The procession of makeshift booths that line the odd-numbered side of Sukhumvit begin at the busy intersection near Nana Plaza and continue for some five or six long blocks, almost to the Asoke Skytrain Station. A bewildering array of goods can be found there starting with the usual t-shirts, thongs and sparkling trinkets, then moving on to such exotic items as fake pistols and erotic salt and pepper shakers. For those elderly con-noisseurs of the fairer sex who have more ambitious plans, street Viagra is also available — with stalls offering porno DVDs and battery powered vibrators conveniently located a few feet away.
Most of the vendors begin setting up during the late morning, a compact pickup truck parked by the curb with mom and pop working to assemble the stand and get the merchandise out and on display. Often a couple of the children are also there, pitching in. At least one of the family will be manning their tiny patch of concrete until ten or eleven o-clock at night, when everything will then be neatly re-packed and taken home. While the hours may vary, the routine is the same six days a week.
The preferred target of these hardy entrepreneurs are jet-lagged tourists on their first trip to Bangkok, still fumbling with the local currency and maybe a bit overwhelmed by the sights. If a gold Buddha amulet catches their eye, they are unlikely to haggle much over the price. Those that do prefer to negotiate will find the vendors, who of course know what the wares really cost, quite happy to engage in some give-and-take. It can be a mutually beneficial exchange, with the customer walking away feeling he or she got a very good deal and the seller, having made a tidy profit, smiling to herself.
My experiences in this colorful, gritty environment have been mixed, in part because I am a finicky shopper who prefers to maintain a degree of control over the transaction. One evening, while inspecting a pair of san-dals hung on a sheet of cardboard in front of a shoe store, I got into a mild standoff with the owner, who wanted me to go inside where there was a wide selection. Sensing I would lose some of my bargaining power — and being very interested in the pair out front — I demurred. When it became clear I wasn’t for some reason going to be allowed to purchase them, I casually walked away, costing the fellow a potential sale.
But that is only me. For anyone coming to visit, I recommend an evening stroll along this part of Sukhumvit. To be sure, it lacks the allure of the more sophisticated parts of the city, but it’s an authentic slice of Bang-kok.
I’ve never been much of a photographer. While some people have a talent for producing breathtaking shots, I invariably screw up the lighting or have the scene off-center. The arrival of the digital age, however, has giv-en me hope that there might now be cameras with the smarts to overcome my blunderings. I therefore set out last week to find and purchase one. Given Bangkok’s sterling reputation for consumer electronics, I figured it would take but a single afternoon of casual browsing at a few stores. I’d select a model that looked easy to use, mumble a few halfway intelligent questions (“So, how do I turn this on?”), then make the purchase and go home a happy man. Or something like that.
My first stop was the Terminal 21 Mall located near Asoke and Sukhum-vit Roads. Though the protesters have shut the intersection down, it does not seem to have hurt business. The camera store on the basement level had been featuring an inexpensive Olympus that I’d had my eye on. (I did not want to shell out extra money on something with all kinds of fan-cy features I’d only become exasperated with trying to figure out.) Alas, now that I was finally serious, the Olympus was gone. Equally frustrat-ing, a couple other models which looked like they might do the job did not carry price tags. This was puzzling since most of the other displays had one. Not really comfortable with asking the fellow in charge what the prices were — and having him set the amounts — I moved on.
Siam Paragon is perhaps the king of the Bangkok malls. Certainly it is the ritziest I have been in (the ground floor food court, for example, bills itself as a “Gourmet Paradise”). As I journeyed through the main hall, lined with glittering jewelry stores and showcasing the latest Toyota Lex-us models — which by the way did have stickers — I felt very much out of place and feared anything I might find would be far beyond my price range. This turned out to be true when I stepped into the Sony store and saw no camera marked for less than 15,000 baht ($500). I quickly retreat-ed, taking deep breaths to calm myself.
My luck soon changed for the better. Up on the second floor of the mall I finally found, much like Goldilocks, a small, cozy shop that was “just right”. In the display window was a lightweight Canon Powershot A2500 (the name is almost longer than the camera) that was priced well within my budget. Equally important, one of the employees was willing to sit down and walk me through many of its features, showing admirable pa-tience with my ignorance, which I made no attempt to conceal. When I did not understand what was being demonstrated, I had him go through it a second time, though there was really no question I was going to buy the camera.
Once I got home, I wasted little time getting the A2500 unwrapped and the battery charged. I then sat down and began pushing buttons, clumsily navigating through the many functions and settings. But one thing puz-zled me: how to download the photos into my MacBook Air laptop? The Canon did not seem to have come with anything that would do this. To try and better understand how the process worked, I opened up the iPhoto application on my laptop (where I would be processing the photos) and read in the help window that the camera should have some kind of cable to download the pictures. So where was it? Perhaps it had dropped out of the box while the Canon was being demoed to me.
Returning to the store at Siam Paragon the following day, I anticipated an easy resolution to my problem. But the original fellow was not there and when I told another sales person that I required a cable for my Canon, he replied there wasn’t one. This left me standing there dumbfounded — how was I supposed to get the photos into my Mac? I also was angry. I’d specifically mentioned what kind of laptop I had when I made the pur-chase and was assured there would be no problem. Now here was this guy apparently telling me the Canon could not connect to it. I wanted to grab him by the shoulders and say look here, I have a Macbook Air and it (meaning Steve Jobs) says your camera should have a f*cking cable for downloading.
Of course as any photographer, and probably most techno-savvy elemen-tary students know, I had to get a special gadget that would both read the camera’s memory card and attach to one of my laptop’s USB ports. The sales fellow, noticing that I was not going to leave without some kind of explanation, showed me the one they use in the store, but unfortunately do not sell. This did not improve my mood one bit. As I saw it, all this should have been covered before I bought the damn camera. Biting my tongue, I spat out a grudging thank you and walked out as the sales peo-ple burst into laughter, probably a release from the tension I’d created.
It took over a half hour to cool down. Getting what’s called a Memory Card Reader was just one more gadget I’d have to fiddle with and a part of me wanted to go back to the store, toss the Canon onto the counter and storm out. But once the frustration dissipated, I decided to go shopping for the mysterious device. Since I was returning home on the Skytrain, I stayed on for one station to pay another visit to that camera shop in Ter-minal 21 and see if maybe they could help me. Unfortunately, the fellow at the counter — Mr. No-Price-Tag Pete — answered my inquiry with a gruff “No have” and went back to whatever he was doing. (Now there’s a guy whom I’ll certainly be taking my camera needs to.) His assistant took pity on me however and provided directions to a tech store in the mall where I easily found what I needed.
Everything turned out fine in the end, though my opinion of Thai custom-er service has reached a new low. The initial pictures I took downloaded through the Card Reader and into iPhoto with no trouble whatsoever. All that remains now is to determine if the Canon has some function that re-moves obstructing fingers…