Photo by Martin Westlake
Writer David Thompson shares his favorite parts of living in Bangkok's Dusit neighborhood.
Name: Tanongsak “Dtong” Yordwai
Neighborhood: Dusit, Bangkok, Thailand
Occupation: Dtong is a chef and the partner of Australian chef and writer David Thompson. Together they opened the Michelin-starred Nahm restaurant in London, and a second branch in Bangkok. The two also collaborated on Thompson’s Thai Food (Ten Speed Press, 2002), perhaps the definitive work on the subject, as well as Thai Street Food (Ten Speed Press, 2010)
When David and I moved back to Bangkok after being abroad, we found a place in Dusit, in the north of the city. Life here is simple, people know each other, and together we share a belief about the real way of life in Thailand.
In this village—Thais call a neighborhood a village, even when we’re in Bangkok—you get to know a lot of people through food. Food and friendship; these are difficult to separate. If you walk into a modern shopping mall in Bangkok, you know no one, not a single thing about anyone. In this community we do know each other, and because of that you get a deeper sense of Thai culture. You can talk to anyone and you can eat with anyone. It’s about relaxing and taking things slowly. Tasting. Smelling.
The National Assembly and Government House are here, and a lot of government workers and some members of the royal family order food from the same shops where I eat. Any vendor in a tourist place can serve food and not care; in my neighborhood—in the markets and in shop houses and on the sidewalks—if you serve something bad, you lose face. There are only a few things worse than that.
I can go for a bowl of noodles in the style of Ayutthaya, the former Thai capital north of Bangkok, with a stock flavored with galangal and pepper and star anise. That same place served 600 bowls at a royal funeral a few years ago. Everywhere you go, you wander and you snack and you chat. So do palace guards and members of Parliament.
Start with a plate of pad thai at Krua Ba Cha-Am, my favorite spot for fried noodles done the old way—less sweet and much spicier than you find elsewhere, sharper and simpler. They taste like the kind of pad thai that was cooked 30 years ago. You should walk around without looking at your map and “get lost” in this neighborhood. You’ll discover beautiful buildings like the Vimanmek Palace, full of Thai artifacts, and Suan Kularb, where I once saw the crown princess cooking omelets to raise money for the Red Cross. After a long walk through Dusit’s markets and along canals, you might get hungry again. In that case, eat at Krua Apsorn. Make sure you try their dry curry, full of sweet crabmeat, and their yellow curry (kaeng luang) with crisp lotus shoots, sour tamarind, and shrimp paste.
When the king’s sister used to eat here, they’d hang a curtain in the corner so no one could see her. But everyone knew she was there, and why. That’s my village, a place where everyday people and royalty head for a taste of old Thailand.
I come often to this wat, also known as the Marble Temple. It was built by King Rama V in 1899. It’s one of the loveliest in the city, but it’s less crowded with tourists than wats farther south in Bangkok.
To find the best pad thai stall, go out the back door of the Sri Yan market, continue past the motorbike queue, and look for an open-air restaurant painted bright pink. Or ask the locals, ‘Raan pad thai yuu tii nai?’ (Where is the place that sells pad thai?) Thanon Sri Yan, just behind the Sri Yan market.
The place to go for curries—with lotus shoots or with crabmeat—Krua Apsorn is a favorite restaurant for me and for some members of the royal family. The decor is not very exciting, but the food is.
I like to come here to get off the noisy street—it’s great for an evening stroll along the canals. The leafy park holds the world’s largest teakwood house, completed in 1901 and once home to King Rama V. The mansion gives an idea of what Bangkok’s royal life might have been like a century ago.
Around lunchtime, near the back door of the Sri Yan market, you’ll see Lan Taw Toon set up her array of simple treats—shaved ice, palm sugar, and coconut cream with a variety of colorful toppings. She has been making the same old-fashioned Bangkok dessert for 47 years.
This residence was built for a son of King Rama V and is one of many royal properties in the center of Dusit. If you’re lucky you’ll come across a palace festival, an exhibition, or a market selling Thai snacks and handicrafts here.
The old Chinese market, its shop houses painted in bright colors, is one of Bangkok’s most beautiful and fun. As you wander, let your eyes search for crowded noodle stalls, try the famous sweets, or browse stands selling fresh vegetables and seafood. It’s best to go before 1 p.m. You might see a Chinese opera performance on the stage inside the market.
>> Next: The AFAR Guide to Thailand
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