A soused thirtysomething Thai, his eyes bloodshot and arms covered in tattoos, waves his cigarette in the face of an obese, droopy-eyed dog next to him who’d just hopped into a white plastic chair and assumed his spot with the rest of a small group seated at a folding metal table draped in a plastic, baby-blue colored tablecloth adorned with Nestle water logos. The dog immediately turns his face in the opposite direction, keeping the corners of his eyes trained on the drunkard, almost as if he’s thinking “oh, fuck you, you know better.”
The guy laughs, pats the dog on the head, takes a long drag from his cigarette, and exhales, squinting through smoke blown back into his face from the oscillating fans mounted on the ceiling. He looks down at the dog again, pats him on the head once more, and offers his hand in apology. The dog reaches up and shakes it immediately. No hard feelings.
It’s 12:30am on a Tuesday night. Hungry for something spicy and a tall bottle or three of Chang beer, I’ve ventured out from my plush Pratunam digs at Manhattan Condominiums and settled into an empty table at an anonymous hole-in-the-wall restaurant located just off Petchaburi Road on the corner of soi 31, which cuts back towards the Bangkok Palace Hotel. I’ve walked by it God knows how many times, and frequently reminded myself that I needed to come back sometime soon and check it out since it always looked packed during the early- to late-evening hours. For whatever reason, though, it took nearly 6 months for it to happen.
A friendly girl in her twenties, dressed in a red-and-white striped t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, smiles encouragingly as I place my order of papaya salad, fried morning glory, sticky rice, and a tall bottle of Chang in broken, probably butchered Thai pronunciation that’s at least, I think, gotten better during this latest stint of temporary residency in Bangkok. She disappears into the kitchen, then quickly reappears, places an empty glass in front of me, and a bucket of ice and the beer on a short metal cart next to the table. She picks out a few ice cubes with metal tongs, drops them into the glass, then pours the beer, smiles, and attends to the table with the soused thirtysomething and obscenely obese dog.
I never thought I’d say it, but Thai-style glasses of beer with ice cubes have actually grown on me.
An older gentleman who looks to be in his fifties is dozing off at the table next to me while loosely clutching a half-empty glass of whiskey that looks like it could tumble to the floor at any moment. His friend is already sleeping, head buried in his arms on the table like a bored sixth-grader suffering through a dry lecture in social studies class.
There’s only a few other occupied tables here, but no signs of closing time coming anytime soon. Another fat dog has settled into a deep, lazy lay under an empty table to my right; I don’t see him move an inch for at least a half hour, except once, when he raises his head to follow the path of a rat scurrying across the dusty cement dining-room floor towards the back of the restaurant and, yes, the kitchen.
The whirring of ceiling fans is drowned out by patrons at the roadside bar next door who’ve burst into slurred song like a drunken choir. Bright halogen lights shine down on empty boxes of Hong Thong whiskey stacked behind a small white countertop. The white walls to my left are sparsely decorated with posters, one depicting a tranquil scene of oxen grazing in a verdant rice field on a bright sunny day, karst rock formations in the distance, while another, somewhat bizarrely, shows a Native American (I think?) on horseback, clutching a musket.
Flat-screen TVs, one mounted near the back of the restaurant and another in the front, above my head, are the only items incongruous with the vintage, hasn’t-changed-in-twenty-years aesthetic that characterizes this and scores of these other distinctly Southeast Asian-style restaurants littered throughout Bangkok. It’s a small sign the proprietors are doing good business, however, and that’s obviously a good thing.
Tieing it all together–the drunkards and the food and the halogen lighting and the dogs and the rats–is that strangely calming, soul-assuring sound of classic Thai-style rock, all gratuitous guitar solos and driving rhythms and plaintive, warbling vocals, that exentuates the satisfying local flavor of this place like a fat, juicy cherry on top of a rich brownie sundae. It heightens the strong sense of place; it helps make the last half of my perspiring bottle of Chang beer disappear in a few big, satisfying gulps.
One more, please.
The food arrives in short order along with another cold Chang, and yes, all of it predictably hits the spot; sometimes the existence of bad meals in Bangkok feel like an impossibility, provided you stay away from the usual Western chain suspects, of course. The clock inches towards 1:30am as I finish up the perfectly charred morning glory and sop up the sauce with sticky rice rolled up into little balls between my fingers.
It’s hard to quantify what exactly it is about Bangkok’s anonymous hole-in-the-walls that make them such special places. Yes, consistently amazing (and cheap) food, no matter how dingy and dirty the place might look at first glance, is part of it, and clearly there’s appeal in the “exotic”, of blending into the background of a jovial, uniquely Southeast Asian atmosphere long on an uncomprised authenticity that can’t be experienced anywhere but here.
More than anything, though, I think it’s the warming, infectious personality of the Thai people that surround me. You see it in their communal approach to eating out and getting knackered, wherein plates of food and bottles of whiskey and soda are almost always ordered for the entire table to share. You feel it in the welcoming, sincere smiles, and you hear it in the free-flowing laughter as another glass of whiskey is poured and another bucket of melting ice is brought to the table.
The clock reads 1:45am and I know I have to get some work done in the morning. Still, I feel like I can linger here until the sun comes up. Surely there’s time for one more Chang.