by Rebecca Persons
In the small village of Tung La Korn, Thailand, I watch a gray-haired pig with black spots nose his way into an outdoor kitchen. A few seconds later, shrills and gasps of surprise stir the air as the two cooks have undoubtedly spotted their hungry friend. A woman forcefully backs the animal out of the kitchen by waving a ladle at him, then gives him an endearing smile. As she catches my eye, she gives me a knowing wink, then returns to the food. It's near the end of my journey in this country, and I've grown to understand that the smells and food in Thailand are just too tempting for anyone, or any animal, to resist.
The trip began weeks ago in Bangkok, where my traveling partner, Dustin, and I had strategically booked our hostel on Sukhumvit Road Soi 38, known for some of Thailand's best street food. I was literally salivating during the cab ride from the airport at 2 in the morning over the lighted street vendors' stalls that still crowded the roads and emanated endless clouds of steam that hung over their patrons' heads. As I watched the stands flow by, my father's warning about avoiding "Bangkok belly"—common food poisoning—slowly melted away with each waft of spice, dried fish and meat that seeped through the cracked windows of the car.
A Taiwanese chef once told me that the best restaurants are filled mostly with locals, but also with a sprinkling of tourists; that proves they serve food good enough to draw in outsiders. Therefore, the next morning, we wandered down an alley in search of such a place. The odor of dirty socks and dried fish infiltrated my nostrils and reminded me of the less than appealing stinky tofu I tried in Beijing, but we were undeterred and driven to discover gold.
We came upon a group of locals, and one or two Australians, gathered around a trailer—success! Inside, a one-woman show was preparing the food. She was older, with a face deeply etched with lines, perhaps from hovering over vats of boiling broths and steaming meat for who knows how many years. But her talents belied her age as she deftly moved around the trailer at lightning speed.
In front of the giant cauldron were three or four slabs of raw meat, and when I approached to order, she waved her hand at me and said, "No!" My heart sank. "Please," I pleaded. "We'll take anything." But we didn't get just anything; we got mastery: bowls of kuay tiao neua, or noodles drenched in broth and mixed with garlic, shallots, bean sprouts, green onions and chunks of beef—a delicate balance of savory broth and crunch. Over the course of the trip we would encounter myriad variations of these noodle soups—some featuring fish broth, fish balls, boiled duck blood, crispy wontons, crab, chicken and chilies. Almost all were served with chili sauces to help perfect the distinctive balance of sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, salty and heat that makes Thai food famous.
Our next leg of the trip took us south to the islands in Krabi. Getting there is no easy task, though, and after a journey that included a tuk tuk (auto-rickshaw) ride, 14 hours on a train, five hours on a bus, a cab ride and a boat excursion, we finally made it to our destination on Railay Bay and Ton Sai Beach. We met a local named Tom who took us on a boat ride around Krabi's staggering islands, where giant rock formations jut out of the ocean and beautiful stalactites hang over deep waters forming a cliff jumper's and rock climber's paradise. For lunch, Tom cut fresh pineapple and made salty fried rice covered in chilies and fish sauce. We were unable to savor his freshly grilled corn on the cob, though, thanks to a pack of fiendish monkeys that tugged on our ankles until we relinquished the cobs.
Despite the splendor and beauty of Thailand's southern islands, I was eager to make my way back north to Chiang Mai Province and back to the crush of tantalizing food vendors. Once there, the market's endless rows of stalls—covered by a jumble of umbrellas to provide a bit of reprieve from the unforgiving heat—lured us with delicacies like fried chicken heads, meat on a stick, freshly squeezed saowarot (Thai passion fruit) and orange juice and enormous durian fruit that looked more like giant sea urchins than produce.
Our last day in Thailand found us in Tung La Korn, about an hour and a half outside of Chiang Mai, where we indulged in our last delicious bowl of noodle soup—this time with dried shrimp, green onions, tamarind and crispy wontons. The village seemed almost deserted save for us, the workers and our hungry kitchen-trespassing pig friend. We finished the last good meal we'd have for at least the next 48 hours and climbed, bareback and full-bellied, onto a beautiful Thai elephant that carried us off into the jungle and away from the glorious smell of that beloved food as a light rain began to fall.