Thailand Like a Local

By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 29, 2002

"Now pay attention," said Michael. "I'm going to teach you how to eat like a Thai, so you don't embarrass yourself while you're over here."

Fat chance. On my first visit to Thailand I was beyond embarrassment, running around in a state of crazed overdrive as I tried to process the country's extraordinary sights, smells, tastes and sounds. Table manners hadn't quite sunk in. But my young friend, an American expatriate wise to the ways of things Thai, was a patient teacher.

We were sitting at an oilcloth-covered card table on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, on a tiny island north of Bangkok called Ko Kret. Arrayed before us was a three-course lunch for four, served up by a street vendor for the equivalent of $2.50: fish soup with lemon grass, sweet-and-sour vegetables, spicy chicken with cucumbers. What's to learn, I thought. I grabbed my fork and started to dig in.

That was my first mistake. In Thailand, Michael explained, putting a fork all the way into your mouth is -- well, it's just not done. Spoons are the conveyance of choice. Furthermore, he said, eyeing my plate, never serve yourself huge portions -- it insults your host. And whatever you do, he warned, don't finish everything on your plate, or the poor host will really flip out. This last bit of advice is especially hard to follow in Thailand, where the food is so good that what you really want to do is pick up your plate with both hands and lick the thing clean.

Poor Michael. He had his work cut out for him. I, however, was having the ideal travel experience: I was seeing the country like a local.

Sometimes you just want to lie on the beach, but it's also one of the great joys of travel when you can break out of the tourist rut and catch a glimpse of the "real" country. That can be difficult to pull off when you don't speak the language, your time is limited and all around you the sanitized forces of tourism offer easy ways out. If you only knew a local, you think, you could get an insider's view of the country instead of the guidebook version.

I was lucky: I knew a local in Thailand. Or rather, my traveling companion did. His son, Michael, fell in love with the country on a visit three years ago and decided to make it his home. When his father and I visited him last spring, we knew a good thing when we saw it -- we glommed onto that kid like ducklings, letting him arrange our itinerary, choose our lodgings, negotiate our bargains and basically do everything but chew our food for us.

And so we sought out little-known places like Ko Kret, with its diamond-in-the-rough street chefs and unassuming monasteries. We wandered through back alleys where the only Western faces were our own. We learned to eat sticky rice with our fingers, how to tell an express boat from a local and how to bargain a silk blouse down to the price of a T-shirt. In short, we experienced the country like seasoned locals. As long as our mama duck stayed close by.

Seeing a country through a resident's eyes is a rare privilege, and I knew I'd soon be back to guidebook-schlepping. So I took Michael's advice and paid attention during my two weeks as an insider, hoping to pick up a few tricks to apply to other exotic destinations down the road.

Cheap Room, Priceless View

Of course, having a twenty-something ex-pat as your designated local means that you learn to ratchet down your hotel expectations. In Bangkok, Michael booked us into a guesthouse with mismatched furniture and lumpy beds, nestled deep in a neighborhood of auto chop shops -- but with a killer view of the river. "It's very rare to find a view like this without paying $300 a night," Michael said. We were paying $16.

Over beers with ice (it's a Thai thing) in the hotel's rooftop restaurant, we plotted our itinerary: a couple of days in Bangkok to explore the wats (temples) and museums; a plane ride 400 miles north to the trekking town of Chiang Mai and the elephant sanctuary at Lampang; a 550-mile bus, train and ferry trip south to the resort island of Ko Chang; and back to Bangkok for a parting dose of urban chaos.

Our hotel was tucked down an alley so narrow that even tuktuk drivers couldn't fit, so we ended up walking a lot -- a great, ground-level introduction to the bedlam that is Bangkok. Making our way through twisting streets, we sidestepped feral chickens, comatose dogs, seen-it-all noodle vendors and guys haggling over carburetors. Out on the main drag, mornings were especially intense: cars honking, motor scooters zooming, office workers sprinting, street vendors grilling, orange-robed monks begging for alms, schoolgirls arm-in-arm hurrying to class. Sidewalk stalls were explosions of color, with baskets of guavas, bananas, mangoes, papayas and pineapples crowding out vegetable and fish displays.

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