The lady serving us on a side street in a bustling part of Bangkok speaks no English, so my new Asian-Canadian friend Tony and I proceed to show her on the menu what it is we want. Tony goes for what looks like a complex noodle dish, and I go for a simple pad thai. I have no clue what to expect, but I‚Äôve heard many people talking about this pad thai and I want to try it.
We are sitting on tiny plastic chairs drinking the local Singha beer, while we wait for our food, which is being prepared just a few metres away from where we are sitting on the sidewalk. When my plate finally arrives, the only thing I can recognise on it are the noodles, some shrimp here and there, and little else ‚Äì there‚Äôs a lot that has been mixed together. I recall the words of a Korean man I‚Äôd met earlier at the hostel when he said: ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt like Thai food. It‚Äôs like they just mix everything together, whatever they can find.‚Äù
He has no clue what he is missing out on. This stuff is delicious!
It‚Äôs my first Thai meal after landing in Bangkok a little over a week ago.¬†As soon as I got here, I felt a sense of relief after a layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I could not stand the messiness of that airport, the tiny smoking compartments (you can‚Äôt possibly call those things rooms), and the fact that I was stuck there for four hours with a phone that wouldn‚Äôt roam. I needed to check my Facebook, my Whatsapp, and I needed to Snap. I‚Äôm travelling by myself and my friends back home are waiting for those updates. Even if they were not, I‚Äôm a millennial, sharing online is what I do!
I ask Google everything, and for this particular trip, I used Airbnb to book my accommodation. When I arrived in Bangkok, the first thing I did was hail an Uber to take me to the hostel I was staying at. How did I know the area I chose to stay in was worth it? I went to Instagram, typed the name into the search box, and looked through the images, and so I knew exactly what to expect.
Technology really has revolutionised the way we travel. I don‚Äôt recall a single time where I‚Äôve picked up a brochure, or gone to a travel agent to find out what there is to do wherever I am. Google, apps, and good word-of-mouth, the resurgence of which is fuelled by social media anyway, is how we get around.
Having a good party is most certainly high up on my agenda, so when I got to my hostel, a really great, modern space called Lamurr in the very cosmopolitan Sukhumvit Road, the other backpackers and I darted from bar to bar, often asking locals and people we met where it was best to party. Even so, a quick check online ‚Äì on, say, TripAdvisor ‚Äì to see what people have said about the recommended places was always the first thing we did.
While some of us enjoyed day trips to temples and the like, the one thing we all concluded was that a large part of our stay in Bangkok was about food.
Thai food is nothing short of magical, and the best part is that there is no need to go to an expensive restaurant. Street food like, maybe a spicy papaya salad, or a sweet-and-sour Tom Yum soup, often made from lemongrass, lime leaves and galangal, filled with onions, tomatoes, mushrooms and prawns, averages at 40 Baht per serving (which is a little less than R20).
A few days in, an Asian-American traveler by the name of Vincent came to stay at my hostel. From our first meeting, Vincent and I, and sometimes Tony, too, were often going from one place to another, just eating ‚Äì noodle soups to seafood stir-fries, and, at one point, a turn at the Michelin-starred Tim Ho Wan‚Äôs dim sum bar.
The Tim Ho Wan restaurant would be our one fancy experience, we told ourselves. The restaurant is located at the showy Terminal 21 shopping centre, but the price for what is hands-down the best dim sum I have ever had in my life (my friend Yang‚Äôs Beijing Opera in Cape Town comes a very close second), was an unexpectedly low 400 Baht. I thought I‚Äôd be paying a lot more for food from a Michelin-starred chef.
Vincent and I had a variety of dumplings – prawn, pork, spinach, shrimp, and a sticky rice with chicken, sausage and mushrooms. I swear there was magic dust percolating in my mouth! Tim had a sensational ‚Äì I kid you not ‚Äì baked bun with BBQ pork, and a lotus leaf wrapped sticky rice that had him eating in total silence, with brief pauses of disbelief.
Granted, Tim Ho Wan does not originate in Bangkok, but this city is not just about Thai food. The diversity of what‚Äôs on offer is reflective of how the city is a melting pot of Asian cultures. Indian cuisine, Malay dishes, and Japanese ramen ‚Äì I had it all. While we were on one food high, we managed to convince ourselves that dropping 4000 baht a piece to go to Gaggan, the second best restaurant in Asia, which I learnt about through Chef‚Äôs Table on Netflix, was a good idea. I‚Äôm kind of glad they had no space for reservations until a week later, by which time I would be gone.
Then there was, of course, the famed Chinatown, where Vincent and I stuffed our faces on everything from exotic fruit I was scared to put in my mouth, to more dim sum, and a large serving of seafood. Crab, amazing spicy fish of all kinds, and mussels sent us straight into a food coma after hours of roaming the busy streets.
This foodie experience reflects what recent research reveals about tourists of my generation. As Forbes reports, the Topdeck Travel survey of 31 000 millennials from 134 different countries shows that peer-influence and social media come far ahead of what travel agents recommend to millennials. We want fully immersive experiences, and what better way to do that than to engage with local cultures, and eat like locals?
According to the report, ‚Äúexperiencing a new culture (86%) and eating local foods (69%) were listed as common determining factors for motivating people aged 18 to 24 to travel‚Äù. This came ahead of both partying and shopping. 98% of those surveyed, it further found, ranked eating local cuisine as an important part of traveling.
I am now in Pai, a small town in the north of Thailand, which is teeming with tourists, but is so quaint that I wouldn‚Äôt mind just settling here forever. The main street here is lined with street food vendors, making it yet another foodie feast for me. I wonder if I will still fit into my size 28 jeans when I do eventually come home?
Sandiso Ngubane is a writer, trends analyst and the co-editor of Skattie. You‚Äôre likely to find him on Instagram (@sandiblouse), Twitter (@), Snapchat (san_deedlez) or IRL eating his way through Thailand.
Photographs by F Sections.