Running up that street (to the noodle shop)

The “Perfect Combination” noodles at Pe Aor Tomyum Noodle

I got my first copy of “Hounds of Love” during a hot 1985 summer from a Bangkok vendor selling tapes on the sidewalk. The lavender color of the cover, framing the beautiful woman with her hair spread out behind her, flanked by glossy dog heads with adoring lovestruck eyes, was what hit me first. I bought the tape, having never heard of Kate Bush before. It became my most-played tape for months on end, only to be replaced in my affections by XTC’s “Skylarking” in early 1987. Listening to it now, many many years later, brings me back to my 13-year-old self in the mid-1980s, sequestered in my bedroom with nowhere else to go.

So it was with a bit (or a lot) of surprise when I came upon the many, many, many stories on different media outlets discussing the Kate Bush “renaissance” sparked by the latest season of “Stranger Things”. Indeed, streams of the song “Running up That Hill” jumped more than 8,000 percent after the series debuted, prompting the singer-songwriter to release a rare statement thanking her new fans. There was also discussion about sad pathetic old Kate Bush gatekeepers who were unhappy about Kate Bush’s renewed success. These stories were probably written by people who know me, but honestly, I swear, I am happy for Kate Bush (even though my three favorite tracks on this album go like this: 1. “Cloudbusting”, 2. “Hounds of Love”, 3. “Running up that Hill.”) At least no one thinks Placebo came out with the original version of this song anymore. The gorgeously moody, atmospheric opening, the odd echoing synth blasts that sound like underwater war bugles, the tremulous soprano — these are all Kate (I am on a first-name basis with Kate, because I listened to her first).

I remember reading the original review of “Hounds of Love” in “Rolling Stone” magazine written by a man in a condescending tone that one would normally reserve for someone’s pretentious niece at St. Martin’s. He gave her three stars out of five. In attempting to dredge up that first review, I have since discovered that “Rolling Stone” has ranked “Hounds of Love” at #68 in its “Greatest 500 Albums of All Time” list, a stark example of retconning one’s own terrible opinions if there ever was one (although I like the part in the new review where the writer compares side 2 to David Gilmour-era Pink Floyd, then hastily insists that he didn’t mean it as an insult).

Pe Aor’s tom yum noodle shop on Petchburi Soi 5 has also never really caught the attention of critics aside from one Mark Wiens (@migrationology). Instead, outlets like Michelin have preferred to focus on the enormous vat of tom yum Mama noodles served by Jay Oh. That doesn’t mean that Pe Aor is bereft of her own cheerleaders; diners throng the shop at lunchtime daily, in search of the similarly enormous vat of tom yum noodles for which this shophouse is now renowned. Unlike at Jay Oh, these noodles are crowned with a veritable grocery store seafood counter, explaining why the most pricey of these options — “Lobster and the Gang” (and there is indeed a gang) — clocks in at a hefty 1,500 baht (aka Jay Fai-level prices).

I hadn’t been to Pe Aor since COVID hit, but I found myself there with a group of 5 last week, when we managed to skip the queues by rolling in at 5 pm (too early for most customers seeking dinner, too late for most lunch-havers). Upon entering, we saw only one occupied table, with one diner inhaling an order of “Lobster and the Gang” all by himself. Although there was a good-sized group of us, we were too cowed by the size of the gang and opted instead for the “Perfect Combination”, a lobster-less-yet-nonetheless-imposing bowl of tom yum noodles topped by mussels, salmon, squid, river prawns, and prawn roe.

The seafood was super-fresh, and tender, and the fact that the bowl resembled the seafood bar section of a hotel brunch buffet didn’t hurt either. There have, however, been comments online about how the popularity of Pe Aor — ushered in by Mark Wiens — has changed the flavor of the tom yum broth to something creamier, sweeter, and less spicy.

I cannot say if this is true myself (Mark is the person who brought Pe Aor to my attention as well!) but I can say that it’s the kind of broth that would be acceptable for any visitors you have who want to try tom yum and fresh seafood. In Pe Aor’s case, Mark was kind of like “Stranger Things”, and I am kind of like those people who just started streaming Kate Bush. I’m just lucky that the only gatekeeper that I know of is me.


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Ode to the Motorsai

Grilled fresh lobster with garlic chili from Fikeaw Yaowarat

I know it’s not a classy thing for me to say — and as everyone knows, I’m a real classy lady — but I absolutely adore Bangkok motorcycle taxis. I use them every day. And it’s not like I have to use them (there is, after all, the bus, the taxi, the BTS, the MRT, my legs, and the WTFETMB), but I will go out of my way sometimes to use them. I have no qualms about traversing town from Sukhumvit to Sathorn on a bike, or motorsai, as the locals say. Barreling over the bridge on Rama IV while trying to keep my skirt from flying over my head is old hat to me (sometimes extremely scary old hat, but still). Whenever I see a win, or motorcycle taxi stand, on the corner of the street and I’m stuck in a taxi, I will immediately pay my fare and exit to the waiting arms of my true love, the motorsai driver. This always results in the immense relief of my taxi driver.

Post-taxi on the way to a dinner at Clara, snapped by my friend Chris on the other bike

There is an inner glee that I feel when passing expensive cars stuck in traffic, the time saved from an interminable commute by zipping through the streets on a “Bangkok helicopter,” as John Burdett called them in the novel Bangkok 8. This inner glee is only slightly dented by menacing pedestrians going about their lives on the sidewalk (sorry!). But as powerful as that glee is, it doesn’t compare to the actual feeling when your motorsai really hits its stride on an open stretch of road, with the wind in your hair, and a sense of freedom that feels like flying.

This is why, in spite of the recent opening of the MRT stop in Chinatown, I still get off at Hualumpong station and take a motorbike to Yaowarat Road. The subway is nice and all, but it doesn’t give you the 5 minutes into your bike ride when the smell of Chinatown — star anise, incense, maybe some garlic — hits your nose. This neighborhood announces itself like no other, and I never tire of finding my way here, even if it does mean trekking across town.

On nights that I plan to do a food crawl down Yaowarat Road, I always pre-game at Shanghai Mansion, where I snag a cold beer (with ice, of course!) with my companion of the evening. This time, it was my friend Teresa, who came armed with a list of places that she hoped to try. I knew all of them but one: a place called Fikeaw, which Teresa had found on Instagram. Of course, we had to go.

If you are used to elbowing strangers out of the way at T&K Seafood (or its red-shirted rival on the opposite corner), then thank the gods because your elbowing days are over. Fikeaw (which I am not sure means “green fire” or “perfect fire”) is hands down the better Thai-Chinese seafood dining destination, boasting a fresh, frisky display of various sea creatures in front of an unwieldy outdoor cart that shields its main attraction — its busy woks — from the view of casual passersby. Once seated, you might notice a healthy contingent of tourists waiting to see the chef do his business with a bunch of flaming morning glory (pak boong), but this is not as much of a red flag as it would normally have been to me. Order the pak boong if you must, but do not sleep on the lobster, halved without mercy in front of your eyes and cooked in a giant steamer with chilies and garlic. As much good food as I’ve had since my night there, my mind still wanders from time to time to that lobster (and the squid, and the stir-fried clams…you get the picture).


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Going with the flow in Kanchanaburi

Winged bean salad and river snail curry at Keeree Mantra

Most people who have traveled to Thailand (and many who haven’t!) know about the River Kwai, and the role that it played in World War II history. Some have even ventured to the Death Railway, riding on the rickety train up to a shanty town made up almost entirely of souvenir stands before eventually picking their way back on foot along the rotting wooden tracks perched precariously over the water. They may even have seen the handsome young monk in sunglasses, happy to pose for photos during his daily perambulations along the train tracks.

But have they braved the current of the River Kwai itself? I have. It’s fast — shockingly, surprisingly fast — flowing swiftly enough to make you dizzy as you attempt to read on your hotel bed with its riverside view of the rushing current. So fast, indeed, that crocodiles dare not haunt its banks. Or so I was told, right before I screwed up the courage to jump into the jade waters from the relative safety of my raft.

Our trip to Kanchanaburi was intended to be long enough to cram in everything that everyone wanted to see while short enough to allow people to go on it. This meant a series of unspoken negotiations and compromises that omitted anything extraneous, like my desire to try a mee krob sot, or fresh mee krob with the dressing slathered on top instead of mixed in. It was totally OK, it’s not like we were starving. Instead, we dined in spots gorgeous enough to inspire customers to hold their very own photo shoots, clad in their best all-white finery to contrast with the deep emerald hue of their surrounds (a go-to image for any Thai worth their Instagram account).

Keeree Mantra boasted a wide expanse of green lawn bordered by a man-made lake with a Bellagio-style fountain, well-tended lavender fields beckoning just beyond; Keeree Tara overlooked the rushing river itself with an enviable view of the nearby bridge done up in lights. Both served the kind of traditional Thai food to be expected in an upper-tier provincial hotel: well-made, to a middle-of-the-road palate, with no surprises (except for a chu chee of a local river fish that, when steamed, has the consistency of raw pork fat. It’s no wonder why we usually deep fry our freshwater fish). I was fine with easing myself into the views. Why would I complain about wasted mealtimes? It was fun just to go with the flow.

So there I was with my sister and my nephew, floating along the current, rushing pell-mell into every branch and cockroach-looking leaf that the river could see fit to send me. If you struggled too much, you could veer off course, and crash into the muddy banks on either side. But if you relaxed into the water and let the river carry you, arms and legs suspended as if you, too, were some sort of branch or cockroach-like leaf, it would take care of you, and reward your trust with as quick a trip downriver as possible.

In that jade water, I learned to relax into the current in a way I’m never capable of when I’m on land, when some part of my body is always twitching or braced or locked in anticipation of a future impact that will inevitably rock my world. In the water, I learned how to go with the flow, even as that meant accepting that there are grave mistakes that I can never rectify, that time will only heal some wounds, that I will never beat the current, and that it’s sometimes easier to steer your way around the detritus in your path rather than crashing into it head-on. That, once in the current, the best direction you can look in is forward, trusting that someone will be there to haul you out of the water when you reach your stop.

And if that voice at the back in your mind now says GET OUT OF THE WATER, YOU WON’T LIKE WHERE THIS GOES, you might be correct; the truth is, I could not bear to write about food today. That is because I believe in an American woman’s right to her own body, just as Americans have a right to decide whether to get vaccinated, and corpses have a right to keep their organs.

As I write this, people all over the United States are positioning themselves in a current that seems overwhelmingly fierce, hurtling towards a destination that a minority of the population wants. While it is tempting to struggle and flail in the water, looking back at the raft we’ve left behind, it seems far more constructive to look ahead, and to plan. Will we always be the dead leaves and muck held captive in the current? Or will we find enough footing to help haul others out of the water when they need it?

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