Homage to the Magnificent Mango

On motorbikes, motorcars, mosquitoes and mangy dogs. And magnificent mangoes too.

First of all, mangos. What a magnificent fruit they are. The taste, sight and smell of them will always conjure up the sense of Asia for me. The last time I was in SE Asia, two years ago, I travelled all over Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. I had mango drinks in all of them and still have visceral memories of several of them. They must contain an enzyme or something that fixes memories. Either that, or I’m a glutton.

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There is also the essential mango-ness of them, especially the rich gorgeous colour and the pleasure they bring. I had forgotten how delicious they are until I had a mango smoothie the other day. I was at an evening meeting last week and went to a restaurant after it as I was starving. I was in a rush so I went to a Western one; my first. I noticed a mango smoothie on the menu so ordered one while waiting for my meal to arrive.

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For me, most food, especially tasty food, seems to have a percentage reduction rate in that the pleasure is always slightly less than the expectation and this pleasure reduces by a few percentage points after each mouthful. Mango smoothies seem to buck this trend as the expectation of pleasure is around 100%, from past experience, and the actual enjoyment meets this. Then, spookily enough, instead of decreasing the pleasure and enjoyment actually increased. The secret is to quit before the enjoyment curve bottoms out and pleasure turns to pain. Mangos transcend this pattern.

Doritos Tangy Cheese crisps seem to have the opposite effect. In the beginning, they offer a lot but the pleasure soon drops but the expectation keeps rising. Many’s the time I bought a gigantic bag meaning to have a few and ended up scoffing the whole sackful in pursuit of that illusive pleasure, ending up with my heart racing from all the salt and a deep sense of dissatisfaction. I’m sure there’s a PhD in there somewhere as well as a new diagnostic classification in the DSM5.

Sticking to the foodie theme, I was out rambling last night looking for a place to eat. I was in an area called the Night Bazaar, the downtown part of Chiang Mai. I came to a sign pointing to Anusarm Market so decided to have an amble down and see what it looked like. I thought it might be a bit of a bummer at first, judging from the name. Luckily, I was wrong. It was a handicraft market with dozens of stalls selling some excellent craftwork from various parts of Thailand. At the back, there was a food market area. This consisted of about 30 shops fronts side by side and selling different types of food from all over Asia. Everyone had a large picture menu with the name of the dish, a photo and a short description in Thai, Chinese and English, usually. The shop owner stood outside and tried to convince passer-bys of the merits of his wares. Feeling a bit harassed by all the admonishments, I settled on one at the outskirts and got a delicious meal consisting of a stewed leg of pork in a delicious sauce, some tasty crunchy veggies I had never seen before that were halfway between spinach and cabbage, rice and a bowl of soup. I wasn’t sure if the bowl of soup was to wash your fingers in, pour over the rice or drink. I gingerly eat some with a spoon and it tasted pretty bland. I then noticed a nearly Thai diner drinking directly from his bowl and slurping loudly. I tried this and it transformed the taste. It as delicious; a light but complex taste. Best of all, the whole shebang cost 50 Baht, just over a Euro. I know where I’ll be eating in future.

On my way back to my bike, I bought, yes, you’ve guessed it, a mango ice cream. As my role model Homer Simpson might say, Hmmmmm

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I’m writing this sitting outside a coffeeshop drinking a delicious coffee while the monsoon rain really lashes down. I’m on a large covered veranda on the banks of the Ping River. There are about 30 people here, 50/50 Thai families and farangs (the Thai word for foreigners). There’s a nice gentle wind blowing to keep things cool and pleasant and the mossies at bay. There’s a railings surrounding the veranda and lines of huge red fire ants are marching up and down the top of the banisters going about their ant like business, oblivious of me and my thoughts of what I might have for lunch today, moving to Hong Kong and wondering when and how I’ll die. They have it sussed. Let’s hope they don’t change their direction and run up my bare leg. They’re supposed to have a ferocious bite.

Just before I got here I was stopped by a motorbike cop who ostensibly was checking for helmets and licences. In fact he was shaking me down as a farang. Loads of Thai people were biking past without helmets and he ignored them. I produced my driving licence but he displayed a laminated sheet in several languages stating my licence didn’t have a picture of a motorbike on it and that this would be a 1000 Baht fine. He said that if I paid now, it would be only 500 Baht. Otherwise, I would have to pay at a police station and there would be a long wait. I had seven days to pay and he confiscated my licence. I have an international driving licence but this was in my residence. There is a big drive in Thailand to end corruption but the police are amongst the worse. Bastards.

On the subject of motorbikes, I’m really enjoying the sense of freedom I get from my little runabout bike. I haven’t actually named it yet but if I did, it might be something like Cyril or maybe Cecil. Don’t ask me why, but if looks like a Cyril. It’s a 125cc automatic and you just turn the key, press a button and off you go. When I first got it I went very slow, about 20 or 30 Km/h but got faster and faster as I gained confidence and learned both the rules and culture of driving in Thailand; not a task for the faint hearted. Now I can keep up with the best of the locals and be mindful and avoid the worst of them.

The Thais seem to be very courteous drivers. There’s a very welcome absence of the aggression endemic in so much of the Western world. Buddhist principles of respect for all sentient life, mosquitoes excepted (more about those vicious little buggers later), seems to be a part of the Thai psyche. This is very noticeable when there are jams in traffic. They smile and let people through. There’s a lot of smiling.

It’s quite possible that I’m reading this all wrong but to my western eye, they seem very nervous drivers jamming on the brakes at the slightest excuse. Maybe because such traffic is fairly new in Thailand and big expensive SUVs must be far more a financial outlay here that in the west that they are cautious of damaging them. There’s also seems to be less of an appreciation of the dangers of accidents than I’m used to. For example, on my way here, I had to drive into a ditch because a car was on the wrong side of the road an a bend in the road overtaking a bicycle rickshaw. You’re rarely see this happen in the west unless the driver was drunk or stoned. Yet here, it fairly commonplace. Defensive driving is a must here.

This attitude of tolerance and kindness is also noticeable in the way they look out for stray dogs on the roads. I have often seen drivers stop to avoid a dog and the dogs often sleep on the side of the road in the line of traffic. There’s a lot of dogs here. Some of them are the pampered pooches we’re used to in Ireland or anywhere else in Europe. Most, however, are soi dogs (a soi is a lane) or strays.

In Chiang Mai, much like all other places in Thailand, the number of stray dogs is extremely high. Overcrowding in the streets often leads to aggressive, territorial behaviour. Alpha dogs, along with their packs, will thrive, whereas solitary or more submissive dogs frequently get attacked. You often see these mangy specimen roaming the streets. Without any population control, neighbourhoods are often overrun with dogs. If their existence poses too high of a nuisance to the people sharing their living space, poison may very well find its way as an added ingredient to their evening meal. Moreover, if pigeons are poisoned to reduce their numbers, dogs that eat those dying birds can also get sick and die.

Certainly, the nastiest fate a dog in Chiang Mai might end up with, is getting trapped in the dog meat trade. Collect trucks roam the streets, picking up stray dogs, who are then crammed into cages and transported overland into the larger meat markets of Laos and Vietnam. If they survive the truck ride, they are force-fed through a tube into their stomachs to increase their weight. Many times, a dog’s stomach will explode as a result of this, but since death is the intention anyway, they’re just sold to a buyer earlier. As awful as this is, any outrage fades when comparison is made with the meat industry in the west, especially the veal, poultry and pork sectors.

OK. rant over. Now, something to really rant about is mosquitoes.

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The mossies are now in their element. It’s the rainy season and there’Is lots of standing water around. Malaria is not too much of a problem here in Chiang Mai but Dengue Fever is. It’s endemic in this part of Thailand and there’s no cure nor vaccination. A guy at work got it last year and he was ill for 6 months and still feels the consequences of it. I’ve been far too casual about taking proper precautions against being bitten so naturally enough, I’ve been bitten a few times. I seem to have an immune system built like an armoured combine harvester and have a misplaced trust that it will chew all noxious flora and fauna and assorted bugs to bits. Hearing about the guy at work, who is very healthy, was a wake up call. I’m now far more careful. I got this stuff from the pharmacy that’s 50% DEET. It’s supposed to be effective against mossies but it melted the strap on my watch. When I put the bottle top on the table, it burned a ring in the tabletop. Goodness knows what it’s doing to my system. I read up on this and the general advice seems to be to avoid it and go for something gentler. I’ll follow this advice.

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That’s it possums. Time to get ready for work tomorrow and for my beauty sleep.

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