Stuff Thai People Like: Shopping!

Terminal 21

I’ve alluded to it before, but it’s worth repeating: Thai people are seriously in love with shopping. They say* that a new shopping mall opens every year in Bangkok, and I believe it. If anything, this estimate seems a little low. You could probably walk from one end of the city to another without ever leaving the air conditioned deliciousness of these temples of consumption. They offer an escape from the heat, retail therapy, and a way to be passionately patriotic – nothing screams allegiance like supporting the national economy.

I was wandering around the Asoke area yesterday, trying to figure out our Indian visas (more on that later). I needed wifi access to sort out the visa application forms (as if mere internet access could ever penetrate India’s ridiculous bureaucracy), and popped into Terminal 21, one of Bangkok’s favourite shopping centres, in hopes of finding it. They had internet. They also had a whole lotta weirdly wonderful consumer opportunities.

Truly, a dizzying array.

Terminal 21 is designed as a departure terminal, and every escalator leads to a new international destination.

Because airports are so soothing

Some of its coolness was lost on me as I was desperately searching for wifi and raging at Indian bureaucracy, but in hindsight, it is pretty epic. The main escalator takes you to Istanbul.

I may have assumed that these folks were retail workers wearing Istanbul costumes… and then I realized that they were my fellow shoppers.

After a quick glance, I decided that Istanbul a) sold nothing that I could afford, and b) had nowhere to rest my weary soul/laptop, so I jetted off to San Francisco.

Apparently the very essence of San Francisco is Italian chain eateries.

And you can’t have SanFran without the bridge.

San Francisco had wifi, which was simultaneously helpful and unhelpful, because I discovered that while I could fill out my visa application, it was too late to drop it off. I gave up and decided to wander around the rest of the strange Terminal 21 world.

London was up next, and it was complete with a double-decker bus, a phone booth, and Princess Di.

Kitschy but kool

Rome was a brief stop, but I did admire its frescoes.

Ahhhh. Just like the Sistine Chapel, but without the entrance fee.

But the real gem of the day was Tokyo. It contained all of the following:

An elegant geisha…

An ancient warrior…

The mother of all cats… (dedicated to loyal blog reader Tim)

And these fine fellas. Really, they could have been advertising anything from weight loss programs to thong underwear.

As I watched consumption rage around me, the loudspeakers blared terrible Christmas music. One song in particular caught my ear – it sounded like the usual “ooh, babybaby, it’s Christmas,” but then it started spelling out J-E-S-U-S in the least reverent tone imaginable. Truly, shopping is a religion in Bangkok.

Taken from the sky train station. Because everyone needs easy shopping access.

* Don’t know who “they” are, but it sounds authoritative

Stuff Thai People Like: Makro!

It’s time for another addition of stuff Thai people like! I’m going to apologize in advance for the photos in this one – they contain neither me nor my more studly other half. I’m sure you’re all deeply disappointed.

For some reason,* when I moved to Bangkok, I expected that most people would do the bulk of their grocery shopping in cute’n’tiny markets. While markets are popular (see, for example, this post), massive North American-style grocery stores are ubiquitous. I have easy access to the Thai equivalents of Safeway, Superstore, and Walmart. Sometimes their offerings are a little different than in the west (an entire aisle of fish balls, for example), but the concept is the same.

In spite of the massive stores right in front of my eyes, my brain still harboured doubt – “They may have duplicated Safeway, but surely Thailand does not contain a Costco clone.” Costco was our dear friend and neighbour in Calgary – there’s some part of me that always wants to prepare for a potential famine. By now, though, you know where this tale is going. I was forced to abandon my doubts when I was introduced to the joys of Makro (thanks, Tut and Erin), Asia’s answer to Costco. When a new location was built directly across the street from our local grocery store, we knew that we would never again have to go without enough food to feed an army in wartime. While they operate on the same principle of largesse, Makro is uniquely Asian, so I thought I’d give you a tour.

Starting off with the outside: Makro is built right next to a massive temple. I feel that this is particularly appropriate for Thailand, because shopping is pretty much its national religion.

The orange roof in the background is part of the temple, but really, it could be part of the store.

And the inside. Concrete is de rigueur, as in all Costco-esque stores. It just screams “bulk!” It also has an appliance section that is pretty straightforward, although it’s heavy on the rice cookers and electric food steamers.

And washing machines and salespeople and bad lighting.

It starts to get a little more intriguing when you head to the meat section. Thais are less squeamish than Canucks when it comes to acknowledging the deadness of their animal protein sources.

“Pick me! Pick me!”

“Pick us! Pick us!”

And in true Thai style, multiple freezers full of tentacles.

Because who doesn’t like a good frozen brick of suction cups?

The fruit and veggie aisle is fairly similar to Costco, although you won’t find these in Costco:

The bland-but-beautiful dragon fruit. Sort of like a pretty girl with no brain.

Plus the produce workers wear nifty rubber boots and enjoy hacking up fruit with large cleavers.

They also like wearing hats.

The spice centre is full of fun. It’s here that you can finally buy enough powdered chillies to satisfy your family’s needs. Nothing but options and choices, folks.

The most important section in the store.

You can also pick up a heapin’ helpin’ of goji berries, which are apparently a super food. You’d never guess that based on the price – $5 for a couple of pounds.

The alcohol section is smaller than Costco’s, and demonstrates the Thai penchant for random bluntness:

Apparently they want you to chug the sickly sweet wine coolers on the spot?

And finally we come to the bakery, which I have to say, contains a lot of pretty mediocre baking. Thailand does a lot of foodie things incredibly well, but the baked goods still need work.

White, white, white, blah, blah, blah….

And that sums up the highlights. The rest of the store is an interesting mix of ingredients that I find exciting and useful (20lb bags of peanuts for homemade peanut butter), and stuff that I just don’t get (how does anyone need an entire aisle of oyster sauce or instant coffee?).

Either way, I’m relieved that Makro has arrived, because the one thing that was really missing from my new Thai life was massive massive quantities of random food items that I do not necessarily need.

*ignorance/stereotypes/being dumb

Stuff Thai People Like: Plastic Bags!

(If you haven’t had the dubious privilege of meeting me in person, or you just want to creep on more awkward photos of me and T-Bone, check out my freshly revamped About section)

It’s time for another episode of Stuff Thai People Like! Today, Thai people are diggin’:

Plastic Bags!

A bag throwing bags!

I have never seen plastic bags celebrated with so much vigour and intensity as they are in Bangkok. In Canada, “plastic bag” is like a four-letter word, but worse, because four-letter words are seen by many as being sometimes acceptable and/or witty, whereas plastic bags are evil incarnate. I usually carried reusable bags with me when I went shopping in Calgary, but sometimes I forgot. The cashier scanning my groceries would bark “Bags?”and I’d whisper “yes,” as though I’d just admitted that I enjoy beating puppies. This, of course, assumed that the store even offered bags – at my local hippy/granola joint, you couldn’t get a disposable bag for love or money.

Not a problem, because I have my own reusable bags

Bangkok is a different scenario altogether. I have never seen such a bewildering profusion of plastic bags in my life. They appear to be an integral part of Thai culture, and frankly, I’m not sure that Bangkokian life would continue to function if they were abolished. They are to Thailand what doughnuts are to Canada – a guilty pleasure that is secretly holding the country together.

Heavy on the guilt, not so much on the pleasure

The plastic bag is used in pretty standard fashion in grocery stores – the clerks may not cram as much into the bags as they perhaps could, but the basic principle makes sense. It’s when you start patronizing street vendors and convenience stores that the addiction really becomes apparent. I have purchased the following items from the convenience store on our street on separate occasions, and been given a plastic bag with each: A large water jug with a handle. One small packet of gum. One can of juice.

The street vendors take the love affair to a new and special level. For example, fruit vendors are ubiquitous in Bangkok – you choose the fruit, they hack it up for you. They then dump the fruit into a bag which is then inserted into another bag. The trick is to get away before they bag the bag containing your bag of fruit. Another favourite trend in vendordom is pouring cans of pop into bags for customers to drink out of. And I have rarely been sold an iced coffee and not been offered a special carrying bag for it – I guess the ol’ opposable thumb sometimes just isn’t enough.

All these bags add up

Witnessing this love for the humble bag is like watching a pregnant woman smoke – you feel a certain amount of moral/ethical responsibility combined with social awkwardness. I haven’t done a good job of refusing bags yet, because I don’t want to look like even more of a freak than I already am, but clearly I need to bite the bullet and just say no.

Maybe if I disguise myself they won’t notice that I’m a farang.

Joking aside, plastic bags are a serious problem in Bangkok. A 2010 article from The Guardian estimates that Bangkok goes through 600 000 plastic bags per day. I’m not sure where they are getting these numbers from, because I’m pretty sure that I’ve collected that many all by myself in the two months that I’ve been here. The article goes on to talk about initiatives that the government has taken to cut down on plastic bag usage, but I can’t say that I’ve noticed any signs of them.

As a visitor in Thailand, I am hesitant to criticize the culture, but I think this love affair has had its day. Swap that doughnut for some broccoli or something.

And save Todd from certain death

Stuff Thai People Like: Extremely Angry Birds

Welcome to the first episode of “Stuff Thai People Like!” I can’t lie: I stole the idea from the brilliant blog Stuff Dutch People Like. Hopefully the good writer over there sees it as a tribute rather than blatant thievery.

On with the show! Today, Thai people like:

Angry Birds!

Thailand has embraced the livid clucker meme like no other place I have ever experienced. There is an abundance of official Angry Birds merchandise, and, because this is the land of the cheap knock-off, there is an even greater abundance of unofficial Angry birds merchandise. Never has one country contained so much anger or so many fowls. Thais like ferocious cluckers even more than Todd does! (Although Todd embraces gentle and happy birds in addition to the angry ones).

hmmm… this bird seems more melancholy/depressed than angry.

I can’t figure out why Thais are so obsessed with Angry Birds, but two possible explanations come to mind:

1) As far as I know (not very far), Angry Birds is usually played on cell phones, and Thai people love their cell phones with a deep and abiding passion. People are glued to their phones at all times – on the train, while meandering (usually in front of me), in church, in the middle of conversations, etc. In addition to this, the smart phone is ubiquitous in Thailand. Everyone seems to have one. T-bone is headed to social pariah-dom with his hunk of outdated technology. Smart phones encourage people to spend more time on their phones, and when you’re waiting for someone to actually contact you in some way that allows you to legitimately check your facebook/email/messages/twitter/etc., there’s nothing like a round of Angry Birds.

Or an Angry Bird fish kebab

Or an Angry Bird planter

Or, for that matter, a comfy pair of Angry Birds flip-flops

2) Thai people smile a lot. They smile when they’re happy, when they’re embarrassed, when they don’t want you to feel embarrassed, when they probably DO want you to feel embarrassed. And so on. All that smiling must get pretty draining. Sometimes you just need a good freak out! And if you can’t express that in a loud outburst, what better way than to launch furious birds at unsuspecting pigs?

Maybe we can hug it out instead

Or maybe just talk about it?

I have to confess that I had never played the game before we moved to Thailand. I vaguely knew that it was popular, but because my cell phone dated from the dark ages (it was Todd’s cell phone’s twin), I didn’t have access to it. We recently purchased an iPhone,* and after months of wondering what all the fuss was about, I downloaded Angry Birds. I clearly have the mental capacity of a 5-year-old, because I finally understand the addiction.

An Angry Bird and a golf club essentially accomplish the same purpose

Maybe we can store our anger in some tupperware

Or just walk away from it

With our respective bird obsessions, T-bone and I are both fitting in nicely in Thailand.

* You may ask why we purchased an iPhone after I complained about being unemployed. Just let it sit – a little cognitive dissonance is good for the brain.