Sunday, 2 May 2010

Klong Toei: A Night Stroll

I live near enough to Klong Toei to walk there, going along the edge of Rama III, under the tollway - a route one might assume to be devoid of interest unless one were to actually try it. The strip of ground between the Klong Toei slums and the road is used by the local community for all sorts of purposes, and walking along it at night when the air and city breathe easier shows an aspect of Bangkok life that is both everyday and illuminating.

Now, being able to get lost even in familiar places is a particular skill of mine, and not one I regret - it makes life more interesting, after all. When I strolled this way recently, I forgot to stick to the Rama III pavement, and wandered up the verge of grass at the foot of the tollway. When I got to the booths I took the footpath past them, guessing that there would be a gap my fellow explorer and I could squeeze through ahead, to take us under the flyover (and thus along the way I was trying to reach). Not so - we met solid wall; a dash across the road when no speeding car was close and a climb over a fence were needed before we could get to the underbelly of the flyover. How adventuresome! I thought, and forgot to hitch up my skirt in the fence-climb, resulting in it snagging, ripping, and holding me there, not quite able to reach back and un-snag myself.

Good thing I had a wandering-companion in the form of Alex. She unhooked my skirt, and commiserated with me over the long gash in the fabric, but not for long - we were intrepid lady-strollers of the night! And so, onwards!

This in-between space - with a row of houses crammed against or atop one another on the one side, walls of wood, concrete, corrugated iron, and anything else it's possible to build a house from; the road, with its taxis and motorbike-taxis and trucks on the other - is used for a wide variety of purposes. Walking along it you'll pass mesh-enclosed squares of ground - here a car-repair stop, a paint-stripped pick-up left half-suspended on a winch in front of high piles of spare parts; there a playground with a gate to keep children from running out to the road, and a library of magazines, comics and slim books kept in one corner in a single old wooden cabinet, two cats keeping watch from benches beside it. The downstairs parts of several houses are shops selling snack-foods and drinks, and tiny alleys slip between sections of housing with spirit houses in varied states of repair stationed at their entrance. Out of the light of the housing-area, on a crumbling elevated walkway over dark silent railway line, and past the deserted Chinese shrine that last time I visited was so loud with colour and song, we stumbled into an otherworldly alley of red lanterns adorning gloomy shut-up shopfronts, a line of tall Chinese deity statues watching parked cars, and a long walk to the end of the cul-de-sac where a tiny garden-fringed shrine sits under a roadsign at a flyover junction, brightly-lit and surreal, fairy lights hanging from above and tinny Christmas carols playing into the empty space.

And past that, through the desolate shell of a day-time market, to the still-bustling Klong Toei market, which unfolds inwards from the pavement into a maze of high-heaped produce, great basket-trolleys and shoppers squeezing past each other, steaming ice-trucks. It's a good thing I'm a fairly non-squeamish vegetarian, as a few steps into the fresh meat section we were greeted with the sight of pig's heads stashed under stalls festooned with various pork cuts, and a few steps further we passed a truck piled with shapes I didn't quite register until a pair of men slid into my vision, walking right past me with half a pig's carcass hoisted on their shoulders (halved lengthways, just in case you were wondering). Examining the lesser-known vegetables on an adjoining alley was more to my tastes - you can find all sorts of intriguing roots, gourds, seedpods and flowers that the supermarkets don't stock, as well as all the things they do at much lower prices; the range of spices and fresh chillies is impressive too. I purchased a couple of gourd-things that looked remarkably like pears to sample (and can report they're okay, marrow-like when roasted, pretty decent in soup).

This is a low-key, atmospheric walk that I'd recommend to anyone in the area who wants to walk off the stress of the day, or anyone interested in absorbing local nighttime ambiance, with the bonus of unusual fruits and vegetables to take home and experiment with.

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