Streetlife and Stokies

Why is that wherever you go in the world you have a roughly 90% chance of running into a Stokie? In Nevada, Monaco or Bangkok you can hardly walk around for a day without hearing that accent or seeing the red-and-white stripes. Its up to you whether you keep your head down and walk on, or stride up and fire off a ‘howat’ or ‘ay up mate’.

I see two Stoke City shirts on the top floor of the MBK shopping centre in Bangkok. One is worn by a middle aged man talking with his friend. As they lean on the banister overlooking the huge space, the wife sits on a bench on her own in her Stoke shirt, waiting patiently for the men.

`Long way from Stoke`, I venture. One of the men is here for a two-week holiday that turned into four weeks. The man in the football shirt has retired over here now, having just bought a property north of the city.

I explain that this is my first day in Bangkok and this shopping centre is driving me nuts. The MBK centre is like a Vegas casino, designed so that you could wander round for days without seeing an exit. Each floor has different shops, one floor of furniture, one floor of mobile phones etc. In the `market` areas there are hundreds of stalls crammed in together, each one looking pretty much the same as the last. Each one with a shopkeeper eager to sell you stuff. I have seen enough and want to get out. I can`t find my way out. I keep going round in circles and up and down the escalators and by the same mobile phone stalls. On the clothing floor I stumble into some kind of eatery and gesture at some pork. I get confused about the price of the food and worry that I am being ripped off until I realise that they are charging me the equivalent of 80p, not £8.

Out of the air-conditioned mammoth and onto the street. For a few days I walk the pavements, trying to feed my eyes as much as possible and get to know the layout of the city. Hmmm. You can do that in Birmingham pretty easily, you can do that in Barcelona fairly easily, but Bangkok? Difficult. The place is hot. The place is huge and sprawling like London. Something else. Bangkok streetlife. Its as if every building is let twice – the day lease and the night lease. The day people have to set up their stalls and their chairs while the night people are inside sleeping. When evening comes, the day shift get to go inside their home and rest while the night shift comes on. So much of life happens on the street. Walk ten yards. You see two restaurants with plastic tables and chairs on the pavement. One hooker speaking to a fat Danish man. One vendor with a cart selling necklaces. Two tuk-tuk drivers waiting for fares. In a doorway, a motorcycle-taxi rider in his red bib waits for a fare. Three beggars, one of them has no legs and is lying face down in the middle of the pavement with his arm raised up and hand extended holding an empty cup. You stop and stare – is this normal? I guess so because there are scores of people making their way down the street without looking at this guy. Walk another ten yards you see another set of restaurants, vendors, hookers, hustlers, taxi drivers, a different beggar face down on the floor.

One of the most bizarre sights are the blind karaoke beggars. Led down the street by a helper they mime to the Thai hits blaring out of the boombox strapped around their shoulders.

In the day time in the heat it gets a bit much when you`re trying to get somewhere and you have a constant stream of people in your face trying to sell you stuff or con you. In the night time its more fun. Everything on the street. Chinatown is the most extreme. Narrow main streets lead to cramped side streets lead to tiny back alleys. Even in the tiny back alleys are streams of pedestrians brushing past speeding mopeds rushing past 99 street stalls. Look to your left see a tiny darkened room with a few aluminium tables . You squint and realise its a noodle bar. Go in and have some noodles.

Never could I have seen so many people and so many things concentrated into such narrow lanes. Noisy too, of course, the chatter of the street, the shouts, the honking of horns. Lots of laughing. When a moped rider gets knocked down everything stops and everyone turns to look. Many people go to help him and he is helped off the street like a footballer off the pitch. He is OK, he is on his feet but limping. The traffic starts to crawl forward again and I keep eating my langoustines.

Even on the six-lane highways, men pushing carts selling fruit or flowers move through the crawling traffic. Fortunately the taxis charge only by distance. It costs you the same whether your journey takes 2 hours or 2 minutes. Yes, a two-minute journey can take 2 hours if you travel at the wrong time of day.

If you take a tuk-tuk instead of a taxi, you will have to haggle the price. If its too cheap, its a con. The driver will take you to a gem shop or travel agency that you don`t want to visit. If a stranger approaches you on the street and is really friendly, they are probably trying to con you too. One guy had an interesting approach:-

`You have a lucky face sir, I can see.` said the Indian man in a huge cheap double breasted suit. `But you have some problems, some… bad habits`. I smiled and wondered what kind of strange con this was as I hurried back to my hotel.
Bangkok is great but its hard work. Far more difficult to deal with than London or New York City. However, no matter how much hassle you get or how lost you become, you are never more than a few metres from fantastic food or a superior massage.

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