David Thompson is a chef who cooks Thai food. He’s worked in Sydney and London, and now has a Bangkok restaurant, Nahm, that’s in the top tier of rankings on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. He likes a market in the Thonburi section of Bangkok, west of the Chao Phraya River. I’m in Thailand with James, an American chef, on a weeks-long eating tour with two other guys, Eric and Manny. We’re chasing down markets, restaurants, and stalls with extraordinary ingredients and food.
“This is David Thompson’s favorite market,” James says one day at our hotel in Bangkok; he’s looking at a Thompson interview online. “Should we go?”
Next morning the four of us are heading to the BTS Skytrain. We take it to the end of the western line, south of Thonburi. Still, we’re far. We pile into a cab, Eric and Manny and me crowded in the back. The driver tells us there’s nothing going on at Thompson’s market today (Monday)—shit!—but he says he’ll take us to another market, only it’s an hour drive from here. “An hour? Seriously?” James is talking to him in Thai.
The driver has a glossy laminated sheet of destinations—he points to pictures of a floating market where a blond girl is taking a picture. “This is a tourist trap,” I say. The driver’s insisting we want to go there; meanwhile he’s been driving, fast, down this busy road. “What should we do?” James says from the front seat. “Should we do it?”
“It’s a gamble,” I say, “a big investment in time and far, and it’s probably not going to be what we want anyway. Can you tell the driver what we want?” We want a real produce market, bustling and chaotic, where real people shop. "I did,” says James. “He keeps saying we want to go to this place an hour away.”
I look over—we’re passing a market, vendors on the sidewalks selling snacks, and through entrances down dark market lanes, best as I can in the fast-moving taxi, this looks pretty good. “What about here?” I say. “This is a market right here.” James asks the driver. “He says we should go to the other market an hour away. Should we stop here?”
“Let’s just stop.” James makes the driver pull over. It’s chaotic; there are no blond girls, no tourists even. No foreigners. It’s pungent, and wraps around an old department store called Wonder (it sounds like Wanda in Thai), next to a sleepy little canal. Ten minutes later James is taking pictures of mackerel in sweet soy sauce, heaps of shrimp paste from different regions of Thailand, huge bowls of curry pastes and fermenting fish. We spend more than an hour here, eat delicious khao mun gai with congealed chicken blood for lunch. (Later, when we’re home, we look up the name, and it’s hard because no foreigners ever go here: Bang Khae fresh market.)
We decide to walk back to the BTS station from here. It’s much, much farther than we thought, taking almost an hour in the baking heat—it didn’t seem nearly that far getting here. That taxi driver must have been moving fast, to try and get us to where the blond girl was.
Moral of the story: When traveling or at home, always trust your food instincts, your food radar, a.k.a. food-dar. Always.
Photos by John Birdsall