A strict diet of Buddhas and blood

Buddha in a field of columns - Sukhothai, Thailand
Buddha in a field of columns | Photo by Lauren Girardin

I was curious about the literal translation of tom yum goong, which I understood simply as Thai spicy prawn soup based on what was in my bowl. Goong was easy: “prawn,” which our friend Crissy, the marine biologist, and other authorities will tell you to avoid eating in Asia, because of industry-related environmental horrors. Tom, was a little harder to unearth, but near enough means “boiled” or “soup.” So far, my understanding seems spot on.

Yum, however, proved more mysterious, defying a succinct one-word-for-another translation into English when soup is concerned. The most tantalizing meaning of yum is the balanced mix of the four Thai flavors – sweet, salty, sour, and spicy.

Yum, a balancing act. How many of my travel experiences can be metaphored by this bowl of soup? Even my eating of the soup is itself an example of a balancing act. Because of eco-guilt, I don’t normally eat prawns, but over such a long time in Asia, one inevitably, occasionally fails miserably at ethical commitments, especially involving food. My behavior (and misbehavior) is a balance of desire, logic, willpower, and circumstance.

Is looking for meaning in a bowl of soup a clue that I’ve been traveling too long? Next thing you know I’ll compose haiku about the symbolic beauty of rice, or to be even more travel blog cliché about it, I’ll write a post titled, “The Top Ten Asian Food Metaphors.”

Soup aside, the southbound road awaits.

A hint of Buddha - Sukhothai, Thailand
A hint of Buddha | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Todd and I have to head back to Bangkok to renew our Thailand tourist visas, which were only granted for a two week stay due to an inexplicable and frustrating policy change that happened the day before we made our land crossing at the Cambodia-Thailand border.

Before leaving beloved Chiang Mai, we sit down at a touristy dive for a quick, cheap lunch, a surprisingly tasty meal since the cook doesn’t skimp on the heat in the tom yum goong. As our spice-caused sweat mixes with the ever-present weather-induced schvitz, we chat with Rachel and Katie, two proud-to-be Aussie girls. Todd and I have been atypically indecisive about which Buddhist sites to visit during our limited time left in North Thailand and, conveniently, one of our lunch mates is an archeology student. With her effusive endorsement of highly restored but still enjoyable Sukhothai and Ayuthaya, we are ready for some ruins.

Pink lilys and orange fallen petals - Sukhothai, Thailand
Lilys and fallen orange petals | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Especially in comparison to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, both Sukhothai and Ayuthaya are quietly desolate. This is a state no doubt exacerbated by the insane heat. Both are also one-horse towns, with just one activity for visitors looking to feed at the tourism trough. In Sukhothai and Ayuthaya, it’s all about the wat.

When I wasn’t in the chemistry lab during college, I cozied up in the darkened lecture halls of Asian Art classes. So, for me, the more Buddhas, the better. Our too few days in Sukhothai and Ayuthaya are spent biking from wat to wat, ogling more Buddhas than people who aren’t artsy-fartsy could probably stand. But even the creatively dormant would pause in front of the 40 feet tall Buddha of Wat Sri Chum, enchanted by a soft snow of gold leaf, worn free from Buddha’s long fingers by the rubbing hands of the faithful.

Gold leafed fingers of Buddha - Sukhothai, Thailand
Gold leafed fingers of Buddha | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Maybe it’s a combination of Todd’s absurd luck, our urge to explore until our feet hurt, and that we ask a lot of questions, or simply that there seem to be as many festivals in Thailand as people, but in both towns, we find that, as wonderful as the days at the temples are, it’s the nights where Sukhothai and Ayuthaya flaunt their festive stuff.

In Ayuthaya, we screech our squeaky bikes to a halt when we spot a temple bursting with lights and people. Inside the grounds, we’re treated to another unforgettable performance of mercilessly perky Thai pop, this time with a couple of cute cross-dressing boys added into the backup dancer mix. Between sets, we watch kids flounder on a bounce house in the shadow of a sedate temple, and snack on perfect versions of Thailand’s consummate street foods: sweet-sour pad thai and sweet-salty kanom krok, miraculous balls of warm coconut pudding, encased in a crackling thin crust.

Temple festival pop performance - Ayuthaya, Thailand
Temple festival pop performance | Photo by Lauren Girardin

In Sukhothai, we sip Singha beers at a bar with a view that encompasses the sunset as well as a motorcycle gang’s pre-ride preparations. As the last of the day’s light fades rather undramatically, the sound of drums and gongs approaches. The street below is soon filled with parading dancers, costumed bands, and winding Chinese dragons. After chugging our beers like responsible budget backpackers, we rush to follow the parade.

Dragon act at a street festival - Sukhothai, Thailand
Racing dragon at a Thai festival | Photo by Lauren Girardin

We’re led to a large intersection, already filled with thousands of Thais and the occasional, very confused farang (foreigner). After an hour of impressive, circus-style performances, we reluctantly leave because hunger hits. We satisfy ourselves silly across town at an entirely different festival, with food vendors lining both sides of the street. We try to model the locals who hunker around tabletop beer towers, nibble on grilled dried squid, and slurp from bowls of kway chap, a soup aromatic with star anise, pepper, cinnamon, and congealed blood.

While I consider congealed blood – or any blood, congealed or free flowing, for that matter – to be an unwelcome ingredient in any meal, in any country, at any time, the enthusiasm of the crowd and the proud smile of the little old lady ladling the soup induces me to give it a try. Besides, the soup also contains succulent bits (shoulder? ears? tripe? knuckle?) of stewed meat (duck? pork? soylent green?), half a hard boiled egg, wonderful chili, and slivers of deep fried tofu puffs. Picking around the cubes of blood, I pretend that what I’m eating is perfectly yummy. And, suddenly, it is.

Photos from Sukhothai and Ayuthaya, Thailand

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.