It’s past 6 in the evening and I’m huddled under the tiny roof of a Chinese pharmacy, waiting for the rain to peter out. The weather has been a confusing mix of clammy heat and wet muddiness, but I keep forgetting my rainproof jacket at the hostel. I’m on my way to the famous Yaowarat Road, Bangkok’s food street in Chinatown. I can almost taste the food – the freshly squeezed juices, the fried samosa-dumpling hybrids, the vats of curries and pans of noodles and the sticky sweet desserts. Thirty minutes later, I find myself walking on the drenched pavement, following the crowd with the same mission: food.
My Bangkok stop coincided with the Vegetarian Festival, so Yaowarat was more crowded than the usual. Local brands are showing off their products, competing with the Chinatown mainstays. Most of the menus and the signs are in Thai, and the shopkeepers have limited or no knowledge of English, so I let my senses figure out what I want instead.
It’s easy to get swallowed by the atmosphere though. There are many people, Thais and foreigners alike, and there will always be someone pausing in the middle of the walking crowd, browsing a food stall’s options, taking a photo, buying a plate of something. It adds to the fun, and I can’t help but be intrigued when someone stops at a specific stall.
I haven’t had a decent meal at that point and I knew I had to get something before I pass out. I stop at a line free stall and found myself snacking on fried, meat-free dumplings drizzled with salty-sweet soy sauce. A pack cost me a measly 40 baht, and it’s perfectly flavorful despite having no meat.
I spend the rest of night walking along Yaowarat, caught between people watching and stall hopping. I make a stop at one of the many mango sticky rice stands, and the auntie hands me my order with a grin and some Thai words. I gently explain that I’m not Thai – at this point, I should probably learn how to say it in every Southeast Asian language – and she laughs, saying “Same same, but different.”
I randomly end the night with a bottle of fresh fruit juice. It’s like a cross between orange and dalandan, something that reminds me of home.
Yaowarat Road is home to family-owned businesses, of legacies passed on from one generation to another. I chanced upon a TravelFish article listing little known, family-owned restaurants and a specific dish caught my eyes: khao muu daeng.
I found the inconspicuous restaurant in a soi, tucked away from the traffic-clogged main road. The store name is written in Thai, but I knew I was in the right place when I saw a huge chunk of pork shoulder being chopped at the entrance.
A group of men stand behind a steel counter: one of them understands English, so he takes my order, the other places a cup of white rice, a hardboiled duck egg and cucumbers on a plate, while the other chops the marinated pork shoulder and crispy pork belly, then slides it on top of the rice. The latter hands it back to the first man, who ladles a thick, herbed sauce on top of everything and hands it over to the server.
A complete order with the works came at 50 baht, when it tasted so much more than what I paid for. I sat there thoroughly enjoying one of the best Thai dishes I’ve ever had and it was an authentic experience as well. There was a handpainted menu on the wall, written completely in Thai, and there were no other foreigners except for me.
It’s easy to talk about the big moments, but the quiet ones are the ones that floor me sometimes. Yes, there will be the grand sunrises and the epic train rides, but there will also be simple, little things such as discovering hidden gems. There will be warm, balmy nights of walking in a crowd, basking in your anonymity. It’s taking a bite of something foreign and falling head over heels over it. It’s going out of your comfort zone and finding out that you wouldn’t have it any other way.