Thursday, November 8, 2007

53 and rising.

Thonglor has been the hippest street in Bangkok for many a year now.
Everybody knows the many delights to be enjoyed on Soi 55, from the
funky eclecticism of Playground to the mainstream hipness of J Avenue
to the old school charm of Don Kreung and other 50s relics that sit
very comfortably among the more contemporary offerings.

One street west, more hidden attractions await. Soi 53 is shaping up
to be perhaps the city's most interesting and upmarket thoroughfare.

Leafy and quiet in a way that is all too rare in Bangkok, Soi 53 feels
intimate and private, quite an achievement just one block away from
the frenetic atmosphere of Thonglor.

A few places in the soi have been established several years. Books 53
is a quirky place to spend an hour or two, flicking through magazines
and picking up some obscure printed titles. Up the road, the
imaginatively named 53 has been serving up excellent ice-cold mojitos
in tastefully lit glassy surroundings for many a moon now.

The soi's hip credentials were cemented a couple of years back when
homegrown fashion label and cafe chain Greyhound set up its HQ there.

Now, a few newcomers have entered the scene, and suddenly Soi 53 is
quite the place to be.

Bacco, a new Italian restaurant opened by the same entrepreneur who
brought us both Basilico and Limoncello, looks as if it might be
another of his successful additions to the Bangkok Italian dining
scene. (The pizza campagna, featuring potato, bacon and cheese and
tasting like wood-fired fondue, is a particular highlight.)

Next door, The Core offers yoga, pilates and other physical
disciplines in an interesting space.

Red, Bangkok's newest and least traditional Indian restaurant, has
quickly established a faithful following with its innovative take on
subcontinental cuisine in a dramatically art-directed setting.

And the gorgeous little pink cafe with its quirky furniture
overlooking a perfect little lawn is a lovely place for an afternoon
cup of Earl Grey.

Add to these ingredients a couple of authentically intimidating
Japanese restaurants catering mainly to Nipponese (but in reality
quite welcoming to Thais and gaijin), and you have the beginnings of
what could soon be Bangkok's most consistently tasteful neighbourhood.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Printed matters.

The death of the newspaper has been greatly exaggerated. Some
newspaper brands are healthier than ever: particularly those with a
strong online presence and a modern design sensibility. My own
favourite is The Guardian: always one step ahead of the game, with a
great look, a superb website and a revolutionary approach to art
direction and section design. (Plagiarism is a strong word, but a lot
of European papers owe a great deal to the Guardian's design team.)

What will send a lot of inferior newspapers into bankruptcy, I
predict, is none other than the iPhone.

As wireless coverage gets more and more comprehensive, and GPRS gets
faster, mobile internet - already a usable reality - is only going to
become more and more a way of life.

And when it comes to reading the morning paper on the train or outside
Starbucks, why would you bother reading an inferior local rag like The
Nation from Thailand or Singapore's Straits Times when the latest
edition of The Guardian, The New York Times or Le Monde is available
in your hand?

I predict the rise of super-papers, daily publications whose
readership is not limited by any geographical boundaries. And the
demise of second-rate local papers, which will be ignored in favour of
more interesting international offerings.

And as for those who predicted that people would always be more
satisfied with a printed publication in their inky hands instead of
reading from a screen, I say the opposite is true. With the iPhone,
there's no wrestling with pages flapping in the breeze, no awkward
folding of the paper to read in crowded trains, no trouble finding the
section you want, and no annoying full page ads to avoid before you
get to the real news.

Besides, it leaves one hand free for the short cafe mocha.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Fino & dandy.

A while ago I visited Vietnam, and had the opportunity to hire a Honda
@125 scooter. The Honda @125 is a beautiful machine. Elegant, simple
and based on the classic Italian scooter design, but modernised in a
distinctly Japanese way to bring the look firmly into the present.

I loved it so much that I made every effort to import one into Thailand, but the centuries-old hatred between Siam and Vietnam meant that there was literally no legal way to get a Vietnam-made vehicle into this country.

I spent many months cursing motorbike manufacters in Thailand for
their sad offerings that would not have been out of place in 1970s
Poland. No design, no style, no attempt to make anything other than a piece of functional equipment: designed clearly for people who (the
manufacturers obviously presumed) only needed to get from A to B and
who didn't give a moment's thought to how things looked.

My rabid resentment at a total absence of attractive Thai-made
two-wheeled transport options became so bad that I began to question
the very Thai character. Vietnam had at least one beautiful scooter,
and that scooter was to be seen everywhere in the country, attesting
to decent taste among all levels of Vietnamese society. Thailand had
nothing of the sort, and led me to begin formulating unattractive
theories about the comparitive qualities of the Thais in relation to
the Vietnamese, which it would be best not to go into too deeply here.

My dark formulations came to a swift end, however, some time a few
months ago. While waiting at a red light in Bangkok in the trusty
Fortuner, an elegant, cute, quirky scooter trundled between the lanes
of cars and came to a stop ahead of my car at the front of the queue.
For a second, I wondered if the rider had found a way to get around
the insane import regulations and managed to get an @125 here. But
upon looking at the atom-like logo on the back of the bike, I saw that
it was not a Honda model but something from Yamaha.

It was the Fino. A scooter following the perennial design of the
original Vespa, but with clean modern lines and a gimmick-free
appearance. My view of the Thai motorcycle industry - and by extension
all of Thailand - changed for the better immediately.

Last week, on a trip to the beachside resort of Hua Hin, I took
advantage of the few days off to hire a Fino. Scooting along the hilly
country roads west of the seaside town, I developed a bond with this
delightful machine. Its two-tone paint job and quirky customised
tartan seat only made it more desirable. So much so that when I got
back to Bangkok yesterday, the first thing I did was to go to the
nearest motorbike dealer and put down the stack of thousand baht notes
required to ride the thing home immediately.

My new Fino is parked, Hanoi-style, inside the ground floor of my
apartment building, next to the staircase. Its gorgeous all-white look
matched perfectly the white singlet and stripey white shorts I was
wearing today while scooting about the neighbourhood.

All is right with the world.