In Bangkok, a Hungry Quest

Find pad thai on a tuk-tuk? Good luck-luck.

By Steve Burgess 29 Jan 2008 |

Tyee columnist Steve Burgess is eating his way around Asia, and issuing dispatches.

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Thip Samai: the original. Photo: S. Burgess.

Walking the streets of Bangkok is rather like being home alone. It's possible to sing to yourself in complete privacy, your voice drowned out by traffic and ambient noise. And in many places you can fart without anyone in the vicinity noticing any deterioration in the quality of the atmosphere. There are some truly wretched aromas on stretches of Bangkok sidewalk.

That's the price you pay for being the anti-Vancouver. Everything here is chaos.

Yet Bangkok not only makes it work, it makes it appealing.

A typical recent scene: I am having coffee at a local stand when a large motorcycle cruises by. Then a security van pulls up in front of me. Then another big motorcycle approaches and squeezes around the van. Not unusual perhaps, except that all of this is happening on the sidewalk. That's just in the space left beside the coffee joint and several nearby food carts. Plus pedestrians, and me in there somewhere, watching my toes.

You're not necessarily much safer getting your caffeine at a major franchise. A few years back I was in a Starbucks in Siam Central when a nearby electrical transformer burst into flames. One, two, three explosions ensued, with the final blast finally knocking out power. When you look around this place the wonder is that events like that aren't more frequent. Bangkok has been getting glitzier in recent years with more giant high-end shopping malls appearing all the time. But they plunk themselves down into the same old infrastructure, gleaming cubes surrounded by broken, fetid, shit-caked streets thronged with tuk-tuks and crammed with countless merchants and beggars.

Tuk-tuk terror

I was on one of those tuk-tuks last night. It's always a frightening experience. But you tell yourself that after all, the streets of Bangkok are not riddled with corpses, as they surely would be if tuk-tuks were as dangerous as they looked. Tuk-tuks are candy-coloured three-wheeled bikes with canopies and bench seats that might hold three but in my case fail to hold one, at least not securely. As the trike swings through traffic, I toss around like a hamster in a knapsack. But that just means the driver is doing his job. In a taxi you wouldn't be moving at all, either side-to-side or forward.

I needed a tuk-tuk because I was lost. My friend, a top local chef, told me to seek out a place called Thip Samai. "We consider this to be the original place for pad thai," she said.

But I forgot the name and I'm crap with maps. Pretty soon I am wandering helplessly. Three well-dressed older ladies come to my aid, nodding at my description of the place. They hail a tuk-tuk and write down the name for him. The driver assures us that he knows the place.

I'm not so sure. My experience is that these guys will answer, "Yes, yes, get in," if you ask them to find Amelia Earhart. No time to worry about that -- it's currently time to worry about the creeping U-turn the driver is taking through a blind gap in traffic. Luckily Bangkok drivers seem to expect that sort of thing and react appropriately.

Thip Samai

The driver dumps me off with an assurance that this is the place. It's not immediately evident -- several restaurants line the block and none stand out visually. But it turns out my driver knows his stuff and I am soon pointed to Thip Samai (particularly impressive since I later realize the three older ladies had written down a completely different name for him). It may be legendary but Thip Samai is a typically modest open-front Bangkok operation, with chefs firing up sizzling woks right on the street.

Naturally the noodles are great, if a touch sweet (something my old-school chef friend tells me is an unfortunate modern trend in Thai cooking). But then you can pretty much blindfold yourself and bump into great food on Bangkok sidewalks. More than anything it's the street food that makes this city the amazing place it is. I often boast that I have been eating street food here for years and have never gotten sick from it. Yet I admit that there is usually a moment every Bangkok morning, padding blearily into my hotel bathroom, when I suddenly brighten at the realization I am not throwing up. "So that chicken was properly cooked after all," I fondly reminisce.

And it's off to survive another Bangkok day. This is living.

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