A walk down a street of contrasts and contradictions

10 01 2012

Bangkok is a city that I never seem to tire of. The opportunity to wander through its ever so lively streets is something I always find hard to resist. The streets offer a wealth of opportunity for photography and for people watching, and where there I never fail to find something that does catch my eye. The streets, particularly of the new Bangkok, are also one where the contrasts and contradictions that is Bangkok becomes very apparent. It is on the streets where traditional street trades thrive next to the towering blocks of offices and glittering shopping malls, where McDonalds and Starbucks have become as much a part of the landscape as the pushcarts that once dominated the streets, and where a flow of Hijab clad women can be seen streaming past symbols of a trade Bangkok is all too well known for.

A walk or even being stuck in traffic allows a peek into the world of contrasts and contradictions that is Bangkok.

An interesting stretch with a wealth of contrasts and contradictions is a two and a half kilometre one in new Bangkok that I recently took a stroll through from the much venerated Erawan Shrine at the corner of Ratchadamri and Phloen Chit Roads, to first of a series of the many Sois that turn off Sukhumvit Road – lanes that are always waiting to be discovered. It is a walk that I had done almost three decades ago, one that sans the shade provided by the Bangkok Skytrain’s elevated track and the towering blocks that have since sprouted up seemed to be down a very different avenue. What is apparent today are the open arms with which the city and its people, still rich in tradition, have welcomed the new world with – with the unmistakable signs of Christmas dressing up much of the new world I could see in the lead up to what is a western festival.

Signs of the times. A close-up of a Christmas tree at one of the many new malls along the stretch with symbols perhaps of what Christmas has become all about in much of the Asia that has chosen to embrace it.

A group of high school students outside one of the newest shopping malls along Sukhumvit Road, Terminal 21, seen through Christmas and New Year decorations. As with much of the world - the new world finds ready acceptance with the young.

A young daughter of a street food vendor enjoys a meal from a food vendor of the new world, as her mother prepares to welcome her first customers of the day.

The draw of street fare is still there despite the arrival of the new fare found in more comfortable premises.

Grilled fish on display at a street food stall. Street food does still have its place, being a choice for many for its affordability even as McDonalds and air-conditioned foodcourts have set themselves firmly in place.

Despite the new clothes that now adorn the area, the worn out clothes that it wore when I first walked down the street is still very visible. For some reason, the clinical new world is one that seems to hold the grimy old world in a tight embrace, taking it with it on the journey into the new world that is to come. There is no doubt that Bangkok, more than any other South-East Asian capital, has ample room in its quest for modernity for the traditions it was built upon, both religious and cultural. Despite the signs of a Christian feast all around – the city is still one where its traditional religious observances and practices are very much intertwined with daily life. The Erawan Shrine at the start of the walk is one where this can be observed as steady streams of devotees to Phra Phrom kneeling to make offerings in the incense filled air at each of the Hindu deity’s four faces outnumber the flow of gawking tourists the shrine also attracts.

A steady stream of devotees make offerings through the day at the Erawan Shrine.

Resident dancers at rest at the Erawan Shrine. The dancers are engaged by devotees to Phra Phrom who have had their prayers answered.

A performance by the resident dancers of the Erawan Shrine.

Further down Phloen Chit Road, at the junction with Wireless or Witthayu Road, is a marker of a previous world that refuses to go away. One that takes us back to when much of the area was owned by Bangkok’s foremost real estate developer, Nai Lert. Resembling what many have referred to as a stone cannon stuck in the ground, a somewhat ungainly looking stump is the surviving one of six that Nai Lert had used to mark the boundaries of the land he owned (based on information at the British Embassy’s website) – part of which he sold to the British Government which had its embassy there until it was sold not too long ago to have a new shopping mall built. The marker now looks out-of-place in the shadows of the glass and steel that now threatens to engulf it.

The surviving "upturned cannon" that served as a marker to the boundaries of Nai Lert's property.

A set of flyovers appear towards the end of Phloen Chit Road – those of an Expressway doesn’t seem to have eased the crunch on the road that the flyovers now cast a huge shadow over. It is just beyond this that a railway level crossing marks where Phloen Chit Road ends and Sukhumvit Road begins. What greets the eye as one looks down the tracks is a scene typical of the railway lines in this part of the world – and one that reminds us of a Bangkok that the modernisation of the city hasn’t been able to shake off.

The new shopping malls sit side-by-side with the Bangkok that was more once more commonly seen. Food stalls squatting along the railway tracks where Ploen Chit Road meets Sukhumvit Road.

The many Sois off Sukhumvit Road that soon come up are a wonderful world to explore and where many more of Bangkok’s contradictions await discovery. Wandering through the lowest of the odd-numbered Sois, you would be forgiven for thinking that you’ve taken a wrong turn and ended up on the streets of the Middle East. Stepping back out into the main streets, one quickly realises that one’s feet are firmly planted in the City of Angels as one is quickly reminded of that side of Bangkok that the city is unfortunately infamous for.

The many Sois off Sukhumvit Road also offers many a tuk-tuk driver an opportunity to escape from Bangkok's traffic.

Besides Starbucks, the is a choice of the many watering holes for something a little stronger.

The short walk through the contrast the different worlds soon takes me to one of the latest developments on the stretch – Terminal 21 – one that promises to take the shopper on a retail journey to places far and wide. For me, it wasn’t the new mall which took me on a journey, but that two and a half kilometre walk that preceded my visit to the mall. It was a journey that perhaps started with a walk down from the docks of Klong Toey some three decades before and one that I still am taking through time, through space and through the many contrasts and contradictions of the fast changing world that I find in a city and in a part of that city that has never ceased to fascinate me.

Rambutans at a street vendor's stall off Sukhumvit Road. Beside the tourist oriented street vendors along Sukhumvit Road, there are many others that colour the streets which still cater to the local population.

Haggling with a street vegetable vendor.

The streets also offer many opportunities for people watching - a young lady in a contemplative mood seen through the maze of street food vendors.

A popcorn vendor pushing his cart down the sidewalk.

Pushing a different cart - a street vendor (smiling) helps an unfortunate motorist along Sukhumvit Road.

A dough fritter vendor at work.

Cobbler, cobbler, mend my shoe. A shopper seeks help from a sidewalk cobbler for a broken heel.

A shelter for that which provide shelter. Parasols of a street vendor rest resting against a telephone booth.

A column of motorcylists facing a very lengthy wait at a major intersection supporting themselves with the help of the kerb.

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