Bangkok is a city that doesn't only have restaurants. It is a restaurant. It may be the street food capital of the world.
I have been blessed with chances to visit most of the places you'd expect to hear mentioned if the Jeopardy category were "Gastronomic Capitals." But nothing I have seen before is quite like Bangkok. It used to be said that the streets in America were paved with gold. In Bangkok, they seem to be paved with cooking grills. It's as if the mythical horn of plenty spilled all its contents in Thailand. You don't need to make reservations for lunch. You just need to take a walk.
I took one on my first afternoon in Bangkok in the company of Timon Haringa, a Dutch expat who's been working as a freelance photographer in Bangkok for 17 years. Timon does a lot of catalog work, but in between shoots, he leads street photography walks for Photography School Asia. They're a great way to see the city and learn something new about photography.
Timon took us by subway to the city's main train station, and from there into the narrow warren of streets and alleys that make up Bangkok's Chinatown. Chinese Thais reputedly hang onto their property tenaciously enough that developers can't get their hands on it. So Chinatown hasn't been demolished and rebuilt in steel, glass and concrete the way so much of the city has. McDonald's, Starbuck's, KFC and 7-11 have consequently yet to gain a foothold as they have in other parts of town. When it comes to meeting the needs of casual diners, Chinatown does it the old-fashioned way.
Maybe there's some kind of permit system at work, or maybe cooks just squat on a likely piece of curb and sidewalk. The sidewalks are, of course, crowded already. So making your way along a Chinatown street is like making your way through a noisy, crowded kitchen. Cooks of all sizes and both genders work over open grills or hot fryers. They're cooking vegetables, fruits, noodles and meats of all kinds, sometimes on skewers, sometimes in patties, sometimes in bowls. On top of that, food is hardly the only commerce going on on the sidewalk. People are selling everything from sewing machines to coffins to amulets shaped like tiny penises that, I assume, safeguard the wearer's male potency.
When it's time to eat, a customer can grab his food and walk away with it. Or, if it's close to an actual meal time, the proprietor will open a folding table or two and somehow squeeze it into the chaos--an instant cafe that may never be featured in a Michelin Guide or even on TripAdvisor, but which may nonetheless offer great food.
It will almost certainly be fresh food, because Bangkok's streets also serve as food and grocery markets. When my kids were young, and I was in thrall to a certain Western squeamishness, I had a few rules I thought were necessary to assure civility at the family dinner table. One of the rules was, "No talking about what the food was before it was food." (PETA would doubtless say this was an effort to stifle my kids' natural horror at the non-vegan lifestyle I was inflicting on them. Perhaps PETA was right.) This rule would be hard to enforce in Bangkok. The origins of your food are much more apparent than they are in, say, my local Whole Foods Market. Sometimes this can be quite attractive, as in the array of cardboard boxes full of mushrooms in a mushroom vendor's place of business. Or a fruit vendor's stall full of mangoes, papaya, and dragon fruit. Or a spice vendor showing off the three key colors of Thai spice--red, yellow and green.
And, sometimes, it's less attractive, as when a pickup truck, horn beeping, pushes its way through the pedestrians in a market and comes to a stop, its cargo bed full of legs of something or other, with only the hooves detached. You can watch as a guy with a hand truck comes out and unloads the cargo, then wheels it a short distance to a grimy workbench, where he zealously whacks away at it with a greasy cleaver.
Therein lies the rub with Bangkok street food, and I am not talking about rubbing a leg of lamb down with a mixture of spices and herbs before grilling it. Sanitation precautions are not always evident around Bangkok street food. Sometimes you'll see a garden hose being used to wash down the equipment. Sometimes not. Even if you do, it's not entirely clear where the water in the hose is coming from. You have to hope it's not coming from the fetid canal by the market where you just saw a guy standing on the embankment taking a leak. A woman working in a little corner of the market prepares a bowl of noodles for a customer, then wipes her hands on a dirty towel. Next?
I have heard different opinions about whether a noodle-loving farang like myself would be well advised to step up and eat the next bowl. My friend Bruce Stewart is a frequent visitor to Thailand, and he tells me that he's never had a problem eating street food in Bangkok. But Bruce's daughter-in-law is Thai, and when he's in Bangkok, he's usually being escorted by someone from her family. I suspect that a local has ways of assessing the safety of a street food establishment that a tourist can only guess at. Others, including Timon Haringa, tell me they haven't indulged since an epic bout of food poisoning. So I am being a timid farang. I take pictures of Thai street food, but I eat in places with wait staff and tablecloths.