When I first visited Thailand two years ago, I stayed pretty much on the beaten track. The only time I ventured off this track was by accident: I was on an elephant in the jungle with only the very cranky elephant and the even crankier elephant driver to keep me company. As we wandered further and further into the jungle and the elephant driver got crankier and crankier, I started to think the beaten track wasn’t so bad. After all, the beaten track spoke English; the elephant driver (and the elephant, of course) did not. The beaten track wasn’t full of snakes and malarial insects and angry little Thai men carrying sharp elephant-poking sticks. The beaten track had bathrooms and running water and menus I could read (or at least, umm, menus). For the rest of the trip, I made a point to stick to the road well traveled. I didn’t care that I wasn’t having the “authentic Thai experience.” If the “authentic Thai experience” involved snakes and disobedient elephants, I wanted no part of it.
On Monday, I arrived in beautiful, jungle-y Northern Thailand to start a two-month house-sitting gig. As for the beaten track: forget it. While the place where I’m house-sitting is only about fifteen kilometers from a rather well-known city, getting to that city requires a thirty minute bike ride along hot, dusty back roads and a ten minute cramped bus ride along the superhighway. Needless to say, I doubt I’ll be heading into the city on a daily basis to experience the joy of an English menu (or any menu, for that matter).
Lucky for me, there are a few local roadside restaurants within biking distance. These, ummm, “restaurants” don’t exactly look like restaurants. They tend to look more like someone’s garage with a few plastic tables, a big wok and maybe some slabs of dead animal lying around for ambience. And as for menus: you can forget that too. But the food served at these places is hot, tasty and cheap as all get out. Plus, as for the “authentic Thai experience,” you can’t get more authentic than eating noodles out of someone’s garage, now can you?!
Yesterday, I decided to take my first bike venture by myself to one of the restaurants that serves a mean plate of pad thai. Pad thai or phat thai is one of Thailand’s national dishes and, as far as Thai food goes, it’s about as on-the-beaten-track as you can get. Just stir-fried rice noodles with shrimp, crushed peanuts, tofu and scrambled eggs, pad thai is not packed full of chili peppers like lots of other Thai food. Which means it is pretty much perfect for a girl who has spent the last three years in Japan, where often the spiciest thing on the menu is tofu. Pad thai is also easy to pronounce; unlike all those other Thai food words. (According to my Lonely Planet guide for Thailand, neua phat naam-man hawy is a popular dish in these parts. I’d order it, if I could ever figure out how to pronounce it.) Given all the things going for it, I think yesterday’s plate of pad thai was the first of many.
But first I had to actually get to the pad thai place — a trip which includes all kinds of fun off the beaten track adventure. First I got to go down a back road for a mile or so. Then, I passed a few fields. Some of them even had cows in them. And, mind you, there’s often no form of fence around these fields so I had to keep my wits about me and make sure I didn’t run into a cow… or two. And, finally about twenty-five minutes later (give or take some time to walk up a hill or two or run into a cow… or two), I finally arrived at the pad thai place. And man was I hungry… and hot… and really, really stinky. Good thing my lunch was being served in a garage — a nice open-air garage, so I could kind of air out a bit while eating.
In addition to the noodles, pad thai is also served with a dish full of bean sprouts, spring onions and lime wedges which you can use to garnish your dish. Plus, your table comes equipped with this tray of pickled chillies and crushed, dried chillies, should you want to spice things up a bit.
Feeling daring after my dirt road bike trip and near-cow-crash experience, I added some of the crushed chillies to my plate. I probably added a bit too much seeing as I was already really hot (and, did I mention, stinky?!). But after some vigorous stirring and drinking an entire bottle of water, I was able to down the plate of pad thai in no time.
And then it was back on the road for more fun off-the-beaten-track adventure… and a nice long afternoon nap. Because this authentic Thai experience thing sure is tiring.