Khao San Road in Bangkok, Thailand, is the stuff of backpacking legends. Hailed as a “backpacker ghetto” it is a major hub for travelers from all over the world. Whether you’re looking for a wild party, a ping pong show, live Thai kickboxing or a transgender companion, Bangkok has you covered… we were here for the food.
As soon as I got out of the taxi I needed to eat, it had been an hour and a half ride from the bus stop in gridlock traffic, something Bangkok is famous for at any hour of the day. Over the past 5 weeks my brother Lucas and I had traveled through Southeast Asia eating our body weight in rice, noodles, broth, sir fries, curries, dumplings and even wood ants, so when we stood at the head of Khao San Road and I saw those big, golden arches illuminated in the evening light I almost ran for the door, my tongue hanging out of my mouth. It is often the case that after one travels for a period of time, one begins to miss the familiarity of the food they know, but while I was succumbing to my weakness for two processed “all beef” patties lettuce cheese pickles and onions on a sesame seed bun, Lucas had been scoping out the street vendors, and just as the Big Mac tractor beam started to lure me in he grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me towards a wiry man in a blue and white striped apron wearing a very unusual hat.
The man behind the small kart was all smiles, but not all teeth, and his menu boasted Pad Thai served 4 ways (with egg, with chicken and egg, with shrimp and egg or with chicken shrimp and egg) and spring rolls. I quickly snap out of my McDonalds daze as soon as I hear the clinging of his cooking utensils on the iron plate, quickly stir frying the egg and vegetables together for our first Pad Thai in Thailand. Before I could figure out all the sauces and accoutrement he had laid out on the front ledge of his mobile restaurant he was handing us two small rectangle Styrofoam plates, each piled high with noodles, vegetables and shrimp. The aroma was amazing, citrus-y and sweet, we didn’t even bother to find a place to sit, we just stood there in the middle of the street with our bags still on our backs shoveling piping hot noodles into our mouths as fast as we could. The flavour was so fresh and intense it was revolutionary. I have had many Pad Thais in my life but none like this. I was so enthralled with my noodles that when there was no more on my plate for my chop sticks to pick up, I had a silent panic attack and promptly ordered us two more, with a side of spring rolls because, well… why not?
This time I was keeping my eyes on this craftsman, this wizard of noodle and sauce. He tossed, sprinkled, sauced and fried without even looking it seemed, boasting a lackadaisical confidence that comes with making the same dish, day in and day out, for weary travelers or drunk party goers year after year. I watched intently, asking him what each ingredient was and estimating its weight or volume in my head, compiling a recipe I could test when I returned home. I hardly had time to finish storing the recipe in my memory bank and he held out three more plates, as if he had studied at the McDonalds school of speed and efficiency. Our appetites a little less veracious this time around, we paid for our meal and looked for a place to sit. We posted up on a curb and tucked in for round two, stopping only to take a bite of spring roll doused in sweet chili sauce.
It never ceases to amaze me that the street food on my travels are consistently better than restaurants, anywhere outside North America. There is magic in the simplicity and unpretentiousness of eating out of a Styrofoam container or tucking into something that was grilled on a stick. Being able to watch you food prepared in front of your eyes breaks down the barrier and mystery of where your food comes from and this is something we often lack in the Western world. Its also refreshing to see the small time food vendors lined up right outside the fast food empires and that people are supporting them.
We track down our hotel, drop the bags off and head back to the street. Rather unassuming during the day, Khao san road looks like any other entertainment district with bars and restaurants on both sides of the street, speckled with tailors hawking custom made suits, stalls selling pirated DVDs and knock off head phones. The odd mobile kart meanders the one kilometer strip selling fresh pineapple juice and lychees to hung over tourists in need of some serious vitamin intake. But come sunset, Khao San Road begins to transform, morphing into a circus of acts and characters that get more interesting and weird as the night progresses. The tables and chairs from the bars spill out onto the street, the music gets louder and the lights get lower. The guys hawking suits and headphone pack up shop and are replaced by young men soliciting ping pong shows and colorful balloons filled with laughing gas, and the little karts with fresh fruit become mobile buffets of various insects and arachnids, including crickets, grasshoppers and scorpions on sale for you dining or entertainment pleasure.
We posted up at a table on the street and watched the show, recapping our trip and discussing the places we went, the people we met, as well as the epic (and not so epic) meals we had along the way. Lucas order a Tower of Chang beer, the equivalent to two pitchers in a tall cylinder with an ice core and we try to absorb our surroundings as the night goes on. Every three minutes someone comes buy trying to sell bracelets, magic tricks, or just to beg for coins. A large lady arrives at our table with a tray full of deep fried scorpions on sticks, like some kind of twisted popsicle, exclaiming she has the cheapest prices in town at only $2.50 a piece. We politely decline but a traveler at the table next to us agrees to buy one for his friend and we all watch with a mixture of surprise and disgust and he crunches down on the scorpion’s poisonous tail. He gags and spits but his friends aren’t letting him get off that easily, they taunt him to finish the scorpion and like a champion he does, cheering and jeering ensue and another Tower is ordered as a makeshift trophy. We join their table and relish in travel stories for what seems like hours.
The next day was going to be our last day before returning to Hong Kong and our bus was picking us up at 8 am to go to the airport. Lucas and I checked the time, it was getting late and we have to pack, so we excuse ourselves from the table and head back to the hotel. En route we pass our friend slinging Pad Thai and he waves to us from across the street
“you hungry?” Lucas asks me
“not at all” I said, “but this may be out last chance”
we walk over and are greeted with a massive, toothless smile
“two shrimp and egg” says Lucas
“and an order of spring rolls!” I add because, well… why not?