I first met Thai artist Maitree Siriboon while hitching a ride with my friend Top Changtrakul to the far outskirts of the province, where you can still see agricultural activity. Top was working on an art project, and part of it involved filming Maitree, clad only in silver hot pants and a pair of wings, running across a field towards the camera. There was no background music, only the sound of Maitree’s breathing. He had to do several takes because someone (me) kept making noise. The only people watching were me, Top, the sound guy, and a couple of very confused duck farmers. I never saw the final product, but I imagine it was a striking image: a solitary, otherworldly figure, attempting to transcend his mundane surroundings by running to … us.
I liked Maitree immediately. He is open and positive, smart without being patronizing, and, obviously, extremely creative. He would probably attribute his lack of pretension to his Isaan roots, and he is always incorporating his background into his artwork, seemingly working out his identity in the gaze of the audience. It’s something that I think is very brave, because it’s so exposed. What is especially interesting to me is his incorporation of his upbringing in Isaan — a populous but poor region that is often looked down upon by Thai urbanites — in all of his work. Of course, what we see in art is totally subjective, and we could go on and on about how intent doesn’t have to mean anything to the observer/listener/reader. But when I see Maitree’s work, I see “This is me, take it or leave it” and always feel empowered by that.
American chef Dan Barber once said that the greatest cuisines of the world are born out of poverty and necessity. Isaan food is Thailand’s version of this type of cuisine. Unlike the rest of the country, which is verdant and fertile, parts of Isaan are dusty and dry, and the food — strong, spicy, quick to make, sugar-less — reflects that. Like Maitree’s art, it is direct and makes a big impact. Although in Bangkok that food is often bastardized by the local sweet tooth, there are still major sections given over entirely to serving Isaan dishes, the most popular street food in the country.
After 5pm, the strip along Henri Dunant Road on the Royal Bangkok Sports Club side is one of those areas. The sidewalk becomes a mass of locals looking for a bite of som tum infused with fermented Thai anchovy (pla rah), deftly grilled pork collar, or even a pot of jim jum (Isaan-style sukiyaki). The food is unapologetically simple, and in its simplicity it is very Isaan. Take it or leave it.
The most popular vendor on that sidewalk is Raan Boon-Henri Thai-Isaan, the second stall on the sidewalk when you are approaching from the Siam Skytrain stop. The specialties of the house here are the som tum kai kem (green papaya salad with salted egg) and the salt-encrusted grilled fish, but everything you could expect from an Isaan restaurant is on offer including decent moo namtok (spicy pork salad with roasted rice kernels) and mucho, mucho iced beer.
If you are able to brave this unending heatwave and willing to dine next to a line of parked cars, you too can feast on the fruits of Isaan ingenuity in the way it’s probably best: outside, with many friends and a couple of gallons of beer. And if you are art-minded, check out Maitree’s “Save Thai Buffalo” series at the YenakART Villa from June 9th.