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Human traffic

  • 25 April 2006

At 8pm on a Wednesday, I walk around the Sukhumvit neighbourhood in Bangkok. It is warm enough to wear a singlet and thin cotton pants. The air is thick with spices, fire and exhaust fumes. People with filthy clothes and grubby legs sleep on footpaths. Neon signs in every colour hang above the streets. Most of the buildings are dirty. As I blow my nose, out come black bits I have inhaled. I walk among crowded foot traffic of tourists and Thais. Foot jams. I must wait for people ahead of me to move forward. No tooting but lots of touting. Vendors try to sell me fake Fendi bags and cheap watches. I buy some ‘adidas’ socks for the asking price of 20 baht (less than one Australian dollar). Next morning, in the breakfast room at my hotel, other tourists tell me, ‘It’s much cheaper in Chang Mai,’ and, ‘Only pay two-thirds of the price they ask for or you’re being ripped off.’ In Sukhumvit, I cannot avoid the sight of white sex tourists passing arm in arm with slim, pretty Thai women. Did the men bargain for the service or pay the asking price? At a place called the Down Under Bar, men watch live sport in a bar decorated with kangaroos and beer barrels. Stools and tables are set up on the front verandah. Thai women stand around the bar on their high heels talking to the men, their long black hair brushing the men’s skin. Near the front door, two Thai girls and an old white man sit on stools and lean intimately into their conversation. Farther along the street, small children beg with pleading looks and plastic cups. Taking advantage of the fact that Western currencies buy so much in Thailand, female tourists treat themselves to massages, manicures and pedicures. In Australia, it is not cheap to have someone rub the dry skin off your feet, scrape the dirt out from under your nails, and smooth their hands over your aches and pains, but in Bangkok, such services are very cheap. Meals are sold by street vendors who pack up their shops at night on a flat kind of wheelbarrow. Takeaway shops. Some vendors whip up omelettes; others pour hot soup into bowls filled with fresh ingredients. The soups have strong flavours of chilli, ginger, tamarind and coriander. Food is cheap. Freshly squeezed mandarin juice is only