“Where are you from?”
During my week in Bangkok sans Stacey, I thought I would be looking for ways to spend my days. Aside from a few errands (Burmese Embassy, US Embassy, laundry), I figured they would be comprised of a lot of downtime and solo dining. Turns out, just when you think you’re alone in Bangkok… you’re not. It’s the traveler’s crossroads with people passing through en route to other South East Asian countries, getting visas, or staying for an extended period of time because Thailand is one of the few countries in the region that doesn’t require a visa. It’s easy to come in and out, meet people, eat delicious food and be on your way (or not). There are also a ton of expats, and some I pegged as travelers had actually been working there for many years. What surprised me most was how friendly people were- both locals and farong (foreigners). I’d be sitting in a bar or restaurant and someone would strike up a conversation. Some only lasted as long as I was sitting at X place, but a few extended beyond that. There was the Greek guy on holiday from his job as a bush pilot in South Sudan (fascinating), the Princeton grad students on fellowship and the English teacher who had been living in Bangkok for more than 15 years.
While eating tom yum soup at a stall near the Chatuchak weekend market, a woman from NY sat at my table and struck up a conversation. We exchanged phone numbers and met up on two different nights. Getting a local sim card in Thailand is extremely cheap and easy. Any of the 3,000+ 7-elevens in Bangkok sell them, providing a local phone number that you can use to stay connected. It amazes me how much technology has advanced in the 12 years since I last traveled alone. And yes, I did say there are more than 3,000 7-eleven stores in Bangkok alone; sometimes two right across the street from each other. So when someone gives you directions that involve turning left at the 7-eleven, its best to get a second opinion.
On another warm and breezy night I ran out for dinner at a restaurant stall around the corner from my guesthouse. These casual eateries are found everywhere and usually consist of plastic tables and chairs with extensive menus. They are also cheap and (most often) delicious, making up for the lack of ambiance. Because the place was so busy and I was only one person at a four-top, the restaurant staff sat two people at my table. One was a teacher from Idaho and her friend was a local Thai woman. After dinner I joined them at a hole-in-the-wall bar where we talked about jobs (or lack thereof for me), relationships, etc. That’s how things go- you step out for a quick bite to eat without even brushing your hair, and end up drinking beer at some random bar with people you met two hours ago.
A few days later I found myself at a wine and tapas bar with Mai, the local, and a few of her friends for all-you-can-eat/drink wine and tapas for the amazing price of $10. From 6-8:30pm every Wednesday, Wine Connection in Sukhumvit is packed to the brim with foreigners gulping down wine and feasting on cheese, meat, salad, pizza and more. Fantastic.
On my last night in the city I met up with Mai and Ming (the NY-er) for dinner and a trip to this “American bar” at the US Embassy that Mai knew about. It was the oddest and greatest place. We walked up to an unmarked door where Mai pushed the buzzer to let us in. We then proceeded through a guard gate where they held our passports before entering the bar. It was mostly empty and sold a wide selection of American beers for a very cheap price. I think it was some sort of military/veterans establishment, but whatever it was, it was awesome and definitely not in the Lonely Planet. I love going to bed at night thinking I never could’ve imagined how the day turned out.
Street Food Paradise
Great street food can be found all over the world (my point of reference being my own limited experience, but moreover, that of food and travel God, Anthony Bourdain). I think, however, that Bangkok is the city to which others aspire. It’s foodie heaven with options on literally every corner. Yes, you’re supposed to be careful eating street food, and yes I had a few stomach rumbles after ingesting, but to avoid it completely is just plain foolish. The heart of the city lies in its food and Thais take tremendous pride in it. For some people it just takes time for their gut to adjust to the new mélange of ingredients, so good practice is to take it slow, which of course I did not. It’s hard when each step carries with it new, intoxicating smells. Eating raw fruits and vegetables that you don’t peel yourself is another eater’s caution, but how can you NOT have green papaya salad with its perfect balance of Thai flavors: sweet, sour, salty and spicy? The answer is, you can’t not have it! To fully appreciate the local flavor, you’ve got to accept the chance of a few small stomach bouts. It’s a small price to pay.
After Stacey left and I had some time to kill on my own, I took a class at Silom Thai Cooking School. They cater exclusively to tourists, and really pack people in, but it’s also well-organized with very entertaining teachers. There are three areas for each group of eight students: the prep room where the teacher instructs and students chop, the firing station where each has a gas burner and pan, and the dining room where the fruits of our labor are enjoyed. From our candid chef I learned no one makes their own curry paste anymore. Great, I can throw that recipe away! Further, he said prepared items (like curry paste and even full meals) are of excellent quality. Thais are very discerning, and if it’s not good, they won’t buy it. What I found most surprising is that many Thais know how to cook, but few do so regularly because it’s cheaper to eat on the street. Pad Thai, for example, uses many ingredients and is kind of a pain to prepare, but you can buy a steaming hot plate on the street for $1. Who knew eating out could be cheaper than eating in? It also begs the question: Why are there so many cooking classes? 😉
Below is a small sampling of Bangkok street food, most of which I devoured:
*Note: I had REALLY hoped to return to Bangkok at the end of January for a week of gorging myself before heading to Burma, but the heated political situation made that less and less of a good idea. I was to leave Bangkok for Yangon on election day, which the opposition is vehemently protesting. At best it could mean hassles traveling around the city and to/from the airport. At worst, possible flight delays or cancellations and violence at the protest sites. I have to thank Mai and Greg, the extremely kind guesthouse owner at Room@Bangkok, for their honest on-the-ground assessment of the situation. While it was a hard call to make, I decided to play it safe and skip Bangkok (much to my mother’s delight). For many reasons I hope a resolution there is reached soon, not the least of which is my desire to return!