Daily Archives: March 25, 2006

Starbucks v.s. Ta Bak

Coffee culture doesn’t just arrive in Bangkok when the first Starbucks store opened. It has always been here. On the street. In a cart.

Starbucks may have the fancy flavor syrups. Creamy streamed milk foaming up to the brim. Luscious whipped cream topped ice blended sweet concoction. And the portable status symbol in the form of the green circle emblazoned cups.

But it’s Ta Bak (Grandpa Bak) that has the soul.

Gaafae Boran –“ancient coffee” or traditional coffee as it is referred to nowadays—is brewed daily on the sidewalks all over the country by many vendors like Ta Bak.

Behind a big pot of boiling water, an aging brewmaster wields the brew bag made out of cheese cloth and wire frame with his hands, stained by the color of tea and coffee he’s been brewing all these years. Day after day, he toils away over a boiling pot of water in a country where the temperature is hot enough without adding more steam to it. With well-honed skills, Ta Bak, and others like him, creates a perfect cup of coffee or tea daily. One glass at time.

And you call those sissies behind the counter, banging the grounds out of an espresso machine, and holding pitcher of milk up to a steamer a barista? Puh-lease.

Traditional Thai coffee and tea and be served up in all sorts of different ways. (I vaguely remember someone already post about this so I’m not going to dwell too much on it.) Coffee/tea with sugar. With sweetened condensed milk. With sugar and ice. With condensed milk and ice. And so on.

The menu at Ta Bak may not be as extensive as Starbucks with its gazillion variety of triple shot, half-caf(feinated), non-fat, little foam, caramel, mocha Frappucino with lots of whipped cream, or is it as trendy.

But with the money you could buy a cup there you can treat 2 other friends to Gaafae Boran!

I must admit that as much as I try to avoid supporting Starbucks, once in a while the convenience wins out and I succumb to the same fate as most Americans, lumbering downstairs into a conveniently located Starbucks and pay around $5 for a cup of creamy caramel-y goodness. (If I can help it, I usually drag myself over to Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at the end of the block). Hey, I love tasty treats so I am guilty! I even homed into the round green beacon in Bangkok a few times over my last visit.

But face it. At the end of the day, it’s not Starbucks I crave. It’s a freshly brewed glass from the street. (Well, nowadays, more like out of a beverage service in a food court, but you know what I mean.)

Thai culture steeps in our traditional beverage almost quite literally. And now it’s representing us all over the world in the form of Thai iced tea and Thai iced coffee which are quickly becomimng the new favorites everywhere around the world.

So, down with you, Starschmucks! You can never takeover OUR coffee culture.

…I hope.

The Boundary Of Mai Pen Rai

Mai Pen Rai is that most seductive of expressions in Thai culture. Literally meaning “it doesn’t matter” it has come to be one of the great definers of the Thai character. Being able to deal with difficult situations, not brooding over material and personal loss and an all-pervading cheerfulness are the hallmarks of Mai Pen Rai. It’s a philosophy of life that I personally subscribe to and one of the attitudes that I most admire about Thailand.

But at times has Mai Pen Rai become a bit of a Sacred Cow, especially in the foreign visualisation of Thailand? Is Mai Pen Rai also a concept that has no horizon or alternatively has an actual boundary or boundaries? I ask this question because I have found that there have been times when as a philosophy it has been a tad wanting. One incident that made me question Mai Pen Rai occurred about six years ago.

My wife Mali and myself were on our annual trip to Thailand from Australia. Down in Bangkok for a few days we received a call from Mali’s sister in the Isaan village of Ban Phutsa that their best friend Ruong and her eldest son had been killed. Their deaths were senseless – just another pointless road accident that shouldn’t have happened. They were riding in the pre-dawn to the morning market at the nearby town of Phimai when their motorcycle ploughed into the back of a parked truck which didn’t have its parking lights on. They were both killed instantly.

Mali was particularly distressed at Ruong’s death, as they had been best friends from childhood in the village. Thais tend to make friendships at an early age and they often last forever. The funeral, which was held in the village, was the saddest one that I have ever attended in Thailand. Ruong’s parents and her remaining children were distraught and her husband had lost his soul mate of twenty years. It was a typical Thai funeral that lasted several days.

On the last day after the cremation I participated at the last of the several wakes that had occurred over the past three days. As we sat there drinking with friends, family and other villagers it struck me that people were already moving on. Not because they weren’t sad or simply didn’t care – it just seemed to be fatalism beginning to kick in. There didn’t seem to be a sense of outrage at the stupidity of the deaths. Perhaps they felt it in their hearts or I had missed it in translation.

My own personal sense of outrage about the deaths was reinforced the previous day when I rode my motorbike into Phimai for a few hours. On the ride back I was almost killed by a clown pulling out of the oncoming traffic at speed in his car almost exactly opposite where Ruong and her son had perished a few days ago. Ruong’s death and the reaction of people afterwards is probably not a classic example of Mai Pen Rai. Her death did matter and was felt but the end result of the incident was that the matter was shrugged off. Mai Pen Rai in action?

Now I know I have engaged in a bit of stereotyping here. I fully appreciate that there are countless examples of Thais who boat rock and won’t accept injustice or suffer in silence at stupidity such as the human carnage on Thai roads. However I have found far to often, especially in rural Thailand that people simply “accept situations”. This can range from anything such as sloth in the Sangha, police routinely pulling drivers over to shake them down for a few baht or being shafted by “seat warmers” in the Thai bureaucracy. Now I also appreciate that the extenuating circumstances for these situations is that Thailand still has a fairly rigid class system and its an emerging democracy. However for Thailand to fully participate in an increasingly modern world I feel that some things need to change.

At the end of the day I still believe that Mai Pen Rai is still a powerful and worthwhile philosophy. I’d hate to see Thais turn in to a bunch of self centred prats (although its gradually happening in the big cities) like many of us have become in the west; believing at times that “the sun shines through our backside”. The philosophy of Mai Pen Rai is one of the things that makes Thailand unique, but at the same time Thais are going to have to discover that fire in their bellies in certain situations.

At the end of the day some things really do matter.