Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Work, eat, sleep: adjusting to life in Bangkok

A street vendor selling fruit and veg in Ari. © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
Living in Bangkok is a very different experience to visiting it, and after our first week we started to feel less like tourists and more like inhabitants of the sprawling metropolis. We moved into an apartment in Ari, a residential Thai area. It’s upmarket but still feels more adventurous than living in expat central round Sukhumvit. We’re staying in a small block of 15 apartments around a swimming pool. It’s very homely and ‘traditional Thai style’ with lots of shade and pot plants everywhere. We’re surrounded by quiet leafy lanes, populated with villas and garden restaurants. It feels a bit like a Thai equivalent of the more villagey suburbs of London like Highgate or Hampstead.

The streets near the Skytrain are lined with food stalls, selling fruit or fried noodles. Scattered among them are occasional folding tables covered with lottery tickets. There is also a cobbler and a middle-aged man with an old-fashioned sewing machine, patiently repairing an endless succession of garments. The ready availability of fruit here is a welcome contrast to Manila and, along with my twice-daily swims, allows me to maintain the semblance of a healthy lifestyle while eating spicy soup noodles every night.

Each of the street stalls is in fact a small trailer with gas canisters pulled by bike, moped or sometimes by hand. Owners of the larger stalls set up folding chairs and tables along the roadside to create a makeshift restaurant. Late at night, they take all this down and do their washing up with large plastic bowls and hosepipes, emptying the dirty water out into the gutters. One night, after the stalls had gone, I noticed that the pavement was actually marked out into small areas with painted lines like a car park. Presumably the stall owners pay rent on their space to the local council.

My first few weeks at work have been busy but interesting. I'm helping China write a proposal for a new website, while working on a digital strategy for Thailand and training their team on writing for the web, using images and email broadcast. I've also been on two project visits, to a slum community and a shelter for homeless boys, which will be the subject of next week's blog.

My new colleagues are all very friendly and welcoming. Like Filipinos, Thais have two names - formal and informal. Some nicknames are in English, while others are in Thai. However, where Filipinos favour terms of endearment like 'Love' and 'Baby', Thais seem to prefer a fruit theme, hence 'Pear' and 'Cherry'. So my Thai colleagues Natnapin, Pimsai and Waraporn are known respectively as 'Kwan', 'Pear' and 'Yui'. Waraporn, or Yui, is always laughing at me and the daft things I do, like turning up for a meeting on my first day with a 'Mission Banana' notebook I'd bought at 7-Eleven with a cartoon monkey on the front. "I think that's for school children," she laughed.

Fantastic voyage

The canal boat - you either love it or you hate it. © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand
In the morning, after waking to the hooting and clattering of tropical birds (‘Baroo, baroo, baroo,’ one bird calls loudly at 6am every morning), I grab a quick swim and get a taxi to work. I’ve been brushing up on my taxi -Thai, such as ‘lieow saai’ (turn left), ‘lieow kwaa’ (turn right), 'dtrong bpai' (straight on), 'hai chah long' (slow down) and 'jawt' (stop).

My journey home is more local-style and provides a fascinating daily glimpse into the changing face of Bangkok. Leaving the office at around 5:30 pm, I hail a tuk-tuk and negotiate a ride to 'Pan Fa, ta rua' (the local boat dock) for 'see sip baht' (40 baht). Bangkok’s tuk-tuks are similar to the 'tricyles' of Manila, but with the passenger seat behind the driver rather than alongside him. The tuk-tuk weaves through the traffic, bypassing the bottleneck around Siam Commercial Bank by driving on the wrong side of the road and dodging back in between cars if something comes the other way. Reaching the intersection at Pan Fa, the tuk-tuk cuts suicidally across six lanes of traffic and drops me at the boat dock. 'Khob khon kap,' I say, handing over two 20 baht notes and relieved to be in one piece.

After grabbing a couple of spicy chicken skewers at the street food stalls, I make my way down to the boat dock. The canal boats are basic affairs with wooden benches and tarpaulin sides. They only stop for a brief moment at each dock while passengers scramble on and off. As soon as we're all on board, the boat sets off and two teenage girls in face masks and pink crash helmets scamper along the outside of the boat, collecting fares from passengers. 'Ratchathewi,' I say, holding up three fingers to indicate the number of stops. My fare is nine baht (18 pence).

When the boat comes to a bridge, the roof is winched down and the girls on the sides duck low. I suspect their crash helmets are intended to protect them should they misjudge this and get a face full of fast moving concrete. To start with, the canal is lined with small houses and a tidy path, but this soon deteriorates into a slum, with shanty houses piled on top of each other right up to the edge of the canal. The slum owners have annexed the canalside path and turned it into a back yard. At the weekend, the railing is covered with clothes hanging out to dry on metal hangers, like a downmarket, second-hand fashion stall. The clothes are interspersed with pot plants, the occasional bird cage and even a fish tank, lashed to the railings with a well-tied rope.

Unfortunately, the canal is also clearly used as a rubbish dump and sewer by the slum inhabitants, and as a result the water can get very smelly. Passengers live in constant fear of splashes from boats passing the other way. On her way to a job interview, Joyce was deeply traumatised when she got a generous splash of water full in the face. ‘If I’d had time, I’d have gone home and showered,’ she recalled with a shudder. Despite this, the canal boat is my favourite part of the journey. I feel almost like a local, squeezed cheek-to-cheek between my fellow commuters as the sun sets, creating orange ripples on the water and reflecting off the metal roofs of the shanty houses. The canal boat's dubious charms are lost on my local colleagues however. 'I took it once four years ago,' Cherry told me, adding emphatically, 'Never again.'

In olden times, the canal was the main transport route through the city - a kind of pre-industrial express way. The few remaining nineteenth century villas have gates opening onto the canal path, which would previously have been their main entrance. 

I get off the canal boat at Ratchathewi (prounced like the French vegetable stew ratatouille), walk through an underpass where a drafts board has been set up with bottle tops on an old table, and past the remains of a demolished, graffiti-fringed housing block. Enterprising teenagers have cleared the rubble from one end and turned it into an improvised football pitch where they engage in nightly sporting contests.

Just past the derelict lot, I climb a flight of stairs to the Skytrain and enter a different world, a bit like the moment in a movie when someone discovers a portal to a fantasy world in the back of a wardrobe or some other improbable place. Suddenly, the street stalls are replaced by smart outlets selling iPhone accessories, the pink-helmeted teenagers by an electronic ticket machine and the canal boat itself by a state-of-the-art, air conditioned train with TV screens playing adverts for make-up and motorbikes. I'm used to London's hundred-year-old underground so the Skytrain feels almost futuristic to me. This impression is reinforced by the fact that the year here is 2554, as Thais count from the year of Buddha's birth rather than Christ's.

I sometimes reach the Skytrain station at 6pm, when the national anthem is played in all public places and everyone has to stand still to pay homage to the King. At Ari, I get off the Skytrain and walk for 10 minutes through the hot, humid streets and evening hustle and bustle of the street stalls, to our apartment block where I get out of my sweaty, smelly clothes and go for a refreshing swim in the pool.

Year of the Rabbit

Lizz, Esther and Joyce (left to right) in Chinatown. © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand

Last week was Chinese New Year (I'm told we should call it Lunar New Year out of respect for non-Chinese who mark the occasion), so on Saturday we went to Chinatown with Lizz,who I used to work with at UNICEF UK, and her friend Esther. We missed the dragon show but the streets were still festooned with red lanterns and packed with both locals and tourists. We explored the narrow back streets, which I was excited to discover stood in for 1960s Hong Kong in Wong Kar-wai’s classic movie ‘In the Mood for Love’.

I’m a big Wong Kar-wai fan – his movies were the subject of my MA dissertation and first publication. On my first trip to Hong Kong, I dragged Joyce and her parents around looking for the location of scenes from ‘Chungking Express’, including the titular Chungking Mansions. ‘Why does he want to go there?’ Joyce’s mum asked her, perplexed. ‘It’s just full of gangsters and fake Rolexes. The Big Buddha statue is much nicer.’ Joyce sighed. ‘It’s a movie thing,’ she explained.

In Bangkok's Chinatown we stumbled upon a traditional Chinese temple down one of the back streets, where people were burning incense and buying offerings of fresh vegetables, presumably to mark the Year of the Rabbit. ‘Last time they were selling meat and eggs,’ Esther said. ‘That was the Year of the Tiger’.

We ended the weekend at Chatuchak Market, looking for things to buy for our flat. Having spent most of December giving away all our wordly possessions, we're now having to repurchase many of them, albeit at substantially lower prices. Chatuchak is a bit like Camden Market multiplied a hundredfold. It's a huge, sprawling behemoth of a place, selling everything from arts and crafts to clothes, pot plants and pets. There's even a stall somewhere selling baby alligators. With over 5,000 stalls and 200,000 visitors a day, it's easy to get lost. The stall owners are well aware how bewildering it is, so they all have business cards showing their location in the market, numbered by section and soi (street). In the evening, the character of the market changes and it takes on a party atmosphere. Most of the stalls close and bars open up with live bands or DJs spinning dance tunes late into the night.

A DJ playing funky tunes at Chatuchak market. © Andy Brown/2011/Thailand


  1. Wow. Amazing adventures Andy. Fab pictures
    Baroo Baroo - love it!
    M xx

  2. Thanks Megan! I've been following your advice and using 'all my senses'. Andy x