Thailand. Bangkok. That awful musical “Chess.” Whores and neon; I didn’t see too much of either. I did eat bugs, though. And chicken shawarma with creamy garlic sauce and pickles so Zankou-esque it made me homesick for Los Angeles. Down the street there were gaijin bars, which I suppose would be called farang bars, along with upscale shops bordering gas stations and bootleg designer clothing stalls and pharmacies and convenience stores (usually 7-Elevens). It was around there that I found and ate my bugs. What an odd area; two blocks away is an area so thick with Middle Eastern people and culture that it feels and smells like Syria, according to Xander. He’s very well-traveled. I trust him. He was a rather excellent tour guide, inside and out of Bangkok. A three-hour train ride that actually took more like four and a half, with no air conditioning and seats so uncomfortable and stops so long they would make any seasoned, coddled Japanese commuter such as myself cringe with discomfort. But it got us to Petchaburi, and that’s all that matters; for there I experienced my first wat, sharp and dark against the sunset, populated by swarthy men and sickly dogs.
Wandering off into the night markets; ooh, are those bugs!? Nope, just some hairy root vegetable. Sorry. But I could go for some of whatever that lady is cooking, the eggs with condensed milk all slippery and browned with butter. But that wasn’t even the good night market; the good one was marked by an elephant, a real elephant, taken for a walk by her master along the perimeter. Taking in the smoke of chili and garlic, coughing, looking around. Petchaburi is famous for its thong yod and other sweets; but those came after a Muslim, probably Halal meal. Fried and sauced-up sweet tofu with crisp greens; a meaty skin and a soft, gelatinous middle. Meat and potates in red curry; fish and chili haw mok, spicy as hell. What else? Beer. Singha vs. Chang. Singha: weaker, 5% ABV, crisper, dryer, cleaner. Chang: cheaper, stronger, 6.4% ABV, sweeter, a few off flavors, but somehow I think I prefer it. Not bad at all. Back to the sweets; thong yod, is that rose water? Vaguely floral but not at all vague when it comes to sweetness; syrupy. Black sticky rice, why on earth can’t I find this in Japan? With fresh shredded coconut, caramelized coconut, a mixture of salt, sugar, and black sesame seeds, wrapped in a banana leaf. What did I say about food wrapped in leaves? Very nearly always delicious. Petchaburi. On the bus – no, song thaew, to Kaeng Krachan. A quick stop in Tha Yang; bottled water and a shot of cold, sweet bird’s nest soup, something like Frosted Flakes softened in unflavored, unset Jell-O. Better than the Essence of Chicken I had the night before. Better by leaps and bounds. Back on the Song Thaew, then on the back of a scooter. Who are these people? Swift, unsafe? The lake, Lake Kaeng Krachan, it’s beautiful. Bordeaux smiles. That poor woman trying to communicate with us; the biggest and scariest centipede I have ever seen in my life. Trying to hitchhike to the checkpoint, can we rent a tent there? L. Bruce Kekule (was that him?!) was no help, though he did recommend that fried rice. No night safaris. Stop trying to set up the tent yourselves, you’ll just screw it up. Thanks for your help. Relaxing at the lake; no matter about the jungle, we still saw very pretty birds and cute squirrels and avoided leeches. And monkeys would come later – the next day.
Caught a ride on the bed of a pickup truck back into town, then took a minibus (or was it a van?) back to Tha Yang, then piled onto an express bus to Prachuap Khiri Khan. Beautiful mountains, rock formations. Monkeys! Oh my god, there are so many of them; the monkeys are clearly in control. Watch your back and walk with your hands wide open. Walking along the sidewalk along the beach; hopping onto a samlor gai na to Aow Noi Sea-view Resort. Nice work, Alexander. Nice work. A beautiful beach, a beautiful room (with air-con!). The only mini-bar I’ve ever been able to afford, but then that’s to be expected; this place is only 1000 baht for the night! Kao was so nice; the mussels, not so much. Exceptionally tender, fresh squid, warmed by chili and basil, tamed by crab fried rice and Chang. At least the dog liked the mussels. I can’t believe the dog ate that, it was so spicy! Back on the samlor to the resort. Litter and crabs, tiny ones, then one big one, the color of sand. Sunset. Lazing in the hotel room, on the beach; walking towards the wat in the distance, turning back because it’s getting too dark. An amazing meal, maybe the single most amazing meal I had in Thailand. Much more than the sum of its parts, but oh my, how splendid its parts were: a whole fried fish with a papaya salsa, meaty and tangy and crispy; the cheek, the skin. Crab curry, mild, and sweet, with something that tastes like celery. Steamed rice, more fish, this time with prawns, fried, sautéed? with sugary palm dates, the nutty crisp of fresh water chestnuts, and cashews; delicious. And then of course, the tom yum kung, the best tom yum kung I will ever have in my life; creamy, even buttery, with coconut milk, alive with chili oil and lime juice, butterflied prawns, ginger, kaffir lime, and the verve of Thai basil (my favorite herb? probably). Finish the Chang. Watching god-awful and surprisingly violent Thai soap operas. Reading Fat Land and falling asleep.
Waking, paying, getting on a samlor for the last time, riding to the bus stop. Back to Bangkok, this bus is much nicer than the one we took down. A stop near Petchaburi for lunch; more sweets, lots more sweets, plus pommelo with sugar-chili-salt, plus butaman – pork buns, different, leaner than the ones in Japan. Getting home, resting up, heading out to find bugs and shawarma. A stop at Siam Paragon; an amazing grocery store. Red rice, black rice, purple rice, I bought them all – leaving behind the yellow, blue, orange, grey, brown, and white. Chiang Mai sausages, packed with kaffir – we’ll have to pick up some of these later. I can’t eat them now, or anything else – I need to have an empty stomach for when we find the bugs. Hunger is the best spice, after all. The grasshoppers – delicious. Airy, three inches long, nutty and a bit like potato chips, if slightly lighter and blander; easy to eat but for the itty bitty spines on their legs that embed themselves in one’s tongue. Crickets (the big ones, about an inch and a half long) – very nasty, reminiscent of middle school dissection labs and rat cages. Not crisp, rather disturbingly mealy and dry. The giant water bug, the crème de la bugs, exceptionally tasty but exceptionally difficult to eat, with a flavor like artichoke hearts but a texture like artichoke leaves; the head, however, tasted like slow-cooked pork. Frogs, which I thought were geckos at first, much to Bordeaux’s dismay (why aren’t Xander and Bordeaux trying these?!) – gritty, extremely gritty (what do these frogs eat? sand?), with chewy skin and a flavor similar to chicken giblets. Grubs, nasty and mealy like the crickets, but with a distinct peanut buttery edge and a texture like red bean paste. And finally, the bamboo worms, the shoestring potatoes of the insect world, pure, sweet, crispy fried air with plenty of salt and a faint lemongrass zest. Bugs. Surprisingly good, some surprisingly bad. I could eat these all the time.
The next day; Chatuchak. Sprawling, cluttered, hot, colorful, noisy; banana roti and cool t-shirts. Gifts for Laura, too many choices! Gifts for myself: a Donkey Kong shirt, a Pizzicato Five shirt, a shirt with the lyrics from “Downtown” written out on it, ties, northern Thai curry, an ice cream sandwich on a hot dog bun with sticky rice. Delicious. Glassware, so much cheap glassware! Middle-aged white men and their Thai brides. Young white women and their floral print halter tops. Beggars, stray dogs. I can’t believe we were there for five hours, and then back to Siam Paragon, to pick up some food for dinner; definitely some of those sausages. And some fruit, some papaya, some pineapple, for sure, and some durian – I have to try it while I’m here. Of course, you can’t have fruit and sausage without cheese, so give me some of that mature cheddar, maybe 150 grams of the Morbier, and some of that Rocinante. Hmm, can’t have cheese with out beer – some Erdinger, maybe some Salvator, maybe some Chimay? Oh my god, 330 baht, are you kidding me?! No thank you. As it turns out, you can’t buy liquor until 5:00 anyway. What the hell? Oh well. We got our cheese, our fruit, sausage, not to mention pork-stuffed crab shells and cupcakes. I am looking forward to dinner. The durian is ten times stinkier than any stinky cheese I’ve ever smelled, like a hunk of Spam in an unclean urinal. The flavor? Not bad, not good. I think I hate it, actually. Vaguely sweet (with a hint of vanilla?) and very custardy, but with a horrible, haunting echo of stench ever present on the back of my tongue. I hate durian! No time to acquire the taste. I’m sorry, Thailand. Excellent pineapple, though, and excellent papaya; they pair splendidly with the Cheddar and the Rocinante, respectively. Fusion cuisine. Very nice, so nice there was no room for cupcakes! Changing into pants, heading to the Sky Bar atop State Tower; loads of farang, especially Germans and Brits? Disastrously inefficient service, expensive and mediocre cocktails (you call this a piña colada?), but look at that view. Wow. Bangkok. It’s hot.
My last day; dreading going home. No, dreading leaving Bangkok, dreading bland food and cold weather and nothing to do. New Year’s Eve at the airport. Getting up at dawn to make the most of the day, first to Lumphini Park for street breakfast. Unfortunately all the food stalls are gone; Alexander realizes it’s a national holiday, but no matter; I got to experience the daily Orwellian 8:00 AM broadcast of the national anthem, during which everyone has to stop what they’re doing, including moving around. I could never, ever live here. Creepy psuedo-democracy with their monarch worship and endless chain of coups. But I did see a water monitor and turtles! Breakfast, what to do? Everywhere is closed but Au Bon Pain. Drugstore. Guava juice. Piling onto a riverboat, speeding up the brown channel to Wat Arun, staggeringly detailed, beautiful, like a pile of confetti. Imagine what it looked like when it was first built; back onto another boat, heading to the other bank, to Wat Pho. The Reclining Buddha; how long is this thing?! Tons of tourists, and it’s not hard to see why.
Another ice cream sandwich, then a ride in a tuk-tuk to a university neighborhood for some coffee, and then the best vegetarian meal I’ve ever had. Green curry with big, meltingly soft chunks of pumpkin; banana flower salad with plenty of cashews. The banana flowers, they don’t have much of a flavor, do they? No, there’s something to them, something subtle and tropical, like Tropical Skittles, do they still make those? Pineapple and banana, that’s what this tastes like, just slightly, ephemerally, or is that something in the dressing? I don’t know, but this is delicious. Going home. Resting up, we got up early. Showering, changing, dejectedly preparing to go home. My last meal? Something I really wanted to try since I got here: MK Restaurant. A family restaurant, Thai gentrification. Cantonese, Japanese, a touch of Thai – we chose MK Gold, that’s just how we roll. What is this, some sort of nabe? Cantonese hotpot? Let’s get the roast duck, the “suki suki set” and the vegetable set. Surprisingly good if a bit bland, and very filling, and still cheap. Plenty of meat, plenty of veg, though we could have gone without the “MK salmon” (basically pink fish sticks). Off to Tops, buying a few beers (Korbinian? in Thailand? for 121 baht?! hooray!) and some oddities for friends back home. Boring flavors of Häagen-Dazs. Back to Xander’s apartment for just over an hour, then I catch a cab to the airport, reluctantly. It’s 2008. Bye bye Bangkok!