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Published: November 26th 2018
Deep into the night, lightning jags the city sky. Thunder rattles the window panes, and rain falls like a river. Day breaks clear and blue, the matutinal reprieve before the sun turns its unmerciful glare on the waterlogged city. Now baking, the air turns heavy, thick, and wet; the heat, palpable; the light, harsh and glaring. This is the evil time of day, when people cower indoors hiding from the sun. Those forced outside huddle under umbrellas and scurry to and from patches of shade like roaches. Unfortunately, today we have to go out there. Today is Wednesday, and the kid has swim class. I load her on my back, dread rising as we take the elevator down. When the doors open, the heat rolls over us like the breath of an oven. Most days, the scenery slips by unseen; curiosity is sapped and numbed by the heat and then further blinded by familiarity. But today, I decide to look up and look around.
A few steps from the front door, an enormous banyan tree 20 feet in diameter towers over the small yard of the compound. A faded red ribbon is cinched about its snaking tendrils, and garlands of
marigold and jasmine hang above a small altar nestled in the tangled roots. Nearby, a small white house trimmed in gold sits atop a whitewashed pedestal - a spirit house. It has multiple steep-pitched roofs and a Khmer style prang, a tall central tower that looks like a gilded corncob. Miniature elephants, horses and Thai dancer figurines surround the house, and inside, beyond the golden curtains, there is a woman holding a sword in one hand and a bag of money in the other. Every hotel, hospital, home, school, mall, bank, business, bar, and brothel has a spirit house; and every morning, offerings of fruit, flowers, red Fanta, Mekong whiskey, incense, betel nut, rice, and incense are left on the altar to appease and entreat the innumerable local spirits.
The spirit houses are a constant reminder of Bangkok’s idiosyncrasy: a modern cosmopolitan city where barefoot monks still walk the streets for alms at dawn and where every nook, cranny and tree is home to spirits. But this is only peculiar because we are foreigners living in Bangkok, a name for the old European trading settlement on the other side of the river. For the Thais, however, the city is
Krung Thep, the City of Angels, so one expects a few more spirits to be around.
Beyond the gate at the end of the drive, the city rises like stalagmites. There is no sidewalk. Cars and scooters squeeze through the narrow street, brushing us as they pass. Across the street is the Hi-Res Café and two doors down is the ID Beauty Center, your friendly neighborhood plastic surgery hospital. Further along, street food vendors hug the gated edge of the park. People queue at the noodle soup cart tucked into the shade of a clump of tall bamboo. The diners squatting on low rainbow-colored plastic stools hunch over steaming bowls of soup made to order, and an ice cream man, drawn by the crowds, waits nearby. The street is crowded with delivery trucks, motorcycles, tuk tuks and pedestrians, so just past the noodle man, we duck into the shaded parking garage of the Emporium Mall.
The mall is top-shelf fancy, and the lower level parking is reserved for Bangkok’s high society. We breeze by their Mercedes, BMWs, and Porsches unimpressed, but the mall’s air conditioning is truly awe inspiring. As the mall doors slide open, a blast of
icy bliss washes over us and decadently spills out into the parking garage. The eternally bored doorman in black pajamas and a black fez clicks his heels, salutes, and ushers us into the frigid, high temple of consumerism. Our presence here is blaspheme: we do not fetishize haute couture. We do not covet shiny rocks or fancy timepieces sold by demure, gloved employees. We are not devotees of the cult of obscenely priced hand bags. Nor are we dressed well. We are a blight on the mystique of high-end shopping, but we are foreigners, cloaked in privilege and tolerated far more often and in far more places than we should be. We disdain the mall, but it is an air-conditioned haven as well as the short cut to the sky train platform, so we are here a lot.
Out on the platform, the sky train hums above. It is conspicuously quiet, clean, and predictable, but it does not get us any nearer to swim class. Below is Sukhumvit, one of the city’s main arteries. 100 years ago, it was a canal running through rice fields. Today, it is six lanes of traffic that starts, stops, wheezes, whines and groans,
but shockingly, doesn’t honk much. Honking isn’t jai yen – literally ‘cool heart’, a cultural ethos wrapped up with Buddhism and concepts of face. This means outward displays of aggression or anger are uncivilized and brutish, so motorcycles on the sidewalk are okay, but honking is not.
Descending the sky train platform onto the other side of Sukhumvit, it’s business as usual down on the sidewalk. Lottery ticket sellers with big wooden suitcases try to entice the numerologically superstitious. Women in aprons spoon meats, curries, and vegetables into plastic bags, and then spin, rubber band, and hand them to passing commuters. Fruit cart vendors slice and bag watermelon, mango, guava, papaya, rose apple, and pineapple, and a man in a fedora sells Buddhist protection amulets and pictures of the old king.
At the first left, we turn off of Sukhumvit and head down a small side street, soi (street) 37. Wooden tables line the sides of the soi, and a bustling restaurant serves cheap Thai food and cold beer. Beyond the restaurant, the air is smoky and redolent with the smell of whole fish, meat kabobs, and something wrapped in banana leaves barbequing on push cart
grills. There is also a coffee cart, a woman making green papaya salad in a giant mortar, someone stringing garlands of marigolds for offerings, and someone frying bean paste desert balls. Thai food may be cooked in homes and restaurants, but more than any place else, it is a product of the streets.
We take a break to share a bag of sliced green mango and look around. In addition to the food vendors, the soi is home to four massage parlors and four hotels of varying degrees of seediness, four Japanese restaurants, and a half dozen random spirit shrines. Bangkok has many faces, but street food, shrines, massage parlors, hotels, and restaurants are common to most of them.
The walk to swim class, like most in Bangkok, is hot, sweaty and mostly unpleasant. Zipping airily above the congested streets in the sky train or disappearing and reappearing through the subway worm holes are more air conditioned and faster ways to get from here to there. However, neither goes to swim class and taxis in traffic are slower than walking. So, every Wednesday, we walk. And every Wednesday, forced to move more slowly through life, I notice a
few more details of the world we live in, which will seem much richer when we don’t anymore.
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