My first visit to Thailand, and Bangkok, was in 1969. My first choice for my first R&R (rest and relaxation) courtesy of the 101st Airborne was Hawaii. My second choice was Australia. My third choice was Bangkok, not for any particular reason, because I knew nothing about Thailand, but just because it sounded better than the other Asian nations I could have spent a week in.
I learned later that my first two choices were pie in the sky, as only officers or married men were given leave in Hawaii or Australia. Us lowly enlisted could choose from what was left.
Bangkok turned out to be a good choice. In fact, I took a second R&R later that year to Bangkok. On that second trip, a fellow soldier and friend came with me.
Somehow, I had managed to avoid spicy Thai food on my first visit, but on this second one my friend and I were sitting at the hotel pool and decided to order lunch. Not having any clue about the meals being offered, I selected from a picture of a bowl of reddish-brown something or other, with rice. It looked very tasty.
In fact, it was tasty, as I wolfed down several hearty mouthfuls. That is when I received my first indoctrination to Thai spicy food, which may be redundant, since most Thai food is spicy.
The spice didn’t kick in until I had eaten several heaping forkfuls of rice and curry. And boy did it kick in. A beer was consumed rapidly. Water was ordered. Nothing worked. The lesson remains with me to this day.
It’s not that I’m now a neophyte to spicy food. My last home was Indonesia, where spicy food also is prevalent. But in my four years there, I never encountered the kind of slow-burning spicy food that is a Thai signature. Indonesian spicy food seems to give its kick early in the experience.
I learned to request non-spicy food, although what I consider spicy the Indonesians think of as just a little spicy. I often watched them mix in extra green peppers into dishes that were already too hot for me to eat. Eventually, I became somewhat acclimated to the Indonesian spicy food, and I thought that culinary adjustment would serve me well in my new home.
Yesterday, as my first official Thai meal this time around (it’s my 5th visit to the country), I decided to try the Thai-famous Tom Yum Kung soup, a delicious tomato-based seafood concoction with plenty of hot spice for those who want it. I didn’t. So I asked for non-spicy. Of course, the soup was very spicy, not that a Thai would notice.
Last night, I again encountered the slow burn. While exploring the neighborhood once again, looking for someplace for dinner, we chanced upon a street food court, with several restaurants vying for business. Each had at least one employee outside the open-air seating areas, who was there to invite you in.
We selected a place at the end of the row that had a large crowd. I let my friend order the food, with the understanding that I wanted non-spicy. My original request for a whole, deep-fried fish would have taken 30 minutes to cook, so chicken wings were ordered, along with some brownish clams and a papaya salad of some kind. Of course, each dish came with its own sides of spicy sauces, just in case the dish was not hot enough for you.
Thankfully, the chicken was not spiced at all, and the sauce that came with it was tasty but relatively benign. The clams also were not spicy, their accompanying sauce higher on the Scoville scale of hotness.
Then there was the papaya salad, something you would imagine to be sweet, not spicy. As I took a heaping forkful of salad, my friend cautioned me to taste it first. Good thing, too, as it would have ruined my evening if I had eaten the entire bite.
Today, I had my third experience. I needed to find a money exchanger or ATM so we walked around the neighborhood, asked a couple of people, and finally gave up on the money changer. In Indonesia, these exist on almost every block, but not in this part of Bangkok, which I’ve realized was the wrong place to booka hotel.
So I used an ATM we found. You don’t really want to use an ATM too much here because the Thai bank will charge you $6 (180 baht) for each withdrawal. My U.S. bank charges $5 on top of that. Another good reason to open a Thai bank account, which will avoid all ATM charges.
Anyway, the sun was out, it was hot and I needed a beer. So we stopped at a local open-air restaurant with no one in it, and the owners and staff busy getting food ready for the Saturday night crowd. It was only about 3 pm.
I ordered a 16-ounce Heineken and my friend ordered a “snack” for us to share, a chicken-based soup with lots of green leaves you couldn’t eat and a plate of rice. The soup was “only a little spicy” I was told. It came with a brown sauce I was warned was much hotter, although it turned out to have a great taste – until the slow burn kicked in.
The soup turned out to be very spicy for me, but I managed, once the nerve endings in my mouth had been burned into submission. I tried dipping some of the chicken in the brown sauce, enjoyed the taste, and then couldn’t speak or hardly breathe for a minute or two.
The penalty for this experience – 190 baht, plus tip ($4), including the large imported beer.
Tonight, we plan to try a Japanese restaurant we found during our walk. I intended to try a Thai-Vietnamese restaurant, but all the good places are located a long way from my hotel. This is one of the reasons I think choosing a hotel near the airport was a bad idea. In addition, I could have reserved a good hotel for a lot less per day if I had chosen one closer to downtown and where all the action and restaurants are.
Tomorrow is a big day. My ride to Hua Hin picks me up at the hotel at 1 pm for the 3-hour ride. A cheap hotel has been reserved there for 3 nights, allowing me a couple of days to scout out apartments. Finding a place to live has been the biggest challenge I’ve encountered in all the places I’ve lived in the past 6 years.