Arriving at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport long past 11:00 p.m. on a July evening, I transformed from a drowsy denizen of giant metal flying machines into a dazzled and grateful traveller, amazed to actually be standing on solid ground at my destination: Thailand. Like the magnificent red and gold doorway greeting placed to greet passengers stumbling in from the jetway, this handsome sala on the concourse reminded me that I was back in Thailand, where visual celebrations of Thai culture enliven everyday places and moments.
Murals like this vision of a lotus pond and another with a still life of mangosteens, durian, rambutan, pineapple, lychees and other Thai fruits lined the gleaming cavernous passageways leading into the main terminal. Had I not been on a moving sidewalk, I would have tried to photograph every one. The restrooms featured flourishing orchids, duplicating their lovely presence in the mirrors.
Even the boards informing passengers where our luggage could be picked up tickled me, with the listings of arriving flights. Nothing so familiar to me as Denver, Philadelphia, Boston, and Miami; there I was in a place where jets zoom in from Guangzhou and Hanoi, Seoul and Macau, Vientiane and Hong Kong, Manila and Singapore. I easily found my refrigerator-sized rolling suitcase, cleared customs speedy-quick, and found the taxi stand, where I was soon paired up with a driver who stowed it handily in the trunk of his small sedan and headed us off toward my hotel.
To my delight, the trunk of his taxi not only accomodated my massive suitcase but also held a sticky-rice serving basket, his old-school lunchbox, tucked over to one side. This pleased me: Some things continued as I remembered them from 37 years ago. The sparkling airport, the elevated expressway, and the highrise Bangkok skyline visible from the taxi confirmed that much had changed since 1978, when I departed from Bangkok’s original Don Muang Airport, at the end of my Peace Corps service in 1978.
The taxi driver’s lunch and the night markets we passed now and then as we sped through the city reminded me that while I had eaten fairly recently on the airplanes carrying me from North Carolina to Atlanta, to Tokyo, and then to Bangkok…..
….I had not dined to my heart’s delight, nor had I enjoyed even a morsel of Thai food. I considered asking the driver to drop me off at one of the night markets, but given my massive suitcase and carry-on’s, such nimble and spontaneous actions were not on the menu.
But once I arrived at my hotel, checked in, and got settled in my sixth-floor room with river view, I spied the Room Service Menu. And did I see the magic words, “24-Hour” Room Service Menu? I did indeed. This made me so happy. But what to choose? Laab Mu (minced pork salad with Thai herbs? Tod Mun Plaa (deep-fried fish cakes with cucumber salad)? or Gaeng Peht Beht Yahng (red curry roast duck)?
Well, none of the above, since the “Not available after midnight” caveat applied to my moment in time. But turning the page, I found the perfect supper, the ideal late-night Thai comfort food: kao tome, rice soup. Much as I love jook, Chinese-style rice soup made by slow-and-long-simmering of raw rice grains in lots of water to create a lovely porridge, I absolutely adore Thailand’s version, made by simmering cooked rice into a clear but hearty and comforting soup.
Kao tome comes with seasonings, some added and some on the side as kreung brung rote, or flavor-adjusters. Vinegar with chilies, fish sauce, dried ground red chilies, and sugar are the basic, standard offerings. My soup already ‘dressed’ up just right, with chopped cilantro, green onions, crispy garlic fried in oil, and minced pickled radish scattered on top, enhancing the finely chopped pork dropped into boiling water during cooking to make soup.
Even though kao tome is a meal in a bowl (especially popular with those recovering from or en route to a hangover), I ordered myself a plate of rice and nahm plah prik, fish sauce with finely chopped fresh hot chilis. My feast arrived in about 20 minutes, the amount of time it took to turn rice into kao tome. Finishing touch: a Singha beer, Thai-style, with ice, the way I like it, so the heat doesn’t warm it up.
While I ate my first meal back in Thailand, I thought of many late-night kao tome meals taken at the restaurants along the major highways, where air-conditioned Thai tour buses stop halfway through their all-night express runs in to Bangkok from up-country cities and towns. At first I found it odd that the buses stop around 1:00 a.m. at a designated restaurant and travel center, so that everyone can get off, shop a little, use the facilities, and then eat a bowl of kao tome which is included in the price whether you eat it or not. But what a good idea: The drivers can stretch and have a bit of ‘lunch’, and what a boost to my ability to fall asleep for the remainder of the trip, awaking just as sunrise informed us that the bus was nearly to our destination. So many good memories, often food-centered, each one leading me to another. It was after 2:00 a.m. by the time I set my tray out in the hall and went out to my balcony to enjoy the river view.
I can’t share my supper with you, but I can let you join me on the balcony of my hotel room for a taste of the sights and sounds of the Chao Praya River very late at night. Click HERE for a peek via my Vimeo files. I thought I was too excited to fall asleep, but once I turned off the light, I drifted in to a sweet, sound sleep. For me, kao tome works every time.