Huai Kwang is not a lovely section of Bangkok except for the few trees that are found near its streets. Sprawled behind the condos and entertainment centers of Rachada, it is populated with residents from the many low-income housing apartments that have sprouted in clumps several stories high with outdoor hallways that serve as verandahs running down the full length of their fronts. Each apartment opens onto this hallway, which takes the place of the ubiquitous Thai balcony, that private pocket-sized space where residents hang out their laundry and put a plant or two. There’s little privacy in these grey rectangular hutches; most of the light and ventilation that comes into their apartments enters through the doors that face what is essentially a public thoroughfare. People have their meals on the floor near the open doorway as their neighbors pass by, and some stop to lean on the railing of the pseudo-verandah for a cozy little chat. This is housing that is as public as it can possibly get, without a trace of hominess to soften its basic function. It provides shelter in the blandest, most utilitarian fashion in a way that seems designed to obliterate the imagination of anyone who lives there.
But Thai people are more resourceful than that and the streets of Huai Kwang testify to that truth. On the sidewalks surrounding these grim buildings is a life and energy that is the soul of this neighborhood. For blocks on end, people sell fish, poultry, fruit, vegetables, cooked food, cheap clothing, and flowers from ramshackle stalls that blossom into activity every day except on the one that is the city-mandated hiatus, and draw shoppers to them well into the night. The fish are so fresh that they still twitch on the counter, the chicken has no hint of gaminess in its odor, and the produce is the kind that upscale stateside supermarkets can only dream of. Flowers turn street corners into gardens and everywhere people are pushing, shopping, gossiping. The Huai Kwang market is the front yard of a neighborhood that has no other.
If I look beyond the stalls at the cracked sidewalks, the mottled concrete buildings, the canal that’s filled with household garbage, this part of Bangkok is depressing beyond all measure. But I never have. I’ve spent hours wandering through this place, mentally constructing meals from the food that is on display, buying cheap polyester sheets in improbable colors and kitchen crockery to furnish yet another apartment, bringing home more rambutan than I could eat in a week that I end up sharing with friends and little bags of kaffir limes that I treasure for their fragrance alone, finding teeshirts with bizarre English phrases to take back to the states as gifts. I buy orange juice that was squeezed minutes before at a stall that is mounded with fragrant peels and if I’m lucky, I’ll find crisp, molten kanom krok that are a cross between a pancake and a sandwich, filled with coconut cream. Once I found a Buddha amulet that called to me from a stall that sold many of those images. When I was crass enough to bargain for it, the vendor gave it to me and I burst into tears.
This is one of my favorite places in the world and for decades it has been a place I go to for nourishment that has not so much to do with food. Two days ago it showed up in my twitter feed. It will soon be dismantled by the junta and the city government, who seem to believe that clearing Bangkok’s sidewalks is a sacred mission.
The buildings of the official public market will remain in place, where in dark hallways people dismantle animal carcasses and stand in the heat, selling wholesale to purchasers who back their vehicles up to loading docks and carry food away to other parts of the city. They will find it easy to drive their purchases away from Huai Kwang because the streets will be empty.
The crazy entrepreneurial spirit of Bangkok’s streets is being systematically erased and with it goes the life of the city. The slums of Huai Kwang are of course prime real estate, close to the subway and not too far from the central business district. The nearby arterial of Ratchadapisek Road is being filled with buildings that offer all modern conveniences to office workers looking for chic little city residences with swimming pools, fitness centers, little kitchens with microwaves and separate bedrooms in condominium units. They want the same shopping palazzos that downtown Bangkok has: clean, comfortable, filled with franchised goods and food, stretching through buildings that are the size of football fields. And they will get exactly what they want because providing these creature comforts are the way that business tycoons increase their sizable fortunes.
My heart breaks a little bit more for a city that I only thought was mine, in a country that I knew never could be but that I’ve loved for twenty years. Bangkok memories come to me now in the company of a dull, persistent ache and when I think of what I used to know there, I breathe in the shallow gasps that presage panic attacks. Even if the junta leaves, their legacy will never go away, their dismantling of one of the most vibrant cities on earth.