Thailand's Honky-Tonk Soul Food

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley



Last night, while wandering through the neighborhood of Soi Rangnam, the smell of fish sauce, lime juice and roasted chilies filled the air. This soi (a word that means 'lane' rather than 'road') is packed with Issan restaurants. According to my friend (and gifted cultural observer) Philip Cornwell Smith, this part of town is where the Northeastern (Issan) migrants who came to Bangkok for work used to live. While rent prices have forced many of the laborers out, their soulful food remains. And so does some of their music.

After a stroll, Philip and I ended up at a little bar called the Raintree Pub. The bar, toasted by years of smoke and spilled whiskey, is dark and charming. Buffalo skulls stare down long snouts from the ceilings. It's a time capsule -- a Thai-style honky tonk that time forgot.

Slowly, soulfully, they started to play pleng puer cheewit, an amalgamation of country, folk, blues and traditional Thai music.

At the Raintree last night, pairs of rugged women and trios of men sat in booths, sipping Thai Rum or Johnny Walker. Then the four-piece band came on, armed with guitars and accordions, a harmonica, a mandolin, a fiddle and a traditional instrument whose name escapes me. And slowly, soulfully, they started to play pleng puer cheewit, an amalgamation of country, folk, blues and traditional Thai music. People swayed and slowly danced, or picked through spicy salads and little fried bits of fish from the kitchen. An old lady went from table to table, selling peeled slices of pomelo and jackfruit.

Bangkok gets a bad name for a small portion of its nightlife. Rarely do you read stories about the other side of life after dark here -- the sensational, sleazy one is just too tempting for most writers. There's a world of live music bars, tiny cafes and bookshops, kooky hipster hangouts and riverside spots, where you can sit and watch the world float by.

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Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of greasy cheese steaks. More

Jarrett Wrisley hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he's been working as a writer in Asia, though he still dreams of (and occasionally returns for) greasy cheese steaks. Jarrett's first trip to Asia came as a college student, when he traveled to Beijing to study Mandarin Chinese. He returned to China after graduation, and began writing about Chinese food in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. After a six-month stint in Chengdu, he moved on to Shanghai, where he worked as a food critic and magazine editor for four years before striking out on his own. After six years in China, he recently moved to Bangkok, where yellow-clad protesters immediately shut down the airport where he had just landed. Luckily for him, he couldn't leave—and now intends to stay. Jarrett is presently working on a series of modern Chinese cookbooks with Hong Kong chef Jereme Leung and writing features that focus on food and culture in Asia. He'll be bouncing around the region as much as possible and writing about things he encounters along the way. His blog trains an eye on food but addresses other cultural phenomena, tidbits of travel, and the oddball politics of East Asia.
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