They, of the Incandescent Soul, part 3
The Best Beer in Thailand
November 13, 2003
Written by MartinT
Bangkok. The Londoner Brewpub. Doesn’t it sound exotic? Call me profane and heretical but, honestly, a brewpub tour of Bangkok was not an appealing idea to me before I left for Thailand (if I knew they were doing something endemic to their culture, I’d have been as excited as any other brewpub, mind you). Then, as thirsty as camels on their last reserves, we stumble upon this mock-English brewpub (not exactly a coincidence my shoulder devil says) and decide to give it a shot. Two beers on tap only. A pilsner and a bitter. Woohoo. Moreover, the prices are completely ridiculous for the majority of Thai people, as they mimic those of most occidental brewpubs (3-4$US for a pint). So, of course, only white people in this establishment. Not exactly our idea of otherworldly discovery. But our noses delve onwards into our mugs and take a deep whiff…Sweet mother of Gambrinus! There is good beer in Thailand after all! The “London Pilsner 33” is a stellar, hop peppery pilsner with a huge malt body, the heftiest of all pilsners I’ve had in fact. Some purists may say that it’s a bit too big. I’m not complaining. Citrus fruit endlessly play in the interstices of the flourishing hops and a second helping quickly follows. The bitter is also quite honourable. Same hop signature, very smoky and lactic, a sweet caramel-laden orange comes to mind. Oh how the following Thai bottles will appear dull after these lush wonders…
<B<>(DAY = 27 W.A., YEAR = 2546)
TUK-TUKS, TEMPLES AND BREWPUBS
If you ever want to know what it’s like to smoke hot diesel fumes through a bong, just hire a 3-wheeled tuk-tuk through the streets of Bangkok. Our mask-wearing driver takes us to the Grand Palace and Wat Poh, where exquisite intricacies and the grandiose wealth of artistry and spirituality converge. Massive statues of gold and emerald in gigantic shining temples of blazing hues and infinitely dense and complex imagery boggle our hungry eyes and minds. This glorious shrine to Buddha is a million-watt stadium light bulb and yet manages to be the paragon of reverence, meditation and peace. Simply amazing. The only place in Thailand we have encountered disagreeable people though have been places of bustling tourist commerce : around the Grand Palace and the Damnoen Saduak floating market. Maybe because this is the low season and these people are getting short on money. Maybe because they are accustomed to having an unusually highly profitable business, compared to the majority of Thai people, and they have become greedy and aggressive. At Damnoen Saduak, merchants were literally blocking our way to harass us with the shirts and paraphernalia they wanted us to buy. A true disgrace to the prevailing Buddhist code of behaviour. It’s a shame we didn’t have any suitable leech protectors for this kind of bloodsucker. Around the Grand Palace and Wat Poh, Thailand’s premier tourist attractions (and understandably so), tuk-tuk drivers and merchants flat-out lie to you, naïve alien, to take you to where they hope you will buy something. “The temple is closed now, the monks are praying”…”But I can take you to…” and so on. And most gullible fish bite very easily. Until they come back a few hours later and they are told the same gobbledegook. And then they laugh and are a bit disappointed by this outright mendacious behaviour. (At any point in this paragraph, by the way, if you feel like it, you can change “they” to “yours truly”…but you don’t have to).
But aside from these few money-soiled soulless predators, the people of Thailand have been the highlight of this wonderful trip so far. Their incandescence reverberates through their talking eyes and radiant smiles, and their gracious helpfulness is truly inspiring to this North-American used to mind his own business.
THE SMALLEST CROWD THEY HAD EVER SEEN
Tawandang Brewhouse. 4:00 pm. 2 thirsty customers. 200 staring employees. Quite an astonishing site for a couple used to meandering through artisanal, and thus regularly quaint and small, brewpubs. This mammoth-style building though is endemic to Bangkok it seems, as like Brew Pavilion and Orbit, two other Bangkok brewpubs, they host medium-sized rock concerts to which about 1000 people can attend. The day of our tasting, to the amazed gawkers’ delight, there seemed to be an amazing show in the works for that very evening. I have no idea if some people actually come here to do some tastebud gymnastics, but I’ll attempt a supposition and say that very few do. The gaping gaze of the adolescent waiters towards our mere presence here at this hour (“The concert starts in 4 hours! What in the world are they doing here?”) and the absence of English speakers were sufficient proof, IMHO, to this hypothesis. So, it is this gigantic venue that we would indulge in some fine German beers. The Weizen is an excellent crispy rendition, full of bananas and refreshment, just like the Dunkel (called Dunken) whose smoky chocolate and fruity earthiness put away my Thai beer boredom. Now, heading for Brew Pavilion
(DAY = 28 W.A., YEAR = 1546)
TONY’S BREWHOUSE…WHAT AN INNOCENT FRONT…
So we were in a taxi on our way to Brew Pavilion when we see the formidable shine of stainless steel in the distance. Hey, do we have a new brewpub here? Pleading our driver to drop us off here and not at Ratchadaphisek Road (Brew Pavilion address), we try to shrug off his shame for not having taken us to destination even if we’d explained to him we had found another place we wanted to visit. He just wouldn’t accept our money…Oh well! New Brewpub!! The first step we took into Tony’s Brewhouse was memorable. This is the closest brewpub/bordello combination I’ve ever seen! Luckily, we are very early (around dinner time) and are alone in this more than dubious establishment. Marie is not sure the “Don’t go home alone” sign above the bar means what I think it means, but a visit to the men’s restrooms a few minutes later though puts a bit more weight on my side of the argument balance. Littered with pornographic images and neon lights, this restroom put a huge smile on my face, one that did not leave until we had exited. When I told this to Marie, she immediately echoed my laughter and we remained grinning childishly the whole half-hour it took to taste their 3 brews. If few people visit Tawandang to actually taste the beer, how many do you think come here to partake in tongue libations…Sorry, couldn’t resist…Anyway, the beers were forgettable and craftless, but the place was quite a hoot.
(DAY = Whaa?, YEAR = Long ago)
TREKKING INTO THE PAST
Leaving Bangkok in the wake of an almighty tempest. The tunnel we take to reach the depths of the past is the 14-hour overnight train to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. Not unlike our first overnight ride a few weeks earlier, involuntary muscle spasms plead me to rest and a couple eyelid twitches convince me that I’ll have enough time to breathe in the scenery on my upcoming 3-day trek in the jungle. The dream hammer pounds me senseless and that’s that…
The bubbling geysers of the Pong Duead hot spring signal the entrance into Huay Nam Dang National Park. Humble shame and yet relief arise as we learn that our two guides will also act as porters during our 3-day peregrination through the hilltribe villages, jungles and mountains of Huay Nam Dang. We still carry our personal effects but all those water bottles and various foods rest on the learned, heavyset shoulders of Dtaw and Leno. We did not throw any hissy fits about it. As if this experience was not disorienting enough, the sky suddenly decides, a mere five minutes after we have started to hike, to open the floodgates and teach us what a downpour can feel like in the middle of a rainforest. Wet and sweat soon combine, as mud and jungle attempt to confine. The beautiful thing about this is that wetness does have a saturation point and from that moment on, you feel like your skin and clothes are constantly coated with regenerating layers of liquid refreshment. Anyway, you have to think positively like this or your hygienic-self will go nuts.
Soon after the rain stops (2 hours or so later according to my mental sundial), we discover a truly intriguing little critter : the leech. Latching on to our shoes as we walk by them, they surreptitiously climb up our bodies at work in order to find a nice patch of skin for their gory, vampirish picnic. The funny thing is that you don’t feel them at all, unless you are able to distinguish their initial sinking of the teeth from all other mosquito bites and whipping branches you politely swear at. Until, that is, you take off your boots (for example) and discover a small pool of blood ruining your sock and that squirmy little sucker with a blood moustache and a huge, childish grin (this is pure speculation of course, although I can tell you the one I had was big enough to have a grin.)
The day hike into the lush mountains leads us to a Karen hilltribe village where we spend the evening relaxing, cooking and sleeping in a bamboo shack built by the tribesmen. We are informed that tomorrow evening, after the day trek, elephants will take us to the Lahu tribe village where we will spend our second evening in the jungle. I like this!
Deepest reaches of the night...Pitch black...And...BANG!!! We were in the middle of a tropical jungle in the mountains of deep northern Thailand, sleeping like the rest of the diurnal hilltribe village and there was a freakin’ GUNSHOT!!! And it was really close to us, maybe on the other side of the nearby river! Our 2 fellow trekkers also woke up of course and worried whispers hissed away. The sound of the gunshot was still bouncing on the river rocks when we decided to stop moving. Not to attract any attention you see. An imaginative mind can go nuts in these situations. Two imaginative minds echoed sinister portraits and became totally paranoid. It is then that all became silent. “Should we ask Dtaw (our guide) what that was?”, our fellow trekkers mumble. We answer with a resounding “Maybe...”. So after thinking about it for a few seconds, we let them get up and inquire. We’re that courageous. Eventually, news came back that it probably was a hunting blowgun for the next day’s feast. Shit...they could’ve told us something...it’ll take a while before I sleep again.
Waking up to the sound of pigs, chickens, dogs and water buffaloes is quite new to me. Waking up to the honest and shining faces of cultural and personal strangers serves as a good mindslap as well. These are settlers from centuries ago and their lifestyle has practically not changed. While we peacefully eat breakfast overlooking the Mae Tang River and the bathing water buffalo herd, some of the village’s men are building a bamboo raft for us to make the journey back to our century. This very portrait symbolises many things, I think, some of which I probably cannot grasp right now. I don’t know if they accept the frequent intrusions into their lives of us hairy and plump giants adorned, or so they tell us, by a prevalent lactic perfume. I don’t know if they truly are at peace with the fact they have to share the land they have inhabited and taken care of for so long, with all thrill-seeking adventurers who come through this remote area of a now government-controlled jungle. Maybe they are happy to send us back where we belong, where we won’t be able to gawk at their differences and their apparent stubbornness to thwart evolution and change. But at moments they are so magnanimous that they prove us they are not that distant in space and time from common, modern Thai people.
So after eating a healthy breakfast and thanking our gracious hosts, we embark on the shiftiest regatta ever built, praying we’ll get to our meeting point before the freshly-cut bamboo shreds to pieces in a dangerous slalom through jagged river rocks. I mean this thing barely floats. In all we are six on the raft, which is 3 feet wide and maybe 30 feet long. Of course, there are no handles to grip. Of course there are no places to sit. Of course, in these moments, sanity is hard to grip as well. But they do give us this handy bamboo stick. Didn’t I say they were gracious? So after trying to keep our balance for over 2 hours, and failing miserably a couple times, we got to the edge of the river, thigh muscles screaming, where a nice plate of Pad Thai (that traditional Thai noodle dish, with eggs, chicken, fish sauce, etc.) was waiting for us, surrounded by the freshest and juiciest mangoes I had ever eaten. An immense draft of well-being grasped us and still, to this day, has been carrying us. From this moment on, complaining about mundane trivialities such as weather, material breakdown and acquaintances’ attitudes was a thing of the past. And I truly hope it will remain that way for a long time. So, back in Chiang Mai, after a couple Thai masseuses had played painful, yet soothing flesh harp melodies on our aching muscles, we have to accept the fact we were going back home. One last brewpub, at our commute to Bangkok airport, the aforementioned Lunar Brewhouse, will be visited to help achieve closure. One strong lager and 3 ordinary tasters later, our feet had taken a last step on Asian ground for a while.
(June 8th, 2003)
ALL THE LIGHT IN THE LIGHT OF ALL
Thai people resonate more in my mind than the beautiful and sometimes breathtaking landscapes I have seen in their country. They do so because these people are incandescent. Their mere presence and demeanour transmit warmth and respect for all that is living. Their souls emit a tangible light that illuminates all who desire to partake in its brilliance. They do not have the luxury of residing in a land as abundant and rich as ours, monetarily speaking of course. They are not blessed by the omnipresent availability of diversity. They cannot afford to offer themselves the many hedonistic pleasures we can surround ourselves with. But in light of all, they breathe all the light in the light of All. And they are happy to share this radiance with whoever wishes so. And I am very grateful for their benevolence.
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The first step we took into Tony’s Brewhouse was memorable. This is the closest brewpub/bordello combination I’ve ever seen!
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