I am surrounded by people of various ethnicities. Bangkok is an amazingly diverse Asian city, probably more so than Manila, Philippines or Seoul, South Korea. However, communication has proven to be somewhat of a problem. While I had a middling grasp of the language in the Philippines and was surrounded by people who could translate in Korea, I am bereft of these benefits in Bangkok. There is no guarantee that approaching a white person here will help because they could be German or Russian (two of the languages my Swedish/French/Spanish/English-speaking husband does not know) and are most likely tourists (read: clueless) like us.
Most of the Thais we’ve dealt with have been friendly with some knowledge of English (they can tell us the price of something, although I am having difficulty even interpreting how they say numbers. The cadence of the accent seems to quickly roll all the words into one and intonations are in unexpected places.) When the situation calls for more than numbers, they will draw in another person to help — who in turn also smiles at us and speaks more Thai.
Most of the exchanges are directed at me. They go something like this: Short burst of Thai. Long, pointed look at me. Another burst of Thai. Silence, as they wait for the gift of translating Asian tongues which must assuredly be in me, the chosen Asian-looking one, to manifest. Then — more silence, deepened by the weight of disappointment and judgement, when it does not.
Ah, the dark side of looking pan-Asian.
However, all of the above must be borne as at the end of most of these exchanges is food, which is not disappointing on any level. Our first night here we sampled wares from three street stalls: coconut and pineapple pastries that looked like miniature empanadas; a thin egg omelette with stringy green vegetables; and spicy chicken with basil, rice and a fried egg. The pastries were pretty good, a little dry but tasty. The omelette was piping hot and served in a plastic bag; salty and a little oily, but bursting with fried goodness. The chicken with basil was so spicy my gums were still tingling 15 minutes after our meal. The heat of that dish was so intense it started a bout of hiccups, but so delicious I tried swallowing food in between them. The best part: It all cost about $3.
We’ve also tried dishes from mall food courts that can be just as cheap, but not as tasty as the street food. However, it was at a mall food court that I learned pad thai can be made with just bean sprouts and no noodles. Plus, it’s easier to order food; most of the counters have pictures with numbers so you can point at them or hold up a finger. And everywhere has special side sauces and spices you can add, which includes, surprisingly, white sugar. My favorite remains the white vinegar with chopped-up chilies; it’s more tangy than hot and adds a nice kick to most dishes (although I have found it is not as good with dishes that tend to be a little sweeter, like pad thai.) Another plus: no stomach problems yet, though I am still leery of trying fresh fruit from the street. But boy, am I ever eagerly anticipating the day when I can.
Side note: Food prices in the grocery stores are shockingly high after the street fare wonders and correspond with American prices. It might actually make more fiscal sense for us to eat most of our meals from street stalls. Which means, of course, more food adventures are on the way! 🙂
Missed Part I? Here it is: https://gokarlmans.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/first-impressions-of-bangkok-part-1/