Saturday, 1 June 2013

Sawadee Kha

Noodle soup: my first meal in Bangkok
Sawadee kha! Hello from Bangkok. I am in Thailand this summer on a welcome break from classes, problem sets and exams, interning with the UN. I arrived at Suwannabhumi airport on a Sunday morning, tired and jet lagged, cringing at the thought of having to report to work the next day. I have now survived my first week, having overcome a particularly severe case of jet lag and succeeded at the seemingly impossible task of finding accommodation for my ten week stay during high season.

My biggest hurdle so far has been language. India’s British colonial history is an important reason why English is so widely spoken in the country today. Unlike India, Thailand was never subject to European colonial rule, let alone British rule, with the result that few people seem to understand or speak English. I have been struggling to communicate with the Thai people. On many days, I find myself gesturing wildly at some unsuspecting, perplexed Thai victim, using my face and hands to make my point heard. Their patience, smiles and willingness to help makes things better.

Attack on Sushi
The other day, I missed my shuttle bus to the UN, which is located right opposite a prominent boxing stadium. A little frazzled, I rushed downstairs from my room to catch a taxi. I tried everything.  “UN”, “United Nations”, “Boxing Stadium”, and “Rajadamnern Avenue” which is where the UN is located, all in my newly acquired Thai accent. Nothing worked. As a last resort, I mimed my best boxing mime for the driver’s benefit, hoping that it would culminate in a pleasant drive to the Boxing Stadium. Both drivers who were subject to this, unsurprisingly perhaps, shook their heads and sped off hastily, clearly wanting to avoid what must have seemed like a potentially violent Indian passenger. I asked front desk at my apartment building to intervene in my linguistic battles with the next driver, and of course, that worked like a charm.

I had equal difficulty buying toilet paper. None of my eloquent descriptions worked on the shop assistant. Finally, as a last resort, I drew a western closet with a toilet paper holder next to it on a little scrap of paper. That worked, and I was soon the happy owner of a new roll of the important stuff. I am not sure if I will be any more proficient in the Thai language than I was when I first arrived in Thailand. What I do know is that I will likely transform into a champion of both dumb charades and Pictionary.

KFC: Korean Fried Chicken
It is hotter at this time of year than I had expected, and certainly hotter than I would like. I find myself wilting on the street within minutes as I wait for a taxi, even at early hours of the morning. We have had slightly uncomfortable highs of around 35 degrees Celsius, prompting me to stay indoors until the weather is cool enough to explore the sights and sounds of the city.

The silver lining in all of this has undoubtedly been the food and the prices. Bangkok is the cheapest city I have ever been in. In many ways, it is significantly cheaper than many Indian cities. All of the food that I have tried in Bangkok so far has been of consistently high quality, all far more affordable than it would have been in cities that I have visited elsewhere. An all you can eat sushi buffet costs in one of Bangkok’s more upmarket districts costs around $10. Street vendors sell generous slices of the freshest watermelons, papayas and other favourite fruits of mine at under a dollar. You can quite easily buy a delicious meal from one of Bangkok’s many street vendors for the price of one dollar. 

The all you can eat sushi buffet, with drinks and dessert thrown in, was a particularly interesting experience. I was somewhat incredulous when I saw the price of the meal, even asking our waitress in disbelief, “How do you guys make money?”. Of course, this was Greek to her, and she just smiled politely. We were exactly an hour into our attack on sushi, leisurely dipping vegetables and meat into our sukiyaki pot, when we were interrupted mid-bite and politely informed that our hour long slot was up. And so our onward march was abruptly halted, their ingenious business model was revealed, and my incredulity was destroyed.

My room in Bangkok does not have a kitchen. Although I am delighted to rely on Bangkok’s delicious offerings for the next couple of months, this will mean that there will no recipe posts from me for a while. However, I fully intend to keep up a steady stream of chatter about Bangkok’s food scene. Stay tuned. :) 

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