Think about Thailand. Did you visualize a tuk-tuk? Well if you didn’t you probably should have because tuk tuks are everywhere here in Thailand, along with the big open-back buses called songthaews. Songthaews are like public buses, and for about 20 baht they wind all throughout the city and stop whenever you press the button on the ceiling or yell to the driver.
It was on one of these festively painted songthaews where I met some of my first native Thai friends, and was dished my first taste of true Thai hospitality.
We spent 30 days in Hua Hin, a quaint beach city two-hours south of Bangkok, where I did my TESOL (Teaching English as a Second Language Course). Every morning, just as the giant red sun would rise in the sky (Southeast Asian sunrises are unspeakably beautiful), I would hop on a songthaew and ride into downtown to take my courses at the local school.
Our TESOL group had three songthaew drivers I saw every day.
Ah, what a perfect opportunity to practice my Thai, I thought. So I made it a point to attempt and talk with our drivers every day. At first our conversations were somewhat basic and painful…
“What’s your name?”
“How are you?”
But over the course of two weeks, I became really good at hand gestures and nods, and a friendship was forged between our songthaew driver, Tao, and myself.
“I come over tonight Justin,” Tao said, in heavily accented and broken English. It almost seemed more of a command than a question. Maybe he was as excited to hang out with me as I was with him – this was my first opportunity to hang out with some Hua Hin natives.
“I’ll keep the beer cold and ready,” I said.
Tao came over to our hotel that night, with the other two drivers from our TESOL group, Ghao, and Chang. Chang was Tao’s girlfriend, and Ghao was one of his best friends.
We sat by our hotel pool, drank beer, and laughed together. Tao had an authentic smile that was the epitome of friendly. He asked if I would like to go to dinner with him and his friends. Figuring out a time in our broken language skills was a challenging, quite funny experience, but after lots of clarification we finally agreed upon a 7:00 PM rendezvous.
Thai culture is all about sharing food, and when you go to a restaurant with Thai’s, more often than not, they will order many different dishes to share with everyone at the table. I love this style of dining because everybody gets to try all the different flavors, and many conversations can be inspired based on different reactions to the food. This style of dining is also perfect for a foreigner who wants to taste as much of the local food as they can possibly sink their teeth into.
Tao took me to my first Shabu-Shabu restaurant, also known as both hot-pot and moo yang Gaoli (literally Korean grilled pork). Shabu-Shabu is set up perfectly for the Thai dining experience. A hot metal grill is placed in the middle of the table, along with a pot of boiling soup broth. Hunks of fresh meat and green snapping veggies are thrown into the bubbling broth. A chunk of fat is thrown on top of the metal grill to help cook the slabs of meat, and many varieties of fried rice’s are divvied up into small bowls for everyone to sample the wide range of sweet and spicy sauces.
Thais will always ladle their guest’s bowls or pour their guest’s beers before their own. I found this humbling, and tried my best to mimic the hospitable gesture.
Out of gratitude my girlfriend, Krissy, and I paid for the feast, which was only 800 baht, or around $25 USD. The flavor was complicated, savory, and 100% delicious. By the end of the meal all of us were bursting open at the waistband, or
“Ihm Maak,” as they would say in Thai.
My friendship with Tao continued throughout the month. He took Krissy and I to a local market outside the city, where we sipped sweet Thai Soda in the blazing afternoon sun, and bartered over delicious fried fish. I taught our new friends how to play Gin Rummy, and they taught us how to play Pok Deng. We spent many more nights drinking big bottles of Leo beer by the pool.
The day before it was time for me to depart Hua Hin and head back to the crazy streets of Bangkok, I went out to dinner with Tao, Ghao, and Chang. Our Thai friends did all the ordering. Ornate plates of tangy salads came out, followed by salty fried meats, and spicy noodle and rice dishes.
For dessert the waiters brought out jelly based sweets, completely foreign to any western dessert I was used to. One of the strangest desserts I tried was a black, almost coke-like flavored jelly in a bowl that is eaten with ice. I found the textures of these desserts challenging to the pallet, but sweet in flavor and fun to eat.
This time our Thai friends covered the bill.
I was so grateful for all the hospitality our new friends had showed us. I gave Tao a picture with all of us together, and a note thanking him for being my first native friend in Thailand. He messaged me later showing a picture of the photo I gave him hanging up in his house. Tao was my first native Thai friend, and my first experience with true Thai hospitality.
The next day I boarded the van to Bangkok, excited about the future, and my fond new memories.