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.

An edited featuring Leonardo Caprio from 'The Revenant' with a bison inset and header text for the post

IrfindingVegan… In Bangkok | Days 5 & 6 – Milling Around, Vegemilling Around

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Day 5: Breakfast with Leo

Day 5 began just the way Day 4 had ended, by making gastronomic love to Vegemil – all its variants. Two packs of crazily yummy almond and walnut (A&W – A&Wesome?), a pack of decent black bean, and a pack of another variant that slips my tongue, er, mind. Followed by the standard room breakfast with friends over thepla and aachaar, and accompanied by the Oscars (it was Monday, Feb 29 in Bangkok).

Dithering and dilly-dallying (our own Piggy Chops was to present an award), we finally pulled ourselves out as Leo finally won his Oscar. Ruminating over whether veg folk have to eventually eat non-veg (bison liver) to attain success, I got ready for a day of work and shopping with F1 (friend 1, non-vegetarian). F2 (friend 2, vegetarian) was staying in to catch up on mails as his vacation was ending and his work was resuming (after our holiday, he was to stay there till the weekend for a conference).

Photo of Leonardo Caprio from 'The Revenant' with an inset photo of a bison

Thankfully, it didn’t come down to eating bison liver in Bangkok…

The last shopping spree

F1 and I spent a couple of hours in the wholesale market for his product and eventually left disappointed as he felt he hadn’t achieved what he wanted to on this trip and so it was a disaster. To assuage that perhaps, he then hit the shopping zones again. We went first to MBK (like a giant and hip Spencer Plaza in Chennai) and then to Robinson’s (Bangkok’s version of Shoppers Stop and Lifestyle, I figured) for some clothes-shopping.

Where’s the green?

Out for four hours by now, we decided to address our increasing rumbles. We resolved to play it really safe our last day in Bangkok and before a flight, so zoned in on Subway. Subway in India has a good deal of vegan options (if you don’t have any of the cream servings and sauces), so I was happy. In we go, I look around, and get a feeling of Day 4 déjà vu: where are the symbols and boards for green / veg and red / non-veg, as in India?The green and red symbols for veg and non-veg, so ubiquitous in India

They are obviously not there, and you end up ruminating over culture (these signs and symbols are given in a country like India, and perhaps India alone – I don’t think any other country is as vegetarian as India) and history (India indeed must have been the birthplace of many a civilization and culture – Buddhism, attitude toward animals, food choices).

Really, where’s the green?

But you can only mull over this for a minute and then need to get practical again: you haven’t eaten for four hours, your legs are whining from all the walking, and there’s only so much fries and Coke you can do. My sharp eyes, rather, contact lenses, spotted ‘Vegetarian’ written after all. Ah, where there’s a vegan, there’s a way… I go up to the counter, look around, and then ask the lady attendant very softly (as I would have crumbled if she had replied in the vegan-negative), “What is the vegetarian option? I don’t seem to see it…” She smiled, went to the fridge and pulled out three patties. Oh, right, where’s the demand here? I went ahead with it, with my usual selections of: multigrain bread (doesn’t have milk), no cheese, no sauces that have mayo. It’s ready, I bite, and I’m in India again.

Refuelled, we decide to shop again, this time for food, F1 for the extra time he’d be spending in Bangkok compared with me (I was leaving first; he would leave 12 hours later as he had some pending work) and for back home. While he bought a few items, I looked around for Vegemil and not spotting it there, decided to keep my shopping for Villa Market nearer the hotel.

The last Vegemils

The many variants of Vegemil soymilkIt was early evening by the time we returned to the hotel. I of course had Vegeville, or Villa Market, to go to. I put in four packs of A&W (I wanted to put in more, but reminded myself that I was flying tomorrow, that too early morning, that too alone), a pack each of the black bean and the one-whose-name-I-can’t-remember, a pack then of the kiddie flavours (I wanted to have my fill of Vegemil – Vegefil? – before leaving), and then to show that I wasn’t biased toward a Korean brand in Thailand, I decided to take in a bottle each of HomeSoy. To eat, I put a ready-to-make cup each of porridge and flavoured rice from another brand I can’t remember. Who said I didn’t shop in Thailand?

The last dinner

Dinner, our last together in Bangkok on this trip, was a good-natured one – at our favourite Aryaa’s, with tried-and-tested items (mine was daal khichdi), and with no friction-inciting conversation. We ended with an observation: the food here seems better than back at home, at least most places back home. And then got the realization: as there are fewer takers here than back home, they make the food fresh rather than make it and keep heating it over and over again. You always see things afresh when outside your home zone.

Back at the hotel, the friends educated me on the procedures at the airport. I would like to think they were seriously thoughtful about my first solo unaccompanied international flight than about the edibles they were transporting back through me. “If you reach a hitch, message us…” they trailed off.

Pack-shot of HomeSoy soymilkI came back, packed my stuff, and decided to wash the food down with HomeSoy. Er, the night wouldn’t end well, if that was its taste. (Also, it wasn’t Thai, but Malaysian; so Thailand got back at me.) I decided to have one, then two Vegemils, but only two – I wanted to leave some manna for the morning.

Day 6: The last Vegemil

A pack of Vegemil Almond and Walnut SoymilkI managed to get up at the alarm. Perhaps the prospect of winding my trip with A&Wesome helped me do so? Coffee done, ready-to-cook porridge (felt a bit coarse) and rice (nice) done, Vegemil black bean done, Vegemil other done, Vegemil A&W last-but-one done. I was staring at the last pack. Like a lover who was separating. But not without one last kiss. I pulled out the straw, pierced the opening, and gave in to it.

As if to allow the taste of it to linger, the security officials at the airport asked me to throw out my two bottles of water.

Going through the procedures as guided by my friends and after checking with an attendant there, I was at the boarding gate. No more deep-brown food, only deep-brown faces. I was getting home.

Day 6: Mid-air mercies

An hour into the flight, the trolley came trolleying. I hadn’t done a web check-in this time, so hadn’t indicated my vegan preference. I asked for the veg meal, with the thought that I would follow my SOP of letting the non-vegan items be. Mercifully, it was South Indian / Tamil food (vada, sambar, upma). And more mercies, it was not made in South India / Tamil Nadu, but by an India-sensitized Thai catering service, so it didn’t have ghee. To me, that spelt glee.

Day 6: Land ahoy, such joy

Landing, I again proceeded as the friends had instructed, going into the Nothing to Declare lane although I was carrying dairy products (F1’s chocolates and two bottles of some flavoured milk brand). I felt all sinister thinking I was sneaking in contraband, though F1 later joked that this little amount doesn’t count.

Rose applesAt the immigration counter, there was a bit of crowd, so I pulled out the last red rose apples I had kept and chomped into them. The last bit of Bangkok in me.

Immigration check done, I went into Duty Free, as each of the friends had asked me to pick up a carton of ciggies and a bottle of wine (for their brothers and friends back home). I found neither brand, and was secretly happy. I hadn’t bought any anti-vegan, anti-health items in Bangkok, and I guess I wasn’t going to do it here.

I had managed to be vegan throughout the trip, give or take a few. Not bad for your first international trip ever, that too to South-East Asia aka Seafood Asia. You know, I deserved an Oscar myself for this achievement.

This is the final part of a five-part series on being vegan in Bangkok, or at least trying. Read the previous parts here.

Day 1: All’s Well

Day 2: All’s Not Well

Day 3: Getting One Back

Day 4: You Vegan Some, You Don’t Some

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

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

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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



Ad for Lactasoy soymilk showing all its variants

IrfindingVegan… In Bangkok | Day 3 – Getting One Back

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1 – 1. The score-line read after two days in Bangkok. One day that was good on the vegan front, one day that wasn’t on the friend front. So, which way would day three go? Read on…

Same old, same old

By now, we had slipped into a routine. Wake up, finish ablutions, meet up in F2’s (friend two, vegetarian) room for a breakfast of thepla and khakra. But there’s only so much of T&K you can have. So, we decided to have less of it today and head out for proper breakfast, at Dosa King. We would have brunch of sorts, skipping proper lunch, as we were going with F1 (friend 1, non-vegetarian) to an exhibition he had come to the city for.

Kingly setting, kingly price

Exterior of Dosa King restaurant in BangkokDosa King was nice and spacious, and more decorous than last night’s Bukhara’s, and showed in its prices: breakfast here was as steep as dinner there. But then, your food in a foreign land always costs dearer. (Saravana Bhavan has opened up in Amsterdam recently, and a tumbler of filter coffee there costs… Rs 300.) I asked for upma – I had already had soymilk and the theplas, so was quite full. But I lingered with the menu – it held my attention not just due to the fascinatingly high prices, but because it was entirely visual, that is, every item was mentioned not in a list as in a traditional menu but had images showing the dish in its full finesse. Brilliant strategy: patrons aren’t confused, neither are the Thai staff (while the managers were Indian, many of the serving staff were Thai). The friends had paper and masala dosas. We finished brunch quickly, paid reluctantly, and took a cab speedily.

Nothing to talk about – vegan-wise – at the exhibition as it was one big walk after another, F1 checking out lots of stuff, F2 buying a lot of stuff, and me storing all that stuff as I was the only one with the backpack. There were food-stalls and a café there, but we were too busy and also didn’t want to take a chance.

Villa Market, a supermarket in Soi 11, BangkokBut food was on our mind. On our way back, we decided to stock up on breakfast for the rest of our stay there – we wanted to go beyond the Indian stuff we had brought but didn’t want to have overpriced breakfast that too almost at lunch-time. So, we headed to the nearby supermarket, Villa Market, which was an organic and foreign foods’ paradise. Most fruits looked as big as a watermelon, which was surprisingly missing, so we don’t know how big watermelons are there. As big as a ruby? (Thailand is called the Ruby Capital of the World.) The fruits, not surprisingly, were highly priced too. I am yet to come across three bananas for 80 bucks (am talking INR here), so I passed. F1 bought a lot of red rose apples, all as big as a normal mango in India. And then we hit the cold store section. Paradise.

Soymilk Capital of the World

Actually, first, it was hell – as there was tons of red around. And then in the dairy section, well, tons of dairy. But somewhere in the section, were to be found little rubies for me: packs upon packs of soymilk. Of different brands, sizes and variants. And the price, unlike the fruits, very cheap / reasonable: some 14 bucks, some 30, some 60 (again, INR). So, where Bangkok ODed (for the vegan) on seafood, it made up for in soymilk. I started visualizing settling down there. I heaped in one pack / bottle of each brand / variant – whichever was good, I would come tomorrow for repeats. And then, went into the next aisle… where there were more soymilk brands. I started visualizing settling down in that aisle.

Three variants of Tofusan, a popular Thai brand of soymilk

Into the basket went these. Tofusan (in India, I guess, that would mean ‘Tofuji’, as ‘san’ I understood is a form of respect for males in Thailand) in plain, with sesame seeds, with a tofu sheet (hmm, how would that be?). More Lactasoy. Good old Silk, but without the import price it has in India. And a new brand called Vegemil. It had different variants: almond and walnut (sounded very promising) and a couple of kiddie flavours. I wanted to extend my trip already.

We went back to the hotel, deposited our stash, and they decided to stay in. They were too whacked after all the hopping and shopping and wanted to do very Bangkoky Saturday night things (don’t ask). I wasn’t game, and saying that we could very well do separate / individual things, headed for the nearby mall. They seemed too tired to resist.

Little Arabia, lotta horrors

Soi Arab, the Arab quarter in Sukhumvit, BangkokI didn’t know which mall I’d go to – there were tons on the way – but I started walking. For the heck of it, I decided to walk through the Arab quarter (known locally as Soi Arab), as I was seeing tons of Arabs streaming out of this lane, like they were returning from Mecca. (Umm, I didn’t realise I had a fascination for Arabs; damn Russell Peters.) But big mistake. Watching dead seafood, which we had been doing all throughout, is not as grisly as seeing stripped, naked, beheaded chickens on skewers; taking in overpowering smells of big meats and of strong spices to mask those smells; noticing tossed-out inedible parts, with bits of flesh still sticking… But hey, here I could afford to display my disgust: this wasn’t a Thai space after all. But only a bit: those Arabs are huge, you know.

I came to a big crossing, saw a big mall there (Central World), sensed a big buzz, and decided this is where I’d hang for the evening. There was a weekend market in full swing, of both fashion and food. Mercifully, here, the food didn’t trouble me too much as there were so many competing sights and sounds, from buyers and shopkeepers alike. I waded through some of these stalls, but they seemed very teenyboppery, so decided to enter the main mall.

Hunger strikes at the mall

A few floors up, I started thinking, malls seem to be the same everywhere, just that the brands and buyers are different. And okay, this one is huger than most Indian malls, except the ones at Gurgaon, from what I’ve heard. Five floors up, a book purchase down, and a movie ticket in, I was getting hungry. Remember, I had not really had anything since upma at Dosa King. The top two floors was the food court; yes, two whole floors. I was in luck. Or. So. I. Thought.

Omu, a Japanese restaurant on the food court at Central World mall, BangkokI looked. And looked. And then some more. And couldn’t see beyond seafood, seafood, and more seafood. From all the different South-East Asian countries, and even from China and Japan. And as if this wasn’t enough, there was fusion food from these countries. And for a change from seafood, there was “good” old pizza – all non-veg, of course, so forget vegan – and even steakhouses. I was done in. My face was falling. My spirit was crushing. What would I eat? And no, not fries at McD’s or KFC.

And keeps striking…

I spotted an oasis – a supermarket. I went in and scoured. No relief. I spotted an Indian counter there – Mrs Balbir’s restaurant – but good old Punjabi / Sardarni Mrs Balbir, even if she gives up her butter chicken can’t give up her palak paneer. So, all the veg items there had either paneer or cream. But, wait… No, I don’t want to have samosa either. That too, overpriced.

Big lesson learnt: When vegan in a non-vegan place, prepare to not eat for a long time. Actually, that goes for any place.

At the end, soymilk proved to be the saviour yet again. Spotted Lactasoy (what would I have done without this brand?) in the dairy section, and this time a different flavour: green tea. Paid up, sipped up. Awesome. Made up for all the misfirings, or rather, mis-sightings so far.

All-vegan movie

It was time for the movie. Didn’t have much hope for vegan items here – even in India, popcorn and Coke is my standard order these days – but that would be okay. Lactasoy was still in my senses. And so popcorn and Coke it was; the only difference, super-sized. Just like the fruits at the supermarket.

And the movie? For the situation, the cruelly named and conceived Zootopia, where carnivores and herbivores live peacefully together. That, I guess, can only happen at the movies.

And the score is…

There might have been seafood to the right of me, and red meats to the left of me, but thanks to all the soymilk, and some steadfast determination, the vegan had managed to hold his own in Bangkok. Day 3 was done, and the score-line read 2 – 1. In the vegan’s favour.

A pack of Vegemil Almond and Walnut SoymilkAnd then at night, returning to the hotel room, I had the Vegemil almond and walnut soymilk. Make that 3 – 1. I was definitely returning to the supermarket in the morning for repeats. And then some more.

This is part three of a five-part series on being vegan in Bangkok, or at least trying. Read parts one and two below, and watch out for part four tomorrow…

Day 1: All’s Well

Day 2: All’s Not Well

Directions to (New) Bukhara's restaurant in Bangkok

IrfindingVegan… In Bangkok | Day 2: All’s Not Well…

IrfindingVegan LogoDay 1 had gone vegan-perfect. Now, would Day 2? Well, it didn’t – not food-wise, but otherwise. You’ll see what I mean. And based on the knowledge of that, Day 1 hadn’t gone perfect either – and this time, vegan-wise. You’ll see what I mean too.

Bingeing at breakfast

A serving of theplas with pickle on a plate

Theplas, or how an Indian vegan can survive in Bangkok

I woke up for my first full day in Bangkok, and within a short while, got a text from F2 (vegetarian) checking if we were ready for breakfast in his room. Reminder: the hotel wasn’t serving breakfast, but we had come prepared with Indian snack/breakfast items such as thepla (he), khakra (me) and, ok, American peanut butter. I crunched through a few khakras, but found his theplas much more appetizing: they were soft, moist, and delectable with the chutney the manufacturers had managed to squeeze in next to the vacuum-sealed theplas. Mercifully, F2 had come prepared – he was going to stay back after we left, for a conference, and had got enough for all three of us and even some of the hotel staff.

Breakfast over, we made our plans for the day. F1 (non-vegetarian) was going for some work (this wasn’t all a holiday trip for him either), so F2 and I decided to do the touristy thing and go to Grand Palace.

We met downstairs after a shower and all after an hour or so, and made to the main road. Just as we waited for a cab, I noticed some pigeons pecking away on the ground – the first time I was noticing animal life on the roads and outside here. Agree, it was less than one day in Bangkok, but I hadn’t noticed street dogs or cats or even crows, pigeons, parrots and other avians regular in Indian skies. My friend educated me, “You know, ‘stray’ animals aren’t considered a symbol of an urbanized city in the rest of the world…” So, did Thailand too shoot eat its crows and other birds as well as quadrupeds, as Singapore is known to do, or worse, eat them, I mused…

Piscine birds, piscine everyone

A flock of pigeons in Bangkok Back to the pecking pigeons, I noticed something jaw-dropping: they were pecking at fish pieces. Suddenly, all that I’d known of grainovorous pigeons went flying away with them. Bangkok’s pigeons, at least, the few I had seen, had done the classic Mother Nature thing of adapting to their environments. And evolution seemed to have followed suit: these piggees looked leaner, sharper, meaner than their veggie Indian counterparts. You live and learn, you live and learn…

Fried insects at one of the many street stalls in BangkokIt was going to be a day of further extreme sights, it would seem. For after Grand Palace and Wat Pho, as we started making our way to the pier Tha Tien, with me happy that I had managed to survive on vegan snacks and beverages there (iced tea – actual iced tea, not ice tea; fresh juice; cut fruits – so, when in Bangkok, a vegan becomes a fruitarian), we came across the next level of non-veg “food”: insects. Big, brown grasshoppers, curled-up maggots, and other entomological beings I couldn’t get myself to look at, forget identifying. I bent over, feeling like throwing up, but remembering the cultural lesson from the first day and also realizing I’m the outsider here, steadied myself. Barely had I done so, than there was another display. And then all the strong and sullen (to me) smells from all the sea-food joints at Tha Tien. It seemed people weren’t just going cruising at the pier, they were also indulging in fishing, and then bringing their fresh catch back to the bank to devour immediately, though with seasoning.

With so much non-vegan, non-me smells to endure in one afternoon, I needed some air to feel my senses again. So, we hung at the pier for some time, and just to be doubly sure, for our trip back to the hotel, we took the airy tuk-tuk.

But if you think that was the tough part of the day, it’s still to come…

Duels at dinner

We rested the evening out, and early night, decided to hit town – it was Friday evening after all, and the world and his horny brother seemed to have descended on the City of Angels. I was enjoying trying to identify the different nationalities, in between frequent exhortations of “Boom boom” (that’s not the tuk-tuk, but, urm, calls for “fuk-fuk”). Having taken in enough and not really having eaten properly since breakfast, our insides were firing up. We wanted to try out a different place today – again, Indian; “always safer” in F1’s opinion – and came across a comforting name, Bukhara’s; I guess, related to the many Bukharas back in Bombay. We stepped in, the manager seemed Indian, so more familiarity welcomed us. The place looked elaborately done, but also a bit dark, as if it didn’t want you to notice that the elaborateness was a bit of a show and perhaps hiding a lot of squalor, or seediness, behind. Or maybe I should stop analyzing so much…

The interiors at (New) Bukhara's restaurant in Bangkok

Menus in hand, orders being placed, I started with my standard question, “There is no milk, cream, ghee, butter, etcetera in this, right?” Perhaps because he was hearing me for the second night in a row saying this to the server/manager, F2 thought of helping me out, by informing the manager, “He’s vegan.” At which, the manager piped back to me (all this in Hindi, by the way), “How is it possible to be vegan in today’s day and time…” He already looked shifty and smooth-talking, and now he was acting smart as well. But I prefer not to bite back at once, so I tried a combination of humour and comment with the equally swift rejoinder, “Actually, it’s exactly in today’s day and time that people are going vegan…” But Shifty wasn’t going to rest, it seemed. He paused and came back with, “Then, you can’t have the rumaali roti – it’s got milk in it… and in some places, they even put egg…” I returned with, “Simple, I’ll have the tandoori roti then…”

Fake smiles exchanged with the manager, I turned to F2, seething for having put me through this with his no-doubt well-intentioned gesture. The words came out slowly, “You know, I took over a year to go vegan… To figure out how exactly to deal with situations like this… I know what people typically say… So, I don’t tell them I’m vegan, but rather ask them if the food has got dairy and stuff… I find that a better way to check with people… Only when I feel the person may know what’s vegan – and doesn’t appear smart-assy – do I tell them… Basically, I like to control the communication…” F2 was almost incensed, I could feel – the atmosphere felt as hot as the oven of a tandoori/rumaali roti. Dissed, he just repeated, “Ok, ok, I got it…” F1 tried to calm both us down.

Rumaali roti in making

Lesson learnt: Rumaali roti is not vegan

Things a bit cooler, F1 asked me, “So, what about the (non-vegan) rumaali roti you had yesterday then…” I smiled, paused and replied, “You might remember, when I had turned vegetarian 20 years ago, in the very first year after that, we had gone to our (earlier) favourite bakery and I’d asked for potato chop. Only when it came and I had chomped through more than half of it did I realized that ‘chop’ in any form means a chop of mutton. I typically make most mistakes in my first year since having gone vegetarian/vegan, so I’m okay with it…”

Phew. To douse all the fires at the table, they needed lots of lassi. I wanted to get away from Shifty’s restaurant asap. And the moment I did, I went again to the nearby 7/11 and filled myself with Lactasoy non-dairy soymilk. Thank god for small comforts.

My own mind too calmer now, I did some more thinking, ‘May be, more than controlling the communication, I should aim to handle the communication…’ You live and learn, you live and learn…

This is part two of a five-part series on how can you be vegan in Bangkok, or at least try. Read the first part here: Day 1: All’s Well. And watch out for part three tomorrow…

The interiors of Aryaa's Restaurant, Bangkok, which serves 100% Indian vegetarian food

IrfindingVegan… In Bangkok | Day 1: All’s Well

IrfindingVegan Logo

Can you be vegan in Bangkok? Sure, there are vegan eateries in a super-touristy and near-to-India place such as Bangkok, but what if you don’t go to any of those eateries? Not because this is some kind of challenge reality show, but because those vegan joints are far away from where you’re staying, or at least that’s the way it seems in a new country.

I had recently visited the City of Angels (didn’t know it’s called this, but having reached there, didn’t take long to figure out why, he-he) on the insistence of one of my friends. Both my two best friends had been asking me for some time, actually for years, but due to both choice and chance (too long stories), our Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara kind of trip just hadn’t happened. But this time, when F1 (friend 1) gave me the ultimatum (a la Samantha to Charlotte in Sex and the City 2, the movie, when she asks the girls to join her for Abu Dhabi: “Charlotte, I have gone to baby showers for you, you better come to Abu Dhabi for me!), I decided to finally say yes. A part of the reason was also to test what I’d started this post with: I have been vegan for almost a year, and wanted to check if this holds up in a foreign land.

Here then is the account – a survival guide, if you will – of five days in Bangkok finding and eating vegan food, or at least trying to. In five parts, one for each day.

Morning: Bombay/Mumbai

To start at the very beginning, the airport. We finished all our procedures, including the “random” questioning for single guys with an Islamic name, and finally reached the wait area. And what do people do while waiting, especially at the airport, especially if they are heavy-set (not me, my friends!)? Exactly. Eat. I wasn’t too hungry, but knew the next meal was only on the flight, a good couple of hours away, so decided to tuck in. Keeping my dietary preferences in mind, my friends placed an order of… fries. Little did I know this is how I’d be surviving most of the days in Bangkok.

Fries and ketchup

Good old fries and ketchup: Good old vegan stuff

Since eating fries is a monotonous activity and since that was the only edible food (for me) around and to check what vegan fate had in store for me over the next few days, I queried my vegetarian friend (F2), “What if the fries in Bangkok are made of animal oil?” F2 replied nonchalantly (he’s quite travelled), “If you think so much, you won’t be able to eat…” Hmm, wouldn’t I? A good thing I had listened to him and packed three packs of khakras and some peanut butter for the hotel. (The hotel wasn’t serving breakfast and in case of hunger pangs at night, you don’t want to raid the expensive mini bar in a country whose currency is double that of India’s.)

Afternoon: Mid-air

A promo photo of Jet Airways flight attendants and a pilot

When flying from India to a foreign land, fly Indian if you want vegan

When booking our tickets, F2 had checked ‘vegan’ for my food preference. However, we had later changed our tickets, so we weren’t sure I would get vegan food. That’s ok, I would do what I usually do: ask for veggie food and subtract the non-vegan items. But no sooner did the food trolley start trolleying than the flight attendant came up to my seat, checked my name, and handed me a box that had ‘Vegan’ penned across it. Happiness at 30,000 ft above sea level. The choice and taste weren’t bad at all. Fruit slices, two types of hash brown (or one type of hash brown and one something similar to hash brown), juice, black tea, salad, bun… Doable. Jet Mata ki kai. However, there was some dairy whitener and butter too, but that was the non-vegan-educated attendant’s doing; the cook knew his/her vegan A-fine. The bun was delish even without the butter, and I asked for a second. I tried to figure out the difference between this vegan bun (on my plate) and the non-vegan one (on my friends’), if at all there was a difference. I felt mine had more dots on the bottom, like obvious cellulite. Ugh. But as I already said, it tasted wham.

Evening: Bangkok

A typical Bangkok street-food stall serving seafood and other meatsAfter the flight, after the time change, after the taxi ride, after the negotiating with the receptionist (it was a new hotel and they seemed to have some weird rules), it was already dark. We settled into our rooms, settled our stuff, and decided to meet in an hour or so for dinner. 8pm, we were out on the streets. Sea-food smells all around. Three stalls down, I couldn’t take it anymore, and made a face and lots of sound. F2 chided me, “Careful, it’s their food…” My first lesson in respecting culture. (What about respecting life, I could have counter-chided, but the smoke had paralysed my thinking apparently.) Anyway, so through those burnt and brown sights and sounds, we made our way to our saviour, Aryaa’s, all-veg Indian restaurant. Step up (it’s on the first floor) and step in, and I realized we weren’t the only ones seeking succour. There were more than a handful of Indians around, and more walking by the quarter, seeking comfort in a foreign land.

Signboard of Aryaa's Restaurant, Bangkok, serving 100% vegetarian foodWe placed our order (veggie F2 and vegan mine was: tandoori roti, rumaali roti, daal without butter, bhindi, and of course masala paapad). The food came… and disappeared soon enough. We were hungry, plus the food was good.

TV grab of a Lactasoy commercial, with two variants on showHappy, we made our way back. We stopped at a nearby 7/11 (there are at least 711 such in the vicinity) to pick up some night supplies. I spotted a local brand of soymilk (Lactasoy), read the packaging like any good vegan, realized some variants contain milk (that’s why the portmanteau name), and so picked up only the ones that don’t, which was two of them. (Tip: Look for ‘Contains dairy’.) Came back to the hotel, we exchanged rapid GNs (we were too tired), I came back to my room, opened the soymilk pack, and went, “Aah”. First, the meal, and now this. Who said you can’t be vegan in Bangkok?

But then, tomorrow’s another day…

Konkan Railway cartoon by Mario Miranda


Some go to Goa to find feni.

Some go to find Fanny.

And some others, for fanny.

Some go to find themselves.

Some, to lose themselves.

And some… to be themselves.

What will you find in Goa?

What will Goa find in you?

The iconic shot from Dil Chahta Hai of Goa

The Many Goas / In Three Sentences

You go to North Goa
– the Anjunas, the Bagas, the Calangutes (the ABCs)
– to do.

You go to Mid Goa
– Panaji, the capital city
– to see.

You go to South Goa
– Colva, Benaulim, and pray, what else
– to be.