March 24, 2009


From Laos, we flew to Chiang Rai and thence drove to Chiang Mai. The last time we did this, some ten years ago, this was a relaxing drive through quiet villages and forests not too dissimilar to those of Northern Europe. As we approached Chiang Mai, though, the scenery rapidly changed. More and more built-up, more and more ugly. In fact, just like Chiang Mai itself - always doomed to be the ugly sister, the one who'll never have to worry about growing up to become a "City of Culture".

After a few days here of R & R , it was time to head back to Bangkok for our return flight home. P wanted to take back a souvenir but his case was already bulging so a carved teak screen or winged garuda was out of the question. So eventually after a great deal of huffing and puffing, he realized he’d have to make do with just a silk tie. My, what a self sacrifice!`And what a model of restraint to others in these recessionary times…

On the way to the cartel of silk shops, I noticed a huge queue of shoppers pouring into an equally huge supermarket. But not any old supermarket. Tesco, no less. For Tesco, like Carrefour and Macro - all successful on home turf - are equally well established in Thailand.

At the time, P was busy dodging the overflowing tuk-tuks (what we at home call driving). In fact, it’s not unusual to see tuk-tuks laden with sacks of rice, bags of fruit and vegetables and live chickens, their owners sitting tight on their bags. I’ve seen them carrying furniture, even coffins, and once a pig.(It did look dead though - or in an extremely deep sleep.)

P was so distracted by the frenetic street scene that I don’t know if he didn’t notice what I’d noticed. Or - more likely - pretended not to. For letting me anywhere near street markets or supermarkets abroad (even British ones) is like giving an alcoholic the keys to a distillery. In no time, I’m unsteady, and incomprehensibility is a casualty.

Anyway, the bottom line is we made a detour and, before you translate into Thai Every little…, I was in the grocery and fresh produce aisles. Grocery and fresh produce?, I hear you say. What on earth could I possibly find of interest there? Well, actually quite a lot, since you ask. For what I like to find out is how the local Tesco - or Carrefour or whatever - is responding to the "local demographic" as marketing folk pretentiously insist on calling the locals. Would there, for example, be the Thai fast food equivalents of Tesco’s Finest range? Finest green curry, Finest Tom Kha Kai? Finest Phad Thai? Or exactly the same products you could find in any largish Thai-owned supermarket?

The answer, as far as Chiang Mai’s Tesco is concerned, is a bit of both. Amongst the rows of ready-packed meats was ubiquitous chicken, in packs as familiar as in any Tesco from Southampton to Southport. And in the fresh produce area, heaped-up slices of durian. Not open, you understand, since durian smells of, amongst other repulsive odours, putrefying flesh and the urinal. But rather vacuum-packed. Same ‘Best before date’ and labelling. Still, not what you’d expect to add to your weekly shop in Tesco in Wimbledon.

One thing, however, this Tesco outpost shares with its UK cousins is its use of music, or more accurately muzak. Thai muzak to be more precise. Whatever they were amplifying, it drove me nuts. Far from lulling me into a comatose state of willingness to part with my hard-earned baht, I simply wanted to get the hell out of the place ASAP. Interestingly, I read somewhere that hip-hop was the most popular music used as a means of torture in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. And that some U.S. railway company is trying to drive homeless people out of its stations by subjecting them to classical music. Well, as far as muzak is concerned - whether it’s in a supermarket in Thailand or the UK - every little doesn’t help.

And no, P didn’t get a souvenir either. The silk shops were overflowing with ties with prices to match - far higher than those in the UK January sales. Doesn’t Tieland realize there’s a recession going on in the rest of the world?

And anyway, I couldn't be arsed to spend any longer in such swelteringly suffocating silk shops looking at tiresome ties...

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