I’m walking along the chaotic road after my visit to a temple, feeling as if I’ve really played a part in Thai culture. So many Westerners in Bangkok, they only come here for – you know. You walk down the right street and it’s just offered up on a plate. I’m a good Christian man though, and I would never do that – there’s no harm in a bit of window-shopping, but it’s not what I came to Thailand for. That’s not the real Bangkok, right? So once I cleared my head this morning I headed out to Wat Po. There’s a serious amount of gold leaf on that Buddha, you know. The sun is roaring down on everyone now as I walk confidently along the crowded pavement.
I love eating the street food here– it’s always so cheap and convenient. Every time, just as you start to get hungry, a food market appears like magic. I wander into this one, and up to a stand selling meat skewers. They smell good. The girl cooking them gives me a big smile.
“Sawatdii ka,” she greets me. That means hello. She’s quite nice-looking, but not as eye-catching as some of the girls I saw last night. Obviously not – if she looked like that she wouldn’t be working in the heat of the day here, would she!
“Chicken?” I ask, smiling back at her. I always like to be polite.
“This one chicken!” she replies, bobbing a smile, and gesturing the ones on the left. “How many?”
“How much?” I put in. Always good to start haggling first, you know.
“I give you three for eighty baht, sir.” Her smile is so wide, she must think I’m a bit gullible.
“Fifty,” I propose.
I pause, long enough to make her worry that she’s lost the sale, but she doesn’t offer any reduction. I count out the notes and hand them over, and she puts the skewers in a little bag with some sauce. I thank her and walk down to the end of the soi, so I can watch the river flowing past as I eat. It’s such a relaxing, peaceful country to be in.
The fat farang comes up to my market stall, huffing and stinking of sweat. He hasn’t shaved this morning, and his trousers are covered in dust from the street. He reminds me of when I first arrived in Bangkok, a clueless girl from upcountry, and my face sours as I remember.
I’d got off the bus in the middle of this city of chaos, walking slowly and trying to look for the friend who’d agreed to meet me. I stared around at the signs written in English letters, even noticing the strange foreign snacks on the 7-11 stand. I could barely believe I was still in Thailand. I knew I must look like a gaping idiot and was furious for myself for not knowing what to do next.
There were two old farang guys sitting with a couple of dark-skinned Thai girls to one side. One of the men beckoned me over, and I approached without thinking.
“HEY!” he shouted, “you want get drink with us?”
I had never heard English from anyone but my schoolteacher, and it was hard to understand his words, let alone his intent. I turned to one of the girls, and then started to register her clothing. Short skirt, tight silver vest, ridiculous heels. I saw her bright red lips scowl at me in return, as she appraised my simple clothing and tattered bag.
“I’m meeting a friend na ka, where should I go?” I asked in our common isaan dialect.
She laughed mockingly, and replied in deliberate, harsh Bangkok Thai. “You asking me for advice? You want me for a friend? You want the job I could get you?”
I flushed. No, I didn’t want anything to do with this woman. She stuck her hand out and ran it down my cheek. “Poor nong isaan,” she said in a baby voice. “It’s hard to be a good girl in the big city. You come along with us, you’ll have money to send back to your family in the next week.”
The farang men were watching our conversation and smiling, evidently having no idea what we were talking about. They openly stared at this girl and then me in my baggy old jeans. I wanted to slap the pair of them, wishing it was them who were being openly mean. Instead, I lowered my eyes. “I’m going to meet my friend,” I murmured. “She is getting me a job at a restaurant. Thank you for your help.” I turned my back and walked away, hearing the group’s mocking laughter behind me, making a mental note that the first thing I would do was to learn to speak with a Bangkok accent. And that the last thing I would ever do would be to talk to any farang scum.
“CHICKEN!” the sweaty blue-eyed farang shouts at me, bringing me back to the present with a jolt. Two years later, these men still all look nearly the same to me. I wonder if he is aware that he is also miming the bird’s wings with his arms. I imagine his arms covered in feathers, and a beak on his face – the strutting around in the dirt wouldn’t need any change of course. I despise what they have done to my sisters so that I don’t have to despise my sisters, though it is a bitter blow to give a bird-brain so much power.
“Sawatdii ka,” I reply, smiling in welcome and pointing to the skewers on one side, “this one is chicken. How many?”
I smile again, resisting the urge to narrow my eyes and spit, squeezing it back through my shoulders and out to sprout dragon’s wings that would help me fly away. “I give you three for eighty baht sir.”
“FIFTY!” As he speaks he raises his right hand, fingers waggling wildly.
I widen my smile. “Eighty baht, sir, with sauce, is very good price.”
He pauses, as if the decision needs heavy thought, but I see his hand moving towards his trouser pocket already. Sale made. I grab three of the skewers that have been cooking too long and slip them into a plastic bag with a few spoonfuls of chilli sauce. The man slowly counts out four twenties, each of them rumpled from being stuffed into his wallet the previous time. Is it not possible for someone to have a lot of possessions and still take care of them all? It makes me wonder if there is any logic in reincarnation. If I live a good life and make a lot of merit, does it mean I’ll be reborn as an ugly lout with no manners? The man walks away, past the dogs panting in the shade by the wall. Sometimes I wish I could just lie on the pavement all day like them. I could certainly do some lying down and have more money to send back to my parents. But no. I’d rather work in the hot sun and come home stinking of grease every day. I’d rather stay poor and be the one selling the meat.
My life has never really been interesting. I eat what I can, I sleep where I can, I lounge around on the pavement. Apparently animals get treated better in Thailand, because Buddhists take care of us. Yep – Buddhism says you should take care of every living thing. Not that it seems to stop them eating meat. Mind you, their third precept is to refrain from sexual misconduct – that’s just as much the joke. A man can buy anything he wants in the streets around here. And then, according to Buddhists, if I’m a good doggie I might get reborn as a human. Lucky me, huh? It’s incredibly patronising, but it’s better than that Christian stuff – it never even occurred to them to explain what would happen to a dog after death. Something to do with us not having a soul, whatever that might be. If I don’t have one, it’s because I didn’t get enough food when I was a puppy. Of the three of us you’re hearing from though, I was the only one born in Bangkok – if anyone has a right to choose their life here it’s me. Not the blue-eyed stink bomb, not the chilli-mouthed isaan bint. I can see them talking together now. My nose picks up a mix of aggression and insecurity in the man. And she is baring her teeth back at him, obviously defending her territory. As her hackles rise further, the man picks up the meat and retreats. The female has clearly won.
I guess we’ll find out about this reincarnation thing soon enough now. My body is being destroyed as we speak. Did you think I was one of those mangy dogs watching from the shade? Oh no. Some wretched child trapped me last week, stripped my bones and sold my flesh. And the last bit of my carcass is currently in a certain plastic bag, covered in sweet chilli sauce. It’s a dog eat dog world, isn’t…
isaan: North East region of Thailand, or people from this region
na ka: particles to add politeness to a sentence
nong: familiar term for little brother/sister
sawatdii ka: hello
soi: side road
Wat Po: famous Buddhist temple in central Bangkok
About the Author
Josephine Crimp is British, but has spent the last three years living and working in Bangkok. She was born in 1982 and studied Literature at the University of Essex, before training as a children’s librarian. She speaks fluent Spanish and is continuing to learn Thai. She enjoys creative writing, and also blogs at Holiday Read, recommending fiction for travel in a particular country.
Photography by Ian Mackown