Between Chinatown and the river is an ethnic neighbourhood, a small part of a big city that you seldom hear much about. It's mentioned in guidebooks but typically gets no more than a few paragraphs. The Thais call it Pahurat. Westerners know it as Little India.
Before picking up my weekly supplies on Yaowarat Road, I walked beyond bustling Chinatown to Little India where I spent a couple of hours exploring the back alleys of a distinctive neighbourhood highlighted on few maps. Not once was I asked to buy a suit, nor was I told that I am a lucky man. The one time someone said something to me, I was offered the use of a turban.
Welcome to a small part of Bangkok that few make it to, welcome to Little India.
The tall neon signs with Chinese characters tower above you. You mightn't be able to read a word, but you know exactly where you are. Chinatown.
Walking through Little India the clues are more subtle. If you forgot your glasses or are engrossed in your smartphone, you might not even know you'd passed through. The "little" in Little India is appropriate. The area covers a small area and out on the main drag there's none of the fanfare of Chinatown.
Pahurat is a centre for the trading of cloth, fabric and textiles. For curtains, for Indian garments and of course, Pahurat is where many Indian tailors purchase fabric for custom tailoring.
The area is also known for the sale of wedding souvenirs as well as Indian herbs, spices and processed food products.
Little India has a bunch of guesthouses – but unlike Khao San Road, Western travellers aren't their target market. These guesthouses serve Indians and others from the sub-continent and make even the cheapest Khao San Road hovels look positively luxurious in comparison. Small, cramped and filthy, the super low budget guesthouses and hotels in Pahurat must be amongst the cheapest accommodations in all of Bangkok. Think short-time room cost – but you get to stay the whole night! Adjacent are Indian eateries – some with menus only in an Indian script – with prices no more than Thai street food, breaking the mould for Indian food in Bangkok which can be pricey.
Pahurat is for Indian travellers what Khao San Road is for Western backpackers – a centre for low-cost accommodation, the comforts of home for little baht and a place to congregate amongst those from your corner of the world.
The pokey restaurants have satellite TV from India. While Indian soap operas might not appeal, whenever a major cricket match is being played you can be sure the TV will be tuned to that channel.
The easiest way to get to Little India is by taxi. As the area can be horribly disorientating, perhaps the best thing to say to a taxi driver is India Emporium.
You can take the river boat to the Memorial Bridge Pier and Little India is just a 10-minute walk away.
Or you can walk from the nearest underground train station, the Hualumpong MRT. Chinatown is 10 minutes away and from there it's another 15 minutes on foot to Little India. Walk straight down Yaowarat Road – the main drag at Chinatown – until you can walk no further, and turn left. Another 50 metres and you're in Little India.
From the outside, India Emporium appears to be just another modern Bangkok shopping centre. Inside it's awful and along with Platinum is perhaps the most crowded shopping mall in all of Bangkok. Difficult to walk around, it successfully replicates the narrow alleys found outside. India Emporium features a few chain eateries but junk food aside, it's full of merchants selling Indian garments.
The centre point of Little India is the India Emporium and the largely hidden Sikh temple next door. The area features narrow alleys, many of which are packed with vendors making them difficult to negotiate. Merchants push hand trucks and carts piled with goods, motorcycles sound their horn every few metres and pedestrians battle their way through, everyone fighting to get where they're going.
The back alleys of Pahurat that run parallel to the canal are where many of the Indian restaurants and low-end guesthouses are found and where many characters can be seen, lingering in the shadows. Indians on Sukhumvit are often gregarious, engaging anyone who so much as looks at them. In the back alleys of Little India the white man is not sought as a conversation partner. Call me kee-raweng (a Thai word without an exact English equivalent which translates as something like being overly suspicious, perhaps without grounds for being so), I strongly sense that some are up to no good.
There's reluctance on the part of many (Indians) in the area to have their photo taken, this fellow one of few who allowed it. Are they illegals or, perhaps up to no good?
The canal on the south side of Chakphet Road where many of the restaurants are located, including the eternally popular Royal India, is as ugly as it is smelly, yet on each bridge is a vendor rustling up street food.
It's a little before lunch-time and this small restaurant over the canal has a solitary customer. Half an hour later it would be packed as office workers spill outside looking for something affordable to eat.
Thais are no fans of Indian food, or anything Indian for that matter. Ethnic Indian restaurants in the area don't appeal to locals who prefer the comfort of that which is familiar.
Many Thais have a mental block when it comes to anything to do with India. They cite the (perceived to be bad) smell of the people, their (perceived) lack of hygiene and their (perceived) stickiness with money.
Fortunately these days you don't hear that awful proverb about the Indian and the snake which some low-class Thais love telling. You don't know it? Hmmm, it's not nice at all, but it goes like this. If you're walking in the jungle and you come across a snake and an Indian, kill the Indian first. Quite horrible and particularly damning on the Thais, especially when so many aspects of the Thai language, culture and even names for certain people originate in India.
Some of the filthiest food preparation areas anywhere in the city can be found in the back alleys of Little India. I've never had a problem with food there – but then I stick with the highly regarded Royal India. Eating on the street in Pahurat seems like an unnecessary risk.
Bangkok street food has its foreign fans but don't count me amongst them, at least not any more. Little India takes it to a whole new level and you'd want vouchers for a week's free treatment at Bumrungrad to be convinced to try the back alley delights. Parts of Little India are so filthy they make other parts of the city look almost Singapore-like clean in comparison.
The sign says "toilet 3 baht" and points towards a feculent open-air kitchen. The state of the food prep areas and the disgusting state of the toilets make one think they've gone too far in their efforts to recreate an authentic Indian experience.
Sampeng Market – mooted to have more pickpockets than anywhere else in all of Bangkok – is the divide between Chinatown and Little India. It is home to some particularly old and immensely fascinating stores with a range of products for sale from herbs and spices covered in dust that look like they've been there since grandpa was a lad, to clothing that was out of fashion when The Beatles were popular to cans of Coke which, I hope, are not as old as the other stuff in the store. These stores are Chinese-owned and run, but a few are in the Little India area. Probably once upon a time many such stores existed on the main drag of Chinatown but as the area was developed they were replaced by more profitable stores, like gold shops.
There are many sari stores in Little India, yet the vast majority of Indians in the area are male. Of the few females you see, not one looked anything like the stars in Bollywood movies or music videos. If caught behind in a narrow alley behind a female it's like being stuck in a traffic jam behind a bread van. I can see why so many Indian men make the journey to Walking Street.
Little India is probably second only to Bangkok's red-light areas when it comes to being told not to take photos. A few times I was told no photo and outside one shop with statues of Hindu Gods I was shooed away by the shopkeeper in a manner more suited to repelling a petty criminal. And forget about finding temples in the area – there is a large Sikh temple right next to India Emporium but the area is so densely built up that it is surrounded by other buildings and it's hard to see much of it from ground level.
* The most beautiful Indian temple in Bangkok is the 150-year old Hindu temple on Silom Road, which is also easier to get to than Little India. There's also a small cluster of Indian restaurants in the area along with shops selling items of interest to Indians and lovers of India. It's also the place to grab the latest Bollywood movies on DVD.
For Westerners, the highlights – or is that the highlight – of Little India is probably the food. Authentic Indian food at fair prices, not the silly money charged by many Indian eateries on Sukhumvit, which can be as much as you'd pay at home.
If you're no fan of Indian food, Pahurat offers the opportunity to explore atmospheric back alleys with a different flavour of street life than what is seen in the rest of the city.
Little India does little to promote itself and there's a reason for that. If you're not Indian, not looking for inexpensive Indian food, have no interesting in buying spices, fabrics or other items for which India is known, there's probably not much there for you. It's not that Little India is unwelcoming – it isn't – it's just kind of hard to justify visiting for any reason other than the food.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken of the entranceway leading in to The Old Other Office, in Patpong soi 2. This week's photo was taken somewhere outside of Bangkok.
FROM STICK'S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick. ) Preference may be given to emails which refer to the previous week's column.
EMAIL OF THE WEEK – Asian values.
I was living in Singapore when Mahathir got on his hind legs and started spouting on about Asian values. Coming from him, that was a bit rich, but it is the underlying theme of so many economies in the Far East i.e. get to the trough first and do everything you can to stay there. It took Europeans many centuries and much blood to control these impulses in public life, and we are still witnessing financial scandals. We are not perfect and there is no paradise this side of 18 holes in one at Augusta, but if Asians cannot avoid going down the Harry Lee road to hell or pork barrel politics, then their future is going to be even grimmer than the economic boom times we are told they live in now. India and China overtaking the USA? Get me a set of clubs and a US visa.
Fewer old guys soon?
I visited for the first time later than you and missed the best of it, but was still all starry-eyed and ready to make the big move soon after returning. Fortunately an existing career and other obligations kept that on hold long enough for me to return several times on a short-term basis to investigate further and formulate a plan. The more I saw through the veil, the uglier and less genuine the LOS became as a residence or place to make a future. Suddenly home was a much better place to be than I had realised. Over the years and through visits there and social media, most of the friends I have made that were resident there have returned to their place of birth with no plans to reside in Thailand again. I would say a further 20% have said they plan to do so in the near future (within a year) much for the reasons you list. So I guess I am fortunate that I received the LOS in small doses to see past the initial high and negatives before going "all in" with full-blown addiction. It surely would have been a fun ride while it lasted though and is still a fun place to visit today. But the pro / con just is not high enough for me at this point to ever live there and if the expats and former expats I know are any indicator, I would say there are and will be far less middle-aged and older guys in the LOS fairly soon.
An Asian lady's perspective.
I am an Asian lady who has been reading your weekly column for 3 or 4 years. I have not felt the need to write to you until I read what you wrote last week, "How I've Changed". I think it sort of hit a core inside me so I am writing to you now because what you wrote has so much similarity to what I feel about certain parts of my life. Over the last few years it has always amazed me how the men who wrote to you bemoan bargirls who tricked them when they met those girls in bars / pubs / massage parlours. I mean hello! And others who think so highly of Thailand and Thai girls that they say bad things about their homelands and the gals back home. I always think that maybe they are in Thailand for a few weeks / months with money to spend so they only see the beautiful side of country but they didn't see the bad side. It's so different when you just spend money and holiday in a country for a couple of weeks / months rather than staying long-term like a local. Then you realise things are not always as rosy as it seems. I love my country. It is where I was born and grew up, but like most ASEAN countries, except maybe Singapore, we are filled with corruption. In that sense, I always think the west is better. I don't bother reading the newspaper anymore and couldn't care less about politics here, not after the current election where it was proven that my government is so corrupt that they will stop at nothing to win the election.
Hua Hin thumbs up.
Hua Hin was always a highlight of my trips and you are right about the food. In all my travels through South-East Asia I never found better value for money. If you are a serious beach walker / runner, the beach at Hua Hin is tough to beat. The hike to monkey mountain early in the morning is delightful. The other nice part is the quality of fellow travelers visiting. I always met very nice people from all over the world I would have happily socialised with back home. There is a small area for bargirls, but it's a sad and sordid area. I was certainly up for it but found the girls unattractive and not very friendly. You would be better off bringing a companion. Overall, Hua Hin would be my number one retirement choice for Thailand, if I ever considered Thailand in the first place.
In support of older ladies.
I've been waiting on comments to the article about why younger men find attraction towards older women, since I am one of those guys. As far as I'm concerned, an older woman has a life of her own and doesn't need a man to make her whole. A lot of older guys might look for a girl unconsciously that has that hole in her character or personality or emotions that they need to have a man. So they latch on to a man. And the guy goes, oh man, this is great! And they wake up a year or two later and find out they have a chain and anchor around their neck and are under water! Personally, I believe I like them so much because I've become really satisfied being single. I find older women more at ease. They have their life together, are independent and aren't needy to get in to a serious relationship. Almost like a co-worker that has got old, they don't strive for promotion trying to impress the boss. Both them and I know it's taboo and not socially accepted if we were together as a couple. On the other hand, maybe some younger guys find security in spending time with an older independent lady, as if they were that young girl with holes to fill. Like yin and yang, positive and negative. Has anyone noticed a change from liking older to younger girls as they got older and more mature themselves?
Where to retire?
For me there are five main aspects with respect to wanting / being able to live long-term (more than 20 years) in a country:
1. The country of your upbringing (and your parents, of course) shapes significant part your perception of values.
2. Your way of looking at life (perhaps partially culturally driven): the glass is half full or half empty. That also includes whether you are open with different eyes to look at another culture and be respectful to others' habits.
3. Luck related with exposure: sometimes you are just exposed to a number of unfortunate events in a place.
4. Your hobbies: cooking, fishing, tramping, art, history… They challenge you and give you long-term satisfaction. In my opinion the bar scene is not a hobby, but a pastime / entertainment like television. It can be great with friends, but is not the place to make friends. Sex is a difficult one – I would not qualify it as a hobby, but mainly driven by instinctual needs. It will definitely give you short-term satisfaction (drug?), but has not the depth of a hobby.
5. Being able to be integrated in a society – losing the outsider feeling.
Girl of the week
Sandra, Devil's Den, Soi LK Metro, Pattaya
Sandra is 22 years old and calls Chaiyaphum home.
As someone who loves playing pool, she knows how to handle a stick.
Things hit an all-time low at Nana Plaza this week and from Thursday night it has been clothed dancing. When I say clothed, I mean clothed with not even bikinis allowed. In every bar, those on stage were in shorts and fully covered tops. It all looked like some sort of B-grade YouTube music video with confused girls who quickly became disheartened and ultimately disinterested as customers stuck their head in the door, didn't like what they saw and tried the next bar (where it was exactly the same). The rain lingered from late afternoon and was still falling late in to the night making this past Thursday the worst night I've ever seen in the plaza. Come 10 PM, and some gogo bars had yet to have their first customer. Hopefully the covered look is very temporary.
Things are grim in Nana for those who depend on business in the plaza to pay the bills. First was the initial bemusement of a major police raid, more than a month ago. This was followed by annoyance as word spread that random checks would take place in the plaza most nights. Then there was frustration as word reached managers and owners that some girls who were told to stay away until things settled down had found new bars to dance in. Fewer girls means fewer customers. A month on and now everyone is angry – bar bosses, investors, bar managers, mamasans, the girls and even customers. Takings are down, girls have flocked to Cowboy and customers don't know where to go. Some girls have been spooked and are unlikely to return to Nana when things eventually blow over…whenever that may be. There's a feeling that much of the hard work of the last year restoring Nana as Bangkok's best and most popular farang bar district has been undone. What owners in Nana are rightfully angry about is the way that Nana Plaza – and only Nana Plaza – has been targeted, while it's business as usual elsewhere.
One of the few bars unaffected in the plaza is Spanky's which has a low staff turnover. 2013 has been a great year for Spanky's Bangkok which seems to be busy every night.
Police and bar owner co-operation has reached a new high with customers asked to be informants. In some Nana Plaza bars beer is delivered in a condom – the term affectionately given to beer bottle holders – with a message on the side in both Thai and English, "The Royal Police Narcotics Suppression Bureau (NSB) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) are offering rewards for drug, money laundering and terrorism information that results in arrests and seizures." On the other side, accompanied by photographs, "James J. Bulger, also known as Whitey, is an organized crime leader wanted in the United States for murder, narcotics distribution, extortion and money laundering. Bulger is believed to be traveling with his girlfriend, Catherine E. Greig.' I'm all for cracking down on drug dealing and drug dealers but these messages, which were pervasive in some Soi Cowboy bars a while back, are perhaps not what you want to see when you're out to relax.
The old bar industry business model does not work so well these days. There was a time when you simply secured a bar lease in a prime location – which could be done for $100,000 or so 10+ years ago – put signs outside advertising for staff and you were on your way to making plenty. Millionaires were made – dollar millionaires. Today it's not so easy. Leases in Nana and Cowboy cost many times what they once did, rents (as distinct from the cost of buying a lease) can be astronomical – some gogo bars pay 700,000+ baht per month in rent alone. Getting girls is difficult, and getting attractive girls and keeping them is very difficult. Punters are picky, many are price sensitive and there are fewer genuine nightlife customers around. A change of approach is necessary and bar bosses need to rethink their approach. Building a beautiful bar is all good and well, but many owners neglect staffing issues. Would it not be better to concentrate on getting and keeping the best girls? The question becomes how one does that. Easy – hire the best mamasans and incentivise them. Mamasans know where to get girls, and can press the right buttons to get the girls to stay in a bar. For every new girl a mamasan brings to the bar, the mamasan receives 100 baht every time that girl is barfined, forever. The mamasan has a strong incentive not just to get new girls, but to keep them in the bar – and make sure they are generating money for the bar. This is a win : win : win : win situation – 4 wins! The customer wins because there are attractive girls in the bar. The bar wins because pretty girls attract customers who spend money. The girls win because there are lots of customers and they make money. The mamasan wins because she is making a truckload in incentives. 100 baht per barfine forever is a small commission for the bar and more than enough of an incentive for the mamasan. Everyone wins!
Pecker wreckers are becoming like tattoos and in some bars almost half girls have cosmetic braces on their teeth. Whether this will become a long-term trend and braces will become like tats, or is more of a short-term fad, who knows? Some girls are starting to realise that there are customers for who braces are seen the same way as some guys may see tattoos – a turnoff.
Many bars have CTH installed and will be showing English Premier League matches live with the commentary in English. In Pattaya, check out Secrets in soi 14 off Walking Street, and Babydolls in the next soi over – keeping your eyes on the TV in Babydolls with the antics going on in there might be tough. The Londoner in Bangkok's soi 33 has English Premier League football live as does Crossbar in Sukhumvit soi 23 which has not just the Premier League, but also shows Championship matches (the old division 2) every weekend. Crossbar also has the South African Supersports 1, 2 and 3 channels. Crossbar is an excellent spot to watch English sport live. The Cabin Bar in Sukhumvit Soi 6, reached by going down Soi Nana a few hundred metres and turning left, screens all EPL matches and most European leagues. The Cabin Bar also has a special discount for Norwich City fans and free drinks and offers to customers aged over 80. Footnote : customers over 80 must be accompanied by both parents!
If you've been enjoying the Bledisloe Cup rugby matches between New Zealand and Australia and would like to show your support for the men in black, the Adidas store in Central World is the place to go. It's perhaps the only store in all of Bangkok that has genuine replica international rugby shirts. They seem to be targeting the local market and the largest size they have is L.
I finally made it to the Angel City Diner in Sukhumvit soi 11 this week, the American diner which opened several months back. From the huge booths complete with their own jukebox to the period music to the American sized portions, it really impresses. I tried the Angel Burger which runs 470 baht once the ++ has been added in it. 250 grams of Aussie beef and a decent pile of fries made it a full meal. The place is very nicely done out, and the service is surprisingly good. Dining with a couple of friends, we all agreed we'd be back. For Americans missing home, I'd definitely recommend it – and it's one of the better burgers in town for sure. Angel City Diner is open 24 hours.
Is there any other country where females are so keen to have kids, yet when they finally have them they can lose interest in them, and may even allow others to raise them (sometimes as their own)?! I'm not suggesting that all or even a lot of Thai women do this but certainly many do. Often it's country girls working in the city who allow their kids to be raised back in their home town or village, but it happens plenty in cities too.
I really don't know what the big deal is if a guy is gay or likes ladyboys. I raise this point because some readers were shocked at the choice of last week's reader's story of the week – a report from a guy who longs for his trips to Thailand to spend time with ladyboys. What I find amusing is the way some sex tourists mouth off about gay guys and those who have a thing for ladyboys, while at the same time they get all bent out of shape when mainstream Western society comments on Western guys going to Asia to use the services of prostitutes.
In last week's column a reader asked Sunbelt Legal about opening a bank account in Thailand. Sunbelt cited the Bank of Thailand's regulations. What should be noted is that different banks and different bank branches often have their own interpretation of the law. If you look at Bangkok Bank's website, it would seem they welcome foreigners opening an account with the italicised text copied directly from their site. "Even if you are only visiting Thailand for a relatively short period of time, you can open a savings account and get a debit card to use for shopping and ATM withdrawals. All you will need to provide is your passport and one other official identification document – for example, your driver's license or a reference letter from your embassy, your home bank or a person acceptable to the bank." This notwithstanding, it's likely that some branches of Bangkok Bank still turn away those inquiring about opening an account. Pointing out the relevant text on their website might help.
There's a definite correlation between those on long overstay and working illegally – and by this I mean doing dodgy stuff and not working without a blue book. Every time I hear about someone on a long overstay, they have a story.
If you thought there were a lot of Russians and Chinese around, tourist arrival numbers confirm it. The first quarter of the year is the busiest and this year's figures prove what we already knew – that Chinese and Russians are visiting in huge numbers. From January to March there were 1.2 million arrivals from China and 584,000 from Russia. Germans made up the largest group of farangs from developed countries with 252,000, closely followed by Brits at 246,000.
Two Belgians have started Food Expedition Bangkok, a cooking class with a difference. The class starts at a local market, before taking a boat ride on the Prakhanong Klong where the group visits the temple of the Thai ghost Mee Nak. After that you go to a private residence where 4 Thai dishes are taught, made and then devoured! The project was started by a couple of foreigners but the chef and staff are Thai.
Quote of the week comes from a cynic, "In a Thai / farang relationship you just end up paying somebody to ruin your life."
Reader's story of the week comes from Markin, "Yes, She's Lucky, Her Husband Is Dead!"
From the BBC, after strong growth in 2012, Thailand's economy is now technically in recession.
A Bangkok boiler room kingpin is arrested in Bangkok and is looking at a long time behind bars.
Thai Immigration authorities uncover a visa scam where stolen Thai visa stickers are used by foreigners to enter Thailand.
Foreigners' confidence in Thai police officers took a serious hit after it was revealed Thai police officers from 2 Bangkok police stations kidnapped foreigners withdrawing cash from an ATM in Soi Nana and held them for a ransom.
The disgraced monk of Thailand's affairs makes it in to an extensive investigative article by The Sydney Morning Herald.
The Bangkok Post did an extensive piece on homeless foreigners in Thailand in Sunday's edition.
Ask Sunbelt Asia Legal
Sunbelt Asia's legal department is here to answer your questions relating to legal issues and the law in Thailand. Send any legal questions you may have to me and I will pass them on to Sunbelt Legal and their response will run in a future column. You can contact Sunbelt's legal department directly for all of your legal needs.
Question 1: If I walk away from my girlfriend and leave my motorbike, green book and tax sticker behind, is that going to cause a problem for me in the future? If somebody crashes my bike the future, and it is still in my name, will I potentially be held liable?
Sunbelt Asia Legal Advisers responds: Walking away from your girlfriend and leaving the motorbike without proceeding with any of the official ownership transfer at the Land Transport Authority could cause trouble in the future. If the driver of your bike caused an accident resulting in the loss of life, injuries or other damages and fled the scene with nobody able to identify the driver, then you, as the owner of the vehicle, would be summoned by police officials either as a suspect and / or as a witness.
It is better to either go ahead with the official ownership transfer if you wish to give up the bike entirely. If not, you could provide a letter of consent to your girlfriend to maintain possession of the vehicle for her personal use, giving her responsibility to maintain the vehicle in good working condition during the period of possession. You would be eligible to take possession whenever you wanted. This would allow you to retain ownership of the vehicle and yet not be liable in case of an accident.
Sunbelt Asia could assist you with either the ownership transfer or the drafting of the letter of consent (allowing your girl to have possession of the vehicle).
What an about-turn there's been in the economic news coming out of Thailand, much of which seems to be rather negative, unemployment numbers the notable exception. And with capital moving out of emerging markets, the Thai baht is weakening, particularly against the US dollar. The dollar jumped against the baht this week, after making steady gains in recent months. It's up around 10% against the baht since Songkran, offering a ray of hope for those who feel the country has become pricey. Where the baht is going, who knows, but there does seem to be a feeling that it's not heading back to 20-something against the dollar any time soon. It might just be a little relief for those who bring in money from abroad.
Your Bangkok commentator,