Text by Dylan Eitharong. Art by Stephen Michael Haas.
When I think of Bangkok, I think of Bangrak.
I don’t have family living in that area of the city, and it’s not particularly cool, or hip, so my friends and I don’t spend our nights dancing or hitting up bars there. It is, however, the first part of the city I got to see not from a taxi leaving the airport. In fact, it’s the first place my feet touched Thai soil. Or cement. Whatever you want to call it. I was 24 years old.
It’s the first place my feet touched Thai soil. Or cement.
When you arrive in Bangkok, make sure you do so at night. And make sure you bring something to make you go right to sleep. (Read – drugs. REREAD – Legal drugs. Or you’ll go to Thai prison, and die.) This isn’t because you need to get your body adjusted to the time difference, and deal with the almost flu-like jet lag (which you should deal with, but separately); but because you need to sleep, and then you need to wake up – early. Don’t try and arrive in the morning – you’ll miss it. Arrive in Bangkok at night, go straight to your hotel in Bangrak district, and sleep, so when you wake up at 5 in the morning, you can step outside and smell.
Take all of it in.
(If there is one smell that immediately takes me back to Bangkok – it’s pla raa – that is, a stinky, funky fermented fish sauce used in a plethora of dishes, but in Bangkok it’s usually the indicator of a Som Tam – papaya salad – stand. It’s EVERYWHERE, and while it’s not necessarily a good smell, whenever me or my team use the stuff in our own cooking, I’m immediately transported home.)
The first thing you’ll notice is charcoal. The second is gasoline. One is coming from grilling. One is coming from the exhaust pipe of a motorbike, of which there are hundreds. The first smell is coming from one of an endless amount of street food vendors starting their day. Time waits for no one in this city, and people are hungry. Things must start early.
Follow the smell of the charcoal, and the gasoline, tailing closely behind a motorbike driver down Charoen Keelung road, and you’ll begin to smell something else: Jok.
Jok (pronounced like “joke” with a sort of cough), is little more than boiled rice, cooked over charcoal until it becomes a white, smoky sludge. And there’s pork. Lots of pork.
Time waits for no one in this city, and people are hungry. Things must start early.
The Jok that your nose will lead you to (mine did) in Bangrak is the decades-old Jok Prince, and their version is the best version in Thailand. In a country with a cuisine not known for its breakfast options (as there are…very few, aside from hotel versions of American and European standards), Jok is one of life’s great culinary pleasures, most often enjoyed in the early morning.
The version at Jok Prince is cooked in a rich, clear pork stock that picks up the smoky flavor of the charcoal that it’s cooked over, and filled with more pork – intestines, liver, and rough meatballs the size of ping pongs.
The first time I went to Bangkok, I was completely overwhelmed. Also confused. But not in a bad way.
Since I grew up in the states, I thought I was familiar with Thai customs and culture, but being there for the first time really changed me. It was strange, especially because I’d always considered myself very Thai. But nope. I felt like a complete foreigner. The one thing that was immediately familiar to me was the food – I knew what every dish was from looking at it, I knew the names, how to order them – because I’d spent so much time in my late teens and early twenties educating myself on them. As with any culture, food became the element of bonding between me and other Thai people – more specifically, my family, whom a lot of which I was meeting for the first time. That’s also what keeps me going back. To learn more about it, so I can keep having these connections.
One of my favorite things about Bangkok is that it almost feels like three different cities – there’s Bangkok in the morning, Bangkok in the evening, the slightly sinister late night Bangkok – all of which are totally different and unique in their own ways.
There’s Bangkok in the morning, Bangkok in the evening, the slightly sinister late night Bangkok.
The first three times I went, it just felt like I was visiting this magical place where my family was. Now, after living there for a few months, it feels like a home to me. I have friends there. I have favorite spots to eat. I do normal things on most days – watch TV with my aunt, cook dinner for the house, go get coffee at my favorite shops. It’s a really wonderful feeling.
Dylan Eitharong founded Bangrak Thai Street Kitchen (@bangrakthaistreetkitchen), which ran from 2016 to 2019 in Orlando, Florida.
Stephen Michael Haas is an artist based out of Pennsylvania.