Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (66) 2-237-3362
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July 20, 2008

A Crossroads of Two Cultures

Mirrors, curlicue balustrades and hanging flat-panel TVs
have become indispensable features on once-drab restaurant terraces on Sukhumvit 3/1, otherwise known as Soi Arab, the colorful pedestrian alleyway on the northern fringe of the Soi Nana night-life area in Bangkok.

The popularity of Soi Arab, which is sandwiched between the Sukhumvit 3 and 5 roads, has seesawed ever since Saudi recruiters of cheap Thai labor first discovered it in the early 1980s. These days, flush with oil cash, more Arab tourists than ever are showing up on the tiny street and finding in the spruced-up restaurants and shisha (water pipe) cafes the ambience of their native countries — with fewer of the cultural strictures. For non-Middle Easterners, the bustling quarter is an oasis of Arab exoticism in the heart of a bawdy Bangkok neighborhood.

One sign of the lucrative Arab market is the surge in new agarwood shops. The increasingly endangered Aquilaria tree is prized worldwide for its expensive resinous heartwood (called oud in Arabic). In Islamic cultures it’s burned as incense or distilled into musky nonalcoholic perfumes. With prices for noncultivated agarwood rising to $10,000 a kilo, few local shopkeepers welcome mere browsers. However, visitors to Yusoof Shop (6/17; 66-2-655-7521) can gaze unimpeded at various grades of wood chips under glass as well as a large not-for-sale collection of ornate crystal perfume flasks and vials.

Bright lights reflecting off myriad metallic surfaces and shiny pseudo-Egyptian decorations turn night into day at Nasir al-Masri (4/6; 66-2-253-5582; and the adjacent Nefertiti (4/8; 66-2-655-3043). Bordered with potted plants and lamps, the lane’s two flashiest restaurants and outdoor shisha bars anchor the corner of a side alley. Both people-watching places feature a similar range of pricey pan-Arabic cuisine — heavy on lamb — plus a smattering of Thai and Indian dishes. The older and friendlier Nasir opened in 1986. Each restaurant has a pair of gigantic TV screens blaring Egyptian pop divas and major international football events.

Though Shahrazad (6/8; 66-2-251-3666) offers neither terrace nor TV, its reliably well-executed dishes served by hijab-clad Thai waitresses make it the restaurant of choice for many resident Arab expats. Open since 1983, the street’s oldest restaurant offers a tasty stuffed pigeon (320 baht, or about $9.70 at 33 baht to the dollar) and succulent lamb tikka (170 baht) in quiet wood-paneled and mirrored surroundings.

Dishes at tiny Petra (75/4; 66-2-655-5230) don’t necessarily compare with similar fare at Shahrazad, though the hummus “bayroty” with chopped celery leaves is deliciously unusual (90 baht). But no other Soi Arab restaurant can match its neighborly ambience, which feels like an Arab version of “Cheers.” Abu Dabah, the gregarious manager, chats volubly to his many regulars, jokes loudly with waitresses garbed in polyester hijab (they ignore him), and shuttles between the outdoor pita oven and the 10-table interior.

While Thailand’s political and economic problems have subdued other once vibrant parts of Bangkok, bustling Soi Arab teems with an energy that is more Middle Eastern than Thai.


Copyright 2008 New York Times/Jennifer Gampell