Photo by Jarrett Wrisley
Last night, while wandering through the neighborhood of Soi Rangnam, the smell of fish sauce, lime juice and roasted chilies filled the air. This soi (a word that means 'lane' rather than 'road') is packed with Issan restaurants. According to my friend (and gifted cultural observer) Philip Cornwell Smith, this part of town is where the Northeastern (Issan) migrants who came to Bangkok for work used to live. While rent prices have forced many of the laborers out, their soulful food remains. And so does some of their music.
After a stroll, Philip and I ended up at a little bar called the Raintree Pub. The bar, toasted by years of smoke and spilled whiskey, is dark and charming. Buffalo skulls stare down long snouts from the ceilings. It's a time capsule -- a Thai-style honky tonk that time forgot.
At the Raintree last night, pairs of rugged women and trios of men sat in booths, sipping Thai Rum or Johnny Walker. Then the four-piece band came on, armed with guitars and accordions, a harmonica, a mandolin, a fiddle and a traditional instrument whose name escapes me. And slowly, soulfully, they started to play pleng puer cheewit, an amalgamation of country, folk, blues and traditional Thai music. People swayed and slowly danced, or picked through spicy salads and little fried bits of fish from the kitchen. An old lady went from table to table, selling peeled slices of pomelo and jackfruit.
Bangkok gets a bad name for a small portion of its nightlife. Rarely do you read stories about the other side of life after dark here -- the sensational, sleazy one is just too tempting for most writers. There's a world of live music bars, tiny cafes and bookshops, kooky hipster hangouts and riverside spots, where you can sit and watch the world float by.
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