From dusk till dawn: in search of old-school Bangkok
Bangkok may be the most-visited city on Earth, but it remains one of the least-known to outsiders. In the grip of a property bubble and construction explosion, it moves faster than any eye can cope with. Even when I return from a three-week trip abroad, the perceptible changes around me are not particularly subtle. The condo tower being built next to my own will have risen several metres, suddenly altering my views, and the little white house that stood for years in a garden of flowering dipterocarpus trees has suddenly disappeared under hammer blows and wrecking drills, to be replaced by a hole filled with water where egrets play. The landscape shifts literally from day to day, from week to week, like sand being carved by sea.
I remember that when I first moved here in 2011, there were elephants sauntering down these side streets with red tail lights (of the literal kind); and then one day, after centuries of presence and familiarity, they disappeared as if overnight and no one ever talked about them again. Thais believe vehemently in ghosts, so are there also pachyderm ghosts wandering among the human ones who come out after dark and are otherwise calmed by the spirit houses? But what of the paradox of ghosts and modern constructions existing side by side?
You could argue that one explains the other.
Many Thais are convinced that old buildings – even old furniture – are infested with supernatural presences, so will often tear down old family houses and replace them with buildings that are ghost-free. Add to this a frenzied yearning to be “modern”. Cities like to imagine themselves thundering towards a future mapped out in architects’ renderings. In large areas of inner city Bangkok, those glimpses of an imminent future are all filled with hanging gardens, aerial swimming pools, and white towers over green parklands.
When I lived in New York years ago, I often talked with Hampton Fancher, screenwriter on the Blade Runner movies, about Bangkok, and it seemed obvious to me that it was the Thai capital and not Tokyo that most resembled the sets of Ridley Scott’s feverous dream. No other place could juxtapose the pagan neons, the seas of plastic umbrellas under a monsoon onslaught, the languid decay – but also the simmer of a proletarian city with its windowless buses, chaotic street food and bawdy nightlife. But the planners of my adopted city have, unfortunately, other ideas.
Many of them seem embarrassed by the very things that make the city not boring. So, predictably, the military government last year began a pointless war against one of the glories of what you could now call Old Thailand: street food. If the city was now a petrified forest of new glass-and-steel towers, the planners seemed to be arguing, why shouldn’t the streets around them be equally clean and unencumbered?
Bangkok is now a strange amalgam of past and future, with the present suspended between them. The old labyrinth neighbourhoods are still there – one such is Chok Chai 4 in Lat Phrao, an area of the city foreigners rarely see, where most office workers live. Here the covered market and the curved street of elegant little 1960s tenements gives a glimpse of what Bangkok was like 40 years ago. Wander along a street like Sangkhom Songkhro, not far from Lad Prao police station, and you are in an unrecognisable city, intimate and human in scale.
Nostalgia has no monetary weight, even if Thailand is a country suffused – here and there anyway – with a resigned and melancholy nostalgia about itself. It’s a yearning for a lost past that is widely shared but never translated into a simple act of preservation. From my study window on the 15th floor of a 1990 tower block that rises from the end of a tiny country-style lane on Soi 31 Sukhumvit, I can see precisely one traditional gabled teak house. This kind of elegant hot-weather architecture is glorified by tourist imagery (they are depicted sumptuously at Suvarnabhumi airport) but was long ago torn down in the real city. I have always wondered who owns that lovely house. But at street level, probably because it is hidden behind high walls and fan palms, I can never find it. Perhaps it can only be seen from the air.
Being something of a romantic, I have also wondered what the Bangkok of Jim Thompson and Somerset Maugham was like – the early 20th-century city of perpetual floods and torpid canals, with boats making their way to dinner parties armed with candles and umbrellas. Is this flimsy nostalgia too? Is it any different from the dyspeptic old white men in their watering holes reminiscing about the livelier wild Bangkok of the Vietnam war era or even, more alarmingly, the 1990s?
They say the last wild tiger was shot in the city in 1910. And that was in Bang Na, now a vast conglomeration of luxury malls. Sukhumvit itself was an unpaved elephant path until only a few decades ago. But if the outsider is going to be ritually charged with “orientalism”, what of young Thais themselves who, in recent years, seem to have developed a subtle taste for the past, a nostalgia of sorts? At a bar like Tep, for example, on the edges of Chinatown, in untouched back streets behind a Chinese temple, they come for ranat music (played on a wooden xylophone), for flights of infused yadong rice whisky and a bit of the atmosphere of their grandparents. There is a paradox there, a reaction of some kind, even if it’s hard to put your finger on. The brutal philistinism of the present may be producing an antibody.
My street at least hangs on to its renegade provincialism. The ficus trees are still ribboned to protect the spirits that live in them; the locals still put little zebras and plates of chopped mango inside the spirit houses, which burn with candles all night long. The Japanese karaoke palaces are still doing brisk business under the red lanterns, and I can still walk across the silent campus of Srinakharinwirot University and take an anchan blue-pea tea on the terrace of The Local restaurant, in an old wooden house. So far so good. At the far end of my street, the Saen Saep canal still cuts through the slums with what feels like tidal shifts; the water taxis still roar along it at rush hour. But everything now seems more precarious. Construction sites have opened up everywhere.
There is, of course, a delicious hitch. Thais have their anarchic side and are often only whimsically bound by official edicts and visions. A few weeks after the street food carts were abolished from my street, I noticed one night that they had all reappeared and were doing brisk business as usual while the local cops were otherwise occupied.
The old guy selling snails from a moving stall attached to a motorbike was parked outside the 7-Eleven as before, and the girls from the Gion nightclub were racing across the street to pick up packets of dried squid from a stall – also on wheels – which had appeared out of nowhere as soon as the sun went down. An entire restaurant and bar sector, hundreds of mom-and-pop enterprises, operating on wheels and driven by motorbike engines. Cocktail bars appear every night along Sukhumvit after dark, with a waitress armed with a mixer and a merry sound system – they don’t need a licence because they are mobile, and they disappear at dawn without a trace.
I like to think that the apparatchiks, absurd urban visionaries and small tyrants of our age will have little sway over them.
• Lawrence Osborne is the author of Bangkok Days (Vintage, £9.99), available at Guardian Bookshop for £8.49. His new novel, Only to Sleep, A Philip Marlowe Novel, will be published by Penguin on 25 September
Where to find old-school Bangkok
Sornthong Pochana seafood restaurant
Outdoor fish tanks, chaos and packed tables, fresh slipper lobsters and tiger prawns and my favorite pla kapong neung manao (steamed sea bass with lime).
• 2829-31 Rama IV Rd, sornthong.com
Sukhumvit Soi 38 street food
Yes, the stalls of Sukhumvit Soi 38 have been largely dismantled as part of the city’s attempt to eradicate street food, especially in the Thong Lor area. But one thing remains: the mango stalls. Come here for khao niao ma-muang (mango sticky rice).
Sabai Jai Gai Yang
Live Thai music in a courtyard set back from the street, with a rotisserie of spit-turned chickens and one of the city’s best Isan-style gai yang – grilled chicken served with som tam (green papaya salad) and one of the city’s best grilled chicken served with som tam.
• Ekkamai Soi 1
Khua Kling Pak Sod restaurant
This charming place is actually on Thong Lor soi 17, hidden among all the hipster madness of this expensive neighbourhood. In a small family house with a garden, a mostly Thai clientele come for versions of grandma’s southern cooking. This means burning your mouth as you discover pad sataw (stink beans) with crispy pork.
• 98/1 Soi Thonglor 5, Sukhumvit 55, on Facebook
Tep Bar, Chinatown
Not exactly old-school since it’s both new and trendy, but Tep calls itself a “cultural bar” and consciously harks back to old-time Bangkok. The cocktails are mixed with Thai herbs and fruits, the music is traditional, and the location is gloriously atmospheric – an old shop house in a darkened street on the edge of Chinatown. Get stoned on ferocious yadong rice liquor.
• 69-71 Soi Rammaitri, Maitrijit Road, on Facebook
With a touch of David Lynch and imperiously heedless of fashions and trends, the Atlanta’s atmosphere harks back to more cultivated times.
• Single occupancy £14 plus £5 per additional guest, theatlantahotelbangkok.com
At a glance
Best time to go
Peak season is Nov-Feb (average temp 27C), hottest time March-May (30C).
£1 = 44.28 baht
Beer in a local bar: 122 baht
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