Written by a friend of mine, Jack, a longtime Bangkok resident. A true, interesting, colorful piece about life in Bangkok, from a perspective we don’t often get. Soi is Thai for smaller side-street. Jack writes:
Here’s a piece I wrote during my darker period in Bangkok.
I’ve come to know and love some street dogs. Like most people, I hadn’t really paid them much notice. They existed off my radar. They do in a very real sense live “off the grid.” They’re not coddled like pets in the West who are handed everything without lifting a paw. They literally never know where or when their next food will come from. I’ve come to know their lives a little. It’s a challenging Darwinian life. It’s Lord of the Flies on four legs but surprisingly more humane. I sometimes think they’re better than people. No, make that a lot of times.
I wouldn’t have even encountered them in any meaningful way had I not myself been caught in a downward spiral. But that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say that they had become a part of my milieu, or I theirs. Take your pick.
I accepted my plight. I was stuck in a poor, working class neighbourhood on the outskirts of Bangkok. And I would probably never escape it. I was living on a ridiculously small pension. But at least I knew I was going to eat and where I would sleep, however primitive the nature of the accommodations were.
Ironically, it’s alienation that most suits me. I am literally a stranger in a strange land here; in fact, I have never seen another foreigner on the street in my area. But I am less alienated here than when I was paid well in the West and led a “comfortable” life. That was Miller’s “air-conditioned nightmare” for me — actually less life affirming than the raw conditions that are now my reality. But I digress.
With no funds in the budget for air-conditioning or entertainment, combined with the seemingly unrelenting heat of Bangkok, I would simply have to get out of my flat sometimes in the evenings. I needed a slight breeze and some respite from the heat. I would walk down to the local 7-11 and buy a cheap bottle of beer or a coffee and sit on the steps of a business across the street.
At first I had to wade into a sea of barking soi dogs protecting their turf to get to my seat. But I was not to be denied. They learned pretty quickly that I was coming there and sitting down and that was that. Live with it, boys, life’s all about accepting change, however grudgingly.
And it was a motley crew for sure. Over time, I named them. There was Mama for obviously apparent reasons. And Blackie and Blondie and Swish and Butch. Butch was a particularly impressive specimen of maleness! Big, aggressive, foreboding. He eyed me suspiciously. Was I a competitor? How much of a threat or inconvenience would I be?
But on successive nights I bought a couple of foot-long hot dogs with cheese and would bring them over for the guys. They were slightly heated in the microwave and sliced up and a little wooden skewer was included with which to dispense them. The first few nights were a little chaotic. Impatience reigned. A warm, cheese-injected hot dog was the filet mignon of the street, apparently! Anyway, they were more or less distributed equally. It’s difficult to say exactly how equitably under the circumstances. But I did my best.
It didn’t take long for them to recognise my gait. They’d come running down the street to greet me at 3:00 am when they saw me coming. I pointed to the other side of the street and barked, “Go on, get over there!” And they ran back to where they had been napping or keeping watch. And in a few minutes I’d have my drink and their treat. Eventually, they all lined up patiently for their alternating bites. The chaos was gone. They all seemed to know that they would get their share. That there was no longer any need to be savages.
After they got fed, they’d all curl up and take a nap, and I sat in their midst and did some email or reading on the web with my Blackberry. It was a nice ritual that went on several times a week for months. I didn’t come to think of them as friends. I came to *know* them as friends. Even the times when I couldn’t afford their treats, they loved to greet me and curl up around me when I did my reading. They still came up and nuzzled me, loving the physical contact. I always played with them a bit, and they loved it, even being quite vocal during the process. I don’t think they had much real physical contact with humans, even though they relied on cajoling some handouts from the 7-11 clientele. I petted and patted them and playfully pulled their ears, etc. I’m sure it meant at least as much as the food.
My presence in this neighbourhood has always been an extreme oddity. I feel a bit guilty saying it’s almost by design that I don’t speak Thai. I’ve made no effort whatsoever. There are two English daily newspapers and I have access to the internet and my email through my Blackberry. So I’ve been a bit spoiled. And since I’m a loner by nature, I don’t feel any particular incentive to socialise. The social isolation really doesn’t bother me.
Anyway, I am an oddity here. And it’s the sort of area where no one speaks my language, either. Though, strangely enough, the one guy who sees me and engages me in conversation is obviously certifiably nuts. He’s told me as much, mentioning all the medications he’s using! Hilarious. Maybe there really is a god, and he has a sense of humour!
I ignore for the most part how the Thais see me. Usually they just stare. Sometimes smile. This is, after all, “the land of smiles.” It’s amusing to see the confusion on their faces because they believe all foreigners are rich. So what is this foreigner doing sitting virtually on the street in this neighbourhood drinking a bottle of beer or a paper cup of coffee!? I like to think I’m challenging their view of the world!
Once, very late at night, I was enjoying the quiet and the fresh air and the peace. My guys were fed and fast asleep all around me. I noticed someone coming down the street. He was muttering some things. It broke the stillness of the night. He was on the other side of the street and when he reached the point which was about opposite to me, he yelled something. I looked up but then went back to my reading. He yelled again, like he was very angry. Now I was a bit annoyed. I looked up and it was obvious that he was yelling at me. And without really thinking, I made a dismissive wave of my hand and said, “Fuck off!”
He screamed some more Thai. It was one of those moments when you don’t have to speak the language to know that trouble is brewing. This time I just gestured with my hand a movement which I believed conveyed the aforementioned sentiment to Get Lost! He had a bottle in his hand. He threw it onto the street and the sound of the exploding shards of glass was not a welcome one. Then he started straight across the street for me. It was a very assertive stride. I realised then that I was going to have a problem with this guy. He wasn’t just a drunk. He was a very angry drunk.
I was mugged one time in Vancouver late at night when I was carrying a laptop computer. The mistake I made was trying to make a run for it. I would not have made that mistake had I not been so close to my apartment building. I was almost literally across the street. But I was 50 years old and not as fast as I used to be and was struck down by a blunt object. End of story. Military historians and strategists universally tell you that under most circumstances, cutting and running doesn’t work. You get “routed.” I love that term.
That lesson for me about confrontation has been hard earned. You could say, in the vernacular of the computer crowd, that it is now a “hard wired” part of my programming — I don’t run anymore!
So when he came hard charging across the street, I just sat there. When he got a little less than ten feet away, he stopped. And then he delivered another angry statement and then began to move toward me. Ok, now my mind was racing. I was just on the very verge of deciding how I would meet the attack when something amazing happened.
The air was immediately filled with the most savage, primitive growls I’ve ever heard. I looked to my right and saw Butch’s bared teeth. Then I looked to my left and saw Blackie’s. I had no idea they had so many teeth! The guy who was once approaching with such conviction, immediately stopped and a look of panic transformed him completely. He started to slowly back up. I started to laugh. I said, “That’s right. Fuck off!”
And he faded into the night as abruptly as he had appeared. And I put my arms around these closest two dogs of my crew and continued to laugh.
It struck me very deeply because the thing I value more deeply than anything else is loyalty. Yeah, I love brains and cleverness and humour and wit and beauty. But when someone puts it all on the line for *you*….what more needs to be said? My soi dogs have class and character. More than I can say for most people I’ve met. And I laugh with the most love and appreciation whenever I think about that incident and my soi dogs.