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Getting schooled in Bangkok's Som Tham

Attempting to stomach a chili-laden local favourite can be challenging.



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Side of Fumes

That's another integral part of the Thai som tham experience — you're probably sucking up some fumes along with your meal. My favourite vendor is located a couple of blocks from the Saphan Taksin Skytrain station, close to the Chao Praya River. Typically for an operation like this, the cheap tables and plastic stools are set up in what is basically a motorbike parking lot. As I eat, a maneuvering motorbike comes inches away from my table before nimbly backing away. Shortly afterwards I notice a stealthy hand reaching for my shoulder bag, perched on a little stool behind me. It's no sneak thief — just a polite scooter pilot gently trying to squeeze his bike through this makeshift restaurant.

Actually this set-up is an oasis of calm compared to some. Street carts, those that offer seating at all, typically occupy little patches of sidewalk where diners jostle with everything and everybody. A Bangkok sidewalk is to its typical North American cousin as baroque opera is to Philip Glass. Once you get past the vendors who sell anything from mangosteens, to brooms, to ankle socks, the patio umbrellas and low ropes that tie canopies to nearby trees, the pushcarts, motorbikes, wandering blind singers led by guides, and the cook stands that marinate stretches of walkway with pungent aromas occasionally pleasant and just as occasionally gag-inducing, the space left for opposing streams of pedestrians can be narrower than the path to salvation. The experience is either hellish, or the whole point of your visit.

In the chaos of a Bangkok street you find your anchor points, such as a really good som tham vendor. A couple at the next table — a Thai woman named Wai and her German boyfriend Will — agree that this particular stand is run by an artist. "She's one of the best," says Wai.

Wai is from Bangkok. Like me, she has heard people express a preference for quieter, more tourist-friendly Chiang Mai. "Chiang Mai is nothing," she says with disdain. "Nothing. Bangkok has everything."

It's not for everybody. It's not even for me every single day. But there's more to Bangkok than any other city I know. There are even plenty of McDonald's if you're interested, and I notice those are popular with schoolgirls too. Takes all kinds to make a classroom.