Life awakens before dawn in Bangkok, along the Chao Phraya River—the River of Kings—that bisects the city. Bridges hum with automobile traffic that will turn into a modern jam once morning comes. The passenger ferries are quiet, waiting for first light to bring commuters from the older quarter of Thonburi on the west side to the business districts on the east, where the capital city was established over two centuries ago.
It seems that every house, grand or modest, has space for hanging pots of orchids, birdcages, or paths laid out in pieces of colored tile.
On the river itself, three linked barges haul rice from the fertile central plain to the north. In the dark, they slide past modern high-rises and hotels; past the Grand Palace on the east bank, the sprawling complex of temples and royal residences built by Thailand’s former kings; and on the west bank, Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn.
On the Thonburi side, activity stirs along the klongs—the small canals that thread from the river through the city. Bangkok lived on the water until recent times. The river and canals determined patterns of building and trading, until the last major klong was filled in in the fifties. One look at Bangkok traffic and you might wonder if a modern road system was really progress.
The famous floating markets are almost gone, although some still operate outside the urban center. Here in the city, the klongs carry limited trade. A few small, flat-bottomed boats glide from the night flower and vegetable markets with fresh goods to sell to the individual houses, small shops and shanties that stand on stilts above the water.
Some homes are very humble, with one room and a corrugated tin roof. The older homes are built of teak panels, carved on the outside. Spirit houses, models of traditional Thai homes, sit atop pillars with offerings of fresh flowers and food for the earth spirit that was displaced when the human house was built. It seems that every house, grand or modest, has space for hanging pots of orchids, birdcages, or paths laid out in pieces of colored tile.
After a morning on the river, the visitor takes away an impression of contrast: old with new, spiritual with secular, east with west, and lavish with squalid. It’s hard to say what real “Thai-ness” is about.
Images of Siam
In the West, the image of Thailand has been shaped almost entirely by non-Thai forces that are inaccurate or incomplete: “The King and I,” which is banned in Thailand for its disrespectful depiction of the king; “The Beach,” the Leonardo di Caprio film of Western backpackers seeking an Asian utopia; or Pat Pong, the garish and notorious red light district that developed to cater to soldiers on R & R during Viet Nam.
In the past decade, however, the most faithful and influential ambassador for the country has been its cuisine. Western countries “discovered” Thai food in the eighties and nineties, and Thai beer came along for the ride.
In some countries the challenge for a beer lover is to taste the whole range of traditional beer styles—a tough task in England, and a downright daunting one in Belgium. In Ireland, by contrast, one style dominates the beer scene, and the real pleasure is to explore all the varied settings for enjoying a good pint of stout.
In Thailand, you can’t talk about the beer without starting with the food, since the place of Thai beer is to play the supporting role to one of the world’s most varied cuisines.
The Flavors of Thailand
Thailand is at a culinary crossroads of Asia, with Burma to the northwest, Laos and Cambodia to the east, Malaysia to the south, and the giant neighbors of China and India to the north and the far west. All these cultures have contributed to Thai cuisine over the centuries and the result is unique.
The food is a balance of hot, sour, spicy and sweet notes. Pungent fish sauce combines with creamy coconut milk and tangy lime in an aromatic curry; fiery seasonings pair with crisp, fresh vegetables in distinctive salads; fresh fruit for dessert is served with sugar for dipping, dusted with powdered chili.
The Thai cook draws upon a huge range of spices and flavorings: ginger and the related galanga, garlic and shallots, coriander leaves and roots, Thai basil, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, fresh lime juice, and over a dozen types of chili.
In the tradition of palace-style cooking, hours are lavished on multi-step dishes, that are then beautifully garnished with fruits and vegetables carved into intricate leaf and flower shapes.
But good flavor is not the prerogative of the rich. Thais seem to cook—and eat—everywhere. At all hours in the cities, on the sidewalks, under the bypasses, next to the water, cooks are slicing fresh ingredients for the world’s best fast food.
In many cases in US restaurants, Thai fare has been dialed back to appeal to American tastes. The results are somewhat sweeter, richer, and certainly less spicy than the same dishes in Thailand. The same is true even in the restaurants in Thailand that cater to foreigners. The legendary heat of some dishes is an acquired taste, even among the Thais; children are given milder food than adults.