March 13, 2009 / 7:53 AM / in 9 years

Tagines, hookahs in Bangkok's "hidden" Arab quarter

BANGKOK (Reuters Life!) - If the Chinese have their Chinatown and Indians “little India,” then the central but little known Bangkok neighborhood of North Nana is the mothership for everything Arab and a drawcard for Middle Eastern tourists.

<p>People walk down Soi Arab street in Bangkok's North Nana neighbourhood, March 8, 2009. REUTERS/Chawadee Nualkhair</p>

Ask any tourist about Bangkok, and the answer will usually involve temples, markets and the noodle dish pad thai. Ask a seasoned visitor about Nana, and the conversation will invariably turn to go-go girls and nightclubs with suggestive names.

But Nana is actually split into two, and the South Nana of beers and bargirls is a world away from North Nana and its “Soi Arab,” with Middle Eastern restaurants and shops that make up a sort of separate country within Bangkok.

“Europeans go to one side of Nana, and Arabs go to the other,” said Natanicha Towsing, a tourist information officer manning the Bangkok skytrain stop at Nana.

Middle Eastern tourists are becoming a key target group for a Thai tourism market in danger of shrinking under the stresses of political unrest and the global economic downturn.

Tourism Authority of Thailand figures show more than 490,000 visitors came from the Middle East last year, the bulk of them from Dubai, and are the source of the biggest growth in tourism revenue, spending 15 percent more last year than 2007.

These figures are manna to an embattled industry that comprises up to 7 percent of the Thai economy and employs, directly or indirectly, 9 million people.

TEA HOUSES AND THAI TAGINES

Much of the land on which North Nana and “Soi Arab” now rests belonged to one family: the Nana family, a prominent business clan with Middle Eastern roots.

Unlike other areas around the central Sukhumvit Road, North Nana has proven immune to what realtors call gentrification.

“The street itself is not very accessible,” said Nabeel Hussain, research manager at property services firm CB Richard Ellis. The street is one-way.

“Additionally, the large number of tourists means lots of noise and traffic, which are not ideal for a luxury development.”

As a result, the tangle of shophouses frequented by Middle Eastern businessmen for decades remains largely the same. But as tourist numbers increase, the area is developing in its own way.

“Twenty-five years ago, one person owned everything,” said a hookah-smoking patron of the Thai-Egyptian “Nefertiti” restaurant, who did not want to be identified by name. “Now, it’s all different people, new restaurants, more places.”

Yet North Nana remains a prickly tourism proposition for those not from the Middle East.

Unlike other parts of Thailand, bars are scarce and visitors are not bombarded with promises of cold drinks or offers of a massage. Taking pictures can sometimes solicit baleful glares.

Some spas in the area specify that “massages here are strictly non-sexual,” in an attempt to fend off embarrassing misunderstandings and distinguish themselves from South Nana.

Many restaurants too are better known among the locals.

Neighborhood stalwart Shahrazade, with its waitresses in mint-colored headscarves, retains much of the same clientele it had when it first opened its doors about 10 years ago.

It serves Middle Eastern culinary mainstays such as hummus, but regulars vie for the restaurant’s well-known khao mok pae, saffron rice with goat, and grilled lamb testicles.

There’s fairly authentic Moroccan tagines, couscous and roasted lamb at Tagine de Marrakesh, at the Grace Hotel popular with Arabs. And in an area where alcohol is hard to come by, the recently opened Thai-owned bar Sabai-Sabai manages to pack in a crowd of locals, Gulf Arabs and Africans.

But no pictures, please.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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