Monday, May 30, 2011

Bangkok is Fishy

I woke up in a sandstorm. Having camped out on the rooftop to see the stars, by four in the morning my mattress and sleeping bag were soaring into the dessert as I ran for the cover of an outhouse. Twenty four hours later my plane descended towards the glistening rice paddies of Thailand and then the glowing skyscrapers of Bangkok.

The View from Lumphini Park

In the airport the Indian customs official looks up at me, and then back down at my passport photo, then back up to me, and back down. Something is wrong. Could it be my hair? It’s long in my passport photo, but I cut it so I wouldn’t have these kinds of problems. Or maybe it’s something to do with my VISA?

“You have lost 10 pounds”


“Since this photo, you have lost ten pounds”

“oh! Yeah…haha”

He stamps my passport and hands it back to me. At first I am skeptical, but later in front of a mirror I notice that after 11 months of traveling I now bear a slight resemblance to Christian Bale in the Machinist. Better gain some weight in Thailand. Of course, this is not exactly a herculean task. Between mango with sticky rice and coconut chicken curry (marinated with the ubiquitous kefir lime, chili, basil, galangal, and lemongrass), I have returned to my passport photo weight in under a week.

Crawling out of the river in the Park

Bangkok is hot this time of year, and nowhere more so than the slum of Klong Tuey. But it is here where one of the biggest fresh food market in all of Thailand (maybe all of Southeast Asia) does a brisk trade. Whether you are in the mood for fried insects or spiky fruits which are clearly the first wave of an alien invasion, there will be row upon row of producers offering stacks, piles, buckets and bags for fewer thai bat than you can believe.

Fruit invasion at Chattuchak Weekend Market

Today I got a guided tour through the Klong Tuey market by Kun Poo, a local chef who has started her own cooking school in the slum (nicknamed “cooking with Poo”). What I am looking for specifically is Pla-Ra, an indispensable ingredient in northeastern Thai (especially Issan) cuisine made of fermented fish. For a hilarious introduction, check out this ad for the Thai post office. In case you didn’t know, the Thais are crazy about their fermented fish, even when it’s consumption poses a huge health risk. I missed it at the market, but when Poo hears that I am interested she runs to get her stash so that I can put it in my green papaya salad.

Me and Poo discuss Pad Thai

Most Farangs (foreigners) are less than excited about eating fish that has been rotted on purpose, but it’s why I am here. In the next few weeks I hope to follow Pla-Ra, and it’s more refined counterpart Nam-Pla (fish sauce) from bowl to boat. Which is why next week I will be cruising down to the eastern coastline to search out the factories where this stuff is fermented (often for a year or more!) and maybe even jump on an anchovie fishing sloop. We’ll see. For now, I am sampling liberally from every street vendor and hotel cafĂ© where fermented foods are on the menu. You heard the customs man, I need to gain some weight...

Fish massage in the Night Market

(The expression on my face would reflect equal parts me being ticklish and experiencing extreme fear of being eaten alive)


  1. Fish sauce fermented for over a year? You're going to smell so good. I can just tell.

  2. Farang! What a cool word. I'm a farang here.

    I've been a farang all my life.

    love you, miss you, safe travels!

    we'll be seeing you soon dear max

  3. Hey Max - you know how garlic odor comes out of our pores? How's is going with fermented fish? In the heat? hmmmm. World travel AND losing 10 lbs. Get Back South Beach Diet. Bring in fermented yak-a-lak with a big dollop of nam pla. See you soon, safe travels, enjoy, Jean

  4. Hey Max - scrolling through your blog I notice again how wonderful your photos are and how well they help us "see" your context. Your text is also deeply descriptive so that you've taken us along on your journey in a way that's felt richly informative. While you've made it look and sound easy, it's a rare gift you've got. Sending all best for continuing safe travels, Jean