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A Portrait of a Young Woman, a Restaurant, and a City on a Saturday Night
Where: Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand / When: 6:05 p.m. to 7:49 p.m.
“Pi kha. Bi Chiang Mai Gate, kha. Thirty, kha? Khob khun kha.”1
I duck and slide onto the faux leather bench, and off we go. An engine that’s tired of carrying its retrofitted metal shell and rotund tourists pants as the driver shifts gears. I slouch a little more than usual to see out the slot that’s supposed to be a window in this songthaew.2 Cars and mopeds weave in and out in front of one another, and I turn to watch the dance from lane to lane through the open back of the red truck.
Thirty Baht later, I’m dropped inside the moated, ancient walls that still manage to stand. A twilight glow of grayish pink compliments the hot lamps, clip lamps, and street lights that are all turned on, waiting for the sun to inevitably sink and be the only source of light left to guide the tourists and locals, families and friends, workers and galavanters through the darkness. I find a rare crosswalk and wait for the beep before I snake my way in front of and then behind food stalls, past dishwashers and woks bubbling with oil and tourists that rubberneck as they look at the wares and fruit and noodles and MSG-encrusted fish on the grill.
Around the corner, I stop and sandwich myself between some Gen Z Chinese tourists to look both ways and wait for my opening, which will be granted by a generously slow car or red truck.
There it is.
I cross, leaving them behind me to find their own opening, and land safely on the opposite side of the street to fake left and fake right past parked motorbikes and pedestrians walking in opposition to me. A two-story sage-green structure that mimics the curve of the sidewalk pulsates with the vibration of a guitar being strung. On a sliver of sidewalk, wooden benches and low-set tables in the shape of large screw nuts are crowded with people sipping Leos3 and ashing their first of many evening cigarettes.
I’m back at Chi Restaurant for one thing and one thing only: the spicy Vietnamese pork sausage salad. Past the couch holding two black-haired and giggly Chinese girls and diagonally left of a table where two blonds sit hunched over their iPhones, I move toward a small table set for three. I can feel his presence behind me, even before I turn around.
“One, please,” I say as I swivel around to meet the smile of a man who’s wearing a cream ‘70s button down and tenderly holding a clipboard containing the menu item I came here for.
I pivot slightly to motion to the table I’m standing in front of. “Okay here, kha?”
His smile widens. (A yes.)
“Khob Khun Kha.”
I flip through the water-stained pages. Where is it? Skimming back and forth, I try to make out the faded American Typewriter font, but the heat’s making the words bleed together. I fan my face with my hand, trying to ignore the heat that’s wafting off of me as if I were Pigpen. Ah, here. Hand up.
Over the blare of the bluesy guitar strums, I order. Maybe I’ll even venture back into the arena of food stalls for some Pad Kra Pao Moo4 afterwards....
The interior of Chi is oddly reminiscent of a trendy, hipster bar in Burlington, Vermont. Lots of wood; old, tarnished metal; mismatched chairs in metal and wood; table clothes with doily designs and crochet fringe; old posters documenting movies, famous faces, historical moments, and far off places; gilded frames displaying mediocre art; industrial tins and canisters; and knickknacks of every sort. Watches, glass bottles, brass mugs, tarnished rings, sunglasses, statuettes, old spectacles, beaded necklaces, and brooches hang on walls, sit on shelves, and stay perched in glass cases: inanimate audience members for the guitarist who’s a regular here. I saw him last time—and here he is again, sporting the same stage getup: suave sunglass and a hat. This time, he’s wearing a pair of black shades with a tortoise frame and a discolored tan beret that has no business being worn in this 93-degree heat. But he’s rocking it, and he’s not sweating, so…good for him.
He hangs on the last syllable of a Chinese lullaby and strums until applause bubbles up in the room. “I just sang his first Chinese song,” he tells no one in particularly, but his comment is clearly meant for the two Chinese girls seated on the couch in front of him. They giggle and put their heads together before the one to the left migrates to a stool next to the guitarist to help kick off the next song. The rainbow-strobe disco light, nestled covertly in a wrought iron sconce like a lightbulb, spins and casts speckles of green, purple, blue and red confetti light throughout the space. Memories of my friends’ college dorm room find their way into my subconscious before I wave them away with the movement of my pen across the page of my notebook.
Now, the guitarist is emulating some blues with rifts of Wild Western influence. I detect a lil’ Johnny Cash, but I can’t say for certain. The soul of jazz also hums on the periphery. Behind him is a gallery wall painted evergreen, adorned with troves and treasures of decades past: an Art Deco clock (in need of a reset); a side-hung, grayish-blue wooden barn door; a mounted rams head, stripped of its muscle and hide (just the bare bones); a wooden sign carved with Thai letters I can’t make out, and the image of a chicken and floral carvings that I can. There’s also a traditional Chinese shirt—the one with the satin buttons that run from the mock-turtleneck top down to the tip of the shoulder—which hangs on a metal hanger off a groove of the mounted, side-turned barn door. The grains of the shirt’s cotton fibers compliment the weathered, vintage, and antique aura of the place, as if it’s hung there for 50 years and will hang there for 50 more.
I write behind a partition composed of asymmetrical, vertically-arranged wooden rectangles: a series of wooden windows painted blue and now worn on the inside with accents of burgundy. Partitions of wood and metal, designed in geometric and linear fashion, section out the room to create different dining alcoves. One is made of metal bars, looking as if it used to serve as a jail cell window. Now, thanks to the interior's dim, seductive lighting, it's just a barred window coquettishly separating one party from another.
Where the wall meets the ceiling, a black staircase cuts through the space, ascending to the second floor where faded red Versace pants, tennis rackets, old road bikes, jewelry, a kids’ Burberry coat, leather purses, roller skates, men's dress shoes, Converse of every color, glasses, old and still full Coke bottles, scarves, stacks of Levi's, t-shirts, and (yes) even an old pair of tighty-whities all hang out silently above the bustling downstairs establishment. I won’t be going up to the secret second-floor thrift shop tonight. Not even to see the sexy SangSom5 posters in the bathroom. The heat hangs out there, and I can’t handle a run in with that beast right now. (I’ve been avoiding him all day in the AC of our favorite neighborhood cafe.)
More people’ve funneled in now that the music has picked up. Some man just announced that he’s from Austria, but then he says merci to the guitarist. I look up and a cookie-cutter white man with white hair (likely in his mid-sixties) now occupies the table where the two blond gals, who I’d hazard a guess were around my age, had been sitting with their five rapidly perspiring Singha-branded water bottles when I first came in. This older gentleman wears glasses, a no-name-brand white baseball cap, a dark tee, and the usual cargo shorts. (Kansas or Georgia would be my guess.)
With each minute and each turn of the disco light, the scenery changes. The guitarist is now strumming to the flavors of South America, singing lyrics punctuated by flamingo cords and the words “mi corazón”. That scene from Romancing the Stone, where Joan and Jack kiss after dancing in the town square, is kicked up in my subconscious.
Last time I was at Chi, I remember the food taking so long that I forgot we’d ordered it. But I like the slowness. With any luck, it’ll give the general market area time to clear out a bit; by the time I finish here, maybe one person out there will finish eating and I can swoop in and take their place. Truth be told, though, I’m not so hungry. Perhaps this little nosh, made into a small meal with the addition of the rice I ordered, will ignite a deeper hunger within me; or, what I ordered will go from being an appetizer to the main course, after all. That’s up to my stomach, not me.
On the table, I’ve been given a white plate with thick brown trim and a spoon and fork in a plastic pouch. (Boy, do Thais love their plastic!) An old Tanqueray bottle filled with dried baby’s breath looks back at me lovingly. So do a tin canister with a rope wick and a glass with a burrito bouquet of white paper napkins. The empty wooden chairs that flank me, one of which is holding my purse, tuck neatly under the table and sit like two faithful guard dogs.
A coolness has settled, seeming to open up the space for the first time since I sat down. The first wave of inside diners has left. How long the reprieve of patronage will last before a new gaggle of clientele are beckoned in by the music, I can’t say. But, for now, it’s just us: me, the chairs, the tables, the guitarist, and a couple white guys over 40 in cutoff tees and cargo shorts.
“I have a song you can play…”
Oh, here we go...
The old white guy with white hair, sporting the white baseball cap, is holding his phone up to the Thai guitarist. “I think it would be right up your alley,” he says.
The Thai musician, being oh-so kind, smiles and laughs before proceeding to strum and gingerly turn the tuners of his instrument to readjusts a few strings. Perhaps he’s open to fulfilling this man’s request. Where is my sausage?
I’m starting to feel the flutters of an appetite now. Hunger has awoken in the gastric sea of my belly, and it’s starting to toss and turn with impatience. Maybe I should have ordered a drink. Nah, I don’t want a Leo—at least not right now. Beer on an empty stomach like this? In this heat? Doesn't sound appetizing. (I know most would disagree.) Lime soda? That’s refreshing. But also, acidic. I’ll just keep sneaking sips from the water bottle in my purse. I would take it out and place it on the table, but it feels like contraband, being purchased from the 7-Eleven and not here.
Finally, it’s placed before me. The hot, vinegary spice dances around the periphery of my nostrils. Crispy, circular slices of sausage adorned with thin slices of red onion, scallion, a crumbling of peanuts, small quarters of cherry tomatoes, and raw chili invite me to dig in. All that vinegar, fish sauce, and those red chilis…it’s hotter, zippier than last time. Right on cue, a spice-induced hiccup escapes. I take a spoonful of rice and the steam escapes. Divine.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is now being melodically sung, captured with each strum and pluck of the guitar’s strings. I sway as I chew and the guitarist leans to the right to meet my gaze through one of the window-like rectangular cut outs in the partition that separates him and me. Our eyes meet. I look back down at my food and try to suppress a hiccup as I swallow.
The guitar strums make the sun sway its hips in a slow-mow, melodic dance as it sets, and, soon, before you know it, night has taken its post without creating any ruckus. A change of actors in the sky without the audience noticing. I could stay in here all night, allowing time to drift by, but the price point and the encroaching white men impose a necessary time limit. If I don’t leave soon, an appetizer might turn into another course, which would turn into me fall for a tourist trap (despite the great ambiance and food) and—worse—someone may chat me up. I must pay and leave the cave of music and mid-life crises.
“Pi kha. Check, kha.”
For my next and final course, I settle on ice cream to squelch the fire in my belly. From the Styrofoam cooler, the ice cream man pulls a wax-wrapped block of coconut milk ice cream that looks more akin to a stick of butter. In one fluid motion, he sticks the rectangular block vertically into a shallow plastic cup (to catch any drippage), pierces the bottom with a skewer (my makeshift, questionably sturdy popsicle stick), and unwraps the wax to reveal the cold, creamy goodness. Ten Baht: What a steal. The cheapest ice cream I’ve found in these Chiang Mai streets—and, dare I say, it’s creamier than any Häagen-Dazs.
I walk a few paces past shumai, shawl, t-shirt, and smoothie vendors, but I can’t deal with muscling my way through the throngs of people tonight simply to sightsee what I’ve already seen before. Nope, it’s time for me to take myself home, away from the sensory overload and the temptation to spend.
Now, I know better. I know the red trucks are the way to go, but I don’t want to have to peer out a rickety moving vehicle to perfectly time when I press a button to ensure I don’t miss my stop. I have an ice cream that needs attending to. No, I want door-to-door service. I want a tuk-tuk.6
They’re all waiting in their open-air vehicles, waiting for a tourist like me to flag down. I see a driver lounging about and walk right up to him: I state my street and, before I can even name my price, he waves me away. (On brake.) From behind me, a voice shouting a jumble of Thai and English calls me over. I can feel the rest of the drivers’ gazes slant toward me. They’re waiting to hear where I’m going and if I’ll haggle; they’re waiting like a flock of seagulls to see if I’m up for the poaching.
I state my desired destination, my street name.
“Two-hundred-fifty Baht,” the driver says.7
“One-fifty,” I say.
He shakes his head and waves me off.
“One-fifty,” I say again. “One-twenty?”
He tosses me over to one of his friends a few tuk-tuks down with a shake of his head and a point of his finger. He yells at his buddy in a slew of Thai—words that go over my head, even from his seated position.
I try again with this new guy. “One-twenty,” I say more confidently.
“No, no. One-fifty. One-fifty,” he smiles.
I struggle to pull up the address on my phone to give him a visual of where I want to go while I try to hold my ice cream steady and while he laughs and comments on the fact that I am, indeed, holding an ice cream.
“One-fifty,” he says.
The haggling is done. I crawl into the back of the tuk-tuk and accept that my whiteness and lack of Thai-fluency can only get me so far.
“Madame, madame! You beautiful!” he keeps saying, after some small talk in which he learns I’m an American (“Oh, U.S.!”) and how long I’ll be in Thailand (“Oh, wow! Four months. Wow!”).
“Khob khun kha,” I keep replying, as I try to keep my blowing hair from sticking to my ice cream, and he giggles a little.
“Khob khun kha” he says back, like a bemused parrot.
“Madame, madame! You beautiful!” he says again and again and adjusts his mirrors.
After a few licks of my ice cream and few too many adjustments of his mirrors, I finally let the melting ice cream pool in the little cup. No sense in giving him any more reason to look in his rearview mirrors other than to monitor the swerving traffic.
Eventually, we arrive back at my doorstep—yes, quite literally. The man has brought me through the gate, around the parking lot, and right up to the first step of my apartment building.
“One-fifty, kha,” I say, un-crinkling two one-hundred Baht bills from my wallet.
“Oh, no. No tip?” he laughs. “I keep!”
But, as he reaches into his money belt bag, I know he knows better. And I know better, too. No matter how many flatteries you utter, you won’t squeeze an extra 50 Baht out of me.
After all, this isn’t my first Saturday night in Thailand.
Translates roughly to “Sir/Ma’am [just a polite way to address someone], go to Chiang Mai Gate. Thirty? Thank you.”
First note: Fun fact, there’s no punctuation or spaces in Thai, so to signal that you’d done with your thought or “sentence”, female-identifying speakers punctuate their phrases with “kha” and male-identifying speakers punctuate their phrases with “khrap”. These gendered words function almost like periods. Second note: I’ve written all Thai words in this post phonetically. Since the English alphabet and the Thai alphabet are completely different, spelling of Thai words into English can vary drastically. The Thai alphabet has 72 characters, and Thai is a completely tonal language. Each word has a strict tonal pattern; so, if you change the tone, you change the meaning of the word.
Songthaews are these retrofitted, covered pick-up trucks. They’re a form of Thai public transportation—a crossover between a small bus and a cab—which people can hail down to take them where they need to go starting at 30 Baht per person (sometimes more, depending on how far you’re going and where). More colloquially, they’re called “red trucks” by tourists. Because they’re a shared-cab service, they’re less expensive than tuk-tuks.
The number-one selling beer in Thailand.
Pad [fried] Kra Pao [basil] Moo [pork], i.e., minced stir-fried pork with Thai basil and chili. It can also be made with chicken and sometimes seafood, too, but that’s less common. This is a classic Thai dish with slight variations depending on the cook and region. It’s served over rice and a common addition is to serve a fried egg on top. Delicious! Rarely found in Thai restaurants in the U.S. for some reasons (probably because they don’t want to butcher a good thing).
SangSom is a popular Thai rum.
Another traditional Thai mode of transportation. These retrofitted motorbikes have a caravan-like carriage attached to them and fit two people comfortably, three people intimately, and four people like a clown carriage. Tuk-tuks are often more expensive than songthaews; sometimes, depending on where you’re going and during what time of the day, you can get a Grab (Thai’s version of Uber) for less than a tuk-tuk.
Translation: “You’re a tourist.”
Translation: “You sure about that? Okay, well, I don’t need you. I’ll go find someone else.”