It’s 6:00 AM and Kermit and myself squint into oncoming headlights. Predawn glow and peachy blotches in the Thailand sky almost make us forget we’re running along a highway. Occasional gulps of coarse exhaust cough us up back into reality. The run might be wholly real or wholly imagined and the ambiguity is dream-like.
A half-mile later, we turn and merge into the market’s melee. We slip past trucks, bicycles and motorbikes with every imaginable attachment contraption, loading and unloading produce, meats, fish, gas tanks, storage containers, fragrant unidentifiables. They all off-load garbage into the same row of dumpsters – a woman with a mask and a non-metaphorical ten-foot pole shoves and packs it into the bins. A young Thai in his black “RUN BKK” t-shirt waves hello as he slides the slices of pork that he’ll be grilling all day onto wooden skewers. Kermit and I return the happy hello and switch off tentative leads through the next dice game of an intersection.
We duck down a dense path of stalls that squeezes like an alley and smells like fresh fish. Stands show off the catch from the Chao Phraya, the river running through the small city of Singburi – muted-pink open fillets, whole fresh fish winking early good morning at you, scales still dripping, others dried crisp, wafting a salty huff up your nose and landing an ocean in the back of your mouth. Tiered green wooden stalls hold broccoli, cabbage, mushrooms, morning glory, satsumas, three-inch bananas and an array of purples, whites and greens from the fusion genre between squash, eggplant and cucumbers. Vendors grin behind matter-of-fact pig’s heads, whole or quartered, and mountains of garlic pop up in the mix. We file by motorcycles, noting their ever-impressive ratios of family members to wheels. Admittedly, we slow the pace to inhale early breakfast smells; we watch Singburians swapping Baht at grocers and stalls that each seem to mimic a single aisle of a department store. The alley springs us out one long Thai block from a small conventional mall with a KFC but more Singburians opt for the fish-lined causeway. KFC is far more expensive and who would turn down all the cheery morning hellos we just got.
On the corner one block off of the Chao Paraya, the slight 30-something man at the smoothie stall is watching YouTube on his phone with headphones in, as he does most mornings around dawn. He smiles as the three dogs that have adopted his turf perk up and take a few steps to follow us. We jog up the couple of steps to the river and follow the built-up walkway along the bank until time, hunger or exhaustion sends us back in through town. On the route back, we pass the open air restaurant from the night before.
I’d thoroughly mangled my attempts to order vegetarian food of any sort but ended up with a salty-sweet plate of sautéed morning glory. The woman helping us communicate was a star.
My friends skillfully manage to get themselves some Tom Yam and we celebrate starvation averted. We swap congratulations and challenges to confront the one uncharted bowl of green peppercorn soup on the table. Soon, we notice a Thai family a few tables away singing word-for-word English Happy Birthday. Of course we impose and join in; the family seems appreciative and they soon walk over to our table to share Oreo birthday cake. Thank you to Nabisco for facilitating cross-cultural exchanges.
The highlights of my time in Singburi proper (think state capitol or county seat) were trips to the night market and meeting the governor of the province.
The market gathers food stalls and other folks hawking whatever you could ask for. It pops up a couple nights out of the week in an established covered area that empties out completely during the day. I got a sturdier handle on discussing vegetarian food by the time I was foraging at the market and was totally taken, of course. The best of the best include: smoky-sweet coconut and flour patties that roast in banana leaves; many mushroom soup with fresh herbs that comes in a plastic bag like much street food but thankfully also with a bowl; smoothies; crickets if you’re into that; and fried rice flour dumplings stuffed with morning glory or green bean approximations. An order of this last dish comes with an awesome Thai street food innovation: dipping sauce in a tiny plastic bag, tied air-bubble tight, and a little wooden skewer to pop a tiny hole in the corner. Totally nifty. Applause to the vendors of the Singburi market for putting up with sixty-plus foreigners descending on them with minimal language skills.
Our Peace Corps training class is pretty large relative to the number of foreigners that the province normally sees. This is partially why we had a chance to introduce ourselves to the Governor of the province. I mean that literally – a shot to pronounce enough Thai to say our names and where we’re from. I’m totally psyched to say that we all pulled it off quite well. He gave us a great welcome and wished us well with our projects and integration into the village communities we’ll call home until late March. It helped to close out our Training class’ time all together in the center of Singburi. Afterwards, we split up by program – Youth in Development (YinD; me) and Teacher Collaboration and Community Service (TCCS) and move in with families in villages across the province for technical, language and cultural training.