Hot! Sukhumvit Road Memories

(A 10 year Retrospective from a Jaded Expat)

Article Summary: Before the skytrain, the Sofitel, The Regent and other upscale development, Sukumvit Road had a rawer, more frontier-like feel. Musings by a Bangkok expat upon the days when the pavement still had deep holes, the Old Thermae Coffee shop was still operating, and there was a Lebanese restaurant on the bottom of Nana Plaza.

After 18 hours in a flying sardine can, arriving by taxi on Sukhumvit Road felt like a shot of adrenaline. It was my first trip to Thailand, in the early 90’s, and Sukhumvit Road was more frontier-like then. Nocturnal street vendors, gold-toothed con men, and heavily made-up women with the “we can work something out” look milled about under naked light bulbs and joss stick vapors, creating an incandescent buzz of adventure, lust and greed.

The Bangkok night, warm, moist, sweet and musty, beckoned like the velvety lips of a siren, or perhaps an underfed Venus fly-trap. America, receding in my consciousness became a dream, or more accurately a nightmare that I was fleeing from, and Bangkok became my reality, a reversal in consciousness. Looking back, America seemed like a sterile hospital ward, directed by abusive orderlies and Bangkok was like a reprieve from prison.

Back in the 90’s, there was no skytrain yet. The pavement on Sukhumvit was broken and had deep holes. There were more street vendors back then, everywhere, selling noodle soup and barbecued shrimp all up and down the road. Now, there are just T-shirt and souvenir dealers and the food vendors have been relegated to side streets.

The old Thermae Coffee shop was still operating then and when Nana Plaza and Patpong closed, those who wanted to party until dusk would head to the Thermae coffee shop. Back then it was a basement dive always manned by a dour-looking policeman. Inside would be the various relics from the Waterworld and cheapskate johns mingled with a few wayward souls there just for the atmosphere.

I used to stay at the Mermaid’s Rest Guest guesthouse on Soi 8. It was a bungalow colony type place such as those you would find on a southern island, but it was in the middle of the city. The only decent restaurant on the street back them was the Maharaja Indian restaurant. The walls of Maharaja were made out of ornately carved wood and painted boldly in alternating red and green. My friend and I used to save the meal there for our last day in town. For some reason, the colors all seemed brighter in Thailand and the food all tasted better.

There used to be a Lebanese restaurant on the bottom of Nana Plaza. Nowadays, an Arab restaurant just wouldn’t seem to fit there anymore. I first went to the Nana Plaza Lebanese restaurant with my Egyptian friend Pierre and he started talking to the manager in Arabic. He then translated for me. He had told the manager that he wanted the restaurant to bring us a few salad plates but he wasn’t very specific about what kinds of salads and left it up to the manager’s discretion, a gesture of middle eastern gentility to let the manager suggest what was appropriate. The second thing he asked for was middle eastern escorts.

I had never known that there were Arab ladies of the evening. Pierre commented that every continent has at least one country or area that is reserved for sinners, even the middle eastern world. The tourist destination for sinners in greater Arabia was Morocco.

A little while later, platters and platters of food came and sitting a few feet away from us at a separate table were some queen-sized exotic and non-Thai looking girls looking at us inquisitively. The food was awesome but somehow it seemed like Greek food mixed with Arab food. There were little pasties and mixtures wrapped in grape leaves, falafel, humus, the works and the food kept on coming.

We continued eating and Pierre, although nodding to the tastiness of the food, said that the Lebanese manager had tricked us by bringing us too much food. Pierre explained that the Lebanese are known as the best businessmen in the Middle East and the manager had taken advantage of Pierre’s old school Egyptian politeness by sending us more food then we could possibly eat.

The exotic girls girls began to feel bored and annoyed and eventually left after seeing that we weren’t interested. Later on, Pierre and I would discover other great Arab restaurants in Soi Arab in between Sukhumvit Soi 3 and Soi 5, where there were dozens of restaurants all specializing in different regional middle eastern cuisine.

In the early 90’s, Silom and Patpong was the more established venue; more alive and interesting than Sukhumvit. Now, there are so many new buildings on Sukhumvit and so many other projects under construction. Sukhumvit has taken over the pre-eminent position as the major street in Bangkok.

Krung Thai Bank has built two giant buildings near Soi 1, the Nana Center is nearing completion down also on Soi 3. The Ambassador hotel, once a thriving venue, is finally ending an era and that whole area in front of Soi 11 is going upscale. Two new five-star hotels, a residential condo, business offices and shopping mall are going up in the lot in front of the Ambassador.

The area between Soi 4 and Soi 6 is almost like a foreign country; it is so oriented to Western tastes, which can be good and bad. The good is Ronny’s New York Pizza, I just discovered, and this pizzeria delivers great New York style pizza to the lower Sukhumvit area.

The Raja hotel on Soi 4 used to host boxing matches several years ago in an outdoor ring. It was interesting for me because a lot of guys from my boxing gym used to fight there. It was a low level of competition that was suitable for guys with some training but who weren’t ready for big stadium fights.

There were mainly farang (foreign) fighters from my gym, but there were also a few Thais. The Thai trainers wouldn’t fight because they were just too good – former champions that would destroy their opponents without much of a competition.

We went one night with Jitti, Rajasak, Tanomsak and a bunch of other people from the gym to watch the fights. The boxing “show” was on. The boxers were people I had seen before. The punches and kicks were dramatic but always stopped short prior to actual impact. The boxers were real boxers maybe at one time, possibly ranked professionals, but now the show was choreographed and they looked somewhat like hacks (at least to us).

After the staged fight, the actor-fighter would walk around and ask for money from the spectators. They came to our table and then paused and looked at us. There was Rajasak, three-time Rachadamnorn champion, Tanomsak, the former heavyweight champion of Thailand and various other professional boxers, all probably much higher ranked than the show fighters ever were. The fighter actors looked embarrassed realizing whose table they were at. Tanomsak, Rajasak and Jitti just looked impassively at them and didn’t smirk or show any outward signs of contempt. Just motionless. The actor fighters slunk away, tails between their legs.

Sukhumvit looks less like a frontier everyday. The sidewalks have been cleaned up and the sky train is world-class. New condos and shopping malls are going up on Soi 3 and Soi 11. It seems only a matter of time before the older venues like Nana Plaza are pushed out as real estate prices rise.

The Sofitel and the Regent hotels are going up in the lot formerly occupied by Clinton Plaza. They are joined by the Trendy office, condos and shopping plaza. The Ambassador on Soi 11 is mainly relegated to tour groups but it appears it can no longer compete and is in its final death throes. With all the new hotels going up, what will happen to the older established four-star and five-star hotels like the JW Marriot and the Landmark?

I also wonder where the infrastructure is to support all these ambitions projects. The sewers under Sukhumvit are stinking canals running out into real canals where the fish have all died. In front of some buildings, there is a noticeable odor of waste.

I basically am here for work. if not for my job, I would prefer Koh SamuiKo Phangan or even Chiang Mai. But Bangkok is still the heart of Thailand and Sukhumvit has some of the best darn restaurants in the world.