I believe I am ready for Bangkok, after a few weeks in slower-paced Cambodia and on Koh Samui. I arrive hoping to unlock the secrets of this densely populated metropolis, to flow with the crowds that filled every sidewalk, to absorb the all-night music of horns honking and police whistles in this city that truly never sleeps. There are sky scrapers and mini-shrines and temples and orange-robes monks riding the Skytrain. There are beggars everywhere, slumped softly on the white-hot sidewalk like bundles of laundry, unmoving except for their eyes, following me as I pass. There are streets that I simply cannot figure out how to cross, filled with motorcycles and tuk-tuks and pink taxis moving swiftly, without regard for lanes, never stopping, never a gap I can step into. I have to change my path, find ways around the inexorable river of traffic.
Part of me wants to stay forever, to learn the Thai philosophy of jai yen, or cool heart, and to get to know all of the secrets of this intoxicating, beautiful, dirty city. Another part of me longs for home—for the sound of English, for communicating without hand gestures, navigating without a map, and the ease of familiarity.
But I begin to see that the soul of Bangkok is in its food, and the heart of the city is in its streets. Food carts line the narrow sidewalks, and everyone is eating. In the morning, as we walk up Sala Daeng Road to the Skytrain station, office workers line up to buy sweet pancakes or fruit.
We take a riverboat up the Chao Phraya River to Ratchawongse Pier and explore Bangkok’s Chinatown. If anything, the crowds are denser here, and food carts line up umbrella to umbrella, in an unbroken chain on each side of the street. There are hanging ducks and chickens–pale, naked and vulnerable-looking, wearing only goose bumps. Piles of deep brown dried fish are heaped in boxes. Pyramids of spring rolls glisten in the sun.
On the river again, grand hotels stand shoulder to shoulder with rickety shanties along the banks. Long-tail boats roar past, adding more exhaust fumes to the hazy acrid air. A crocodile swims by, grinning and sinuous.
We visit the impossibly long reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, and there are carts outside the walls offering fresh fruit smoothies.
We wander Khao San Road and mingle with the backpackers, and find food carts serving cheap phad thai and spicy papaya salad and grilled meats, and even hot dogs.
Back in Silom, it is skewered everything: chicken, pork, meatballs, seafood. Vendors stir steaming vats of curry. Soup sellers have tiny plastic tables set up next to their carts. A few hand gestures, a smile, I point and hold up two fingers. For thirty baht (about a dollar) each, we sit down and mix condiments into our steaming noodle bowls—sugar, vinegar, fish sauce, hot peppers to taste, then we eat, and stop fighting the heat and noise and crowds, but just let them be for the moment. We slurp noodles and drink broth and chew tasty little bits of pork and sit, inches from the curb on one side and pressed by pedestrians on the other.
I realize that I am no longer feeling quite so foreign here—even though I only speak a few words of Thai, I do understand the language of food. Already we have a neighborhood, a routine, and most importantly, a favorite soup vendor–and that means that we have a foothold in this city.