The streets of Bangkok teem with humanity; vehicles, pedestrians, street food carts, wide-eyed and totally confused tourists, hucksters and barkers of every imaginable ilk, dogs, cats, rats on the prowl, aggressive ladyboys prowling for a different type of sustenance while proving not all vermin walk on four legs, commuters on foot, bus, and motorcycle taxi, street market buyers and sellers, and tuk tuk drivers – both those taking a nap and those using the sidewalk as a traffic lane – all vie for the limited space nestled in between soaring highrise buildings, palatial hotels, and ramshackle often seemingly deserted shacks. On the boulevards and heavily-foot trafficked sois it’s a cornucopia of hustling bustling humanity on steroids; turn down a small side street and soi dogs take over, their lethargic response to the cacophony of life around them proving no less of a maze. This is Bangkok, where life doesn’t just spill over into the streets, it takes an urban warfare approach that leaves your senses bloodied.
Guidebooks warn potential touri that Bangkok is not a city that favors pedestrians. They suggest the heat, traffic, humidity, and air-pollution are barriers best not scaled. They never bother to tell you that if you are foolish enough to take to your feet, a ten minute walk anywhere will take you a good half hour of sidestepping past beggars, hawkers, and umbrella wielding matrons who come to a sudden stop for no discernible reason. Sidewalks under construction that prove more of a risk to safety than whatever fault is supposedly being fixed, the unsuspected droppings of both man and beast, and what sometimes seems to be the entire population of the city all descending on the same four block area at once, all conspire to beat the unwary into submission. Taking a stroll in Bangkok is a lesson in patience, an education in futility. And then, at night, the streets really come alive. That’s when the nighttime version of street markets – which already seem to infect every square inch of the city’s sidewalks – begin their own relentless pursuit of baht.
As a tourist I love the street markets of Bangkok. As a dedicated flâneur, I hate the interruption they cause to what otherwise would be delightful late morning stroll through the city. Even without the markets sidewalks can often become just as congested and gridlocked as Bangkok’s streets. Once a few vendor stalls spring up, the already precious passageways quickly diminish leaving but a small pathway for those pedestrians who haven’t already taken to the comparably open expanse of the street. By the time all of the city’s street markets are in full swing, the only bodies left an unencumbered passage are the deformed who crawl their way, plastic beggar’s cup in hand, between the feet of those who’ve’ decided if you can’t beat them join them and have begun shopping the heavily laden tables filled with cheap and usually counterfeit goods.
There are street markets geared toward touri, easy to find, hard to make your way through thanks to the crush of sweaty bodies and aggressive vendors who have no qualms over physically grabbing potential customers. There are street markets geared toward locals, filled with used, shoddy, and often stolen merchandise whose vendors take a much more laid-back approach to capitalism, preferring a nap over a sale. And there are markets that barely qualify, a ragtag group of merchant stalls consisting of mats spread across the pavement, mini-streetmarts that pop up wherever enough people pass by to allow their vendors to eke out a just above the poverty line existence. Street markets are the bottom end of the merchant class, a tradition of consumerism you’ll find in every small town and big city in the kingdom. And like insects, viruses, and other parasites who live off the blood of their host, street market vendors too learn to mutate in answer to the vagarities of the marketplace.
That the once open pathways of the BTS, high above the packed streets and sidewalks below, have now become open-air markets of their own should surprise no one. Despite signs prohibiting such behavior, what started out as an occasional market spilling across the broad expanse of National Stadium Station has become a standard along the Skywalks of Victory Monument, Chong Nonsi, and Ratchadamri stations where temporary mats form a flea market filled with every conceivable consumer good a commuter might need. And that’s not even mentioning the corporate chain stands that have paid for an official blessing to squat along what should be a public right-of-way. Combined, they form efficient choke points that reduce foot traffic, already congested by commuters, to a crawl. Those who have turned to the Skytrain to escape Bangkok’s notorious parking lot-like traffic now find themselves facing the same gridlock on foot. But at least there is a Black Canyon Coffee or McDonalds outlet readily available to provide refreshment while you wait for enough open sidewalk to appear so that you can trade an elevated overcrowded walkway for the equally packed one waiting below.
It takes but an evening or two of trying to make your way down Silom to the entrance of Soi 4, or down Sukhumvit to the entrance to your hotel before you swear all sidewalk vendors should roast in hell. Along with those damn Hill Tribe ladies and heir blasted wooden croaking frogs. What initially is a colorful example of Bangkok’s unique brand of consumerism quickly pales when night after night you are forced to shuffle along at a snail’s pace, dodging low hanging plastic tarps and dangling electric cords while the insistent cries of, “Look, Mistah!” compete with whispered offerings of “DVD Mistah. Have XXX.”
You’d try to escape to the trash-filled gutters of the street but vendors’ metal storage lockers block the street just as ably as their stalls do the sidewalks. Your only avoidance option is to time your visits to the worse areas when vendors are prohibited from setting up shop for a scheduled street cleaning. If you could ever figure out what that schedule is.
There oughta be a law,. But this is Thailand and there already is one. It’s only enforced against those who fail to pay off the right person. But on the plus side, sidewalks overflowing with street stalls give you, and every other tourist in town, something to bitch about. Nothing gets a conversation moving like grumbling about the damn street market vendors who insist on making your holiday a living hell. Friends and strangers alike will commensurate with you about those damn green laser lights that burst into myriad patterns directly in your path that vendors light the sidewalk with, causing your already inebriated mind to lose the focus you were so stridently attempting to concentrate on. But wait. Actually those are kinda cool. And that fake Rolex would make a great gag gift for your boss. And who can pass up 99 baht -shirts . . .
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