Like all Bangkok residents, Am is a foodie (“Tom yum goong soup tastes better with coconut milk,” she declares in a way that will brook no dissent), so I happily follow her to one of her favorite restaurants, Som Tam Nua, on one of the sois, or side streets, that branch off from Siam Square. This humble place, with a fast-food sheen that could be at home in any L.A. strip mall, features Isan food, from Thailand’s northeast.
From raw mango to spicy pork salad, the dinner is a fiesta of strong chile and onions, everything moist and perfect, waiting to be sopped up with sticky rice. Every color, save violet, seems to be represented on our table. The natural acidity of Isan cuisine will help you digest the baskets of fried chicken, which are a must. It takes two to three hours to prepare poultry of this magnitude. The crisp goodness of the chicken is the result of an overnight marinade in fish sauce and pepper, as well as a skinny-dip in pineapple juice, which, Am joyfully informs me, tenderizes the bird. That detail does not surprise as much as the Isan version of chitterlings—as thick and deadly and glorious as anything the American South has ever produced—which crackle in the mouth and are perfect with a drop of jaew fish sauce, a riot of coriander, red onion, and lime.
Once you start down the spice road it’s hard to turn back. The next day my stomach demands more. I find myself sweating along a tiny soi off Sukhumvit Road in pursuit of the Arharn Pa Lerd Rod outdoor restaurant (no English sign, but it’s opposite the My Beauty spa). It’s a dump, with wash hung out to dry and stray cats in the background, but I feast royally on grilled blackened shrimp that cry out for a turn in the attendant Christmas-colored spice bath, and the find of a lifetime, fried frog with hot chiles (they seem to be out of the cobra today). Luxuriating in a mess of holy basil, born in the rivers and canals of the Thai capital, this is the most sophisticated amphibian I have tasted in my life. Unfortunately, it’s also full of toxins that nearly kill me—as I leave the restaurant my hand swells up to the size of a Butterball. But, as the Thais say, mai pen rai, or “never mind.” The tussle with death is well worth it, the spice producing a heat that spreads quickly down my mandibles and pulses into the temples, reminding me, ironically enough, of the slogan the municipality has hung from every street lamp—“Bangkok, city of life.”
As my hand deflates a little, i rush over to the annual Miss AC/DC pageant. Thais, elegant and subtle when needed, can be natural showboats as well, and none more than the khatoey “ladyboy” population. The all-Thai cast of the show lampoons the Miss Universe contest, with Miss Romania as the vampiest Dracula in the Far East, Miss Italy as a giant soccer ball, Miss France as the Mona Lisa (complete with canvas), and Miss Philippines as Imelda Marcos. The khatoey are hardly outcasts in this tolerant society. Many participants are students and nurses, and one is a professor at a prestigious local university. “Welcome, ladies and handsome mans,” one adorably shy performer croons to us. “My name is La Toya Jackson,” shouts a khatoey in an African loincloth, “and I am from the Con-go!” A Buddhist spirit of compassion prevails, mixed in with the never-ending Thai need of sanuk, or fun. Garlanded boys hand out condoms. Snacks of tiny live crabs are cheerfully conked on the head by one robust-looking ladyboy. Miss Japan is a dwarf who charges down the stage on a tiny motorcycle. Miss Egypt is unpacked from an elaborate pyramid. And Miss America, in her star-spangled cheerleader’s outfit—she will later win the crown—arrives onstage in a tank holding aloft a globe plastered with dollar bills. I sigh briefly, wondering if I will ever enjoy a transvestite cabaret in a tropical country without being reminded of my country’s foreign policy. Fortunately, Am is here to guide me to a nearby stand dispensing kanom krok, little morsels of coconut milk heated with sugar and a dash of salt, a combination of melting and crisp, and everything good besides.
The next day, with the frog nearly out of my system, I follow Am’s recommendation and head for Divana Massage & Spa, off Sukhumvit Road. In a quiet garden abode, with hi-so (high society) maidens chirping quietly on their cell phones while waiting for their appointments, I gulp down green tea with ginger and a mystery ingredient the staff claims to be pandan leaf, which makes me goofy and relaxed. I’m a simple man from a difficult place, so when a sweet young woman washes my feet with rose petals I almost start to cry. Seventy minutes later, my hirsute self duly rubbed, anointed with fragrance, and restored to humanity, I leave the room completely high and ready to suffer again.
Evening has gradually enveloped the relentless megalopolis, the temperature plunging into the high eighties, and I am anxious to experience Southeast Asia’s most fabled nightlife. Lately the city’s “Hello there, sailor!” reputation has taken a hit after the former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s administration began enforcing a 1 a.m. closing time for the city’s clubs and bars, part of its paternalistic Social Order campaign. But then came the September 2006 coup (“a sweet coup,” according to Am), which sent the prime minister into exile in London, and the city’s party-mad denizens are hoping for a reversal of fortune. Tapas Room Club, with its friendly vibe, is a nice introduction to the lay of the land. Here, a disco ball is still a disco ball, and five dollars will buy you a whiskey, although one can only guess at the unknown variables circulating behind the smiles.