In Bangkok there is heat. Not only from spicy chiles, which are plentiful, but a thick, suffocating warmth that lingers over the streets until sundown. Then the red moon arrives, shedding colors of the city below as it rises into a glowing, white beacon. That’s when dinner begins.
After a hurried rush through narrow alleys and being pressed against the wall of a crowded subway train, we wait in front of a yellow DHL store just outside the Chid Lom BTS station. We’re joined by four other hungry foreigners and our guide, Pang, who makes note that her name means “expensive,” so any time we encounter something overpriced we can exclaim, “that’s pang!” and think of her fondly.
Pang leads us down the street past a small shrine where worshippers string flowers and burn candles in preparation for the king’s upcoming birthday celebration. Others take pictures and fan themselves with paper, but there is little time to pause before jumping into a tuk tuk. From the back of a speeding rickshaw, Bangkok offers fragrant offerings. One street smells of fire and meat. Another, hot oil and sewage. Another, lime and incense and garlic.
We spurt in and out of traffic and arrive in front of a bustling market. A restaurant well known for Khao Man Gai, chicken and rice, protrudes from the corner and is already filled with customers. As plates are offered, the owners explain they use only female chickens that do not lay eggs because they’re oilier and more flavorful for absorbing of the accompanying chili sauce laced with sharp ginger. We cool our tongues with mango sticky rice, pouring thick coconut milk over the plate before taking a bite dotted with crunchy mung beans and sweet fruit.
There is no time to linger. We twist through traffic into another neighborhood for Guay Tiew Kua Gai, stir-fried rice noodles with chicken, pressed flat into a bowl, dressed up with a runny egg and hot sauce. The chef out back is sweating. But he smiles, masterfully pouring sauce drenched in lime juice and palm sugar into the wok, then stirs the fire as he does three hundred times every night.
Wandering through the nearby flower market allows our stomachs to settle. I spy a woman asleep in a plastic chair between the lemongrass stalks and cabbages, her entire body leaning to one side in utter surrender. I can’t turn myself away from her, but the tuk tuk arrives to collect us. Quickly, we’re steered to the entrance of Wat Pho temple, where the ashes of kings are kept safe in tall stupas covered with Chinese tiles. As we walk through the quiet grounds, one last meal beckons and we shuffle back to our tuk tuk, who by now has driven us through Bangkok for three hours, but even he smiles when we he hears the words: pad thai.
This is the very best pad thai, in fact, where drivers, hotel managers, lawyers, students, visitors, and friends converge in search of nourishment. Thip Samai restaurant has been here for forty years and, night after night, the hungry clamour for a stool outside. It’s a steady perch to peer over the stove where cooks toss bits of shrimp with noodles, bean sprouts, and glossy sauce before turning it onto a plate with the flick of a wrist.
Back at the hotel the scent of the city is tangled in my hair, on my clothes. It may not come out for days, but it is always beautiful when you have the opportunity to get to know a new place through its flavors. To eat until there is no more room, then drift off to sleep feeling the particular kind of pleasure that comes from slurping noodles at midnight on a busy street, halfway around the world, ingesting momentarily, the city itself.