Dear folks, one more overlong travel post, at the risk of losing all my friends, not just the attention span deprived. I’m moving these to my personal ‘blog at www.mudfest.net and will broadcast ‘blogs as they go up. I’ll revert to my usual curt bawdy irreverence here….
How can such a spiritual/superstitious people NOT be haunted by the guardian spirits of the rice paddies that the city of Bangkok sprawls across? I don’t always see myself and my Bay Area through the historical lens of the Ohlone people, for example, who walked on fertile grounds that we now drive and fight for parking on, but from the outside, where it’s easier to see past and present laminated together, the southeast Asian people I’ve seen straddle both worlds constantly. There’s at least one shrine on every property that gets gifts like a glass of water, fresh flowers, a portion of rice, some fried pork, incense. The household-scale temples are cranked out in factories and, like the full-scale ones, have the same aesthetic as Mexican-Catholic stuff: cheap, shiny, covered in tiny mirror mosaics facing all directions, glitter, characters from The Literature. Animals, men in meditation, combinations of these. So in the front of the 7-11, at the entrance to the brothels, hotels, moped repair shops, newsstands, government offices, etc. They know they are walking on the fertile fields where spirits watched over the food source.
I try to imagine this swampy stinky car- and moped-strangled place as the expanse of paddies it was. You can actually see a whole section of its past in many places, from a plane (pictured here, taken from the approach by air to Bangkok), along the rivers, and in the people. Using the subways and overhead trains, people-watching/gawking, I think of their feet in their flip-flops; wide, muscular, and designed for rice-farming, widespread toes fit for traversing soggy fields, spreading onto the ground, spilling over the edges of their dainty shoes. On the subways with their masks of urban apathy and peering into their self-phones, they seem oblivious and miserably cast out of their magical spirited origins, but out on the street you can lay the same lens onto the people perched on little plastic stools at the food vending stalls and it all makes more sense than in the depersonalizing subways. Their anonymous expressions as they peer into their cellphones on the trains, and their polite but empty smiles back at my stares are replaced on the streets by chatter and playfulness, their love of chaos and good food and lots of it, from a different vendor every few footsteps shines forth. The food cart is finally making its way into hipster culture in American cities and I’m so glad. We can learn a lot from them about sharing food, eating simply together.
The cart, regardless of what it offers, has some typical characteristics. Each
has wheels for rolling it into and out of place and attachments for bikes and mopeds for moving them. A hole in the stainless top hangs a wok or steamer or pot over a propane burner. In the plexiglass window of the cart, a display case of the offerings: pork, fishballs, vegetables, piles of noodles. Next to the cart, a low plastic stool holds a cooler of water with a stainless cup for serving and a stack of stainless cups next to it for helping yourself. Sometimes the water has chrysanthemum leaves in it. A seating area on the sidewalk has low plastic stools and tables with condiments, spoons and forks. There are empty five-gallon buckets and other large plastic colorful buckets around for washing the dishes in the street, separating the solids through a colander into a bucket, and rinsing and pouring the liquid sludge into the gutters. A box of foam holds temps just as well as the plastic-and-foam coolers we use in the States, without the plastic. There’s one by each cart and it gets regularly restocked by moped and pick-up deliveries of ice in 50-pound rice bags.
At night, most of these street scenes of plenty, celebrating the delicious cuisine of Thailand are swept up and the carts trailered off by their attached mopeds, leaving an empty and swept sidewalk. At four AM the breakfast ones appear as the night ones are dismantled. Few people eat at home in Bangkok, and I have seen many many families eating around their dining room tables at the fronts of their homes, in the villages. The kitchens face the street and it’s been hard (& more than once, embarrassing) to distinguish between a private dining room and a restaurant.