Friday, August 29, 2008

Nang Leong Market: city walks, part one

As a tourist, there are places you must see in a particular country or city. You hit the museums, the parks, the sports stadiums, the restaurants, trek out to a volcano or castle, and for food lovers, the markets. If you've been to a place more than once, you have the opportunity to wander down the less travelled path, and peek into the lives of residents in more detail. If you're lucky, a few befriend you on the way, and allow you insight to better understand the context of their lives.

I've been to Bangkok more than a few times over the last ten years. Good friends who live and work there are reason enough to go visit, plus there's the added attraction of great food, crazy shopping, and the spirituality of the wats. When friends T and L announced that their new baby boy was going to be born in August, a few more friends and I decided to celebrate their new addition with a visit. We knew this might be the last time to catch up while they're in Asia, as they will be back in Eastern Europe for another year.

Other than celebrating the new baby (who manages to sleep through any noise level! Such a sweetheart of a boy.), I knew I'd have a couple of mornings, and most of Monday to ramble. What would I do for those spare moments? I've seen every single wat and shopping mall, plus my fair share of the canals, wet markets, and street food. This time around I wanted to walk into more residential neighborhoods and be a nosy passerby. There were two places in particular that I had on my sightseeing periscope - lunch at Chote Chitr and finding the old market of Nang Leong.

One of my favorite food blogs, Eating Asia, is composed of the talented duo of Robyn and Dave, her writing + his photos = magic! They seem like a great couple with an amazing nose for market foods and adventurous eats. They've helped me find food in Manila! Bangkok is a favorite city of theirs and they have many posts about the city's markets. One of their favorites is Nang Leong, a venerable city market that is hidden away in one of the city's many urban neighborhoods. Built in 1899, it was one of the first markets that was not built on the canals. Over the century, it has remained the center of its neighborhood, but it disappeared from the city's travel literature and maps - don't expect to see any markers for it. Reading Eating Asia's tribute to the market on their blog and in an article on the Wall Street Journal, I decided I had to go in search of the market, spend at least an hour wandering around, and finding me some good eats.

I started out later than I had planned, as breakfast at chez Eugene had to be downed properly. My able host, his nephew, and a good friend all pooled their talents to make a homecooked meal, and I wasn't about to be a disrespectful guest. By the time I tore myself away from the comforts of my home away from home, it was 10 am, and the heat was on high. Mental debate ensued - take a cab or walk to the corner-get a motorbike to take me to the skytrain-take train till Victory Monument-then cab it to the Golden Mount?

One straight taxi ride later, I got off at the Golden Mount, a wat built in the shape of a mountain. It was extremely quiet and unburdened by tourists, and I would have spent more time there if I wasn't aware that I didn't know where the market was and had to do a hide and seek walk. I headed in the direction of the Royal Princess Hotel, which was on the corner of the area I had marked as the market's location. I was tempted to duck into the airconditioned hotel lobby to cool off after the short walk, but I persevered, and started to round the corner along the street. I saw a vegetable truck go into an alley, and figured whither goeth the vegies, there lies the market. My instincts proved correct as the tight road wiggled in and around the market. I soon found myself in the middle of Nang Leong, where no more than twenty vendors sold fresh fruits, vegetables, butchered pork and chicken; the rest of the market was taken over by food stalls, and the perimeter of the market was where family diners (for the lack of a better description) sold great bowls of noodle soups, curries, and all manner of thai food. I stopped inside one of the inner market stalls, and bought myself a plate of noodle salad made out of wide rice noodles, dried shrimps, a stew of chinese mushrooms, pork and tofu in a herby soup, topped with fried garlic, chives, and chilli. I ate my second breakfast at one of the metal tables, giving a smile at the older gentleman sitting diagonal to me. He returned the smile and began to chat me up. He was Dang (possible misspell in the name, but that's the closest phonetic rendition of his name), 65 years of age, and a longterm resident of Nang Leong. A retired civil servant, he proudly showed off the newly built market roof, and pointed to a corner diner for the best curries. He offered to get me a bottled water, but what I needed and bought was a glass of manao or slightly salty lime juice, my favorite refreshment after thai iced tea. We were sometimes joined by the beverage stand owner and his personable dog. The dog follows his owner to the market everyday and keeps watch over the tables. Dang helped me buy a guava as I headed off down the road towards the Democracy Monument, and I left Nang Leong happy with my short communion with Thai life.

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