Thursday, 29 April 2010

The Streets - Night

This post is not about a particular walk; it's something of a follow-up to my walking manifesto-of-sorts, something of a nod to Charles Dickens' Sketches by Boz and the essay therein on walking London's streets by night, and something of an introduction to the night-time walks I'll be posting here. Moments are compiled from many walks I've done, most of those from before the red-shirts moved into several of the areas mentioned, so it may not reflect the current night-time landscape perfectly...

To see the streets of Bangkok in all their changeable, pulsing glory, you need to walk them on a soupy summer night, when the pavement is releasing just enough of its heat to make long walks bearable, without letting the smells and spills of the day go. In shopping districts the malls shine beacon-like over their coming/going customers, though the dark is light-hazed with endless glowing bulbs and neon strips. People go shopping on a night such as this, seeking all the air-conditioning they can find – others dine in street markets. Some simply wander.

In the evenings the street corner smells of noodle soup. You can taste it, warm, on the cooling night air, before you get there. It smells liquid, salty, coppery. Breathing has flavours, even in the deserted places: the pavement in day-market areas must have soaked in some of the lime, blood, soup, sauce, and soap-suds that are slopped over it every day; it smells sour now. But there are jasmine smells on the warm breeze, and from a street-mouth, the hot scent of just-shampooed and blow-dried hair.

Sounds are brought into focus, too, as visual details fade to blue-black. The soundscape of the city between sunset and dark is full of things: motorbikes rumbling past, the clatter of a spoon on a bowl in a gated house, the rattle and squeak of metal shop-shutters rolling down, end-of-the-day talk, a motorbike revving at a repair shop, soi dogs, twang of a guitar on a curb-corner, the city-village lanes lighting up, a family watching lakorn or Star Trek in the open front room of their house, a canal edging between compounds, the creaking pedals of the squid-vendor on his bicycle cart.

The night brings hidden things to view as much as it hides things. In backstreets the glassless balcony-backrooms of tiny apartments are illuminated from the inside, exposing their contents – crockery, food, laundry. Between concrete panels the stairwell can be seen, a pair of shadow-figures running down to the street. On the pavement, a street restaurant laid out like a home: cooking unit and tables, tiny television showing a soap opera, books and someone's knitting left half-done on one of the tables. The dried squid vendor comes by again, ringing his bell, wares pegged on a rack affixed to the bicycle's back. He stops for a customer, unpegging and warming two squid in the tiny charcoal stove, feeding them through the ridged mangle to slice them, and passing them over in a newspaper bag. He goes on, past a drink vendor's cart glowing fuzzy magenta as its keeper serves passers-by.

Markets lie just off the pavement like wide open mouths with glowing yellow tongues, fill up the spaces below bridges, selling billowy shirts, roasted chickens, green egg noodles with sliced pork, toys, doughnuts, cake, soaps and detergents. The shadows under flyovers make hot day spaces into corners of a playground - the netted cage for kids' after-dark football lessons; the toddler crouching by the flower bed next to a noodle-stall, copying mum by scooping the soil out of the bed and onto the concrete bricks with his borrowed ladle.

In tourist hotspots the streets are setting up for the night, putting on their makeup and cheap market stalls and neon. The traffic stops and starts and stalls and flows and comers and goers in a Silom all-night café come and go. A man talking to somebody on his laptop, white headphones next to polished wooden earrings, body wiggling almost imperceptibly: very subtly flirting. A pair of young Thai men drinking icy water, one flipping through a magazine of muscle-rippling guys in tight underpants. A white-haired man with a face mostly composed of eyebrows and nose leans against the wall opposite, eyes closing and opening to gaze at the street as he shifts restlessly; expression alive with some wistfulness or regret, looking at the young blond man standing in the door talking to the waitress. Briefly, a party of four young French tourists sit and laugh at each others' stories of the day and then leave; a young pale couple replace them - the younger farangs emerging as the heat diminishes. A Japanese lady sits silently, cigarette fretting away its smoke in the ashtray. Ceiling fans keep this spot cool and keep the street-fumes away, but everyone smokes.

A t-shirt seller is setting up his stall in front of the café, between a tree and a pair of telephone boxes: tables with rails and racks tied upright with string around them, a white strip-light hooked onto one of the poles, an extension cord plugged into a socket bound to the tree's trunk, tapping power from the pylons tangling above. A man walks up, grubby and worn, makes a wai to the folk in the café and mimes eating, hunger obvious in his cheeks and eyes. No one responds, and he turns, makes an exaggerated, exasperated gesture and walks away shaking his head. The t-shirt seller rearranges his shirts in different patterns.

Seven o'clock. The street has gone very quiet - a few shoppers drifting by, casually browsing stalls. This space is the lull between sunset's activity and that of the late night - still, there's a purpose in the step of a few of the men heading further down the road, whether to the jammed sweat- and vest-clad muscle of soi 2 bars or the ping-pong shows of Patpong it's hard to tell. The road hums with wheels and engines; a moustached farang walks past looking about him disdainfully, as if he wished he could avoid all physical contact with the street.

Above the street, receptionists and secretaries left hours ago by their bosses shut down the offices. A woman sits behind the reception desk and reads tarot cards for her colleague, who turns off the computer and does her make-up. They'll go for dinner on a street corner beneath flashing go-go signs, and then dancing in some less tourist-frequented part of town.

Not far from here, a Muay Thai stadium: a roped-off ring and tiered wooden benches. Air thick with bells and incense and the thick heady scent of tiger balm, as if the whole place had been rubbed in it. Women sell milky iced tea, orange in colour. The fights are fairly low-key tonight - the big fight's in two weeks' time - but the adrenaline can still be tasted on the air, among the tea and smoke and tiger balm smells. The boys aren't faking, at least - the fight starts stylised, moves executed for the dance-like quality of them rather than to inflict pain, but when they get warmed up the blows are serious. An ex-cop bookie, with a voice hoarse from a lifetime of smoke and shout, goads a pair of foreigners into placing bets, and gives them each a can of Chang. 'You be my good luck charm,' he says to the blonde woman, who wins, to her gentleman-friend's chagrin.

Upriver, among the temples and palaces of the old town, tourists party all night on on Khao San road. A troupe of identically-built rugby lads (with different hair-bleachings to mark them apart) loom into a bar.'Where's the beers then? Where's the beers?' they say. A furious katoey waitress, mid-tirade about customers and superiors blaming her for everything, is jolted by one of the rugby boys as they hulk their way back out, too impatient or perhaps bewildered to wait to be served. Music mingles from different sources, a glass smashes, pool balls clatter.

But in a park on the riverbank, under Rama VII Bridge, local kids escape the noise and grime and sheen of Khao San to sit with sweethearts, practise guitar, watch the boats go by all gaudy and gold-twinkling (one rent-a-party boat blaring karaoke out across the waters). The peace is underlined by passing motorbikes, soft-lit by the old white fort glowing nearby. A group of young women and topless men, all dreadlocks and tight dark musculature glistening from dancing, are teaching children their moves. These are members of the breakdancing team that represents Thailand in championships – they practised here long before their international successes, and still come to the park to teach poor kids from the area.

One o'clock! Drinkers stagger from closing bars to still-open ones, or into waiting taxis. The never-closing flower market sill shines, receiving fresh produce in vans from the country; other night markets have left only skeletal remains and scents, cockroaches glinting underfoot. The stalls in this slum-side market are bare, nothing to mark them out, but by their smell they were pork-butcher's stands. Next to them, there's a single shop still open - a bakery full of sweet, coloured breads, glowing. Other lights shine from narrower alleys, angular tin-and-wood ways guarded by sleeping dogs.

Office blocks and high hotels keep watch from above, always a few yellow window-eyes open even in the lowest depths of the night. They reflect in the blackened khlongs. Night-scenes are doubtless still playing behind these window-eyes, and under bridges, and in clubs and houses, but a description of all of them, however illuminating (or intriguing), would require a volume, and all we have is a blog-post. So, for now, we drop the curtain.

1 comment:

  1. Very, very good writing. You have captured the Bangkok, that I know, perfectly. I hope to be doing some of my own writing on the same subject when I arrive in late July. Bravo!