The perfect trip: Thailand
Wat Mahathat, the central temple complex of the ruined city of Sukhothai, remains a tranquil retreat. (Raspu/Getty)
Cover the entire length of Thailand by car, taxi, plane and longtail boat, beginning in Bangkok, then heading north to the ruins of Sukhothai and hill villages of Pang Daeng Nai, before darting south to the limestone-karst landscapes of Khao Sok and Ko Hong.
Bangkok: Best for street food
The queue of hungry people can barely be seen behind the smoke and steam rising from the boiling pans and spitting grills of the street stall. Three men work furiously, serving up bowls of a hot, peppery Thai pork broth called kuay jap nam sai, one of Bangkok’s most popular dishes. Its spicy tang floods the air, mixing with the scent of roasted nuts being stirred by an elderly woman and the sweetly rotting smell of a spiky durian fruit being cut with a hatchet.
Tucking into a plate of cooked-to-order noodles or skewers of sizzling meat is a daily ritual here. It seems that every street corner has at least one vendor, their charcoal grills and scorching woks hissing with stir-fried vegetables, charred meats, pungent spices and delicate sweets. And while money can buy you a lot of things in Bangkok, it can’t help you jump the queue: street cleaners and market traders patiently line up alongside office workers and suited financial whiz-kids. ‘I’ve been here for 30 minutes,’ says one man, glancing at his watch. ‘But it’s worth the wait.’ His turn finally arrives, and he grabs his steaming bowl of soup, ladles green chilli and garlic sauce on top, then squeezes onto a packed bench and takes up his spoon.
There are food stalls around Victory Monument and busy Charoen Krung Road, but it is in Chinatown’s tightly-knit maze of narrow streets where Bangkok gathers when its collective belly rumbles. Here, Thai vendors dishing out green and red curries or flat rice noodles with meat stand shoulder to shoulder with cooks from the city’s Chinese population, serving dishes such as bird’s nest soup. Barrow boys wheel carts of oranges between rows of bubbling cauldrons and tables piled high with spring rolls, chicken kebabs and coconut jellies.
The most famous Thai dish – pad Thai, a sweet and spicy combination of stir-fried shrimp, lime, peanuts and noodles – originated on a nearby stall called Thip Samai. Here, a local woman (after whom the stall was named) invented the dish during WWII, when the government was encouraging people to cook with local ingredients. Today, what was once a simple roadside set-up is an established restaurant with a street stall attached, run by Thip Samai’s grandson, Sikarachat Baisamut. ‘My grandmother came up with the recipe, my mother tweaked it, and now I don’t have to do anything,’ he says. He’s worked on the stall since he was a teenager, and has witnessed his grandmother’s recipe become the unofficial Thai national dish.
The stall is a hive of activity: woks filled with noodles, shrimp and spring onion are expertly tended. Plate after heaped plate is served up to hungry customers. ‘I’m happy that everyone wants to cook pad Thai – it’s good to make Thai food popular. But I’m not worried about the competition,’ says Sikarachat. ‘Other people use the same ingredients but create something very different – no-one can make it with the pride and love that we do here. Cooking Thai food is like making a work of art.’
Sukhothai: Best for ruins
Each of the Buddha’s long, tapered fingers is the size of a man. They rest on his gigantic right knee, close to the temple floor, while his other hand lies upturned on his lap. His face is beatific, his ear lobes dangling almost to his chin. Two Thai visitors enter the walled shrine and kneel before the vast deity. One lights the end of an incense stick and bends low to the ground in prayer. The other places a small square of gold leaf on the Buddha’s index finger, glittering in the late afternoon sunlight. The great fingertip is now almost entirely covered in gold, thanks to legions of pilgrims who have visited this place: the ancient temple site of Wat Si Chum, in the ruined city of Sukhothai.