Readers' Submissions

Sunday Shopping Around


China Hotel Guide
• Regent Hotel Shanghai
• Ruitai Hong Qiao Hotel
• Summit Service Apartment Shanghai
• Tian Ping Hotel Shanghai

It’s a Sunday late morning and I’m standing in the sweltering heat of Chatuchak market trying to spot my brother in the crowd. The mobile phone vibrates again, a useful function when you’re in a noisy environment like this. “Where ARE you?” for the third time in as many minutes. I don’t like the heat, and it’s beginning to get to me. “Over by some guitar player, can you hear?” No. But I can see one from where I am. I walk over, look around, and don’t see him. Wrong guitar player. “Okay, what section are you at?” Gotcha. Five minutes later, and I finally spot him. He smiles. “Too many guitar players here these days, I guess.” I agree. Buskers and such are now tolerated in Chatuchak, and is a novel way for the students to make a spare baht or two. Mobile phone companies have booths all over, trying to woo customers with games and cheap SIM cards. Loudspeakers blare in competition. Two school kids are dressed in Thai classical costumes and are dancing to taped music. There aren’t a lot of coins in the hat, though.

“Let’s get lunch, shall we?” I agree, and we manage to find an air-conditioned space in one of the restaurants, sharing elbow space with a farang couple at the same table. They really get packed out. My brother is not going to miss this opportunity to practice his Thai; he knows the names of almost all the popular dishes and drinks and is now trying to get the attention of the waitress. He eventually manages quite well, judging from the fact that he drew a genuine smile from the obviously flustered young lady.

He’s on one of his several ‘extended weekend’ trips that he takes over the year to chill out. “Work sometimes can really drive you round the bend these days.” He’s hoping for a local posting with his company’s branch office, but also admits that it’s only a slim possibility at the moment. Still… hope runs eternal, doesn’t it?

Chatuchak has come a long way since I first was brought there by a Thai friend almost twenty-five years ago. I remember walking between tables set up under individual canvas shelters; it was just a large field with worn pathways between the stalls, but what variety! I still have a lovely brass ashtray bought way back then; it’s not used now as I’ve managed to kick the habit. These days Chatuchak is more of a presence for those people who have small handicraft factories to display their wares, but bargains can still be found. I have my ‘known’ vendors, and here I manage to get a price midway between wholesale and retail. Depends on what you want to buy and in what quantities.. The thing that still amazes me is that they remember faces well, and many times the particular product you bought. Even if you haven’t been there for months.

My brother is shopping for souvenirs and trinkets; the problem is that most of what you see here is severely restricted by the size of your luggage allowance. We eventually decide to head off to the Khlong Thom Center. A quick trip on the underground and a short taxi ride later, and you’re there. Security checks are more obvious at the trains now, a sign of the times I guess.

I really like Khlong Thom. So does my brother. It is a gadget freak’s heaven. We start off with a stall selling the latest LED flashlights. ‘Seven watts’, it is labelled. The vendor says, ‘Well.. probably closer to five’. It’ll still put your eye out if you look at it though. We got one each. Another vendor showed us one with a built-in blacklight LED, ‘To check to see if your money is real or not’. We declined. As we did the one with a built-in laser pointer in the head. Although you could find it useful in picking out the teeruk of your choice from the stage and using the other half for closer scrutiny.. But I digress. Those battery-operated R/C models were also interesting to look at.

We finally make it back to his hotel. He has a quick shower while I just freshen up a bit. “Got time for a beer before you go?” “Sure, but not a late night tonight.” Monday is a regular workday for me, and he knows it.

It’s a short stroll to Soi Cowboy, and we take our time. It’s still bright outside, the doors of most bars are wide open, and the girls just lounging around. I didn’t see anyplace there I really fancied to have a drink in, even at happy hour prices. ”Nana?” I nod in agreement. It’s just one train stop away.

Our first stop is at one of the open-air bars with a good view of the entrance. Now, obviously by this time it is impossible to get a seat at the rail, but we manage to get seats at the counter with almost as good a view. My brother, always one to impress the ladies, wants to practice, and so orders the beers in Thai. We are, however, speaking English for the most part, and I have not uttered one word of Thai yet. The girls, being the veterans they are, have for the most part put him down as someone with a few visits under his belt (due to his accented Thai), and since I’m with him, I’m probably in the same category.

There’s a large black guy sitting at the corner, having a fairly one-sided chat with one of the girls, ‘Yo!’ and ‘Hey, man!’ taking up a large percentage of his vocabulary. I, for one, can’t understand why the baseball cap is almost always worn with the shade pointing backwards.

The girl behind the counter asks my brother, ‘You buy me drink?’ ‘Sure, what are you drinking?’ ‘Spy.’ Okay. She gets one, clinks bottles and sets it down in front of us before moseying off somewhere else. ‘What’s that stuff, anyway?’ my brother wants to know, indicating her drink. ‘Wine cooler, about one percent alcohol, local brand.’ ‘Ah.’

Well, our first beer has gone down quick enough, and she still hasn’t shown up. I tell my brother, we’ll just have one beer here, and go get something to eat inside. He agrees. He’s also mentioned that the young lady has apparently abandoned her drink. Ah, well, maybe I’ll just tease her a bit. I prepare the exact change (we’ve only been there fifteen minutes) and indicate the ‘check bin’. The young lady in question comes back and asks if we won’t stay for another. No, just one. Then I indicate her drink and say, ‘Yoong khai’ (Your drink has been here so long mosquitos have started to breed in it). She immediately recognises the accent as someone fluent in the language, and gives me the look like a deer caught in the headlights, before recovering herself. The conversation now continues in Thai, and she goes on ‘Oh, no! You understand all the ‘nintah’ (gossip) that we’re speaking?’ 'Yes.’ ‘Oh, how embarrassing. A lot of foreigners speak Thai now, we cannot gossip as much.’ I smile a wicked smile. She’s showing more than a flicker of interest now. ‘You work here?’ ‘Yes, long time already. Married too.’ 'Thai lady?' 'Yes.' She smiles. ‘You sure you won’t stay for another beer?’ ‘No, check bin please.’ I put the exact change together with the receipts. She runs off to get a calculator, but I say she didn’t need it, it’s easy enough to add up. She retorts, ‘This afternoon I lost ten baht, one customer, he check bin and told me to keep the change, but it is ten baht short. I have to pay by myself’, indicating the direction he had gone. I replied, ‘Nang sa-tick’ (catapult) with the requisite gestures in the similar direction of the indicated departed customer. This brought out guffaws from a few girls, and once more, ‘You’re really sure you won’t stay?’ No. Will you visit sometime? I’d like to see you again. Sure you will.

Next stop was a first floor bar with a bird’s-eye view of the spirit house and some excellent food to be had. It’s a really good vantage point to play the ‘spot-the-katoey’ game as they come and make their offerings at the spirit house before going off to their requisite bars…

Now as it’s going to be an early night I decide to make one last stop. It’s one of the last surviving original bars, and I’m sort of semi–regular there. We’re spotted from halfway around, and the welcoming committee is out in force.. Mama, as she’s called, the one remaining ‘ugly sister’ and some of the long-stay girls. They’re all good fun, and have already commented on how much more my brother knows now.. He’s brought up to date with Nit, one of the girls he had a soft spot for. (She married a US guy and has been there for a while.) Mama brings a new girl to sit next to me, but I indicate her to sit next to my brother. ‘I prefer you older ladies’ with a smile, and am crushed with an appreciative bearhug. (Mama is big.) “She’s only been here a month”, says Mama. Can you bring her out? Well, after listening to her and my brother chat, I believed it, she had yet to be barfined. My brother obliged Mama and settled the deal. What surprised me was that Mama and the rest were actually quite concerned and protective of her, and told her to stay overnight as she was still new to the capital. We’re trusted regular customers, don’t worry.

When I called him after I got home, he was playing regular tourist guide and had brought her to the Coliseum disco, a place she’d only heard of and wanted to see. At least that was his excuse.


Tomorrow’s Monday for me. Grmph.

Stickman's thoughts:

Don't the weekends go by just too fast?

You're not wrong about the girls not being pleased about Westerners who can speak good Thai. Actually it seems to have mushroomed out further. In the past it was only the working girls who were not keen on farangs who spoke good Thai but these days many more are not impressed by it. So much for getting respect for actually taking the interest and trouble to learn it!