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… but 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 gridlocked 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 shoulder and pulled me towards a wiry man in a blue and white apron.
The man behind the small cart 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 McDonald's daze as soon as I hear the clinging of his cooking utensils on the iron plate, quickly stir frying the egg, chicken and vegetables together for our first Pad Thai in Thailand. Before I could figure out all the sauces and accoutrements he had laid out on the front ledge of his mobile restaurant he was handing us two small rectangular Styrofoam plates, each piled high with noodles, vegetables and chicken. The aroma was amazing, citrusy 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 flavor was so fresh and intense it was revolutionary. I have had many Pad Thai's 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, this time with shrimp and 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 McDonald's school of speed and efficiency. Our appetites a little less voracious 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 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.