The Battle of Khausan
I came to Thailand on the eve of civil war, amid an exclamation of headlines and bloody photography.
The Red Shirt rebels had massed their ranks in the Rajprasong intersection, the center of the Bangkok commercial district, to protest what had happened in their country. They came down from the northern hills, from the city slums. Tens of thousands gathered around the crimson banners—urban and rural poor, living and sleeping on concrete steps under the brassy megaliths of corporate greed, the concrete citadels of modern consumerism, in a country where economic progress has left many behind. But this happens every year in Thailand. Last time it was the Yellow Shirts (the People’s Alliance for Democracy), who blockaded the airport and demanded political succor. One of the chief commandants of that campaign is currently the Thai’s foreign minister, one of the many officials that the rebels want removed.
At issue today is a resurfaced discord, this recent activity only an eruption of pent up tectonics like Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano, a clearly foreseeable violence and destruction, little squiggles on a seismograph somewhere, and perhaps not preventable, in the way that most human history is inescapable.
In 1997 Thaksin Shinawatra, businessman of Chang Mai and then prime minister of Thailand, passed a new constitution, “the people’s constitution,” the first not drafted under military supervision—that opened up access to political involvement, information, education, and especially commercial opportunities for the masses, allowing them to grab at some of the staggering profits just then pouring in through exports of agricultural and industrial goods, and especially from Western tourism, which today makes up forty per cent of Thailand’s commerce.
The country took off like a roller-coaster under Thaksin’s businessman guidance. The prime minister famously said, “A company is a country, a country is a company.” Thaksin especially profited: he amassed a huge fortune by various corrupt means and, rather than face a court decision over it, absconded into self-imposed political exile to Montenegro, where he is now a citizen.
A supreme court removed Thaksin’s allies from power—the Red Shirts call it a coupe, looking back to the old days of military involvement, but who can say?—and installed the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva—aliases: the tyrant, the dictator, the murderer. The Red Shirts (their full group title is the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, or UDD, and they are aligned with Thaksin’s old Puea Thai Party) demand the dissolution of parliament, a fresh election, and a return to the 1997 constitution. Abhisit and his allies demand the Red Shirts dispersal. Two sides, each a magnet for fearful ideologues. And in the way of fearful ideologues, neither side appears willing to talk or compromise, and the situation threatens to burst like magma into mob rule or violence.
Same same but different, as the Asians say. All this happens with horrific regularity in Southeast Asia, even in Thailand’s model democracy, so that it is rarely reported. Yet in April the skirmishes near Phan Fa Bridge dragged open the lidded eye of the world onto the Thai struggle. The ministers dubbed it Operation “Ask For A Return of Public Spaces.” The colonels then asked their soldiers, stationed around the bridge encampment like a besieging army, to march on the rebels with riot shields, without having a clear idea of the Red Shirt numbers and organization or responding to any of their demands.
The Red Shirts fought back as cornered animals, with hands and rocks and signposts and the improvised urban weapons of mobs. From among their rabble stepped men in black, entirely covered but for a slit of the eyes, a cool glance of professionalism; men without faces or names or provenance, experienced and armed with assault rifles and worse, who slipped out from the red waves and shot down police and soldiers, then blackly stole away into the crowd. They say that the men in black were mercenaries hired by the exiled Thaksin to bolster his northern rebels, but no one knows for sure. Abhisit calls them terrorists, calls all the Red Shirts terrorists, just as the Red Shirts call the Democrats dictators.
The violence escalated. An actor named Methi Amornwutthhikul and a company of Red Shirts tried to retake the neighborhood around the Satriwitthaya School, and he was one of the rebels who managed to tear weapons away from the security forces. The rifles were later found in the trunk of his car. The soldiers started to use real bullets, first to fire warning shots in the air, and then lowering their guns in self-defense, against the men in black, and neither side backed down. The fighting went on into the deep dangerous black of night.
In the morning there was the most unexpected result: a complete stalemate. Twenty-five were dead, twenty civilians and five soldiers, and over 800 wounded. Streets full of wreckage and carnage and casings. On Khausan, the principle road of Bangkok’s thriving tourism, travelers stepped out of their hostels to survey the broken cars, the blood splatters, and the bullet holes. The hospitals ran out of transfusions, but most of the Red Shirts had already donated during a campaign two weeks before to carmine the cars of certain politicians with their own blood.
The international press caught wind of the carnage and swooped down like vultures, but in Thailand, and I here quote Suranand Vejjajiva, relative of Abhisit and ex-minister of Thaksin: “no one in the government ever apologized. Instead, state-controlled media bombarded the audience with one-sided stories of what happened. Some Web sites posting video clips of the shootings and beatings, other than the official versions, were blocked.”
The television stations showed footage from years ago of the army crackdown on protests against Thaksin’s government, full of violent beatings and horror, and said, “Remember what it was like under Thaksin?” The Red Shirt television station was shut down. Rumors spread that Thaksin had hired the black mercenaries with his extorted wealth, and that he paid most of the Red Shirts 500 bhat a day to come into Bangkok from his strongholds in the north. The Red Shirts denied everything and said that they were the victims—a fair statement, though perhaps not in the way they mean it.
Who can tell what is happening here? Yet the confusion of the violence appeared to exhort both sides to more, to exasperate their hatred and their sense of being wronged, and to strengthen their moral convictions that only their way was right for Thailand’s future. The southerners and the workers of Bangkok grew to hate the Red Shirts, for their violence and backwardness and their “men in black,” and for the excesses of Thaksin, revived by the media. The pro-Democrat Yellow Shirts, who had suspended their involvement, promised to resume it by Sunday the 25th. The government promised a crackdown.
And the Red Shirts cried injustice. Abhisit’s tyrannical government was against the people and the monarchy, the good King Rama IX—disband the parliament! restore the 1997 constitution! revenge the fallen! Their dead were martyrs, the “men in black” irrelevant. They hunkered down, those vast and wretched ranks, a grassroots army muscled into the political trenches by the rich and the powerful—they abandoned the Phan Fa Bridge willingly and concentrated all their forces in the Rajprasong intersection and made speeches and flew crimson signs and banners that said, “Truth today,” though truth has never felt further away.
Some pleaded for discourse, but most demanded blood and more blood. They would not reconcile or compromise, not when they knew that everything was at stake, not when they feared for their very survival.
In his appeal, quoted at the chapter’s beginning, Suranand Vejjajiva also wrote (and take heed of this, America), “If this were a black-and-white world, right and wrong would be easy to determine. But we live in a world with shades of gray. Behind the scenes, the power play and the issues at stake re intertwining threads of public interest and private ambitions—no-one has a monopoly on morality, be they the red, yellow, military, elite, businessman or politician,” and dare I add, Democrat or Republican? “Sometimes we just have to muddle through the gray world and make deals to move the country ahead rather than to embark on killing each other until there is nothing left to deal with.”
And I had not heard anything. The battle of the bridge happened on April 10, three days before my flight to Bangkok, to the terror and confusion of my mother. "Do you really have to go to Bangkok? Sounds just great there," and soon after she wrote, "The NYTimes is reporting that Bangkok airports are closed. Could you let me know that you are safe and what you plan to do? Yes, I do worry. Mom." I hastily looked this up, and finding only confusing reports, and with my visa expiring the day my plane left, I accepted that I would just have to go to the airport. Whatever happens, happens.
I was out of the loop. I had not even heard of Songkran, the water festival held on the Thai New Years, until an American named Tucker, from Santa Rosa, told me about it at the Calcutta airport; and I did not realize how big a deal this festival was until we took a cab downtown and saw trucks driving around, Thais crowded in the truckbeds like Somalis at the Battle of Mogadishu, but armed with super soakers instead of Kalishnakovs, with a great 40-gallon drum of cold water weighing down the middle. In the north, especially Chang Mai, Songkran takes on a more spiritual significance, but in Bangkok it’s really just a three-day water fight, a way to cool off at the end of the hot dry season.
Our cab driver Reggie, who could not understand Tucker’s name and called him Tiger instead, so we called him Reggie—Reggie would not go into the worst of the fighting around Khausan, where we hoped to find a place to stay, so he dropped us off at the entrance. The drive in was interesting, seeing all the huge glass skyscrapers and clean highways that did not match with my mental picture of southeast Asia, but here we saw thousands massed in the streets, all shooting each other in total anarchy. Some huddled around makeshift bases on the curb with buckets or coolers full of water, which they threw by the bucket at passers-by. Skirmishers rushed up to these to replenish their empty canisters with ammunition, and the Thais cried, “Five bhat!” Some of them were making a fortune, selling guns and beer and water, with signs that advertised such a strange combination of merchandise, and their profits presumably made up for getting constantly sniped at.
Indeed no one was sacred. Camera, book bag, baby stroller, leather purse, fine dress, or that you were currently driving a motorcycle did not exclude you from becoming some laughing gunner’s target—nor did backpacks containing everything you owned in the world! And this had me saying, “We should really find some place to put our stuff. Really.” Tucker and I dodged past the hooligan mobs, who seemed unaware of terms like noncombatant or friendly fire. We walked with a purpose, not too slow and not too fast, not trying too hard to avoid getting noticed or splashed, because that would only invite greater volumes of aimed water.
Getting to the Lonely Planet hotel involved walking down one of the worst streets, Soi Rambuttri with all its backpacker hostels, where every storefront had a big barrel of water with a hose stuck in it and a group of laughing Thais gathered around with buckets, and people sitting at the streetside cafes kept their guns on them and shot at those going by. Eventually we made it to a place called My House, checked into our room, took things out of our bags to dry, then went out and got guns and water and beer.
Pumping our squirt guns—therein lies a test: if you did not giggle, or even crack a smile, I’d say you are admirably innocent—pumping our squirt guns, Tucker and I wandered down through the press of the crowd on Khausan, everyone having a really good time of it, laughing and shooting each other in the face. There were girls dancing on top of the ice boxes where the big restaurants kept beer, music blasting, and everyone shot water guns at them. Those without guns had little buckets of talcum powder and water and they would rub this on your face or chest and say, “Swadi-pimai!”—Happy New Year!
There is a Thai word and custom, nam-jai, which means “kindness,” and is amazing to see in effect. The Thais see thousands of tourists a year, all these drunken Brits haggling for their women, and are still overjoyed to have a foreigner talk to them, curious and complimentary and fascinated, though always easy-going, always with a winsome sense of humor. Tucker and I fought alongside Thais using ice chests as cover, coordinating our fire on some tall guy with a gun or some pretty girl. We shot at girls and then went and talked to them, and found the Thai girls were all charmingly cheeky, even saucy, in their conduct.
Women are the aggressive sex among the Thais. A man in a crowd or club can expect to be grabbed or captured, or to bear the brunt of lewd or obscene comments and looks. This sociability does not apply only to the prostitutes and lady-boys, though it certainly facilitates their careers. Thai men are naturally reserved and require or are accustomed to such goading, taking on the seducee role of Western women. For one as myself unused to such earnest female attention, and doubly so after fearing it in India and Islamdom, Bangkok was a pleasant if sometimes disorienting surprise, and I heartily took advantage of it.
Now as for the famous Thai hookers, there were many in that city of sin, latitudes apart from shame and guilt—young and vacant-faced sylphs on the arm of some sex-slick bastard, experienced prostitutes at the corner of tubetop and miniskirt, and lady-boys that laughed and joked and groped. It is big business. The old men head straight to well-known establishments of ill-repute, or they come here on organized sex tours. The young blokes of vague intentions wander into nightclubs where every cheap drink puts them closer to taking up one of the working girls on her offer. A row of five Thai girls danced on ice boxes on the curb in front of a bar, and a sitting farang there, a Caucasian snake, pointed out one of the gyrating nymphets with a pretty face and called over the owner, presumably to negotiate a price. Prostitution is not a clandestine business here, even though it’s illegal.
One custom the Reader may not be familiar with is the paid girlfriends, essentially a concubine for a week. I had it explained to me, by someone in no way averse to the custom: “You pay them maybe $100 a day, and you get a girl to guide you around. She is like your girlfriend. She shows you around, translates for you, and you take her shopping, and then at night you have sex. What’s the problem? It’s not so bad, I can say.”
The interested party—I would not go so far as to call him a gentleman caller—makes arrangements with his little lover’s agency beforehand, including how many girlfriends they will have and setting a quota for how many times they will be “serviced”—but how just detailed are these girlfriend arrangements? Are there clauses contained for hand-holding? You see many of these old bachelors holding hands with their little Thai sweethearts as they walk down the road, glaring at everyone who wets their stupid shirt.
Does he establish beforehand how much he will spend on a cell phone? How many times he has to take her out to dinner? For how long he will wait for her to pick out a dress? I wonder, just how pimp officiated, how governed by contract, is this relationship?
One night as we rambled back with our heavy ordnance, water tanks empty, shirts soaked, we passed going the other way an Old Cantankerous with two vernal caryatids supporting either flabby arm, and then twenty paces later, a block-headed Brit, young and stupid-looking, also walking along with a little Thai girl in hand.
I said, “I know the old men with the Thai girls are paying them, that’s why they came here—but what about all these young dudes?”
“Yep,” said Tucker, “I think they’re all paying them.”
“I don’t get it. These Brits just out of high school, coming here to pick up hookers.”
“Probably all came here virgins.”
“I don’t get it. There’s got to be a few real couples here, a few dorky foreigners working here who have just picked up Thai girls.”
“Probably a few.”
“Maybe one in twenty,” I guessed, “but ninety-five per cent are with hookers. What the fuck? I just don’t get it. There’s got to be easy tail on the beaches for these idiots. I talked to like three girls tonight who were totally trashed. I told this one girl who wanted to buy my water gun, I said that she should just spit on people. We talked about it for a while.”
“I don’t know. Would you pick up a hooker here?”
Tucker looked away to think about this and answered, “Maybe when I was younger, if I was really drunk and my friends were like, Let's get hookers! But I wouldn’t come to Thailand for it.”
“Yeah, exactly. Everyone comes here for the same reason.”
Yet I for one had not come for the bacchanalia. I was still seeking a romance of adventure and far-away fantasy, rather than one of hookers and drunk Brits. As I wrote in a message, “I feel half isolated from all the weekend campers in this part of the woods. It’s all little kiddies having their first sip of beer and taste of sex, couples out of Old Europe who have booked all their accommodation, and salty British perverts.” It was difficult to find anything of Thai culture not already debauched and mapped out in a vacationer’s brochure.
But Thailand is a place where many worlds coexist—lust, debauchery, tourism, alongside earnest spiritualism and politics. Approaching Bangkok or looking down Khausan's line of clothes stalls and crowds of farang or passing the third 7-11 on the block, it seems at surface level like any city in California, yet as soon as you talked honestly to any of the Thais, even the ones gracelessly screwing around with tourists, you learned that underneath the jeans and Hawaiian shirts they are still Thais, affectionate and superstitious, devoutly Buddhist and adamantly political.
The second day was a second offensive, and we proceeded more tactically. Tucker and I moved up the lanes in a SWAT team crouch. We took cover behind beer coolers, street stalls, or plants, and worked with random arrangements of people who happened to be shooting at the same other random arrangement of people as us. We rushed down the covered alleys between Khausan and Soi Rambuttri and charged out into the light. Once a whole team of us assaulted this high platform on Khausan where a girl stood firing a pressure washer at a low setting so the mist came out like the blaze of a flamethrower. We advanced under covering fire, knelt in the street, and created an enfilade, all shooting at the face of the poor confused Thai girl at the top of the platform.
All along the street there were venues set up, playing music and selling beer. Thais and Anglos danced wildly in front of them, and sometimes a few danced up on a stage. At night, flesh-seekers crept in and pointed out one or the other of the girls, then negotiated her price with a nearby pimp, but during the day things were fine and sunny and wet and only vaguely sexual. Between the stalls there were vendors selling noodles or spring rolls or barbecued pork on sticks, water guns or plastic bags to hold valuables, and often cold water for ammunition. They charged 5 bhat for this, but we always managed to get it for free.
Some skirmishers wore costumes: business suit and tie, Mexican wrestling masks, frog suits, SCUBA masks, etc. The girls all wore clothes that clung to them as soon as wet. Some of them screamed very satisfyingly when you shot them, especially with cold water, which I preferred for the reactions it brought. Cold water also kept them from retaliation: a target hit with lukewarm tapwater will just turn and fire straight back at the shooter, unless the shooter hits them in the eyes first thing and keeps them blinded, then runs off to better cover while the target reorients. I became very good at hitting people in the eyes straight off.
Ah, the liberty of it! All those crusty Brits there to rape children, with one girl under each arm; those buzz-cut GIs with a gun slung over each shoulder; those stuck-up princesses with raised noses and a fearfully quick gait, lest they get their fine dresses wet; those swaggering broad-chested ignoramuses on a gap year and a drinking binge; those effeminate, squealing Thai boys—what a joy it is to shoot these stereotypes in the face with a water cannon!
Sometimes we stopped and stayed somewhere for a while—at the end of an alleyway where a man was sitting with a hose, at a beer stall where the long-haired Thai in the Hawaiian shirt gave us free ice water so long as we helped him shoot girls with it—and ambushed anyone who passed. Great skirmishes were fought, all the combatants smiling and laughing with each other. Is it Mars or Bacchus who is king of this war?
There were dozens of Red Shirts gathered around the Democracy Monument, a few blocks from Khausan. The government had expected most demonstrators go to home to be with their families for Songkran, but the stalemated violence a few days before had given them all fresh resolve. The movement stayed strong. They set up a poster-board at the end of Khausan with gory pictures of some of the protesters who had died on April 10, as martyrs, and they had some of the coffins there, inside big cases with Buddhist carvings, Thai flags laid over the top. Clever propaganda showed an arm-wrestling match between a general and a man of the people, the general’s hand weighed down by tanks and divisions, the man’s hand barely supported by the combined efforts of a dozen Red Shirts.
A few days later I surveyed the Rajprasong intersection and found the rebel camp organized and relatively apathetic, discouraged by the heat and the long period of inactivity. Red Shirt commanders took the stage to sing patriotic songs and deliver manifestos about the injustice of the Phan Fa Bridge battle, to keep their spirits up, but only a few gathered around the stage. Most of the rebels sat around on mats in front of the commercial high-rises or in the shadows of the overpass. They snacked or read the paper or gave each other massages. The camp had areas set aside for showers and offered free lunches—a good way, perhaps the best, to move the masses. Guardsmen in red swaggered around, making sure things stayed ordered, and there were only a few tourists. Leaving the area I came to the police blockade, the armored cars, the lines of soldiers, smoking cigarettes with helmets at their feet and riot shields close at hand.
Around midnight on the second day of Songkran, a detachment of fifty Red Shirts, some walking and some riding in three pickup trucks, red flags and Thai flags hung limply over their heads, came from the Democracy Monument down the street toward Khausan, where the Thais were dancing and laughing and spraying water. One went ahead, red bandanna about his mouth like a mask, shadowed by the brim of his hat, and his shirt said, "We Want the Truth." Some of the Thai revelers, the wet shirts, turned on this Red Shirt with a drunken anger and began throwing curses and then bottles at him, hating him for disturbing their celebration, for disturbing the peace of their city and politic. Few southern Thais empathize with the mostly northern Red Shirts, and many openly despise the rebels for causing chaos and carnage and commercial strife.
The Red Shirt so attacked retreated into the midst of his gang, suddenly energized, as they had been waiting for a fight with police or whoever they could find, and a gang formed of wet shirts as well. The Red Shirt commanders started grabbing every rebel they could find and shoving them forward, like the Soviet commissars at Stalingrad, saying, "Go, go, go! Forward!"
The crimson wave charged like blood right down Khausan and stopped in a stumbling mess twenty paces from the soppy revelers. The rebels threw some bottles at the crowd, the crowd threw bottles back, and then the Red Shirt mob retreated, as if thinking, "What are we doing? These aren't our enemies." The captains crushed them back. "Run, run, move, move," they cried, grabbing anyone that appeared to be stationary and shoving them back into the breach. This happened a few times, the Red Shirts moved forward and backward with the collective will of an army or a wave and threw bottles whenever it got close enough to the revelers, without doing any damage. Eventually the mob of revelers grew, and they advanced fearlessly so the Red Shirts had to run, leaving their vehicles behind.
In the morning we saw these cars, or what was left of them. The windows all broken, the tires smashed, dents everywhere, red flags waving like torn banners over some fallen war host. Wrecks, just waiting for a tow truck to take them away.
While all this was happening, I was a long way away, sitting on the fifth floor balcony of our hotel with an English couple, listening to the wet chaos of the streets compete with a set of iPod speakers. My hamstrings hurt from running around the city in a tactical crouch, and I didn’t want to go anywhere.
Lee and Kelley, the two Brits, were childhood friends from the small isle of Jersey in the English Channel, a peaceful idyl eternally warmed by the Gulf Stream, yet Lee’s father’s family originated in Bengal, or rather in today’s Bangladesh. They were in the line of succession for the Bengali throne, at some distant branch, had the partisans not interfered. One of Lee’s cousin nevertheless fashioned himself Shah or Prince. Lee could do the same, but he chose not to.
Growing up in Jersey, Lee never believed the stories his father told him of his great-grandfather, who was the fakir or shaman of their village in Bengal. As fakir, he would pace around the town at night, pounding his staff into the ground to scare away the wild animals. He also performed miracles. One year when the rains did not come, the fakir had all the village children go out and play in a stream. The very next day it poured. Lee did not believe it, until one night something happened that shook young Lee’s confidence in the rational world.
When he was thirteen he woke in the night to a sound in the kitchen of footsteps and tapping: two steps, one tap, two steps, one tap. Anticipating an intruder, he got a pool cue from his closet and went out, searching the benighted house. “I know you’re there,” he called into the deep, dangerous black, “and you had better come out.” But there was nothing, and he went back to sleep. He woke again to a strange sensation. It was as if someone was holding his ears shut with gnarled fingers and driving thumbs into his eyes. This grinding screech pierced his eardrums. Lee tried to move, to scream, but could do nothing except lie there totally paralyzed. And then all the force and noise was gone, and the boy bolted out of his sheets, grasping at his pounding heart in confusion and terror.
He ran upstairs to his sister’s room and pushed open the door. Now on the floor was a fiber optic light, and when Lee crashed through the portal, the light exploded from its dim glow to a blinding white, and then burned out to nothing. The boy curled up in his sister’s bed and stilled his beating heart and went back to sleep.
“The next day I told my dad what happened,” Lee explained, “and he said, ‘What did you do wrong?’ I told him, ‘Nothing, I didn’t do anything wrong,’ but he just asked me again, ‘What did you do wrong?’ I only realized it a few years later. My great-grandfather was protecting our house, and I ran out with a pool cue and threatened him. It changed me,” he continued. “I used to be a little shit, a bastard, a real cunt to everyone, for no reason. I was always bad. After that, though, I started being a little better. I kept having dreams like I was suffocating, but as I got better, they came less and less, and then not at all. Now I am very different than I was before. I was a little shit! Now I know I am where I should be, where my great-grandfather wants me to be.”
I listened with empathy and fascination and believed every word. It’s not in my nature to doubt what someone else says, no matter how far-fetched, because there’s something to be learned from everything. Lee said, “Thank you for believing me. Most people hear this story and they say, ‘Bullocks, that can’t be real,’ and I say, ‘Sit my dad down, he’ll tell you the same thing.’ It was real. I feel changed because of it.”
That was when the Belgian girl Zaza returned, and friend Tucker soon after, with the same look of animal terror on their faces. They had been in the streets when the skirmish began, with Red Shirt band leaders howling battle cries as they shoved everyone forward into the bottle storm, but this was all happening a long way away from our happy gathering. We listened with a passing interest, without being able to make sense of it, and unworried.
Lee got out his guitar and started jamming, then playing along to Tenacious D. He and Kelley had nearly finished their rum bucket, and Kelley stood up and started dancing around the hall, inviting Zaza to join her. A big-chested, long-haired traveler from Baltimore and of the tribes of Israel, named Hellal, came and sat with us. Just that day, some thief had picked from his pocket both wallet and passport, and he was looking to cure his grief with our merrymaking—an osmosis of moods.
At first I said I would not go to The Club, despite Kelley’s extensive descriptions of its chairs and decorations and high urban ceiling, but eventually I complied. Tucker was smitten with young Zaza, and when she said she was too tired to go, he volunteered to stay as well. The rest of us ducked through the streets to a 7-11. Lee and Kelly got more rum for their bucket, and I bought a Singha for Hellel and myself.
“This isn’t how I expected my trip to go,” he said, “getting other people to buy me things. I saved for months for this.” I told him a story of when I was down and out in Odessa and how someone helped me because it was the only thing to do—thank you Honore.
We went to the Club with a bare minimum of splash damage, chugged our beers, and entered. I danced with Thai girls in the dim light who all asked for drinks at the end. They tipped their cupped hands back and waved to the bar to show me what they wanted, and I demonstrated some excuse and went off to dance with someone else until this was no longer feasible. Tired, I said goodbye to the others and went home. Street food stalls still sizzled, and trash piled in the gutter, and the wet street of Khausan reflected the sleepless neon, red and blue and purple.
Such a picturesque setting reminded me of an old movie, a cult classic called Blade Runner. It has always been a dream of mine to replicate, as much as possible, the first scene, where Harrison Ford/Deckard Cain eats a bowl of noodles from a stall on the side of a Chicago alleyway drenched with rain and neon. There are people around, but he’s alone in a city of millions. The deluge hangs down in curtains behind him, and he runs through it with the futile gesture of a newspaper over his head.
I don’t know why I hold such an affection for this scene—its film noir romance, or perhaps the bleak urban wasteland, the cosmopolitan confinement of a Chinatown alley, the power of nature—but there’s nothing I wanted more than to eat noodle soup from the alleyway counter of a dim little kitchen, lit within by a charming crepuscular glow, and with the torrent at my back, flooding down the edges of the awning like Niagara Falls, and beyond that the hostile streets, gray rapids in the gutters, shadowy figures in long coats with purposeful strides, women with umbrellas stumbling by the passages in the wall and their menace, a slosh of cabs that look empty, and the ghosts of neon signs float overhead like words from Poe in the narrow and not-quite-exact reaches of the urban canyon, the criss-cross of escape ladders and the lifeless windows, and the neon casts down a spectral illumination that befriends the blackness rather than shuns it; my meal is but a respite, the stall but a warm waystation before I must venture out into cold dark midnight danger.
The reflective streets of Bangkok made me remember this fatal yearning, though it wasn’t raining, and though I couldn’t see any noodle stalls that exactly fit what I needed for my reenactment. Still the food was delicious. A principle aspect of my travel, ever in my mind and on my itinerary, was cuisine, and this was available on every Bangkok street corner. From push carts or kitchenettes mounted on scooters like sidecars, the greasy cooks fry pad thai and spring rolls or served sausages in bags with sweet chili sauce. They serve noodle soup with chicken and dumplings, or with big platters of squid and seafood to choose from, or cold noodle salad with pork sausage, or they had big tureens of homemade curry and a full rice-cooker.
The Thai food of Thailand’s streets was very similar to the Thai food of back home, though simpler in composition, and often spicier. Asking for a dish to be “Thai spicy” was asking for as many chilli peppers as noodles. The story goes that a long time ago, when the Thais were an impoverished people, a meager meal consisted of a bowl of rice, one of soya sauce, and one of chilli peppers. The Thai ate a spoonful of rice, with a little soya sauce, and then two full chilli peppers.
Today the chilli is ubiquitous as table salt. Indeed you might say that noodles and chilli are the Thai's bread and butter. Most restaurants provide trays of chilli oils and powders, plus jars of ground peanuts, sugar, fish sauce, and other condiments preferred by the Thais. They serve cucumber slices with chilli peanut sauce, and pineapple or grapefruit with chilli salt. Restaurants also serve a cup topped off with ice alongside each meal, to be filled with soda or water or instant coffee or just snacked on, depending on preference.
On the last night of the festival, Tucker and I went to a supermarket that carried Tim-Tams and Oreos, Nutella and peanut butter, and bought some bread and tomatoes and cucumber—but no cheese! Then we went outside to a street-corner noodle soup stand. The portly cook served out pork soup from his steel cart, and we sat on plastic stools around plastic tables; and with a little suspended belief, I could imagine this present scene as the opening of Blade Runner, though the skies were clear, the streets not rain-slick but spray-slick from thrown buckets and emptied super soakers, but that sinister element was in the air, a human danger worse than any jungle beast.
Songkran had lost some of its interest and was even weighing on my nerves. We had not participated much that day, and it was frustrating that you could not go out and walk around, at any time of day or night, without expecting to be soaked. Tucker was on his way out, on a night bus, to the diving mecca at Ko Tao, and he would wear his swim trunk on his way to the station. I tried to conjure my own plan. I wanted some islands and beaches, but also thought, “I should come back to Bangkok for the monsoon. It’ll be pouring and I’ll find a good noodle stand. I’ll have a good opportunity then.”
That’s assuming that Bangkok yet stands!