Nepali Times
Here And There
(Bio)Degraded in Bangkok


A few days in Bangkok and feeling very much the country cousin, I've been marvelling at the various temptations presented by vast consumer choice. In the mega-malls of this mega-town, there's much to make the jaw drop open in amazement. For example, did you know that the latest thing amongst the au fait of Krung Thep (what Thais and firangs in the know call this place) is rough wooden furniture that was probably rejected from the set of Little House on the Prairie. I mean it. Amidst the designer toilet paper and French porcelain fountain pens that line the shelves at the Central department store on Ploenchit Road, you enter an earlier, cruder age in the home furnishings department. Looking for all the world like bolted together log piles of sawmill offcuts and weather-beaten picnic benches, you spot them at first because of the crowd of breathless Thai homemakers hovering around.

Okay, it turns out that they're actually there because a local politician is making the rounds. He's probably there thanking people for the result of last week's general election, for booting out a perfectly good government and installing what's bound to be the sort of coalition that would make Israel look stable. He's got a few goons with him, and photographers, hence the attention. But the ladies out for their Sunday shop soon start running speculative fingers down bits of log, flaking off the bark and getting impossibly painful splinters. Hey, the sales person assures them, it's the latest thing. I personally watched two full living room suites of this hideous muck get bought, despite those splinters and the clear discomfort of families trying out the couch-a steal at $400! The best thing that can be said about this furniture is that it is truly biodegradable. In fact, it's already so biodegraded that tropical plants, burrowing insects and questionable reptiles are thriving in the countless cracks and crevasses of the well-rotted wood.

Another thing, Indian glass seems to be popular here too. This is an area where I am somewhat of a self-appointed expert. In various exotic places and hellholes that occupied my time, I have usually bought a few pieces of the local glassware. A lot of that is Indian glass-the same sort that the Thais are buying. It has two attributes. It's nice, and it's cheap-made by Muslim artisans (and their children) in a town near Agra. But wait, how much are the good folk of Bangkok paying for this stuff? Well, I bought my best pieces for around 10 cents each, but here the smoky amber vase or the artfully spiral-cracked bowl costs close to 50 bucks! And then there are the Sri Lankan candles and high-end handicrafts on sale from vendors' carts everywhere, again commanding huge premiums over what the village folk labouring in Colombo factories could ever hope to receive.

The food shops of this town are something to marvel at too. Here, in Asia's other great nation that's never, ever been colonised, the supermarkets brim with Japan's imperial cuisine. Apologies to Japanese friends, but I've never been able to see the point of eating raw fish, or plain vegetables cut into shapes too lovely to chew. But the sushi counters in Thailand are doing a roaring trade. Perhaps it tastes better on a splintery, log bench with rusty iron bolts to balance the seaweed wraps.

Last stop, Asia Books, the country's top chain. Oh dear. I didn't know Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum or Jeffrey Archer had such transcontinental appeal. And like Indians, the Thais seem to devour the worst sorts of western self-help and pop psychology-the kind disguised as the secrets of the world's great managers. Given that those managers seem to have managed to steer a booming global economy into an as yet inexplicable recession, the appeal of their thoughts on anything but rough-hewn furniture seems to be of little interest and even less validity.

So after weeks abroad, it's back to the real world of Kathmandu, bandhs, Hrithik Roshan riots and all. Sometimes you have to go away to really appreciate what you've got at home. It's good to be back.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)