October: So we were away, a world far away from the circus and almost as mad. Joe, Dan, Dave, Fraser and myself here to sample the culinary delights that south east Asia can offer. We're in Thailand and first stop Bangkok. Having been here five years prior I have some knowledge of where to go and what to eat, but you can never be prepared for the madness that ensues in this noisy, humid, sordid place. Growing up in the quaint Cotswolds most certainly isn't the best preparation for dealing with the chaos around here - back home we have zebra crossings, cutlery and toilet paper. My first meal was a 60p bowl of noodles, probably one of the best I’ve ever had, eaten perched on a plastic chair after a death defying dart through the oncoming traffic. It feels exciting; not only the risk of getting there, but also knowing that the broth, maybe even the chopsticks, may lead to a few days of over familiar acquaintance with long-drop loos…. and yes, I did get food poisoning!
As horrendous as being ill in Asia can be, the food is wonderful and you need to be bitten once (or twice) to know where the best and safest places are to eat. We quickly realised that most street food vendors start early in the morning and have no refrigeration, hence the high risk you run when eating on the streets. The food markets are probably the best places to go and eat. Close to the source of the ingredients and dotted with places that are solely patronised by locals, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get a safe and rather amazing meal, for a fraction of what tourists are charged on the main strips. Not only that, you see the sale of the ingredients - bags of fresh coconut milk, sugar cane and the most colourful array of exotic vegetables.
We quickly ventured north to Pai, near the Burmese border, to embark on a few weeks of intense Thai kickboxing, which happened to be the most difficult thing I have ever done. I mean wow, I thought I felt tired after moving the circus, this was a new level of pain and embarrassment. We needed protein to keep our strength up, to be able to hold our own, and luckily Pai has a wonderful street food market where you can get pretty much anything on a stick. Pad Thais at the side of the road was a favourite, fruit shakes, kebabs, Khoa soi (northern curried noodles), Thom yum and Burmese salads, and also pizza, lasagne and burgers (which were incredibly expensive). It seems that the Thais also want to please the tourist with western food as well as their own. We had discovered a few local restaurants which we visited each night, and slowly made our way through the menus. The curries, red, green and massuman, were on offer in every venue but varied massively in quality. After a month we were favourites in a roadside family-run restaurant, complete with mangy dogs and a life-sized cut-out of the resident chef who would force on us things we had not yet tried.
Reading through a few blogs online I learnt that street food has only been popular since the late sixties. Before then it was most common to find people selling from the floating markets, and now is a staple thanks to the sudden rise in the urban population. Women who feed their families with the street food are called “plastic bag housewives” due to the bags the food is served in. Now you’ll find street food down most back alleys in Shoreditch.
The next stop was Chiang Mai, where hospitable restaurants and somewhat cleaner street food made the dining experience more pleasant but less interesting, and the evident westernising was a bit of a concern. There was even a stall selling fish and chips! Several Subways, McDonald’s, KFCs and Burger Kings litter the high streets of most Thai cities now, more often than not they're busier than the independent restaurants struggling next to them. This was, however, irrelevant, as I had been ill for well over a week and hadn’t eaten... and I mean ill. What could it have been? Well anything quite frankly, although my money is on a pork ball…
Thailand is big and bold in its personality and food. When you think south east Asian food you come first to Thailand, with its face-punching flavours and a palate that is so different to our own food culture, which I think is why the cuisine has become so popular over the past couple of decades. I will return here, there’s no question about it. Our bus pulled into Bangkok at a very unreasonable hour. We stopped into a restaurant for one last pad thai with a fried egg, extra peanuts and pickled chillies.
Our Thai adventure was over and we headed to the airport to take us to the South China sea.