A badge as worn by the staff at what is quite possibly the world’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken staffed entirely by the deaf, at the Times Square mall on Sukhumvit.
A badge as worn by the staff at what is quite possibly the world’s first Kentucky Fried Chicken staffed entirely by the deaf, at the Times Square mall on Sukhumvit.
Bangkok has a new attraction: Asia’s largest collection of Batman memorabilia – in fact, 50 thousand pieces of it – as well as Godzillas, Spidermans, Astroboys and other comic book characters, housed in the strangely-named Batcat Museum. The museum is located in the suburbs near Ramkamhaeng quite a distance from the city centre, but accessible fairly directly via the Khlong Saen Saep canalboat (above) to the Mall shopping complex in Bangkapi. Its a ten minute walk from there.
When I went though, the collection was sadly closed, although luckily I was still able to admire the murals by prominent Thai street artist Alexface on the building’s exterior.
In my book, Bangkok Off the Grid, I talked about the district of Washington Square as “living on borrowed time”. The insular and shabby little bar cluster is (was) tucked right behind Sukhumvit’s main drag on a dead-end street but it seemed to belong to a different Bangkok entirely . Washington Square was a timewarp stuck in the Vietnam-era. It consisted of honky tonk bars for American old timers, haunted by CIA agents, “bargirls” who had seen better days and burnouts from ‘Nam as well as, surreally, the Iranian embassy. When I first stumbled into this shadowy neighbourhood I was amazed and intrigued. But I also wondered how much longer it could last – on such a prime piece of real estate, literally in the shadow of the area’s newer glitzy towers.
Well, now I know. It couldn’t. I was only half-surprised, but still a little sad, to see that my article on the district was a swan-song. It has now disappeared. The bulldozers have moved in to tear down the bars and poky little apartment blocks – no doubt a shining new mall or tower is due to go up in their place soon.
Meanwhile, squatters (perhaps construction workers) have moved into some of the old shops amid the smashed-in bars and fields of rubble. I stumbled on to an overgrown shrine in one corner, stalked by feral cats and chirping flocks of sparrows and as the sun sank over the ruins, the hotel directly behind the district lit up with flashing strobe lights -something I had never noticed before, blocked as it was by the shadow of Washington Square.
There is no shortage of things to see and do in Chiang Mai – famous and impressive temples and busy street markets (see below), numerous museums, dinner cruises on the Ping river, a popular modern zoo complete with pandas and another, nocturnal zoo called the Night Safari, (which was subject to an international controversy when it opened boasting that every species seen in the park was available to eat at its restaurant . This policy was quickly rescinded after the ensuing outcry from conservationists.)
But as happens so often, it was the quirky less-publicised attractions that I enjoyed the most.
In a shady shed-like building in the gardens of Wat Ket Karam, Daisuke and I found ourselves the sole visitors to a dusty museum collection of elephant bones, swords, tattered old Thai flags and – most surprisingly – photographs of old time executions in Chiang Mai’s city square. I had read there was also a cabinet labelled simply ‘magical objects’ but this we could not find – although we did stumble on a cache of more than a dozen dusty word processors. The temple itself was lovely with ornately carved, glass covered facades and yet unlike the more publicised attractions, there was hardly anyone there.
We also stumbled on this incredible collection of insects and geological samples, displayed alongside hippyish brightly coloured artwords of humans and insects (and elephants and dinosaurs) all living together in harmony. Placards expained the founder’s fascination with insects – especially mosquitoes – since contracting malaria as a child and pleaded for human respect and sympathy for our six-legged companions on the planet.
My favourite piece was a piece of wood which has been carved by termites (a sign claimed) into a replica of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’.
Daisuke and I noticed this intriguing building while riding in a tuk-tuk on the ring road around the old city moat near the Centralplaza shopping centre- what was it? We went back to find out. The building looked like a set from a horror movie, guarded by grimy snarling lions at its grafitti-covered entrance, with stained glass windows illuminating a dim, dirty-looking lobby. Apparently we were not the first sightseers made curious – there were signs everywhere saying “no entry for tourist”.
Luckily enough though, the creepy building stands directly opposite one of the better-preserved parts of the old city wall, so clambering about on the turrets I was able to get some pictures of the bizarre bas-reliefs covering the building’s sides.
Taipei’s night markets are one of its trademarks – brightly lit and crowded, with cheap belts and Tshirts, fresh fruit and frying food. The mother of them all is Shilin, a clogged-up, buzzing district packed with shoppers and occasional touches of the bizarre – I saw a man driving through the pressing crowds with a parrot perched jauntily on the handlebars of his motorbike, a shop selling penis-shaped sweets called “gaykes”, snakes, stalls for pigs blood cakes and frogs eggs desserts and a massage shop bizarrely titled “Museum of Alien Studies” offering ‘alien knife massages’.
My favourite thing though was the children crowded around garishly-lit fairground games like balloon darts or scooping goldfish out of plastic tubs. Many of the activities they were engaged in seemed wildly age-inappropriate. At one stall children were learning to gamble with mahjong tiles, while at the next they played with plastic mugs of fake beer. A few steps from that, stalls buzzed and banged with all manner of guns and bows and arrows before the piece de resistance of a small girl reaching for a bright blue bong in a ‘smoking paraphenalia’ store.
Discovering Sao Paulo is an interesting expat blog I have just discovered. It details all kinds of quirky facts about South America’s biggest and baddest concrete jungle, a strange mutant metropolis that is constantly evolving in alarming and unexpected ways. The blog is a must for Paulista-philes (like me) with everything from pictures of the city’s riotous street art to reports of alien sounds emanating from UFOs over the city, a visit to a ballet school for the blind ( very “Sao Paulo” in its incorporation of two seemingly random elements) and a discussion of the notoriously violent city’s crime rates – and their recent spectacular improvement; the city’s murder rate is the purple line. Rudolph Giuliani, eat your heart out.
Plus there are amazing only-in-Sampa scenes like this – surfing through the inner city streets (in this landlocked metropolis) after flooding from a recent tropical storm.
The restaurant is actually called “Robot Restaurant”, in Kabukicho. A dinner and ‘show’ costs 4000 yen.
For Bangkok’s “robot restaurant” see here.
The Thai capital continues its evolution as a cultural centre with the opening of two new museums this month. Between them they sum up perfectly the Catholic tastes of the city: mixing refined high culture and the low brow with zesty abandon. The Museum of Floral Culture near the royal district of Dusit showcases the work of Thai celebrity florist Sakul Intakul, as well as the traditions of flower arranging, many stemming from religion, found throughout Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile the oddly named “Batcat Museum” in the Bang Kapi outer suburbs, rejoices in Asia’s largest collection of Batman memorabilia. I love it.
Just a ten minute walk from JAM! through the winding backstreets of a Chinese-Muslim-Thai neighbourhood sits one of the city’s most bizarre public parks. It is the former Tiajew Chinese cemetery, now converted into a public recreation space – but the graves have not been removed! In addition to laying wreathes and burning incense, the park is a popular place to jog, park motorbikes, work out in the openair gym and my favourite – do karaoke! Karaoke machines are kept in green locker-like structures along the pathways and in the evenings they become popular spots for a bit of singing among the graves – all with an interesting view of the cemetery markers, big tropical trees and city skyline in the background.
Cutting a line through the Northern suburbs – and right past the MOCA – are the eerie pillars of the Hopewell Project, once expected to support a Skytrain-like mass transit system but abandoned in the 1990s Currency crash. Surely they could still be used?
After the street art exhibition, I went to the turtle temple.
This is why I love Bangkok. Many other cities have street art exhibitions and I am sure some have turtle temples, but how many cities can so effortlessly encompass both?
The turtle temple, Wat Prayun, stands near the Chao Phraya river in the shadow of the graceful Memorial Bridge which connects Thonburi to Chinatown. I had to hop on a river boat to get there. By the time I arrived it was late afternoon and the sun was sinking.
People were sitting on benches by the river – some with ukeleles, some fishing, some with partners or children. There was a breeze blowing and a clear, end-of-day light. The whole riverfront seemed to be drowsy with peacefulness and contentment, a feeling you get in many of Bangkok’s residential corners – surprisingly - despite the craziness of the city.
At the temple there were monks on stepladders touching up murals,a few stray dogs and a drinks stall but alas, no turtles. The famous rock garden where the sacred turtles live was being renovated and signs sternly forbade anyone but the workmen from going in. I saw some of the turtles in protective cages from behind the fence.
Still, I didn’t mind. I grabbed a drink from the drinks stall and went for a stroll up the river, past the charming Santa Cruz church in what was once the city’s Portuguese quarter where home bakeries still bake Iberian influenced egg-custard tarts. I walked through little alleyways, past tiny corner stores, chirping finches in elegantly carved cages and Chinese shrines (and one junkie inhaling paint thinner from a plastic bag) and along the sunny riverfront to another nearby temple, Wat Kalayanmit. This is also a turtle temple, but of a different kind. Rather than keeping the turtles in a pond, it is a famous place to buy live turtles from the vendors outsid. These are then released into the river as a merit-making act to earn good kharma. But at this hour of the evening the turtle sellers had all packed up and gone home.
Contended, I walked back slowly and watched the sun set. When I got back to Chinatown, the flower market at Pak Khlong Talad had just started for the night (it reaches its crescendo in the early hours) and I walked through the bags of yellow garlands, purple orchids and red roses, happy to have spent an aimless afternoon wandering in a city that I love.
Siam Park City, known in Thai as Suan Siam, is a vast, ageing amusement park located on the city’s Northern fringe. It is best known for its lagoon pool with wave machine, and the flume ride which malfunctioned a few years ago, leading to a fatality. Not surprisingly then, it is not very high on many visitors’ priority lists. But having worked my way through the upper-level attractions, and being a devotee of kitsch, I decided it was time to visit.
As we pulled up outside the badly painted Disney castle entrance (seemingly built of plywood) I was surprised to see so many white faces. I had thought I would be the only one. But I had forgotten one vital component of Thailand’s international tourism industry: Russians. Everyone there was Russian – many seemingly bussed in for the day from the beachside resort city of Pattaya an hour and a half away. I guess when you are coming from Yekatarinburg, any opportunity to wander around a theme park in your bikini all day (which is what they did) is welcome.
Inside I passed the tempting flume ride.
Then it was on to the attraction I was most looking forward to – The Africa Adventure. For this, you ride around in a little boat as animatronic rubber animals move stiffly about on the river banks amid recorded jungle sound effects. There are also spectacularly un-PC representations of black people. For example, some of them apparently live in trees. Like monkeys. And they have real monkeys tied up next to the animatronic black people, as if to prove it.
The climax – for want of a better word – is a bizarre scene of black people burning a car (just like the LA riots!) and gleefully crucifying a white man. What fun!
After this was the Jurassic Adventure – a similar attraction except this time you rode around in a jeep full of Chinese tourists ( well, I did), who squealed each time a rubbery dinosaur would emerge from the undergrowth.
It was pretty fun. The best part was one dinosaur who was spitting out water. We all expected, I think, that it would stop just before the jeep arrived – and it did – only to spurt out another jet directly at one of the Chinese passengers. We all laughed – although if it had hit my camera I probably wouldn’t have.
This was about all the fun that I could handle for one day, so I headed into a (viciously price-gouged) taxi for the hours trip home.
Yangon is a great river port. The Irrawady river, flowing down from the Himalayas to the Indian Ocean provides a lifeline through Upper Burma, connecting the capital with towns and villages far into the interior.
Its riverfront, unsurprisingly, is bustling.
The most beautiful boat though is actually made of concrete. The Karaweik is a reproduction of a Burmese royal barge housing a restaurant, owned by the military junta, by a local lake.
It is quite amazing though. I love it.
A Day on Earth (presumably named in reference to the classic Jim Jarmusch film, Night on Earth) is one of Melbourne’s most intriguing and little-visited shops. It is located in a dark and crumbling mansion smack bang in the middle of the Chapel Street commercial strip, but easy to miss (its ground floor has been converted into an unremarkable JB Hi Fi) unless you look up to see the gaping vortex-like balcony and the forbidding grey pillars of its Victorian facade.
The store is not open to walk-in visitors, you have to make an appointment first. Inside is the showroom and studio of local artist David Bromley who makes lino cuts and engravings, as well as a collection of the creepy vintage furniture and assorted objets that inspire him – these are said to include life sized bronze cranes, wooden mannequins and puppets, and assorted retro medical paraphenalia.
Sadly I could not confirm this for myself though – after several days of emailing and calling, I was only able to book an appointment on my last day in the city – and I missed it.
See some more of David Bromley’s work here.
Quiapo and Bindondo, north of the weed-choked Pasig River, are Manila’s gritty, teeming market districts. Since where I was staying in Malate seemed quite gritty and teeming enough, I wasn’t sure if I really needed to make the trip. But on my second day in the city I worked up my confidence and hopped on the train. I’m certainly glad I did.
I saw so many interesting things on the streets that day – but took photos of none of them. The pressing crowds, gun-toting security men outside stores and general air of dilapidation made it clear this was not a neighbourhood for taking casual happy snaps. When a train rumbled above on the old elevated track and hip hop blasted from a parked motorbike-taxi, I felt the urgency of the beat like never before. It was like “this is what hip hop was supposed to sound like”. It made sense in a place like this.
Among the stalls of clothes, vegetables, live pigeons, flowers, folk medicine and bras was the Church of Quiapo, home to a sacred black image of Christ that is paraded through the streets every Easter. It stood in a cluster of vendors selling creepy Catholic saint dolls in elaborate lacy robes, with big unblinking eyes. A golden-domed mosque nearby, meanwhile, was built for Muammar Gaddafi in an attempt to dissuade the old despot from funding Muslim separatists in the country’s Deep South (it didn’t work).
From Corriedo train station I wandered to the Quiapo church at Plaza Miranda, then back, through a neighborhood that reminded me powerfully of Sao Paulo – same once-lovely, now dirt-streaked 1940s office blocks, crazy traffic and hole-in-the-wall shops. In one corner of this district is Manila’s Chinatown.
The main Chinese legacy in this part of the city though is farther North at Abad Santos station. Here a cemetery spreads out amid flowering magnolia trees in a sprawling walled compound. I had heard rumours of the lavish crypts within built for the deceased Chinese tycoons – some with airconditioning, electrical applicances, functional plumbing, all empty but for the spirits. The dead here lived better than many of Manila’s living.
But as if to underscore the odd divide between this place and the rest of the city, I trudged for ages down fume-choked roads on narrow, broken footpaths covered in mucus and mud, looking for a way in. Sometimes the cemetery would appear tantalisingly through cracks in barred gates – silent avenues of marble “mansions” and shady trees and pagodas. But I could never find the way in.
It felt like a metaphor for something…
Manila has a famously vibrant, and infamously dodgy, nightlife. One bar that has become an institution by straddling that line is “The Hobbit House”, a blues rock bar staffed entirely by ‘little people’. I’m not sure if they have to wear Tokienesque costumes, but there is a large mural of Gandalf on the wall outside in case you missed the allusion.
I was in two minds about going; I was frankly curious, but wondered if it was not too exploitative. But then, I thought, these people have chosen to work there…
It was not until I saw surprising numbers of “little people” sleeping rough on Malate’s streets that I realised what an empty ‘choice’ this was. In the end I decided not to go out of principle, (but I still stopped by to take this voyeuristic pic of the fabled Hobbit house door.)
The Luneta, or Rizal Park, is Manila’s Central Park. It is sandwiched between the old walled city of Intramuros, the palm-lined bayside drive, Roxas Boulevard and the former downtown (and still lively tourist district) of Ermita.
Its lawns, monuments and museums are popular during the day with out-of-town sightseers, families and wandering conmen and faith healers. At night, I was told, the park is the preserve of roving “streetboys” who rape unwary passers by in the shadows and rush out to ambush unlocked passing vehicles at stop lights.
I went during the day.
In one shady corner there was a fashion shoot taking place. Elsewhere I took in some monuments and headed for one of the park’s grand halls, the Museum of the Filipino People, housed in an imposing neo-classical Spanish mansion near a tacky pond with islands in the shape of the Philippines archipelago.
Inside the museum
The museum contains a motley collection of galleries, some imaginatively designed and others little more than walls of posters. There is a lacklustre zoology section, its highlight being this stuffed specimen of the Philippines monkey-eating eagle, the largest eagle in the world, complete with screaming monkey in its claws.
On the first floor is a moodily-lit collection of artifacts excavated from across the country, many belonging to mysterious pre-Hispanic civilizations of which little is known. These “breasted”urns and strange figures were dug up on Luzon.
But the highlight for me was the art of the”Maranao” or ”lake people” who live around Lake Lanao on the Southern island of Mindanao. Their culture has strong connections to the Malays and they are also Muslims. The museum has a collection of their art including this giant net, armour straight out of ‘Game of Thrones’ and their beautiful and strangely terrifying wood carving, like this man-height beast:
Meanwhile from the mountain people of Northern Luzon, on the other hand, came this black bag, looking like something straight out of an Alexander Macqueen collection.
My most vivid memory of Rizal Park though comes from outside the museum. As I was leaving I saw one of the feral cats that stalk the savannahs of the park lawns. It was the most terrifying feline I have ever seen. It was perched on the rim of a rubbish bin and jet black, except for its head and neck where mange had caused most of its hair to fall out. It claws were strangely curved, and some were missing and it had fiery green eyes. When it narrowed these at me and hissed, full of malevolence, I took a step backwards.
It looked evil. I wanted to get a picture but the man who had been pestering me earlier for a buggy ride and his two unemployed mates were watching nearby with a keen interest so I decided to keep my iPhone in my pocket and walk away. I guess now I’ll never know if I made the right decision.
Sentinel of Filipino Freedom. Nice ass.
I discovered on my last day that the University of the Philippines was hosting an exhibition on brutalist architecture under the dictatorship. A shame, I would have been interested to go. But I did have a chance to see some of this architecture in the form of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines. This complex was constructed on reclaimed land under the Marcos regime as one of Imelda’s pet projects, designed as a magnet for glamorous high society in Asia. It never happened. Indeed as I approached, some poor zombie-like wraith rustled out of a bush in the gardens, complete with missing teeth and bleeding limb, and lurched towards me, screeching “money, money…”
I hurried in.
Inside was a different story though. I loved it. Dim, musty and utterly empty it stands in brilliantly outdated style, a beacon of sixties futurism with pleasing tropical touches. Its like Stanley Kubrick meets Southeast Asia. Note not only the serpentine concrete staircases and dripping chandeliers but the benches with their embedded batik cushions.
Other than the fabulous interior, there was an exhibition of Filipino comic book illustrators.
Just down the road, past shady carparks and blazing lawns is the Manila Film Centre, built for Imelda’s non-starter of a Film Festival. The building collapsed in construction drowning workers in quick-drying cement. The exact number of casualties is disputed, anywhere from a dozen to 170, because the secretive regime was embarrassed by the incident and refused to admit rescue workers. Not surprisingly the building is said to be haunted, leading to the failure of the now-discontinued festival it was built to house.
The most bizarre part of the whole complex though is the “Coconut Palace ” which was built entirely out of coconut and other local products to house the Pope on his brief visit to Manila in 1981. It supposedly cost 35 million dollars to build. The pope, sniffing an impending publicity disaster, refused to stay there on a visit designed to highlight the indignity of poverty. Imelda, offended, hit back by inviting two other friends of similar stature, Brooke Shields and 80s lothario George Hamilton, to open the Palace as her official guests instead. Take that, pontiff! You got bitchslapped.
As an exercise in kitsch, Brooke Shields standing in as a last-minute replacement for the Pope, with George Hamilton, in a palace built entirely of coconuts, takes some beating.
Today the palace is home to the Vice President!
A slideshow from the UK’s Independent newspaper zeroing in on the bizarre stories that come out of China, from two legged pigs to gigantic babies, freak accidents and zoos that let three-year olds tightrope walk over hungry tigers…. Its a weird, wild world.
Beautiful images of overgrown and abandoned train stations in the Russian renegade state of Abkhazia, by the Black Sea. This makes me want to go there. Pictures courtesy of English Russia.