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Name: Nicolas Low
Bio: Nic is a NZ-born and Melbourne-based writer, installation artist and artistic director of Ngai Tahu descent. He writes for various Australian publications, has recently directed the National Young Writers' Festival (2007-2008), finished a Masters in creative writing and is one of the co-founders of Nomadology. He's currently finishing a first novel, running the Asialink Literature Program and leading a new large-scale installation project for the 2010 Australian Regional Art Conference in Launceston.
Photos: nic's photo libraries
Democracy in red ( 10th Apr, 2009 )
Orgy ( 4th Apr, 2009 )
The pleasure of knowing nothing ( 30th Mar, 2009 )
Country diaries ( 6th Jan, 2008 )
It's raining in drought country ( 3rd Nov, 2007 )
New year, ancient landscapes 2 ( 15th Mar, 2007 )
New Year, ancient landscapes 1 ( 11th Jan, 2007 )
Kalgoorlie (one night in) ( 30th Nov, 2006 )
Nomadology book Melbourne launch ( 21st Nov, 2006 )
Leftovers ( 20th Oct, 2006 )
Home/less ( 21st Feb, 2006 )
Tourist Insurance Claim ( 8th Jan, 2006 )
Airport disappearance ( 4th Jan, 2006 )
Who's going to Newcastle? ( 29th Sep, 2005 )
Hurstbridge Part 2 - by Rachel ( 7th Sep, 2005 )
Comments are back. ( 19th Aug, 2005 )
Hurstbridge Part 1 ( 19th Aug, 2005 )
Welcome back ( 21st Apr, 2005 )
Images ( 22nd Mar, 2005 )
Crude crudity ( 20th Mar, 2005 )
homecoming ( 16th Jan, 2005 )
I am seated at a low wooden bench beside a honking road, holding out a handful of money. An old woman sits opposite me, the calm centre of a small table cluttered with bottles and pots and chopsticks and plates. She is old enough to remember the French in Laos; old enough to forget them too. Her face tilts downwards, lips carefully pursed. In her right hand she holds a battered meat cleaver. In her left, a rhombus of pork. She begins to slice with absolute and majestic concentration, as if she was cutting a diamond.
In the early mornings I am hungry, but my few words of Thai are still too blunt to confidently prize a breakfast our of the local vendors. I am not ready for the world, but I must ask it for food.
Today, wandering the outer suburbs of Bangkok, we manage a hopeful, laughing, pointing exchange with a charcoal-smoked clutch of friendly chefs beside a narrow road. I buy nameless meat forked between two pieces of bamboo, rice and a taut plastic bag of broth, swollen like some benevolent lung-and-liver-filled grenade. We want to eat out of the traffic and soon find a narrow tree-lined canal cleaving through the city. A concrete drain cover cantilevers out over the water and we sit down to eat, dangling our legs.
The meat turns out to be chicken, a salty, blackened sweetness curling at its edges. I take a mouthful and look idly past my toes to the water. It is a challenge, to hold such an exultant taste in my mouth and separate it from the disposable nappy floating calmly by.
A boat full of brown-shirted workers chugs towards us. The low belly of the craft swells with a pile of unimaginable filth, scooped from the water with hand nets. Seated in front and obviously the leader is a red-cheeked matron. She calls sharply to us and scowls; the other workers laugh uproariously. I think she is telling us off: what the hell are you doing eating your breakfast here?
A young guy in tight jeans and white hitops walks past with baskets of flowers hanging from a long bamboo pole across his shoulders. He toasts us with a can of pepsi and grins. A few steps further along the path he turns back and says in clear, unmistakeable English: "Go home!" Go eat at home? I'm going home? Or fuck off back to your own country?
When my brother stands, we realise he has been sitting on a dead rat. We laugh. We chalk everything up to experience.
At night the men sit in ragged rings on plastic chairs in the street, smoking and drinking 100 Pipers whiskey while the women, wielding beefy arms and tired smiles, do the cooking.
Escaping the ghetto
Luang Prabang is old-world provincial France time-travelled and culture-jacked into the middle of Laos. Three-storied hotels with colourful shutters and generous balconies spill their restaurants and cafes out into the streets. At night it is a fairy kingdom of soft lamp-light and candles. There is no traffic noise to interrupt the sipping of your latte. It has to be one of the nicest tourist ghettos in the world, and we are sick of it.
Over the bridge is the real city of phone shops, motorbike repair sheds and traffic. We walk the banks of the Mekong past dozens of identical tourist eateries with identical menus until there are no menus at all, just laughing locals seated round a half-dozen bottles of Beer Lao and a menagerie of bowls and baskets. Huge speakers blast fuzzy, red-hot Laos pop. It's the country's signature sound, created from a universal habit of over-cranking stereo-systems to the point where they explode with distortion. This looks like the place to eat.
I select a dish at random from my squirrel-hoarding of Laos words. 'Jao mee kao soi dae?' The cook wipes her hands on her apron and looks a little shocked, shaking her head. I wonder what she thought my mangled words meant; I thought I asked for 'kao soi', a common pork and noodle soup, but obviously not. She suggests an alternative that sounds like 'ping gai' and 'kaeng something' - grilled chicken and a curry of sorts. We just nod and say, sure, two please. Nod, smile and hope for the best.
Minutes later a plastic basket arrives filled with hunks of cabbage and fistfuls of river weed. The peppery weed still has the roots attached and looks like it was pulled straight from the Mekong. Soon after we're delivered a huge plate of dried, grilled buffalo strips, flecked with chilli and matted black buffalo hair. It's delicious but disconcerting - chewing each small piece takes a good five minutes. We're three or four pieces in when the main course is placed under our noses with a grin: a giant, steaming bowl of offal soup. Floating in a cloudy broth are lungs, liver, hearts, aortas, tracheas, kidneys, brains, and a fair bit of other viscera we can't identify. The word viscera doesn't really carry weight till you've put a steaming spoonful of it into your mouth and tried to chew.
Enthusiasm will get you a long way when travelling. Enthusiasm gets us about half-way through the bowl before something snaps. I chew and chew but there is no purchase for my teeth; it refuses to dissolve into a swallowable mass. The flavour swells to fill my mouth, nose, throat, stomach, my whole being until I am enveloped in offal like the clouds of flies that swarm the bowls of raw ingredients. It's the first and only meal we are unable to finish. Without a word, we know it is time. Time to return to the tourist ghetto.
The secret ingredient of street food is diesel. After dinner at night I am filled with fire and smeared with soot, and happy. The vendors throw in galangal and lemongrass, chilli and lime, but such aromas can never completely mask the excretia of buses, motorbikes, tuktuks, cars and trucks. Fossil fuels tinge all. In Australian restaurants, Thai food never tastes this good and so I conclude: the secret ingredient in street food is diesel.
Bangkok was waiting, but I wasn't quite ready for her.
At each corner the city thrust skeletal juggernauts into the sky, half-built or burned-out, a latticework of twisted steel bursting from concrete shells. At each corner, unbuilt, abortive pillars for gargantuan future freeways hung dark against a fat grey sky. At each corner, highrises sparkled into existence, bombarding us with white light and white noise, the bus radio sparking between Thai pop in the front and down the back where we sat - rocked with speed, heat in our faces, ten hours of travel through space still clinging to our skin - the unmistakable tinny echo of public-address political speeches.
I listened to rushes of Thai syllables, broken by loud cheering and pauses for dramatic effect, shattered by razor-sharp bursts of static as the signal scattered and reformed. Later, in a 'Taxi Meter' from Victory Square to our guest house, the driver was listening to the same public-address rant. It came at us from TVs on street corners surrounded by a circle of shoulders, from open windows where bodies sprawled on the floor, listening or sleeping. Not knowing any Thai, the barking voice and roaring crowd recalled equally incomprehensible addresses I'd heard by Hitler. An invalid reference I know, because what's going on here is utterly unconnected to that history, but the reference did come to mind unbidden. I suddenly, irrationally, wondered if we might be hearing some momentous political speech, some call to arms, the announcement of a civil emergency or civil war, poured into our unsuspecting ears on our way to our fan-swarmed dorms.
Roaring through Bangkok's streets, I tried to recall what i knew about the madly unstable political situation here. The glittering airport we'd just left was closed only two months ago, by 6000 occupying demonstrators, and we soon learned that the red-shirts were gathering in large numbers not far from Khao San Road, the iconic (and hysterically funny) Westerner strip. Everywhere there are men wearing 'Long Live the King' wristbands, orange versions of our white 'make poverty history' ones. Banners proclaim 'No More Dictator, Constitution Now'. A small sticker declaring 'We Want Democracy' whizzed past where I sat at a roadside noodle house, affixed to the glass pane of a motor-bike vendor cart. The papers are filled with photos of mass demonstrations, seas of red t-shirts. Several times we've stumbled across large groups gathered around trucks fitted with loud speakers, blaring speeches into the night. We know somehow that we are surrounded by a direct, urgent and highly charged politic, but we have no idea what it is.
We might sense its presence, but are only slowly realising its scale and momentum. Yesterday Bangkok was brought to a complete standstill by 100,000 people demanding the return of ex-Prime Minister Thaksin and the dissolution of the current government, installed after a 2006 military coup. Traffic is a nightmare, whistles and police and always a sense that people are rushing towards, or away, from something with urgency. Today has been declared a national holiday by current Prime Minister Abhisit in an attempt to diffuse the growing tension. And he is threatening to declare a state of civil emergency and call in army reinforcements if protests at the upcoming Asean economic summit in Pattaya turn violent. Which, we found out today, they already have.
So having been in the country for a week and have a lot of friendly conversations , can I say what's actually going on? Hell no.
A square, beefy man in pointy-toed crocodile-skin shoes and chunky gold jewellery, who told us he was a stock-broker then later admitted that his father was, accosted us around in the Siam Square shopping district to practice his English. In between telling us how not to get ripped off by his working-class compatriots, how to not ever have to pay for pussy ("BBK! Bang Bang Cock! Get it? Bang? Bang? Cock?"), and how he really wanted to fuck a black woman ("black on the outside, pink in the middle!"), he would only shake his head when pressed about politics.
Another educated Thai, an accounting professor who had visited New Zealand and wore a silver fern tie pin beneath a kind face, told us to avoid the areas of the protests, saying the anti-government / pro-democracy marches were "no good, no good."
Later, seated on hard wooden seats in a crowded third-class train heading north, I chatted to the elderly man next to me. He had rusty but amazingly good English, and talked with strong emotion about the current situation, showing me a coin sewn to the outside of his wallet bearing the King's face. "My King," he said. "This is my King," with a voice that somehow sounded near tears. "Democracy, you have many people decide everything. King, you have one person tell the army, the police, the courts, government what to do." I must have looked confused, and when I asked "So which do you think is better, King or no King," he looked me in the eye and emphatically replied "King." I didn't think it was even about the King, but I think here it always is.
In the bowels of Bangkok two guys we met talked candidly about how utterly corrupt the entire system was, rattling off a long list of abuses on all sides, with the added complication that having a King who supposedly stands outside of politics gives a misleading impression that there is a higher, neutral power to which the people can appeal. According to these guys (who I'll tell you more about later), a pair of hilarious, passionate cynics hyped up on coffee and cheap whisky, everyone is rotten to the core.
From it all I can happily conclude I have ABSOLUTELY no idea. It's a hugely complicated tangle of alliances, royal traditions and class allegiances, none of which are readily accessible to someone like me, crash-landing in the middle of it with an open curiosity but without a lot of knowledge. There are pro-democracy Red-shirts, mostly rural poor, many of whom also support the ousted and by all accounts corrupt Thaksin. There are the Yellow shirts, the pro-royalists who also shut the airport down last year. There are widespread accusations against the current army-backed government, which came to power in a 2006 coup, of taking a fascist direction, using 'lesse-majeste' laws to arrest anyone criticising the king or the regime. And there are the urban middle classes and academics who support that government as well. I've even read of moves to roll back democracy even further, with only a handful of seats in parliament being elected.
Thai New Year approaches on the 13th, with the glorious promise of water fights, festivities, and maybe, just maybe, a state of emergency. We can only glimpse the bigger picture through reading the papers, and have to drop in to internet cafes to check out what's happening. All we really know is that Thai people are hugely engaged in politics, out in the streets, following it keenly at every turn. We are sheltered from it, through our ignorance, and perhaps a reluctance to tell the tourists. Tourism is huge in Thailand. Everyone wants us here, and we want to be here too, and it's perhaps best for all if we pretend there's nothing going on.