It’s 5am in the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport and I find myself huddled at a tucked away food court table competing for the few convenient plugs. Shiny plastic forms of hot air balloons loom overhead in a sort of 70s kitsch timewarp postcard. Up an escalator and down a long hallway that seemed like a passage for port workers, past massage parlors, and closed lounges, past the McBurger joints, we find a spot with regional Taiwanese food. Nothing opens till 6am so we’ve camped out with the other international vagabonds charging our devices after the 13 hour flight. The sounds and smells of fryers turning on and clinking equipment. Each façade rolling open one after the next. A burger joint called MOS that I recognize from Japan, but here the burgers use thick discs of rice instead of buns with either seafood or Australian wagyu beef. Both include quinoa. Katy opts for a hot bowl of noodles with pork belly and a “Taiwan Beer”. Drinking beer at twilight has always been a little guilty pleasure of mine when traveling, before the new time zone sets in. It’s only 2pm at home, I think. But I suppose it’s always 2pm somewhere.
I order what looks like a giant tray of ban chan with a bowl of congee and a beer. The crowds filter in with the morning light so we peruse the themed airport waiting areas before our last leg to Bangkok. There’s a cinema lounge with a movie playing, a library lounge with books, a Hello Kitty lounge, an orchid lounge with hundreds of real orchids and flowing water.
By the time we reach the hotel in Bangkok we’ve been traveling for 24 hours. Katy’s found a boutique hotel on a pedestrian-only path on the canal surrounding Ban Phan Thom, the old town neighborhood along the curve of the Chao Phraya river.
But there’s no time to rest. Have to go out.
It’s mid-November and we’ve missed the monsoons but it’s still hot and steamy. We follow the canal towards a crossing. The homes spill out onto the narrow sidewalk which many families use as a social space to have dinner and relax. It feels like we’re moving through people’s private spaces but no one seems to mind. And occasionally a scooter jets through ducking under low bridges and over hangs.
Mixed in with these social spaces are elaborate shrines or fun lawn accoutrement. I’m not sure which. Collections of statues and homemade ponds and flowers. The path turns to dirt and narrows but even here we cross small stores selling cokes and fresh fruit.
At the next bridge we cross and head towards Phra Sumen street where google seemed to think the most food stops were located. I’m dreaming of an ancient food cart with those low green plastic chairs and tiny tables decorated with unknown and threateningly spicy condiments. But it’s 3:57am back home and the jet lag is kicking in brutal.
The first few street stands we pass are intimidating. Clearly local joints with dark soot stained and intimate spaces. Negotiating a new currency and language at this exact moment sounds exhausting beyond our limits so we take the pussy route and slip into a café serving local food and take our chances there.
The bulk of the room are tourists so we can let our guard down. We stumble through introductions with the waiter, even here language is a bit of an issue, but we’re handed menus with pictures so we’re in the clear.
In the corner is a ten foot shrine to the Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn. We’d passed a couple dozen of these things on the drive. On every street corner it seemed. In front of any police station and municipal building. There’s a certain megalomaniacalness that I find a bit unsettling. But locals seem to embrace it. I’ve read it’s illegal to talk shit about the royals, even stepping on currency could get you locked up because it has the King’s face on it. So I’m not going to bring it up in casual conversation.
It’s not the normal noodles and sauce food you expect at the local US joints. Mostly simple meat on rice and noodle soup dishes with a heavy focus on pork. A full entrée is only about 50 baht which works out to about $1.50. So we’re giddy with the options. We both get a pork with egg over rice dish and I tack on an order of local sausage and a bowl of shrimp dumpling soup. Plus some fresh orange juice and a Thai iced tea to wash it all down (The tea btw is rockstar. It’s the same as the stuff at home just better.) The pork is saucy and perfect, crispy but yielding. The sausage is amazing, a good crisp skin with mildly sweet porkiness and a leafy herbaceousness that gives it a crunch and balanced counternote to the meat. The soup is surprisingly good, a light broth with a mish of coarsely cut local greens. Katy says she could eat it every day.
There’s a coffee stand out front and I’m feeling nourished so I try to navigate the all Thai coffee menu. “Thai iced tea” is nearly ubiquitous but it’s as if no one has ever heard of “Thai iced coffee”. Coffee menus are of the average US variety, lattes, espresso, but I don’t know the word for condensed milk and the coffee guy is looking at me like I’m ordering tree grubs. There’s a pictorial on the menu and I order the o-chompu in defeat. It had 3 ingredients so what could go wrong? As it turns out chompu or chompoo is a “rose apple” which is added to the latte. I can’t identify the flavor. Not unpleasant. Sweet.
We also get an order of pa ton go, these deep fried donut holes we get topped with orange sauce, apparently a specialty of the house as it’s also the restaurant’s name, Patongo.
It takes a while to figure out the exit strategy. What looks like the owner is darting from table to table. People are paying him from the table. But eye contact and nods have not done the trick. I decide to flash some paper baht to him as he passes and it finally slows him down. He glances at the table without really knowing what we had ordered and says, “300 baht”, about $9 for 4 entrees, 3 drinks, and the donuts. “You come back tomorrow.” with a big smile.
With first contact survived we stroll up Sip Sam Hang road towards the ruckus of a street market and here we get our first understanding of what street food means in Bangkok. The streets once overflowing with garment shops and tourist joints had all been replaced by mobile kitchens. Some only small carts grouped together, some full-fledged restaurants with tightly spaced seats and tables for nearly a hundred, all carted in and assembled night after night like clockwork, the sidewalks now kitchens too cramped to walk and parking spaces, dining areas with low green plastic seats and tables dotted with mysterious condiments just like I had envisioned. The two blocks between our café and the main intersection leading to Rambuttri Alley was now home to a half dozen noodle joints. And beyond, an explosion of every type of snack and treat. Fruit stands with piles of mangosteen, rambutan, jackfruit, durians, rose apples, pomelo, sugar-apples, papaya, sapodilla, lychee, longan, pitaya, salaks, langsat, jujube, and carambola with whole families running the operation. Large carts with 40 types of premade dishes or humble grills charring meat on a stick to order. Durian stands with piles of spiky orbs and saran wrapped fruit pieces and roasted insect carts with signs saying “Photos 10 baht”. Juice stands and deserts and a whole world of things I had never seen or had any hopes of trying them all. Grills with whole salt packed fish or squid or corn on the cob. Just when I think I’ve identified a street taco dotted with bright orange cheese it turns out to be a crunchy sweet desert that I can’t identify.
Street hucksters try to sell me custom suits in 10 foot intervals and the ever present mantra of “massaaaaje” (massage) fills the air, a happy but relaxed bustle of tourists of many regions, a true eclectic mashup, getting hot food stuffed into clear plastic bags and sipping on drinks with purple dendrobium orchids as garnishes.
We’re tired but grab a table and watch the crowds pass by, listen to the live music of a nearby band, and sip a few over-sweetened drinks. Life is good.