literally a shack, just like on the Cambodian side.  The rickety wooden pedestrian bridge is a remnant of times past.

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We were back at the Tesco-Lotus by 5:00, having hit some heavy thunderstorms on the way back.  According to the British guy, he has never done this trip when there weren’t afternoon thunderstorms as the area is in the mountains.  Talking with him, he has an interesting story.  Married to a Thai woman for more than eight years, he hasn’t applied for permanent residency but instead has a working visa sponsored by their company, which makes and exports wedding dresses to the UK and other parts of Europe.  They have recently started to do made-to-order dresses online, so if you are interested in having a wedding dress (or, I suppose, any other type of dress) made to order and then shipped to you, I’m sure you could find some good deals on their website.  Not an endorsement, by the way, just something I picked up on the trip.

All in all, the trip was fairly painless and a convenient way to do a border run without having to plan and pay for a trip somewhere outside Thailand.  As much as I love flying, I can’t fly outside Thailand for much less than 6,000 baht given the price of fuel these days.  For that, I can do a Cambodian border run and buy a dozen bottles of wine. 

 

Wet Critical Mass

Friday night was the third Critical Mass ride here in the City of Angels.  After two days of stormy weather, the rain had cleared mid-afternoon, the streets had dried, the weather was still a little cool and breezy and it was looking like the stage was set for a pleasant ride.

By the time I reached the TOT (Telephone of Thailand) building on Phloenchit Road, the clouds were forming in the early evening sky and it smelled of rain.  About thirty riders gathered, all Thais except for one other farang, down significantly from the two hundred-plus riders at the first Critical Mass ride in February.  Barely a mass, much less critical, in my opinion.

We set off just after seven o’clock and within five minutes were riding on wet pavement.  Chasing the storm, we rode onto increasingly wet pavement until catching up to the raindrops.  From mist to droplets to a full downpour, the group continued to ride, LED head and tail lights reflecting in the puddles.

P1060335 There was a certain romance to it.  It was warm and tropical and everyone was entirely soaked through and we kept riding, weaving through the stuck traffic, ringing our bells and bringing some visibility to the rights of cyclists.

After about forty minutes we arrived at the Taksin Bridge pier, where tourists catch the river taxis.  There, under the concrete canopy of the bridge, the group stopped for a break.  I visited with fellow riders, several of whom are instructors at one of the arts colleges.  It was nice to be able to communicate well enough to carry on conversations and to make, and understand, jokes.  Thank goodness for people who are willing to speak clearly, speak slowly, and rephrase their words when I don’t understand.  And who avoid idioms.

 

Sights on the Road

Running errands recently, there were many interesting things to see:

The pedestrian bridge connecting the Asoke BTS Skytrain station with the far side of the Sukhumvit/Asoke intersection is nearing completion, a six-month project that will increase pedestrian safety hugely.

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Above: The bridge will connect to the Exchange Tower on the southeast corner of the intersection.  I think it will also have an outlet in front of the new Interchange 21 Tower in the northeast corner.  Below: Looking east from the Asoke BTS Skytrain station along Sukhumvit towards the Asoke intersection.

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Driving back from Fortune Town (visiting my lawyers regarding my work permit), traffic was heavy on Asoke between Rama IX and Petchaburi.  Partly attributable to this fender bender, below.  Thai motor vehicle code states that vehicles must remain in place until the police or the insurance agents have arrived and documented the scene.  Considering the number of small fender benders that occur, this delay in clearing the road causes unnecessary traffic congestion.

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Look how close the cars are packed below.

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Funny sticker on the back of a pickup truck, below.

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Construction on the Airport Express train line is making progress, supposedly going to be completed by the end of this year.  (Fat chance!)  Here, they are building the segment outside the terminal station which will become a bridge across Asoke Road.  More pictures when they begin building that bridge.

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P1060299 When under construction, buildings are often wrapped in plastic fabric to keep the dust down.  With the strong winds this week, the structure looked like a shrouded corpse.  Ghostly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After so much errand-running, it was homemade vegetarian calzone for dinner with a healthy whole wheat crust.

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Yummy!

 

 

Of Ants and Gnats and Men

P1050983 The joys of being a homeowner raised their ugly head again a few weeks ago. 

First, the toilet was loose and rocked back and forth.  While that can be quite soothing during those middle-of-the-night trips to the outhouse, you should bear in mind that we just completed a full remodel at the end of November (“completed” is kind of a relative term) and this included replacing the toilet.  No reason for it to be unstable already.

Upon his return, the plumber announced that his original installation had been good but that some other worker must have either bumped the toilet, put something on it, or stepped on it while the adhesive and caulk were setting.  He removed the toilet – ceremoniously placed outside in the hallway, right – cleaned up the marble underneath, and then remounted the toilet.  Then gave us strict instructions to not even so much as walk in the same room as the toilet, lest the wobble return.

With that commandment, we called a travel agent and found a good deal on a mid-range hotel in the Nana district, the convenient, touristy and seedy section of Sukhumvit Road that too many people end up staying at because it is touted in the tourist guide books as being “convenient” and “close to everything”. 

Sigh… the US dollar doesn’t buy what it used to in Khrungthep!  The Manhattan Hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 11 is a nice work of faded glory.  It was clean, the people were friendly, and the interior was a bit faded and worn.  Still, it was only 1500 baht ($50) at the last minute and that included free parking and a pretty decent buffet breakfast.  That’s the price to pay for a stable toilet, I guess.

 

Actually, Tawn remembers the Manhattan Hotel from his childhood, when he would accompany his father to the barbershop there.  Popular with members of Khun Sudha’s (Tawn’s father) generation, the barber was an Elvis Presley fan who kept his white hair in a pompadour in homage to the other King.  The barber didn’t like to cut children’s hair and Tawn, just a little squirt, had to sit on a washing board laid across the armrests in order to raise him up, as the barber’s hands trembled with nervousness.

The barber was also popular with Japanese expats living nearby.  In the corner of the waiting area was a stack of magazines for customers to read and Tawn remembers finding some manga, Japanese comic books.  Waiting for his father to finish, he was flipping through the comic books, bored, until he reached the more… ahem… adult depictions in the story.  (For those who don’t know, there is a popular subculture of Japanese comics that contain a startling amount of pornography.  Interesting Wikipedia article here.)

 

The joys of home ownership continued with the invasion of ants and gnats.  The ants have been a recurring problem since construction.  They seem to come from the wall or floor behind the clothes washer.  Boy, are they clever.  Each time they find their way to the kitchen, I crawl along the floor following them back to their nest (or, at least, wherever they enter the wall) before I do any spraying.  One can just imagine the conversation:

Ant #1: “Hey, do you notice anything strange?”

Ant #2: “No, why?”

Ant #1: “That giant.  I think he’s following us.”

Ant #2: “Nah, that’s just your imagination.  You’re working too hard.  Why don’t you take a vacation?”

After locating their path, I would spray the path and the area around their portal through the wall with Raid and then they would disappear for a week or so.  They would find another path soon thereafter: exit through a gap in the shower tile grout; a corner of the door frame; from somewhere behind the washer; through the edge of the electrical outlet in the bedroom.  Clever ants, I must give them credit for their tenacity.

You have to appreciate the distances we’re talking about here: at first they were traveling three meters or so through the foyer, past the refrigerator, and up the counters.  The shortest route is always the most direct one, right?

As I closed off various routes, they became more creative, exiting the bathroom through the bedroom, then out into the living room, past the fireplace, then cut across the floor and run along the edge of the rug, then into the kitchen from the side near the patio door.  That’s the same tour I give guests when they first visit the condo!

The ants seemed pretty manageable by myself.  As much as I don’t like to use chemical sprays, the non-chemical options didn’t seem effective.  But we decided it was time to call in the heavy artillery when a swarm of teeny-tiny gnats started swarming around the bathroom sconces.  Where the heck did they come from?

P1060003 We finally determined they were reproducing in a dead space under the sink countertop, escaping through the narrow gap at the top of the under-mounted sink.  Some spraying would leave dozens of casualties but reinforcements would appear the very next day.

On the recommendation of a homeowner friend, we called a local pest control service.  A trio of men arrived, one clearly the boss, a second one sort of a mid-level manager, and then finally the poor sap who had to do the work, pictured left.  (Have I mentioned before about the hierarchical nature of Thai society?)

To say that there are no health and safety protections for workers handling toxic or otherwise unhealthful substances would be patently untrue: This young man was wearing a pair of coveralls.

Sure, he had no mask as he filled the spray tanks with water, releasing fumes that nearly knocked me out while taking the picture.  No gloves, either.

The boss assured us that there were no harmful effects and that after leaving the house closed up for an hour or so, we could return home, air it out, and then continue living our pest-free lives with no worries.

As for how the exterminators’ work has worked: In the two and a half weeks since their visit, the ants have not returned.  The gnats, just like when I sprayed, died in large numbers but were replaced the next day.  I’ve had to follow up with additional under-counter spraying to get their population under control.  But considering that the exterminators’ 12-month contract is quite inexpensive, about $12 a month, I figure I can do some of the heavy lifting, too.

Up next, I tell you about the bathroom drain that has no U-trap and how we’re tackling that.  All that and more on the next episode of “This Old Thai Condo”.   

 

KFC Park of Happiness

There are strange things to be seen in this world, not the least of which was a recent event held at Siam Paragon shopping mall.  Yes, it is (I kid you not) the KFC Park of Happiness.

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Lest you take the relative scarcity of people as a sign of Thai consumers’ anti-Western habits, rest assured that this photo was taken early in the day before the Park of Happiness was officially open.  It was plenty busy later on.