This Is Not About Grilled Sticky Rice Sticks in Bangkok

Bangkok Street Food Vendor

He always makes a scene when he sees me. He makes a real show of it, for the amusement of his fellow vendors, and for the amusement of the Thais lolling at the adjacent bus stop.

“Ohhhhh, ohhhh! Long time! You not come in long time now!”

His voice rising, he springs up from his plastic stool. Everybody looks at us, which is the point.

“When you come back to Bangkok? Ohhhh, where is your wife? Ohhhh, Singapore, when you go back to Singapore? I not see you for long time!”

His wife, flipping patties of purple sticky rice coated in egg yolk grilling over a charcoal fire, smiles and smirks. She’s seen her husband hold court like this a time or two hundred. He’s a real card all right.

Rehearsing what to say and how to say it in Thai — I take one-hour language lessons from Singapore, via Skype, with a teacher based in Bangkok — my words, as usual, fall far shorter in bumbling execution than in hopeful theory. I say hello (“sawatdee krup”), ask him how he’s doing (“sabah dee mai?”), and order a few grilled sticky rice sticks (“pom ow kow neow yang sam an krup”). Those parts come out just fine; the follow-up chit-chat is still a disaster.

I stumble back into English. Everybody is watching us.

It wouldn’t matter to him, however, whether I speak in fluent, tone-perfect Thai or in choppy, tone-deaf Thai. I’m a farang making a good-humored effort, and I’m something of a regular — anybody who has lived in Thailand knows this is a winning combination for quickly winning over random Thais. He knows me, if only in a very specific context, and I know him, ditto.

Sometimes that’s enough, for life is made of far more passing acquaintances than deeper friendships. The people we would never call or text or email, but who we could pick out of a crowd of thousands (and vice versa) — the guy at the corner deli, your pharmacist, the vendor who grills your sticky rice — are, in many ways, just as endemic to life’s enjoyment. You talk to some of them more than you talk to your proper friends and family. Names are rarely as important as faces.

Of course, that’s not to say that I carry any particular importance to him or to his wife, beyond my role as infrequent regular customer who speaks a little Thai and affords him the opportunity to hold court. I’m sure that today, as I type this, I’m the last person on their mind. That’s okay; it doesn’t have to go both ways, and this isn’t about me.

I just saw them this week. They were in their usual spot on the sidewalk in front of Big C Ratchadamri, where every morning (except Sundays), shouldered by a small army of other morning vendors selling fruits, juices, and Thai curries swimming in plastic bags like goldfish, they grill sticky rice cakes and sticks dipped in egg yolk. This is around the corner from where I used to live, on Petchaburi Road. It’s where I did and still do most of my grocery shopping; it’s where two children, ages 4 and 6, brother and sister, were recently killed in a mindless grenade attack.

She smiled and smirked and explained to her neighboring vendors who I was and why her husband was making a scene. In light of everything that’s happened in Bangkok in recent weeks — in light of the grenade that recently detonated in that very same spot — I was more thrilled than usual to see them. I smiled a bit wider and laughed a little louder as I was briefly, good-naturedly, turned into a sideshow attraction. When I whipped out my phone in a (failed) attempt to discreetly snap a photo of the sticky rice patties, he insisted that I also take his photo.

It was all part of a show that everybody was watching. It was all the highlight of my day.

Brian Spencer is a freelance writer and editor based in Singapore; more of his work for the Perceptive Travel Blog is here.

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  1. Marcello Arrambide Reply