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Long hair, long life

December 19, 2019

“You very lucky,” a fortune-teller informs me as I mope along Ram Buttri, my stomach churning. “You have many bananas.”

He’s vibing on my new t-shirt, haggled from a market vendor last night. It’s printed with many bananas.

“Long hair, long life”, a tailor tells me as I enter 7/11, before telling me I’m no longer his friend. Presumably because I’ve resisted his offers to “make a suit, sir?” for several days.

Inside, I buy a Royal-D ELECTROLYTE BEVERAGE to hopefully ease the havoc being wrought on my digestive system by last night’s (or maybe this morning’s) street vendor pad thai. Too much oily food in quick succession, but 35฿ for a huge plate of noodles, vegetables, and egg is hard to resist

Especially with the trimmings available.

The two bowls of chillies, differing in size and Scoville, first caught my eye. Next to them are crushed nuts, dried onion flakes, chilli flakes, and white sugar. Then the most exciting: thousands of dried shrimp offering an irresistibly salty, umami, vaguely fishy crunch. A tasty massacre in a pot.

Everything is busy here. Last night, while peeing at a urinal separated from the bar only by a waist-height wall – barely enough to offer any privacy at all – I thought about how everything spills out of buildings and into the streets.

Then I thought how ‘spill’ is the wrong word. Spill implies that things should be contained – in buildings, shops, personal spaces – and that any flow from these things is an unintentional, undesirable deviation from some preferred norm.

But in these streets, everything mixes in an appealing way. There is osmosis between spaces. Fewer barriers, physical and perceptual. Many buildings have no front wall. No shutters. No way to separate their space from the spaces beyond. The weather never seems to require it, so people haven’t had to get used to it.

People watch out for each other. If a stallholder is busy or distracted, a neighbour steps in to help. Hawkers from opposite bars meet and banter in the middle of the street, competing for custom.

In Bangkok in the late 2010s this banter is innocent and joky. In the seedier alleyways of the city back in the 60s and 70s, according to the book I’m reading, this hawking would often turn violent. Cajoled tourists would be dragged bodily into bars, have wildly overpriced drinks thrust into their hands, with stern bouncers demanding payment before they could leave.

The book also describes, in disconcerting detail, the night life. The farmgirls sent to the big city by poor and desperate families. The prostitution. The low age of consent. The nefarious intent of western visitors.

Bethan describes, from her first visit in the late 2000s, cockroaches and dead rats in the street. The readily available class A drugs, and the people publicly suffering from their effects.

It’s a city whose reputation precedes it.

But I’ve seen nothing like any of that. Khao San Road is loud and rowdy, but aside from some drunken human detritus still sweeping itself into bed a couple of hours after sunrise, it all seems civilised.

The closest I’ve seen was over coffee this morning, at 8am. A guy on the next table over was midway through his second large beer. We saw him again at dinner, many hours later, surrounded by bottles and well into another. It looked like things would soon spill out of him