You know you're in for a unique holiday culinary experience when, instead of shortbread fingers, your hotel room snack tray consists of two Pot Noodles and a few packets of foil-wrapped, fish-flavoured seaweed.
Eating – or, to give it it's proper Thai-pigeon-English name, “eating eating” - will never be the same again. Why “eating eating”? It's an amusing verbal tic among those Thais whose English isn't very good to say certain keywords twice in quick succession, as if the second utterance confirms the first (“...eating. See? I told you I meant eating!”).
So, after checking in and unpacking (and taking a photo of Pot Noodles & seaweed), we venture out of the hotel to explore downtown Bangkok – without the aid of a safety net. As I've said before, the first thing that hits you on the streets, apart from the heat and humidity, is the noise; the cacophony of voices, car horns (although, curiously, never a police siren), tuk-tuk engines, music. And one of the most striking sights is the abundance of street vendors offering cooked food for sale. Pork noodles, chicken satay, duck fried rice, deep-fried banana, barbecued salted fish (salted and barbecued while still alive, I should add), and every possible way of serving shrimp. Food is everywhere.
In a refreshing departure from the usual guidebook advice to “avoid buying food from a street vendor like the plague”, Bangkok guidebooks (we used the Lonely Planet one) positively encourage it for, while it's true that the ramshackle wheeled cart that serves as mobile kitchen, the hammered- aluminium “mess tins” you eat out of, and the chef's broken-toothed smile do not exactly whet one's appetite, the food itself is made from good ingredients, expertly cooked under difficult conditions, and delicious.
For our first “go” we pick a man selling spicy pork noodles on a busy main road just down from our hotel.
He stands behind his cart, barely visible through the billowing cloud of savoury-smelling steam bubbling up from the large pot from which he ladles a generous helping of noodles, pork, spring onions, and little dumplings of tofu (all swimming in a light-grey “soup”), into a dented aluminium bowl, while we wait in anticipation, seated on brightly-coloured miniature plastic garden stools at a folding camp table. He serves us the bowl (one bowl between four because we're not sure we'll like it) and we tuck in while trying to avoid inhaling the traffic fumes on our one side, and to not get in the way of the steady stream of pedestrians flowing past on the other, and after the first spoonful wishing we'd ordered a bowl each.
The first evening, and time to indulge in Bangkok's second-most popular past-time after eating eating; shopping shopping. Our guidebook tells of the Mahboonkrong – or MBK – centre being a must-see place, so we negotiate a fare of 200Baht for our taxi driver to take us to MBK (before getting in the taxi of course). Once in the taxi and on our way (crawling along in first gear), it begins...
“You want nice restaurant?”
“We'd just like to go to MBK please”
“You want shopping shopping, or eating eating?”
“Erm, well, both really.”
“Oh, MBK just shopping. No good for eating eating. Also is closed now. You want go nice Thai restaurant? Very good seafood!”
“Umm, well, we just wanted to look around the shops at MBK and get something to eat nearby.”
“No shop tonight. Tomorrow better for shopping shopping. Tonight good for eating eating.”
At this point I gave up and let him take us to a “nice restaurant he knows”, which turns out to be a long Portakabin-like structure a bit off the beaten track, wedged between a major road artery and a railway line and reached via a long, dark alleyway. Karen and I exchange worried, “we've been had” looks, but decide to make the best of it; it's getting late, it took about 45 minutes to get here, and we're all starving. I pay the taxi driver without saying thank you, and we walk under a kind of car-port of corrugated plastic roof panels to be greeted by “mine host”, who promptly thrusts plastic baskets into our hands and guides us to a row of large algae-dimmed glass tanks along the right-hand side so that we can pick our main course – nice!
Elliot and Abigail draw the line at this, neither being a huge seafood fan, but Karen chooses the least sorry-looking sea bass from a sorry-looking bunch and I choose the smallest lobster I could find. Choosing a live lobster from a tank for my dinner was a life experience still on my “yet-to-do” list, and I think this was one of the main reasons we didn't jump straight into the next taxi and retreat to “civilization”.
Inside, the long dining room of Samboon Dee (I gleaned the name of the establishment from the back of the staffs' T-shirts) was almost empty - just two other tables occupied. We choose a table about half-way down on the right and settle down in the plastic garden chairs to listen to our dinner background music - by Led Zeppelin, Oasis, and AC/DC. Elliot commented that the playlist could have come from my iPod.
Dinner arrives, looking very different from fifteen minutes earlier. My lobster (which I'd ordered stir-fried in sweet and sour sauce) has turned bright red from its original bluey-grey colouring (you would too if you'd been boiled alive) and Karen's sea bass is nicely presented on an oval metal tray, having been poached in an onion and garlic broth.
Despite the threatening ambience and seen-better-days décor, dinner was very good, but also very expensive by Bangkok standards (that's whole lobsters for you). We sat in the taxi back to the hotel wondering how much commission the first taxi driver got paid for persuading us to visit his “sponsor”.