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In the shadow of Bangkok’s Sky Train

I had a certain sense of trepidation as I made the journey to Bangkok – a trip described as a “very brave move” by a work colleague and “a chance to experience the real Asia” by my husband.  Neither elaborated further and it wasn’t until I stepped onto Sukhumvit Road I that I understood what they meant.  For right there – in the concrete shadow of the Sky Train – a battle was being fought.

Taking centre-ground,  Sukhumvit Road, Thailand’s longest road.  Or to put it another way, four lanes of gridlock, where buses go head-to-head with lorries and cars fight it out with tuk-tuks for every square inch of tarmac.  A quicker but more hair-raising passage was guaranteed on one of the many motorbike taxis which swarmed through the impossible traffic.  The noise – seemingly of a thousand petrol lawnmowers firing up – was incredible. 

Looming overhead, the huge concrete skeleton of the Sky Train track drew a clear battle line through the traffic, the track’s shadow extending over the pavements which lined the battleground’s edge.  War-weary pavements beckoned, buckled and riddled with cracks, gutters and concrete humps topped with gnarled rusted metal – all desperate to snare a passing ankle. 

Here, a different type of fight was going on.  Market stalls, food carts and beggars competed for the attentions of the passing crowd.  Crudely modified bicycles became barbecues, cooking up skewered meat, wizened chicken wings and charred fish.   More adventurous diners could choose from deep-fried insects and dried squid, neatly pegged up in lines like shrivelled pop socks.  The air was thick with barbecue smoke, which mingled with exhaust fumes and ten different strains of sewer stench to challenge the nostrils.  A lone rat scurried through the carnage and ducked into a building site.

Under a stairwell, an old lady squatted on the ground waving an empty McDonald’s cup above her head – her face contorted as though she had never seen (or did not want to see) the daylight.  Further along, a bushy-browed white man in his sixties sat resignedly, eyes downcast.  Next to him, a hand-written sign asking for work was pinned to his suitcase.  I wondered if he would ever be rewarded with a job off the back of such an incongruous marketing pitch.  There didn’t appear to be any takers.

Retreating from the main road, I stumbled across back alleys lined with bars and sex clubs.  A blonde siren in a grey backless dress swung around, instantly morphing into a rough looking ladyboy with badly chipped nail varnish, critically ill roots and a face which betrayed a long-lasting addiction to alcohol, cigarettes and god knows what else. 

I ate a dinner of deep-fried fish in the most deliciously rich soy sauce marinade and got so engrossed watching a prostitute at the next table stroking a tourist’s inner thigh that I nearly missed the most unusual sight of the day.   A muffled trumpeting noise heralded the arrival of an elephant.  Yes – that’s right.  A real, live elephant.  The deal was that you could feed it in exchange for a few baht.  I declined, out of a mixture of pity for the elephant and fear of getting trampled.

So finally, with the elephant gone, the prostitute making off with her fare for the night and my whale-sized fish dinner devoured, the entertainment was over and it was time to pick my way back down Sukhumvit Road.  Through the smoky haze, I could see that the battle was finally subsiding; depleted food carts, markets stalls and roads the clear victors. And the losers? Exactly where I had last seen them – the white man with his suitcase and the old lady, still clutching her empty cup. 

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