My guesthouse is in such an interesting neighborhood.The busy main street, runs north-south, and is a half block away. It teems with all manner of traffic, dominated by the madcap buses of Bangkok. The National Library occupies the large tract of land along it.
Off that main street, running west, toward the river, is our Soi (pronounced soy), a side street or avenue. It is small and minor enough that you can cross the street almost without looking. Off that runs a pedestrian walkway and we are far enough back along it to be quiet and peaceful. Past our alleyway, there are a half dozen more guesthouses. Strange to western eyes, on this side there are also two vehicle repair “shops”. They store their gear in a big pile at the end of the alley and perhaps locked into permanently parked cars. The work is done right on the street where cars would park if the space was not all already occupied.
There is a strange concept here of property. Sidewalk and street space is claimed and it has nothing to do with what homes are located nearby. Carts and sidewalk food stalls are set up every day in the same place and packed up at night and wheeled home. Some system of place seems to operate wherein prior use determines ‘ownership’.
On the other side of the soi there are many small shops starting with a bank on the main street corner followed by a tiny shop with office supplies, string, and other miscellany. Next are two tiny internet shops, one serving gamers exclusively. One has an attached noodle shop. Next is a copy shop, then a small school hidden by a high wall. It seems to cater to young women around 18 or so. As you continue along, there are a variety of tiny shops – a tailor, a laundry, a news stand, two beauty shops, a coffee shop that also does copies, and many more tiny restaurants. At the end the lane is anchored by a little 7-11. Bangkok has a mind boggling number of these convenience stores, often one to a block, sometimes even more, sometimes right across from another.
Along the wide sidewalk on the far side, and spilling over right into the street, are some dozen more food stalls. They are set up with a number of metal folding tables and plastic stools. Some have a case full of large bowls with prepared dishes. Others serve a soup with noodles and vegetables and either beef or chicken or pork, but typically not more than one choice per location. Clustered around the 7-11 and also in front of the school are carts with barbecued meats, or fried catfish morsels, or hot dogs (for some inexplicable reason these are popular). There are cut fruit stands, a roti stand (egg or chicken or chocolate), skewered chicken, fish with heads cut off. There are fresh fried donuts with a dough like stuffing, little baked puddings. The variety is boggling, seemingly endless. Much of the time I have little idea of what is on offer, and rarely any way to ask.
On the corner with the 7-11, a side road runs south and into the middle of the Thewet Market. This market is the source for fresh vegetables and fruits, for freshly caught fish, for other meats, and has some stalls in the center which sell other household goods.
If you continue down the soi, toward the Chao Phrya River, which bounds this area, you run into a Wat – a large, ornate temple complex. Just before the temple on our side is an elementary school. On the far side there is a brand new building – large, flash and dramatic. The sign on it reads Department of Home Economics.
The rest of the area is residential. This is the most interesting part of all. Most of the housing here is not quite ramshackle, but close. In the evening it is alive with activity – little mobile kitchens line the first part, children play in the street, the adults sit on plastic chairs and watch or visit. Tuk tuks are parked all along the place where the road curves. Also parked in this area are the food carts which were in action in the morning. Here is where the tuk tuk drivers live, where the street vendors live. The vendors who rent space in the Thewet market may live somewhere just slightly more upscale.
I went walking out here well after dark tonight. The odd thing is how safe I feel. The very first time I went walking out from my guesthouse last year, I wandered into the neighborhood near dark. At the time I thought I ought to be uneasy, but somehow I wasn’t. Now, understanding more of the nature of the people here, I walk further, and later at night, among the people sitting out in front of their homes, the children playing, the dogs lying in the street.
Entering onto the grounds of the wat I find more people with their evening meals, and stray cats. I bring whatever food I haven’t finished during the day for the very thin kitties.
There is an all night guard on the grounds of the wat, and also at the front of the flash Dept of Home Economics. There is still so much I do not understand.
To the west is the river. One can cross over the khlong (canal) on a small bridge and in a few minutes be at the nearest dock for the river ferry. My project later today is to explore the neighborhood all the way to the river on our side of the khlong.
Tomorrow I leave for Myanmar. Tonight I make last visits to Khao San Road, to the pharmacy and the bookstore. Tonight I feed the kitties, soak in the peace of the Wat. I feel safe and happy in this complex and fascinating neighborhood so far from the more typical tourist centers.