Saturday, December 5, 2015

Bangkok in an Altered State


I almost didn't buy a newspaper yesterday. This should-be-simple-activity involves a long bus or taxi ride to the skytrain, a frigid ride to Silom Complex, and a trip to the third floor of a place I used to enjoy but that is now just another pretentious shopping experience. However it's the closest place I know that carries the Bangkok Post, which is invisible in my neighborhood of Ratburana, so off I went, as I have almost every day since I arrived in this city.

My bus was slow and I took pictures from its open window, realizing that what I was looking at will be gone in ten years or less. Old rice warehouses, small orchards, miles of streetfood vendors, all to be replaced by Bangkok progress--McDonalds, Starbucks, S&P.


Two days earlier I was whipped into depression by the sight of empty sidewalks in the Nana neighborhood. I have had a love-hate relationship with that part of Sukhumvit ever since I first came to Bangkok. The sidewalks were always so clogged with vendors that shoppers and other pedestrians moved at a pace that a toddler would sneer at. But it was an area that was wildly alive, attracting people from all over the world with a spirited interaction between sellers and purchasers. Ugly it was, and the people who sold things there every day were certain to perish a painful, lingering death from the horrible, exhaust-laden air, but it was a perfect antidote to the sterility of the city's shopping malls. Now the sidewalk vendors were gone, replaced with clean little shops selling things like baby clothes.

"The vendors come at seven o'clock now," an Indian tailor told me, and a long-time resident later said "Yes, they have three hours of selling time. They can stay until midnight but nobody shops there much past ten."

So much of what made Bangkok a city that I loved was disappearing fast. Even the fruit carts that used to be everywhere were dwindling, replaced by people who sold little plastic bags of fruit chunks, held tightly shut by a rubber band to ferment in the heat. Earlier I'd stopped at a cart near the skytrain and watched the vendor cut pineapple into bite-sized pieces for me. The fruit was sweet and sharp, as it never is anywhere else but Thailand, and soon may be not even here.

When the skytrain left me at Silom, I walked past franchised coffee stands and places that sold baked goods. Then I heard it--the clear, unmistakable music from a saxophone.

For years I'd heard this music at this place, played by a man whose eyesight was badly impaired, if not completely gone. His saxophone had always been part of my landscape, until this time, when he seemed to have vanished. I hurried down the staircase to the sidewalk and there he was, playing in the same spot, with a white hand towel draped over his head to help ward off the heat.

I watched him as my mood lightened. He is part of my history in this place and he is still here. I tucked 100 baht into his shirt pocket and moved up to the steps of the shopping mall to watch and listen.

He stopped playing for a moment and picked up a handful of bills from a receptacle. They were all twenty baht notes and he separated my pink bill from those green ones. He looked off in my direction with his clouded eyes and began to play Doe, A Deer from the Sound of Music.


A young woman walked by and put another pink bill in his fingers. Clearly he was part of many people's history, and that made me very happy. I stood and listened to a song that I usually detest, went back down the steps and slipped another pink banknote into his pocket, knowing that what he had given me over the years was worth more than I could ever pay.


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