Sugar and spice make everything nice: Sensations of Bangkok
Solo traveling in Bangkok, Thailand felt like diving headfirst into a dream. Aside from the sheer thrill of it all – having abruptly graduated from my Master’s degree with zero commitments aside from my one-way ticket to Southeast Asia – the sensations were so vibrant, unfamiliar, and unexpected that I quite literally felt as though I were wake-walking through my dreams. I could barely keep track of my own name, let alone any real world responsibilities. I was free as a bird to wander at any pace I pleased through the unknown as my writer’s mind feasted upon the flood of raw sensory experience. No adjectives can successfully encompass the range to which my senses were awoken and the emotions that were wondrously evoked through their perception. Nonetheless, I cannot calm the spinning whirlwind of infant-eyed wonder within my mind unless I try. The text that follows is my rough sketch at the arduous task of sensory description.
Sights: Elaborately colored and adoringly bejeweled devotional street statuettes of shrines of Hindu deities; hot pink and neon blue fancifully decked-out Tuk-Tuks, whizzing by the crowded streets at the speed of light; stray dogs, hungry with tails between their short, sand-colored legs, mangled wet cats sitting in the city gutter, and scurrying lizards between the sidewalk cracks; crates overflowing with vibrant hues of flashing red rambutan aside go-cart green spiked-out Barbie pink pataya fruits; young tattoo ink that graces the arms of visitors, forming unreadable black letters and indistinguishable shapes of internal meaning; copiously exposed skin of dolled-up women, lining shady city street and sketchy hole-in-the-wall Thai massage parlors – one in nine-inch heels and booty shorts aggressively screaming at a white, pot-bellied man in glasses and a NYC baseball cap who undoubtedly crosses some invisible line of respect.
Smells: Sewage, chili-spiced chicken carcass, continuous car exhaust, wet dog, curry spice, devotional incense, rotting pig flesh, burning unnamed herbs, acetone of nail salons, ubiquitously sold sugar-drowned milky teas, fresh-sliced durian, decaying passionfruit, chemical commercial rip-off store air conditioning, whisky breath of an impoverished elderly Thai man with sunken facial bones who meagerly and toothlessly smiles as he drags along his shopping-cart home through the rush-hour morning streets.
Sounds: Honks, skids, screeches and roaring engines of endless traffic that crowds the immovable streets; intermingled voices pronouncing musical and incompressible nasally lyrics of “ah” and “ow” – the syllables themselves are meaningless to my Thai vocabulary of approximately zero words. Yet their accompanied tone, pitch, and nuanced mannerisms paint an evident picture of quietly affectionate, teasing familiarity between family and friends, combined with gentle-mannered modesty toward strangers. With my blonde hair, light blue eyes, and fair complexion and its connotation of a tourist reputation, without uttering a word, I exude an inevitably rude and shoutingly loud presence.
Feels: Unrelenting, full-body, swimming-pool perspiring skin that remains wet in the 90° humidity despite all best efforts at warding it off with 3 or more showers per day; the soft cry of my eyes that burn from street food smoke; dusty, polluted grime that thinly lines my nasal passages; the tingle of playful pain upon my tongue after a Thai green curry lunch; the sugar coating that seems glued to the backs of my teeth after hungrily ingesting syrup-laced sweets with Thai tea; the pulse of this sweetness through my veins (goodness forbid you arrive with a sweet tooth – you will become hopelessly diabetic in a matter of days); the itchy pinch on my exposed arms that arises from mosquito bites post-rainy season surprise downpour; the lovingly unbearable pressure of palms upon my over-worked, intricately knotted back during high-end (but still dirt cheap) Thai massage; the dull ache of my tourist, over-walked legs; the filthy, lasting-wetness from treading on an unforeseen monsoon puddle.
Tastes: The potent, colored combination of flavors that require full attention of all surface area of the tongue: The cloyingly sweetness of sticky rice, coconut milk of curries, fresh-cut tropical fruits (mango, guava, kiwi, banana, mangosteen, pomegranate, and papaya, to name but a few), tapioca puddings, sweets made with generous, loving helpings of sugar (cane sugar, brown sugar, palm sugar, coconut sugar, and simple syrup), milk teas and my dearly beloved classic Thai tea (the hint of its bitter elements masked entirely by sweetened condensed milk and syrup); the saltiness and umami of stir-fried peanuts, vegetables, and tofu, served aside portions of soy sauce; the refreshingly sour-squeezed lime to contrast the most distinctive characteristic of cuisine: spice. Fresh chilies compliment signature dishes, which cannot be served without portions of chili sauce and dried chili flakes. Although technically a sensation of touch rather than taste, spice is the foundation for all other flavors of Thai cooking. As explained by a Thai chef during his signature cooking class, “If it’s not spicy, it’s not Thai”.
The diverse, unending, and exhausting sensations of Thailand expertly piqued my awareness, arousing me into a helpless state of Bambi in headlights. I took in as much as I could sustain on my palate, becoming entrenched in the fleeting days of travel that was composed of sensational seconds that will undoubtedly last a lifetime. The journey was one of doe-eyed culinary exploration that quenched my monsoon-heated thirst for knowledge and expanded my cooking horizons as it did my stomach (oh, the food babies). Satiated, satisfied, and wide-eyed awake, I leave Thailand on a sensational high for my next global adventure.