By Brian Steinbach
Stepping out of Super English onto the sidewalk I glance left towards the river and a small shop I’ve privately named “the Super English Corner Sweet Shop.” This instinctive look left occurs because I’m hungry, and at some point over the last month my stomach has internalized the fact that the “Super English Corner Sweet Shop” is not known for their fine motorbike repair services. But my destination is the Sanjou Night Market just a couple streets over. So I turn right instead and locate my shoes among a couple dozen children’s shoes and a handful of teachers’ shoes.
Continuing on down the street, I take the first left and look for a break in traffic to avoid walking by the mesmerizing allure of a pastry shop whose well-lit display window demands the kind of rubber necking typically reserved for absurd spectacles and horrible roadside wrecks.
Finding a break, I cross the busy evening traffic and continue up the street right into one of the four mouths that funnel into to the Sanjou Night Market. Nearly three months into my stay in Surat, the atmosphere that wholly envelops me when I walk into the night market has only slightly diminished. Cart after cart of Thai vegetables and fruits still widen my eyes in curiosity. Tables and racks holding affordable and neat (sometimes just hilarious) clothes and other trinkets have me constantly contemplating whether or not to pull out my wallet. Rolling-kitchens line the small streets in every direction, effectively playing a giant and dizzying game of tug of war where my nose is the rope. And while all my senses are being weighed and tested, the heart of the market itself- the people- propels me along.
Thinking back on my first trip to the Sanjou Night Market, I must have gone from one end of the market to the other and back again without managing to stop for more than a few moments. Between sensory overload and the ever-constant bustle and flow of the market’s patrons, I was just struggling to find my footing.
That’s not the case tonight. Tonight I know what I want, and I know where to put my feet to get there. Passing all of the increasingly familiar carts and shops along the way, I contemplate how little I think about all the conversations I can’t understand. They make up the ambiance of a living and breathing entity. I catch a Thai word here and there I know, but almost everything is tuned out. How strange would it seem, almost three months later, to be able to understand a table conversation adjacent to my own?
Still making my way through the crowded market aisle, I see my stop ahead. The small cart standing at the edge of the market path has a small yellow sign dangling perpendicular to the market traffic. Directly under the sign, the table holds brown cooked eggs and various prepared greens whose names still remain a mystery to me. I call them delicious, and that’s enough. To the left of these greens are a couple of chickens and other prepared meats resting inside a vertical display case. Behind the cart are containers of steamed rice, and a vat of soup with steam rising out. Nearly there, I hear young voices shout “TEACHER BRIAN!” Sure enough, passing me on the right is a group of matthyom students who – I should note – I never would have recognized as three of my one thousand Suratpittaya students had they not called out in excitement. But it’s just a moment. I wave; say “hello” and we pass each other. They are happy to have been noticed, and that’s enough.
Finally reaching the cart, I’m greeted by a familiar smile and greeting (in English), “hello teacher.” I return with “sa-wat dee krap”, and his smile widens to the mutual amusement of our inverted greeting. He nods for me to go inside the three-walled building that might resemble a garage if it weren’t for the bustling night market parked at its doorstep. I sit at an empty table facing back out at the night market traffic, and wait for one of the three servers to bring my food out. This particular night market stop is typically busy, and tonight is no different. With about a dozen tables in this particular market stall, only one other table is empty, most holding four to six people at each table. The ceiling is high, so the otherwise small quarters of the room don’t seem quite as tiny as they might otherwise feel.
My view of the passing night market patrons through the opening at the far end of the building is a bit mesmerizing. Watching people passing by, looking at tables and peering into shops inquisitively, they quickly disappear past the opposite wall’s line of sight. Occasionally I’ll catch sight of one pointing into the shop at me (the “farang”). I’m still wearing my work clothes, so I like to think that I’m not often taken for a tourist, but it’s pretty much impossible to achieve any sort of invisibility in Surat Thani. Some compare it to being a celebrity. I compare it to being a “HELLO” and pointer finger magnet.
Watching the people in the market pass by in search of their own fancies, I almost don’t notice when a very stern looking Thai woman brings my food on a tray. She sets it down, placing my plate of steamed chicken over rice and greens in front of me, lifting the three small accompanying bowls with soup, a brown dressing sauce, and a yet smaller bowl of pepper sauce. I say “kob koon crop” and her otherwise stern face sneaks a quick half-smile as she returns to serving.
Sparing you the details of the actual consumption, I should note the urge to eat with a fork over the traditional Thai spoon is still an instinct that’s been hard to damage. I know that whereas many westerners think of a spoon as a kind of food shovel, Thai people see using a spoon as a more delicate and preferable over the barbaric fork (stabbing I guess?). Still, I’m constantly fumbling with my fork and spoon, trading hands instinctively until I get it “right.”
It’s not long before my soup bowl and plate are empty. I don’t sit long, partially because I worry that I could be taking up a new customer’s seat, and partially because part of me wants to go hop back into the heart of the market. I go up to the cart and pay my forty-one baht, and say “kob koon crop” again, and look out at the passing flow of the market. It could take me left to contemplate dessert vendors and potential future dining opportunities. Or it might take me right to even more foods, desserts, and clothing stalls. Ultimately, I’m pushed right, which leads me past two doughnut shops, one of which I stop at, and my final destination- my pedal bike, and then home.