I assumed that jet lag would flatten me on the first day of our trip, but I was surprisingly awake when we headed out to dinner at 6 pm. We’d spent the day riding a water taxi into the center of the city and back without a map, and despite getting slightly lost, it was a good way to see the landscape without walking many miles. Bangkok is dirty, crowded and vibrant, with food stands on every corner and masses of people everywhere you turn. It smells like souring meat and fresh fruit and sweat, and the people are overwhelmingly kind. Girls ride side saddle on the back of motorcycles and old women rotate toasted bananas every few seconds on their street grills. It’s a lot to take in, and after 6 hours in the hot sun, I couldn’t decide what I thought of the city, but I knew I was hungry.
One of the girls in my graduate program is from Bangkok, so she sent us on our way with a list of her favorite restaurants and a stack of cue cards that had English on one side and thai phrases on the other. Armed with her recommendations, we marched out of our hotel and into the city. It was a mile walk to a restaurant that she said had the best pad thai in the city, and my stomach started growling as I read her descriptions.
As we walked through the city, I noticed that the air had become a bit more tense. During the day, Bangkok feels crowded but friendly. But at night, people stared at us a bit longer. We were noticeably foreign, and we weren’t in the touristy area of the city. As we neared Democracy Square, where the restaurant was located, we saw police in bullet proof vests standing on a street corner. A drunk man stumbled into the street, a motorcycle screeched around him, and his friends pulled him back onto the sidewalk, laughing and pointing at us. Suddenly, it occurred to me that we had walked directly into a protest site without knowing it.
We knew that the protests would be occurring while we were in Thailand, but Pan wasn’t worried so we didn’t think that we needed to be worried either. And she was right – the protests were nothing but peaceful while we were in Bangkok. We walked through the site several days later and during the early afternoon hours, people shared meals on the sidewalk. There was bedding piled under tarps and tents were set up along storefronts. It was communal and social, and definitely not scary. Several days after we left the city, though, things started to intensify. Now, the whole area is under a government-controlled state of emergency. We’re lucky that we got out when we did, as even James Nachtwey, one of my favorite photojournalists, got caught in the cross-fire several days ago.
On that first night, though, we turned around and walked out of Democracy Square, abandoning our dreams of excellent pad thai in favor of staying safe in the haze of a jet lagged delusion. The problem, though, was that we were still hungry. We stayed in a boutique hotel that was quiet and haven-like, far removed from the touristy hustle and bustle of the city. This was good, but it meant that there were few restaurants around our hotel. We would have to eat like the thais in our neighborhood: from the street food stands that lined the roads by our hotel.
We wandered past rows of whole fish, frying meat and people speaking a language that we didn’t understand, wondering how we would be able to order. Point? Use Pan’s cue cards? We passed rows after rows of stalls, none of us wanting to make a decision, all of us wondering if this would be the first time we’d get sick on the trip. Finally, we came to the street that our hotel was on. There was a small cart on the corner serving noodle soup. This was our last option – otherwise, we’d have to eat expensively at the hotel.
We all stood and stared. Finally, Dana looked at the man who ran the cart and motioned that we’d have four soups, no meat please. Everyone stared at the four white girls in the middle of the street. We were now bound to eating the 30 baht soup ($1 U.S.), so we took several steps up onto the sidewalk and watched as the man’s wife hosed down four plastic bowls in a tub of less-than-clean water. The air smelled like garbage and city heat and ginger and spices. He motioned to a set of plastic chairs positioned next to a crooked table, and we sat down. There was a grimy tub of spices on the table, and a bin of filmy- looking forks. I opted for chopsticks, cleaning them off on my v-neck t-shirt. We watched him ladle the soup into bowls, adding some greens and spices before placing them on our table.
When he set the bowls on the table, I could tell that everyone around us was watching our reactions intently. It was one of those moments on the trip when I was vastly aware of my foreignness, of the way that I moved my eyebrows and the way I held my chopsticks. I felt my emotions on my face, felt myself trying to hide them. I picked up the noodles with my spoon and put them in my mouth, trying to convey enthusiasm while I swallowed.
As I write this from my apartment in Brookline, I’m still not exactly sure how that soup tasted. I think it was good, but I was too aware of the thais around us and the smells and the sounds of honking trucks and of my own self-consciousness to log any sensory details about the soup. I know that I ate most of it, hoping that I wouldn’t pay for the decision later by feeling sick. Several of my fellow travelers were so afraid of getting sick that they couldn’t finish the soup, and we got up from the table twenty minutes later to the disappointed face of the thai man who owned the truck. I wanted to tell him that we were thankful, that we liked it, that we were stupid, jet lagged Americans who weren’t used to our surroundings, that the broth left in our bowls wasn’t meant to be insulting. But I didn’t have the language skills to do so, so we thanked him and left. As we walked away, the street corner behind us exploded with laughter. And so began our trip.