I love the old part of town. The roughly square-shaped parcel of land along the Chao Phraya river and Phra Arthit Road on one side and the Chinese Swing, Rachadamnern Avenue and Tanao Road on the other is probably my favorite place to go in Bangkok — not least because this area has some of the city’s very best food.
Case in point: Khao Thom Bowon, a rice porridge vendor across from Bowonniwet Temple which has been serving up tasty bowls for the past six decades. This shop has mushroomed from a few tables in an alleyway to more than 50, some even grouped inside an air-conditioned room (locals gamely sweat it out; the a/c is for when you bring your parents). Its ownership has advanced into its second generation, but I like to think the old-fashioned feel and care for its food remains.
Khao tom is meant to be a sort of restorative concoction, which is why it is known as being particularly popular with the elderly. To facilitate digestion, the liquid in each bowl is meant to be sipped before the soggy rice is eaten with a type of side dish — be it spicy, salty, crispy or fatty, the better to go with the nursing-food blandness of the rice. That is why Thais eat rice porridge with a variety of sides, not just one: usually a crunchy pickled vegetable for its tartness; a fatty tranche of salted, dried fish; a sort of yum, or a spicy, tart salad; and a stir-fried green vegetable (indeed, Khao Tom Bowon claims to have been the first to stir-fry morning glory, or pad pak bung).
But what sets Bowon apart are its dazzling variety of other sides — the fresh fish, the succulent crayfish, the range of gaeng jued (clear soups), the daily specials, and things like this: fresh sea prawns drizzled in a tart-spicy chili-lime sauce and dotted with mint leaves. Pillowy, sharp and green, all at once.
But the best part of Bowon, just like what sets the Old City apart from the rest of Bangkok, are the unexpected touches: solicitous, friendly service and a surprisingly beautiful canal-side view in back … a reprieve from the chaotic clamor of Banglamphu at nighttime. Stumbling across this view after dinner, we enjoyed a quiet moment in the breeze next to a dozing old man in a lawn chair listening to an iPod. The best part of Bangkok, compressed into a few seconds.