Archive for November 2011

Hot : The Sun :: Spicy : _____

29 November 2011

The Oxford English Dictionary offers a helpful note differentiating “hot” from “spicy.” Fire is hot, as are bunsen burners, the surfaces of stars and the gates of hell. Spicy on the other hand, says Noah Webster, more aptly refers to “Thai food.” He’s not wrong. The Thais take their spice seriously: no dish is complete without a few peppers chopped, mashed, or minced, and no table is properly set without a dish of pepper flakes for added heat. When Thais go out for Japanese food, wasabi is not stirred into the soy sauce; rather, a dash of soy sauce is stirred into the wasabi.

As painfully conscientious and accommodating hosts, the Thais are acutely aware that the Western palate can’t typically keep up; more than once I’ve been regretfully informed that there’s nothing on the menu weak enough for me. I of course insist, and sometimes have to do battle– all but sign a waiver– just to get my dishes normally spiced. Because, damn, it’s delicious.

Now, I’m not particularly passionate about spicy food.  Hot sauces give me more pain than pleasure, and I was never the kid munching on Hot Fries just to prove he could. Ordering wings? Great, I’ll have the mild, double blue cheese, double ranch. Call it cowardice, call it what you will, it just ain’t my jam.

Thai spice is different. It still hurts– it definitely still hurts, and makes your nose run and your eyes water– but it’s used so artfully, and the spice is so much more flavorful than vinegary Tabasco… it’s kind of worth it. Every bite of a cashew chicken stir fry scorched my face off recently, but I couldn’t stop eating it, and when I came out the other side, I emerged not just stronger but fat and happy, too. Over the past six months, I’ve adjusted to it somewhat, and it was with a degree of satisfaction that I recently watched a visiting American colleague cry into his papaya salad while I munched happily away.

Now and then, though, things get a little intense for even the Thais themselves. At lunch, I watched my friendly coworker Sai frantically wave her hands, trying to get a breeze going in her mouth after a too-aggressive bite of a five-alarm green bean and shrimp paste salad. Another time at dinner, a more stalwart friend swallowed a bite of spiced crab, shot a wide-eyed look of betrayal at the waiter, and then conversation fell silent for a few minutes as he gazed off somewhere in the middle distance, a look on his face as though recalling a cruel memory, tears streaming down his face.

Of course, it’s not all flame and fireworks. If, sometime after next week, you ask me, “So, Sam, gosh, I’m sure a million people have already asked you this, but, shoot, how was Thailand?” I will almost certainly blurt out something weirdly desperate-sounding about craving the 90 cent bowls of chicken soup, or the duck noodles, or the minced pork, fried pork, grilled pork, delicious pork. The Thais take their food seriously, and for that, I am thankful:

The glasses turn meat-brushing into an intellectual endeavorFried balls and tasty greensFried deliciousShe'll burn your face off soon as look at you.Would you like some moustache with your papaya salad?Pad Thai!Calm before the evening food market
Food7

The glasses turn meat-brushing into an intellectual endeavor

Food6

Fried balls and tasty greens

Food5

Fried delicious

Food4

She'll burn your face off soon as look at you.

Food3

Would you like some moustache with your papaya salad?

Food2

Pad Thai!

Food1

Calm before the evening food market



The Arkansas of Thailand

28 November 2011

On Friday I was invited out for food and drinks by my colleague, who, helpfully, goes by the English name “Sandwich.” Sandwich goes out on Fridays with his buddies, and he invited me along, deep and wide language barrier notwithstanding. Fortunately for me, one of his pals, a guy named Gai, had spent some time in the U.S., and spoke a bit of English. “What did you do in America,” I asked?

Gai lived in Springdale, Arkansas, working as an ice cream truck driver. He’s in the desserts business here in Kamphaeng Phet, running the black grass jelly factory (Made from twigs! Tastes… like twigs!) he inherited from his father, so peddling Chaco Tacos could perhaps be construed as relevant work experience. He and four other drivers covered the whole tri-state area (that would be northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri and eastern Oklahoma) and Gai learned two great truths about America during his time. The first, and more enduring, is that the jingle of the ice cream truck is effective at luring nubile teenage girls from poolside to sidewalk wearing naught but their bikinis and the glimmering sheen of perspiration. This was something of a revelation for Gai, and a while a great boost to his enthusiasm for the work, caused major interference with his focus on the bottom line, and led to declining sales as he cruised through certain particularly fruitful neighborhoods hour after hour, day after day, his ice cream truck jingle turned up to eleven.

The second revelation he put to me this way:

“Sam, have you ever peed in a bottle?”

“No, Gai, I don’t believe I have.”

“I think all Americans pee in bottles because stopping at the gas station is a waste of time.”

And now we all know something more about what goes on inside ice cream trucks.

He worked at this job for four months. Then he spent three days in New York, two days in Las Vegas, and then he came home to Kamphaeng Phet.

Returning the quizzical look I had given him, Gai asked: “What are YOU doing in Kamphaeng Phet?” Not selling SnoCones, no, but my six month interlude in the one of Thailand’s flyover states is perhaps no more absurd than Gai’s adventure. If you sat down to match up the Thai states with their U.S. analogues– Phuket is the Florida of Thailand, Mae Hong Son is surely the Alaska, maybe Ayutthaya is Massachusetts– Kamphaeng Phet would be lucky to be paired up with Arkansas. More likely, it would be left off the list, among the 26 leftover Thai provinces after the fifty slots were filled.

To the tourist, this town is notable only for its location alongside Highway 1, exactly halfway between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. A convenient stopover, says Lonely Planet, which halfheartedly describes Kamphaeng Phet as “one of the more pleasant provincial capitals,” makes brief mention of this city’s ancient ruins, and leaves it, more or less, at that. A hundred kilometers to the east is Sukhothai, also about halfway between Thailand’s two big tourist destinations, and home to the spectacular ruins of Thailand’s ancient capital. That, needless to say, is where the tourists stop over on their north-south journeys. Visit the ancient temples in the Kamphaeng Phet Historical Park any weekday, and you’re liable to have the entire park (“A UNESCO World Heritage Site!,” screams every government billboard in the province.) entirely to yourself.

If you’re Thai, though, those ruins actually mean something. Kamphaeng Phet, which means “Diamond Wall,” was installed on the banks of the River Ping sometime in the 15th century as the northeastern outpost of the Sukhothai Kingdom. This diamond wall was built to keep out the Burmese, and with only a few lapses (e.g. the 1767 sacking of Ayutthaya– oops), Kamphaeng Phet got the job done. So I feel stirrings of pride when I board the bus in Bangkok and tell my fellow travelers that, no, I’m not headed to Chiang Mai, I’ll be getting off in Kamphaeng Phet.  “Ah, Kamphaeng,” they say, with the same steely nostalgia of a Civil War buff recalling Pickett’s Charge. “The wall.”



Sunset on Kamphaeng Phet

25 November 2011



Suvarnabhumi

23 November 2011

I’ve been spending a lot of time in airports lately.



The Thais Have Always Been United

4 November 2011

Each day at 6pm, life pauses momentarily in the Kingdom of Thailand. As I sit in Kamphaeng Phet’s bustling night market, enjoying my daily bowl of noodles, machetes fly, chopping pork, plates of rice hit the steel tables, people squeeze past each other in the narrow lanes between stalls, and the vendors chatter with their regular customers as they ladle curries green and brown into plastic bags. At six o’clock sharp, out of otherwise undetectable speakers, a burly voice makes a brief, brusque announcement, and then, marking the end of another day in the Kingdom, the Thai national anthem begins.

The commotion halts and it’s as though someone pressed pause on the market’s activity. The customers stop their perusal and stand still, the cooks stop serving up dishes. The volume drops and the soaring chorus of the anthem fills the lull.  There’s nothing weird or oppressive about it: nobody sitting stands up, nobody bursts into song; the man at the grill keeps turning his squid, and conversations continue in quiet tones. And it helps that the song itself is merciful: a brief 45 seconds of stirring patriotic ardor, and then it’s over, and everything starts moving and making noise again.

The TV stations all take this 6pm pause, too, and before any movie is shown in a cinema, the audience stands to hear the anthem. When I’m in Bangkok on a Sunday afternoon, I’ll regularly make my way to a Thai army base, where the military is so generous as to let a group of foreigners play frisbee on their playing fields. At 6pm sharp, though, the game comes to an abrupt halt, the flag is lowered, the anthem is played, and only when it’s all over does everyone start running again while the officers fold the flag.

It’s a nice observance, I find. I’m not sure I’d want to listen to the endless, maudlin Star Spangled Banner every evening, but I appreciate the momentary pause Thais take each evening to reflect on the great good fortune to be born a Thai. Though I can’t help but wonder if, while they’re at it, they’re also delivering a coded threat to people like me, right there in the lyrics:

Every inch of Thailand belongs to the Thais.
It has long maintained its sovereignty,
Because the Thais have always been united.
The Thai people are peace-loving, But they are no cowards at war.
Nor shall they suffer tyranny.
All Thais are ready to give up every drop of blood
For the nation’s safety, freedom and progress.