Snackpolitik: Protesting in Thailand

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

"Bai Tam Ngep Rat-Ta-Ban, krap!" (To Government House, please!) I politely ordered the taxi driver, in my unsteady Thai, last Saturday in Bangkok. His cab, festooned with soft-focus photos of the monarchy, was also tricked out with flashing purple lights. Behind mirrored sunglasses he smiled politely and rotated his hand like he was fanning himself. "No...sorry...cannot" he said, in clipped English.

So I stepped out of the cab and through the curtain of heat, approaching a motorbike taxi (Bangkok's most expedient, and precarious, form of transport). I repeated the phrase to the bike driver, who beamed, reached beneath his seat, and extracted a bright red vest for the occasion. Soon we were zipping through the leafy Dusit neighborhood, slicing past taxis, toward the seat of Thailand's political power. My driver laughed the entire way --"Thaksin, good! Haha!" as my stomach growled. I was hungry.

Last week found Thailand in the throes of political turmoil once again. Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister in exile, continues to rally his supporters from abroad via phone-ins and televised conferences. He is on the run and believed to be in Africa at the moment. Thaksin is trying to avoid extradition here, where he has been convicted on corruption charges, and faces a two-year prison term.

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

Surprisingly, this has done little to damage his popularity, particularly in the north and northeast of the country. Last week, he called on his supporters to surround Government House and demand the resignation of present PM Abhisit Vejjajiva and the dissolution of his Democrat party, which came to power after the well-publicized siege of the airports last November.

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Uncertainty is a constant in Thailand's fluid political realm. But there are other, more pleasing constants in the chaos. Like the fact that if you attend a Thai protest, you will leave well-fed. The red shirts, as Thaksin's supporters are called, are a down-home bunch--blue-collar workers, farmers, urban street food vendors, and motorbike taxi drivers like mine. Thaksin has engaged in a grassroots populism that pits the interests of these kinds of people against that of the perceived Bangkok Elite.

Did I mention that these people like to eat? Much of the food I found at the rally reflected the upcountry roots of Thaksin's support base. Isan (Northeast) dishes, like chicken or pork larb -- a salad of hand-chopped meat and offal that is cooked for a flash in fish sauce and lime juice, then tossed with mint, dried chili, coriander, and toasted ground rice -- was everywhere, along with fiery papaya salads.

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

Isan sausages, which have a sour, fermented tang ("like pork and sauerkraut all in one," according to a friend) and are punctuated by stinging garlic, sat looped over slowly smoldering coals. Fatter Chiang Mai sausages, stuffed with coriander, garlic, shallots, and slivers of kaffir lime leaves and lots of fatty pork, were drooped lazily over another cart. That's where I began.

Just behind the main stage, where men in cowboy hats and red golf shirts riled up the crowd, I met Pet, who had traveled here from Ubon Ratchathani, in Isan, to sell his fried chicken. "I love Thaksin, and he helps country people," he explained, while deftly working two large woks, tongs in each hand, plucking fragrant chunks of fried chicken from the bubbling oil. Interestingly, he marinates his chicken in tumeric and fish sauce, in the southern style, and calls it "Hat Yai Fried Chicken," after a town that straddles the border with Malaysia. I presume this passes for exotic in the arid Northeast.

There were also countless squid-men, dressed in red, grilling dried squid on the back of bicycles and rolling it through a mangle that tenderizes the meat. Further along, I passed a spread of my favorite snack, kanom jeen. Women sat behind a long table filled with accoutrements: sword beans, sprouts, tamarind leaves, pickled radish, hard-boiled eggs, Thai basil, and more. They looked like a panel of judges overlooking the stage, but they were simply eating lunch, which consisted of soft, fresh rice noodles piled high with a fragrant nam ya curry of minced fish, to which they added their own, improvisational salads. I cast my vote there too.

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Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

Thaksin was born in the northern city of Chiang Mai, but he can trace his roots back to China, like many Bangkokians. (The Chinese headed to Siam to trade several hundred years ago, and many decided to stay.) Much of the food here reflects the Chinese heritage of Bangkok, though it has been altered to suit the spicy, sour, and sweet proclivities of the people. And at the protest, there was some of that, too. Like Khao kha moo, a dish of pork shank slowly braised in soy, cinnamon, star anise, and sugar that bears an uncanny resemblance to Shanghai's sweet and fatty tipang. The silky meat is slipped from the bone, smacked flat with the side of a cleaver, then sliced, and served over short-grain rice with a sour and spicy green chili sauce. As I finished this dish, the heat and the clamor of the protest started to take hold.

On my way out, a man in red Ray-Ban sunglasses, with thinning hair and very long fingernails, invited me to sit down beside him on his mat. He looked oddly familiar, and then I realized he was a schoolteacher I had interviewed months before...the last time the government fell. "Welcome back!" he said, and cleared a space for me to sit.

Then, as if on cue, his wife handed me a bowl of creamy coconut milk ice cream, served in the husk of the nut. I stayed a bit longer, listening to the country music rising up behind me, and the political rhetoric in front. Soon, it would be dinnertime.