Saturday, 22 August 2009

Thailand 1: Hot in the City

May the caffeine gods forgive me - I had a coffee today which contained a layer of condensed milk in the bottom of the glass.

But when in Bangkok, do as the locals do, and this style of coffee is a regional favourite. I can only assume that condensed milk became popular in the tropics before the invention of fridges, due to it having a half-life just short of that of plutonium.

It also cost 120 baht, about A$4, which was rather outrageous, as you'll see when I tell you how much my lunch cost. Not to mention my massage.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I had the coffee at Jim Thompson's House. No, not that of an old friend inviting me in for morning tea and then expecting payment; Thompson was an American soldier who settled in Bangkok in the 1940s and sparked international interest in Thai silk.

He also bought six traditional Thai timber houses and melded them together in a green shady spot on a canal, fusing Thai art and architecture with Western decor. For example, the home's spacious living room contains Buddha statues, a day bed and a chandelier.

The most fascinating element of Thompson's life, though, may be the way it ended. On a stroll in the Malaysian highlands in 1967, he disappeared utterly, and no trace of him or his body have ever been found. The fact he was involved in the OSS, the predecessor of the CIA, during the war has led to all manner of conspiracy theories. But we'll probably never know what happened to him, though his house makes a worthy monument to his life.

After my curiously non-sweet coffee (no matter how much you stir, the condensed milk tends to remain in a layer on the bottom), I walked west along the Khlong Saem Saeb canal, intending to have a look at the Baan Krua district on the other side, where Thompson's Muslim weavers lived and worked.

Then I found, just before the footbridge over the water, a humble eatery ranged along the cement path, with a selection of slightly bedraggled tropical plants forming a decorative border between the restaurant and the khlong. Local residents were sitting at plastic tables in their singlets, watching (for some reason) a nature documentary on a suspended TV. At the far end the kitchen smoked and sizzled.

Not knowing much Thai, I ordered pad thai, a standard noodle dish. It arrived with a cruet containing four jars, liberated from the lids they must have had once in the supermarket, containing a variety of means of adding chilli to your meal. I've always liked the Thai liking for hot stuff, so added a generous amount of both chilli flakes and the tiny red and green chopped chillies floating in oil. How hot could it get?

Actually, very hot. But damn good - the flat noodles were cooked up with egg, some prawns and other seafood, there was coriander on top and vegetables at one end, and a small helping of crumbled peanut on the side.

Sitting there in the humid open air at my plastic tableclothed table, watching ferries zoom past as the canals's green water sloshed alarmingly, I reflected what a deeply fulfilling thing it was to have an entire country full of cheap Thai restaurants serving food like this. The bill? Just 30 baht, about A$1.

Though it wasn't served with condensed milk.

(PS the massage at a streetside place I encountered on the way out of Baan Krua, where I walked after lunch, cost a mere 149 baht, A$5, for an hour's full body massage. Though the masseur did walk all over me. No, I mean he really did.)

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.