Bangkok, Thailand: High Tea in Asia.
Tea - Thai style.
Circa 2008: A Thai style tea party.
If there is a lesson to be learned in Asia, it is that everything is negotiable.
Bangkok, March 2008.
"So what are we gonna do tonight?"
Four of us stand in a hotel room at the Hyatt. Millions of the city’s fluorescent lights glitter in the dark that lies outside the hotel windows, and I can’t help but lose part of the conversation to the light show that is Bangkok. MTV is playing its tunes on the television and a song change brings me back to reality. I return to debating the night’s agenda with my close friends. In a city like this, there are countless possibilities to think about, so there is no shortage of suggestions for a night out. But each new proposal complicates the discussion further and I begin to think we’re going to spend the night talking about what we should be doing instead of doing it. I push the concern out of my mind. I know this much: Bangkok is a city with a random heart - it has a way of laying even the most intricate plans to waste in a moment.
Short circuiting our negotiations, Julien (ever the musician at heart) decides to raid the minibar and brings out four tumblers. I like the idea - a little social lubricant sounds like a good plan to ditch the planning debate. It looks like everyone is in for a compulsory drink. The glasses land with an unceremonious clink on the glass top table and they skid across its surface as Julien makes his point without subtlety. One of them does a little circular dance and I stand still, watching it, letting the fates decide whether it should stand or fall. With that most curious of sounds, the glass eventually settles in an upright position, saving me the additional hotel surcharge for ‘sundry expenses’. Julien then goes on to perform a one-eighty spin and returns to the cabinet.
Lost to the conversation now, I watch as he digs through it, like a man on a mission. Fill those glasses mate - before I return to reason. Each second that passes makes his motion a little more frantic. Eventually, the conversation stalls as each of us watch him with a growing degree of amusement. It is one of those inane scenes that for some strange reason becomes magnetic to the eye. I begin to wonder, exactly how much choice can a hotel minibar afford the alcoholic punter? How deep will that boy dig to find the answer? I resist the urge to cheer and chant. Then, after a few moments, he surfaces with puzzlement etched across his face.
Julien: “What gives man? Did you guys drink all the alcohol before we got here?”
Thy: “Of course not. We haven’t even looked at that bar this entire trip!”
Julien: “Well, there’s nothing here... Nothing at all”
Michelle: “You’re probably not looking in the right place. Is there anywhere else it could be?”
Julien: “Do I look stupid?”
Me: *laughing* “What’s your IQ got to do with my whiskey?”
As Julien and I square off for some alpha male words, Thy and Michelle do the sensible thing and ignore us completely. Checking the cabinet for herself in about a fifth of the time that Julien had spent rummaging through it, Thy interrupts our parlay and confirms the curious truth: There is indeed no alcohol in the alcohol cabinet. The action stops. We all look at each other and wonder the same unspoken question: ‘Could this be the first minibar in history without the bar?’. Julien is clearly not impressed. Primarily with me. Thy & Michelle, in comparison, seem remarkably well composed. I pick up the hotel phone and mash the concierge button before the dial tone can kick in:
Concierge: “Good evening, Sir. How can I be of assistance?”
Me: “Good evening. It seems that my mini bar is barless?”
Concierge: “I’m sorry, Sir, but the drinks in the mini bar are unavailable tonight”
Me: “Unavailable? That is unusual...”
Concierge: “Yes Sir. There is an election tomorrow, so for security, there is no alcohol in the minibar”.
Me: “Mmm... okay then". I'm having trouble comprehending the link between my minibar and national security, but I roll with it anyway. "No problem. Lets have some drinks sent up to the room instead.”
Concierge: “Sorry Sir. Cannot do any drinks as our bar is closed.”
Me: “Ok then..." I figure, if you can't make the mountain come to you, you go to the mountain... "Aaah... can you recommend some place nearby where we can go for a drink then?”
Concierge: “Aaaah, Sir, no. I cannot. No alcohol is allowed”
Me: “What? In the whole of Bangkok? ” *my mouth is agape now*
Concierge: “Yes Sir. No alcohol is allowed in the whole of Bangkok city. Election is tomorrow”.
The receiver drops from my hand into the cradle. I’m stupefied by the news I have just heard. Could it be that Bangkok, the wild east of the orient, has decided to become a prude on this night of all nights? I recite this strange tale to my audience. As I finish my story, the irony descends upon us like an unwelcome Alcoholics Anonymous intervention: on the only night the four of us have decided to party together, the entire city is made drier than the Sahara by ministerial order. Bangkok’s random heart has stopped beating. We are forsaken... and I'm having flashbacks of the bright idea I once had to spend new years eve in Amman, Jordan.
After a period of stunned silence where we exchange blank stares and receive no replies, a giggle comes from somewhere and we all end up in stitches. Without any discussion, it is decided. Tonight, we have our plan courtesy of the fates: Drink - using any means possible.
There is a certain allure to the forbidden fruit. I’m no alcohol junkie. In fact, I can go without a drink for the better part of a year, but tell me I can’t have it and watch the desire build. In fact, by the time we board the taxi, I’m parched. We depart the hotel grounds and make our way through Bangkok. I note with some surprise that the taxi is actually moving. Any veteran of a Bangkok weekend will tell you, this is a very bad sign. In a city that is regarded by Australian standards as having a traffic jam before the locals would consider it to be busy on the roads, free flowing traffic means only one of two things: A state of emergency or a state of sobriety.
Ignoring the signs, we try our luck regardless.
We hit a few of the well known clubs and bars on recon - and so far, the prognosis comes back negative. As we drive past them, they are all deserted. High class, low class, it makes no difference. Eventually, we stop driving in circles and pull up outside the Bed Supper Club. It is also closed. In the relative quiet, it begins to dawn on us that the political powers are serious about this ban - Bangkok is dry indeed. After all, if even the tourist centres are closed, then everything must be affected.
Failure is in the cards if we keep on this track and everyone knows it. Julien and Mish are getting ready to call it quits. Thy turns to me and asks me what the plan is. I have no idea... but I do know that all things are possible, especially in this town. If we’re going to wet the whistle tonight, it’s going to require some lateral thinking and some local knowhow. So, instead of turning in, I buy some time and suggest getting a bite to eat while we think about our next move. Everyone agrees.
We hail down another cab and as we ride, I apply friendly pressure to the cab driver, pumping him for information about where to eat. By now, it is clear that tourist places are a no go tonight. Its time to go more local. The driver pulls up five minutes later at an outdoor Thai eatery. The place is aimed at middle class local clientele - white table cloths mask the din of multi-coloured decore and mismatched crockery, and I note the Tiger beer advertisements on the walls. Mmmm... Tiger. Checking the scene, I note that there aren’t too many foreign witnesses here - we’re off the tourist trail - and so I'm beginning to like my chances. Our friendly Thai host, also the owner, gives us his biggest Thai smile, obviously very thankful to have guests on this quiet night. Looking around, I see why: we are the only people in his restaurant. We order our food, lots of it, and he writes it down attentively. As he walks off, still sporting his smile, Julien tests the waters and asks for a Tiger beer. Our host hesitates for a moment and I watch his smile fade... He politely refuses the request, telling us a story we have heard before. He seems regretful for the refusal, but afraid of doing otherwise.
As the entrees arrive, the owner surfaces from the kitchen once again. I get up from the table and approach him with a smile. Leaning against the bar, I casually begin discussing this night without alcohol in that friendly, conversational way that is the beginning of all colourful negotiations in Asia. His mood eases as we talk and it is not long before we find consensus that the ban is bad for both of us - for his business and for our evening. As the conversation gains a momentum of its own, each of us takes turns venting our frustration and I feel these words building common ground. It becomes clear to both of us: He wants to sell, I want to buy. At the critical moment, I drop the proposition on him: He serves, we drink, no one speaks. With a smile, some baht ends up on the bar for a tab and I give him a melodramatic 'thumbs up', borrowing a move that the Fonze would have been proud of. He begins to laugh at my clowning. On the verge of saying yes, he hesitates at the last moment. There is one final hurdle. If anyone else sees him, they will speak and he will suffer. He doesn’t want to risk it. The decision hangs in the balance... Then, in a classic moment of bad timing, some people walk in and take a seat at a nearby table. Turning to the kitchen, the owner retreats to bring out our main course.
As I watch him walk from me, like a courtship going cold, I think random and try for the third strike:
Me: “Come on.... it's Thailand, no problem!”
Owner: “Problem! People see.” His eyes move across to the other patrons. “No good for me”.
Me: “Aaaah... but what about some of your special tea?” I give him a wink. “Tea, see, good for you, good for me!”
Owner: *begins to smile* “Special tea?”
Me: “Yes, I hear it tastes like Tiger. We are very thirsty. For tea. You bring me a tea pot and when it is finished, you can bring another”.
Owner: “Yes, this is a good idea” *laughing* “We have very good tea”.
Me: “Good. I think you need some tea too”.
Slapping me on the back, the owner returns to the kitchen and the tea pots arrive in short order, complete with tea cups and saucers. The owner grins at me like a Cheshire cat from his station behind the dry bar and we toast in a fashion befitting an English breakfast tea party. The teapot expires prematurely and another takes its place without a word spoken. Many pots later, we sit in the heart of a hot, dry and semi deserted Bangkok in the wee hours of the morning, the four of us having had our fill of private partying over great food and clandestine Tiger tea.
Before we leave the restaurant for the evening, we toast to a sweet taboo that was only ours, for just one night in Bangkok.
That’s high tea, Thai style.