Life

Name's Bond. Steve Bond.

In certain corners of Bangkok, I'm a dashing celeb.

By Steve Burgess 7 Feb 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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In the future, everyone will look like James Bond. This has less to do with human evolution or surgical advances than with the growing proliferation of Bonds one can resemble. I caught a glimpse of that wonderful, 007-style future this week in Bangkok.

I arrived in the Thai capital after a few days in Kuala Lumpur, a less fabled and, frankly, less interesting place that, nonetheless, offers a lot of fantastic food and friendly people. After checking into my KL hotel, I struck out onto the nighttime streets on the hunt for good eats. Down a dark alley was a little cook shack surrounded by tables and plastic stools, and off I went. Such makeshift operations are a common feature of the urban landscape in this part of the world and the prospect of joining a group of strangers sitting around in a dark alley is not so daunting as it might be elsewhere. A quick look around confirms that the other customers are mostly just regular folks. And when it comes to value and quality, the food is simply a better bet than many other joints that put on airs. Still, it's undeniable that the setting and circumstances are part of the fun. Sitting on a plastic stool slurping up mee goreng noodles served up by an old guy with a skillet and a portable stove, catching the secret grins of locals who don't see many white folks down this alley -- that's my idea of tourism.

Luck does not always hold, of course. Followers of previous Tyee travel dairies may recall that last year in Vietnam, I got food poisoning twice in one week. And still other Tyee readers will be able to guess my feelings when, at a different Kuala Lumpur restaurant, I was treated to a big-screen showing of King Kong.

They're pretty free with the bootleg DVDs over here and, sure enough, there was the big ape bustin' loose in New York City while I awaited my order. It was a bad copy but, unfortunately, not bad enough -- I was just in time for the skating scene. Interestingly, it appeared to be a different cut than the North American version. In this one Kong falls into a snowbank, making the scene even suckier, if possible. Then, just as the airplanes were arriving for the big climax, the owner switched over to pro wrestling. I was glad.

More tough luck was coming in Bangkok. It's a clamorous, choking wreck of a city, but one of my favorites. I have a cute room in a boutique hotel on Soi Ari, with a goldfish tank in the wall between the bathroom and bedroom. I feel terrible for the fishies -- every time I walk in they swim madly over toward me. If I sit down, they go low; I stand and they rise. I'm a constant disappointment to them. I am as impatient for feeding time as they are, so they will no longer hate me.

Elusive red dog

It was Chinese New Year and I was eager to catch some festivities. Alas, old Bangkok hand that I claim to be, I had forgotten how to get to Chinatown. The friendly people at my hotel responded to my request for info with blank stares. I'm no longer surprised by this -- many Bangkok hotel and retail staffers have a grasp of English which is deceptively thin. They know enough to get you started but not enough to help you finish. Long, amiable conversations will conclude with the disturbing realization that none of the things the clerk was agreeing to bore any relation to what you were asking.

Then there is that most pernicious of good intentions, the desire to be helpful, even though one knows nothing. Rather than simply say "I don't know," people will send you wild-goose-chasing with fantasy directions like the ones I got from a local newsstand, telling me to go to a certain Skytrain stop. When I got there, it was deserted. A security guard told me to go to another one, the closest to Chinatown, and then catch a bus. Well, I thought, they always say catch a bus here, even if it's five blocks. I'll walk from the Skytrain station, instead.

And so there I was, late at night, wandering the dirty streets of Bangkok. As far as the eye could see, there was no one celebrating anything. Damn, I was hungry.

Even in the middle of nowhere, you will eventually find sustenance on a Bangkok street. I really was nowhere now -- there was nothing in the neighbourhood that would draw a visitor. But at a grungy corner, a string of street kitchens appeared like a lovely mirage and I crossed the street to chow down.

Barking, pointing and stabbing

A TV played some Thai movie for a few tables of diners as I stepped up to a stall. No English menus -- I started to point at noodles and greens and such. A man stepped up behind me, grabbed a Thai menu and began stabbing his finger at various items with irritation, barking the Thai names in my ear.

Something was trickling down my lower leg. It was run-off from a food display -- the fluid in the bucket beneath was a deep amber colour. I moved over to a table and sat down with two men. A guy -- the maitre d', I suppose -- came over and squeezed my shoulders. "My friends here," he wheezed. "It's OK. You sit with my friends."

He squeezed my arms a couple of times, his head just above my right shoulder. My two new friends looked over. Only now did I notice they were sloppy drunk.

The one across from me grinned and started saying something that I'm sure was unintelligible in whatever language was intended. He put his hands together and laid his head on them to mime slumber -- he seemed to be asking if I had been sleeping. It was about 10:30 PM. Was there perhaps something wrong with my hair?

This went on for awhile, me generally nodding and agreeing that sleep was good, or perhaps that I had experienced it recently, or maybe that I would like to try it again sometime. "Lai-lee?" he slurred with a grin. "Thai lai-lee?'

Thai ladies? They're very nice, I agreed. I respect them tremendously. He switched tacks. "Movie? You like movie? You know the movie…" -- here he turned his head sideways -- "Ah la la dee la? You know this movie: Ah na la wee la?"

I can only report what I heard, friends.

As I struggled to hold up my end of the discourse, I was becoming increasingly disturbed by the attentions of the maitre d'. Regularly he came over to reassure me that food was coming, each time taking liberties with my arms. I admit it's been a long time since I've been so tenderly squeezed, and my lack of gratitude is shameful. Nonetheless, I was getting understandably impatient for the grub.

Dopplegangers and delusions

The sodden movie buff was still trying to communicate with me, and the maitre d' stopped to listen. "He is trying to tell you," the maitre d' announced, "that you look like James Bond."

Finally, the proof -- white folks pretty much all look alike. Although, when I repeated that story to a California tourist, he nodded emphatically. "You do look like James Bond," he insisted.

Which one, I asked? "You know, what's-his-name," he said. "Michael Caine. You have the same glasses."

Ah, yes. That Bond. Personally, my favorite was always John Lennon.

The food finally arrived. My pointing had produced shrimp, snow peas, cauliflower and other succulent items, but no noodles, stir-fried in a soy-based sauce. Even here, under dubious circumstances and in sketchy company, the food was great. I admit though, I didn't pause to savour. Intense hoovering activity served to discourage conversation while hastening the moment of escape.

A Jackie Chan movie had been thrown in the DVD and my new friends were transfixed. I paid up and was halfway down the block before they noticed. Back in my hotel room, the goldfish greeted me eagerly. For all they knew, I was Sylvester Stallone. Next day in the Bangkok Post, I saw pictures of all the Chinese New Year celebrations. It looked like fun.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's culture critic at-large. To find previous dispatches from his current travels in Asia (and previous travels) go here.  [Tyee]

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