A tale of food, old stones and couch surfing
Oh mighty Buddha and all the Hindu gods combined, how much do I adore Thai food!
The big thing to be loved about Siamese cooking, particularly for a traveler, is its street food nature. Of course an haute cuisine incarnation of Thai cookery exists – the so called Thai Royal Cuisine – but its influence is fairly limited, especially if you compare how upscale dining shaped the tables of China or France. What is crucial to Thai food as a whole is how close to the people it is. There is hardly any solid boundary between home and restaurant food. It’s quick, it’s tangy, it’s colorful and fresh. You may say “simple” but you will think “brilliant”. What I have tried in Phimai (พิมาย) is a perfect example.
There is no better way to enjoy and explore local food than with natives. Couch surfing comes in hand here, a true vehicle of international friendship. During my traverse of Isan (i.e. northeastern Thailand) I stopped in several cities, always finding the lodging thanks to that website. In Korat I stayed with two young sisters and hang out with their pals. In Khon Kaen my host was a professional collectible figurines painter. Between those two cities I visited this smaller town of Phimai. I didn’t stay overnight – after a full day of sightseeing I was ready to take an evening bus further north – but I contacted a local couch surfer, Chatkamon, and we arranged to meet in a wonderful banyan tree grove, Sai Ngam (ไทรงาม). Next to it, there is a line of eateries gathered under a tin roof. How delicious is the food here! Just see my photos and die of envy.
There’s Phimai-style fried noodles (ผัดหมี่พิมาย), there’s papaya salad (ส้มตำไทย), and there’s larb (spicy minced pork, ลาบหมู). All these dishes or their counterparts can be found in other places around South East Asia, but they are truly classic in Isan. This region’s cooking traditions overlap with those of Laos. And what the Lao people eat protrude further north and is mirrored on the tables of the Dai people of southern Yunnan. Larb is a good example. I was very excited to try it here, in Isan, as Laos and Yunnan were my next destinations. I rubbed my hands knowing that I will soon be able to compare it in all three areas.
Thai cuisine is a melting pot of influences – Chinese cooking techiques coalesce with Indian ingredients, highland styles grade into the coastal ones, native fruits meet introduced vegetables. The history of the country is a melting pot as well.
First things first, in ancient times there were no Thais in Thailand. They arrived to these lands from what today is southern China by a slow process of migrations and conquests. Southeast Asian cultures were already Indianized by that time: ethnically Mon, Khmer and Malay, the major local powers were adhering to Hinduism and Buddhism. Tai-speakers joined the hodgepodge. This clash of civilizations commenced about one thousand years ago and culminated in 1238 when the sovereign Sukhothai Kingdom was established and rivaled the Khmer Empire. Before that happened, Phimai already existed and was an important Khmer city.
Phimai Historical Park (เชิญเที่ยวพิมาย) is the main tourist magnet of the town. After the meal, we jumped on Chatkamon’s scooter and went straight there. Time for a tasty piece of history!
The architecture of the ruins reflect that of the famous ancient Khmer capital of Angkor, 200 kilometers away. For those who haven’t been to Cambodia, this is a perfect occasion to experience the gloriousness of this bygone civilization and walk along the cold stone corridors together with ghosts of Animists, Buddhists, and Hindus which all addressed their prayers in the main temple.
After immensing ourselves in history, we can jump on the scooter again. The heart of the modern town beats in its central point, where the Clock Tower stands. Next to it, is Phimai’s main street market. Looking at it from the perspective of time, I will say that it was one of the most interesting markets I have visited in Thailand. It is small, but that makes it more tranquil. Vendors’ faces are adorned with big smiles and their stalls are so overwhelmingly colorful. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:
I was still full after lunch, but I could not resist buying some sweets, of which there were many to try.
The wonderful day came to an end. I bade farewell to Chatkamon and flagged down a bus to Khon Kaen. We have never met again, but we have maintained sporadic contact over the four years (!) that passed from the events described above. She lives in Germany now and we chat from time to time on Messenger. Most recently… today! She helped me with the spelling of the names of dishes for this text. Dishes we had together in those ancient, ancient times of four years ago. Thank you!