KO CHANG, THAILAND – A sassier-than-expected waitress at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport once advised me and a group of co-workers that the expression “Minnesota Nice” was a “bunch of crap.”
Perhaps it was the first sign I’d never truly encountered a culture of nice. Until last week.
Finishing a meal with my wife at a small restaurant on the Thai island of Ko Chang, it started to pour. Not the kind of sudden torrent that breaks in a half-hour, washing away the misery of a blazing afternoon. Rather, that tropical downpour that builds, in layers, pauses, then builds some more.
Oblivious to the mechanics of planning, we had walked a half-mile to the restaurant amid looming clouds with no umbrella. We decided to wait it out.
This went on for a while, but then an extraordinary thing happened – the woman running the place offered to drive us to our hotel. No charge, no expectation of being paid. She drove us, before going back for a table of Germans who were similarly stranded, just so we wouldn’t get wet.
It was a simple and brief act. But I can’t think of anywhere I’ve been where this would have happened.
And it was hardly the exception. I’d heard about the smiling Thai people before planning our vacation in Thailand, a two-week journey from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north to the island of Ko Chang and back. I figured the “smiling” would be more “teeth-gritting,” hiding resentment just below the surface toward Westerners whose demand can be blamed for the tchotchke-littered tourist islands that speckle the country’s coast. They have every right to.
But the smiles are genuine, the acts of kindness real, committed by a soft-spoken culture of respect.
But enough about all that. Now, the food.
Of all our culinary experiences in Thailand, two lessons stand out. One, don’t avoid a restaurant just because nothing is in English and there are no pictures of food outside – follow your nose, and the crowds. Two, respect the curry.
More on the former in a bit. On the curry point, I came to Thailand decidedly disillusioned with Thai curries. I have an abiding lust for their Indian cousins, but too often in the U.S. a Thai curry ends up being a soupy, over-sweetened, under-spiced, bright red concoction better suited for dyeing Easter eggs than consuming.
I went through Bangkok and Chiang Mai without trying a single Thai curry, presuming as I often do that I know better. It wasn’t until I was on Ko Chang – not an island to be visited for its stellar food, I should add – that I buckled and ordered one.
I started with a massaman curry, a lesser-known Thai dish with Muslim roots that piqued my curiosity. And I was floored. It was aromatic and creamy like a North Indian curry but with the ubiquitous coconut milk base and the scent of peanut in every bite. My wife ordered the yellow curry.
Reflexively, we came back the next night – this was at Ka-Ti Culinary, where we were driven home in the rainstorm -- and ordered the panang. Each one was complex and fiery in its own way. We took a cooking class the next day to figure out how they did it.
Aside from my abrupt re-obsession with Thai curries, we also fell in love in Bangkok with a dish called Boat Noodles. This is a local specialty catering to Thai locals – easy to tell because nothing is in English in the boat noodle shops and ordering, for us farangs, or "Westerners" rapidly descended into a game of spicy charades.
We found a row of these shops on the north side of Victory Monument, nestled against a rotting creek a few steps past the street vendors. The boat noodle dish starts out simple and compact. You’re given a small bowl with a puddle of dark brown, muddy, sometimes-blood-thickened broth, containing a few shavings of meat and a tiny nest of noodles.
That’s it? Well, it’s costing you less than a dollar, so shut up and eat it, you say to yourself. But before you do, you dress it like you would any salad – picking from the tray of condiments at every table that includes a bowl of sugar, a bottle of fish sauce and a pot containing a mash of chilis, citrus and vinegar. Then add the toppings – bean sprouts, Thai basil leaves and something that resembles pork rinds. Transformed, that sad puddle of broth is now the most exciting bowl of soup – yes, soup – you’ve ever tasted. It’s everything Thai food is said to be -- sour, sweet, spicy, savory and a little funky. To our shame, we had only two, but the locals were professionals, ordering bowl after bowl and stacking them six, seven, eight high. The bill is tallied by how many bowls are stacked at the end of the meal.
The Bangkok dining options, though, are logistically limitless. We sampled the city-wide conveyor of street food – crackling, shimmering deep-fried pork gyoza in Chinatown, half-moon coconut custards called khanom krak in the old city, and a sticky-sweet mélange of hacked-up fish parts in the Or Tor Kor market -- and left knowing we had only scratched the surface.
Of course, food was only part of the journey. They’re geared heavily toward tourists, but the wats, or temples, are stunning. Thailand has thousands of them. In Bangkok, the highlights for us were the sprawling Wat Phra Kaeo, which contains the revered Emerald Buddha, and Wat Arun – better known as the thing on the flip side of the 10-baht coin. Though the latter is opposite the river from most hotels, it is well worth the brief trip. To avoid traffic over the bridges, we took a shuttle boat across the Chao Phraya and marveled at how quickly they docked, off-loaded and boarded passengers, and sped off to the next pier. For those willing to climb the surprisingly steep steps, Wat Arun offers a 360-degree view of the cityscape.
If you go to Bangkok, or anywhere else in the Land of Smiles, my best advice is to dive in. Snatch up the street food. Drink at Bangkok’s famed rooftop bars. Tour the wats. Beware the scams (if somebody tells you ‘Wat Pho closed,’ walk away). Careful with your phrasing, as they can take things quite literally – I ordered a whiskey at the Bus Bar in Chiang Mai, and, reinforcing my fears that I look like an alcoholic when I travel, was promptly given an unopened bottle and a shot glass. Travel by tuk-tuk, or even the surprisingly easy-to-master Skytrain. Go shopping, seriously. If you visit the Siam Paragon super-mall, don’t skip the food court. Again, seriously.
And if a smiling Thai points to the banana leaf-wrapped fish goo in Or Tor Kor market and gives you a thumbs-up, you make damn sure you eat that fish. Really, he wants you to enjoy it.