Bangkok: mixing business with pleasure

24 07 2017

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After a long and excited wait, I’m back in Bangkok. It feels like a while since I have been here, and of course, in the meantime the city has been spinning away at a furious rate, erecting new museums and leisure districts, razing old areas, unveiling new parks, sweeping up street vendors and – not least of all – constructing the condo tower where I have bought my own little slice of the city.

As always, the city is filled with surprises and superlative people-watching: a woman selling a live stingray in a plastic bag (for 1200 baht!), teenagers speaking Japanese with broad Singaporean accents in Siam Square, a hot pants-high heels-hijab combo on a shopper in MBK and an elderly Korean gentleman on the prowl in Soi Thaniya wearing an immaculate florid 1980s designer shirt with a loud toucan pattern.

Middle aged women, especially in the more rural outer suburbs, were still dressed in their black lace mourning gowns for the late King and the monks of course were draped in orange.

I also saw hot Latin boys at Chatuchak, a cute chunky guy in black shorty shorts and an apparition-like fruit peddlar with her face daubed in geisha-like sun protection. Plus: beautiful confused looking blondes at Patpong with annoying Scandinavian children, security guards with whistles and flashlights cycling through Lumpini Park at closing time, statuesque transgendered party people and a presentable-looking white hipster with a half-face tattoo sipping a beer and listening to house music.

I was also surprised by some of the city’s non-human residents: leaping kittens in bars (!) and in alleys, and a small cage on a footpath near my hotel. Inside it was a  fish head on a hook and (on closer inspection) a terrified shrew hiding in one corner.

Nonetheless, it felt good to be back to a city where life seems so electrically charged with the bizarre, the beautiful and the unpredictable. Bangkok is many things, but never mundane.

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I was in town on property-related business and so I stayed in Saphan Kwai, the northern neighbourhood where my condo was slowly taking shape. In the meantime, I had elected to stay in the “Nice Palace”, one of the dated, second-tier Thai hotels that I always like. I was happy there, waking up every morning to the sounds of frogs,  or looking out to evening lightning strikes or brilliant sunny skies, curtains fluttering in the breeze from the gardens below my balcony, a hidden world invisible from the street filled with huge old rain trees and tangled thickets alive with birds.

Ten minutes away Saphan Kwai buzzed with activity, gritty and vibrant: hawkers sold fruit, jasmine garlands and fried chicken, while amulet sellers and some of the city’s best street food were all in evidence on the walk to the skytrain along oil-splattered footpaths. One night walking home I heard a busker playing a clarinet – beautifully – outside a 7-11 next to the shrine where Chinese opera sometimes plays. In a dank arcade, a row of women sat at work on what looked like nineteenth century sewing machines.

Shops here sell Thai costumes for children, cheap clothes, old Buddha statues and benjarong and second hand books. The footpaths are awful, motorcycles speed out of secretive side alleys and there are cats and dogs lazing in the midday sun everywhere. It is a neighbourhood I can’t wait to get to know better.

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