It was a typical day in Bangkok, muggy, the air heavy with fumes from cars going nowhere in traffic and I was showing a couple of new faces around town. That was my routine back in those days, slowly getting to know the city with the help of others even less acquainted with their surroundings. It was all about the heat, the humidity and lots of walking.
We spent most of the day working our way through the labyrinth of shops and stalls that make up the Jatujak weekend market. Independent designers, second-hand clothes and shoes, knock-off designer goods, t-shirts, pets, trinkets… if you could think of it, it was probably there but that wasn’t a guarantee that you’d find it.
We had been lugging our purchases for better part of the day and most shops were closing down by the time we decided to look for the exit. Despite thoughts of deep fried pork, fish soups and crab legs crowding our minds, we managed to figure our way out. Knowing that delicious Chinese food awaited at the other end made the long ride in the MRT worthwhile.
I had been to Chinatown once before, for the Chinese New Year celebrations when the main road is closed off to vehicles and Thanon Yaowarat is completely overtaken by foot traffic and street vendors. It’s no weekend market but the stalls are stacked on top of each other along the sides of the road and the smell of food and the sounds of chatter smother you from every direction. Chinese New Year is a long weekend of stage shows, music, eating and mayhem, a time when Chinatown drowns in bodies, thousands of them. But this night was just a regular night. Daylight was quickly fading and I did not know what to expect.
We hopped on the subway from Chatuchak Park and headed to Hua Lamphong, practically the full length of the line. Once we got out, I began to retrace the steps I took that day, many moons before.
I’m pretty good with directions, specially when it comes to places to which I’ve already been, landmarks do the trick but the landscape had shifted significantly without the crowds and the stages. Besides the hard-to-miss Temple of the Golden Buddha, there were no signs telling us where to go and we couldn’t set ourselves adrift in the human currents that once flowed along the streets. While I wasn’t expecting any of that, I was hoping for a little more help.
I got nothing.
A street light would have helped ease the tension slowly creeping into our conversation. I kept my walk steady but the stray, nervous glances of my friends were hard to ignore. I tried to assure them that we would soon get there, I just didn’t know how soon or whether we were even headed in the right direction. My stomach grumbled but not out of anticipation.
We couldn’t have been walking too long but my feet felt like they were racing a marathon. My heart raced even faster. Conversation devolved into incongruous sounds as we tried to fill the emptiness of the night with our own voices. Our jittery small talk trailed off as we rushed through one of those garden variety unlit and deserted blocks, the ones you speed through hoping not to get mugged. And just then, we caught a glimpse of heavy traffic, food stalls, and neon lights.