If you’ve ever been to Thailand, you’ve heard this greeting over and over, starting with the flight crew on board Thai Airways. Accompanied by a wai (a folding of hands at chest level, a namaste of sorts), this traditional greeting is delivered in the sweetest sing-song with an inflexion at the end (If you’re a woman, you say Sawatdee-kaa). If you’re interested, this lovely little video will show you how to greet a Thai person correctly.
Thailand, formerly Siam, is a predominantly Buddhist nation, its heritage a rich, old tapestry of culture and tradition that has stood the test of time through wars, economic growth, modernisation and the coups that have dotted its more recent history. Thailand is the only South-east Asian country never to have been colonised, primarily because of a long succession of able rulers who shrewdly exploited the rivalry between French Indochina and the British Empire. It is believed that Buddhism entered Siam from India during Emperor Ashoka’s reign and is the reason for a lot of the cultural similarities between the two nations. Seem familiar?
Bangkok is the capital city – a hodgepodge of huge malls and shop houses, skyscrapers and slums, ancient and modern. The city’s reputation as Asia’s leading city of sin precedes it. Especially in India, a weekend in Bangkok is often a popular reward for targets met or a job well done. If you’re a guy, every conversation about your trip, before or after you’ve made your journey is punctuated by the assumption you are (or were) up to no good. It’s a like a weird word association game.
“I went to Bangkok?”
“Ooh, did you get a Thai massage? Happy Ending?”
“I’m going to Bangkok.”
“Very nice. Wink Wink. Nudge Nudge.”
Bangkok does not give up her secrets easily to the outside world, with good reason I’d think. On the surface, it would seem that if you’re not visiting to indulge your appetites, there just isn’t much to see and do in Bangkok. Outside of shopping and a few famous temples, that is. Most visitors unaware of the city’s many layers will spend a day here to shop and gawp, before leaving to spend the bulk of their holiday in more touristy parts of Thailand like Phuket or Chiang Mai.
This is quite an unfortunate misconception, though. Bangkok has more than a couple of days worth of temples and activities, cabarets, night shows, including this dazzling spectacle at the Ratchada Theatre. There’s enough to do and see and experience, and you can research your next trip here. There’s also a hidden Bangkok that very few know of and even fewer are brave enough to experience first hand. Bangkok is a place to wander and explore and indulge, to satiate appetites of a different kind. Those of you who know me must have figured out by now that I’m talking about food. Food makes my world turn. And the food of Bangkok is an experience I’m not likely to forget in a while.
Thais do most of their shopping and eating on the street. Food is inexpensive, and very few Thais do their own cooking. Bangkok has hundreds of street food vendors selling everything from chopped up fruit, rice, curry, stir-fries, noodles, soup, fried snacks, drinks and desserts. Wherever you go, the smell of bird’s eye chilli fills the air. I’ll admit the choice is limiting for vegans and vegetarians, but for the rest of us, Thai street food is gastronomical heaven. You can choose from fish, meat or poultry, all cooked fresh. It’s inexpensive and delicious. And a word of advice – listen to the chef if they refuse to make your food too spicy, though – Thai heat is in a realm of its own and not for weak stomachs.
Another uniquely Bangkok experience is the storefront eatery. Tiny shops with 3 – 4 tables that serve some of the best food in Thailand. Typically family run, the food you eat at these tiny little holes in the wall will make your heart sing and your wallet jump for joy.
Raan Jay Fai
This tiny storefront eatery nestled in a dimly lit Bangkok lane is easy to miss. It’s run by Jay Fai (Sister Mole), a diminutive septuagenarian whom Martha Stewart calls the best chef in Thailand. She is quite the character, the first person you spot as you enter, working a large wok furiously at the entrance, wearing goggles better suited to welders. A family run eatery, Raan Jay Fai is a popular destination for locals and visitors looking to eat off the beaten track.
We ordered the house speciality, Kai-Jeaw Poo or Thai Crab Omelette, an egg roll stuffed with crab meat and cooked over a hot coal fire. It set us back 1000 Baht (roughly INR 2000), yes, OUCH, but it was a generous serving and more than enough for two.
This one-kilometre long strip of unadulterated chaos is a haven for foodies. Locals and tourists alike flock here every evening to indulge in street cuisine influenced by China. Packed with a dense concentration of shops and street food carts, Chinatown is an experience not to be missed. The sights, sounds and smells of Chinatown are a welcome assault on the senses, essential ingredients for a memorable evening.
Situated in a dimly lit alley is a food cart called Fai Keaw. Scattered around the food-station are tables with stools to sit on. Quite like any open-air restaurant, except this one is right in the middle of the street. It’s always full, and you can expect to queue up to be seated.
The menu is, to say the least, impressive. As we queued up, not very patiently, I watched the chef artistically working his wok, deftly tossing and flipping the ingredients for the dish he was making. He threw himself into his movements, aware he was the centre of attention, demanding an audience. All the while the lady standing next to him barely moved even as she chopped and sliced, scraped and shredded. Watching them felt like I was witnessing an elaborately choreographed dance. A riveting tale of opposites.
We ordered the shrimp tempura, deep fried shrimp in chilli garlic paste and clams. It was a simple, yet filling meal, delicious and memorable.
Pad Thai is the most famous noodle dish of northern Thailand. It’s Thailand’s most famous export other than its curries. Upscale restaurants in Thailand do not usually serve this delicious dish and with good reason – it should be eaten and relished at the many street vendors who serve it, some of them for as little as INR 100. Depending on the variant you order, Pad Thai consists of steam cooked dry rice noodles stir-fried with ingredients like eggs, tofu, vegetables, seafood, chicken. It is flavoured with tamarind pulp and nampla (fish sauce) and garnished with dried shrimp, garlic, shallots, red chilli, palm sugar, and served with lime wedges chopped roast peanuts.
We sought out Thip Samai, a legendary Pad Thai eatery known for its serpentine queues of people waiting to be served or just wanting to order takeaway. The charcoal fires that heat up its many woks and add a unique flavour to the Pad Thai are lit at 5 am in the morning and stay burning long into the dead of night.
I ordered the most popular version of Pad Thai – Pad Thai Haw Kai Goong Sot – Pad Thai wrapped in an outer layer of cooked egg. The chef who cooked up my meal first fried shrimp in oil and then folded in a batch of steam cooked thick dry rice noodles. He then added in the rest of ingredients, flavouring and garnish and mixed it all up with his metal ladle. The repetitive clacking of the ladle hitting the wok as he stirred the mess around is one of the most Pavlovian sounds I have ever heard. My salivary glands were on high alert. He then beat a couple of eggs in a really hot wok and made a thin crepe-like omelette. When it was ready, he wrapped the noodle mix in this egg wrap and voila, my Pad Thai was ready to be eaten. Just writing about it brings back the delicious smell of this incredibly tasty dish.
The Floating Markets of Bangkok
Floating markets are a unique feature to Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. In earlier times, communities in Thailand were built along the banks of the river. The abundance of adjoining canals meant that floating markets became community hubs. With modernisation and infrastructure development, most of them have either shut down or moved overland. A few remain, most of them tourist attractions. Taling Chan Market, Tha Kha, and Damnoen Saduak are the most popular ones, with Bang Ku Wiang Market the least touristy of them all.
We took ourselves off to Damnoen Saduak, about 100 kilometres outside Bangkok. Time, it would seem, has stood still here. It’s a relaxed and carefree atmosphere, paddle boats up and down the river, each occasionally stopping to explore the shops on either side that sell everything from produce to food to handcrafted baubles. It can get quite crowded, and you inevitably jostle for space; knocking into another boat is common fare. Thai men and women of all ages operate the boats. It’s especially fun to see little old ladies ferrying people half their age and probably twice their size with absolute ease. The boat operator will stop at any ‘shop’ you want them to. You can window shop or grab a quick snack, meal or dessert from one of the shops lining the banks or even from some of the vendor boats. For the chronic shoppers, you will find a whole range of trinkets here and nowhere close to the price you’d pay for them in the malls. You can buy everything from intricately carved games of Ludo to embroidered handbags and puppets.
Even a month in Bangkok is not enough to do justice to its many culinary delights. And sadly for me, we weren’t in Bangkok long enough to try out all the street food and shopfront eateries I wanted to. I plan to go back and correct that soon, but in the meanwhile, if you want the rundown on eating and activities in Bangkok, take a look at Nomadic Matt’s superb blog. Or bookmark this excellent travel guide to Thailand, curated by the good people over at CoWorker.
And, the next time you are in Bangkok, skip the malls. Walk down the streets. Eat as the locals do. There’s nothing quite like experiencing community than when you share a meal in a new country.