Hot : The Sun :: Spicy : _____

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a helpful note differentiating “hot” from “spicy.” Fire is hot, as are bunsen burners, the surfaces of stars and the gates of hell. Spicy on the other hand, says Noah Webster, more aptly refers to “Thai food.” He’s not wrong. The Thais take their spice seriously: no dish is complete without a few peppers chopped, mashed, or minced, and no table is properly set without a dish of pepper flakes for added heat. When Thais go out for Japanese food, wasabi is not stirred into the soy sauce; rather, a dash of soy sauce is stirred into the wasabi.

As painfully conscientious and accommodating hosts, the Thais are acutely aware that the Western palate can’t typically keep up; more than once I’ve been regretfully informed that there’s nothing on the menu weak enough for me. I of course insist, and sometimes have to do battle– all but sign a waiver– just to get my dishes normally spiced. Because, damn, it’s delicious.

Now, I’m not particularly passionate about spicy food.  Hot sauces give me more pain than pleasure, and I was never the kid munching on Hot Fries just to prove he could. Ordering wings? Great, I’ll have the mild, double blue cheese, double ranch. Call it cowardice, call it what you will, it just ain’t my jam.

Thai spice is different. It still hurts– it definitely still hurts, and makes your nose run and your eyes water– but it’s used so artfully, and the spice is so much more flavorful than vinegary Tabasco… it’s kind of worth it. Every bite of a cashew chicken stir fry scorched my face off recently, but I couldn’t stop eating it, and when I came out the other side, I emerged not just stronger but fat and happy, too. Over the past six months, I’ve adjusted to it somewhat, and it was with a degree of satisfaction that I recently watched a visiting American colleague cry into his papaya salad while I munched happily away.

Now and then, though, things get a little intense for even the Thais themselves. At lunch, I watched my friendly coworker Sai frantically wave her hands, trying to get a breeze going in her mouth after a too-aggressive bite of a five-alarm green bean and shrimp paste salad. Another time at dinner, a more stalwart friend swallowed a bite of spiced crab, shot a wide-eyed look of betrayal at the waiter, and then conversation fell silent for a few minutes as he gazed off somewhere in the middle distance, a look on his face as though recalling a cruel memory, tears streaming down his face.

Of course, it’s not all flame and fireworks. If, sometime after next week, you ask me, “So, Sam, gosh, I’m sure a million people have already asked you this, but, shoot, how was Thailand?” I will almost certainly blurt out something weirdly desperate-sounding about craving the 90 cent bowls of chicken soup, or the duck noodles, or the minced pork, fried pork, grilled pork, delicious pork. The Thais take their food seriously, and for that, I am thankful:

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The Thais Have Always Been United

Each day at 6pm, life pauses momentarily in the Kingdom of Thailand. As I sit in Kamphaeng Phet’s bustling night market, enjoying my daily bowl of noodles, machetes fly, chopping pork, plates of rice hit the steel tables, people squeeze past each other in the narrow lanes between stalls, and the vendors chatter with their regular customers as they ladle curries green and brown into plastic bags. At six o’clock sharp, out of otherwise undetectable speakers, a burly voice makes a brief, brusque announcement, and then, marking the end of another day in the Kingdom, the Thai national anthem begins.

The commotion halts and it’s as though someone pressed pause on the market’s activity. The customers stop their perusal and stand still, the cooks stop serving up dishes. The volume drops and the soaring chorus of the anthem fills the lull.  There’s nothing weird or oppressive about it: nobody sitting stands up, nobody bursts into song; the man at the grill keeps turning his squid, and conversations continue in quiet tones. And it helps that the song itself is merciful: a brief 45 seconds of stirring patriotic ardor, and then it’s over, and everything starts moving and making noise again.

The TV stations all take this 6pm pause, too, and before any movie is shown in a cinema, the audience stands to hear the anthem. When I’m in Bangkok on a Sunday afternoon, I’ll regularly make my way to a Thai army base, where the military is so generous as to let a group of foreigners play frisbee on their playing fields. At 6pm sharp, though, the game comes to an abrupt halt, the flag is lowered, the anthem is played, and only when it’s all over does everyone start running again while the officers fold the flag.

It’s a nice observance, I find. I’m not sure I’d want to listen to the endless, maudlin Star Spangled Banner every evening, but I appreciate the momentary pause Thais take each evening to reflect on the great good fortune to be born a Thai. Though I can’t help but wonder if, while they’re at it, they’re also delivering a coded threat to people like me, right there in the lyrics:

Every inch of Thailand belongs to the Thais.
It has long maintained its sovereignty,
Because the Thais have always been united.
The Thai people are peace-loving, But they are no cowards at war.
Nor shall they suffer tyranny.
All Thais are ready to give up every drop of blood
For the nation’s safety, freedom and progress.

Burma Hop

My Thai visa was set to expire on Saturday, so I set out from Kamphaeng Phet, boarding the morning bus to Mae Sot. The Moei river divides Mae Sot, Thailand from Myawaddy, Myanmar, and by crossing the Friendship Bridge and coming back again, I’d get a fresh 15 days stamped in my passport.  Seemed like a prime deal, so off I went, expecting to be home that afternoon.  (A three-hour tour, a three-hour tour…)

One bus ride and one bowl of noodles later, I was riding the back of a motorbike, eyes squinting into the raindrops smattering my face, a satisfied grimace curled on my lips: I was going to one of the most repressive countries on earth, a country (relatively) few curious foreign eyes have seen since the junta took over in 1962: exotic Burma. The bike pulled up to the iron gates, and I strode to the immigration booth. A window snapped open and a woman’s head popped out in a military cap. “Help you, sir?”

Thanks, don't mind if I do.

“I’m going over there,” I pointed at Burma, like Napoleon at Russia.

“Sorry sir, border closed.”

“Pardon me?”

“No cross! Border closed one year.”

“Wait. What? Why?”

In her turn, she pointed across the river: “Over there, is a war.”

Well. Fair enough. Continue reading “Burma Hop”

Politics & Internet Freedom in Thailand

This is following up on (and only somewhat redundant to) an earlier post that went up in advance of the Thai election. This was originally posted at NDN.org.

Thai ElectionAs you might have heard, there was an election here last weekend, and it was truly a watershed transition in the political history of this country. A bit of history: Five years ago, Thaksin Shinawatra was tossed from the Prime Minister’s office by a military coup. Thaksin had been elected in 2001, and reelected (a first in Thai history) in 2005 riding a populist wave of support from the poor, rural majority of Thailand. He was widely disliked, however, by the established elite of the country– the upper and middle classes, the courts the “Privy Council” that surrounds and advises the monarchy, and the military, who saw to his removal.

After the coup, the military ruled for over a year, until another election in early 2008, which yielded victory for another member of Thaksin’s political party. He served for the better part of a year, before the constitutional court removed him from office on account of hosting a cooking show on TV while serving as Prime Minister. He was replaced by Thaksin’s brother-in-law, who lasted two months before another court ruling sent him packing, and in stepped Abhisit Vejjajiva, a member of the opposition party, who served as Prime Minister until last week. Continue reading “Politics & Internet Freedom in Thailand”

New Town, New Faces

I left the Philippines on Friday five kilos heavier (pork, mostly), one cell phone lighter (sticky-fingered cab driver, probably), and so much the better for a quorum of new friends in Cebu, many of them my colleagues in the fight against dengue fever.

I’m in Bangkok this week, and let me tell you, this city is enormous and the food here is really delicious. Yesterday was the “pre-election day” — one week out from the July 3 poll, those citizens with good cause can cast their vote early.  Over two million people showed up, suggesting very heavy turnout to come on Sunday. Interestingly (at least, interesting to those deleteriously affected, such as myself), the sale of all alcoholic beverages is forbidden on pre-election day, presumably to prevent erroneous ballot-casting. The finer hotels in town to go great lengths to ensure that minibars remain fully stocked; I stuck to some orange drink for the day. (It’s just as well… on a hot evening, a malty Chang Beer can’t compete with a crisp and refreshing San Miguel Pale Pilsen– the choice of the Philippines.)

Here are a few of the characters I met during my first weekend in Bangkok:

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