Kop Khun Ka, Thailand!
Thailand has been on my bucket list as long as I’ve had one. Since high school, I’ve been trying to coerce various friends to make the journey east with me, so the second Harley and Gerard said “yeah!” I was on Kayak.com scoping out tickets. We made out like bandits, since the dates we picked were right at the beginning of low season. (Low season = torrential downpours, possible monsoons, etc. etc.) You’re only young once! We’d spend two weeks hitting the major stops – Bangkok, Chaing Mai and the southern islands, eating as much as possible along the way. I’ll spare you the details of the major sights to see, hotels to stay in and activities to do – TripAdvisor has got you covered there. But I will say this – Thailand is a seriously special place. The colors are unbelievably vivid, from the flamingo pink royal buildings in Bangkok to the aquamarine beaches. There’s never a dull sight – the fast paced, organized chaos of the cities is captivating and the sleepy stoner beach villages feel like the last of their kind. Travelers, donning overstuffed backpacks and baggy elephant pants roam from hostel to bar to hostel, their only goal to exist and experience. Locals welcome visitors with the kind of gratitude and hospitality I didn’t even know existed. From the subtle head bow that comes with every thank you (Kop khun ka) to the great lengths some will go to help you find your way, I’ve never felt so welcome in a place that wasn’t my home. This country is a treasure trove of flavor and color and energy that piques the senses and the mind.
And the taste buds! (I know that’s why you’re here) Thai food, I learned, is so much more than pad thai and chicken satay – it’s definitely those things, but it’s also slow cooked pork with fresh chilies and garlic cloves, it’s fried-before-your eyes noodles and coconut milk soup so spicy you might cry a little bit. For all the complexity in this cuisine, it’s really very simple. The ingredient list is short for Thai cooking, but the combination of texture and preparation mixed with years of repetition makes this food nothing if not life changing. I know I tend to exaggerate, but the meals I ate in Thailand are without question some of the best I’ll ever have.
It started in Bangkok, where culture shock is the name of the game. New country, new language, new everything – we were drowning in newness and didn’t even know where to begin. Our first meal was at a ramshackle garage-turned-restaurant. The kitchen was set up in the alley and we sat in the garage, beads of sweat dripping generously from our faces. We exchanged an awkward smattering of English and Thai words with our host and ended up with a plate presumably piled with pad thai. We guzzled it, mesmerized by this setup and even more by the $1 check. This was only the beginning.
That night, Harley’s family friend took us out to for a “royal Thai” meal at Blue Elephant. Despite the pages long menu, I’m pretty sure we ordered one of everything. This ornate restaurant catered to the upper echelon of Bangkok locals and expats – this was no street food. We received order after order, served in extravagant spindly dishes, carved out coconut shells, and the like. When asked how much spice we wanted, we told them “Thai spicy.” Our host and waiter laughed in our faces, and continued to do so as we struggled to finish our Tom Kha Gai soup. Many many courses later, we were comatose, bloated, and sleeeeeepy.
The next morning, we were up bright and early for our flight to Chiang Mai, a busy town nestled between rainforests in northern Thailand. We didn’t know this yet, but Chiang Mai would be our favorite stop on the trip and undoubtedly the most delicious.
Anxious to follow in the footsteps of OG hedonist Anthony Bourdain, we B-lined it to the street food. Chang Puak market sits just outside the stone wall surrounding the Old City and is a bustling convergence of locals, tourists and a LOT of meat. Each cart has a different claim to fame – the best ones marked only with Thai lettering, no translations to be seen. Lucky for us, we were with Jay, our guide from Chiang Mai Street Food Tours (seriously, if you wind up in this crazy city, make this tour a priority). Jay, whose catchphrase was “Oh my Buddha,” moved from rural northern Thailand to Chiang Mai because he wanted to eat more meat. In his childhood, meat was a once a week luxury. Given the savory delights we tried that night, I don’t blame him for chasing his swiney, soy-marinated dreams.
Jay knew this market well, and the cart owners knew him too. They were encouraged by our curiosity, and generously plied us with a spread so extravagant and spicy we could hardly keep up. With big bottles of Chang and Singha beer by our sides, we guzzled everything in sight, always just in time for the next round.
My all time favorite was the Kao Ka Moo – fatty, tender, braised pork knuckle that puts the best carnitas you’ve ever had to shame. Shame! A smiling lady sporting a wide-brimmed cowboy had plucks a knuckle from her homemade supply and chops it emphatically with a cleaver that screams “I don’t fuck around.” She then slops it on a plate with some steamed rice and an oozy soft boiled egg. Each ramshackle table is equipped with bowls of fresh chilies and mini garlic cloves, both of which are meant to be consumed with each spoonful of the salty pork goodness. This, friends, is not a plate I’ll soon forget.
We ate Laap Moo and Nam Tok Moo with our hands, making pockets of steamed sticky rice to pick up the spicy ground and sliced pork. We picked out a frog bathing in questionably sanitary water (allegedly once ice) and watched it be chopped and wok-fried before our very (mesmerized) eyes. It tasted like the best fried chicken on the planet, with little crispy, salty bits abound. We sat curbside and chased shots of rice whisky with fried crickets and ogled at the Kanom Krok lady, making fluffy, custardy spheres of fried coconut batter in her pockmarked and battle-scarred cast iron stove. There was bright red jerky-like smashed beef and herb speckled “Chiang Mai Sausage” with a thick, snappy casing.
Unbelievably, there was room for dessert (isn’t there always?) the likes of which were sticky, sweet, and bathed in pandan-infused condensed coconut milk. This description could only belong to the one, the only: Khao Neow Mamuang or Mango Sticky Rice.
We caught Thailand at the height of mango season, where trees are abundant with the ripe, juicy fruit we so tragically get the dregs of in the US. At Chang Puak, and everywhere else we guzzled this stuff, the street vendors cut through the mangos as if they’re slicing room temperature butter, quickly sliding their way through before flaying the fruit across hot, sticky rice, drizzling it with sweet coconut milk, and sprinkling the final touch of crunchy dried mung beans on top. To our chef, it’s no biggie, but every time, without fail, we watched with wide eyes and dropped jaws before destroying the stuff in just a couple gulps.
As you can imagine, this night set the bar high for the rest of the trip. It’s fair to say we peaked at Chang Puak, but our insider look into Thai street food culture mitigated our culture shock, tooling us with at least more context than we had at the back-alley garage where we blindly enjoyed our first meal.
A couple days later, after our bodies has almost forgiven us for the trauma we had inflicted upon them, we set out on wobbly, rusty bikes in pursuit of Kao Soi, one of northern Thailand’s specialties. In many places throughout Thailand, soup is a perfectly acceptable breakfast food, especially in hot weather. We were in luck – by 7AM, it was already sticky and humid, the kind of heat that slows everything down.
Everything that is, except traffic. We bobbed and weaved on our rickety bikes away from the hustle and bustle of the city toward an unmarked restaurant in Fa Ham, the spot, we were told, for legit Khao Soi. The unassuming roadside Lam Duan was the place to be, said every blogger ever.
We were seemingly the first patrons of the day, but they were ready for us. Before we knew it, we were presented with piping hot, seemingly bottomless bowls of opaque curried broth filled with chewy tangles of wheat noodles, pickled onions, and crispy fried noodles. We hunched over our bowls, trying to savor every moment before it was over.
Chiang Mai was a playground for the taste buds, and by the time we left we had thoroughly worn them out. When we arrived down south in Railay Beach (by sketchy moonlit longtail boat, I might add), things slowed down. Surrounded by limestone cliffs, it’s a sleepy place with a Rasta vibe and not much to do beyond rock climb, sip mango smoothies, and play cards.
We arrived on the heels of the rainy season’s premature grand entrance, and so were not treated to the drowsy beach afternoons we anticipated. Instead, we adventured, ate garlic and pepper fried fish, adventured some more, and ate some more fish.
In pursuit of better weather, we hopped to Koh Phi Phi, an alleged gem, though not so much a hidden one. Here, we were treated to glistening water, sunset snorkeling, and yet even more garlic and pepper fried fish. What?! We have a type!
In all reality, the islands we visited were major tourist destinations, and due to their rural nature, it’s much less easy to have an authentic experience. Most places push papaya salad and pad thai like it’s the only food in the whole country and around every corner is another person hounding you to sit in their empty restaurant. My recommendation – go after the spots with the freshest looking fish (i.e. no foggy eyes, fishy smell, nor pools of murky water) and at least a couple other brave souls to follow in the footsteps of.
Post-Phi Phi, we left the mostly rainy Andaman Coast and travelled to Koh Samui, one the largest islands, located in the apparently less inclement Gulf of Thailand. By this point, we were pooped (let’s not go there) and ready for some R&R. We spent one glorious day at Vikasa, a yoga retreat perched high above the ocean with sweeping views of the dreamy coastline. Between downward dogs, revolutionary meditations, and sea-breezed massages, we enjoyed a bougie buffet like no other. I’m almost ashamed to say (but not too ashamed to write) that after so much spice and unfamiliar flavors, I’ve never been happier to eat chia seeds in my life. The dishes were bright, mildly Thai in preparation, all cooked with locally grown produce. The local kombucha was really the fermented cherry on top of the whole shebang.
Back in Bangkok, we had but 24 hours to go before our impending return home. It was an edible race to the finish line. Dinner was in the Chana Songkhram area at Hemlock, where we went all out with spicy Panang curry, crunchy banana leaf salad, drunken noodles, et al. It was the kind of meal that was prematurely nostalgic, as we sat there recounting our adventures and already missing every last bite.
The next morning was our last, and we were all of a sudden desperate to see Bangkok’s Chinatown before hitting the road. It was an overcrowded zoo of tchotchkes, bizarre foodstuffs, and red and gold explosions. After a few close calls with losing each other Simba-Mufasa style in the stampedes, we decided to dine at an open-air eatery packed with Chinese and Thai patrons. We shared a table with a family of Chinese tourists, who guided us through the menu and steered us in the direction of crispy pork and braised duck. By this point, we were running late, so we practically shoveled the salty stuff down our throats before regretfully leaving without seconds.
The trip home was long and grueling, if not for the abominable “egg” sandwich I found in Taipei, then for the sleepless 18-hour journey back. Even a month later, I still remember everything – the flavors, colors, and textures of Thai food are seared into my memory and the electrifying culture is forever ingrained into my worldview. Like Thai food, Thailand doesn’t have one thing that makes it special – it’s the sum of its parts that together create an irreplaceable experience I’ll forever be chasing.