Cover pic for this post with an image of a tuk-tuk speeding by in traffic with the headline 'Geography? Or something else?'

Three-wheeling Culture, Free-wheeling Culture

My latest piece for thREAD, The Hindu’s online segment. After two pieces based around Bollywood, consciously decided to write about something else. And what better new place to do so than with Bangkok, which I recently visited? Find the published piece at the mentioned link and the original piece (with different visualization than on thREAD) below.

This piece on thREAD

When in Bangkok, take the tuk-tuk, I guess.

My friend and I had had a severe day in the sun. (Thailand is at the same coordinates as the southern half of India, and therefore, no less hot.) We had walked around Grand Palace, deciding eventually not to go in as it was swarming with tourists; it felt like a Noah’s ark of the world’s various nationalities, races and skin shades. We did walk all through Wat Pho complex though, which houses the famous Reclining Buddha, viewing almost all the pagodas and stepping into a few of them, and even caught a short documentary on respecting the iconography of the Buddha, mercifully in an AC stall. The iced tea, freezing lolly and cold fruits only offered so much respite. So, after finishing our excursion, we ambled to the nearby Tha Tien pier to cool down, with the water flowing by and the multitudes of boats (literally more Noah’s arks) coasting along. However, the waters too provided only so much comfort. So, clothes sticking and legs shrieking, we decided to call it a day and head to the hotel.

We tried to hail a taxi, in fact, many of them, but to little avail. It’s a very touristy area, and with that heat, all the farangs (Thai for ‘westerners’) had the same idea – be in the cold cocoon of an AC on wheels. Plus, for the same reasons, the few free drivers were refusing to ply by the meter. And then, in that heat-wave, my friend had a brainwave. “How about a tuk-tuk?”

I had thought this would be something I’d do on day four or five (it was only day two), but seized by spontaneity and perhaps a sense of mini-adventure, my eyes widened and my head nodded.

The tuk-tuk drivers though were no less non-compliant than the cab drivers (or Chennai’s in-famous autokaarans), and it took us a while to get one at our price. I think we finally managed only because both parties wanted desperately to get out of the heat and get moving.

As we sat down and the driver fired up the engine, my friend fired me up too, “Oh, this is going to be fun. We’re going to feel like Bond in that commercial.

Well, it didn’t, as Bangkok’s roads are as congested as many Indian metros’ during peak hours, plus the City of Angels kind of lives up to its name: drivers are more disciplined – way more disciplined – than people back home, allowing pedestrians right of way/walk all the time. So, we moved along more like Brosnan post-Bond.

Which actually proved to be quite good. Thanks to the easy pace, we were able to catch several sights and scenes that we hadn’t paid much attention to in the confines of the cab to the Palace. Plus, with the tuk-tuk open at the back too, even as we were cooling off, our heads were rotating avian-like in the three open directions. Corner temples, street-food kiosks, Buddha statues and elephant figures in crafts’ stores, high-rise after high-rise, bikers zipping past, fishermen making their way back with their catch… It was a swift montage of Bangkok. And the tuk-tuk being open on three sides helped: you could catch a complete story, like multiple pics stitched together on your smartphone photo app to provide a panoramic view. Why, just when I was marveling how self-regulated the traffic was – compared with riders and drivers back in India plying across every motorable and creating new ones – a duo zipped past on the pavement… in the opposite direction. They were gone by the time I swiveled around to catch them through the back-view. Turning back, my friend and I exchanged smiles. So, it doesn’t happen only in India.

Side view of a tuk-tuk seen through a car

We returned to the hotel, happy with knocking several items off our Bangkok to-do list (including a vehicular one) in one day, and had a Bond moment after all. Not having the exact fare, we let the driver “keep the change”. He beamed back like the manic motorman at the end of the Bond spot. (Was he the same guy, now 20 years older?)

Easing off in the hotel room, I looked back at the day, especially the scenes and sounds during the tuk-tuk ride. I was particularly fascinated by how the tuk-tuk is open on all but one side, and even on the sides, much more than autos back home. For the rains, it seems they do put on plastic sheets, but these are transparent, so you can still see the outside. Also, I did notice a safety cord rolled up on the embarkment side that could be fastened to prevent passengers from spilling out during a specially hefty swerve and becoming roadkill. I also recalled several tuk-tuks crammed with people, something like Chennai’s share autos. (These were all Thai folk; the farangs preferred to hire the tuk-tuks only for themselves, just as friend and I.) So, I guess being so open is a practical thing – to allow air for all the passengers when it’s packed. Or on similar lines, a geographical consideration – with so much heat around, you don’t want your commute to become hot too, so to allow criss-cross-ventilation. Or maybe even a tourism thing – enable visitors to catch a grand sweep of the surroundings, both horizontally (shops and stores) and vertically (skyscrapers), without the need to crick or crane their neck. Sweet.

I then started thinking of tuk-tuks, or autos, back in India. The way they are designed according to the geography and climate of the place.

A Chennai autorickshawIn Chennai, autos are painted a bright orange-yellow (compared with all-black with just a band of yellow in Mumbai, where I’ve lived the longest and “lived in autos”), perhaps to reflect off the city’s immense heat and thus provide additional comfort to passengers. (For the same reason, why can’t they ply by the meter?)

A Bombay / Mumbai autorickshawI also find that the sides of the auto’s roofs in Chennai don’t come down as much as they do in Mumbai (in Mumbai, they come to a bit below the average Indian male’s eye-level), perhaps to allow more air to come in.

I continued exploring in my head. Goa’s autos have a door, possibly to keep out the sand and dust as, I guess, many of them ply to beaches and into village belts, which actually begin soon after city areas.

A Delhi autorickshaw

Delhi’s autos are yellow and green. Light colours, again I guess to not absorb the city’s torrid summer heat. The relatively recent e-autos in Delhi do look similar to the tuk-tuk, but are much smaller and slower. So, razzmatazzy Thai three-wheeler seems to be special in the fashion of being open on three sides. Wow, geography playing a role in product design. Interesting. Though when you think about it, not entirely surprising.

However, it was only when were at Chatuchak market, known to be the world’s biggest weekend market, that Sunday, after soaking in a bit more of Bangkok, when I sought to buy a model tuk-tuk as a souvenir for home, that it struck me, ‘What if the reason (for the tuk-tuk being so open) is not geographical but cultural?’ Maybe it’s open because… the city is a very open city.

Cover of the book 'Ladyboys'The city, and the country, are known as the Sex Capital of the World. (The City of Angels and the City of Sex Angels?) The city that has “happy-ending” massage bars (straight as well as gay) right next to standard bars. The city where on returning from dinner, you see pleasure-girls sitting in the hotel lobby, chatting merrily with the staff while they wait for their customers, and the staff doesn’t snigger, neither at the pleasure-providers nor at the pleasure-seekers. A city where kathoey, or ladyboys (transgender folk), can be themselves openly and hold jobs not just in the flesh and ancillary trades, but even in “respectable” ones such as retail and airlines (the other places I noticed the country’s almost-ubiquitous ladyboys). A city where twenty-somethings walk around with hot-shorts so short they reveal butt-cheeks. Actually, just one. (Or was that because she had got out from the wrong side of a… tuk-tuk?) So, why would the tuk-tuk here not be open? After all, what’s to hide? And who’s judging? At least not, um, openly.

The inside of a Bombay / Mumbai autorickshawAnd maybe the same applies to three-wheelers back home. Maybe Mumbai’s autos are black and the sides of the roof come a little lower to shroud you a bit, like a burqa. The black outside (the burqa analogy again) also makes it a bit dark inside, so that fellow commuters can’t have a proper peer-in, in a city that is high on high-rises but low on privacy. For the same reason, perhaps the sides of the roof are just below eye-level so you avoid making eye-contact with other commuters.

Maybe Chennai’s autos are designed to be, or at least feel, as spacious as deeply-desired thani veedus (independent homes): there’s ample light and air coming through. And people looking in is perhaps not such an issue for a city that has middle-aged men walking around in those veedus in vests or even bare-chested and with veshtis hoicked up much of the time.

Neon sign for 'Mumbai Open 24 Hrs'And what about Goa’s doored autos? That I’ll leave to uncover during my next holiday there, but it does bring me to this question. If privacy is so coveted in a place like Mumbai, how come the autos there are not Goa-style, with doors? Ah, in a city that never sleeps, one that’s ever on the run, in India’s Financial Capital, in time-strapped Mumbai, who has the time to open and close public-vehicle doors, that too when they are in rapid transit? See, it really seems to be a culture thing.

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Composite image with the overlay text 'Vegan in Bangkok: Day 4'

IrfindingVegan… In Bangkok | Day 4: You vegan some, you don’t some…

IrfindingVegan Logo

By Day 4, I was set in Bangkok, knowing what to expect (of the day) and what to suspect (of the food).

A day well begun…

Variants of Tofusan, a popular soymilk brand in ThailandWe had stocked up, so in the morning, woke up to hot black coffee made by self using the room’s electric kettle. After that had made its way through my system and into my head, helped myself to the other soymilk brand I had brought, Tofusan. It proved to a bit raw for my taste, both the plain and the one with the tofu sheet (it felt like eating and drinking at the same time), so expunged the taste with the mango-sized rose apples. Then, to F2’s (friend two, vegetarian) room for the staple of theplas with chutney, then back to my room to shower and get ready, and then while friends were still getting ready, dashed to Villa Market for more of the manic and manna-ic Vegemil almond & walnut soymilk. Smacking my lips for the treat that awaited at night, I was ready for the day – a trip to the Chatuchak market, famous as the world’s largest weekend market.

“No thanks”

We took the metro, friends bought some snacks (non-vegan; chocolates, I think), offered me, then immediately realized I “can’t have it” (I corrected them with “I don’t have it”, but I don’t think that registered with them), then at the last station bought some more snacks (a cake slice, if I remember correctly), with the same responses and reactions from both sides, and then made our way to the market.

Seafood on the rocks, erm, woks

The main lane at Chatuchak market, BangkokBy now, I knew what to expect in any touristy area of Bangkok: a microcosm of the world walking up and down and a macrocosm of the sea world being cooked in woks up and down. So, walked up and down myself unfazed. As the friends shopped for their families back home (they were to shop more later, at Tesco, so I was happy buying only small curios to gift back home), they started feeling the heat. An hour or so down, they paused for coconut ice cream, made fresh before the eyes. And we went through the motions again: “Here”, “Oh, ya, you can’t have this”, “That’s ok” (me), “You want something else?” By now, I had also become used to not eating for prolonged periods in Bangkok; but that was fine, for like a camel, I had tanked up with two versions of breakfast in the morning (my room and friend’s room). (Survival tip: When vegan and travelling internationally, eat like a king when you can, which is typically at breakfast, which you can control as it’s inside.)

Ivory tower

The friends continued shopping, and my interest started waning a bit, or rather, it was caught by something else. A stall exhorting tourists not to buy ivory products in Thailand. I went over, looked at the posters and materials on display, took one each along with a badge I planned to give my nephew, and then tried to speak with the group (a fair mix of guys and girls) manning the counter. But due to the language problem (or should I say ‘ploblem’; mean!), it got lost in translation, or rather, didn’t even get picked up. So, I had to be content with just stuffing the communication in my backpack.

The kiosk at Chatuchak market in Bangkok urging tourists not to buy illegal products

When I came back to the hotel and read it carefully, I was encouraged to read the Thai government’s efforts to reduce the illegal ivory trade. But on reading between the lines, I felt discouraged thinking that they seem to be okay with the “legal ivory trade”. Something told me they sell off ivory from “domesticated” elephants (after killing them of course, once they are past their “expiry date”), and the whole industry of domesticating elephants for entertainment and work / transportation – along with that of tigers, at the in/famous Tiger Temple on the way from Bangkok to Pattaya – is, as any vegan would tell you, cruel in its own way. But again, I was in their country…

Shopping done, and tired to their teeth, the friends decided to move to their next shopping destination, the equally large but ACed Tesco. We hailed a cab, they dozed off in it (I kept my eyes peeled not just because I was in front, but because everything was so new to me; they in contrast were virtual veterans in Thailand by now), and sometime later reached our destination.

Testing times at Tesco

Camel in the desert

When vegan and in a foreign land, you have to become a camel and keep going with what you’ve consumed a while back…

By now, we were famished – I was too; I could only be the Ship of the Vegan Desert for so long – and looked for a place to eat. But what I had faced at Central World the previous evening – food, food everywhere, but not an ounce vegetarian / vegan – all of us faced together. After two rounds and a lot of piercing looking, I spotted a kiosk that offered two variants of vegetarian bun with stuffing, one mushroom, the other plain. F2 was designated the test subject. (F1, non-vegetarian, plays it safe all the time. F2 doesn’t mind accidentally munching non-veg. F3, me, is already battling too much on the food front.) He popped it in, and kept swinging with every chew: “Phew, it’s veg”, “Ew, it’s not”… Neither F1 nor me was going to risk it, and so we decided to head to… McDonald’s. What did I say the first day itself that out of India, you need to survive on fries / potato when veg / vegan?

The grass ain’t greener on the foreign side

It’s only in India, I guess, you look at food through two eyes, or rather, two symbols, a circle within a thin-outlined box, in either of two colours: green (for veg) and red (for non-veg). Outside India, I realised, even in McDonald’s (where in India there are separate cooking sections and separate indicators for the meats and the non-meats), everything is one big menu. I think outside India, if you ask for veg, they will show you the door… to the grazing field. So, fries and orange juice it was. (They seemed to have this option, which they don’t in India, plus I was fed up of Coke.) While refueling, all we could say was, “At night, we really need to eat.” Or better put, at night we need to really eat.

We returned to the hotel, plonked all the bags, rested our aching bodies, decided we needed a good foot massage, and after some rest, headed for just that.

Relaxed body, aching mind

Exterior of Prauw Massage, a popular massage parlour in BangkokWe decided to indulge ourselves and went for a two-hour session instead of one hour as we had originally planned. We leaned back on the easy chairs at Prauw Massage, and gave in. It was only the second time ever I had received a foot massage by a woman (back home, I get a nice head massage by the guy at the saloon once a month when I go for a haircut, and have always felt guys do it better – you need someone tougher to do it on a tougher body and skin, no sexism intended), so I was a bit queasy. But a bigger point of discomfort was the thought: ‘Does the cream have any animal ingredients?’ At the end, due to the language differences and not wishing to irk my friends more than I had seemingly done so throughout the trip with my, or rather, their “Oh, you can’t have this…”, I decided to drop my vegan guard for those two hours. Maybe that’s why the massage wasn’t so restful for me.

Signboard of Aryaa's Restaurant, Bangkok, serving 100% vegetarian foodBy now, our appetites were really worked up, but we had planned it judiciously: Aryaa’s, the veg restaurant from Day 1, was on the floor above. By now, we were familiar faces there (the friends have come there on earlier trips too), and our menu was familiar too. Still, we attempted a couple of new items (one of them “Hyderabad Veg Masala”, which I didn’t seem too hot about), and this time, of course, no rumaali roti for me.

“No thanks” – The sequel

When the food came, and F2 started swirling the Hyderabad Veg Masala to dissipate the trapped heat, I noticed chunks of white in it. Ouch, paneer. ‘What will you do now’, F2’s eyes looked askance. F1, as if, responded with, “It’s okay, let the paneer be and have the gravy…” Ah, that old chestnut. I reminded him, “When I gave up eating non-veg, you would tell me the same thing, and I still wouldn’t…” None of us wanted to have a repeat of the Day 2 friction, so we kept silent, and F2 had most of the experimental dish he had ordered.

A really good night…

We were really bushed, came back, barely exchanged GNs, and crashed. Or at least, they did. I had my multiple packs of Vegemil almond & walnut soymilk to make love to.

This is the penultimate part of a five-part series on how to be vegan in Bangkok, or at least try. Parts one, two, three are linked below. And watch out for the final part tomorrow, which combines Days 5 and 6…

Day 1: All’s Well

Day 2: All’s Not Well

Day 3: Getting One Back