One of the great things about living on my street was seeing Yai Nang, or “Grandma Nang”, on the corner every morning as I left the house. For as long as I could remember, she was there, offering enormous plastic cups of her super-sweet Thai coffee or tea concoctions, filled to the brim with life-saving ice on hot afternoons. My husband was partial to her orange-hued Thai tea and would ask her to fill up an entire 1 L glass measuring cup with it at lunch; my son would order one of her glasses of nom yen, iced milk with a drop of nam dang, or red sugar syrup, every day after school. As for me, it was simply a “sawasdee ka” to her every morning as I left the house, and, because I knew little else of what to say, a “sawasdee ka” every time I returned home. She was good-natured enough to humor me both times, raising her hands to rup (receive) my clumsy wais.
When people talk of someone who has become a fixture in their community, they mean someone like Yai Nang, who sold cold beverages on the corner since even before the soi was a real soi. Yai Nang was a person who could bear testament to the breezy, quiet canal that existed before the road, when the neighborhood was made up of people from one family and shopping malls and chain restaurants were but a gleam in a property developer’s eye. Houses lined the canal, with simple bridges set up to allow for easy navigating between households. Later, when the canal was filled in to make a road, the same family hired a guard to police the entrance to the soi. Yai Nang also saw that change, and continued to sell her drinks. And when family members started running out of money and began selling their plots of land to developers, and condos sprouted up from where the houses once stood, Yai Nang still was there in their shadows, selling her drinks to the security guards and tenants of those buildings.
All in all, Yai Nang was a fixture on our street for over 50 years, witness to a lot of Bangkok history: the quiet prosperity of the post-WWII years, the heady boom of the ’80s, the thom yum goong financial meltdown of 1997, and then the string of political crises to hit Thailand after. In the last few years, she quit selling her Thai tea and coffee, saying no one really had a taste for it anymore. Instead, she sold simple soft drinks, packets of instant noodles, eggs, and the occasional bunch of morning glory. Her daughter set up shop next to her, selling a tasty bowl of pork noodles; on the other side, an aharn tham sung (made to order) stall started operating. The pungent aroma of kaprao (holy basil stir-fry) became my wake-up call, sending me into sneezing fits; it seemed a small price to pay for the lunchtime embarrassment of riches that the busy corner provided. My favorite orders were the pork noodles, dry, or the stir-fried suki with seafood, or sometimes a pad se ew (soy sauce stir-fried noodles) with rice vermicelli and the bracingly bitter stalks of Chinese kale. I only had to take about 5 steps to get good street food.
I went away to the U.S. for a few months, and when I got back, the corner was quiet. I found out that Yai Nang had passed away from Covid only the week before I had returned. I asked about her funeral and when and where it would be; in the Thai way, her people said they would get back to me but then never did. It probably was more fitting that way, since no one wants a strange interloper at their relative’s funeral, gawking like a tourist. All I can do is say that my Bangkok shines less brightly without her.
10 responses to “The Coffee Lady”
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Thank you for the sad but beautiful story.
I used to live close by but unfortunately I never saw her.
This makes me so sad! Those coffee ladies foster community. Irreplaceable.
I’m sorry to learn this! She was so kind to me every time I awkwardly mispronounced my order.
Nice little piece. Respectful, vivid, not overly sentimental.