Bangkok is never short on anything ‘new’. If there’s a trend, this city surely feels that pulse beat sooner than most other places. ‘New’ however, does not always last. So when you find yourself living in a city as long as I have, an increasing attachment to the things that do endure grows steadily over the years. One such place that has quietly become a much loved fixture of this city is a second-hand bookshop I walked past quite by accident one day.
Walking in Bangkok involves many distractions —from construction sites to street vendors, from uneven paving to hanging wires and oddly leaning power poles, not to mention the cars, motorcycles and carts of all variety that populate the footpaths. Being aware of them and necessarily having to avoid them can result in you inadvertently crossing a soi you were supposed to turn into, as I did over a decade ago. It was not long before I realised my mistake, but as I turned to head back towards the soi I was meant to turn into, I noticed a trolley neatly stacked with piles of books in front of a narrow shopfront with a name that intrigued me. Dāsa, is a second-hand book shop located between on Sukhumvit, between Soi 26 and Soi 28. For the past 18 years it has played a role in meeting the niche demand for quality pre-owned English language books.
The power of attraction being what it is, booksellers know that certain people feel a strong pull towards any visual display of books, so for as long as they have been in existence, they have utilised shopfront trolleys or tables or even baskets, laden with printed works to serve as a lure— like flowers to bees in search of pollen.
And so on that day, I thought I might as well pop in for a quick look because, as was the case back then and still is the case now, there are few independent English language bookshops of any kind in Bangkok, let alone ones that specialise in second-hand, or as I like to call them — pre-loved books. Like the bee, I couldn’t resist, and I’ve been coming back ever since.
It is a given that bookshops are always filled with books. However, the presentation of them and the environment in which the books are displayed can either add or detract from your experience. The thing with most second-hand bookshops is their immediate ability to play to your sense of curiosity — the mere sight of shelf after shelf of well loved and well read books strikes one the way a cave of treasures might. You cannot help but go hunting.
Dāsa is evidently a passion project for their owners, who clearly must be book lovers. Concealed within their three storey shophouse is a well curated selection of titles, carefully organised with attentive touches given to categories they know their customers (who I have observed, largely seems to be residents as opposed to tourists) are likely to be in search of — all of which adds to that feeling of being encouraged towards some sort of literary find. There is a small table and seating area in which you can sit comfortably and browse and the shop serves a small selection of beverages from behind their counter on the ground floor — the back wall of which is decorously covered with banknotes from all around the world, like a veritable money tree growing over the small kitchenette sink. As you wander around the three levels, ascending up aging stairs that creak the way you always expect stairs in second-hand bookshops to creak — you sense possibilities. This is a feeling that is often lacking in newer bookshops and it is the reason why many people are drawn to second hand booksellers.
In a city where we are often doused in the afterglow of digital ads and new retail technology and environments, time spent in Dāsa has the refuge-like quality akin to visiting a temple to tactile objects, where things are wonderfully analog — sometimes, even I crave a break from my touchscreens.
I have a tradition that before a long flight, I usually make time to buy one book to take along with me on a trip. Books have always served as a sort of mental power bank for me — they have been my constant companion on journeys and act as insurance against the unexpected. I know this is still the case for many travellers as the excess piles of best seller paperbacks in closets and on shelves in countless homes attest to.
Because of the recent pandemic and the travel restrictions associated with it, I had not gone on an overseas trip in several years, which made me realise I hadn’t visited Dāsa in at least as many years. But like a muscle memory, the minute I had my plans booked I made my way back. That is usually the reason that compels me to make my pre-flight pilgrimage in search of a book, but I also find myself returning to Dāsa because I am drawn to a place that has stayed independent and survived the many social-economic storms this city has had to weather — it is a comforting familiarity, every time I walk through their doors. For aren’t we all slaves to somethings? For me, books are one of those things — which is appropriate because the name Dāsa is derived from the Pali-Sankrit word for slave or servant. The owners of this bookshop understand full well the name that they thoughtfully chose and they have been faithfully serving this community’s love of books for many years.
What does the term old school mean to you? Does it embody something old fashioned, out of date and conservative? Or does it evoke respect for things from an earlier era — traditions wrapped in nostalgia with a hint of cool? It depends on who you ask and their perception of what the phrase is being used in reference to. One example of old school is personified by a little noticed shopfront on a slightly quieter segment of Sukhumvit Road, where the same traditional noodles, chicken rice and fried rice dishes have been served for well over 60 years. Like the term ‘old school’, this establishment has stayed true to its roots, even as the world around it has evolved dramatically.
Due to its long standing reputation, Tang Meng occupies a level of recognition with a generation of families who settled in and around this section of Sukhumvit back in the 1960s. Many people my age know it because our parents used to eat there from its earliest days when the area — between Sukhumvit Soi 47 and 49 — consisted largely of undeveloped plots accessed by canals. It was known as a humble business owned by a hard working family that took care in the food they made. As time passed, the area became more affluent, the canals were covered over and replaced by roads. One telltale sign of this evolution is the fact that you step down into the eatery from the sidewalk — an indication of just how much the road has risen over the years. Tang Meng’s entrance used to be several steps above the road. The area around this simple shopfront has changed nearly beyond recognition — the food that Tang Meng serves and the family that runs it have not.
I have been savouring Tang Meng’s food for nearly 20 years, but incredibly, I had never actually been until recently. For years Tang Meng’s famous egg noodles were an often repeated office lunch delivery order at almost every place of employment I have ever worked at — its fame long preceding the advent of delivery apps. Everyone seemed to have heard of it. Very few people seem to have recently eaten on location, if at all. My entire experience of it, in all its deliciousness, had alway been wrapped in a plastic bag, eaten sometime after it had been made and transplanted into an office dish at lunchtime. This is not an uncommon reality in Bangkok as decades of traffic, lack of parking and time have prevented many people from actually going to a place to eat, especially at lunchtime.
A handful of family owned dining establishments in Bangkok hark from a pervious era and are still in business — some have become exceedingly successful and have expanded into business empires stretching well beyond their original premises. Tang Meng is not one of those establishments. I came to appreciate this fact one day as I walked by and recognised the name on a small sign attached to an aging noodle cabinet within an unremarkable shopfront.
I am the kind of person who cannot see a noodle shop and just walk on by. I am always drawn by curiosity as to what kind noodles are being served and the style in which they are prepared. Because of this propensity of mine, I soon recognised the name Tang Meng — the very sight of its name conjures up flavour memories — albeit ones completely disassociated from its place of origin. I asked myself, “Was this it?” I decided to take a seat at the solitary table that was set up on the footpath right in front of where the noodles were being prepared.
Tang Meng encapsulates the archetypical street-side dining establishment prevalent throughout cities in Thailand, dressed with no more than the essentials of daily business — tools of the trade well worn by the years. It has not in any way been given the sheen of nostalgic preservation that you might see at other places of similar heritage. The family who owns Tang Meng have been far too busy working and focused on their food to bother with decorating or renovation. Things here have only ever changed or been replaced out of necessity, not style.
What greets you at Tang Meng are old tin buckets filled with morning glory used for the Yen Ta Fo noodle dishes, the family house shrine lit on the floor in the distance, old wooden and glass displays with their assortment of the day’s supply of various meatballs, their famous pork and shrimp wontons both fresh and fried, pork loin to be cut, boiled chicken to be sliced, blood cakes, a wide selection of noodles, crispy fish skins, accompanying condiments like roughly crushed peanuts and chilli flakes, assorted herbs and aromatics. Chopping blocks and kitchen accoutrements abound. Hallmark Chinese auspicious decorative items hang on the back mezzanine wall, not because of their appearance, but for the luck and prosperity they represent. Tang Meng is the definition of function over form.
The owner Aunty Kim works the chicken rice station while her son works the noodle station and a couple other family members help out. The service is familial and if you know to catch their attention for a question in between their tasks, you will find they are polite and chatty and have stories to tell about how the city has changed around them. Much of their business is delivery but they still get a steady stream of walk-ins, people like me who sometimes do a double take walking by, as I did. They have always done well enough to get by, but have never expanded or sold their name to a franchise. They remain one of the few original businesses in the area.
The family have seen little need to change what they do. They work hard day in and day out preparing the dishes that have formed a part of so many people’s food memories. In this way they are very much traditionalists, conservative, and of the old school. But does that make them out of date and out of touch? The daily demand in their delivery business speaks otherwise. Tang Meng deliciously embodies an earlier era and their food is reassuringly wrapped in nostalgia. Judging by the customers who come here, there’s no need for cool. Old school to its core seems just fine.
Sense of origin is important to me. My taste impressions of Tang Meng are now greatly enhanced by my direct connection to the faces and hands that made them. If you’ve never had their food eaten table side right after its been made, I suggest you walk on down, take a seat and enjoy a meal in the same place your parents might have, all those years ago.
“This is not a story of heroic feats, or merely the narrative of a cynic; at least I do not mean it to be.” Those are the opening words penned by Ernesto Guevara to his best selling memoir posthumously published in 2003. My story is not comparable in scale to his epic motorcycle journey along with his friend Granado, as they rode across South America. Mine is about my far more localised and urbane experiences as a passenger on motorcycle taxis over the past two decades in Bangkok. Even if you don’t own a motorcycle, even if you own a car, many people eventually end up on the back of one sooner or later in Bangkok.
Motorcycle taxis meet one vital travel need that exists as a result of Bangkok’s traffic congested streets — the gap between walking and taking a car that public transportation cannot always address — hundreds of thousands of individuals utilise them every single day. When you ride on one, you experience the city and grasp daily life from a very different perspective compared to walking — one that is in stark contrast to the cocooning isolation of cars. You feel, see, smell and hear the city in all its full intensity combined with the occasional adrenaline rush of close proximity to danger, the exhilaration of speed, and yes sometimes the less than romantic weariness and exhaustion that comes with being on the back of a motorcycle — in the worst of traffic, in a monsoon rain, when it’s flooding. Motorcycle taxis represent some of the most essential threads that weave their way in and around Bangkok’s streetscapes, helping to form the larger fabric of this city.
The first time I rode on the back of a motorcycle taxi in Bangkok was in 2001. I had only been on a motorcycle once before in my life, in Washington DC, as a passenger on a very high performance machine — and very briefly at that. So there I was one morning with a friend, we had gotten off the Skytrain at Soi Thonglor. We were on our way to his house to a family lunch further up the Soi. My nervous response to his suggestion that we take a motorcycle, was a very apprehensive “Really?”. He looked at me like any long time Bangkok resident looks at someone newly arrived and clueless — with a mixture of amusement, pity, and devilish delight in seeing someone squirm.
What made me more apprehensive was that he insisted on both of us getting on the one motorcycle, rather than taking two separately. Now in Thailand most motorcycle taxis are really more scooters than Harleys. Ducatis they are certainly not. I didn’t think three people could or should fit on one. He insisted it was perfectly normal and that we’d definitely be fine. So we got on and the only advice he gave me was to not overthink it and lean whichever way the motorcycle momentum tells my body to lean. Good and accurate instructions, but not exactly reassuring.
Before I had anytime to even ask if we needed helmets, we were off. Now as anyone who’s ever been on the back of a motorcycle knows, there is only one set of passenger foot pegs to position your feet — providing stability and balance. When there is a third person on the back, this person, i.e. me, has no such chance of leveraging their balance. So there I was speeding down the Soi weaving between cars and holding on to my friend like he was life support with my feet sticking out left and right like some semi spatchcocked chicken. Not an attractive sight.
Much to the amusement of my friend, any of my initial apprehensions quickly faded away. Despite my awkward form, my first ride remains a happy memory. It was one of those rare cooler December days in Bangkok where traffic was light and the motorcycle managed to gain some speed. When the conditions are right — like they were that morning — riding through the maze like back streets of Bangkok can be a revelation. Cool air becomes cooler. Your senses are naturally heightened on motorcycles, so you notice more. You become more aware of the streetscape, the shopfronts, the people in cars, the street vendors, the building facades and the often ornate gates of residences. You see all these things in a different light — in large part due to the fact that you’re not driving. On a good day, riding on a motorcycle in Bangkok can be a joy.
Of course there are also bad days. Let’s not pretend there aren’t any. Riding on a motorcycle is not a game. You have to have your wits about you and it can be downright deadly. But that is all part of life in Bangkok. It make you feel alive.
Motorcycle taxis, with their bright orange high visibility vests are usually the first things everyone notices on the corners of just about every major soi that connects with a primary thoroughfare, especially if the soi has a certain mix of residential or commercial occupancy. I live on one such soi. Although not lengthy, Ruamrudee is a soi that links two major traffic arteries in the heart of Bangkok’s embassy district and like any other soi, has its own localised quirks when it comes to motorcycle taxis. I live near the end of one of Ruamrudee’s sub-sois. Living on a dead-end street means less traffic as well as a different composition of motorcycle taxi drivers servicing it. In my soi they are older, fewer in number and they have an ease and indifference to them that is in contrast to the younger, more intense, mafia-like sort that gathers during the major traffic hours of the day at the motorcycle stand at the beginning of Soi Ruamrudee, off of Ploechit Road.
The motorcycle stand positioned at the right angle turn on my soi is a modest affair. There is one rather lonely tree that provides partial shade, until the annual city-wide tree branch pruning occurs, whereby the tree is then festooned with ropes that attempt to hold up a temporary and largely ineffectual tarpaulin roof. Sometimes a standing umbrella or two appears. There are a couple of eclectic chairs that have been donated by somebody in a nearby building. There are the reused PVC paint buckets with their lids (because they’re waterproof) serving as portable lockers for all manner of personal sundries in addition to standing in as makeshift alternate seating or foot rests. There are the large gallon-sized water bottles for the obvious reasons. On occasion, there are other people sitting there (women), who are obviously not motorcycle drivers who chat away, eat snacks and seem to just be there to keep the drivers company — most likely maids from some of the nearby residences that populate my soi.
Due to the quieter nature of the soi I live on, not that many people use motorcycle taxis. Most of my neighbours drive their own cars, in addition almost as many seem to have drivers, and with taxi hailing services being what they are now few people walk up and down the soi. Except me that is, as well as a handful of other people, more often than not, they are foreigners. We form an unintentional cadre of sorts. We regularly acknowledge at each other and say hello. All the guards and building maids on the soi seem to recognise me and my fellow pedestrian residents and being that there is an embassy, a couple of dining establishments, a boutique budget hotel on the corner and several high profile residences, my soi is a particularly safe one. Despite the obvious affluence of the area, there is a village-like atmosphere to the streetscape made more apparent on foot. This is particularly felt in the early mornings when people of all walks of life emerge from their houses and apartment buildings to offer alms to the solitary monk and his disciple who make their way to my soi every morning. There are no stray dogs and while my soi lacks a raised footpath, it is remarkably well maintained, free from the less desirable elements commonly seen in other parts of the city. In addition to recognising each other, my fellow pedestrians and I also know our motorcycle taxi drivers well, and they in turn know us.
Anyone who lives in Bangkok and uses motorcycle taxis learns quickly that there exists an unwritten but commonly understood code of conduct.
First, there is always a queue and order to how a motorcycle taxi is hailed. You can wave, thinking you got one until he drives right past you because you didn’t realise someone further down the soi hailed first. You will realise your faux pas when either the motorcycle won’t stop for you or the person you didn’t notice further down the soi will object vocally, and loudly. If you are at the beginning of the soi you get in line and you need to be aware of people on the other side of street also in need a taxi. My building has a very quirky but highly effective way of hailing a taxi. Rather than having my guardsman wave a big red flag in the middle of the street — like most other buildings — to get the attention of the motorcycle drivers, my building utilises a red traffic light on a stick that juts out from the guardhouse. I’ve never seen this anywhere else in Bangkok.
Second, always remind the motorcycle driver that you’re approaching your stop ahead of time because despite working the sois day in and day out, or perhaps because if that, they can have a glazed, almost autopilot state of being and can forget to stop — you probably would too working in the conditions they do everyday. You never want to be on the back of a motorcycle that has to stop suddenly. It is not a pleasant thing. Your already fragile sense of balance completely goes out the window and all sorts of things can happen. The driver will be fine, he has a steering column to brace himself with. You do not.
Third — unlike my first motorcycle taxi ride experience where I grasped on to my friend like there was no tomorrow — in Thailand, unless you’re on very friendly terms with the motorcycle driver you do not hold on to them. In fact most passengers don’t even touch the drivers here in this country. You use your feet to balance against the foot pegs and use your hands to hold on to the rear handle bar behind you at the end of motorcycle seat. To do otherwise, is not recommended — I think I don’t need to explain why.
Fourth, before you get on a motorcycle you better have a good understanding of your centre of gravity in relation to the things you’re holding (if any), and how that changes when your feet are off the ground. If you’re carrying anything that is not strapped to your back, you quickly realise that on a motorcycle in motion and at speed, those things suddenly take on a life of their own.
Fifth, although some motorcycle stands in central Bangkok now have signage indicating set prices displayed to frequently requested destinations, you should otherwise agree on the price before you get on one if you are not familiar with the area or how far you’re going, it just makes for a better experience at the end. Never assume you know what the price should be unless it is clearly obvious or stated somewhere.
Sixth, helmets. What helmets?
In a smaller soi like mine there is a more easily noticeable rhythm to street life that reveals itself more clearly when seen from the back of a motorcycle. I see the same faces working the buildings in my soi — people walking, talking, living their lives street-side and it all adds to my sense of where I live. Because I’m me, I often smile at other people in the street (unlike in New York or Paris this does not make people think I’m crazy) and because this is Thailand they will smile back, occasionally I get a wave. I see the same street vendors — one set in the mornings and another set in the evenings — I see the same street cleaners, trash collectors, even the same customers frequenting some of the restaurants on my street. You notice a lot from the back of a motorcycle. If you ever want to know information about anything on the soi, you ask the motorcycle drivers. They are the unofficial eyes and ears of the neighbourhood and more often then not, they know who comes and goes, at what time, and with who — at least on a soi like mine. They just know. Finally, from the back of a motorcycle you also have a clearer sense of the haves and the have-nots.
Motorcycle taxis are a ubiquitous aspect of everyday life for many people in Bangkok. They certainly form a pillar of mine and I am continually fascinated by the ad hoc customs that have emerged on their own by way of supply and demand and the occasional regulations imposed by City Hall. While I do not see sweeping countrysides or epic mountain ranges the way Guevara and his friend Granado saw on their South American motorcycle journey — memorably detailed in The Motorcycle Diaries — I do manage to observe many socio-economic aspects of life around me from the back of mine. And on good days, I am pleasantly reminded of my first motorcycle taxi ride in Bangkok, again and again.
One response to “The Motorcycle Diaries”
“Semi Spatchcocked Chicken”?! Outrageous. Very well written.
Take whatever thoughts the name in the first sentence evokes in your mind and kindly place them aside. This is not a story about Shanghai or a Chinese restaurant or possibly even a place you might consider great. This is an observation about eating in Bangkok, the spirit of survival and knowing your niche.
And so this story begins, starting with an eatery — let’s call it that — because I feel the terms restaurant, cafe, food stall, food court or street-side vendor comes with pre-conceived connotations and expectations. The illustriously named venue mentioned before is at its core a place you go to for food. However, it cannot be classified solely by any of the terms above, because it is all of those terms. What it is certainly no longer, is a Chinese restaurant.
The Great Shanghai is situated in the heart of one of Bangkok’s most expensive shopping districts, immediately adjacent to the bottom of a set of stairs that link you to the Skytrain and two of the most exclusive malls this city has to offer. It is an eatery that caters to a shadow community of office workers, wandering tourists, motorcycle messengers, delivery men and women, budget conscious ex-pat residents and on occasion, dazed and confused individuals who walk by not quite sure what to make of the place, but are drawn in by the food and the obvious visual implication that this must be the most affordable place within a square kilometre that doesn’t entail sitting on plastic chairs street-side.
In its earlier life, it was indeed a Chinese restaurant known for its old school, namesake cuisine. I often noticed it back then, either as I walked by or on the many occasions I have sat staring at it in a motionless car while stuck in traffic on what can be one of the most congested segments of Sukhumvit Road. It was not a place that caught your eye due to any pleasing aesthetics or visible signs of popularity.
A few years ago, upon my return from living abroad in Australia for some time, a colleague of mine suggested we go ‘there’ for a quick lunch because of what she described as a quick and easy ‘chicken noodle place’ — we were nearby at one of the shopping centres that loom above the Great Shanghai. In fact what she had referred to as the ‘chicken noodle place’ was in fact the Great Shanghai, if now only in name. And so we walked out of the shopping mall onto the street level, which in itself may sound innocuous enough, but is in fact less normal in a city where almost every major shopping centre is connected to the skytrain via a skywalk. But that is another story.
What greeted us then, and what will still greet you today is so much more than just a ‘chicken noodle place’. It is a very wide shopfront, completely obscured by tables laden with stacks of grab and go food, stands topped with fresh coconuts or trays of Kanom Krok (a popular savoury coconut milk treat), hot rice and curry food stations, a drinks vendor selling all manner of beverages, food carts with steaming corn and sweet potatos, another food station with boiled or fried chicken rice and two long simmering vats: one with pork leg and knuckles and one of chicken legs and feet. None of these on their own are anything special. You see them everywhere all over the city. They represent more or less the established staples of Thai eating when it comes to modest and honest food for the average office worker. The street frontage looks like an amalgam of different vendors, until you quickly reach the conclusion that this is in fact all one team, one venue, and that this place is the Great Shanghai in its current guise as a makeshift diner cum food court cum takeaway counter cum sit down restaurant with menus and even table service. Gone are whatever front doors that used to be there and gone too are most of the air-conditioners that used to cool this long-faded dining establishment. The ones left are certainly not used.
Other than the signage, hints of the restaurant’s former life abound. Unmistakable design touches that evoke Chinese restaurant decor circa the late 1970s, with one part of a wall completely covered with a printed tarpaulin graced with fanciful images of waterfalls and mountainous peaks, that I can only assume are someone’s imagination of places in China. There are also the wood panelled walls, ceilings and columns with varnish so glossy as to make the wood look like it is plastic.
I once asked one of the staff if the place actually has a new name in spite of the old sign. He quite proudly replied, ‘Nope, this has always been the Great Shanghai and it still is.” Well there you go.
If the band of brothers that comprised the eclectic food stations out front aren’t enough to attract and daze you at the same time, inside there is more. There is a papaya salad station with grilled chicken and pork neck, there is also a Yum station (Yum being another kind of Thai salad, typically spicy, with ceviche-like sourness and savoury all at the same time consisting of varying combinations of meat and vegetables) where large glass bowls of the kind normally used for toppings of Thai sweets are instead filled with Yum’s accompanying savouries like prawns, minced pork, minced chicken, squid, mushrooms and so on. There is a grab for yourself range of beverages from several fridges, a self serve ice and cup station, baskets of help yourself Thai basil, bean sprouts and sliced bitter melon (to go with the chicken noodles). There is even free Wifi — a lesson in generosity many of the fancy dining establishments in the malls that surround it could learn from.
By the time you realise that you can either order whatever you want from whichever food station you desire, or you can sit down and staff will also take your order, you will then possibly notice other patrons being handed thick laminated menu albums complete with colour photos that contain a wide range of dishes prepared from the back kitchen. There is a system and before long you too will cotton on to the way things work — and they do work exceedingly well. Help yourself to whatever you’re supposed to, order what you want, and to top it all off, convenient little laminated heavily reused price cards with the individual prices of whatever you ordered lands on your table instructing you very clearly in three languages no less, to ‘take the food card to pay at the exit’. Got it.
If you visit the Great Shanghai it will not be to soak in any kind of idealised notions of what street-level food is like. It is far too no-frills for such things. It is not about sitting here and feeling good about how you’re in touch with your more humble side. The restaurant is often hot as Hades and there is almost nothing about the restaurant that might warrant appearing on anyone’s Instagram feed. In fact I’ve never seen anybody taking photos except yours truly. The Great Shanghai is not about its past, it is about its present.
What I have observed over the last few years is a popular eatery that has adapted to the times, both good and bad. When one business model no longer worked, they replaced it with a kaleidoscopic array of offerings. What once was a long established Chinese restaurant is now something that defies any brief description. It is a community of sorts. I have seen the same faces working here, unchanged for years. I see regular customers, I see tourists, I sense that everybody who comes here has one thing in common: I/we/they/you are all here because the food is good, the food is fast, the food is perpetually consistent. There is no fuss and absolutely nothing fancy and that is precisely what keeps everyone coming back — ensuring that the restaurant is busy from morning until evening everyday. The Great Shanghai is a place that knows what its customers need — a cheap place for decent food in one of the most upscale parts of this city. While it knows its niche, it is at the same time also not unique. There are countless other eateries in Bangkok of varying scale and success that are similarly hybrids of circumstances — both economic and social. But this is simply one of my favourites and it embodies the tough-as-nails spirt of vendors all over Bangkok.
I supposed that is what makes The Great Shanghai, still great.
I love visiting libraries. Call me bookish but one thing I have observed is and that walkers also tend to be readers — a connection possibly intertwined with the fact that much of literature is about journeys. Although today many libraries exist in an altered state of existence from their original brief — now more tourist attractions than traditional places for reading — one historic library on Suriwongse Road in Bangkok still serves a very useful purpose.
For numerous generations people in Bangkok have known the Neilson Hays Library as a focal point serving the English language community. Over time its role has faded with fewer people finding a reason to visit it. Originally established in 1869 by the Bangkok Ladies’ Library Association, it remains however one of the leading repositories of english-language books in Bangkok — over 20,000 volumes, and still acquiring. Tourists continue to wander by and walk in to view the elegant neoclassical building (which dates from 1922) and admire its handsome and finely preserved interior — although probably less so now since the library no longer allows or encourages photography. Non-tourists who do have reason to visit the library, now do so either to attend the occasional concert, a corporate event or a children’s book reading hour. It is apparent the library lacks the vitality of other comparable institutions in other cities that have found renewed purpose through more innovative community activities. Space plays a factor, the library is not large. Accessibly is another factor, its location not being immediately near enough (for some people) to a Skytrain or Subway station. In fact the library is an easily manageable walk from the nearest stations.
I first visited the Neilson Hays back in 2001 having just moved to Thailand from the United Sates. Back then I was still adjusting to a very different life from the one I had in America. I no longer had a substantial collection of English language books at home and e-books and audiobooks were barely in existence. I found the space comforting, calming and familiar. All the elements you crave for when you’re in a new environment. Bangkok on the other hand was uncomfortable, decidedly not calm and much of it still unfamiliar to me. The library was a place of refuge and tranquility that was not in a shopping mall or drowning in commercialism (an all too commonplace reality, as anyone living in this town will attest to). More importantly, what the Neilson Hays provided was access to books.
Over the years, one aspect of the library’s holdings has continued to provide reason for me to return. The Neilson Hays still has arguably the largest collection of English language books on the subjects of Bangkok, Thailand and Southeast Asia that are not in some state archive or educational institution. For a small day-use fee (about the price of a coffee at the Library’s own adjacent cafe) you have within reach a treasure trove of resources, many of which are volumes no longer in print or in circulation. As with any traditional library, most of the books at the Neilson Hays can be checked out (with a membership) — a convention many non-public libraries no longer allow.
We forget in today’s age of online information that sometimes it is actually easier to walk into a library and do a bit a research the old fashioned way, in a space where everything has already been cleverly organised for you (thank you Mr. Dewey) by subject and author, and now conveniently searchable online prior to visiting as well. Anyone who has had to endure the lacklustre experience of reading PDF materials knows all too well that leafing through a book is far more satisfying (indexes are still remarkably useful). At the Neilson Hays, there are rows and rows of teak shelves filled with information on any number of subjects in the English language.
In this city where change is the norm and community focal points now comprise venues largely dominated by retail, the Neilson Hays remains an unbroken link to a time and a place where countless people have come together for various reasons to share in knowledge, and where that knowledge still resides. The minute you walk into its now heavily air-conditioned reading room, there are still ever-present reminders of the library’s relevance to generations of Bangkokians as evidenced by the brass plaques that top many of the bookshelves bearing the names of individuals and families who have provided financial support. In this vaulted haven for readers, the words of poets, authors and writers in the far and recent past still echo faintly and continue to live on in the bound pages lining the shelves.
Perhaps you are not a bookish person. But if you happen to be walking in the Suriwongse or Silom area, the Neilson Hays library is worth taking a moment to visit — for a rest or even for a read — which of course was its original intended purpose.
“Bangkok is not an easy city to understand.” Those are the first words that preface a book written by Kenneth Barrett, a journalist who has been on assignment in over 60 countries but who has chosen Thailand as his home. One rain drenched afternoon in 2014, in a bookshop on Sukhumvit Road, I came across his then newly published guide entitled “22 Walks in Bangkok”. For a Thai person who thought he knew his city well, I quickly came to the realisation I still had much to learn.
Exploring this city by foot has often been a solitary activity for me. Of course I’ve taken friends around but usually to areas I had already previously familiarised myself. It is the OCD in me wanting everything to be just right when I’m with someone else, that strangely never afflicts me when I’m on my own. I happily explore solo blindly — I do my homework first before taking others. It was with homework in mind that brought me to Mr. Barrett’s book that day.
I should perhaps do a little preface of my own by stating that although I am Thai and speak the language fluently, my Thai reading skills are fairly basic — having been born and educated almost entirely abroad. Street signs, directions and menu items? Not a problem. Thai newspapers? Let’s just say they’re a challenge. So at the time, if there were any Thai books on walking in Bangkok I wouldn’t have been able to properly read them. As luck would have it, back in 2014 “22 Walks in Bangkok” was fresh off the presses and I devoured Mr. Barrett’s hybrid publication — part city history, part exploration guide — like a first-year at Hogwarts. At the time, I wondered why his was the only book available on walking in Bangkok, even Mr. Barrett questioned himself in his preface as to why such a guide hadn’t been tried before.
There’s a very simple answer to that. Thais don’t walk. Or I should say, we don’t go for walks. Abroad, certainly. At home, certainly not. I know that is a sweeping generalisation but for a large portion of the people living in this city, it is not an inaccurate one. Bangkok is hot, it is humid, and its sidewalks are haphazard to say the least. To most tourists it can seem insurmountably bewildering by foot. This is a city founded by boats and now existing largely for cars. The general mindset is, why walk when you can drive or be driven down the Soi? Walking here is a matter of necessity, not a willing choice of leisure.
I on the other hand, have been known to say, “I just walked from the Grand Palace to the Oriental.” Much to the shock, quickly followed by the question of “Why?” from most of my friends.
Perhaps as a result of having been born abroad and having lived most of my then younger adult life overseas, Bangkok has always captured my interest the way an outsider might look at it — I brought home with me a sense of wonder and curiosity that I feel some of my fellow Bangkokians don’t make room for in their imagination. As Mr. Barrett reveals in his book, beyond the obvious attractions of the palaces, the storied avenues and well trodden tourist areas, there exists a rich and nuanced sense of place to the varied parts of this city. Some of it sadly disappearing due to gentrification and the unyielding tides of commerce. These pockets of history and culture may have noticeably less shine than the other gleaming attractions, but they are no less interesting.
As I read Mr. Barrett’s book I felt doors opening and back stories being revealed about people and places, stories detailing the complex and often interwoven context through which a community or a building can best be understood. His book is not a conventional walking guide. There are no arrows on maps telling you which way to go, there are no blurbs or visual guide bubbles indicating highlights — his narrative is your guide. Points of interest in relation to his text are numbered on maps, but “22 Walks in Bangkok” is a book for readers, not skimmers — one that affords many rewards for those who take the time. His chapters read like a historical novel and Mr. Barrett’s research of local knowledge combined with adept storytelling is his gift to the reader.
It is with no small sense of irony that I am a Thai man who learned more about his hometown from a British ex-pat, than I ever did from any Thai source. But I embrace that irony. Over the years I have given the book as a gift to many people and I still reread it on occasion, especially if I’m headed back to any particular area he describes in his chapters. I even have an E-Book version which I purchased online while I was living for a time in Australia because I missed Bangkok and I wanted to remind myself of the kind of walks that simply didn’t exist in Sydney or Adelaide. Mr. Barrett clearly loves his adopted hometown and anyone who reads his books will also grow to understand it better, if not love it as well, possibly even more. I certainly have.
A few final footnotes: I have never met the author. I have however, completed all twenty-two walks, repeatedly. Mr. Barrett’s book remains the only definitive guide to this city’s streets that I know of.
“22 Walks in Bangkok” by Kenneth Barrett, published by TUTTLE
Currently available in most major bookshops carrying English language publications in Bangkok
6 responses to “How One British Ex-Pat Revealed Bangkok to One Thai Man”
I know Ken and he’s a splendid chap, very entertaining, as is his book, which I’ve used a few times on visits to Bangkok from my home in Chiang Mai. You can find him on Facebook, and I’m sure he’d take delight in corresponding with you.
Thank you, I appreciate you taking the time to message me. I’m just starting out with blogging, a bit late to the game, as they say. But slowly working on my writing and I wanted to have a focus, drawing from what I know well and that is my experiences walking around Bangkok for the last 20 years. One day I hope to be able to thank Ken in person for all that I have learned about Bangkok, in no small part due to his book. My name is Na, by the way. Best regards.
On any given day, hundreds of thousand of commuters (myself included) might glide high above the congested traffic of Taksin Bridge, most will be blithely unaware that they are passing by a unique religious structure, obscured by glittering spires — one that pays tribute to commerce, transportation, and the immigration of one of Thailand’s most important ethnic communities.
There are two commonly understood choices to be made when I descend from the train platform at Saphan Taksin. Do I turn left towards the river in order to board the numerous ferries connecting passengers to shopping centres, luxury hotels and condominiums, or do I turn right and head towards Charoen Krung and the district of Bang Rak? What is noticeably less traversed, is an alternative stairway exit on the Charoen Krung side heading towards a direction away from Bangrak. It was in this direction that I decided to walk down one day, curious as to what the enormous shimmering Grand Palace-like structure visible from the train platform was.
Once I passed through the gates of the temple, I was awestruck by what I saw. A full size 40 meter edifice in the unmistakable shape of a Chinese junk gleaming in brilliant white and accented with gold. The only detail that was not ship-like were the two delicate needle-tipped stupas (pagodas) rising from where the masts normally would have been.
Kenneth Barrett, in his definitive book, “22 Walks in Bangkok”, provides several historical accounts of how this area of the river was once bustling with flotillas of junks, offloading their wares with their unmistakable Venetian blind-like sails. For centuries these ships brought trade, new ideas and new peoples to Thailand, most prominently being the Chinese community who quickly established themselves as the leading merchant class.
Although the temple grounds date back to a period prior to the founding of Bangkok, the landlocked chapel was commissioned during the reign of King Rama III, whose statue is situated in a ceremonial platform in front of it. A formidable monarch who built his reign around international commerce and who himself is often regarded as the kingdom’s Father of Trade.
Temples in Thailand are hallowed environments, often with commonly repeated and highly symbolic design elements. Where Yan Nawa Temple’s Junk shaped Chapel deviates from the norm, apart from its shape, is that it was constructed to pay tribute to something decidedly not of the spiritual world. Whether you admire or not the theme park aesthetics of it, you are unlikely to find another temple like it to this scale in this country. The symbolism of it resonates powerfully and clearly.
One of my favourite aspects of exploring Yan Nawa Temple is that you can actually ‘board’ the vessel through a narrow entrance underneath the stern. Which also gives you a different perspective of the surrounding area as well as of the chapel itself.
As I stood there on the prow of the ship, I thought not only of how the building served as a memorial to something that had brought enormous wealth and prosperity to Thailand, but also that it was a tribute to a mode of travel that by the time it was consecrated, had already been made out of date by the rise of another form of transportation — steamships. I recalled one of my favourite paintings in London at the National Gallery, J.M.W. Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. If you’re familiar with it you may know that it too is a poignant tribute to one outmoded form of transport, in that case, a fighting man-of-war sadly being dragged into retirement by a steamship.
In perhaps a final twist of irony, this chapel of trade — a ship unable to sail away, often visited by Chinese tourists who are told of its importance to the Thai-Chinese community — was built of reinforced concrete, then one of the most modern building materials at the time. For over a hundred and fifty years she (I suppose it must be she, since ships are traditionally feminine) has born witness to a city changed nearly beyond recognition, quietly sitting in the shadow of another mode of transport, ‘sailing’ high above her.
Yan Nawa Temple
40 Charoen Krung Rd, Yan Nawa, Sathon, Bangkok 10120
Coffee houses have long served as a conduit for conversation, providing space for communal gatherings and in some cases the fermenting of ideas that have shaped the world. For the past 95 years, caffeine has fuelled the daily discourse at this Yaowarat institution, where politics and nostalgia stubbornly resist any signs of gentrification. The locals wouldn’t have it any other way.
Whenever I walk on the side streets of Yaowaraj Road — the ones that are closer to the Chao Praya River — I often end up passing through Soi Phat Sai, a parallel offshoot to Chinatown’s main thoroughfare, resting between Yaowa Panit and Khao San Alleys. Tucked away in one of the original rows of shophouses sits Easae Coffee Shop underneath signage that celebrates “60 years” of coffee “freshly roasted, freshly made, daily” — the sign having ostensibly been hung up nearly forty years ago.
There is something incredibly telling about the ageing sign’s golden proclamation. The shop and everything within it seems to cling to those words like a mantra, oddly charming in its refusal to acknowledge the passing of the years.
In the dozen or so times I have stopped by to seek shade and hydrate (I feel it’s important to stress the word shade because it seems the invention of air conditioning has also never been acknowledged at Easae), without fail, the same group of regulars — all of whom are men — have commandeered the front right area underneath the awning of the shop. They chat loudly and unapologetically about whatever the latest political hot topics of the day are. This is then typically interspersed with complaints, followed by nods of agreements or mild bickering about this or that scandal, usually in relation to City Hall, Government House or the Police.
As the years have gone by I’ve noticed that it does not seem to matter which political faction is in power, the same lively conversations occur. To provide additional perspective, I’ve never heard any insurmountable arguments amongst the constant cast of characters. While for their part, other customers mostly go about meekly drinking their beverages and doing as little as possible for fear of attracting the attention of the regulars, some of whom can sound positively intimidating.
It is pure theatre, and these men have always been the star attraction on an aging set production that has never needed a revival. If you stop by Easae, it is not for the coffee. Nor is it even for the delicious butter sugar toast and egg custard. All of which are old school kopitiam classics, equally as unchanged as the setting. For this place exists not to please or attract any new customers. No, it exists as a bulwark against change — one that sees no need for renovations, restorations or even maintenance for that matter. Why fix what isn’t broke, goes the old adage.
News of Central Group establishing a presence in one of Europe’s most timeless capitals triggers memories as well as a revisit to Bangkok’s unique and nearly forgotten retail relic.
RecentIy, I read online that a Thai retail group announced a partnership with a European real estate developer to launch a new department store in Vienna. This bit of news seemed innocuous enough, like any other electronic blip about acquisitions and mergers I might typically come across while scrolling through morning news updates. But then I read a line stating that the joint venture signified the first foreign owned (even if partial) department store to enter the European market in over eight decades. This news made me think about how it symbolised a completion of sorts — a full circling of the retail story as it relates to Thailand, reminding me in particular of one truly bizarre shopping experience I encountered over twenty years ago while on a walk in Bangkok’s old town.
The circle I mentioned — Thailand’s long love affair with department stores —began around the turn of the previous century. The concept of such emporiums was initially brought in by European entrepreneurs heralding a new era of consumer demand. New tastes, new technologies and most of all, new spending power. Eventually Thais began making their own mark on the retail market. The very first of these was the anachronistically named Nightingale-Olympic department store located on Tri Phet Road, in Bangkok’s Wang Burapha and Phahurat neighbourhoods.
Over nine decades ago in 1930, Nightingale-Olympic was founded by the Niyomvanich family in two modest shophouses across the street from its current location. By the time the present frontage opened its doors in 1966, in what was then one of Thailand’s tallest buildings, the Nightingale-Olympic ushered in a more modern age of shopping — one that was decidedly in stark contrast to its immediate vicinity, an area famed for its street-side market stalls and once surrounded by fortification walls dating back to the capital’s earliest days. Coincidentally, the location of the new department store in Vienna on Mariahilfer Strasse is itself just beyond what used to be that city’s Medieval walls.
When I was young, I remember my Grandmother mentioning to me about shopping at Nightingale-Olympic, not fully appreciating at that time what she was referring to, until one day in 2001, when by chance I walked through its entrance seeking to escape the sweltering heat outside. In fact I was quite unaware at the time what I had walked into, thinking initially it was some kind of second hand thrift shop like the ones I used to visit with my Grandmother growing up in Southern California. The Nightingale-Olympic was most assuredly retro, but not in the way I initially thought.
It wasn’t long before a few well worn signs informed me I was in the Nightingale-Olympic, but that was not what captured my attention. What I had initially thought was a random collection of dated items from a bygone era, was in fact the intentional, sectioned displays of a department store trapped in time — It was as if I had just entered a tomb of retail awaiting the return of customers long since vanished to another world. Everywhere I looked there was nothing that seemed to date from what was my present time. Everything had a faint layer of dust to it, a stillness that I found unsettling. There I was, on the set of an episode of The Twilight Zone. Years later I read an article written by Courtney Lichterman for the BBC that best captured what I had seen that day:
“Inside, the Nightingale Olympic feels more like a living museum diorama than a department store – a Wes Anderson movie come to life. Shelves full of 1950s hosiery in original boxes sit across from stiff-stringed tennis racquets from the ‘70s. In the lingerie section, large, lacy bras hang precariously on rusty tenterhooks, seemingly kept upright by the makeshift counterweight of a 1960s Nightingale promotional bag. Display cases jaundiced with age hold bottles of rare, evaporating Schiaparelli and Christian Dior perfumes. There are deep, progressing fissures in the necks of the store mannequins, and much of the stock looks as if it might turn to dust if handled.”
One thing stood out in my mind from when I first visited the Nightingale-Olympic. It was a signed photograph of Merle Norman, the namesake of the makeup brand around which the store built a considerable part of its reputation. The brand was famous for its “try before you buy” philosophy, as evidenced by the demonstration beauty station which sits centre stage on the department store’s ground floor. Looking elegant and glamorous with her impeccable handwriting, Merle Norman’s image on a counter next to the beauty station reminded me of publicity stills of Joan Crawford from Hollywood’s golden era.
As a business, the Nightingale-Olympic’s story remained confined to within its walls. It would be another Thai department store family whose fortunes would rise, taking their vision of retail into the following century, and now ultimately completing the circle in which the Nightingale-Olympic represented a midpoint. A handing over of the baton in an business race it could not complete. For now though, the story of Thailand’s first department store has not yet come to an end.
It has been over 20 years since I first walked into the Nightingale-Olympic. After reading the article about the ascendency of Thai retailers into the heart of Vienna’s baroque city centre, I decided to repay a visit to see if anything had changed. I had half anticipated the high possibility that the store might not even still be in existence. But there she was, unchanged except to my astonishment, for an undeniably recent coat of paint on her retro abacus-inspired facade, as well as new signage that looked exactly like the old one. Same same, but different.
In a city where overnight the forces of commerce can obliterate an entire city block, and in a industry where trends from one season to the next are necessarily deemed out of date, there was the Nightingale-Olympic, almost exactly the same as I had seen her on my first visit. There were only two things I noticed inside the store that were new. One was the addition of an image of a new monarch, and the other amusingly enough, was a bottle of disinfectant gel, placed right next to the portrait of Merle Norman.
In a final twist of coincidences to this story of retail fame lost and won, the new department store in Vienna will be called LAMARR, named after another of Hollywood’s golden era stars, Vienna’s own Hedy Lamarr. I was also born in Vienna. I think Merle Norman would be pleased.
5 responses to “Thailand’s First Modern Department Store, Trapped in Time”
On March 16th, 1864 a new road was inaugurated in Bangkok, symbolically and literally paving the way for Thailand’s progress towards modernity. At the starting point of this historic road remains a little noticed remnant of one of the oldest modes of transportation.
Do you know where the oldest paved road in Thailand begins? Charoen Krung, meaning prosperous city, starts not in the former European district that housed consulates and foreign owned businesses, but at the southeastern corner of the Grand Palace (known as Mani Prakan Fort), where it intersects with Sanam Chai Road, it is also anchored by the imposing neoclassical Territorial Defence Command HQ (1922), The Temple of the Reclining Buddha and Saranrom Gardens.
Construction on the road began in 1862 at the time when the city was still dominated by canals. Boats, not BMWs ruled the way. In fact, the very first automobiles where nowhere to be seen on what was then commonly known as ‘New Road’ until over thirty years later in 1897 — most likely astonishing locals who were probably still adjusting to the shift from river sampans to horse drawn carriages and trams. Today’s view looking directly outwards onto Charoen Krung Road has remained hardly unchanged in nearly 160 years.
Near one corner of this intersection where Thailand’s push towards modernity began, is one of my favorites — an almost whimsical, largely unnoticed reminder one of the oldest modes of travel — an elegant platform for boarding or alighting elephants.
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