Bangkok is what Las Vegas would be if it were built for Nevadans instead of tourists. Every inch of space, horizontal and vertical, is devoted to human pasttimes, from massage to shopping to parking. Bangkok is dense and concrete and unembarrassed. It is hot, hot as the desert but wet too, so one is always slightly swimming down the streets in miasma and sweat. The buildings grow so tall they have grown over the streets and into each other, creating a grey cocoon for the pink and yellow taxis to fly through below, the glistening BTS monorail above.
Along the occasionally smooth sidewalks of gritty grimy streets are the loveliest people selling tiny bites of sheer pleasure that would (and has) make three star chefs squirm. These brown faces with gleaming smiles also are selling designer rip-offs, plastic anything and t-shirts, tobacco and lottery tickets. The usual. They smile, they call to you, the sun roasts them a little more chocolate. A hundred hot suns on a hundred hot sidewalks in a hundred cities is witness to the same.
But in Bangkok it’s the street food that is the gem of every block. Three bites of a sausage (maybe pork definitely rice), six bites of a crab terrine flavored with basil, betel leaf and the ubiquitous chili, four bites of a satay with curry of mixed origin, perhaps panaang, perhaps not, who really cares it’s more tender and smokey than a Memphis pitmaster can manage.
You can roam down any street, passing 7elevens and tailors, stepping lively over broken concrete and the sleeping babies of the beggars and before long you’ll hit an oasis where Thai and other come together for 10 baht of pleasure. Don’t bother saying “mai phet” — if the vendor makes it hot, it’s going to be hot and they’ll smile and nod and watch you howl. And fool that you are, you’ll wash it down with a Chang that will rip raw those already screaming taste buds and if you are lucky you’ll get the pain high that will deliver a sweaty nirvana that does not mask but enhances that pain. Makes it the good pain, the pain you’ll eventually seek.
Perhaps you’ll look for that high in one of the many authentic looking restaurants that line the streets, choosing one with air conditioning and chairs and a nice lady to bring you rice. But soon you’ll realize food served under a roof is never as good as one served without. Maybe it’s that long menu; they never learn to make anything well. Maybe you can’t figure out how to find the one good thing they do make. Maybe they eyeball you and say, that white guy can’t take the good stuff, better tone it down.
Or maybe no one can ever be as good as that little old lady, making the one thing she knows how to make perfect, making it a little better every day for 20 years. And if you don’t like her one thing, well, there is a cart next to her with a little old guy who has been making noodles the way his pop made them, except he found if you added just one tablespoon more fish sauce…