It is with trepidation that I sit down to start writing about my visit to Bangkok. How will I be able to adequately capture exactly what happened those few days? In this blogging world, I get one chance to convey something that is not so easily describable. These posts may seem like I am simply recommending where to drink beer or hike or ride your bike, but in reality they are how I paint my memories. Whether or not the reader reads past this sentence is not why I sit down and do this (although I humbly appreciate anyone who does).
The painting that began the moment I stepped out of my Thai Airways flight from Siem Reap, Cambodia has evolved into something of which I struggle to find the brush strokes that are both as beautiful and as haunting as that experience has become in my memory. I do not exaggerate when I say that I fear putting the final period at the end of the last sentence and realizing what that period will symbolize. Yet I know it is inevitable. Before I get to that point though, I am going to attempt to convey something that to the reader will appear as travel details but to me is something so profoundly wonderful that it will most likely remain forever known only to me. That is, except for those blue butterflies who had been keeping me company on my journey. A journey which felt as if I had been traveling in a parallel universe, one so familiar, one so reachable yet now feeling light years away. So without further ado, here is my attempt to describe the indescribable.
Something really remarkable happened in Bangkok and even to this day, I still find myself questioning my memory. But as I go thru my photos again and again, I can find no other evidence to the otherwise. In four days in Bangkok, I managed to visit only two beer bars and one of those wasn’t even in Bangkok. Yes I know. It sounds unbelievable.
But that really wasn’t what was so remarkable. What I am about to embark on is not a recounting of Bangkok’s finest drinking places but something else so unlike me that it must be indisputable evidence that parallel universes do indeed exist. When I arrived from Cambodia, if you had asked me to define the term food, I most likely would have treated the answer with disinterest. That comes from living over 8 years in Belgium. But that’s another story. From the moment I stepped foot in Bangkok, food insisted on getting my complete attention. Anything less would be suboptimal, and those copious blue butterflies made sure that whatever happened, my life would never be the same.
A stroll thru Chinatown
It all started on a walk towards Bangkok’s Chinatown district. Moments after disembarking a Tuk Tuk, I found six young ladies seated around a table industriously piecing together a delectable pre-lunch snack. All smiling as if they were somehow in on the plan.
Tucked away on a short diagonal side-street is this small establishment clearly with one prime specialty… satay.
The satay provided a tasty foreshadow but it wasn’t until the next stop that the transformation would begin to take shape. First I had to get thru Chinatown, a maze of narrow alleys with hidden street food vendors criss-crossing with wider lanes full of bustling market stalls.
Fate seemed to be leading me on a brisk pace as I didn’t spend much time browsing this interesting neighborhood. Just a couple blocks beyond Chinatown, tucked away in a corner of a residential neighborhood, was perhaps one of the portals to a parallel universe.
The real transformation started the moment my butt sat down on one of those little red stools.
Jek Pui Curry
Thanks to Netflix’s Street Food episode on Bangkok, I would have expected a larger presence of tourists at this little hideaway restaurant. But in fact, it was completely tourist-free (yours truly excepted). Sit down on a stool, order your curry, and grab an ice tea from a cart. I couldn’t have been more ecstatic to find myself seated amongst locals. Perhaps that enhanced my reaction to the taste of the curry, but even excluding the setting, the yellow curry was utterly magnificent.
As if the satays and curry weren’t enough, just a few blocks away was the final stop on this abbreviated food tour of the greater Chinatown neighborhood. A place where within mere minutes, I managed to consume a particular food in greater quantity then the rest of my life put together.
Nai Mong Hoi Tod
Nai Mong Hoi Tod is known for one thing and one thing only. It’s oyster omelet. It was here that I found myself starting to do something I never felt compelled to do before. Take pictures of my food.
After what amounted to a three-stop, three-course lunch, it was time for the blue butterflies to remind me that I am itsabrewtifulworld, not itsafoodifulworld.
Let the Boy Die
Little did I know at the time, but this would be the only craft beer bar within Bangkok that I would visit during my entire stay. If the beer lover in me is the Boy, perhaps the name of the bar was a hidden message from the parallel universes to let go of what I know about reality and discover a whole new world.
Sounds good. But first I was going to have a beer.
A Needed Kick in the Pants
Later that evening, I went to watch Thai Boxing for the first time. I wondered what was happening to me. Life rarely gives you a feeling that you have somehow transcended outside of yourself for a moment in time. It was a place where happiness was welling up inside me in limitless quantities. Yet it was also a frightful place. Frightful because you are not sure you belong there. Frightful because if you want it too much, the vortex could dissolve leaving you stranded in the wrong parallel universe. These thoughts punched and kicked around in my mind as I sat there watching the intensity of the fights rising to a deafening fervor.
After the boxing, it was time to digest these thoughts further over a late dinner. If there is such a thing as a food apex in Bangkok, it would be a 50m stretch of Maha Chai Road not far from the Wat Saket temple. Here you will find two of Bangkok’s finest institutions: Thipsamai and Jay Fai.
Even at 10:30pm in the evening there is a line to get into Thipsamai. The sign out front indicates that Thipsamai is the first and therefore oldest Padthai restaurant in Thailand. Padthai, Shmadthai… yes, ok, it was pretty damn delicious… but it wasn’t the padthai that leaves me scrounging for the right words, but something which set back my full enjoyment of this something everywhere else in the world. You just have to scroll past the padthai pic.
Introducing the universe’s (all of them) greatest orange juice.
I would later come to realize that this quality of orange juice is quite normal in Thailand. But I will never forget sipping and guzzling those succulent chunks of orange pieces from that first bottle at Thipsamai, and in my mind, it will forever remain the best.
Jay Fai Day
Yes, in my present universe, I have declared a Jay Fai Day. November 15 to be exact. Ms. Fai was already famous for her Michelin star before the Netflix Street Food episode came along. Now she is a touristic phenomenon. Mention Jay Fai to locals and they will probably give a proud, irritated snort and tell you they never eat there. It is too expensive. This is one case where I felt privileged to eat as a tourist and not a local.
Despite it’s modest street corner, local food atmosphere, Jay Fai is not a place you can just waltz right up to for a meal. Reservations are a necessity. A limited number of reservations are possible online. Otherwise you have to show up at the restaurant early in the morning, get in line, and wait for them to bring out the sign up sheet at 10:00 am.
I showed up a 8:45am and just like the Angkor Wat sunrise, the blue butterflies and I timed it just perfectly and had the 3rd spot in the line. At precisely 10:00 am, out came the table and book and shortly thereafter the spot was reserved. I just needed to be back around 1:30pm.
And as if having the best orange juice ever the evening before wasn’t enough, a stroll to the Nang Leong Market to kill some time introduced me to quite possibly the best smoothie ever… well, best one not made in my own blender. I do have to draw the line somewhere.
Nang Leong Market
This market was a great choice to whet the appetite for what was waiting for me in a couple hours. To ease my increasingly grumpy (and spoiled) stomach, I discovered a small place making easily the most jam-packed, exotic, fruit smoothie I have ever had. The only problem seems to be, I forgot to take a picture of it. Instead I offer a street level view of the location I took from Google maps. The man with the yellow shirt is standing right in front of it. The passage way on the right of it leads to the market.
The remainder of the time was spent exploring the Wat Saket temple before heading back to hold down my #3 position. Just adjacent to Jay Fai is a great place to sip a beer and enjoy all the preparations that go into running her restaurant. She is easily recognizable in her camo shirt, black overalls, and goggles.
Around 1:54pm, my fate was sealed.
When my #3 was called, I felt like I was walking onto the set of that Netflix episode. I could feel the jealous eyes of the other 60-70 people standing around outside as I nudged thru the crowd. I was politely escorted to my table while the flutter of blue butterfly wings hummed in excitement. It was then for the first time that I caught a glimpse up close of a master performing her art. There she was… preparing what I would regard as two of the single greatest dishes in this or any other universe.
Hold on. Stop for a moment. That makes curry, orange juice, smoothies, and now what? Surely I am exaggerating!
Not on your foodiful life. Tastebuds, meet Crab Omelet and Drunken Noodles.
If there was a crescendo on the orchestration of this transformation, it was the moment I sunk my teeth into that crab omelet and it might just be… and I use the word might very strongly… that the drunken noodles were even better. I remember looking around the restaurant and the crowd of people longingly waiting outside for each table to finish their meals with their puppy dog eyes and drooling faces. The smiles and laughter of the others who were discovering new levels of deliciousness at the same time were infectious. Yet not a single person was drinking a beer. Who had I become? Where was I? Whatever the answer to that last question was, it was clear to me that I had arrived.
The Road to Ayutthaya and Beyond
As I reach this point in the story, everything after Jay Fai feels like a sensory whirlwind which would be far too indulgent to expound on in one blog post. So I will quickly summarize. The culinary adventure would continue later that evening at a Michelin 2-star German restaurant called Sühring.
The following day, I would venture to the ancient capital of Siam, Ayutthaya, to take my beloved beer picture. On the way back, I would discover an off-the-beaten-path riverside restaurant specializing in river prawns and afterwards ferry over to the island of Ko Kret and meander its provocative paths to its renegade craft brewery, Chitbeer.
The day after that was spent exploring the colorful Khlong Lat Mayom Floating Market and trying this and that, spoiling my sense of taste with every possible desire, from grilled fish, to exotic fruits, to coconut ice cream. Then to give myself a short break, taking a well worthwhile boat ride around the neighborhood. That was followed by the Chatuchak Weekend Market and later in the evening the Talad Rot Fai Train Night Market.
Ruai Grilled River Prawn
Khlong Lay Mayom Floating Market
After the trio of markets, my heart and mind were so overcome by the experiences that it was impossible to control myself from singing on a colorful discotheque-style Tuk Tuk ride back to the hotel. Whatever happened to me on this trip, whichever universe I was currently passing thru, the utter joy I was feeling manifest itself that entire ride back, probably much to the dismay of the Tuk Tuk driver. The blue butterflies surprised me with a harmony that couldn’t have existed across the expanse of time and space. That ride might have been the most here and now moment of the trip.
The euphoria somehow managed to last until morning, which is surprising considering the following morning was no ordinary morning.
The Author’s Lounge
The story concludes in the Author’s Lounge of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in the shadow of Michener, Coward, and Maugham. Brunch was an assortment of Asiatic fingerfoods, each one a satisfying explosion of color, texture, and flavor.
Every morsel could have represented a moment of this trip. Each had its own eye-opening character. Each experience added new dimensions, layer upon layer to this inexplicable transformation. I looked around that elegant room as I wiped the final crumbs from my mouth feeling for the first time, the fragility of time and place. The finality looked back at me like the empty plate in front of me. And just as fast as my empty plate was whisked away by the hostess, the fear of what was coming next washed over me.
As I stood waiting for my taxi to the airport, I wasn’t thinking about the final period of a future blog post. The last leg of my Asian journey was a business trip to China. The blue butterflies wouldn’t be coming along. They were not needed in the factories that would soon be engulfing me in polluted clouds like massive rusted steel and concrete behemoths.
The blue butterflies still fluttered about as I stood there, reminding me of the wonderful moments from the last few days, yet I was already feeling the pain that comes from reality turning into memory. Those moments waiting became a cacophony of aching and helpless acceptance mixed with distraction of the business that lay ahead.
The taxi finally pulled up bringing with it an unwanted sobriety. My legs did not desire to obey my command to descend the hotel stairs. But necessity carried me forward, along with the impatience of the hotel security officer. I reached the taxi with a final chance to say goodbye to the most amazing trip I have ever taken. It is a moment that will forever feel impossibly rushed. Before I had a chance to comprehend the moment more than I dare, I watched as the blue butterflies flew away into the golden sun. In the combustion of emotions that followed, I fumbled with my phone during an ill-timed SIM card switch, accidentally dropping my SIM card to the ground before I entered the taxi. We drove 20 meters. I asked the taxi to stop. I got out, jogged back, and scanned the ground in front of the hotel. Luckily I found it. I realized I was standing where I had just been only a minute ago. I looked for the butterflies one last time, but they were already gone.
As I sat in the taxi on the way to the airport, I didn’t realize just how much I was leaving behind. I have left many places in my life, but I have never left behind a piece of me like this trip. The man tapping away at his keyboard right now is not the same one that flew to Phnom Penh at the beginning of this trip. I guess traveling always changes us, doesn’t it? I can’t quite put my finger on it exactly, but whatever I left behind is what gives a person their sense of belonging. On this blue orb floating around in space supposedly with infinite parallel universes, in what corner of its vastness do I belong exactly? I came to realize that part of me was missing. As I look back I wonder if I crossed over from one universe to another when I dropped my SIM card. Could it have been as simple as that?
It has been three months since I returned from China. I haven’t re-discovered that feeling of belonging yet. Since that trip, I had a chance to visit Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I looked everywhere for the blue butterflies while I was there. I am sure they weren’t in my imagination. There were signs and hints everywhere, each one eliciting a knowing smile and a momentary breathlessness.
I imagine I will seek them out for a long time, wanting to reminisce about Jay Fai, Tuk Tuk Tom, and Kingdom beer. Sunrises, tarantulas, and kickboxers. For now, I will be satisfied and thankful for whoever has made it this far in my story to share in these experiences.
So I guess it is time. That final period. A few pixels containing immeasurable thoughts and emotions. All parallel universes converging on a single point. If only I could step inside it whenever I wanted.