I arrived in Bangkok at 1am. The heat and humidity felt like a big, warm hug. I was over the chilly, wet PNW rain. The cab dropped me off at my Airbnb around 2am. And at 2am, the street was quiet, eerily so, with no real sign of life around, apart from the occasional 7/11 customer a few blocks up.
At this point I was feeling pretty confident that I made a bad booking mistake.
But the next morning, jet-lagged and popping out of bed at 5am, the street made a complete transformation. I walked downstairs and out the door and was welcomed by a street lined with pots of stewing curries, various street dogs making the rounds, and scooters zipping up and down the alleys. Vibrant in every sense of the word.
I spent the first day walking, observing, and absorbing. Everything felt new. Like who had any idea this whole new world existed? Clearly, millions of people, but it’s one of those things you likely just have to experience for yourself.
This SE Asian journey has me excited for a million and one reasons, and towards the top of that list is the food. Food is sustenance and art. It keeps people fueled and inspired. And it helps to shape and define cultures. So, here are three great meals I enjoyed in Bangkok.
1. FEAST WITH JI AT BANG NAMPUNG FLOATING MARKET
A couple years ago I did a bike tour through Airbnb in Barcelona. It exceeded my expectations—it was small and casual, but really informative and fun—so I decided to book another ‘Experience’ in Bangkok: A food market tour.
It was supposed to be me, eight other guests, plus the guide. It ended up being me and the guide, Ji. Evidently, everyone else was dealing with food poisoning. Not the greatest omen pre-culinary experience, huh?
We headed to Bang Nampung floating market. Before we even got to the market Ji was stopping at street stands and ordering little bites for me to try: jackfruit, plus a roasted jackfruit nut. And little rice flour / green onion pastries called khanom khrok.
At the market we moseyed our way from stand to stand to try grilled chicken livers, egg pastries with big chunks of mussels and shrimp, rose apple, salty dried mango, fermented shrimp, Miang kham flavor bombs, Sprite popsicles, and crispy rice cakes with caramel sauce, just to name a few.
Eventually, we sat down to have a “meal,” because that was totally necessary. We split a bowl of tom yum noodle soup, some fried sausage / kaffir lime balls, and a huge crepe filled with cheese, spices, corn, and a slew of seafood—Ji says it’s a traditional Vietnamese dish although it seems like something you order at the Minnesota State Fair.
I didn’t eat for the rest of the day or for half of the following day.
Eating with a local is hard to beat. They know the must-haves, the things to skip, and they’re not going to get had by the local vendors. Plus, Ji was an amazing bank of knowledge, beyond just food. She essentially gave me itineraries for the next couple of days—which I adhered to more or less—and had a blast.
The incredible assortment of dishes and the local insight made this one of my favorite meals, err, feasts(!), in Bangkok.
2. IMPROMPTU NEW YEAR’S EVE POTLUCK
For New Year’s Eve, I planned on going down to Khao San Road, also known as "the centre of the backpacking universe.” I watched a YouTube video of the 2018 New Year party and it looked like a shit show, but I figured I’d maybe meet some like-minded, or at least fun, people there.
Before I headed that direction I stopped by the neighborhood “bar.” Really less of a bar and more of a third-world convenience store with a cooler and a couple of picnic tables. But the beer was cold and the people were friendly.
Very friendly, it turns out. After sitting there for a few minutes, the local crew asked me to sit with them. They didn’t speak any English so we relied heavily on Google Translate. As I was sitting there, I noticed that every five or ten minutes, with each bottle of Leo there’d be another snack or plate of food on the table. First, a super dark, super spicy soup. Next, some bright pink, puffed shrimp chips. And then big fried chunks of fatty pork belly.
I was loving the drinking snacks, but I hadn’t seen anything yet. An hour or so went by, the rum made an appearance, and more people started stopping by, all with dishes to share. Like a potluck.
There was a whole grilled fish served with a couple different sweet and sour relish-like mixtures. Another grilled fish, with very spicy chilies and mystery pods on top. And a tiny wood-burning oven full of a family-recipe tom yum soup.
Every time a new dish came to the table, I was encouraged to take the first bite, everyone eager to see my reaction. I loved everything, except for maybe the mystery pods that were lethally spicy.
Happily, I never made it to Khao San Road.
This meal was such a testament to the welcoming, come-as-you-are, genuinely kind Thai culture. And an amazing way to ring in the New Year.
3. SPICY CURRY IN A HOME-Y SETTING
On my last day in Bangkok I went to the Baan Silpin “Artists House” on the west side of the river. A Ji recommendation, of course. A very cool community art space, which can only be accessed by canal or by meandering through a series of alleyways. I chose the latter. When I arrived an artist was working on a temple painting. They also had local art for sale and supposedly do a live, artsy puppet show at 2pm every day. After checking out the space and sitting along the catfish-filled river for a while, I needed a little lunch before my trek back.
There was one restaurant nearby, but it was packed with tourists. I kept walking and ducked into a friendly-looking alley and came across a home with a hand-painted sign reading “Restaurant.” I walked in and was greeted by three sweet, cheerful women. They sat me down in what appeared to be their living room and brought me a menu. (Rereading this now sounds a little creepy which it 110% was not!)
The eldest of the three ladies came and sat right across from me and was thrilled when I told her I was from America. She loves America. Her English was great, in comparison to my non-existent Thai. But there was certainly a language barrier, so we stumbled through conversation with a lot of laughs, awkward pauses, and smiles.
Eventually I ordered a spicy seafood curry and the woman left without saying much—maybe she was the chef too? While I waited for my meal alone I tuned into the Thai crime drama playing on the back wall. I don’t like crime dramas in the U.S. and now it’s confirmed that I also don’t much care for them in Thailand.
But soon the food came and everything was right in the world. Shrimp, squid, big button mushrooms, chilies, and a bundle of aromatics, all in a spicy, warm coconut sauce, so clearly cooked with love. Perfection.
I think I ate it all in like 12 minutes. And when I was done, another woman—not one of the first three to greet me—came in and offered me a platter of tiny fruits. I mean, come on!
I paid (a whopping $4) and left. The warmth from the hosts was special, something to strive for. And something that will stick with me for a long time.