Soup to Nuts

Travel Stories: Bangkok's Bangplee Market has everything Newley Purnell could ever want. Except one thing.

09.01.01 | 1:02 AM ET

Market, BangkokIt was lunchtime at the Bangplee Market, a sprawling compound on the outskirts of Bangkok, and my brother and I found ourselves at a food stand that was selling pork noodle soup. We ordered two bowls and sat down at a small table where two middle-aged Thai women were finishing their meals. They tried to conceal their amusement with us—a couple of lumbering, pale-skinned Westerners in a Thai market where mostly Thai people bought and sold mostly Thai goods. We nodded hello, and their smiles widened.

A few minutes later our soup was delivered. It smelled delightful—steaming noodles and ginger and tender pork. As my brother began tucking into his meal, I was beset with disappointment.

Chopsticks.

I don’t know how to use them. The Thai women eyed me. I looked down at the chopsticks. My stomach growled. My mouth watered. And my ego withered under their gaze. My first meal in Thailand was proving to be more difficult than I imagined. I was visiting my younger brother, Mechum, who teaches at an English-speaking high school in Bangkok. I’d arrived in The Land of Smiles earlier in the day, and neither my circadian rhythms nor my cultural compass had adjusted to life in Southeast Asia. My brother decided he’d show me a more traditional side of Thai culture, since he lived in a Western-style residential complex, so we were off to Bangplee.

It’s a bustling market where Thais sell their wares—foods of every stripe, electrical merchandise, clothing, trinkets, and more—in cramped quarters. From coconut juice (a coconut with a hole and a straw in it) to bootlegged European soccer jerseys to miniature tool sets, the market had it all. The spiky skins of mangosteen fruits pulsated purple; once torn open, they revealed a bright white interior. The bananas, on display in the sun, were a brilliant yellow. And the smells were overpowering. Sumptuous, succulent, mouth-watering chicken satay was roasting on an open pit with rich peanut oil glazing—and commingling with the assaulting odor of raw sewage. The best of life combined with the basest. Grilled chicken one minute, feces the next.

The proximity of both the merchandise and the people was dizzying. Merchants, customers, squealing children and stray animals were crammed into tiny passages, forming a labyrinthine network of tables and stands. I would’ve been unnerved had I not been so entranced. We rounded a dark corner of the marketplace and confronted an odd flickering of light surrounding a Buddhist offering. Resting on an altar a few feet off the ground, a plate of steaming food was haloed by small candles. An opportunistic mutt, mangy and ragged, had climbed up and was devouring the meal in unholy haste. We stared. The dog slowly lifted his head and stared back. We felt like intruders, so we moved on.

That’s when I noticed that Mechum and I were being inspected. Inquiring gazes followed us everywhere—from the furtive glance to the out-and-out ogle, we were being watched intently. It wasn’t a cruel sort of leering, though; it was entirely good-natured. It was only occasionally that they saw “farangs,” or Westerners, strolling through Bangplee’s confines. Three or four Thai girls, short, slim, and olive-skinned, followed us from stall to stall, snickering continuously.

“We’re causing quite a stir, Newley,” my brother said, grinning. He was used to this sort of treatment, but I wasn’t. All I could manage was a muffled “yeah.” And now, with the pork noodle soup and the chopsticks in front of me, I felt even more scrutinized. The Thai women’s stares were unrelenting.

I didn’t know then that Thais use both forks and spoons to eat most foods. I figured chopsticks were my only option, and that’s all we were given. I picked up the chopsticks and tried to scoop some noodles into my mouth. No dice. The noodles slid right off. And they kept sliding off again and again with every futile attempt. At one point, I’d nearly succeeded in lifting a particularly juicy nugget of pork into my mouth when, at the last minute, just as I was about to close my mouth around it, off it slid. The hot broth splashed up and stung my chin. I peered over at my brother. He was almost finished with his dish—and he couldn’t have been more oblivious of my plight. I considered notifying him of my ineptitude, but I figured doing so would only create a more noticeable scene.

Perplexed, I looked up again at the two women sharing our table. They were giggling, but trying to hide it. They didn’t want to be too obvious. And seeing them laugh at me only blunted my manual dexterity. A subterranean uneasiness began to well up inside of me.

I continued to look at the soup. Its aroma was so tantalizing that I wanted to bring the bowl to my lips and drink its steaming broth. But I thought that would be even more conspicuous than my inability to use the chopsticks. It was maddening; I was starving. Then I glimpsed some movement on my right. One of the women, her hand over her mouth in an attempt to smother her chuckling, had gotten up from the table and was walking away. My God, I thought, she’s laughing so hard that she has to leave. I was dismayed. Just as I was about to surrender, the woman returned. But she didn’t sit down. She leaned over and laid down a soup spoon.

It was shiny, dented, scratched and beautiful.

Although she didn’t understand a single word I said, I thanked my culinary savior repeatedly in English. Then I dissolved into nervous, giddy laughter. In some way, we had communicated. Or, more to the point, she felt compelled to help me. I was honored and elated. I seized the spoon and immediately—and effortlessly—devoured the best soup I’ve ever tasted.

Newley Purnell lives and writes in Washington, DC. His website is newley.com.