Land of Smiles
I’ve been based in Bangkok for the last two weeks, and it has been a welcome change in pace after three full-on months of travel.In fact, it has almost felt like I have had a home again, as I rented an apartment and immediately enrolled for Thai classes at a language school in the city centre.
Tonight, as I stand on the rooftop of my apartment building in the quiet Northern Bangkok suburb of Ari, with rain drizzling delicately on me, I can see in all directions the rhythmic pulsing of little red lights on the roofs of skyscrapers and I can hear the unabating quiet drone of traffic on the many intra-city motorways that surround me. There is evidence in every direction that this city sprawls on a gigantic scale; that it never sleeps; always alive with the Asian dynamism that I have become accustomed to in Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo and Beijing.
During the day you cannot help but feel almost overwhelmed by the sensory overload that bombards you: the mass of people on the streets and raised concrete walkways, the intense heat and humidity of the tropical climate, the range of smells – occasionally a deeply unpleasant smell of open sewers and rotting discarded food and then followed by the most intensely delicious aromas of the street food ubiquitously found on every little corner, the beeping of thousands of horns on motorcycles and tuk-tuks and cars and buses.
Here on the rooftop I cannot smell anything but the fresh tropical air; I cannot discern any individual noises, and I have space to think. Asia (specifically East and South-East Asia) is a very special place. As you may have gathered from my posts about Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing, no two places are quite alike – each has its own unique characteristics – but there is a common thread running through the entire region.
The sudden slowing of my ‘travel pace’, combined with the juxtaposition of Europe and Russia with Bangkok, has really made me think. Asia seems to be a place of optimism and belief in a better future, a place where the young vastly outnumber the old (and, as such, set the cultural and economic scene), and a place where there is an unbelievable ambition and work ethic. This stands in stark contrast to the “Old Europe”, where I have been living for the last decade. That is not to say that Europe is not a great place, but it seems to me that the overarching narrative of the day is one of myopic apathy; we are afraid of what the future holds, yet we seem to be too comfortable today to want to do anything about it. We have a sense that our huge debt piles, aging (and shrinking) populations, declining educational standards and warming planet are going to haunt us in future, yet we are rich and would rather ‘live in the moment’.
In my experience, there is no more intoxicating place in the region than Bangkok. I have met some of the friendliest people and ate some of the best food in my entire life. My trip started with a visit to the central shopping district, Siam. Were it not for the street food and strange odours, you could just as well be in Singapore or Hong Kong, and there is nothing special per se about acres of shopping malls (apart from the cinema complex in the Paragon shopping mall, which is the best cinema I have ever visited).
I quickly became bored of shopping centres and decided to walk to Bangkok’s version of Central Park, Lumphini Park. It sits between three important districts: Siam (the shopping district and central transport heart), Silom (the business district, where most banks and corporates have their offices), and Sukhomvit (an enormous street running from Siam to Cambodia, the upper part of which is the glitzy residential part of Bangkok).
It’s very cool to see that the city provides exercise equipment for free to all residents. I wouldn’t really want to be doing any powerlifting at noon, with typical temperatures in excess of 30 celsius and stifling humidity, but it is still great to see that it is an option. At night and before sunrise there are these huge aerobics classes in the park, complete with loud music and shouting locals. These seem to be ostensibly free too, though there is a hat for voluntary donations.
On a slight tangent, in case you were wondering, yes this man in the photo below is wearing a range of dried animal penises and is tattooed from head to toe, but at least he is having fun…
Over the weekend I decided to go to the Chatuchak Weekend Market – allegedly the world’s largest market of it’s kind. Typically I wouldn’t really be one for markets, but this place turned out to be pretty awesome! With over 15,000 stalls, it really is huge and you can buy anything from antiques and garden furniture to books and clothing. Just look how colourful it is:
A few days later I went on a long walk through Yaowarat, or Chinatown. There is lots of interesting architecture and some cool temples (which I will share in a future post), most noteworthy of which was this old colonial-style customs house on the bank of the Chao Phraya River. It now houses the fire department, but the place is really crumbling and looks epic.
On a side note, Thailand is one of the only countries in the entire region never to have been colonised by European powers. The king did, however, cut a deal with Britain and France toward the end of the 19th century to avoid any occupations (he had to give up parts of Laos and Burma), but that meant that the Thais remained independent. This is something that they are very proud about!
Anyone who has been to Bangkok, or knows someone who has been to Bangkok, will know that it is pretty famous for its food. And rightly so. Food seems to be absolutely central to the Bangkokian way of life, with thousands of street vendors on every corner and in every market. It is also substantially cheaper to eat outside of the home than cooking for yourself, which is interesting. Eating is not limited to street food either – there are excellent food courts in every shopping centre, serving anything from traditional Thai dishes to Krispy Kreme and Auntie Anne’s.
I can dedicate several thousand words to the food, but I have decided not to. I’ll simply share some of my most memorable dishes.
This is Pad Thai. It looks more like a ball of egg surrounded by some peanuts, bean sprouts and lime wedges, but inside this warm parcel of eggy love is where the pad thai lives. I guess it’s a pretty boring thing to try in Bangkok, but I assure you that this is the best pad thai I have ever had. The thing that really stuck out for me was the ‘smokeyness’ and the superb balance of sweet, salty, spicy and sour. Oh, and the three huge prawns sleeping inside. The complex marriage of disparate flavours and textures was something that I first experienced in Vietnam and it is mirrored in Thai food. Somehow I will never get bored of the combination of crunchy, soft, slimey, sweet, spicy, sour and smokey. The stuff you eat in London is a mere shadow of the real thing!
Every food court has its little Northern Thailand section. All I would say is – tread lightly! Isan food is extremely spicy.
One of the ultimate things for me in life is a curry. Whether it be an Indian, Thai, Malaysian or Japanese curry, there is something comforting about that rich, warm stew with its fragrant combination of spices. Thai curries are mostly coconut based (as I am sure everyone knows). Below are two vegetarian curries from Southern Thailand: one tofu-based and the other made of bamboo shoots, pumpkin and potato. The citrus background of kaffir lime leaves and holy basil are also very noticeable.
I have occasionally happened upon an outdoor food court like this one. It is something between what you might find in a shopping centre and the street vendors that line every Soi.
Topping my list, dish number one (so far) has to be ‘Pork and Rice’. That innocuous name hides some of the most spectacular flavours known to man.
I chose to have my pork two ways: crispy fried pork belly and slow-stewed ham hock. The latter is slow cooked for hours (or days) in a huge vat of dark, rich liquid, resembling treacle in colour (though it is as runny as oil). The resulting meat is tender and richly flavoured with a range of warm spices and that gravy has a slightly sweet taste. Accompanying this was some cabbage, generously doused with an intensely spicy and sour vinegar. These three elements combine in spectacular fashion: meltingly tender and sweet pieces of meat, interspersed with salty, crunchy and fatty belly nibbles and then the spicy and sour veggies cutting through all of that richness to leave you slightly out of breath, wondering what you just experienced. It is the stuff of legend.
A Bangkok breakfast often consists of freshly grilled skewers of stuff…pork, chicken, tofu, veggies, sausages.
I am very pleased with my decision to take it slowly in Bangkok. The preceding three months in Vietnam and Europe have certainly been exciting, but they took their toll and occasionally I did wish that I had a bit more time to experience and not merely to see. I am immersing myself in the local culture and the language classes are already yielding rewarding results, as I have forced myself to order only in Thai. Some days are lazy days, where I predominantly sleep and go outside only to eat, but this seems to be the proper way to travel. I have a much much deeper sense of connection with Thailand in two weeks than I have had at any other location so far.
But now it’s time for a midnight swim on the roof!