Bangkok Gov, Tourism Authority Tout Ratchaprasong Pedestrian Mall

(BANGKOK) Every cloud has its silver lining and, so it would seem, every crippling protest has its tourism promotion scheme.  In the four weeks since thousands of anti-government protesters, known as “Red Shirts” although they have increasingly donned other colors so as to confound the fashion police, shut down the high-end Ratchaprasong shopping district, tourism arrivals to Amazing Thailand have plummeted more than 40%.  The result has been hundreds of millions of baht in lost business every day as hotels and shopping centers have been forced to close.  But a creative solution, it seems, may soon be at hand.

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A view along the new pedestrian mall, showing both the food and crafts tents and the screen for outdoors showings of classic Thai films.

Working feverishly to restore the confidence of global tourists and to prop up the thousands of affected jobs in the service and tourism sectors, Bangkok Governor Rodtitmakmak Naimahanakorn and Tourism Authority (TAT) Governor Naktawngtiaw Maimatungprathet held a joint press conference yesterday to announce the creation of the Ratchaprasong Pedestrian Mall and Issan Folk Festival.

“Bangkok has long been in need of inviting and friendly pedestrian spaces,” said Governor Rodtitmakmak.  “Looking at the thousands of people who have spontaneously turned the previously traffic-jammed Ratchaprasong intersection in front of Central World Plaza into an outdoor party, I asked myself, why not build on their good example?”

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Soon the Ratchaprasong Pedestrian Mall will be filled with tourists from around the globe.

Following recent efforts by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, both of whom have changed the faces of their respective metropoleis by turning previously busy streets into pedestrian-friendly plazas, the governor explained the Bangkok would finally join the ranks of world-class cities that are friendlier to their citizens than they are to their citizens’ cars.

“This concept has been around for ages in Europe,” said Governor Rodtitmakmak.  “Think of Bruges, Copenhagen, and Venice, all of which are very pedestrian friendly.  We’re extending that concept and giving it a uniquely Thai flavor.”

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Vendors along the Pedestrian Mall will offer handcrafted local merchandise in a wide range of colors.

As to the question of how opening a pedestrian mall along what was formerly Bangkok’s ritziest shopping district will help the tourism slump, TAT Governor Naktawngtiaw expressed confidence that adding a cultural twist would attract global attention.

“Times Square… the one in New York, I mean… has its neon signs,” said the TAT governor.  “We will have a permanent stage featuring Issan folk music and dance performances, outdoor screenings of classic Thai films, and booths serving sticky rice and grilled chicken.  What tourist could resist?”

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Above, vendors at the Ratchaprasong Pedestrian Mall will offer Issan specialties including fresh-squeezed lime juice with soda, a refreshing Northeastern Thailand treat.

When pressed for details of when the Ratchaprasong Pedestrian Mall concept would be implemented, both men were circumspect.  “Seeing as how the Red Shirt protests have gone on for so long and the area already has a circus-like atmosphere,” said Governor Rodtitmakmak, “we are hoping for a smooth transition from the protests to the pedestrian mall.  More music and dancing and fewer political speeches, you know?  Before long, Bangkok residents and tourists alike will return to the intersection to enjoy the lively nightlife and festive ambience.”

“How does that saying go?” asked TAT Governor Naktawngtiaw.  “Oh, yes, when life gives you lemons, make manao soda.”

 

Of course, this entry is strictly a farce, a bit of humor to help the residents of the City of Angels deal with the frustrations and inconveniences brought on by the continuing protests.  No direct quotes were taken and no offence intended!

 

Increased Security at Asoke

In the wake of a temporary disruption of the BTS Skytrain on Wednesday – the Red Shirt guards had entered the Chidlom station overnight and piled tires on the platforms, threatening to dump them on the tracks in order to prevent troop movement by train – the government has stepped up security at key intersections and transit stations.  The Skytrain disruption lasted until 10 am, ruining the commutes of tens of thousands of Bangkok residents and putting the streets into chaos.

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The police and army have set up checkpoints in a wider circle around the main protest area, stretching back as far along Sukhumvit Road as the Asoke intersection.  This is three stations before the Chidlom station that was threatened by the Red Shirts.  There appear to be maybe 100 officers and soldiers at the Asoke intersection, but no active stopping and searching of vehicles.

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A half-dozen soldiers were posted on the overhead walkways that span the intersection and connect the Skytrain to the subway.  This is the first time I’ve ever seen this level of security.

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Down on the street there were a pair of water trucks along with a mobile fire fighting unit / water cannon.  These checkpoints and stationing of troops are probably in response to another incident this week in which about 2,000 of the Red Shirts decided to conduct a “tour” and head to a wet market in the north side of the city to reach out to residents and explain their side of the situation.  The army, tipped off, set up a blockade and engaged the protesters, who eventually retreated.  Unfortunately, one soldier was killed, apparently by friendly fire.

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One of the more interesting sights was this portable audio truck (beneath the pedestrian bridge) from which soldiers are broadcasting “information” (pro-government publicity) and patriotic songs.  I’m sure the guests at the Westin (to the right of this picture) and the Grand Sheraton (to the left) are really pleased about that.

The Skytrain is running shortened hours until only 8:00 pm each night.  Whether or not this will be resolved soon is anyone’s guess.  I get the impression that the government is taking a “wait and wear them down” approach, figuring that the tighter they close the access to the protest area, the harder it will be for the protesters to sustain their momentum.  Will it work?  Who knows? 

 

Denuded and Exposed

Last December I wrote about some of the changes happening to the landscape in the Thong Lor neighborhood of Krungthep (Bangkok), where Tawn and I live.  Most notably, for selfish reasons, is the demolishing of two houses adjacent to our condo.

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One Sunday morning last December laborers started demolishing the internal structure on this first house.  You can see our condo building – one of two U-shaped buildings that face each other around a swimming pool – in the background. 

Thankfully we live on the back side of the building from this picture so the noise and dust didn’t affect us all that directly.  But like any property owners, we were curious what was going on.  Was this adjacent property going to become a thirty-plus story monstrosity like the one to our southeast?

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A few days later, heavy equipment came in and the building, an old single-family home dating from the 1960s, was razed.  Once most of the rubble was carted away, everything was quiet for several weeks.  Then about a month ago they started the same process with another house in the property to the left of the one pictured above.

On behalf of the panicked residents, uncertain about what was going to be built just outside their balconies, the homeowner’s association pressured the juristic office to contact the Wattana District office.  The news came back that the properties are owned by an elderly woman who is building houses for her two sons.  There would be no large condos, just new single-family homes.  Of course there are plenty of examples on our street of “single family homes” that become extended family six-story apartments.

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Then two weeks ago, once again on a Sunday morning, the construction crews arrived and started cutting down all the trees and vegetation on the two, now one since the wall between them had been demolished, properties.  A few days later they also cut down two beautiful old trees that were at the back of their property, situated so that they provided a nice green backdrop for our pool area.

Last Sunday morning was the annual homeowner’s association meeting.  At the meeting, the head of the association, a Thai man about my age who lives in the mirror image condo from ours on the same floor, explained that he had personally contacted the homeowner and offered to compensate her for the trees so that they could remain standing.

She explained that her sons were going to build a pool and didn’t want to deal with the leaves falling into it.  Bleh.  How’s that for a lame excuse?  If you can afford to tear down old houses to build new ones, I think you can afford a pool boy.  They are inexpensive here.  (I keep suggesting we hire one but Tawn says no.  Ha ha… just kidding.  I mean just kidding about hiring one, not about Tawn saying no.)

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The view from our balcony now includes a clear view of the denuded property and the soi (alley) beyond.  There used to be two really beautiful trees that would put forth these large pink blooms twice a year.  I’m hoping they will plant some new landscaping but it could take a decade to get our verdant view back.

At this homeowner’s association meeting there were four vacancies for the committee.  Three people, including Tawn and a British expat who has lived here more than seven years, volunteered for the positions.  One of Tawn’s big issues is greenery – both aesthetically and also since it affects our property value – so I’m sure this will be an issue that gets addressed at the next committee meeting. 

Also, the British guy (John) and several other people have offered to help pitch in money to plant trees on our side of the property to replace the ones cut down.  We’ll see how that goes as the planter area is less than a meter wide, so I don’t think the large root ball of a tall tree could be accommodated.

Anyhow, we’re feeling more exposed these days, now that our neighboring land has been denuded.

 

Food in HK – Tea at the Intercontinental Hotel

As our trip to Hong Kong came to its conclusion, Tawn and I went to the Intercontinental Hotel on the Kowloon waterfront for afternoon tea.  With its panoramic view of the harbor, the Intercon offers a relaxing and refined way to spend your afternoon.  You end up feeling mighty sophisticated just because of the setting.

Located right along the Avenue of the Stars, a pedestrian walkway along the East Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront dedicated to the stars of Hong Kong cinema, the Intercon is a short walk from the MTR and Kowloon Railway stations.

In the background to the left is the venerable Peninsula Hotel and, next to it, the Sheraton.  The Peninsula is famed for its afternoon tea but, I’ve been told, is both pricey and filled with tourists.  The Intercon offers both the option of either a simple tea service or an extravagant one while offering a view the Peninsula doesn’t.  And maybe slightly fewer tourists, although I can’t tell for certain.

The view from just outside the Intercon, showing the Avenue of the Stars walkway.  This being a reasonably clear day, you can see Victoria Peak back behind the IFC Tower.

The lobby of the Intercon is spacious and bright although the carpet could use a refresh.  Service is very attentive and friendly, though, and I felt very at home.

There was a full tea service that offered sandwiches, pastries, and other snacks.  Since we had eaten only a few hours before and had a large dinner planned, we went for the simple scone and tea option.  The teas are from Mariage Frères, a venerable Parisian company that has been producing fine teas for over 150 years.  It is also the “house tea” at our Bangkok condo.  (Yeah, I know that sounds horribly pretentious!)  In fact, it is the brand of tea Tawn served when he had the opportunity to meet Martha Stewart a few months ago at a friend’s shop.

The silver tea service is heavy and functional, not at all dainty and elegant.  The scones are tasty and the clotted cream and jelly are generously served.  An extra pot of hot water sits on the table and the server stops by every so often to top off your cup.

Certainly a very relaxing and refined way to spend an hour in the afternoon and a nice way to complete our trip to Hong Kong.  I think I should take tea in hotels more often.  And isn’t Tawn adorable in this picture?  As we say in Thai, na-rak jang leuy!

That evening, we had dinner at Aqua, the Japanese Italian fusion restaurant that overlooks the Hong Kong harbor from the top floor of One Peking Road.  I didn’t provide a write-up on the restaurant for two reasons: first, it was a little too dark for food pictures even with my camera; second, our hosts were the brother and brother-in-law of the owner.  We received some special considerations so I’m not sure I could objectively evaluate the restaurant.  I will say that the view is spectacular and the food is very good so if you’re looking for a high end destination restaurant, it is worth considering.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the series on the Hong Kong eats.  In the next few days I’ll put them all on a Google map and share that with you, in case you want to reference them on a future visit to Hong Kong.  Thanks for all your comments and feedback on the entries.

Food in HK – Sift Patisserie

On our to-do list was a visit to the Hong Kong designer outlets.  Located in Ap Lei Chau, a little island on the south side of Hong Kong Island, most of the outlets are in a tall, nondescript building that for all purposes looks like an office building from the outside.  On each floor, though, are a handful of outlets for various name brands.

While Tawn did his shopping, I discovered the Sift Patisserie on the 22nd floor.  Quite coincidentally, after I started writing entries about this Hong Kong trip, Jack in Taiwan (now Toronto) suggested that I should go to Sift – a place I had already stumbled upon! 

Sift 1 Map

Location in the Horizon Plaza outlet building in Ap Lei Chau.

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Location in Wan Chai on Queen’s Road East.  There is also a dessert bar in Soho on Graham Street with a more extensive menu and wine, too.

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We were there just about opening time and I walked in to find a very cute but very empty space.  In fact, I waited for several minutes for someone to come out from the kitchen in back.  While waiting, I sat on a sofa and read a magazine, eliciting a surprised gasp when an employee finally came out of the kitchen and found me there.

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Cupcakes are all in trend right now, aren’t they?  It seems like they are, at least.  Generally, I am not a huge fan of cupcakes or cake in general because they are usually kind of dry even if they look pretty on the outside.

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I was pleasantly surprised to try their red velvet cupcake which was very moist and tasty and had a really nice dollop of cream cheese frosting.  While I’m always a little suspicious of red velvet – there is a LOT of red food coloring in there, after all, and I sense that artificial coloring probably isn’t that good for you – this was still a very enjoyable snack to accompany my latte.

To that end, Joanne over at “Week of Menus” created a “Not Red Velvet Cupcake” recipe that I’ve been meaning to try.  Entry here.

Speaking of things artificial, I noticed that Sift’s tag line on their website is “everything sifted, everything refined”.  While I get what meaning of “refined” they probably intended, my whole foods perspective made me cringe a bit at the word.  Refined foods are the ones we’re meant to avoid, right?  Anyhow, I’m sure they meant “fancy and luxurious” instead.

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I can tell that some thought went into their packaging design as the bags and boxes are very cute.  The rest of the sitting space wasn’t so interesting – white sofa and ottoman covered in fabric (bad choice when people will eat cupcakes on them!) and the walls were pretty scuffed up.  I get the impression that this location may be more of a production facility for them than an area focused on the retail side of operations.

 

Thailand Politics Explained – Somewhat

P1020435An article that appeared in the New Straits Times provides a pretty accurate and impartial summary of the current political situation in Thailand and what has led to it.  It is consistent with several points I made the other that were raised at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club’s panel discussion.

Thailand’s poor have decided that docility is a thing of the past. They are angry and frustrated by the status quo and are clamouring for change.

In other prosperous democracies, the middle class provides the glue that holds society together. In Thailand, by contrast, the bourgeoisie, centred in Bangkok, is barely emerging as a social and political force.

Instead, for a half-century, an unspoken social contract among four broad groups has held Thailand together…

Full story here

Food in HK – West Villa

The day after joining Chris and Tehlin and their children for a proper Cantonese dinner at Tsui Hang Village, Tawn and I met up with Tehlin and her son Sam for dim sum at West Villa, another Curry Puffy recommended restaurant.

West Villa Map

Located in the Lee Gardens Two building in Causeway Bay just a few minutes away from the Times Square shopping center, West Villa is a nicer quality dim sum restaurant.  What was interesting about it is that the food, while tasty, isn’t necessarily all that different (or better than) the cheap yet decadent dim sum at Tim Ho Wan.  Let’s take a look at the dishes we enjoyed.

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Chinese “donuts” wrapped in rice noodle skin.  These are unsweetened sticks of dough fried just like donuts.  They are often served (unwrapped) with rice porridge called jok.

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Chao fun – Rice noodles with shrimp inside with a sweetened soy sauce.  Similar in quality to what we had at Tim Ho Wan although I think the noodles were thicker and less delicate here.  Compare here.

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Deep fried spring rolls.  This dish and the next one illustrate the risks when eating dim sum of choosing dishes that leave you feeling heavy and full.

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Fried taro paste puffs.  Better than it sounds.

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The signature West Villa dish – char shu – barbecue pork.  These was really meaty and tender.  Great flavor.

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Tehlin and Sam.  Oh, wait!  What’s that outside the window?  Where did Tawn disappear to?!  Ha ha…

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Braised veggies, kind of like lettuce.  Very tasty.  The clay pot lends a wonderful smoky, slightly charred flavor.

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Steamed glutinous rice with pork and shitake mushroom in a lotus leaf.  Compare this to the version with large slices of pork served at Tim Ho Wan.

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Fried fish with a slightly salty and spicy batter.  Very light and not at all oily.

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Beef “meatballs” sometimes called Chinese hamburgers.

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Siu Mai– pork and shrimp dumplings.

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Fried pork spareribs with a sprinkling of a salt and white pepper.

Overall review: good quality dim sum with the barbecue pork and spareribs being the highlights.  Service was good although there was a fifteen-minute wait even though we had reservations.  This wasn’t necessarily the best food we had in Hong Kong but if you are in the area and are looking for good dim sum, West Villa would be a good choice.