The Fernweh-farer: Nine Nights in Bangkok
Updated: May 31, 2020
Bangkok hums. A reverberating drumbeat snakes down every alleyway and builds to a crescendo as one steps through the cross-cut intersections of the main arteries. The minute you step from the sliding doors of icy air-conditioned BTS cars or firmly plant a foot outside your taxi, the city pulse rises as quickly as the soaring surrounding temperatures.
Strap in because this pace will not cease until rubber breaks contact with the earth on one’s return home, or onto the next destination that is likely to pale in comparison.
If New York City lays claim to the concrete bed which does not sleep, then Bangkok does not so much as sneak in a refresher nap. A sprawling network of interconnected neighborhoods that, despite going full-tilt from the crow of ubiquitous backyard roosters, manages to find another gear of communal gathering and revelry once night falls.
Chalk it up to a welcomed and deserved break from the daytime humidity and oppressive temperatures that coincide with off-hours for a percentage of the working community.
The liveliness is seductive and reminiscent of days spent aimlessly wandering the gritty East Village of Manhattan. The Thai capital delivers a similarly romantic element of grunge that says, “yes, people live here…if you don’t like that, lots of other places to visit.” I love that about a handful of truly unique and larger-than-life cities. Where some may see grime and uneven tripping hazards in desperate need of code enforcement - I see beauty, character and a worthwhile challenge to explore.
As steeped in history as Bangkok is, it also feels unmistakably young and assured. Many Southeast Asian hubs, Singapore particularly, pull back to reveal a perceptible gap between the elders working to maintain a strong sense of culture and those who have never known a world without iMacs. This, it seems, is not the case in Bangkok. With no scientific evidence to back up my claim, one simply gets the sense that Bangkok’s young population is just as vested in maintaining a measurable level of cultural authenticity as the aunties and uncles.
Somehow the Thai people maneuver a healthy level of detachment and approachability in motion as seamlessly smooth as noodle stall vendors fire multiple rusted pots and dishes over dancing flames. The city rewards travelers willing to indulge in some cultural bravery. The open-minded and adventurous traveler can thrive in lieu of starving here.
Like any city its size, proud neighborhoods are key to the experience and deliver on varying sensory takeaways. If, like me, one prefers to dance with what brought you as much as possible and walk the streets, then prepare to sweat and find yourself questioning the scale of virtual maps that promise a jaunt of “just 4-5 blocks.” With so much to share, the sprawl is real and the city’s reach is broad.
Given the desire to explore the diversity of offerings, even the most devoted stroller like myself will question if time is better spent eliminating blocks of time traversing one point to the next —a particularly strategic decision for the middle of the day if at no other time. Luckily, a dead-simple and highly affordable public transit system is a reliable convenience to gain some respite and save some time between destinations. Also, with much of the system snaking through the rising steel and glass timbers in elevated construction (think the Chicago “L”), one does not sacrifice scenery for expedience.
The hustling sharp-dressed office mecca of Silom blends into the less structured and embracing Bang Rak, which then melds into the flavor cornucopia of Chinatown and Yaorawat Road. This only scratches the surface of the communities in the city. One highly consistent variable across each are delightful local residents and, of course, the prevalence of street food on every corner…and points in between.
Locals seemingly have a sixth sense for detecting a visitor in need of guidance versus one that is managing just fine on their own. It is uncanny. The times I found myself truly turned around or unable to overcome a language barrier in the haze of smoking meats, a well-timed local appeared at my side to place one hand on the wheel and steady the ride. It was somewhat eery but always welcomed. Just as quickly as they appear, they slip off again in an effort to let one fend for themselves as much as possible and grow into the encounters.
No reflection on Bangkok, or Thailand in general, can escape unapologetic reverence of cuisine. Therefore, I will skip asking for permission or forgiveness. The food culture and level of simple execution is relentless as hell. In my travels, I have yet to find a location that rivals Bangkok for density and consistently mind-blowing quality of offerings.
Discussions with locals inevitably worked their way back to traditional preparations and delicacies. I had taken great interest and become inquisitive about the Buddhist philosophy of the region with those I encountered, but even that topic eventually led full circle to best practices for purchasing food and questioning if I knew where my next meal would take me.
As daunting and frantic as the physical layout and energy of the city is, the street food scene is even more so. General consensus and casual observations lead one to a safe generalization that most people in the city do not cook much at home. Why would they? With space at a premium and world-class meals available at any number of walk-up curbside carts. The accessibility, affordability (even by local standards) and fast-pace of life in the city marries so well with the setup.
One can eat as fancy or as pedestrian as one chooses. There is certainly no basis to disparage the spots that require a name on a list and, god forbid, an actual chair. But there is something so egalitarian and primal found in bare-bones preparation and the complementing tailbone bruising concrete seat. To eat on the streets of Bangkok is to be on display for the passing masses. Tokyo can keep their window displays of oddly lifelike plated reconstructions. Here, to peruse the menu is to simply pick an alley and take and amble. Dishes in the wild clue one into the selection most desired, and one even picks up a few tips on how to consume and construct some of the more niche items.
Never before have so many delicious tastes and smells greeted me from all directions and all hours. The fact that so many eat out, leaves me with a lingering curiosity about how these food traditions live on so well. Surely, hopefully, there is some tucked away knowledge center where the future chefs of the city are mentally storing the steps to carry-on.
Already a sucker for a food tour, latching onto one early in my trip to Bangkok was a no-brainer. I cherish the familiarity such a tour imparts for a city grid and navigating neighborhoods. A knowledgeable guide, like the one I entrusted in Bangkok, will poll his attendees beforehand and assess their comfort with more adventurous items — including a subset of spots with a handful of “brave” items to test the palate. I also pay close attention to ordering protocols and food safety best practices to call upon later and at least pretend to appear like I know what I am doing.
As a solo traveler, an early tour also enhances the chances one might encounter fellow food-obsessed travelers that may want to meet up again during the stay. Few things are worse than making a connection over the course of a delicious day, only to have this exchange.
“So, how long are you guys in the city for?”
“We leave tomorrow.” (Insert sad horn sound effect)
Our early rendezvous point was in the heart of Bang Rak, and the neighborhood would serve as our strolling grounds for the day. Sitting slightly southeast of the heart of Bangkok, is known as the “Village of Love.” The name evolves from the prevalence of early missionary hospitals within the blocks and the Thai translation for “to take care of.” I fell for so hard that when I returned to Bangkok after a brief interlude in Chiang Mai, I made it my launching point once again. It is the perfect balance of all things Bangkok: a little glitz, a lot of grunge and an abundance of generosity.
Our tour began the way many do in this place — with flame griddled pork skewers, called moo ping, and plastic bags drooped with baseball-sized orbs of sticky rice. The local vendor already sweating profusely at 8am over the added heat of bright orange embers of a makeshift charcoal griddle.
These utilitarian grill stands are ubiquitous, inventive, and particularly prevalent in the morning. Our guide jokingly referred to the combo as “Thai bacon and toast.” The perfectly grilled protein fats pairing with the cutting tackiness of the palate-cleansing starch. The key to solid moo ping is pork that mixes the right blend of interwoven lean meat and fatty ends. This stall was as exceptional in output as it was modest in setup.
Other stops included nods to Thai staples like milk tea and mango sticky rice. Lunchtime approached and pressed out way through a crowded shop for savory roasted duck noodles that come with one of the strongest reputations in the region. Prachak Roasted Duck has been in operation for over 110 years and the invested time shows. Dishes are plated with efficiency and the juices from the perfectly sweet duck cut through the imperfect grooves of the generations-old flatware to soak into the accompanying rice.
I was particular to include an itinerary that would intermix a sampling of Isaan food. The Isaan Province in Northeastern Thailand is considered by many the home of the preeminent food region of the country. Isaan cuisine often includes a side of sticky rice, strongly flavored sauces, sourness, chili heat, and frequently presented as salads. Knowing this particular trip would not land me in the region, being treated to signature dishes like Laab and Som Tum Thai by an auntie who called it home originally was a true delight.
I was well aware of the reputation for an enhanced spice level among true Isaan preparation, and one should consider it legitimate guidance. It is the best kind of culinary heat — one that builds post-ingestion. In other words, one is able to fully enjoy the complex flavors but then buckle up for the afterparty in the void left behind.
Our Isaan lunch came with a side dish re-telling of the story of King Rama IV, the fourth monarch of Thailand who ruled for seventeen years in the mid-1800s. His reign over the country served as inspiration for The King and I. We were assured that, while there was a King Rama and Anna, nearly every other element of the film is fictionalized. Upon release, the film was banned in Thailand.
Later in the trip, I joined another guide for a trip outside the city. Seeking an authentic floating market experience, I diligently searched for a local willing to shed light on a spot less frequented by tourists. This has become harder to find in recent years, so my effort involved traveling a bit further than usual outside of the perimeter of the city.
My guide had years of experience and credibility with the local vendors, and that familiarity bred a lack of imposition. Nothing compares to the audible buzz and mingled scents of an open-air market. Combine that with the somewhat sulfurous haze over the waterway canals and you have a winning sensory experience.
Roughly one foot of clearance separated me from the waiting waters below as we ripped through the canals at high-speeds thanks to the repurposed V6 automobile engine strapped to the back of our matchstick wooden hull. One cannot help but crack an expressive grin and lean into the force of the wind between destinations. I was quick to recall the advice from my guide: “Keep the mouth closed as much as possible. No drink the water.” Ok, so maybe you modestly enjoy the ride.
Stopping at dockside stalls and makeshift fill-up stations and convenience stores established by entrepreneurial residents is inspiring. They re-purpose wooden docks as repair shops and income-generating commerce centers for locals and visitors alike.
We downed multiple miang kham — a flawless grab ’n go street food staple of roasted coconut, dried shrimp, peanuts, ginger and garlic wrapped in a banana leaf one-bite teepee. Throw caution to the wind with anything wrapped in banana leaf. My experience is that the unassuming presentation leads to outsized rewards.
Displays of local fruits and vegetables beckon the occasion to tie-up and stretch the legs through the stalls. Stacked displays of jackfruit, mangosteen, rambutan, lychee, mango and more remind me that the fruit game in Thailand has forever ruined me to the unimpressive by comparison sections of my domestic grocer.
This only scratches the surface of feasting wonderment to explore while in the city. Nighttime on Yaowarat Road in the city’s Chinatown is a tome all to itself. Bangkok’s version of the Magnificent Mile, except substitute name brand storefronts with all manner of food carts and shoulder-to-shoulder stool-seating.
There are other things to occupy your time in Bangkok besides eating delicious things, but the allure of gluttonous enjoyment will always take precedent - at least on the initial few visits.
Alas, my time in Bangkok was up. Left with the sense that no amount of days is really enough to explore all it offers with complete satisfaction, I feel this is one of the endearing qualities of incomprehensibly large cities such as this one. No matter how much you try to counter its energy with your own, you will be left wanting. No matter how big your gaze, your stomach will dwarf your appetite.
There are a handful of truly exceptional global cities. The hallmark of each is the ability to warmly embrace you while leaving you unwaveringly wanting more. Bangkok is in a world-class of its own and we shall meet again soon.