If you catch a taxi towards Hualumphong Station in Bangkok, heading towards the north/south stretch of the Chao Phraya river you will – after barely noting you’ve crossed khlong Krung Kasem – find yourselves staring out of the car window at the crammed store fronts of the four-storey buildings that make up Chinatown. The taxi will weave deftly down Thanon Charoen Krung. The road is meant to be four lanes but parked cars, street vendors, out-thrusting alleys, and a swarm of local Thai-Chinese have conspired to make it a cramped two lane highway replete with honking horns, cursing drivers, belching fumes, and gastronomic scents. It’s a place where the neon lights that replace darkness also hide a multitude of grey stucco, dark walls, broken bricks, grimy windows, and crumbling concrete.
Ask the taxi driver to cross khlong Rop Khrung and take a left down Thanon Burapha towards Phahurat. Then “cha cha cha. Ti ni” the driver to stop somewhere, anywhere and hop out. You are in Little India – a place bordered by the Chao Phraya and Saphan Phut Park to the south, the vaster area of Chinatown to the west, Wat Pho to the east and the rest of the Old City to the north. There are several reasons to visit this part of Bangkok: sprawling Sampeng Market, the Old Siam Plaza, the four-storey India Emporium, and the Sikh Gurdwara – there’s a very good page about it here.
The Diplomat and I are here on a time-limited run to get fabrics for new dresses. Everyone says come to Bangkok and have a suit or dress made…but the real trick is not to go to one of the tailors in tourist-ville with their fast sales patter and limited stock but to go into places like Little India, choose your fabrics, then go to a tailor and have them make the garment. Cheaper still by far and you get a genuine taste of the ethnic stew that is Bangkok.
It’s mid morning on a Saturday. We get out of the taxi and plunge into the labyrinthine sprawl that is Phahurat Market…I snap some hasty shots of the stalls along the way as we head towards the Little India Emporium.
The entrance way is right next to the Sikh temple (worth a visit for sure, but not on this occasion) and we bound gaily up the steps into a mall that is more converted godown than shopping centre. The architecture is plain, a large central atrium with stalls around the perimeter on four floors – atypical Roman style warehouse. Every square inch is packed with fabrics, pathways are one person only, the corpulent will have a tough time of it. The sales here is more muted than I am used to in this city; it is polite, inquiring, soft-spoken…as the Diplomat assures me it is far closer to what I might expect in travels to India or Pakistan. She disappears into a shop to hunt down a navy blue lace fabric…she has a very specific design in mind. I saunter casually off, noting the dozens of “no photos” signs and pretending I am on my phone, not taking odd photos of these wonderful creations. Of course most are machine made but, even so, the difference between Western fashions and Indian is vast; the former always seem functional, drab in comparison to the brightness, the complex weaves, the stories that reside in every pattern of the latter.
Eventually, the Diplomat finds a pattern and the store owner rapidly carves out 3m of fabric and underlining. All the time his voice is clicking away, his accent is not Thai, he is most definitely Indian. He is suggesting hems and lengths, deftly twisting the bolt this way and that, a flick of his wrist sending the cloth billowing in the air, settling briefly into a female shape, then falling softly to the ground. Big metal scissors, like the ones your grandmother would have had, snip efficiently, sharply and the purchase length is wrapped briskly. Suggestions for a tailor are made, thanks given, remarkably little money exchanged and we are out into the narrow corridors of a Thai pavement-now-vendor-cloister.
Time to shuffle through the dim alleys of the locale. Cooking smells fight for ascendancy, shops blur past selling everything, clustered together like giggling children; security in commonality. That soi over there has nothing but gas burner devices, that one there is full of wedding favours, that one round the corner is all things electric…and so it goes on. You wander as though you are in a western medieval marketplace, a far eastern souk, all Alices chasing the despairing White Rabbit through a warren of fantastical colours.
One hour only and now time to go but, at the last, I took some closeups of some of the fabrics we saw…we’ll go back soon…
Is this what diplomacy is all about?