Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Beer from the Communist World.

Marx would have been proud.

Hoppy brews from the world's few remaining socialist states triumph victoriously over their decadent imperialist capitalist equivalents.

In this part of the world, my favourite beer is far and away the delicious Tsingtao. Hailing from the Chinese town of the same name, a former German treaty port on China's northeast coast, China's number one beer is fruity, floral, fresh, and tastes as if it was made with water from a pristine Chinese mountain spring.

I first tasted Tsingtao in January 2001, in Guangzhou, on a daytrip over the border from Hong Kong. Then, it came in an authentically communist format: a poor-quality large green bottle and a badly printed, toilet-tissue thin label. More recently, I had a few last night at my local Thai restaurant. The packaging is markedly more sophisticated, the label redesigned and printed perfectly: but the taste is still the same.

My second favourite hails from the People's Democratic Republic of Laos: Obviously, Beer Lao. I have had several happy nights by the Mekong in Vientiane, gazing smugly over the river at Thailand and pitying the poor saps who had to make do with Beer Chang and Leo.

But now, in an uncharacteristic display of cross-border cooperation, Beer Lao is now widely available in Thailand. Its sharp, hoppy, almost-too-strong-but-not taste is perfect for lazy Saturday afternoons, or sitting outside in the baking Thai evening heat. And the recent discovery of Beer Lao Dark has added yet more appeal to the brand. Beer Lao Dark is almost English in texture, a kind of Newcastle Brown Ale with a much more fresh, natural, mineral, refreshing taste. Wherever I see it, I find it very difficult to resist ordering it immediately.

Number three is not so much a brand as an institution: Bia Hoi in Vietnam. Bia Hoi - literally, fresh beer - is found in hundreds of places throughout Hanoi and its surrounds. Delivered daily in unbranded vats to downmarket coffee shops and fluorescent-lit restaurants throughout the North Vietnamese citadel, Bia Hoi - frothy, fragrant, fresh - is shockingly good: with a taste not unlike Belgium's Hoegaarden, but better.

Viva La Revolucion.

Monday, January 14, 2008


The little soi leading off Sukhumvit Soi 11 is developing into a
decent destination. Tapas Cafe, The Pickled Liver, Charlie Brown's,
Soi 11, the legendary Cheap Charlie's... I'm not suggesting it's
particularly sophisticated, but it's pleasant enough. And now - in
what I'm absolutely sure is a first for car-obsessed Bangkok - the
whole soi has been pedestrianised.
It means you can now have your patatas bravas without the added diesel
fumes from the idling pickup truck two metres from your plate.

Thailand is good at stunning individual efforts oblivious to their
surroundings: great restaurants surrounded by slums; secluded world
famous hotels with their backs to som tam-infested beaches. So this
apparently collective effort from the tenants of Soi 11 is rare. Who
knows? It could develop into the Thai version of Lan Kwai Fong. Perhaps.

Phuket aesthetic.

Phuket needs an art director.

Away from the west coast beaches - which are, for the most part, lovely; even Patong has it charm - the place has fallen victim to the same syndrome that afflicts almost all Thai resorts from Koh Chang to Samet to varying degrees: a peculiarly Thai version of downmarketness.

Driving from Sarasin Bridge to Kata Noi, completing our last leg on the Bangkok-Phuket drive, we were assailed by tyre shops, cheap red-lit karaoke bars, post-apocalyptic noodle stalls and the general detritus common to all parts of Thailand where large numbers of Thais have relocated in order to make a better living out of the tourist trade.

It's a pity that the whole place doesn't look like the Amanpuri. It could, quite easily, if the authorities had more taste.

What the place needs is a Tourism Dictator. A sort of Lee Kuan Yew of paradise. Someone who has a vision of how the place should look and the guts to carry it through. I'm thinking that the place should be planned as one large tourism resort: where certain zones are for guests, and other zones are for staff quarters. Just like an ordinary hotel, but on an islandwide scale.

The West Coast could be reserved for tourism. East of the main road connecting the Sarasin Bridge with everything else, pleasant HDB-style housing (1950s HDB, not the monstrosities that were built after the glorious initial period) could be erected.

Road verges could be designed and maintained by the Amanpuri.

I don't see why not. Hawaii and Singapore have great tropical vegetation programmes. No reason why Phuket, more blessed by geography than either of those two places, couldn't do the same.