One of the great pleasures a traveler can have is to re-discover a place that has become a little too familiar — a once exotic city where the thrill of visiting long-loved shrines and favorite restaurants has devolved into pleasant, predictable routine.
My great friend Annie, a brilliant artist who has worked as a graphic designer in the Thai capital for 20 years, had set herself a challenge: to give her husband Jock, as a 10th anniversary gift, a new perspective on the metropolis they’d lived in together since the 1990s. She was one of the few farangi who could pull off such a feat. Fluent in Thai and enthralled with the culture, Annie is intimate with facets of old Krung Thep that most travelers never get to see.
A few weeks later, I visited Bangkok for a few days on my way to Kathmandu. The anniversary had passed, and Jock was out of town. But Annie, bubbling with the glee she brings to every activity from painting to shopping, offered to reprise their expedition.
It was an autumn evening. We met at 6 pm at the Black Canyon Coffee stall in the Phrom Phong SkyTrain station, and set off on a journey through the nocturnal byways – obscure and otherwise — of a maddening, fascinating city that, after three decades of following a Habitrail, I comically thought I knew.
Annie (or “Plannie” to her friends) had mapped out our route. We rode the sleek SkyTrain to the dock at Silom, and boarded the river ferry. As we motored down the Chao Phrya river, the sun set through the haze behind Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. The four spires of the Buddhist pagoda soared into the sky, one of Bangkok’s most breathtaking sights. I spied what looked like a beautiful private home, or boutique hotel, on the far shore. “Hey, Annie,” I remarked, “that place looks interesting….””I’m glad you think so!” This was The Deck at Arun: the first stop on our itinerary. We climbed to the patio roof, ordered drinks, and absorbed a bird’s-eye view of the Temple of Dawn, a crescent moon hanging above.
And then it was off again, farther up the river to the funky wooden pier at Ta Thien. A winding path led us to a broad avenue, and the entrance of Wat Pho. This is the oldest – and largest – Buddhist temple in Bangkok. Reconstructed during the 18th century and recently restored, this has long been one of my favorite stops in Bangkok. During the day there’s a real scene at Wat Pho; a school of traditional Thai massage draws long lines of jet lag-addled tourists. But it’s also a great place to wander. The immense, labyrinthine compound is filled with more than 1,000 buddhas and scores of small shrines, many decorated from top to bottom with mosaics made from shattered plates and ceramics. Dozens of cats wander freely amid these spiky viharas, lapping from small bowls provided by the resident monks. In the Wat’s central shrine is a stupendous reclining Buddha, 150 feet long and nearly 50 feet high. The soles of its feet are a marvel, each one the size of a billboard and inlaid with mother-of-pearl.I’d been to Wat Pho many times; it was a staple of my visits to Bangkok. But I’d never seen it by moonlight, when the empty marbled courtyards and the soaring, mirrored spires made the place look like a time traveler’s fantasy. Even the cats — all Siamese, by citizenship — seemed otherworldly.
A block or two outside the gates of Wat Pho is a strip of wood-framed shops and stalls selling traditional Thai staples, from dried shrimp to medicinal herbs. We strolled down the street until Annie spied our destination: a humble wheeled stall offering what locals consider the best kway thiew (noodle soup) in the city, ladled into porcelain bowls by an elderly man whose mild case of Tourrette‘s made every successful serving seem a miracle of coordination.
I protested when Annie ordered only a small bowl, for both of us to share. “We don’t want to fill up on soup,” she warned me, hinting at a culinary climax yet to come.
From there we dropped into a taxi, and wove through the relatively empty streets and over a few small khlongs to a huge quayside vegetable warehouse. Eggplants, kumquats and mangosteens formed ceiling-high pyramids, and seas of coriander filled the air with their roasted chlorophyll scent. Hidden away in this agro enclave was a ramshackle bar, built of plywood and cloth, on the theme of an Old West saloon. Annie had hoped to drop in for shots of a potent liquor called yadaung, but the swinging doors were chained and the lights out. I could barely make out the pictures of gunslingers inside.
We left the warehouse and walked a few blocks farther, emerging into a district I’d never even imagined. This was Pak Klong Talat: Bangkok’s astonishing flower market. We wandered up block after block of bulb-lit street stalls overflowing with orchids and chrysanthemums, marigolds and birds of paradise, a thousand Technicolor varieties exploding across the sidewalk. Hundreds of Thais wove between the displays, bargaining over dizzyingly fragrant bouquets. I often think of myself as a jaded traveler, and wonder what a vast, gray city like Bangkok can turn up to surprise me. But Annie had led me through the looking glass, into a kaleidoscopic world that I’d managed to miss during uncounted visits.
Our ultimate destination lay a short distance farther, on Mahachai Road. Though it was nearly 11 pm, the street was packed with pedestrians – all of them eager to drop their baht at one of the bare-bones, fluorescent-lit eateries selling one thing and one thing only: noodles.
Annie led me directly to a shop called Thipsamai, where a fast-moving line of locals waited patiently for the best pad thai in Bangkok (and, therefore, the world). We sat at a rickety square table in blue plastic chairs, near a battalion of blackened woks sizzling atop propane burners. The pungent smell of hot oil filled the air, and the menus were covered with stains — but in Thailand (unlike Nepal, my next destination) one can eat without fear.
We ordered the traditional version. Two minutes later, our dishes arrived: piping hot, perfectly spiced and loaded with succulent shrimp, with a fried egg and dash of onion on top. We dug in our forks, releasing clouds of steam. Annie grinned and raised her eyebrows, her irresistible way of taking a bow. I clapped in admiration. She’d outdone herself, from start to finish: Our plates of mile-long noodles were the crazy country cousin of a dish that, just yesterday, I’d considered a cliche.
It was too late for the Chao Phraya River Express. After our midnight dinner we took a cab back to Jock and Annie’s, where I’d stay the night. As we navigated the anonymous streets, I thought of that wonderful line by Lawrence Durrell — “A city becomes a world,” he wrote, “when one loves one of its inhabitants.”
Lucky me: For one unforgettable night in Bangkok, a close friendship was as good as love.
Jeff Greenwald is a writer and performance artist. His books include Mr. Raja’s Neighborhood: Letters from Nepal, Shopping for Buddhas, and The Size of the World. He has written for The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Salon.com, among other publications. For more, visit Jeffgreenwald.com.