For Lunch, Off-Key Karaoke with a Side of Surliness, Som Tam, and Sticky Rice for 60 Baht

Bangkok's City Complex Food Court

An entire wing of the City Palace Food Court now stands vacant, collecting dust under dim lighting. Where there’d once been a vegetarian food stall, there’s nothing but an empty napkin holder on the counter; the Indian stall is gone and the som tam food stall is gone too. Ditto the overpriced packaged dessert stand and what used to be nearly a quarter of the entire dining area.

While the food court across the street at Platinum Fashion Mall–City Complex’s sister (and more modern) wholesale shopping center–enjoys a major boon in visitors and is packed every day during the lunching hours, City Palace is experiencing the exact opposite: an exodus of customers that’s begat a curtain call on many of its food vendors. Frankly, it felt a bit depressing when I walked in from the fifth-floor stairwell and I considered turning back and writing this place off for good, until a piercing off-pitch serenade wafted through this cavernous emptiness and assuaged my concerns that all was lost at City Palace.

Much of the liveliness may have been sucked out of this always rough-and-tumble food court, but the bizarre lunchtime karaoke that has always lured me back was still in full swing. Awesome.

My e-coupon loaded up with a 100 baht balance, I browsed the 15 food stalls lining the wall that still remained, all of them offering slightly different versions of fried rice, noodles, soups, and som tam for 30 – 75 baht. Staffers and diners alike have always been somewhat surprised to see me, a farang, wandering through this untouristed court that’s mostly frequented by seniors and wholesalers who work downstairs in the maze of shops. The seniors seem to come for the karaoke, and the sellers probably come for the convenience: the vendors probably think I’m lost, though as with most restaurants in Bangkok it usually only takes a few return visits before the staff recognize you as a regular.

Though her former stand in the now-empty wing has been abandoned, the somewhat surly woman I used to favor for som tam is still here. I’ve learned to order this dish in Thai since I eat it four or five times a week (phom tong-gon som tam, prik sam met, my ow goong-hang, let kow knee-ow krup), which surprises and amuses both her and the other woman waiting next to me.

Karaoke Lunch in Bangkok

Her som tam is always delicious, but it’s hard to foul those up in Bangkok and I can get one anywhere: there aren’t nearly as many spots to enjoy one while listening to ear-splitting, completely care-free karaoke, though. One by one, a steady stream of Thais make their way into the spotlight of the twinkle-lit stage located at the head of the dining area, grab the microphone, and belt their way through somber, traditional Thai songs.

Lyrics are displayed on a 40-inch flatscreen TV running slow-motion nature videos in the background, and during each song a young girl in her mid-20s works the small crowd, signing up willing participants and marking down their request. As the karaoke supervisor, she also joins in on a few numbers, singing a duet with one gentleman and, yes, banging a tambourine for another woman’s song.

Like so many things in Thailand, lunchtime karaoke at the City Palace Food Court is as sweet as it is bizarre. Nevermind the screeching and wailing that fills the dining room from concert hall-sized speakers: polite, sincere applause follows every tune, and the singers seem genuinely happy as they exit the stage. There’s no pretense here: this is a purely therapeutic exercise. Despite the food stall closures, the occasionally surly service, and the puzzled looks, it’s an exercise that keeps me coming back.

Photos © Brian Spencer

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