In an otherwise non-descript Bangkok neighbourhood, adjacent to the city’s Chinatown, Bangkok’s decaying automobiles go to die.
Talat Noi, a rabbit-warren of parallel streets and perpendicular sois, occupies a triangle of the Samphanthawong district immediately to the south and west of the art-deco Bangkok Railway Station, until it abuts the milky-coffee swirl of the Chao Phraya River.
Bangkok’s Chinatown is a well-established tourist hotspot, especially as night falls, dinner beckons and Yaowarat’s neon signs light up the street in a riot of fluorescent colours; a picture-postcard of the archetypal Chinatown. But a short step away from the neon and the noodles lies an altogether different side to Bangkok’s Chinese history.
It is a district of tight alleyways, occasionally widening or narrowing, taking ninety-degree right and left turns, and sometimes just stopping altogether. It’s a area of old shop-houses where the bakeries, laundries and workshops operate below and family life goes on upstairs. It’s a neighbourhood of crumbling moss-greened buildings, where weeds poke through cracks in the masonry and sprout from gutters; where abandoned spaces peek from behind padlocked gates.
And it’s a place where the old trades and the old people go on much as they have done for so many years, ignoring, or ignored by, the modernity that is so rapidly changing the face of so much of Bangkok.
The blacksmiths who once plied their trade in an area known as Chiangkong have evolved into mechanics and car-parts shops. Now-defunct engines are pulled apart, sorted and recycled for use as spare parts. Huge seemingly disordered mounds of grease-blackened cylinders, valves, connecting rods, crankshafts, pistons, camshafts, starter motors, dynamos and flywheels occupy street corners and entire workshops, spilling out onto the pavements. Equally greasy mechanics hammer away at the metal and sparks fly from power tools as the reconditioning goes on in countless cheek-by-jowl workshops. If there is an order to the chaos, it is not apparent. It’s a wonder there is a market for such a volume of parts, but the hammering and sorting goes on.
The smells of oil and grease and solder from the workshops mingle with the smells of baked and fried food which waft out of the bakeries and street food stalls – talat noi literally means “little market”. One unnamed alley is packed so tightly with markets stalls as to be claustrophobic. The umbrellas and awnings covering the stalls create such a dense canopy that it’s a rare shaft of sunlight that hits the street. It’s single-lane traffic for the trader’s carts and barrows if not for pedestrians too.
In a move that surely has more to do with enterprise than preservation some of the locals have recognized that the authenticity of the district has tourist appeal; that not everyone wants temples, markets and fake handbags; that many tourists want to immerse themselves in something approaching the everyday Bangkok; the old Bangkok. A number of low-cost, backpacker-oriented hostels have opened-up for business and subsequently opened-up the area for tourism.
Not that some of the locals would appear to notice. The residents, shopkeepers and tradesmen carry on their work regardless. As we pause to marvel at the decaying shell of a Fiat 500 which, although intact, is destined never to move again, at least not in one piece, a group of mechanics are boisterously working their way through a bottle of whisky, paying no heed whatsoever to the camera-toting tourists who now find their workplace something of a curiosity.
Talat Noi has also become a home for street-art, or graffiti, depending on your point of view. San Chao Rong Kueak is decorated with a number of relatively unassuming but charming wall paintings depicting street life; an old lady practicing tai chi, an assortment of bicycles and rickshaws, a sequence of car wheels and a seated painter writing Chinese slogans onto the wall that for a moment looks like the artist himself. Charoen Krung Soi 32, which otherwise appears to be a hang-out for resting taxi-drivers, is home to a dozen or so large murals, ranging from the violent, to the surreal, and on to cutesy-anime-inspired cartoons.
Bangkok’s Chinese community pre-dates the founding of the capital. Chinese traders had been coming here since the 16th century, originally settling where the Grand Palace now sits. When the capital was moved from Ayutthaya to Bangkok the Chinese were requested to move a couple of miles south to Yaowarat, and the area now known as Chinatown.
So aside from the art and artisans the area is also rich in local history. In the southern corner of Talat Noi, on Soi Wanit 2, stands the Portuguese Holy Rosary Church. Founded in 1787 and Bangkok’s oldest place of Christian worship, a few minutes inside its cool interior transports you to a pious Europe. A few shakes north, where Soi Wanit 2 dissects Yotha Road and in a prime riverfront location stands Bangkok’s first local bank. Now a functioning branch of Siam Commercial Bank, the yellow-and-white colonial-style building is so beautifully maintained it looks new.
Being mercantile as the Chinese are, the area was home to numerous wealthy merchants, some of whose residences still remain in various states of disrepair. A little further north from the Bank and down one of the many wandering arms of Soi Wanit 2 is one of the most notable, the Sol Heng Tai house, consisting of four ornately decorated houses surrounding a central courtyard. No longer occupied by the family, that central courtyard is now occupied by a large, ugly, utilitarian swimming-pool.
And of course, religion is everywhere, whether it be the sizeable Chinese-Vietnamese Jao Sien Khong shrine, the swathes of coloured ribbons which adorn so many trees, or the individual shrines smouldering away in the back of each and every shop-house. The smell of incense adds another layer to the ever-changing air.
Getting around Talat Noi couldn’t be easier. Get a bicycle, get pedalling, and get lost. It’s a small area, less than one kilometre in length and a few hundred metres wide. The place is so labyrinthine that most of the maps are useless anyway. Just duck down an alley, turn left, turn right and see what you find. If you get lost, turn around and find something else.
Talat Noi is a wonderfully charismatic and authentic Bangkok neighbourhood; old and elegant and gritty (or greasy as the case may be) at the same time; and as far removed from the modernity of Siam Square or the hedonism of Khao San Road as can be imagined.
And if you need a carburettor for an original 1950’s Morris Minor 1000, there’ll be one in there somewhere.