In Bangkok, obtaining street food outside the tourist zones is an exciting and sometimes baffling experience. Away from the bustle of backpacker bars the ubiquitous Thai/English signage, sometimes with pictures, becomes rare if not completely nonexistent. In these areas, ordering is left to more primitive and, at times, luck-based methods.
Ordering sans language is a process easiest learned by simply jumping in. Moving slowly through a mass of hungry locals, one can peer over shoulders at the beginnings of meals, slowly beginning to get a sense of what is on offer, and what looks appetizing. From there, it’s simply charades. Make eye contact with the vendor, point at what you think you want, hold up the necessary fingers to indicate quantity, and hope it all turns out well. For the less adventurous, the best option is to delay all decision making until a piping-hot bowl of something mysterious changes hands with money. In either scenario, you are returned to a place you may not have revisited since pre-language childhood. A place where you relied solely on eating with your eyes.
In the morning, the usually chaotic streets of Chinatown are mostly quiet. Under the cover of worn tarps stretched across alleyways, ladies methodically lay out various produce for sale while men on scooters carrying large bags of rice speed by, stopping to deliver a bag here, a bag there. We approached a lone cart on a corner with no signage or locals around to shadow. Hindered by language, I looked over the raw ingredients resting in the attached display case with as much feigned confidence as I could muster; trying to indicate that I, in fact, had a clue. The human brain does not like to feel out of control, and it was in this moment, this first experience going it alone, that I silently cursed myself for neglecting to learn the Thai words for basic menu items. With a dopey smile, I raised two fingers in the air. Then, as they fell back to my side, I paused briefly to give a half-hearted shake in the direction of the display case and mumbled something unintelligible. “mmmbeefhmmwhatever”
Taking a seat on a small plastic stool at the communal table in the street, I contemplated what they thought of my caveman-like gesture. I waited, resigned to the fact that I had no idea what would appear before me. Breakfast in Chinatown is not a place for the anxious or the indecisive. Thankfully, at least in matters of food, I tend to be neither.