Pantip Plaza in Bangkok, Thailand

By day, it’s a wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-ceiling megapolis of everything electronics.

Shiny new laptops, desktops, printers, and fax machines are packed into the center of the first floor, a showroom for the latest and greatest gadgets to make their way to Bangkok. These premium-priced items are surrounded by booths full of stuff you might find in a yard sale, or down an unkept, poorly lit aisle in a forgotten corner of K-Mart: cheap flashlights, plastic alarm clocks, batteries, sunglasses, belts, memory cards… basically, practical junk.

Most of those booths, however, specialize in entertainment: books and books full of bootleg DVDs and CDs, video games, garden-variety porn. Towards the rear, a number of “electronics repair shops”. (Quotes because my girlfriend once brought her laptop in to have the Wi-Fi card looked at, and had it returned to her with the Wi-Fi card still not working, but with the added bonus of her entire hard drive wiped clean without notice. This courtesy was performed free of charge.)

This is just the first of five floors at Pantip Plaza, Bangkok’s (in)famous electronics clearinghouse on Petchaburi Road, and just a few blocks down from our rented condo at the Platinum Fashion Mall. Upstairs, more of the same–lots and lots of it–as well as an aging little food court, a few department-store style electronics chains (think Best Buy with a Thai twist), and (I think) one or two of those walk-in plastic surgery shops that are popping up all over the city.

You could easily spend a few hours getting lost in here, especially if you decide to buy any DVDs. Here’s how that works: once you’ve finished flipping through the massive books full of all the available titles, you write the picks down on a piece of paper, negotiate the price, then wait as your seller calls in the order and the DVDs are ripped elsewhere in a mysterious satellite location. They’ll usually tell you “20 minutes”, but depending on the day, time, and weather, it could take well over an hour–even two on occasion. It’s all quite a scene and one every visitor to Bangkok should check out, even if just for a quick walk through.

The Sun Goes Down

By night, after the lights have gone out, the books of porn have been zipped shut, and the tourists have been whisked away by grinning tuk-tuk drivers waiting out front, the long steps in front of Pantip become somewhat of an early-evening hangout. A spot to pre-party with friends over a few cans of Leo or Chang beer–bought, of course, at one of the approximately 52 7-11 stores located within a half-mile radius–and snacks from a handful of street-food vendors parked on the sidewalk.

There are few things that are quite as satisfying as downing a cold beer outdoors in Bangkok on a hot, sticky night; here on the Pantip steps, with the sun down and the city lit up, those beers were like a ticket to a live show I could watch over and over again.

We’d sit there surrounded by locals unwinding after a long day at work, watching the candy-colored taxi cabs jockey with tuks-tuks and daredevils riding motorbikes in Petchaburi’s insane traffic. High-pitched whistles, blown by long-deaf traffic cops, rang out like sirens. Oh, how those persistent fucking traffic cops blew and blew and blew those piercing fucking whistles from sun up to sun down, whether their whistles needed to be blown or not. (They never needed to be, but this is Bangkok.)

The familiar ring of 7-11’s front door sliding open and shut, open and shut. Thai movie soundtracks blasting from a booth selling DVDs in a nearby alley. The occasional rat–and not-so-occasional roach–scuttling by on the weathered, cracked sidewalk and down a hole underneath the stairwell for the pedestrian overpass. The long white walls of the Indonesian Embassy to the left, a maze of sois directly across from us on the other side of Petchaburi, and Pratunam Center off in the near distance to the right. My apartment just 3 minutes away.

Looking to have a drink with locals during your next visit to Bangkok? Start with the five places I wrote about over on Lonely Planet this week. If you’re in the neighborhood, though, stop by a 7-11, grab a few bags of fried seaweed and a bottle or two of Chang, and pull up a stoop on the steps of Pantip. Watch the always-entertaining theater that is an evening in Bangok unfold.

Photo Credit Keng Susumpow