Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Notes from our family vacation in Thailand


The food. Oh my god, the food.

Food is everywhere. Steps from my parents’ house in Bangkok are the street vendors and open-air food stalls. Little coconut-rice pancakes sizzle on the corner; a woman walks down the street pushing a cart with vats of sweet tapioca noodles in coconut milk. There’s satay and curries and noodles and fruit everywhere I look. Mounds of fresh fruit for sale—rambutan (ngoh in Thai), mangosteen (monkut), longan, jackfruit, durian and more. Every time a relative or friend came over, they brought food. Every time we stopped at someone’s house, they brought out food. God forbid—the thinking seems to be in my family—that anyone go hungry for more than five minutes.

Needless to say, I ate well.

This is an example of the generosity I met and the Thai concern about food: One of my mother’s friends knew that my parents were hosting a full house for the week in Bangkok. This friend was worried about how my parents would provide breakfast. So nearly every day of our stay in Bangkok, my mothers’ friend would get up early and drop off a breakfast feast. She would buy breakfast items from a market (I assume) and leave the plastic bags of food tied to the bars of my parents’ front gate for us to find. Each day we woke to bags of congee, puffy golden-fried Chinese crullers, crisp fried chicken wings and drumsticks, sticky rice, plain jasmine rice, rich green curry, Chinese jung, and/or more. . .

I dream about those crispy chicken wings now.

Our trip was about more than the food, of course. It was my first trip back to my parents’ homeland in twenty years. It was my children’s first trip to their grandparents’ home country, ever. My first trip there with my husband (he’d been to Thailand before, though not with me). We were joined by my husband’s mother and, briefly, by his brother who is based in Asia. I met with relatives I hadn’t seen in 13 years, not since my wedding. A cousin I hadn’t seen in 20 years.

My parents played tour guides and plotted an itinerary: there was a flight to Chiang Mai, there were floating markets and temples and a trip to a zoo to see a panda and a trip to an elephant camp. Oh my god, watching my children feed bananas to a baby elephant. Riding an elephant through the lush countryside. Floating on a bamboo raft down a muddy river, green mountains rising in the distance.

Then back to the chaos of Bangkok. Daily trips to the malls—high-end malls with European and Japanese luxury brands I’d never heard of, and “bargain” malls where you wander a maze of stalls, haggling with vendors over scarves, clothes, crafts, t-shirts and souvenirs.

(Both types of malls have awesome food courts by the way). 

Banquets every night with The Relatives.

It’s hard to pick and choose among memories, and I’m leaving so much out. The heat and the rain and the sea and a walk down the main tourist drag of Pattaya city, which my husband likened to “Bourbon Street on steroids.” The discombobulation of being in a foreign country, a country which is not mine although it is the country of my parents and ancestors. The strangeness of being able to understand a language better than I can speak it, and the way that conversation around me zoomed in and out of my comprehension level. I speak Thai on the level of a toddler. But as the vacation wore on, I found myself using more and more phrases in Thai to my relatives (who all speak  English), much to their delight and praise.

Two weeks with my family in Thailand. We’re home now, and my mind is still bleary with jet lag, and I’m wondering when and how we’ll be able to do this again—all the logistics involved with work and children and aging parents.

Last night my husband attempted to recreate the pandan custard my oldest girl and I enjoyed in a Chiang Mai hotel. This morning I spent time researching recipes for the crisp-fried chicken wings sold in street markets throughout Thailand.

I don’t speak Thai, not really. I grew up in America, and I’ve always felt a certain estrangement from my Thai heritage—the typical legacy of second-generation immigrants. But I think I might well be as obsessed with food as any Thai.

2 comments:

  1. Sounds like a delightful trip. We spent a month in Thailand back in 2006. It was wonderful. I want to go back! And you are so right about the food courts. We loved mall food courts in Malaysia and Thailand both. Our mall food courts are so lame in comparison!

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  2. You are right. The mall food courts in the U.S. are SO lame in comparison! =)

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