"Everything in this book really happened, but some of things that happened only happened in my head" -- I read that once.
When I first moved to NYC, about 15 years ago, I used to walk everywhere. On
my one day off, I'd play this game; I'd pick an area and go there by train.
Then, I’d walk in the direction of whichever light was green; it took thinking
out of the equation and led me to unusual places. In SE Asia walking is
paramount -- discovering the hidden treasures, however cliché, provides the
juice that keeps me searching. Of course, what's a treasure to one is junk to
another. We can't all have good taste. Bangkok’s gems are mostly found on the
Soi, the small streets and alleys off of the main drags. To truly explore them,
you must relinquish the idea of going somewhere and allow that somewhere to come
In the beginning I'd bring a map, trying to keep tabs on where I was so if I discovered something incredibly cool, I could return. As time went by, I realized it's a hindrance, spending too much time plotting and searching for tiny Sois that were rarely on the map anyway. Now, I've scaled down to just some pocket change and my camera. I’ve never carried a bag -- it's a dead giveaway and a burden. What I've found is that the freer I feel, the more receptive I become to the portholes of daily life. A drab and cumbersome building conceals a strip of terrific food stalls off its wing; the dirty alley, lined with garbage and scavenging cats, is just the foyer to an enclave of funky homes. The best is going somewhere you’re not supposed to. Any sign professing “danger” or “no admittance” just means you’re getting an "exclusive". A haunt shielded by a congregation of thugs is merely a sifting out process: pass quickly and there's likely a host of street life and gritty flavors to be found. I'm not tough, just curious.
My wanders are usually a solo pursuit. Street sightseeing is so whimsical; it's hard to imagine finding a congruent partner. Plus, this trip has been about me being with me, and for the most part, I've been pretty enjoyable company. I sing songs that only I like (Enrique, "Be My Hero") and tell myself dream-like stories of unparalleled heroism and danger. Freud says dreams are expressions of unfulfilled wishes and that the glory-filled images are symbolic and treatable. Fuck that -- if you’re only batting 260 in real life, go with the illusion.
One day my wanderings took place along the Chao Phraya, a river as grand and colorful as Venice and much more interesting -- its traffic a glorious mixture of tourists, commuters, barges and river taxis. I hopped off the boat at Tha Tien, where the Grand Palace and Wat Pho nudge. But, instead of joining the throngs of tourists heading off to see the reclining Buddha, I ducked into a dirty walkway. It led along the water through a maze of dimly lit sheds, haphazardly slapped together with slats of wood and held up by teetering stilts, the precarious floorboards barely keeping you from plunging into the murky river. If the hazardous condition wasn't enough to scare tourists away, then the smell of open sewage and standing water was. Or, it could be a matter of interest and politeness; after all, these dingy corridors led through peoples’ homes. As a bullish and intrepid traveler, I'm infinitely more interested in walking into peoples homes than their temples.
It was eerie and dark and I stepped carefully over sleeping dogs and soggy debris. There's nothing worse than stepping on fish guts with flip-flops. The pathways were narrow and along either side were single room dwellings with bunk-like beds, stone stoves and small Buddhist shrines. I came upon a warehouse-ish space with hundreds of bags, boxes and barrels of dried and fermented shrimps, fish, roots and gourds; the acrid smells of the souring sea, in unison with mildew, must and mephitic smell of air refusing to leave. Further out by the river, the light peered in and a few families gathered eating fried fish, Nam Prik Gapi (a relish made from dried shrimp, garlic and lime) and rice. Outside, along the dock, a mixture of clothes and fish dried in the tempestuous heat. Part of the social dynamic that excites me the most is experiencing people on their own turf. This is the domain of the economically poor, but just above the tarps that shield their homes stands the spires of the Grand Palace. I have no profound thoughts on the inequalities of the world, I just happen to prefer grit.
Back out on Thanon Maharat and walking Northeast, I come across the canal of Klong Lawt. A quick stroll up and around it displays a whole other lifestyle: colorful homes nestled along narrow waterways and the heart of the old royal city where Bangkok’s architectural and religious splendors abound. Tourists stand, lusting over guide books and maps plotting their next move, studying the glorious history of old Siam. I'm more interested in how Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger and Jay Z influenced Thai culture, than Europe and the Chinese. I stumble upon a row of Isan food carts, one grilling offal and making a peculiar concoction of julienned beef stomach, heart and shoulder meat with freshly ground dried chilies, lime, fish sauce and cilantro. She was making it in a small pot, so I was waiting for her to heat it up. "What is it, soup?" I asked. She ignored me and poured in some pigs blood from a large clear plastic carton. Now I was convinced it was soup, so I just sat back and watched as she mixed it, tasted it for seasoning, then scooped it into a plastic bag. She grabbed a handful of sticky rice and wrapped it up, as well, then handed it to a young man who laid out 30 baht. I moved quickly towards him, seizing my opportunity. "Hey there, what the hell is that? You’re gonna cook that right?" "No" he replied, " it's Lab Leare and we eat it with sticky rice." He's a nice fella and fluent in English, so I take him aside to explain that I just watched this lady chop up raw and cooked meat, vegetables and herbs on the same dirty wooden cutting board, while wiping her sweaty brow and grabbing several soiled utensils. He just smiled. He looked healthy and, having just spent the last three weeks in Laos, I figured I'd give it a shot. I'd describe its delectable flavor to you, but somehow my nose stayed shut the whole time I ate it. I left with an interesting coat of spicy blood in my mouth. It tasted like I had just been punched in the face by someone holding a Birdseye chili.
The sun's sharp rays convince me to head back toward the river, where I stumble upon the Pak Klong Market, a collection of giant warehouses set on the river and housing wholesale flowers, vegetables and fruits. Ceiling fans droop down from the soaring beams, as woman huddle around piles of Thai chilies, garlic and red shallots, casually peeling them. Huge fans blow freshly washed holy basil on elongated tables. Hand carts and wheelbarrows swirl in a fury as orders just taken by phone are shouted out. The workers seem unbothered by frenetic concerns of the markets demands. When you have 1000 pounds of garlic to peel, you know the end is no time soon. On slow nights in the restaurant, we'd always break out bags of garlic and shallots to peel. While we stood, pretending to be busy, perverse conversations would always surface. "If Halley Berry had a penis would, you still have sex with her?", my grill cook was a flat out "no". The garde manger guy asked "would the thing be aroused?" And, all the Latinos answered "No, but J Lo, absolutely". Hopefully, these workers had other things on their minds, but the constant chatter and cheerful bickering leads me to believe it's probably not too far off. Outside, the food stalls lined the shady side of Chak Phet Road. I stopped for some Nam Prik Het, a northern style relish made of pulverized straw mushrooms, chilies, garlic and lime. It came with some pickled mudfish and a variety of raw vegetables. While I acrobatically ate and walked, spilling most of the relish on my already sweat-drenched shirt, I realized I had lost track of where the river was. There weren’t many green lights, so I just followed the most colorful signage and wandered my way into Little India, one of the only purely Hindu neighborhoods in Bangkok. I passed the Sikh Temple and then headed down Sampeng Lane, which is one of the original streets in Chinatown full of old storefronts, some selling handmade lanterns and others fabric, like the Pahurat cloth market full of shimmering hand-woven Thai silk and batik. Close by is the Dutch-designed Tang To Kang Gold shop, one of the first gold exchanges in the area. Not much into textiles and gold, I ask a shopkeeper where the wet market is; she seems confused, so I just continue on.
Somehow, I wander into the Pieying School just in time for lunch. The kids seem anxious as they file through the crowded hallways. I follow a few outside and up Soi Isara Nuphap, where they seem to be playing hooky at a local sweetshop. My mind summons up visions of Chase Street Elementary in LA -- it's almost as hot and the blacktop is seething. With a few friends, we scampered across it, looking back occasionally to see if we were being watched. The corner store is just a block away from school, but it's forbidden territory. We ate beef jerky and 50-50 bars, vanilla ice cream coated with an orange Popsicle. Forgetting to wash up, we'd always get busted from having the orange ring around our mouths.
Up the street, I find Talat Kao on Soi 16 -- the old market kickin’ in the midday heat. I stop for some freshly squeezed mandarin juice and steamed dumplings, filled with a puree of dried fruit and herbs. The market is full of stimulating foodstuffs: dried abalone, fried puffed up fish stomachs, shark’s fin and bird's nests. The Chinese are some fucked up people -- is there anything they won't cook with?. How did it ever occur to anyone that you could steam and eat a bird’s nest? Were they gathering firewood near a cave full of swallow-like swifts when they stumbled upon the nests? The dried spittle (saliva) that binds the nests just smelled good, so they built a fire and made soup?. What's going to happen when China becomes the next super power?
Feeling a bit claustrophobic and weary from the Chinatown congestion, I worked my way back toward the river. The street symphony of rabid horns and screeching wheels were only a little more appealing than the gridlock of carbon monoxide encasing my face. I hopped the river boat at Ratchawong and headed back up the river to Wat Arun, which looms 287 feet above the west bank on the Thonburi side. With my feet having flip-flop remorse, I limited my sightseeing to a quick scanter. It is a remarkable sight, built during Rama ll and lll in a Khmer style, it represents Mount Meru, a mythological home of the Hindu gods. While walking up the steep incline towards the central prang, I examined the intricate mosaic tiles of colored Chinese porcelain and answered the question of what people did before television.
Taking a breather, I sat along a stretch of well nurtured grass, staring off across the river to Wat Pho, where my journey today had begun. A reasonable traveler would pack it in, but I figured now that I was on the Thonburi side, I might as well check it out. I jumped on a bus and headed north -- the refreshing wind cooling my thoughts as I slowly slipped away, head bobbing and whacking the metal frames of the window. When I awoke, I really had no idea where I was. Though I was certain I had not left Thailand, I wasn't about Bangkok. It was like passing into Narnia with a strange a different world awaiting you. I got off at the next stop and was feeling completely rejuvenated. The streets were wider and the people all Thai. I walked by huge outdoor restaurants, the type where you cook on a grill and soup pot that's placed on your table with the food you picked from the smorgasbord spread of raw meats, fish and vegetables.
I continued down the road, meandering through quiet streets and over canals, somehow ending up at a park set beneath the Krung Thon bridge. It was full of families exercising: aerobics, basketball, skateboarding, ping pong, badminton and children playing “king of the mountain” on a government statue. A little girl cried as she struggled to re-lace her roller-skate/tennis shoe, I bent down to help and was stricken by the overwhelming distress it had caused. The second she bounced up it was gone, vanished in the air of new beginnings. Nearby, a band of blind musicians played a mixture of American and Thai pop songs and a few families grilled skewered squid and oversized prawns. I soaked up the surroundings and took pictures until the day faded and the night began.
As I climbed the stairs to the bridge, I passed the roller-skate troubled
girl -- she had already forgotten me. The wind blew hard off the river as the
Thai flags hanging from the towers snapped in the night. I thought back on my
day. If the essence of a good journey is to not have one in mind, then I had
done well. I would have never thought of eating beef stomach with fresh pork
blood, invading the privacy of the river dwellers or of getting dissed by a five
year old girl. As I winded my way home, passing sleazy karaoke bars, tea parlors
and ladies of the night, somehow Billy Idol popped into my head -- that sinister
smile and brazen leather jacket. I recalled a conversation I once had with a few
girls down in the LES (lower eastside of Manhattan) who were on the prowl for
"dangerous" boys. I imagined myself in the midnight hour, turning down a
blackened alley, the rebel yell thick in my throat as salacious women swooned
by. Ah, forget it. It's too hot here for leather.