Saturday, 20 June 2009

Squalor Out... Romance In!

The sign to our new room in Bangkok.

Our building stands tall in a sea of small businesses...

... its grandiose facade hardly seen, squeezed into the narrow soi...

...while directly opposite their neighbour hasn't prospered so well.

From our balcony we can see the lady burning the leaves.

Our local broom seller gives the thumbs up.

Our ice cream man makes a living if he sells out every day.

An old Chinese man gets on his bike nearby.

While some Chinese ladies smile for a passing farang.

A view down one of the many village sois.

One of the food stalls selling noodles...

... and another one selling fried bananas.

An old man takes his time buying garlic.

A Village in Bangkok

It’s hard not to have a love-hate relationship with Bangkok.

It’s so ugly and in your face but at the same time it’s so alive and vibrant. Despite the inhuman scale and harshness of so brutal a concrete jungle, the warmth of its people has to be its one redeeming feature.

Though most of Bangkok looks much the same, an endless sprawl of drab buildings and crowded roads, in fact it's made up of a series of urban villages each with its own charm and personality.

When I’m in our village in Surin I long for the buzz of Bangkok, though now in the chaos of the city I admit that I do miss the peace of the countryside

In my recent book, “My Thai Girl and I”, I wrote about the rented room we stayed in when I first was with Cat in Bangkok over six years ago. Just off Sukhumvit Soi 71, the room was in a block of about fifty bleak cell-like rooms though it served us well enough. What Cat liked about it was that this was Isaan in the city, a place where migrant workers always stay, eking a precarious living so they can send money home for the children and the old folk.

There were Isaan food stalls, busy evening markets that sprang up on vacant sites and friendly faces that always greeted us when we came back from the village. We enjoyed being there but our building was poorly managed and hasn’t seen a lick of paint for many years. We were on the top floor and during the day the lift was closed to save on electricity and this drove us mad. The sheer meanness of the owner was breathtaking so at last after six years we decided to move out.

Just after I broke my jaw and was in a bit of a mess, Cat went down to the end of the Skytrain at On Nut and walked the streets looking for looking for a new room for us. After six hours she found the nicely named "Romance Mansion" on Soi 97 and that’s where I’m writing this now. (Though its taken a few weeks to post this story on the blog.)

When the extended Skytrain is eventually opened we’ll be right by the new Bangjak station and it’ll be very convenient to get into the centre of town. In addition to this, the room is as clean and well kept as the old one was awful and all for 4,000 baht a month, only a little more than we were paying before.

Romance Mansion has two blocks, ours for long lets and the other a regular hotel and it tells a typical Bangkok tale of a Chinese family made good. Surrounded by small commercial businesses and with broken down houses just across the road, it’s typical of the jumble of land uses that you find in Thai towns and cities. Some families make good and others do not.

The pleasant thing about the place is that it’s a part of an identifiable village, this time not of Isaan migrants but of Chinese Thais. Look out the back of the building and you see grey asbestos roofs covering acres of low quality terraced buildings andeven a few leafy gardens. Each of the terraces is five storeys high and only a few metres wide. There are five or six sois of these houses and they all run dead straight for about a kilometer before reaching a Chinese temple and a stagnant canal at the end, so thousands of homes are packed into this cohesive Chinese immigrant community.

Each house is both a home and a business and as you walk down any soi in the evening you can look into the open fronts and see the family in their own little worlds. Some are packed with plastic sofas, display cabinets and a blinking red Chinese shrine to the kitchen god. Others are cluttered with commercial goods and sundry junk, though almost all are full of humanity. Some families sit at a table to eat but most are spread round on the floor enjoying that most precious of social necessities, good and plentiful food, especially for the Chinese the very essence a successful life.

The people generally look Chinese and so this is a scene that can be seen everywhere in South East Asian cities, of hard working families making good in their adopted country, living behind steel shutters that concertina to keep out intruders. These are often closed at night but you can still look in as you go by and see into the intimate lives of hundreds of families.

On the long grey sois stand smart cars alongside the food stalls of the petty traders, generally Thais from outside Bangkok or from Isaan. There’s a full scale wet market and stalls selling grilled bananas, noodles and chillies and garlic.

Bangkok offers jobs for the poor in sweated factories but many scrape a living in the informal sector, selling cooked food, ice cream or brushes. For them it’s a hard life but it gives the streets of Bangkok a human scale and softens the hard edges of the city.

The centres of Western cities usually close down and die at night but Asian cities such as Bangkok stay full of life until late, their village atmosphere often intact. Physically they have little to recommend them but Bangkok is not soulless as its people make it so vibrant and warm a place.

Despite looking so modern, Bangkok is still exotic and I like it for that.

I can stll fall for what used to be called the romance of the East!

Andrew Hicks The “Thai Girl” Blog June 2009