I have always believed that cities are great for teaching people lessons. When you’re trying to avoid a shoulder check while walking in a crowd, finding a way to Tetris yourself onto the train that’s nearly leaving the platform, or locating the closest public restroom before you have a curry accident in your pants, cities present a test of patience, self-assertion and sanity (timing of bodily functions is also helpful).
Bangkok is no exception to this rule.
Being that this city is a sweaty, tropical, modern metropolis of 7.7 million people, I naturally assumed I would hate it. After all, I’m from Oregon. Any weather over about 80 degrees and I get itchy and irritable; any air that doesn’t smell like mountains or ocean gives me sinus infections. I’m sensitive. I’m from Portland.
But on Monday, as I climbed bleary-eyed off of the overnight train arriving from Vientiane and pushed my backpack-laden self through the crowds at the train station and a blast of steamy, tropical, diesel-fragranced city air hit me straight in the face, I was thrilled. Not freaked out, not intimidated, not wondering why in the hell I had left little teeny tiny sweet and slow Laos – just thrilled. Excited. Electrified. Giddy. And it’s been about 5 days of that thrill – mixed with a few hardy city-taught lessons of course – that’s left me with quite a fond impression of Bangkok.
You wanna see a city that never sleeps? Come to Bangkok. Of course that’s not the only thing you can see here, and at this point I’m pretty positive you can see whatever you do (or DON’T) want to see down any street. At multiple points during my stay I’ve wished I had blinders on. So many lady-boys in so little clothing! Impressive, really.
But one of the lessons this city has been insistent to teach me is not to look for street food stalls. I’ve read too much, or perhaps too much has been written, about specific street food in Bangkok, and I foolishly have set out almost every day to find a specific stall (which may or may not have a name, address or scheduled hours) only to have my hopes crushed like sugar cane stalks through a gear-grinding juice press. Obliterated. Reduced to a fleshy pulp. Drained. Juiced. Get where I’m going with this? It has been so fruitless. And after nearly a week of my friend and I setting out in this fashion, stomachs grumbling and hopes soaring, determined to find that one stall that guy blogged about or the restaurant by that hospital that puts pumpkin in everything and that has a red awning or that oyster omelette (that one is still a touchy subject: I really wanted that goddamn omelet), I have finally learned my lesson. Thanks officially, Bangkok, for possibly keeping the most delicious things away from me BUT for teaching me a lesson (I am mostly sincere in my gratitude, except maybe we can work on the oyster omelet situation. I will be back for you).
But my experience in Bangkok only reminds me more fully of the drawbacks of expectations and attachment. It seems to be that as soon as I seek specific experiences, lose myself in invented hypothetical fantasies or get attached to certain ideas, they become ephemeral and dissolve into ether as quickly as I can conjure them up in my mind. Then the disappointment sets in. Did I try hard enough? Why didn’t it work? Why wasn’t it what I thought it would be? Where is the Pumpkin Lady restaurant, if not here? Why is she hiding from us? Why is this menu in Thai so even if there is pumpkin in everything I actually can’t tell?
It’s all a great reminder to take my hands off the steering wheel, accept it as it comes and delight in whatever comes my way, edible or otherwise.
Obviously I’ve managed to find some fairly delicious things here, even without the help of ‘legendary’ street food stalls. There is no shortage of fresh seafood, fried sticky rice stir fry, rice noodles tossed in a searing hot wok with sweet soy sauce, spring onion, cilantro, bean sprouts and pork, red curry with duck and pineapple, towers of crispy pork and of course tons of fresh fruit. It’s a hard life for a belly in Bangkok.
One thing that’s making me super happy is the Thai use of the omelet – any time of day, filled with anything from minced pork or fish with fresh herbs to chilies and garlic to greens and oysters, topped with a soy-chili-peanut sauce…my god. Fried on a hot pan in lots of oil, so the edges are crispy and delicious but the egg is anything but dried out. You can be sure that I’ll be making lots of omelette when I get stateside.
^The sugared tamarind is something I have yet to try, but it’s at the top of the list!
This city has the food reputation it does for a reason, but I’ve also found it to be considerably more expensive than Chiang Mai, Laos or Malaysia. Which is one of the reasons I’m heading back to Malaysia! To my surprise and counter to my expectations, I think my favorite food has been in Malaysia. The curries in KL, the buffet-style piled plate of nasi lemak, the peanut sauce and coconut milk satay, the crispy pork belly, the sambal, coconut-infused rice, fresh seafood in Penang…it all deserves another go-around if you ask me.
An overnight bus tonight will land my friend Alison and I in Penang tomorrow, ready for a few days of foods before heading to KL and then on to Singapore. Lots of discovery ahead, and no way to know what I will find, which is exactly as it should be! For me there will be no more reading about food stalls, no more expectations, no more desperate seeking of specific items or street-side carts. Whatever I encounter is fresh, new and destined to be in my belly.
Also, I know Tony’s got No Reservations, but can I launch the po’ kid version called No Expectations? Perhaps together we can conquer the towers of crispy pork…
As lovely as Bangkok has been this week, I’m ready to keep moving. I’m thrilled to be heading back into Malaysia, and will post from Penang within the next few days!