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February 28, 2013

Local Voices from Around the Globe: The most modest places in Thailand are the most vibrant

By Zak Aldridge
Cooperstown Crier

---- — As a curious exchange student always seeking adventure in Thailand’s distinctive culture, I’ve discovered that it isn’t at all hard to find colorful street life. 

The bold expedition into the city’s real culture requires only an appetite, a friendly disposition and

a bit of luck. Like any exciting place, the real Thailand lies off Main Street, where the guidebook’s pages seldom go and where word-of-mouth is the guide. That’s where the real adventures begin. It is here that I’ve discovered the Thailand I was itching to become acquainted with before beginning my exchange.

Looking forward to my exchange year I wasn’t craving shopping malls and super centers, restaurant chains or other established Western institutions in Thailand. I’ve always been more interested in the less mainstream life — that of mapless, exhilarating travel. Second-world places such as Thailand are perfect for those who wish to escape civilization as we know it, to get off the grid and dive into an untouched, unique and exciting world. And why not? There is so much to explore and, as I’ve found, most of it is delicious.

Street food has proved to be the largest incentive to explore the more remote parts of Nakhon Si Thammarat, my city. In itself, street food embodies exactly what it means to release one’s inhibitions in order to derive the most satisfaction from an exotic place. It’s not usually clean, the best of it isn’t hard to find and it’s always satisfying. The prices of Thai sidestreet snacks, also, are just too reasonable to pass up. After three bags of soft drinks (yes, they come in bags), more than a few styrofoam bowls of noodles and maybe an ice cream or two, I’ll fearfully check the remainder of my cash to discover I’ve only spent the equivalent of about six American dollars. My mantra: Eat until the money for the ride home is put into jeopardy, then come back tomorrow. All that having been said, the taste and the bargain of this food aren’t the only things that motivate my alternative ventures through the places that Fodor’s missed.

The less-conventional cuisine that I hunt for is only part of the thrill that city wandering provides. Human interaction, to me, is just as tantalizing as the pungent curry simmering on the stove behind the counter — it is the lifeblood of exchange student success. As a teenaged foreigner with the ability to communicate using the Thai language (which makes me even more conspicuous), meeting new people happens about as often as one eats rice with a meal. I meet untold numbers of people in a given day’s travels and rarely are any of the encounters unpleasant. The people I chat with are ordinary people, shop owners and peddlers — people more than willing to divulge the whereabouts of the city’s best kao mok gai, Islamic style chicken and yellow rice, or to complain about the ever-present heat or sometimes both: “Eat here, it’s too hot to walk down there.”

Yes, I’ve become a bit of a street food connoisseur. Local roti vendors all over town know my order (roti is a magical Indian-inspired dessert that consists of fried dough, bananas and sugar, as do many magical things) and I’ve made many friends and contacts in the process. People I have — or have not — met wave to me as I walk on the street or ride on the back of a moped. My satisfaction in exploring new places and meeting new people comes in large part from the Thai culture of hospitality and outward warmth that, like the food, can be enjoyed anywhere, anytime.

Just as the best of New York City isn’t always found where the brightest lights shine, the best of Thailand is “off-Broadway” too. I’ve been quenching my thirst for urban exploration under that Smash Mouth philosophy of: “So much to do, so much to see, so what’s wrong with taking the backstreets?” and that is what has been behind my best adventures in Thailand. But have I experienced my best adventures? I’ve still got four months to live here!

Zak Aldridge is a junior at Milford Central School. To read more from him, visit eightabovetheequator.wordpress.com.