A foreigner has had the audacity to open a Thai restaurant in Bangkok! Sacré bleu (or the Thai equivalent)!! Even worse, he’s claimed in a newspaper interview that Thai cuisine is “decaying” and that he wanted to “revive it”!!!

Who is this upstart? It’s Australian David Thompson, owner of the world’s first Michelin-starred Thai restaurant (Nahm) (there are only two) and author of what is possibly the best book on Thai food ever written.

Of course, he’s right. In the past, Thai cooks would spend hours pounding away with pestle and mortar to make exquisite, complex curry pastes. Many restaurant chefs nowadays wouldn’t know what to do with a pestle and mortar – they buy their curry pastes in tins and add food colouring to make the resulting dishes appetising. And rather than frying the pastes in cracked coconut cream, they use oil – a less demanding and faster technique.

And new dishes are taking over from the traditional. Som tam (green papaya salad) has evolved from the sour, chilli-laden dish of Isaan into a tamed down version for the sensitive Bangkok palate, with copious amounts of palm sugar and just a few chillis. But now it is being made with carrot and cucumber, in fact almost anything that can be cut into shreds. There are even places making it with strawberries, melon and pineapple.

Laap (a fiercely hot salad of barely cooked minced meat and ground toasted rice) is now rolled into balls and deep fried. Tom yam gung (hot/sour prawn soup) can now be ordered mixed with evaporated milk or “dry”. It’s also a popular flavour of crisp. Green curry can now be had as fried rice. Traditional noodles have been displaced by spaghetti and macaroni. And salmon is now available in every supermarket, ready to be made into salad, curry or soup.

So, what is authentic Thai cuisine? The short answer is that nobody knows. The written record is very short. Any records that may have existed at the end of the Ayutthaya period were destroyed or have become lost. The oldest recipes date back only to the end of the 19th century in the form of “funeral books” when the printing press arrived in Thailand. When someone prominent died it was common to collate their favourite recipes alongside a biography of the deceased and religious texts in the form of a book. This book was then distributed to the mourners at the funeral ceremony. These books a valuable resource for food historians. The fact, however, is that the history we have is brief and only relates the the food of high status individuals. We can only speculate as to when certain dishes arrived in Thailand or were created, and we have little idea what the ordinary people ate.

When I see frankfurters slowly turning on a grill in 7-eleven (convenience store), and the steamed buns which sit there for hours, and the plastic wrappers in the chiller cabinets containing equally plastic processed meats I despair. Does Thailand have a pride in its cuisine? Of course it does. But does it really do enough to support and maintain its culinary heritage? Perhaps a wake-up call from an Aussie upstart is just what’s needed.


Sukhumvit Road is the heart of the tourist area in Bangkok. Here there are shopping malls, five star hotels, restaurants and bars aplenty. The pavements, however, are virtually impassable, the uneven, broken paving home to hundreds of stalls selling everything from counterfeit T-shirt to counterfeit Viagra. I wonder whether there is even a single stall selling solely legal goods.

When I first came to Bangkok there were stalls selling pornography, but it was discrete. You’d be asked “want to buy a dirty movie?”, and if you showed interest you’d be shown a catalog. (Not, to be clear, that I ever did show an interest.) Subsequently the trade became more open, first with CD jackets with women showing their breasts. Then there were DVD covers showing couples making babies. And now you can see even more hard-core material: bestiality and child pornography, all on open display. You wonder why the police who patrol the area don’t do anything to stop this obscene trade.

Actually, you don’t wonder for too long: the stall holders pay a weekly fee to the local police officers for them to turn a blind eye. The police in this part of town are particularly corrupt. In Patpong, a seedy area famed for its night market and live sex shows, no such material is available; that district’s police uphold the legal ban on erectile dysfunction drugs, sex toys and pornography.

ChoeyIn an effort to bring a greater rule of law to Thailand the police have brought one officer out of retirement – an officer who has never solicited a bribe or been involved in a sex scandal. You might say Police Sergeant Choey is a model officer, and you’d be right. He’s made of plaster. The new Police Major General has decided to bring him back in the hope that the sight of a plaster officer will help deter crime. He’s to be joined by a new recruit, Police Sergeant Yim. Let’s hope this dynamic duo can clean up the mean streets of Bangkok.


weeping angelA few weeks ago something resembling a small oil derrick appeared on the vacant plot of land adjacent to my house where the next phase of the moobaan is to be built. Realising that it was unlikely that they’d be drilling for oil in Bangkok I surmised the contraption was a pile-driver. A few days later, when the pounding started, I was proven right. Over the next few days, every time I looked up, the “derrick” was closer. I never saw it move, just its inexorable approach. I was reminded of nothing so much as a weeping angel.

(Weeping angels, which resemble stone angel statues from a Victorian cemetery, are malevolent beings which feed off the potential time energy of their victims. They turn to stone when observed, but move swiftly when not looked at. They featured in a recent docudrama, Doctor Who.)

CybermenPersonally, I’m not a great fan of the Doctor Who revival, though the episode “Blink” featuring the weeping angels was quite exceptional; trying to put a story into a single episode doesn’t allow for the same development and complexity of the older series. Yesterday I watched “Revenge of the Cybermen”, a four-parter from 1975 with Tom Baker as the Doctor. 35 years on and it’s still captivating. Has any other programme from this era survived so well? This was surely the golden age of Doctor Who.

(Note to self: move sofa three feet forward to provide space to hide.)


It’s been raining almost non-stop for the last five days, the result of Typhoon Megi. In Isaan the flooding has been the worst for half a century. The Bangkok Post had some striking pictures:

Soldiers carry an elderly man to safety.
Old person being rescued

A man stands, waiting by the coffin containing his late wife.
Coffin on a boat

A boy tries to salvage a few belongings from his house.
Boy salvages belongings

A hospital car park in Korat.
Flooded hospital car park
The hospital itself is also flooded.

Amidst the flooding the traffic police still find time to write a ticket.
Samlor in flood

In Vietnam the situation is even worse. There’s a heart-rending tale in today’s paper about a woman who trod water for more than three hours clutching her 15 year old son as she was swept down river. Eventually she became exhausted and she let go …

The rains are expected to continue for a few more days and Bangkok is bracing itself for widespread inundation.


The tuk-tuk, that noisy, three-wheeled, motorised rickshaw, so iconic of Thailand. But it’s not Thai – it’s Japanese. The original tuk-tuk was invented by Daihatsu. Some were imported into Thailand for use in Ayutthaya. Pretty soon the Thais were making their own copies. So the tuk-tuk isn’t really Thai, just affectionately adopted. In fact, there are many things that we think of as Thai, but really aren’t.

What about Thai food? Perhaps green curry? Sadly, not. The curry includes chillies, introduced into Thailand by the Portugese from South America, probably in the 17th century, and the aubergines in it are native to India, though probably spread throughout south east Asia in prehistory. Peppercorns (which were used to make food spicy before the introduction of chillies) also originated in India, but again, probably arrived in Thailand in prehistory.

Other ingredients which are recent arrivals include potatoes and peanuts and capsicums and cucumber. These are all from South America and were introduced during the Ayutthaya period. Oyster sauce (invented in China in the 1800s) is an even more recent addition to Thai cuisine.

Even the techniques of Thai cooking have also been heavily influenced by other countries. Stir-frying and deep fat frying were both introduced by the Chinese, whilst techniques for making cakes and sweetmeats such as “Golden Threads” (beaten duck egg drizzled into boiling syrup) came from the Portugese.

In short, there are very few Thai dishes eaten today which predate the Ayutthaya period.

The impenetrable Thai language, that must be Thai, right? Not really. There have been massive borrowings of vocabulary from Sanskrit, Pali, Khmer and (more recently) English. The pronunciation of the words may have changed to fit the Thai tongue, but the original spellings are fossilised in the written language.

What about Thailand’s festivals such as Loi Krathong (when banana leaf cups bearing a candle and other objects are symbolically lowered into water, marking the end of the year and a new beginning) and Songkran (when much water is splashed about)? Not Thai. They both come from Indian Brahman practice. The annual Royal Ploughing ceremony, where the King (or his representative) ploughs the Royal Field and plants rice to ensure a prosperous harvest is also Brahman in origin and, even today, is attended by Brahman priests. And in the area of religion, the Emerald Buddha (or Phraphutthamahamanirattanapatimakorn as it is more rightly called), which is the most highly revered Buddhist symbol in Thailand, isn’t even Thai. It was possibly made in Patna, India a little over two thousand years ago, and since then has done a grand tour of south east Asia, including Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. It’s only been permanently in Thailand since 1779.

Thai dancing? Introduced into Thailand when Angkor Wat (Cambodia) was seized and the temple dancers brought to Thailand.

And finally, what of the Thai people? Surely they are Thai? Well, if we go back two millennia, the land was occupied by Mon (from modern day Burma) and Khmer (from modern day Cambodia) villages. The Tais originated in Yunnan province and didn’t make it to Thailand until around 960 CE. For centuries the three groups lived parallel lives, each in its own villages. However, over time, the groups mixed and interbred. Later (about 100 years ago) there was further, large scale migration from China but this time with the immigrants being mostly Teowchiu, with smaller numbers of Hakka and Hainanese. Today around 15% of the people of Thailand consider themselves Thai-Chinese.

So, when it comes “quintessentially Thai” things are not always what they seem.


A few days ago I was in central Bangkok for a bit of shopping and as I exited Siam Paragon I noticed a long, long queue snaking out of the department store, onto the street where it doubled back on itself twice, constrained by barriers and then trailing as far as I could see. Hundreds and hundreds of people patiently waiting – but what could they be waiting for? Tickets for a movie premier or some sporting event? To catch a glimpse of some celebrity? No. They were queueing to buy doughnuts.

A new store had opened a few days ago – a Krispy Kreme. (KK’s an American purveyor of doughnuts – or perhaps I should write “donuts” – of extraordinarily high calorific value.)

Such mania will quickly die down. There was a similar palaver when a Singaporean bun shop opened in Bangkok a couple of years ago.

That said, the Thailand Krispy Kreme franchisee (the daughter of a very wealthy family) did a pretty good job of publicising the launch, with loads of coverage in the newspapers, magazines, on the radio (and possibly on TV, but I rarely watch Thai TV).

I must confess that a few months after the launch of Krispy Kreme in the UK I did try one of their offerings – I was a tad curious after all the media hype. The doughnut was vile, sickly sweet – almost as bad as a cupcake. They probably don’t say “life’s too short to glaze a doughnut”. I don’t know about that, but my life will never be so long that I will ever want to eat another Krispy Kreme.