Where I currently live in Bangkok isn't the prettiest of places, I am the first to admit. But then ‘building planning' isn't a forte of any district council here in the ‘City of Angels'.
The high street comprises a single file pathway which disappears altogether in places and people rub shoulders as they squeeze passed each other on the tiling of shop doorsteps. Dogs enjoy themselves though, a little too much as the excessive dogs’ muck suggests. Although Tesco Lotus and a nearby tube station are much appreciated highlights.
My apartment block is very pleasant, though. In fact, bar the guy that insists on slamming his door three times every morning at 5am, it is quiet, clean, safe and modern.
At the time of writing I live in a studio flat, and apart from one other foreigner (a teacher) who explained to me in the lift “he was here for the women” – I think he meant the paid kind, it is just me amongst regular Thai people and staff who speak not a word of English. I don't even have an English TV channel, which is a blessing, especially when I surf Facebook and see half of England obsessed with the modern-day Victorian freak shows like Pop Idol and Big Brother, or whatever other trash numbs people's minds away from real issues.
My humble little abode is my bedroom, living room and office, where I sit tapping away with cups of green tea and a pleasant view of the countrymen building an apartment block from scratch, by hand, for 12 hours a day for less than I earn in an hour and a 1/4 of what I eat for energy. This sight is a stark daily reminder of just how privileged my life is.
These guys are so skilled yet never get the praise they deserve. I had a thought today that every building that goes up here bearing the sweat of the so-called ‘low society' labourers, should have each builders name and picture put on display for all to see on a golden plaque of recognition. This might at least go some way to reminding us that these guys are denied a decent education due to geopolitical circumstances and subsequently exploited by the wealthy for a pittance their entire lives.
So, I live the simple life with not too many belongings, just 25 kg worth of goods to allow me a flight out of here whenever I might need to escape the air of economic slavery that every big city controlled by unforgiving capitalist ideals harbours within its “you can have a great lifestyle too” sales pitch. Three-month stints in the Kok are usually about all I can take before the call of the wild whispers my name.
Tonight, after a mouth-numbing visit to the dentist and editing a couple of chapters of a book for a client, I wandered out to get my “Hygienically packed chicken” – it says that on the packet – from Tesco. Being a Monday evening, the street was in full swing and alive with commuters returning from work and grabbing a bite to eat on the way home.
Thai people don’t really cook at home and eating out at a stall or grabbing a takeaway from a street vendor is commonplace. It's an amazing sight to see the array of food lined up in one street: noodles, fish, soups, fruits, vegetables, desserts, the list is endless.
Since living here I have gotten so used to being able to buy food anywhere, anytime, that it feels alien to be limited to chain stores and minimarts back home. This in turn has made be very conscious of the importance of spending money locally and feeding the local economy. I have fully realised the importance of spreading money fairly amongst local traders and not giving all my cash to the corporate giants who think nothing of cutting the contracts of produce growers who don't meet the unethical requirements of their money spinning operations.
So I got my chicken in Tesco and wandered down the street. I grabbed a hot soya milk served in a takeaway plastic bag tied up with an elastic band, a coconut shake and my favourite North Eastern Thai mushroom soup. As I flitted from stall to stall, I spoke with each vendor, laughed, smiled and felt that community vibe I never feel in the UK, unless I am at a farmer’s market in Devon, perhaps. My parents talk of days when everything was localised and food was bought fresh and sold with a smile. But those days are long gone.
In Thailand, I even enjoy queuing when buying outside because there is interaction and life to watch go by. The fact that Thai people can sell food in this manner keeps the local economy stimulated, and even though Tesco is expanding here and can sell fruit and veg marginally cheaper, there is nothing like fresh, and nothing like the personable service of local vendors.
I get a buzz buying bananas I know were hand picked from a garden, or at least picked from the same country I am buying them in. My taste buds are tickled when I watch the fresh mushrooms sliding into the pot, bubbling along with herbs and spices hand picked from northern pastures.
The sad thing about my homeland (England) is that independent food sellers can’t compete. Local farmers got squeezed as the agricultural revolution conditioned the nation’s diet with processed foods, and local butchers and shop keepers just couldn’t compete with the big supermarkets.
Could you imagine the taxes and licence fees that would be levied on street vendors if they were allowed to trade as they do in Thailand. It would be deemed unprofitable and no doubt breach health and safety standards according to some nerd with a clipboard. So we buy tasteless vegetables and antibiotic ridden meats made in the most unethical ways. We feed our kids ready meals and heaps of preservatives and processed rubbish, and then for a treat we take them to McDonalds!
But can you imagine how exciting it would be if every evening on your street food sellers lined the road with foods made from local produce and influenced by the wonderful mix of culture we have in the UK. But no, it wouldn't happen. And therein lay the tragedy. When you lose your local economy, your village green grocer, your local butcher and your stalls selling homemade cakes on the weekend, you don’t just lose friendly faces and a community atmosphere, you lose quality, healthy food and an abundance of choice and variety of taste.
Perhaps we are missing a trick here, what better way to bring people closer together in such challenging times than selling, cooking and eating food together as one big community.