Saturday, December 29, 2007

Smokey Joe's Cafe (aka My Little Town

It's about 5.30pm on any night and I'm camped at and sipping whatever on a faux marble and stone bench and cramped table outside the mom and (no pop in sight) corner store next to my rooming house. The sun is plunging quickly on the radioactive green foothills outside Hua Hin; a temporary tapestry of (I'm color blind, don't trust me on this lyrical, colorful description) yellows, oranges, blues, azure, turquoise that bleed together as night also sets in making my heart bleed for a moment. I can hear the waves crashing on the stone jetties a block just to the east. The store's owner, a 30ish but looks younger woman who kinda reminds me of a younger Thai Miss Kitty from the ancient TV western Gunsmoke, keeps the customers satisfied. Watch her walk. A snake shake that won't let go and snappy advice if you need it.

Beers, pop, chips, squid, sugar, salt, sardines, halibut, energy drinks (ramped-up Thai versions of Red Bull) the occasional women's-only product, water, general juju, advice etc. all overseen by her mother in law - a hulking elderly and stoic soul - flow faster than the sun is setting.

Outside the guy I call "Che Guevera Barbcue" is setting up shop with his portable barbcue stand (a 150 cc Suzuki motorbike welded to a charcoal burning pit and meat rack - Thailand may be the only place in the world where you can get hit and killed by a diner while crossing the road) in his black and white muscle shirt.

Though tonight it's not Che on chest display, but 1992 era Guns and Roses. Che Barbecue is in excellent shape for someone aged late 30s in tight, always-pressed faded blue jeans and an array of well-fitting wife beater t-shirts - all black and white advertising sorta, kinda mostly hip at some time or another - rock, pop and cultural icons.

School's letting out and the kids are crowding in now. I'm suddenly back in Boulder, Colorado after a day at Uni Hill Elementary grubbing like a savage for Almond Joys and pop, Snickers perhaps too, and a glimpse at Playboy at the Country Store just a few blocks down from Mrs Pollard's 6th grade classroom. No Playboys here, but candy, pop and conversation - more than any clerk at the Country Store was ever able or willing to make (and who can blame them?) - at Hua Hin's Corner Store.

Some kids arrive on scooters, others in BMWs and some in lesser SUVs. And a few on foot or bike. Miss Kitty serves them all quickly and fairly, and I am happy to see she ignores the BMW asswad who has parked outside honking incessantly for car delivery although she is quick on the run for the local cop also who wants energy drink takeaway and make-it-fast. All politics is local and her mother in law keeps a running commentary to keep her and the customer bigwigws in line and satisfied.

For a brief moment I'm content and at peace in my little town.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Empty Glass
Thailand - self proclaimed "Land of Smiles" (and military coups)- has made it hard recently to quaff a cocktail. Last weekend was "early voting" for Thai citizens unable to trek back to their home villages to vote (voting is mandatory here) for the main polls on Dec 23. While bars and liquor stores are traditionally closed on election day in many areas of the United States, Thailand took the concept further and banned alcohol completely beginning from 6pm Friday through Sunday.

It's the height of tourist season and the prohibition was announced with less than a week's notice. I was at a Bangkok restaurant with a former colleague on Friday afternoon discussing the keen wisdom and foresight it takes for a country which relies so heavily on the tourist trade to ensure that no inebriated foreigners would vote or otherwise sully what I am sure will be a fair and completely transparent election process. In fact, one of my Thai coworkers had already told me that she thought the amount of money she and her family have been strongly urged to accept to vote for a particular party was "very fair" and would not dissuade her from voting for that group.

Normally packed farang haunts such as Soi Cowboy were shuttered. Of course, Thai bar owners and employees - of which Bangkok alone has perhaps hundreds of thousands - also suffer from the ban having effectively been given two weekends off without pay.

Oh, wait. Of course, resident foreigners can't vote in Thailand. They can own property, but not the land on which it rests. They can open a Thai savings account but not a checking account and cannot obtain a loan or credit card from a Thai bank. They also have the privilege of paying, say, as much as 400 baht (US$13) to enter a national park/forest while their Thai companions - or spouses - might fork over a mere 40 baht ($1.30) or less.

"So..." my Canadian companion-with-a-Thai-wife sighed as we chugged the last of our Singhas at 5.58pm under the worried scrutiny of a harried waitress and watched a European group of tourists express dismay and disgust that they could not have wine with their dinner - "Why couldn't the government, say, just ban alcohol for Thais during voting? If they can discriminate against me at a national park, why can't they discriminate for me on an election weekend? And make some money in the process?"

Meanwhile, one of the vino-deprived Europeans was shouting, "What eeezee theeze? We are in Mormon-Bush USA? Not I think Thailand?"

We Norte Americanos laughed darkly. And my Canadian buddy had a Plan B, short of a foreign-generated counter-coup to dislodge the prohibition-minded generals. Thailand, of course, is erratic when it comes to enforcement and we made our way to a less traveled, older bar and restaurant area where we found one small pub open in which the half dozen or so foreigners were sipping furtively from large brown ceramic coffee mugs - the kind last served up by wise-cracking waitresses named "Flo" or "Lois" in mythic diners along Route 66.

"We'll have two of your 'special' coffees," he told the bar tender, no Flo, but a young Thai woman named "Tai" - "one high octaine Singha and a Jack black 'java' on ice for my friend." We sipped from the mugs and watched an older black American singer and keyboard player perform some vintage R&B standards. He was nursing a cold as well as his own "coffee" but managed to put down some wonderful renditions, including a credible version of all the voices - from tenor to bass - for the Temptations' Papa was a Rolling Stone.

I asked him if he took requests. "Sure," he said. "If I've got it." He patted his computer where he'd downloaded his backing tracks.

"How about some more Temps?" I asked. "Maybe Ball of Confusion and dedicate it to the Thai election commission?" He laughed and raised his coffee mug to me.

"You got it."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

See Emily Play

It's almost mid-December and it was only a few days ago when I saw a Christmas tree in a golf course promotion store and a bar girls wearing little red and white Santa caps with flashing LED lights that I realized Christmas was fast approaching. Unlike China - where Christmas is not celebrated but is becoming a sort of secularized cultural mishmash - it's hard to pick up any sense of the season in Hua Hin.

I have yet to hear a carol or pop holiday song, unlike Shenzhen where even in my virtually all-Chinese neighborhoods it wasn't uncommon to hear the maddeningly repeated strains of the barking dogs Jingle Bells,, Little Drummer Boy and - yes, even Mamacita, donde esta Santa Claus blaring in grocery stores. Actually, it's kind of nice, though I confess I'll be eventually breaking out a couple Christmas compilations sent to me while in SZ.

The press to buy presents, I don't miss - still waking up with nighsweats from 15 years ago, circa Dec 23, 1992 with no idea how I'll be able to find a specific model Michaelangelo Mutant Teenage Ninja Turtle for my son ... It was like planning guerrilla warfare conferring with other harried parents: "I've heard the Thornton Wal-Mart is expecting a shipment at 2.15 am..." "Or maybe it's the Castle Rock Toys R Us at 5.37 am?..." No. Please. Stop. No more.

Which had me musing this weekend while sipping a (hard to find) ginger ail on a street corner and watching two Thai boys in spiffy Spiderman wear. Ages 5 and 7 or so, I imagine and apparently the sons or grandsons of a clutch of motorcycle taxi drivers who were lazing away the day also between occasional fares.

The strains of a vaguely familiar song courtesy of a small, amateur makeshift marching band came down the street leading to the beach. No, not a holiday song but one of the most strained renditions of Girl from Ipanema I've ever heard drew everyone's attention. Behind the band fetching young Thai women were distributing real estate development leaflets and cheap paper fans to anyone within grasp and the taxi drivers took a bunch, stared uncomprehendingly at the English print before tossing the leaflets and keeping the fans.

The boys, however, were entranced by the leaflets. The smaller one sat on a curb and paged through it - pointing to homes he'll probably never own and babbling to his older brother and taxi drivers who nodded. The older one began rolling his into a cone to make a trumpet and telescope, alternately shouting through it and peering. Then it wa a sword to attack his younger brother who went from browsing for beach front property to defending himself. Their play went on for close to an hour. Perfectly happy with a couple pieces of colorful paper that bent for whatever fantasy they had.

After one "shot" me, I slumped and died in my chair before reviving and gently reaching for it. A paper airplane was one thing they couldn't make and mine was no beauty but they called for a second. Air wars and test flights followed. Would that a Ninja Turtle or TMX Elmo or Transformers Movie Leader Megatron. provide that much fun for so long for any American child ... Which gave me an idea.

I lunged at the tykes growling and swearing, tore up their papers and laughed. "HA!" I screamed as they and their taxi village protectors looked on in shock. "You're too damn imaginative you little soi urchins!" I dug into my pocket and threw a wad of baht at them - "Go!" I screamed. "TAKE THIS and get thee an X-Box 360 Platinum System and a FurReal Friends Squawkers Mcaw Parrot or a WowWee Robotics RoboPanda!
- if you can find any!...Haahahahah..."

Merry holidaze from Hua Hin.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Born to be Mild

I was dropping off my laundry across the street from where I'm living now - and having some quiet fun watching the owner's small dog making friendly play with her other pet, a kitten - when I heard the familiar sound of Harley rolling thunder behind me. Turning around I was facing two scruffy Thai bikers - members of the Ratchaburi Dragon Jars according to the colors on their leather vests - clutching bags of dirty laundry. Even bikers need clean skivvies, I thought, as they waied polite greetings to the laundress and rumbled away.

I'd forgotten that Hua Hin is hosting a biker fest ("Hua HIn Bike Week 2007") this weekend, kind of a mini-Sturgis minus the wet T-shirt contests and mayhem, but as Saturday night approached more and more largely Thai chopper clubs were clogging bars and streets with their chrome horses. Nagas, Bangbung Riders, Fly Turtle, Black Burapa, Flying Skulls, Jesters, Jikko, Black Devils, Little Devils, Devil Dragons, Dragon Way, Prachuap Riders - a gathering of the Thai chopper tribes. Harleys, I discovered after talking to a Thai member of Chopper Ubon while watching a band do the worst version of Born to Be Wild (no guitar sound, only bass, drums and strained vocals) I'd ever heard, were scarce in Thailand until the '90s. Biker clubs were virtually unknown. Originally most choppers had come in from Singapore and ridden by foreign oil workers up north, "Crazy Dog" told me, until the first Harley dealership opened in Bangkok in 1995.

"It doesn't matter who you are where you are what your job is, you're all equal when you get on your bikes," another biker, a Finn who called himself "Mingo" told me while sucking on a 32 ounce Singha as the band began to happily massacre Metallica's Enter Sandman. "Harleys aren't exactly built for the roads in Thailand so it gets interesting, you know...It a machine we all love. It's a very strange kind of machine, you don't want to abandon it - it is clumsy, loud and very heavy. And the ladies love it."

Just how sedate this whole scene really is pretty much summed up on Schedule of Events.

3.15 - 5pm: Motorcycle safety parade with headlights and helmets.
5.15-6.15pm: Games. (As noted before, did not apparently include wet T-shirt contests, tequila shot contests or urinating on newbie club members. Maybe a heady round of Pin the Tail on the Rice Burner Suzuki?)
8.15-9.15pm: Grand Opening. Provide scholarships for students in need.
9.30-12pm: Music Show.
Midnight: Sing the "Sun Sern Phra Ba Ra Me" song to show respect for the king.

Get your motors running...