The King’s Birthday

I had only been in Thailand for a couple of weeks by 5 December 2011. The group of nomads I had just met banded together and we made the long bus ride through the most congested streets Bangkok had ever seen to Sanam Luang, where royal ceremonies were held.

Prime Minister Yingluck was going to give a speech, and we wanted to catch it, but thanks to nose-to-tail traffic we arrived magnificently late. Not that it mattered. Over two million people were going to gather in the typically empty green field, and the celebration was expected to last for hours.

I remember walking through Khao San Road for the first time and being completely spellbound by the lights, noise, and activity. I tried to work out what this image meant to the present, but my naiveté, the swirling colors, and my rambling emotions distorted my sense of time and space. I walked down that wretched hallway of snake charmers and salesmen and agreed with my new friends that we should hang out there sometime, because it looked like a good time. Continue reading

Finding Graham Greene in Vietnam

“They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived.”

What was I looking for the day I boarded that tiny shuttle bus bound for old Saigon? Was it history, peace of mind or something darker? I had no loose ends to tie up, no relatives who had fought in either the French-Indochina or Vietnam Wars, no colonial memory compelling me to search for meaning in my identity.

Vietnam was never my endpoint. I could hardly say it was on the radar until a few days before we arrived, late at night, at the galloping stallion that was Pham Ngu Lao. It never haunted me like it did Thomas Fowler, Graham Greene’s troubled protagonist from his quintessential war novel, The Quiet American. The idols, the lingering French tongue, the murky outposts of the perfumed Orient had all but disappeared into the increasingly confined space between skyscrapers. Even the name Saigon, officially retitled Ho Chih Minh City to commemorate the great goateed leader of the independence movement, was rarely used anymore.

Greene wrote of a nation that stood before an open airplane door, prepared to parachute into the empty blue sky. His Vietnam had never fully accepted the role of a colony, but it had also never denied the privilege of being one. As a nation, its wants and needs were as unknowable as those of Greene’s character Phuong. Was it a lover to take advantage of, or a flower to protect from harm? Continue reading

The Best Meal I Ever Had

The boys came running up the stairs from the basement. The girls, cracking an inside joke, lifted themselves off the sofa in the living room. Both TVs were left on, and the strangely compatible soundtracks to NBA 2K12 and Project Runway: All-Stars echoed in the kitchen.

Outside snow was starting to fall on the cold Wisconsin ground. It was the middle of December and I had just arrived from Thailand, meeting my girlfriend’s family at their house, where we were to stay for two weeks before seeing my family in Indiana. It was the first stop of a whirlwind visit to America, a one-month layover before we would leave again, this time flying to South America.

My girlfriend’s mother, MomO, had ordered a couple of pizzas from Domino’s. It wasn’t anything special; just a way to unite the family—three teenaged girls, two boys, 8 and 11, and a 15 year-old exchange student from Spain who, having lived in the house for 5 months, was by this time part of the gang. This was my first meal with them, my first meal with the family. And it was a short one.

The kids circled the boxes of pizza like a pack of hyenas ready to pounce on a wounded antelope. In no time at all, they had each grabbed and swallowed two slices and returned to whatever they had been doing before dinner. My girlfriend, still fighting the effects of jetlag, excused herself soon after and went to bed at 7:10 in the evening. Exhausted, but far from tired, I sat and talked with MomO, trying to answer questions that had no answer: How did it feel being away for so long? What is Christmas like with your family? How would you get dinner in Thailand? We talked for almost two hours, setting in motion the protracted experiment of understanding one another.

All around us life went on as it always did. Continue reading

Bangkok’s Best Secrets: Burmese Cuisine

Just when I thought that I had turned over every stone in the city, Bangkok surprised me again.

A change of plans on a drizzly Sunday afternoon led me to Phra Khanong market, a mess of tents and corrugated metal panels that I associated with TV repair shops, secondhand clothing stalls and rambutan vendors—nothing out of the ordinary. Recently, though, I read about a stall in the market that served exceptional Burmese food (which is exceptionally hard to find in Bangkok), and I had to see for myself.

Continue reading

Skip the Gym, Forget the Park: Running in Bangkok

Runners are persistent, if not compulsive. Home or away, knee-deep in work or unemployed, in subtropical heat or Siberian cold, dedicated runners will make time to run, preferring to go outdoors more often than not, because it’s simply more enjoyable than slogging away on a treadmill. This is true everywhere: in the country, the suburbs—even the absolute center of Bangkok.   Continue reading

In Defense of Khao Mu Daeng

Little more than pork covered with a sweet red sauce, khao mu daeng is ugly and messy and totally unbefitting of fine dining. Which is to say, it’s everything that’s great about Thai food.

This is a meal for the blue-collar crowd, a lunch staple that rarely costs more than 35 baht. I believe that, when in doubt, there’s always khao mu daeng. In fact, I find myself ordering it at least a few times a week, and from different places. The unassuming vendor with a pushcart parked next to an Ekamai Family Mart, the dependable stall on Sukhumvit 38—even the food court in Terminal 21 does a decent rendition. Continue reading

On Returning

For a city that was supposed to be accessible, Bangkok sure seemed like the edge of the world to me. The olla podrida of smells and sounds, metal pushcarts spread like wildflowers on the sidewalks, mysterious sludge in the road shining like silver in the moonlight, the haunting call of chanting monks. Within the infinite clutter, I found all sorts of new ways to think and feel. Continue reading