Published 13 April 1997 Style Magazine 197th article
Stories to dine out on: Michael Winner with Siriat Norseeda, left, and Japanese visitors at the Krungsri River Hotel (Vanessa Perry)
Here is the greatest reason I have ever been given for a plane not taking off on time. It was Thai Airways to Bangkok, and 20 minutes past departure time. I found myself in the front row with Christopher Lee, the actor, and his wife, Birgit, opposite.
"Shall I go and ask why we're not leaving?" I suggested.
"Yes, do," said Birgit.
There's a woman I like, wants action. I walked back to the chubby, nice stewardess. I asked why we were still on the ground. "The reason we're not taking off is that one of the passengers has smallpox and is being taken off the plane."
I hesitated a moment to take this in. "And you're having to take his luggage off as well," I said, weakly.
"Yes," replied the stewardess.
I went back and reported to my group. After a few seconds the obvious question arose, so I returned to the stewardess, just as the pilot was announcing we had missed our slot and would go half an hour late.
"How did you know this person had smallpox?" I asked.
"The passenger sitting next to him noticed and complained," said the stewardess, as if this was the most natural thing in the world. I returned yet again. After a while, I looked up.
"I know what I forgot to ask," I said. "What seat was he sitting in?"
The food on Thai was pretty normal airline fodder. Vegetable spring roll, not crisp, gooey. Prawn cracker very bad indeed. Chicken consomme where the bits of chicken, even immersed in liquid, managed to be dry. Fish curry appeared in some leaves, swimming in sauce. But I forgive them everything for there, in a large tin, was Sevruga caviare. Such a sight has not been seen on British Airways in living memory. You could have seconds, thirds, even fourths. I know, because I did. After that, the dodgy ice cream gateau didn't matter. And when I told the stewardess I collected cutlery, she said: "Can I get you a bag to put it in?"
"No thanks," I responded, "I've got two forks and a spoon in my briefcase."
Later the stewardess, Miss Kay Wandee, changed from national costume into purple dress uniform and gave us a beautifully wrapped present, the purple box embossed with gold, a CD of "Near Dawn, music by His Majesty the King of Thailand, Bangkok Symphony Orchestra, ML Usni Pramoj Conductor". That's something you won't get on British Airways, which is just as well considering our Queen's compositional powers are probably not up to much.
When I got outside Bangkok, into the country, the food at places you're not meant to go to I found rather good. The Sinvana resort in Phitsanulok, the 13th-century capital city, is a beautifully gardened Thai-style complex where we ate alone. Nobody else there. Stirfried Thai water mimosa, a sort of fried water spinach, very nice. Fried fish with garlic and pepper, stirfried. Thai watercress, both jolly. The waitresses watched cartoons on the telly.
At another Thai capital of old - they kept being attacked by the Burmese and burnt down so new capitals abounded - is Ayutthaya. All these places have incredibly preserved temples and royal palaces and, even better, hardly any visitors. The Krungsri River Hotel reminded me of a canteen in old Czechoslovakia. There was no sign of a river but a glorious, totally uninterrupted view of the motorway. The room was large and busy. All orientals, a grand buffet, some orange pillars, a low ceiling and black and white marble floor. Our guide, Sirhiat Norseeda, ate Thai noodles, braised cabbage, hardboiled egg, flying fish, chicken curry with sauce and rice and veg. I followed her lead. All perfectly tasty. Vanessa, who is rather cautious, had a little white rice and loved her Singha lagerbeer. For dessert there was pineapple and watermelon on display but, goody goody, four different Thai jellies. A green one, a black one, a red one and a strange wispy one in coconut cream all topped with spoonfuls of sugary syrup. The jelly was in little strips, not rabbit-moulded as in my youth, but scrumptious none the less.
I decided to solidify the event with a photo of some local diners. This produced much excitement and, although none of them spoke a word of English, all the girls produced cameras, giggled and asked to be photographed with me. And they didn't even know I was me!
"Nice to have a photo of the local Thai girls," I said to Sirirat as we walked out.
"They were all Japanese tourists," she replied, sweetly. Nothing much you can add to that, is there.
I enjoy reading about all the exotic places Michael Winner visits but, as a tourist to Turkey, Spain and Greece, I notice he never mentions these places at all. As I can't get to most of the London and Home Counties restaurants that appear in Winner's Dinners, my only personal "contact" with the great man has been in Egypt - we have both seen the pyramids. So if he can't come to Chester, would he mind varying his foreign locales a bit?
Nicholas James, Chester
I am fascinated by the extent to which readers will tolerate one indignity after another when eating out. If you reach the point in a restaurant where things are getting silly, why on earth can't the host or hostess call for someone in authority and simply say to them, "Get it right from now on or we are leaving"? And if it does come to walking out, they should make sure the other diners know why. This sort of action would be worth any number of letters written after the event.
Len Ketley Slapton, Bedfordshire