…My 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. On the top of a wall run five strands of barbed wire, taut like guitar strings, yet silent and forbidding.
The gate is connected to a single crumbling concrete post. Once whitewashed, it is now pitted, grey gouges revealing a mix of limestone, pebbles, dirty sandstone. The same rusted iron slats form a fence across the rest of the empty plot, running to the next corner where the entrance to Re-cafe looms. I amble slowly, passing a hand over my freshly shorn scalp – I am already perspiring in the heat -, moving to the left to avoid a Thai taxi moped coming at me. It is daytime yet he still has his headlamp on. He is wearing a traditional orange over-garment, his license number stamped on it. The left wall houses a small verandah, about three feet wide, connecting the small shop-esque room to a rear open kitchen. There is a single table with a Coca-Cola plastic table cloth, two bottles of water, tissues, and various standard Thai culinary accoutrements – chilies, spice, salt.
My view ends at a large steel gate. The rear entrance to a public office. The gate is rusted shut – no one ever uses it. Turning to the left the soi stretches away again…
As I turn the corner I can see a lone Thai woman preparing food. Clad in a lime green apron she is gazing out over a counter, blue pails next to her. Behind, the depths of the room are more brightly lit. There’s a snap and sizzle of something meaty cooking. It’s got that mouth-watering aroma that reminds you lunch time can be taken at any time. Opposite is a low, two storey building that has had a facelift in recent months. It is now a massage parlour offering oil and foot pleasures. Curiously it is also lime green with a European style balcony – all fat legs, marble. Plenty of shoes and flip-flops rest carelessly outside. The place has several customers, but the darkened glass of the door and windows prevents any curious eyes.
Just past this place the left hand wall runs like an arrow to the T-junction. It is rough to the touch of my fingertips. Plant pots follow the wall, faded green leaves curled and bedraggled. Above them the thread of cables has turned with me, swaying very slightly in the insipid breeze. At the far end blue buildings loom up. There is a curiously enjoyable randomness to Thai architecture. Colours and style are unique. Uniformity is hardly given thought, function is what makes these building sprout, then grow. As I walk up, more building entrances are on my right. They are just open houses where people live. There is nothing to buy, just living quarters. A man lounges indolently in one next to an ancient washing machine. A yellow hose rises from its open drum, crawls across his left thigh like a snake and hangs there…drip, drip each evenly spaced splash about three seconds apart. In the solitude of his slumber it is almost a metronomic lullaby in his ears.
As I approach the T-junction the house on my left has gone. Smashed in to a recent ruin, no doubt for a future building. The wall remains, wickedly sharp brown glass has been smeared into a cement bed on the wall top. I reach the T…am able to peer through a crack in the boarded gates if I press my face to the warm metal. One supporting interior wall stands, rising out of the rubble. There’s a vast hole in it; on the other side is the only real splash of colour – a red and white Cola vending machine – in a sea of grey and ochre shards. At the T I glance left – it is a dead end – down there are a group of Thais on mopeds underneath a pool hall sign. I have never been down there, likely I never will. There is wandering into places to get a sense of locality away from tourism and there is wandering into places where non-locals are patently unwelcome.
Turning right there is a short distance to the narrow aperture that opens onto the main road. An aperture framed with gloomy, dropping branches that signals the end of the Back Soi. It is here in this tiny stretch that the most bustle occurs. On the left is another gloomy “restaurant”. This has many tables and benches. There’s a motorbike outside. Inside an older Thai is drinking from a tumbler. A whiskey bottle is perched next to him. He’s grunting an opinion at a TV screen in the far corner which has a smiling Thai news presenter. The fingers of his left hand are thick, almost hoary, drumming forcefully onto a white table top. His right hand is clasped firmly around the tumbler.
Several mopeds are also parked outside. Directly opposite is another cooking area. A half drum is blackened, crusted with an age of cooking, sprinkled white with ash. A small Thai boy – no more than four years old – peers at me from behind it. His eyes are guileless, regarding me curiously. Just before the tiny path to the road a Thai woman is preparing her small vendor cart for lunch time sales. There is a deft precision as a small knife in her hand chops at beans and chilli with a small clicking noise.
A few short strides and I am into the single passageway, a tea shop on my left so dark it is lost in the gloom. The light of the main road beckons from beneath trees; to the left is a small security desk. Here is where tuk-tuks park waiting for tourists. The road ahead is a glut of Western tourist hotels – Marriott, Four Seasons, Regius…many more. It is safer to hide in this Thai back soi, hidden by dark trees, cocooned by complicated buildings, surrounded by muted conversation, warmed by the odours of Thai cooking.
It is almost time to retrace my steps. There is one final glance at something peculiarly Thai – their street technology. I wonder how it all works at times with the swarm of black cables falling to the ground, posts burdened with too much metal lurching to one side, open boxes with live wires – all clothed in branches and vines that will use anything to climb.
Time to go home. If you want to live here, you can. There is a yellow sign proclaiming a condo for rent at an eye-watering 36,000Baht per month ($1100). Yes…even the true Thai alleys and soi are catching up fast to the real-estate pricing that is new Bangkok. If you find yourself in this metropolis…of course do the tourist “thing”, but take time to wander the back soi….slowly, looking around. They are microcosms of the reality of life in this city.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?