A slice of Thai life – the Back Soi

“Nice. You could cut marine hair if you wanted, krub.” I am smiling as I hand over 200Baht, ignoring the mildly nervous pop of the electric power socket exploding again.

Half an hour earlier….

Just round the corner from where the Diplomat, Isla, and I live is a back soi cut through we use daily. Connecting Langsuan with Ratchadamri, it is a twisting 100m stretch of life in Bangkok that is bursting with vitality, commerce, pleasure, food…and much, much more. Let’s go for a walk….

I am standing at the entrance to the soi. The path is wet with the slosh from a pail. A Vietnamese/Thai restaurant makes up the left hand wall for about thirty feet. Once white, it is now stained with rivulets of rust-laden water. 20140128_163600The concrete floor is pitted, broken, on the right a blue pipe runs the length of a small v-runoff; it is smeared with white splotches as though a million pigeons have used it as a toilet. 20140128_163551Above it the wall has graffiti – the lettering is english but I can’t make it out; some of the letters drip brown ooze. Under my feet a drain cover tilts on a single axis over the khlong sewer buried beneath the road, beneath me. I can smell the stench rising from its murky brown sludge.

It is a quiet Sunday morning in the middle of #BangkokShutdown. A very different story from a weekday when the lunch hour means middle-class Thai swarm from the nearby CIMB bank locust-like through the empty peace of Langsuan to overwhelm every food seller. At that daily hour dozens of chattering Thai fill the street, spill into the soi for the true taste the is lunchtime Bangkok. 20140128_163458Greeting them are glassy-eyed, whole fish, snared on hot lattice spits, their crisping scales hard to see through the haze of mono-sodium glutamate that will cause my eyes to water furiously. Nothing makes a foreigner blink more profusely than a face full of chili fumes from powder that is casually thrown into several of the huge woks; those steam and hiss, fish and oyster sauces sizzle, bean sprouts are added, noodles, prawns, pork, beef, chicken. Along with the bustle of this savoury street fare are carefully rolled sweet meats, tiny one-person booths with iced coconut milk. One vendor has his two-wheeled ice cart. Mango, pineapple, melon. Swift slices with a sharp cleaver, pieces of fruit slide into clear bags, a wooden stick follows. A knot tied faster than you can imagine and, 20 Baht later, another customer strolls away…slowly.

But today is Sunday and I am moving up the soi purposefully with a destination in mind – a haircut in a very Thai “shop”; none of this coiffured multi-corporate hair salons. Why pay 1000Baht when you can get better service for a tenth of it? 20140128_163634Entering the soi, the first vendor is on the left – Madamekrok. I can either go into her cafe or purchase from an elevated “bar”. Next door is the dark emptiness of a massage salon; adjacent is another seller of the relaxation arts – Nee Sun Massage. 20140128_163654A white clothed Thai is fiddling outside with a water vending machine. On his right the rear tyre of an old black cycle is juts out, the front is wedged into a set of potted shrubs.

The soi takes a right turn just past a line of black bin bags and green pails. Everything is open to the air, flies buzz. Not quite so bad as the sunset swarms that hover over Sarasin Road’s slops of entrails tossed aside by street food vendors before they go home. The entrails are never there the next day -perhaps the park’s Monitor Lizards get them?

20140128_163818The black wires turn with me, tracing the road of the soi like Ariadne’s thread leading me out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Tall buildings loom in the background, on the ground level are more shops. A Bangkok moped weaves towards me, passes in a cloud of diesel.

My destination is on the right, opposite a small eatery. I say eatery…it has one table and a gloomy plank masquerading as a serving counter. Beyond it the back of the “shop” isn’t visible, lost in the murk of no-light. On the corner, two men are engaged in conversation, one gesturing animatedly to his fellow. 20140128_163826

Just past the doorway of the hairdresser is a yellow Singha poster. Fallen to the ground, it is pinned in place by white buckets of dead soup, scorned vegetables. The ground underneath is muddied, black.

I step into the hair salon. It is empty, bar one woman who looks up. I can read her expression. Farang. I am going to have to try and communicate with him and it’s only 9am.

“Sawadee, krub. Clipper haircut. Grade sam.” slowly pronounced, lots of smiles, a vague waving of my hand over my scalp in a clipper motion.

“Ka” she nods and waits. I guess I have to pick one of the three chairs in front of the mirrors. Behind them, the opposite wall has a well worn faux-leather couch and some magazines in Thai. The floor is tiled blue – I have removed my shoes on entry – a fan whirrs away noisily, moving the fetid air. A calendar with the King’s portrait gazes down.

I settle into the chair, a towel is slung around my shoulders. Clippers are found, plugged in. The four-gang power socket trips, a popping sound. She jabs out a foot onto it, pressing firmly. Click, click I can hear the clippers restarting. The socket pops again. Thai mutters. Another kick.

A buzz fills the air and she goes to work without a word.

Swift, efficient. Silent. The perfect haircut, really.

Half a head done and the clippers give up the ghost again. Pop! Her foot knows where to stab this time. She doesn’t even look as the power reconnects. I am just thankful my hands are not in water. I inhale sharply, take in the curious warm scents of a Thai soi. The lingering odour of food hovers (I can’t possibly pick out individual flavours), I can tell there is jasmine close by, and underlying it all I know there is a khlong carrying waste underneath us. Everything is faded and cracked but, barring the food slops, it isn’t dirty. Thais are known for being fastidiously clean; this reflection of soi society is no different.

I am almost day dreaming. It is just me and her in the shop, the drone of the buzzing clippers, the regular popping of the power socket. Outside is a hum of small conversation. The two Thai men just need a chess board and they’d be the same as old men grumbling on any European street corner. It’s getting hotter too. I spot a cigarette end falling to the ground, being squashed out with a twist of a shoe.

My haircut ends. There’s no waving of mirrors behind me. Somehow, it’s not necessary. The cut is extremely well done. There’s definitely a pride and professionalism here beyond the artsy glitter of a shop floor in a sterile mall.

“Ni tao rai? (how much?)” I ask.


“Nice. You could cut marine hair if you wanted, krub.” I am smiling as I hand over money, ignoring the mildly nervous pop of the electric power socket exploding again. She has no idea what I just said but it doesn’t matter. £2 for that? I give her 200Baht. We’re both very pleased with what we’ve got out the transaction. A happy ending indeed.

20140128_163852My journey down the back soi isn’t over. There’s more to see. I step out into the sunshine, don shoes, turn right. I’m about halfway down it. Ahead of me is a sagging iron gate, beyond it a jungle of trees, bushes – all soiled with human rubbish. A tin pot hangs on an arrowpoint, leaves carpet the ground.

To be Continued….

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Is this what diplomacy is all about?



Categories: Bangkok

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2 replies

  1. Wonderful descriptions, thank you!



  1. Continuing down the ‘Back Soi’…. « travelswithadiplomat

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