Where Food Drives Out Politics


Photos by Jarrett Wrisley

To view images of the food and people at the market described in this post, click here for a slide show.

In Bangkok, behind a busy gas station and beside a military base, there lies a parking lot. Most days it sits empty, as plastic bags dance across the cracked slab of concrete. They bounce between the ambitious plants that break it into smaller and smaller pieces.

But on Mondays and Wednesdays that barren lot comes alive. And for nearly a year I barely noticed, though it all happens at the end of my street.

This Thanksgiving will mark my first anniversary living in Thailand, I realized, as I was scouring this newly discovered spot. A year is a short time to live anywhere, but this year in Thailand has been different. Much has happened.

My wife and I were on one of the last planes to land at Suvarnabhumi Airport on November 26, 2008. We touched down just as waves of protestors, clad in yellow shirts and singing protest songs, seized it and squeezed a government out of office. Thailand has struggled to recover ever since.

"At the market, we put politics aside," said my Thai teacher Janet, "because it is one of the only times when you can escape it.

A few months later, the opposite end of this whirlwind of discontent spun out on the streets during Songkran, the Buddhist New Year. The opposing Red Shirts clogged the streets surrounding Government House in Bangkok. Thais on both sides watched on television as the Prime Minister's motorcade was attacked and shattered, as tanks rolled through Victory Monument, as soldiers fired warning shots over a seething sea of red.

Today, the leader of the Red Shirt movement and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra resides just over the border in Cambodia, the guest of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Now a domestic dispute has gone international, as Cambodia's appointment of Thaksin to the office of Economic Advisor threatens to upset ASEAN's (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations) shaky balancing act. The neighbors trade rhetorical blows almost daily. Meanwhile, Thailand's adored and aging King has recently been hospitalized.


Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

Two weeks ago, the yellows were out en masse, rallying against Cambodia's impertinence and pledging to protect the Thai monarchy. This Saturday, the reds will again attemptto overthrow the standing government, which has struggled to cement its own legitimacy. And a violent insurgency rages on in the deep south.

It's been a rough year for Thailand, and sometimes the divisions that split this nation seem too formidable to bridge. But myself, and many foreigners just like me, have no intention of leaving. Because for all of its political problems, Thailand remains an enchanting place to live.

My love for this country is born of small discoveries. By walking around my neighborhood, stopping to chat and snack, and exchanging smiles. By drinking iced coffee with old ladies, or medicinal whiskey with construction workers. And by taking part in a culture that celebrates a sort of kindness and courtesy that I have not experienced anywhere else. This grace is probably best expressed in markets--in places like that field of broken concrete, open twice a week, at the end of my street.

A few days ago myself and several friends went to eat at that Talaat Nat ("occasional market"), which sits at the crossroads of Nang Linchi and Yen Akat roads. And we found the sort of enterprise that binds communities here together, even as the political situation threatens to tear them apart. The pursuit of good food brings smiles and sanook (fun) to a country embroiled in a stifling political standoff.

"At the market, we put politics aside," said my Thai teacher Janet, "because it is one of the only times when you can escape it. Plus, we don't want to get upset when we're eating." About five minutes later, in the midst my language lesson, she got a text message. It was sent from her political party, and it made her frown. "It's been a difficult year. And it will probably get worse before it gets better."

But at the Talaat Nat you wouldn't think it. Perhaps a hundred vendors set up stands and pay a fee to the neighboring military base of about 70 baht each ($2). Then they cook food from all corners of this country. Like lemongrass and chili stuffed pork sausages from the northern city of Chiang Mai, fermented fish and salads swimming in fishy funk and spice from Isaan, and very sour and hot curries from down south.

Children giggle, and working class adults catch up on gossip. People bring their dogs, and dogs that don't belong to anyone follow people, snatching up scraps. And everyone seems to leave their politically charged clothes at home, wearing green, orange or blue aprons.

My friends and I got lost in the fragrant turbulence of it all, as vendors handed us chunks of cut fruit and deep-fried whitebait to nibble on (you might be able to eat a full meal for free here, with all the sampling you'll do). A man from the Northeast instructed me on how to grill a chicken inside a clay pot, as his wife jokingly tempted us with a dip of smashed chilies and field cockroaches.

As one shops it becomes harder to resist reaching into your bags, sampling your edible treasures. I discreetly munched on slices of crisp pork belly, chasing them with sections from the core of a fresh pineapple, and hoping my companions wouldn't notice. But they were all too busy doing the same thing.

It was time to go when our hands were full with food, and so we headed home with sticky rice, green curry, puffy pork rinds with a roasted green chili dip, a sour herbal soup, an omelet stuffed with threads of acacia leaves, and much more.

It was truly a meal to be thankful for, though it was marred by what we discussed at dinner. Next time I'll heed my teacher's advice, and save politics for dessert.