Just down Thanon Charoeng Krung is a newish market called Asiatique. A thoroughly modern gathering of eight warehouses, eateries, social spaces, and a view on the Chao Phraya it attracts a seething mass of locals and tourists at dusk. It is a place of carefully constructed alleyways, of small boutiques, of a Disneyland-esque village layout, of a small Ferris wheel, of delicious smells (and the ever present sewage system at times), of outdoors bars, of fine restaurants. In short it is a tourist must-see and the only way to leave it is in a tuk-tuk with a large painting strapped to the rear of the vehicle, roaring down the street as music wails into the night sky of the Chao Praya with a sigh of contentment on one’s lips.
But, that is the end of my tale. I need to step back in time to give you a more complete vision.
Imagine a time where a plane has flown in from the deepest recess of Ethiopia, from its capital Addis Adaba, bearing a lady who shall be known as The Handmaiden. A fond sobriquet given after a brief tenure in Jordan, working directly for the Queen, coupled with a penchant for the Seven Veils. It is Christmas and visitors to Bangkok are always welcomed. On the first full night of the holiday the Diplomat and I decided we’d take the Handmaiden down to Asiatique – a market we’d heard of, being near the abode of the Polyglot, but not yet got to visit. I had briefly seen it from a distance when I crossed the Taksin Bridge, specifically noting the large Ferris wheel which looked very similar to the London Eye. In fact it is a fraction of the size but a great vantage point to look out over the river. For once, we managed to get in a taxi and the driver knew immediately where we were going. I have found that he younger generation of taxi drivers tend to come with a pair of Ipod earphones and a good knowledge of the streets, unlike their older counterparts who listen to the radio with a more easy listening theme and tend to need bpai sai, kwah, and cha, cha, cha instruction. This one even had some nodding dogs and horses to keep Isla amused – which was vital given the journey down Satorn was a scant four minutes and then the last half a km took 15 minutes. Eventually we pulled up, were helped across the road by a police officer, and dealt with Isla as she screamingly refused to be strapped into her pushchair. Sometimes the will of the parent is inexorable.
The market is fascinating. It has that polished look of artificial streets and alleys. Trees march uniformly down the avenues, each shop is precisely the same dimensions, every quirky sign is polished artistically just so. It is clean, sanitized, touristy. It’s a great place, to be honest. The goods are imports, are local, are good quality. You can buy anything and everything that is not a white good. Art, sculpture, textiles abound. Crazy designs mix with toy tat; the pungent aromas of vying joss and incense do battle against the natural wafts of Thai restaurants. Underlying it all is the happy melodies of those who come to buy, to sell, to investigate, to barter, to coo in awe, to exclaim whilst pointing out some new delight to a friend. High pitched tones mix with guttural grunts. Barely a scowl can be seen, the looping tinsel lights squeal against the incessant flash, flash, flash of digital cameras and phones. It is a world of tasteful glitter that thumbs its nose at similar tawdry efforts. A perfect symbiosis of antique and modern, it is edgy and yet clean in the straight lines, the goods, the happy ambivalence.
After wandering round all the stalls (The Diplomat looking for a specific Christmas gift), looking at the Chao Phraya, and making some small purchases for Isla, we found ourselves in the eating “quarter”. Everything you could possibly want is here. Beer tents, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Steak houses, Italian, French bistros…and many more I probably missed. The Handmaiden spotted “Fine Dining” restaurant that has a facade of glass and wine. Quality Australian rib-eye steaks for 900Baht? What’s not to like? Or feast on?
I confess it was a fabulous meal; one where we discovered that Isla loved crawling into the dumb waiter, gazing at everyone and laughing happily. Couple that with a bit of medium rare steak, a few chips in a wasabi cream sauce and she was in gurgle heaven.
By the time we finished night was truly upon us and we decided to amble back to the main street to catch a taxi. It was at this point the Diplomat spotted a “must-have” picture. Peculiarly Canadian in its style, almost forest-like in first perception, it was the blaze of red with streaks of black that suits a white wall well. Engaging the artist’s assistant we managed to reduce the price from 9000Baht to 7000Baht and left to hail a taxi. It was at this point I realised the dimensions of the painting were larger than then entrance of the taxi. The Handmaiden, The Diplomat and Isla sped off in the taxi leaving me to scratch my head and ponder precisely how to get this piece of art home. Eventually, I ambled down the road and hit on the idea of a tuk-tuk. It didn’t fit in that either.
A 500Baht promise later (for a 100Baht ride) my Thai driver slotted the picture into a crease on the back of his tuk-tuk and wrapped one of those elasticated cords over it. With me hanging onto the frame cross piece (not that I needed to) we roared off into the Bangkok night to the applause of other taxis and tuk-tuks. I have to say it was a great journey home. The night noise of Bangkok makes you see exactly why its moniker is “The City of Life”. Every sense is assailed and it encourages you just to laugh out loud as the wind streams past you, the lights draw lines across your retinas, the aromas assail your olfactory nerves, the sheer glee of it all triggers those happy endorphins.
Anyway here is a gallery of the sights of Asiatique. If you are ever in Bangkok, go. Do. Go. You will not be disappointed.
On a final note, the Handmaiden and I paid a quick trip to Jim Thompson’s house where, this time (because we had no pushchair) we did the 40min guided tour. A fascinating place, and I strongly recommend any visitors do the actual tour to see the place fully. It substantially enhances the experience. Anyway, we noted that we constantly had to step over a large (about a foot high) skirting to go from room to room. The reason for this skirting is threefold: 1) to prevent evil spirits form entering the room, 2) as part of the structure of the wall, 3) to prevent babies crawling out of the room. There you go. Fascinating.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?