If you should happen to find yourself in Chaweng, on the island of Koh Samui in Thailand, and it’s evening and you’re pleasantly drowsy from an afternoon by the pool and freshly showered and getting hungry, and you have just stepped out of your hotel onto Chaweng Beach Road, here is what to do.
It is already dark, as the sun sets early so close to the equator. It is still hot and you start to sweat, but without the sun beating down the heat is more caressing than incendiary, more like a hot bath and you give yourself up to it and relax. For the first time today you are free of sunglasses, hat and sunscreen, but well-coated with mosquito repellent. Walk slowly up the narrow crumbling sidewalk, part of a crowd of pedestrians. Outside each massage parlor, store, or restaurant an employee is stationed, calling out to passersby. Food carts are parked along the curb, doing a brisk business.
Every few minutes a truck passes with a giant speaker blaring advertisements for the local Muy Thai boxing stadium. You can feel the thumping bass in your bones until the truck passes on. Neon lights shine out, headlights sweep past.
The street is a sea of scooters weaving like schools of fish around the slower moving Muy Thai trucks, taxis, tuk tuks, and the larger songthaew—taxi-trucks with two rows of bench seats in the back, tooting their horns at every potential fare. You can wave and jump into the back of a songthaew for a cheap ride up the strip, but you really don’t have far to go and there’s no hurry.
When you arrive at Ninja Crepes, you may wonder momentarily whether this is really where you want to eat. It’s a cavernous open-fronted restaurant with fans mounted under the corrugated metal roof, and rows of dingy tables with plastic lawn chairs, with sort of a warehouse vibe. And what does the name mean, exactly–Ninja Crepes? But there is a milling crowd on the sidewalk out front waiting for tables. They must be on to something good.
You will be seated before long, and handed an enormous menu with an overwhelming number of options. Everything is inexpensive, so order a few dishes to share—it is the Thai way of eating, and the variety makes for a satisfying meal. The spicy noodle soup with ground chicken is savory and imminently slurpable. The curries, whether yellow curry with chicken, or red curry with shrimp, or any number of other combinations, are rich and subtle.
Don’t skimp on the steamed rice, and don’t forget to try one of the noodle dishes, such as the fried spicy egg noodles, which are chewy and tasty. If you want to splurge a bit, order a few of the fresh giant prawns—sold by weight, and grilled to perfection. The waiter will write your order on a tiny scrap of torn cardboard and depart, then a woman will arrive with a scale and a bowl of prawns, which she will weigh with a smile and a flourish, allowing you to decide how many to order.
Take your time and enjoy this extravaganza of Thai food. Take the time to really notice the crunch of the vegetables, the tenderness of the chicken. Add a few dollops from the condiments on the table, until sweet, salty, hot and sour dance on your tongue in perfect proportions. Enjoy the breeze from the overhead fans, stirring the sluggish air. It is time to discuss plans for tomorrow, and eavesdrop on the conversations around you, picking out an astonishing number of different languages. Watch the hustling cooks in the open kitchen and the guy making coconut drinks at a small table.
When you are finally done, unstick your legs from your plastic chair and head for the cash register. Somehow, they will know which of those little cardboard rectangles holds your order. You might be surprised at how little your meal costs—once you do some quick currency conversions in your head, it will certainly come out to no more than five or six US dollars each.
There’s really something about this place—a little grungy, but with first-class food and a lot of heart. Who knows? You might be back tomorrow night for more.
As you walk back out into the frenetic Chaweng night, your seat will already be filled by another eager diner.