Monday, June 09, 2008

Yes, I am way behind on the blog writing

There is a good reason. I am concentrating on writing the book itself for the good folks on both sides of the Atlantic, who have paid me cold hard cash to deliver in August.

I promise to catch up soon. In the meantime, I hope the image above meets with approval

It is the cover of the jacket from The Free Press who will publish the book in the good old US of Stateside

I will supply links to Amazon for this and the Uk edition in due course



Sunday, June 01, 2008

My next couple of days in Bangkok, I concentrated on fitting in a bit of sightseeing, which included, of course, a visit to The Royal Palace.

When I arrived, the place was mobbed and lines of people dressed in black were forming sombre, orderly queues.

I was unsure what was going on. I had no TV and had not had chance to catch up with any news on my P.C. So, I walked to the nearest information booth to be informed that the sister of The King of Thailand had died the day of my arrival.

Princess Galyani Vadhana was 84 and revered in Thailand for her promotion of education and culture amongst other things.

In fact, all of the royal family is treated with extreme deference and honour in Thailand, from simple things like standing for the national anthem before the showing of a movie in the cinema to harsh punishments for signs of disrespect. It is unusual coming from a country where our royal family receive and indeed deserve so little respect, with a few exceptions, to visit a country where they are part of the very fabric of society.

Because of the ceremonies, much of The Royal Palace was closed so, I cut short my time there and headed to visit the legendary Khao San Road, the epicentre of South East Asia’s back packing community.

For years, just about every gap year traveler has begun their adventures in this street which became famous when it was featured in the rather drab film of Alex Garland’s equally drab book, The Beach and, unless you are eighteen, there is precious little to recommend anything other than the most hurried passage through an ugly street full of tatty cafes serving banana pancakes and panini to hungry youngsters,

On the most subjective of research methods, most of the kids seemed to be white, middle class and with dreadlock. Many had “gone native” jettisoning their Western clothes on arrival and trading them for the nearest pair of Thai Fishermen’s pants. Quite franlky they look fucking stupid, but hey, I guess it supports the local economy.

I left there about five minutes after I arrived and headed off in the nearest tuk-tuk, in search of some lunch, which I found in the form of some fish ball soup at a small shack in Bangkok’s impressive Chinatown. It was, in the blistering heat and staggering humidity, all I could face before heading back to my humble accommodation and having a much needed kip to prepare me for supper.

So far, so good. All the food I had eaten from the market and street food snacks to the previous night’s high end meal had been a success, which meant it was time for something to go tits up, which it did with that’s night’s meal at Bussaracum. I had gleaned the recommendation from the Thailand pages on Chowhound, which should have warned.

It wasn’t an actively bad meal, just lacking any of the freshness and zing of the previous couple of days. Mee Krob was oily and tasted as if it had been sitting around for a while and a salad of Papaya too tasted tired. The only dish that stayed in the memory for any period of time was a dish with the unlikely name of Nong Gob, a tray of meaty frogs legs covered in a fiery sauce. Those I liked and chewed down to the bone.

The rest however was unmemorable and expensive and, while the service was sweet enough, I was in and out in little over an hour, which at least left me time to head down to the river and catch one of the free shuttle busses to the ritzy hotels that line the water and drown my sorrows with a remarkably well made Martini.

If there is one thing I like, it is shopping malls. Don’t ask me why, but I love them and can often be found pottering happily around them in air-conditioned comfort in the heat of the day when I am traveling.

Well, of al the cities I have visited, the ones in Bangkok are at the top of the tree. The enormous Siam Paragon with its Car Dealerships on the third floor to the MBK mall with seven floors of stores all selling excellent knock off gear, that of course, I would never dream of buying.

It counter pointed rather well with my afternoon’s journey from modern to ancient as I headed up the river to Wat Pho and to see a splendid Golden Buddha, which seemed to be surrounded by lots of people from South Dakota who were offering useful commentary in a “gee, its big” kind of way.

But, after the disappointments of the night before, I wanted a decent meal. It was going to be my last meal in the city and I didn’t want my abiding memory to be of an oily mee krob. Heaven forfend.

Another recommendation this time turned out to be a real winner. Chote chitr was a tiny, unassuming place with a big reputation. Cuttings from papers local and international covered its small walls. Apart from me, the only other table occupied was by a group of women taking a break from work for lunch and I was quickly ushered to a small table and given a menu.

As poor as the meal had been the night before, this meal was as good. The meek rob, well I just had to have that again, was stunning, fresh and crispy with the sourness of tamarind. A salad of banana flower was fresh and had all the pre-requisite sharpness and the green curry’s chilli kick brought tears to my eyes.

It was just about a perfect meal and a perfect end to my time in this hugely energetic city.

Talking of energetic cities, next stop Kuala Lumpur

Sunday, May 25, 2008

I can say at the very beginning that Thailand ranks in the very highest echelons of my trip both for the food and the people.

Mind you, it didn’t look that hopeful to begin with.

My flight over from London via Doha was blighted on both legs by screaming children. My malaria tablets had kicked in and made me feel like a pregnant woman with morning sickness and I spent much of the flight going to puke up and to top it all off, when I arrived at Bangkok airport, there was a hideous wait for my bags, for immigration and for a taxi.

Not a good start.

Things got better when I arrived at my small guesthouse, however and, after a warm welcome, I was able to go straight to my room, shower and head out to explore the local neighbourhood of Sukhumvit.

More by luck that judgement, it would appear that I had chosen well. It is a pleasant neighbourhood and my accommodation was within a pineapple’s throw of the nearest station of the efficient Sky Train.

Within about an hour of arriving, I was already face down in my first meal, a simple bowl of fried rice prepared at a local street stall. One bite and I knew that I was going to enjoy my time in Thailand. Cooked in front of me, served with a hint of a smile and entirely delicious. Add to that the fact that the cost was less than the price of a daily newspaper back in London and I walked away with smug mode fully engaged.

The jet lag had kicked in by now, so I headed back to my guesthouse and fitted in a few hours sleep before smartening myself up for a visit to a well-known local restaurant, Ban Kanitha, which had been recommended to me by a friend who had lived in Bangkok for many years.

I was slightly dispirited to see, when I arrived, that the only other people in the place were a couple of loud British businessmen who were squealing at high volume to the manager

“If you make it too hot, we won’t pay for it”

He of course, smiled sweetly in return, despite their horrific behaviour and turned to me with a menu. It wasn’t cheap, this being a place I suspect is predicated on feeding the large ex-pat community, which congregates in this part of Bangkok. But, as a first experience of Thai food in Thailand, I was pleased with what was served. A shrimp salad was sharp, fresh and fiery, soft shell crab had a pleasing crunch and the shrimp cakes came with a sauce whose sweet, sour taste was unmistakably Thai.

With a couple of cold beers, it was enough to send me off to an early night and thoughts of the next four months on the road.

The following morning, jet lag kicked in once again, and I was up and about at 5am. I took the all too rare opportunity to catch up on some writing before heading out to visit one of Bangkok’s famous markets. In this case, The Chatachuk Market, about a half hours ride North on the Sky Train.

By the time I arrived at 8.30am, it was already well underway and the small spaces of its crowded passageways were already crowded with weekend shoppers. It’s a great market, one of the best with just about everything on sale you could imagine.

I can’t think of too many markets where shops selling puppies, being blow dried to fluffy cuteness in preparation for the arrival of potential new owners, could sit next to shops where live chickens were being killed, gutted and fried, in preparation of the arrival of, well, me.

This being Thailand, there is food, of course there is food. There is food everywhere. The people are obsessed with it and, after a starter snack of a couple of passable spring rolls, my nostrils were attracted by the smell of that chicken frying. I stopped at a small stall where the chicken seemed to be the major thing on offer and ordered a sizable portion to work my way through.

What can I tell you? I am a sucker for good fried chicken at the best of times, but this was right up there. Serious stuff and served with a seriously spicy sauce that needed washing down with the fresh fruit drinks being made at the next stall. If I close my eyes, I can taste it now. I gnawed on it until the bones were sawdust, which received a reward in the form of a smile from the owner as I paid her whatever small pittance it cost.

The humidity, by now, was stultifying and I was pleased to climb back on board the air conditioned Sky Train and head back to my guesthouse for a nap. I was obviously exhausted, because by the time I awoke, it was dark outside and I realised I had been asleep for about six hours.

Still, I managed to drag myself bleary eyed into the shower and woke up enough to head out to the Suan Lum night market where, I had been told, they had an excellent open air food court.

I am told that it is under threat of closure, which is a great shame because both the market and the food court are a great deal of fun. After a stroll around the shops of the market, most specialising in traditional Thai handicrafts, I headed to the food court, which was set up so you bought pre-paid vouchers which could be exchanged for food and drinks at any of the many stalls set up around an area of seating the size of a football field.

The first odd sight was of young Thai women dressed in traditional German outfits. I had not long returned from Munich and thought for a moment that my malaria tablets (also prescribed for dealing with cases of the clap, thanks for telling me Dr Patel!) had caused hallucinations. However, it transpired that, as everywhere, the German brewers had been there first and one of the biggest beer stands was Pauliner.

The second odd sight was the seeing a large TV screen showing Wigan Athletic Vs Bolton Wanderers to a less than rapt audience of bemused Thai families. The English Premiership is incredibly popular all over the world, but I think they might have been hoping for Liverpool, Manchester Utd or Chelsea rather than a couple of bottom table, Lancastrian strugglers.

Still, everyone seemed to be having a damn good time and I joined in with a big bowl of Green chicken curry and sat down to watch the game. To be honest, it had the same effect on me as it would have done had I been back in the UK, it drove me home to bed.

It is fair to say, I was enjoying my early experiences of Thailand. Particularly as I had no idea what to expect before I got there. However, on the walk home, I took a detour through one on Bangkok’s infamous streets of girly bars, Soi Cowboy and, I have to admit to almost bringing my supper back up at the sight of fat, old and ugly European men (mostly German and Dutch it appeared) groping girls young enough to be their daughters and certainly not looking as if they wanted to be groped by anyone let alone these, corpulent, lecherous Neanderthals.

A few of them called out to me

“Come, buy me lady drink”

“You want massage?”

Their lips formed a smile but their eyes were hidden behind bars of being trapped in this vile profession.

It was my first experience of Thailand’s seedier side and it made me as angry as it did nauseous.

I went to sleep with the sounds of Sukhumvit filtering through my window and those small, sad smiles of the small sad girls filtering through my jet lagged dreams.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Let me begin by saying that the Germans are entirely barmy.

I actually mean than in a good way. Not the “come down at 4am and put a beach towel over everything that moves kind of way” but in a way that holds them up for admiration for their devotion to all things beer and pork related.

The Bavarians are, if it is possible, even more barmy. Genuinely barking mad and drinking at the Doollaly Tap.

I love them to bits.

I have always had a fondness for Germany and the Germans even since my job as a publisher meant that I attended twenty (yes count them) Frankfurt Book Fairs. I also dealt with many German publishers and spent happy times on the road visiting them at their offices, mainly in Munich.

Add to that the fact that the book of EAT MY GLOBE had also been sold to a German Publisher (Ullestein) then there was very little chance that I would not find some opportunity to shoehorn them in to my trip.

I decided on Munich for a few reasons. One was that, I love it as a city. Another was that my brother, Robin had not been there and I thought that it could make a nice addition to our other joint blog, Dos Hermanos. I also had a couple of friends there who could show me around. Finally, it was because, of all Germany, I really like the food in Bavaria.

Ah, German food. It is about as misunderstood as our own dear British cooking. But, when it is at its best, based on great ingredients and simple preparations, then it is hearty and delicious if a little challenging vis proportions.

The flight to Germany was typically smooth and the new-ish Lufthansa Terminal at Munich’s airport a delight.

Robin had, of course, done plenty of research and had fashioned his own guidebook culled from the pages of various publications and internet sites. Their first bit of good news was that, before we even caught the train into town and to our hotel, there was a very good bier hall at the airport itself.

It would have been churlish not to make use of it so, we settled ourselves down with a large dark beer and took the edge off our appetite with a plate of grammels chmaltz. Basically, lard spiked with fried onions and chives, which can be spread on black rye bread.

Compared to our previous visit to Berlin almost exactly a year previously, the weather was perfect and, after depositing our bags at our basic but perfectly serviceable hotel, we set out to see how many hotels we could hit in an afternoon before hooking up with friends later.


We did not do too badly, visiting about four in all including the famous Hoefbrauhouse where large men in leather clothing played Oom-pah music to scare the children and waitresses too wore the traditional Durndl while carrying large plates of sausages and potatoes to hungry tourists seated at communal tables.

Off all of the bierhalls, this was by far the most touristy and we did not linger long. Long enough to down a beer or two before heading off to the next venue.

By the early evening it would be fair to say that The Majumdar Brothers were pretty much “in our cups” but we had hardly started because that night we were going to be spending in the company of Stefan Berg, one of Germany’s leading mixologists. A frightening thought.

I had first met Stefan and his cohort, Jorge at the London Bar Show (see previous post to remind yourselves of the liver challenging event that was for one and all) and we had hit it off immediately. So, as soon as I knew I was coming to Munich, I was in touch.

The quality of mixing I found in Munich was of an exceptionally high standard with Stefan taking us to bar after bar where the mixing was superb and not just because he was so well known. We did our best to mop it up with a visit to another beer hall for some meat and potato sustenance, but by the time we headed back to the hotel in the early hours, we were, well to be honest, we were pretty much out of our skulls.

So, the next day, we took pity on our livers and took it easy with some good exercise and little or no beer. Munich really is a lovely city, one of the most beautiful in Europe with its wide streets, squares and parks. We enjoyed an amble around the bustling central market (with a stop off for a morning sausage of course)

and we went “ooh” and “ah” at the marionettes on the famous clock tower. Actually, I didn’t. I have never really been impressed by such things and, after a few minutes of staring up at coloured wooden puppets moving to no particular purpose, I turned to my brother and said

“That’s enough for a lifetime”

If we took it easy on the booze front, we certainly didn’t on the food front. Fortified with sausages in a bun, we fitted in a light afternoon snack of hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and a plate of cake before heading for an early supper to take on the mighty Schweinhaxen.

By all that is holy, this is the mother of all pork-based dishes. It is, as the name might suggest, basically, a pork knuckle cooked until the skin crackles but the flesh remains creamy and moist. Covered over with gravy and then served with a dumpling which could be used for hand to hand combat, it is one of the most challenging things I have ever eaten. Big brother, on the other hand was man enough to gnaw his portion right down to the bone, but even he went a funny colour when trying to polish off the dumpling.

We staggered back to the hotel for a second evening. This time, however, not because of the booze, but because of the half a pound of pork we were both slowly digesting inside.

I have to admit that the night was filled with meat sweats, digestive noises that even a brother should not hear and, by the morning, it was still sitting in a lump in my stomach.

Fortunately, by the time we reached the destination of our morning’s excursion, I was feeling a lot better and was able to pay attention to the horror that is Dachau.

We had been determined to fit it into our schedule. As we reach a stage where many who perpetrated the horrors of The Holocaust and many who suffered under its shadow are dying off, it is important that as many as possible are exposed to the brutality of what occurred.

Not just the brutality, however, but also the normalcy that was given to such brutality. That is the true horror of walking around Dachau. It was never actually used as a death camp, but it is the place where the organisation of mass murder was planned. Dachau is what happens when the most efficient nation on earth turns its mind to mass murder.

What strikes you most as you walk around the quiet and well preserved camp ground is just how ordinary it feels. Just how normal the Germans were able to make the destruction of a race and just how close they came to succeeding in their task.

As elements in Europe attempt to drag us back to the dark days of extreme right wing politics, I truly believe than every man woman and child in Europe should be made to visit one of the death camps to see what man is capable of and what their idiotic ideology can lead too.

Unsurprisingly, on our return to the centre of town, we were a little subdued. But, our spirits were soon lifted by the appearance of my close friend, Isabelle who I have known, through publishing, for years.

Although originally from across the border in Austria, Isabelle is a Munchen as Muncheners come and she loves the city with a passion. We spent the rest of the day in her company wandering from beer hall to beer hall, sampling food and drink

and then walking it off around Munich’s lovely English Garden before decamping late at night to her own lovely apartment to round off the night and the trip with some fiery schnapps.

That was Germany. It was an all too short visit, but I am delighted to have fitted it into the schedule. It really is one of my favourite countries and the Germans, despite their travel habits, one of my favourite peoples.

The food too, is underrated. Oh, it is hardly haute, although there are now many fine high-end dining restaurants throughout Germany. But, it is hearty and honest and that, above all is what attracts me to a culture and a cuisine.

God willing, I will be back and, next time, God also willing, I shall do my best to finish a whole dumpling.