Harmful elements in the air / Symbols clashing everywhere


A tru­ly odd few days.

On the Thurs­day before last, I get an email ask­ing if I can come to New Zealand to con­sult on a project. Sure — sur­prised — says I, when? How does Sun­day sound? Um, ok — how long for? Five days? Okay…

Tick­et arrives on the Fri­day and it’s Qan­tas via Syd­ney. I re-send the email that I sent to ear­li­er: Sin­ga­pore Air­lines or Thai only. I won’t fly Qan­tas, Malaysian or Air New Zealand, all for rea­sons of food, com­fort and lack of ser­vice on a very long flight (okay Air NZ are fine on the ser­vice but the food and seat­ing suck badly).

The replace­ment tick­et arrives a cou­ple of hours lat­er — Thai, but leav­ing with­in 48 hours.

That’s fine. I buy a few exot­ic Thai snacks for the par­ents and head to the air­port. At Swampy I get into an argu­ment with the Duty Free store: you can’t take liq­uids over 100ml on the plane to NZ.

Did­n’t I resolve this a month ago? Yes, I can — in a sealed bag.

No, you can’t. I quick­ly work out that to staff in King Pow­er Duty Free, New Zealand is a pair of words that sim­ply means ‘a part of Aus­tralia — we don’t know exact­ly where’.

I tell them I’ll take the risk — and the girl sells it to me, then a few sec­onds lat­er chas­es me through the air­port in tears, plead­ing with me to go back as she’ll lose her job when Thai Air­lines throw me off. I tell her I won’t men­tion her and if there is an issue I’ll some­how get it back to her.

I leave her sob­bing, con­vinced that I’ll nev­er make it to the city of New Zealand in Aus­tralia and that she’s unem­ployed — and with­out issue, I board TG491.

In Auck­land I hug par­ents and daugh­ter, do a movie with daugh­ter ($18 for two pop­corns and a drink? When did that hap­pen?), take her to a Great Blend which she real­ly digs (‘they treat­ed me like an adult, Dad’ ‘that’s because you are now my love, and one I’m immense­ly proud of’), and we do dim sim with friends. I do meet­ings. I do wall to wall break­fast, lunch, din­ner, cof­fee meet­ings until it’s time to once again — bat­tered and exhaust­ed — board an aircraft.

Bangkok — 5 days after I left. I’m back in a mid-evening cab head­ing along Rama IX des­per­ate for a plate of raw prawns mar­i­nat­ed in ridicu­lous­ly  spicy nam prik, in the post-dusk cool — that is, if it was actu­al­ly cool — the evenings are ridicu­lous­ly and unsea­son­al­ly hot this month — in our favourite rus­tic (that word will do, any­thing else tends to scare the friends and fam­i­ly back home) out­door cafe around the cor­ner from the house. The increas­ing­ly recur­rent rains, as the rainy sea­son gath­ers, had passed for the day.

The soi was­n’t flood­ed when I arrived. Yay.

Flip­ping back­wards and for­wards between my two favourite cities has become a fair­ly tol­er­a­ble part of my lifestyle in recent years and this was my fourth trip to Auck­land in 2012. Of the first 28 weeks of 2012, 10 were in the old hometown.

Fam­i­ly, busi­ness and some­times just whim.

I get home to Ekka­mai — after I bat­tle lunatic dogs who seem to think dad has been away for months — I find anoth­er mes­sage ask­ing me to come back to Auck­land with­in four weeks. Can I? I guess…

Brigid says the maid has quit with­out notice — a week before pay­day. Oh. She was hope­less but quite love­ly so we kept her on so the regret at her leav­ing is mixed.

There is still a weird­ness in the inevitable cul­tur­al mind­fuck every time I tran­sit south-east and then back north-west. I’m still deal­ing with it.

Auck­land is fab­u­lous; it’s warm (as in com­fort­ing), I know it so well, it’s sooo qui­et and yet it often inspires with its clever peo­ple doing very clever things. We take the clev­er­ness for grant­ed — or at least we do until we leave.

I just wish, wish, wish it was open just a lit­tle more often: the habit New Zealan­ders have of most­ly shut­ting them­selves tight­ly in their mort­gaged up box­es at night with Short­land Street or the neutered thing they call news around 6 pm and not ven­tur­ing out until the morn­ing — unless of course they feel the need to get loud­ly and often vio­lent­ly drunk or wast­ed — throws me no mat­ter how much I men­tal­ly pre­pare for it each time I land at Auck­land airport.

A guy on the plane — a pake­ha New Zealan­der — tells me his Thai wife has been there for a dozen years and still can’t get her head around this. It’s social­ly abnor­mal. Tee­ter­ing on dysfunctional.

I have trou­ble cop­ing. The intense empti­ness and quiet­ness of the streets and relat­ed precincts bro­ken only by spo­radic wast­ed noise — or sirens going to oth­er spo­radic wast­ed noise and/or vio­lence elsewhere.

I sit on the Sky­train on a Fri­day night around 11 pm and reflect that a sim­i­lar machine in New Zealand — if it exist­ed- would like­ly be full of drunks, ran­dom­ly abu­sive peo­ple want­i­ng to know exact­ly what I’m look­ing at — and vom­it. The night bus­es in Auck­land are threat­en­ing places. In Bangkok, it’s groups of chat­ter­ing twen­ty-some­things on their way to a club/bar, diner/shoppers going home, and kids sim­ply rid­ing back and forth until the last train.

Fun. No violence.


I like rid­ing the train to Chinatown.

I like going to Chi­na­town. I could nev­er live in Chi­na­town but it’s eas­i­ly the place I love most in Bangkok — the mul­ti-direc­tion­al noise, the ridicu­lous omnipresent clam­our, the end­less thin alleys that seem to wan­der into dark places which offer fas­ci­nat­ing ven­dors sell­ing a vast range of things I real­ly could­n’t ever want, but real­ly want to want.

I like the ancient print­ing stores — some of whom have been hand print­ing and cut­ting glo­ri­ous tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese busi­ness cards for close to two hun­dred years — all gath­ered togeth­er as cities used to gath­er togeth­er like busi­ness­es (and still do here). I dig the rows of guys strip­ping and refur­bish­ing every kind of mechan­i­cal and elec­tri­cal motor you can imag­ine, next to oth­er shop­hous­es per­fect­ly and lov­ing­ly rebuild­ing rows of clas­sic Vespas.

The almost impen­e­tra­ble mar­ket maze that seems only to sell eye­glass frames by the bil­lion stands a few dozen metres from the sim­i­lar­ly dense cov­ered mar­ket that offers just sex toys and every kind of dig­i­tal game device invent­ed or per­haps mere­ly pro­to­typed in some Japan­ese lab before the pirates rushed it into pro­duc­tion. Plus, nat­u­ral­ly, the two soft­ware adden­da need­ed for both sec­tions of the mar­ket’s tar­get­ed pur­chasers: games and porn.

I like find­ing excus­es to vis­it the but­ton mar­kets, or to peer (like the sil­ly curi­ous farang that I am of course) into the dark stores sell­ing every kind of tra­di­tion­al Chi­nese spice and med­i­cine out of walls of overused draw­ers that have been exact­ly the same since the place opened some­time in the 19th Cen­tu­ry — or so you’d swear. I’m too ner­vous to take pho­tos and would more than like­ly — and cor­rect­ly — be quick­ly shooed away if I did.

The gold shops are amaz­ing — but espe­cial­ly the one on the cor­ner of (I think) Soi Texas — the won­der­ful name being a lega­cy of a mil­lion GIs in the 60s per­haps — which looks like it was board­ed up years back and is lay­ered inside with cen­time­tres of black grime and cob­webs. I bet there are snakes and large lizards in there.

There are the cof­fin mak­ers with pol­ished wood­en box­es shaped like Lotus flow­ers or hand paint­ed red and gold cas­kets to take you into the next world; the over-coif­fured women sell­ing lot­tery tick­ets (all sort­ed and priced by the lucky num­ber com­bi­na­tions they might offer), odd pink pas­try things and mul­ti-sto­ried mini-malls that stock noth­ing but fan­cy hair clips & stick­ers — by the gazz­il­ion — and are right next to a dozen sim­i­lar mini-malls sell­ing the same thing.

Pink, ummm, somethings....

The depart­ment store with stock all bought in the 1950s and 1960s and all still for sale; fresh Chi­nese donuts, pulled out from the fry­er in front of you and best enjoyed with the sweet, strange flower flavoured drinks sold every­where, or the stalls with count­less vari­eties of teas that I’ve nev­er seen, heard or imag­ined before.

And after all this, you stag­ger out, at the end of the Sam­p­eng Lane labyrinth that anchors the world’s old­est and biggest Chi­na­town — gasp­ing for cool air and liq­uid — into the import­ed (long, long ago) South Asian clam­our of Pahu­rat — Lit­tle India.

Where Chi­na­town is intense and semi-claus­tro­pho­bic with nar­row over­crowd­ed lanes  — they were once roads how­ev­er the decades have pulled them in on each side until they are now only pass­able with effort and resort to a semi-gym­nas­tic weave around food stalls, motor­cy­cles com­ing from each side and mer­chants push­ing over-laden bar­rows of what­ev­er to wher­ev­er — Pahu­rat seems almost open and sane in its pace, allow­ing you to reclaim a lit­tle of the per­son­al space you invol­un­tar­i­ly gave away back there in Sampeng.

But of course it’s all total­ly rel­a­tive and Lit­tle India still has a human den­si­ty I’d nev­er imag­ined grow­ing up in New Zealand — or even knew when liv­ing in Aus­tralia or London.

The oth­er thing that hits is the change of smell. From the Chi­nese spices, which are so so much part of cen­tral and north­ern Thai cui­sine any­way that the odour jig­saws, you find your­self instead sur­round­ed by cumin, by garam masala and sticky cloves.

Pahu­rat is about food, spices, sticky sweets, per­haps thou­sands of fab­ric whole­salers and retailers.

And large flatscreen tele­vi­sion sets.

A sub­set indus­try of Lit­tle India is the export of TV sets to India. Per­haps because of tax­es, per­haps sim­ply because of the cheap­ness of elec­tron­ic goods in Bangkok com­par­a­tive to much of Asia, there are dozens of shops sell­ing thou­sands of TVs to thou­sands of Indi­an tourists. Bus­loads of them draw up out­side seem­ing­ly small retail out­lets (clear­ly with vast ware­hous­ing out the back) and all scram­ble back onto the bus with a 42″. The next bus pulls up and does the same — and so on all day.…

And there are peo­ple mak­ing deals. Every­where, young Indi­an men on the phone mak­ing deals.

Sitting in Little India

I write all this because I’m dream­ing — obsess­ing — now of the fresh­ly cooked samosas sold the end of Soi Pahu­rat — next to the new Indi­an fab­ric mall — which may be the best in the world. Hot, crunchy on the out­side and del­i­cate but with a nice latent kick inside that reveals itself in the few min­utes thereafter.

They are — sor­ry — fuck­ing amaz­ing. And they’ve been known to pull me 15km across this insane city.

There is no oth­er point to this post oth­er than to try and excise this crav­ing I’m hav­ing — a crav­ing that may force me onto the Klong boat down the road, and then into a taxi to Pahu­rat if I don’t sup­press it.

It isn’t working.

Pahurat Poster

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