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The Exotic Streets Of Bangkok

Dodie Cross
Jan 27, 2008
After two days of jet-lag, I decided I was now ready to do some sight-seeing in Bangkok. I dressed in shorts and T-shirt, and carried a towel and a bottle of ice water to pour over my head to ward off heat stroke. I wasn't going to let a little monsoon keep me inside. My husband, Dick, came along, reluctantly, but I knew it was to keep check on my impulsive spending habits. He is not a shopper. I can't help it if my DNA is overrun with sales signs and discount figures. It's what most women do. I do it well.

The sights and smells of Bangkok cannot be adequately described by a mere mortal such as I -- but I'll try.

Bangkok is a mish-mash of elegance, squalor, delicious aromas, and putrid smells -- from an overworked, under-built sewer system. Sightseeing was going to be a problem, I could tell. I had to keep my head down and a wary eye on the pavement to avoid various bricks and rocks strewn here and there. An unsteady obstacle course awaited the hapless toe. I'd heard that archeological excavations revealed civilization was alive and well in Thailand over 4,000 years ago. Could these bricks be the remnants of their digs?

Melting asphalt stuck to my shoes as I tried to pick my way across the steaming streets. Dirt, grime and debris cluttered the sidewalks, buildings and alleyways. Scurrying tourists and expatriates from all over the world filled the streets, along with the wonderful smiling Thais. Bangkok, I'd read, is truly an international city and one of the largest ethnic mixes in the world, with people shopping, selling, buying and trading, cooking and eating. I found myself caught up in the frenzy and excitement.

Stores, stores, and more stores, selling leather goods, ready-made clothing of wools and silks made by artistic Thai and Chinese tailors, genuine Ralph Lauren shirts, jewelry, paintings, footwear, and household goods. Carts with fruit sellers and fortune tellers squeezed into small stalls dotted the area. My eyes could not keep up with my thoughts as I surveyed the excitement surrounding me. Whatever Madame's heart desired could be produced, and all you had to do was ask! I loved this place. The gracious vendors smile, wai and disappear, returning a few minutes later with just what Madame requested. And tailor shops were everywhere, each offering ready-to-wear in twenty-four hours. If you had a favorite outfit purchased at, say, Nordstrom's, and wanted it duplicated, all you had to do was give it to the tailor and two more would be ready for you the next day at one-third the price paid for the original.

In fact, if you stood still long enough, you might find them coming up to you with their measuring tapes at the ready. On one such encounter I stood peering in a shop window when I felt someone touching me. I whirled around. "What are you doing?" I shrieked at the startled man beside me. I was worried he might be one of those pickpocket experts I'd been warned about.

"Sokay Madame, I jut fit you foh new clothes. We make what you like foh goot baht."

"What kind of clothes?" I asked, not quite so worried.

"Genuine copy, Madame!"

Having something tailor-made, plus a "genuine copy" was exciting, but I had nothing with me at the moment to give him. "Maybe I'll come back and bring something."

"Sokay, sokay, you come back latah, yeth?"

"Probably not today, but maybe..."

Dick had been checking out some western boots in a shop window when he heard the transaction take place. "Christ, don't start. You already have more clothes than you can wear and no closets to put them in."

"No mattah," the vendor said, pointing to my slacks. "I make copy foh you now."

"Well, I do like these..."

"Don't you have enough to wear? Come on, let's go," my husband hissed as he grabbed my arm and started walking away. The vendor looked startled at Dick's outburst. I learned later that it's out of character for Thais to raise their voice or show any kind of aggressive behavior in public. It's fundamentally against their nature and their Buddhist beliefs. To witness this kind of behavior was not acceptable. He looked down at his shoes.

"Excuse me?" I threw Dick a hateful look. "Could you be any more rude?"

"Yeah, well, I know you when it comes to shoppin'. Say goodbye, let's go."

I gave the vendor an apologetic look as I turned to leave, but made a mental note of his area. I would return -- sans husband.

I noted dozens of these vendors milling about. They didn't have a specific area where they did business but rather walked around drumming it up, sort of like a tailor's rep. If they found any live ones they'd drag them to the shop, drop them off to be fitted and then leave to find another customer. I assumed they received a commission for all the bodies they brought in. I was sure I'd find just the right place when I returned.

Dick grumbled that he was hungry, a euphemism used to drag me away from shopping. We followed our noses toward the food smells, but as we approached the area he slowed his pace. "What?"

"Maybe we should wait 'til we get back to the hotel."

I could hear the fear in his voice. "Come on! What're you afraid of? I don't see any tourists bent over with signs of botulism."

"Maybe they've been here a while. They're used to the food. We've got USA stomachs. That stuff might give us the runs."

"We have to get used to it sooner or later, we're going to be here for a while and I plan on eating like the natives, not the tourists."

"And in the meantime, we suffer?"

Geez, what a wuss! "We'll build antibodies."

I strode off ahead of him, wondering what I would do if I got a case of the runs right here in downtown Bangkok. I should have put some Lomotil in my purse before I left the hotel, a purse that was now heavier than a pallet of bricks as I kept adding all the things that I felt would keep me from getting all the things that everyone said I'd get.

With cauldrons of boiled chicken -- feathers floating in the water -- frying fish and oysters, coupled with the noxious fumes from the cars and sewers, it was easy to understand how a newbie could get nauseous. I strolled and sniffed. Oh the smells; some good, some disgusting, rancid, flowery, spicy, fishy and others unnamable.

A bit further down we found the origin of the odors. Natives were hawking their foods and wares on card tables, pushcarts, wooden tables, concrete-blocks, showing and selling their treasures and serving their food. One cart might have Rolex wannabes and genuine look-alike pearls and rubies, while the next might sell fish -- cooked or raw -- while ravenous flies were no doubt dropping their larvae as they hovered above the food. With a wave of the hand to disburse the flies, and an exchange of baht, off went the food to the Thai's iron-clad digestive system; curried chicken, noodles, shrimp, squid, and the all-important staple -- rice.

Next to the food were tables with T-shirts, shorts, "genuine" Gucci purses, leather pants, more watches and "No Copy" Dior perfume. The next cart might be laden with kettles of boiling squid, noodles or shrimp soup, sending their tempting aromas to the heavens. I took a quick peek inside the pots. I could have sworn I saw some very dubious looking characters bearing an uncanny resemblance to octopi, bats, snakes, and strange looking mushrooms. Maybe I'd pass on the soup. The next cart could be moo (pork) or gai (chicken) and mee grob, the Thai national favorite of fried noodles.

Standing at the ready, beneath the food carts, were the ever-present ravenous dogs, waiting for a tidbit to fall their way. This was one of the most pathetic sights I'd ever seen. Literally dozens of dogs roamed the city, the majority of them looking sick and emaciated, fur coming out in large patches. Some were bleeding from mange with flea-infested scabs invading most of their ravaged bodies. With their hind legs in constant motion as they scratched, they appeared to be permanently standing on three legs. Years of inbreeding and lack of care left them looking more like canine caricatures than real dogs. Some appeared to have begun their lineage from a large breed with perhaps a smaller one infiltrating the love nest. Many had at least one of their legs broken and twisted from either a head-on with a motorcycle or a car.

The Thais didn't seem to notice the pitiful creatures as they walked around or stepped over them. But they never seemed to be upset by the sight of them and most didn't even bother to shoo them away. They seemed to tolerate them -- as they did the farangs -- without showing animosity.

The number of dogs running loose without a home saddened me. In the span of a few blocks, we saw, and nearly tripped over, dozens of them. Some were mating, some looky-loos wishing they were mating, very few were fighting, and some were just cooling their heels by a rubbish heap waiting for a juicy morsel to unearth itself. The dogs seemed to have the same kicked-back personalities as the Thais, lying outstretched in the middle of a street or highway or just dozing under food carts.

Adding to this carnival-type excitement, on the sidewalks and streets, were the merchants who pushed or drove their portable kitchens on what appeared to be old Schwinn bicycles with sidecars attached. On top of the sidecar stood a shelf with a butane burner, which kept the food tongue-scorching hot. Down the street they'd peddle -- fires burning, kettles boiling and pots swaying to and fro.

Further along I saw frail little pushcarts on spindly wheels with pots hanging from wires over a small butane burner, brimming over with boiling delicacies. Ten to twelve plucked chickens, open eyes staring, dangling limply on wires stretched across the cart. The seller, after shooing away the flies, would grab a handful of chickens and toss them into the steaming cauldrons, along with boiled corn on the cob and fresh veggies to finish off the well-rounded meal. Next to these pushcart, and stacked high on blocks, were a profusion of tape recorders, cassette tapes, candy bars melting in the heat, and Buddha statues. All this seemed quite unsanitary by American standards, in fact, an inspector from the Health Department might drop with apoplexy, but I said damn the fly larvae and ate with abandon. I ordered what I thought looked edible but dumped the little wiggly things that appeared to be treading water. Dick opted for corn on the cob and rice.

I had made up my mind that if I was going to live in this country, I'd better learn to like their food. And like it I did. In fact, I can close my eyes today and fondly recall the smell and taste of Bangkok.

After a busy day of shopping, walking and eating, I slept like the dead -- concrete-slab mattress and all.
About the Author
Dodie Cross is a freelance writer who has received numerous awards for her writing and poetry. Dodie has traveled the world, writing about her life in foreign countries. Learn more at: A Broad Abroad.
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