Even if she wasn’t playing Western pop tunes or sad Thai love sonnets, the woman would stand out amongst the prowling ladyboys and friendly streetwalkers of the late Bangkok evenings. Her dresses are always full length and the blouses long-sleeved, revealing little of her figure. On oc-casion she dons a brown beret. As you approach, she offers up a pleasant smile as she plays and if you linger, will launch into a special selection from her repertoire. Her case sits open at her feet and contains a splat-tering of coins and crumpled notes tossed in by wandering tourists, few of whom stop to listen for more than a couple minutes.
The woman’s name is Cat and she can sometimes be found after 10 p.m. on the corner of Soi 6 & Sukhumvit, below the Nana Skytrain Station. Occasionally I go home that way after a night of playing pool in order to be regaled with Yesterday Once More and Jambalaya (I grew up on the Carpenters) followed by a local song of yearning and loss, which is ex-plained to me afterwards. Sometimes Cat also brings a bamboo flute and I end up singing to strains of Puff the Magic Dragon while the Bangkok traffic rumbles by but a few yards away. It’s a slightly surreal experience, but I appreciate the contrast.
If you ever find yourself strolling near Nana Station late some night, keep an eye out for a lonely figure playing a white, garland-tipped violin, sere-nading the darkness. Stop and listen for a song or two and don’t forget to leave a generous tip — it will be much appreciated and deserved.
Special Notice: Finito
After twelve months of diligently recording my experiences and impressions in Thailand’s capital city, I’ve decided the time has come to wrap up this blog. In 2015, I plan to launch a new one, possibly focusing on my travels outside of Bangkok. Those of you that are following my efforts (fifty-one and counting!) should get the usual email notifications once I’ve begun. In the meantime, I thank you all for your interest so far. It has involved some hard work, publishing every Sunday, but there was also a gratifying sense of accomplishment, which in turn has motivated me to continue my blogging efforts.
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.
Before I attempt to play food critic, it’s important to establish my lack of credentials: I have trouble distinguishing between a croissant and a cup-cake. Whenever I go out to eat, I invariably choose one of the cheaper items on the menu; something I recognize and can pronounce. I almost always have water to drink except on the wild occasions when I order a Coke. To say I have simple tastes would be an overstatement.
This does not mean I’m devoid of standards, however. At the far end of Soi 4 where I live, there are at least three establishments I no longer fre-quent due to poor service or an overt emphasis on the tourist trade (such as shamelessly high prices or seafood displays that take up sidewalk seat-ing). A fourth restaurant (at the Woraburi Hotel) has for some reason con-cluded that its customers would occasionally appreciate music similar to the pounding, headache-inducing rubbish that infests the bars and go-gos down the street. If I had to eat there on a regular basis, I’d become anor-exic.
The Indian eateries, on the other hand, have proven much harder to ca-tegorize. I’ve lately become a fan of the cuisine with its delicate blend of spices and flavors, and living in a tourist area means there are numerous choices within walking distance. But the experiences have been uneven, forcing me to devise a checklist to improve my chances of a pleasurable meal. To assist others in sorting out this culinary confusion, I’ll share of few of my insights here.
1. A well-dressed Indian man standing by the door, attempting to usher people inside.
Meaning: Just another run-of-the-mill joint. With the locals having no interest in eating there, they hire a tout to try and lure in gullible tourists.
2. Prominent pictures of various dishes, but no prices.
Meaning: They will charge you an arm and a leg, maybe even your firstborn, for the meal.
3. A fancy, well-designed interior with fake wood panelling and clusters of shelves supporting an extensive collection of wines and liquors.
Meaning: An attempt to create an atmosphere, drawing your gaze to the exotic-looking booze in hopes you’ll begin drinking and subsequently overlook the substandard food and glacially slow service — while paying through the nose for it.
4. The meal is served in miserly portions, though exquisitely arranged.
Meaning: Style over substance. If you are after beauty, go to an art museum. It will be cheaper.
5. Children are galavanting about.
Meaning: Do you like eating your dinner to the patter of little feet scampering past your table? Then you are in for an enchanted evening.
At this point, it can be easy to surrender to despair and opt for the Golden Arches, KFC or some other fast food abomination. But the purpose of visiting (or living in) a foreign country is to have new experiences and the cuisine is always worth exploring. The advice here should help you avoid potential disappointments. Bon Appetit!
After a yet another late evening shellacking at the hands of Newt and Rat at the Sports Academy Pool Bar, I was ready to call it a night. However, I happened to recall that another of my Eight Ball opponents at a place just down the street was going on vacation soon, and that I should stop in to say goodbye.
Fern is a sweet and simple young Thai woman with a nondescript figure and face that reminds me of a long-ago girl from my hometown. She be-gan work a few months ago to support her year-old daughter. Though we keep score when we play, our matches are not the cutthroat, in-your-face battles I have at Sports Academy. Fern isn’t by nature a competitive per-son and not that good a player, either. So instead I try to make her laugh, which makes for a fun, lighthearted evening.
The girls who work at the pool bars receive a misery salary to the point where they rarely can afford their own apartment and have to live with friends or family. With Fern taking four unpaid days off to see her par-ents in the provinces, I figured she could use some extra help. Because of her child, and no boyfriend or husband around to provide assistance, I’ve always given her a nice tip, usually two hundred baht ($6). But this was a special occasion so I upped the ante to one thousand ($30).
By happy coincidence, it turns out that the bus fare home for Fern and the baby comes to almost the same amount as what I gave her: 1,080 baht. Upon hearing this I grinned, opened my wallet, and theatrically counted out four twenty baht notes to make up the difference. As Fern began to giggle, I then got out my coin purse and solemnly handed over three more baht, telling her to be careful with it. On that note I said goodnight and started on my way home.
For the past month, I had not seen Newt #2, a massage girl who works in the building next to my apartment. I would often run across her in the late evening, sitting on the curb taking a cigarette break. She speaks in a lan-guid monotone that sounds computer-generated. I’d had her come to my apartment a couple of times two years ago for massages. On the second visit, she showed up in a dark silk dress. Leaning over as she kneaded my arm, her wild hair splashing on my face, she informed me of her price for any extracurricular activities. I almost succumbed. Almost. Corny as this may sound, there has to be a measure of affection — real or convincingly faked — from a lady before I take the plunge.
Since then, Newt has seen me come and go with a number companions, a fact she has remarked upon. To try and stay on reasonable terms with a person I must stroll past two or three times a week, I started occasionally bringing her fruit drinks from the 7-11 a block away. Later I discovered she has a hankering for chocolate.
So when I ran across my old sentinel and renewed acquaintances — she had been visiting her family — I wasted no time hurrying on to my apart-ment to retrieve a small package of chocolate cookies I had stashed in my cupboard. When I returned with the present, Newt was already back at work (sort of), slumped over a table, half-asleep. Still adjusting to the night shift, no doubt. I gently placed the sweets between her outstretched arms.
Newt, like Fern, works well past midnight, six nights a week and is paid but a pittance. While I have no inclination to become involved with either of them, both are certainly deserving of a little kindness.
Two evenings ago, unable to sleep, I decided to take one of my strolls down Soi 4, then out along Sukhumvit, one of the main avenues of cen-tral Bangkok. After 2 a.m., when the bars and go-gos close for the night, dozens of tiny street-side bars mushroom along the quarter mile stretch of road running from the near side of the Asoke Skytrain Station to a few blocks beyond Nana Station. These impromptu establishments usually consist of a cart containing a surprising variety of hard liquor circled by a mini asteroid belt of plastic chairs and uncomfortably small tables. Most also feature a rudimentary sound system which provides a thumping soundtrack for the cacophony of shrill Thai voices interspersed with the occasional drunken mutterings from some slumped-over Westerner.
It’s the kind of environment Caligula would feel right at home in.
I’m unsure why I try to navigate my way through this jungle of aggres-sive, bawling hostesses (“WEL-CUM!”) and intimidating gatherings of ladyboys, who can be stroking your arm with one hand while the other is slyly searching for your wallet. I guess I am still amazed, after over two years in this city, at such blatant depravity.
Yet all is not total despair. On occasion, I’ll pass a streetwalker standing or sitting by herself. Maybe we exchange a brief smile, or she gives me a shy hello. I continue on down the block when, suddenly, the urge hits. I turn around, go back, and give her one hundred baht ($3), saying the Thai word for “breakfast”. The woman is often confused at first, not being used to unconditional kindness. But I smile and maybe lightly touch her arm, trying to convey my sincerity. Usually the message gets across and I receive a look of genuine appreciation. Should the topic of my taking her home arise, I explain (in simple, moron-level Thai) that I’m just out for a walk.
The street jamboree continues until around five in the morning, when the first streaks of light appear behind the forest of high rises. The garbage workers, whom I have real sympathy for, begin sweeping up the refuse as the bar proprietors reluctantly fold up shop. Slowly, inexorably, the city puts on its day face with sleepy commuters and clogged traffic, becoming just another Southeast Asian Metropolis with no memories of the wild night.