When I land in Bangkok on my way to Cambodia, the first thing that hits me is the stifling heat and the smell of fish sauce as I emerge from my airport taxi into the warrens of Thailand’s biggest city. I sit down at a street stall on a Saturday afternoon, an hour before sunset, and order one of my favourite Asian meals of chicken noodle soup, but they haven’t got it.
“Pork!” snaps the noodle cook, jabbing a finger at her spidery-scrawled sign. She doesn’t do anything else, and nor does her husband, who’s crouched at the back, busy prepping a grimy tub of water spinach.
I perch on a stool by the roadside, my knees up to my ears. My bowl arrives in seconds. There are a few slices of pork, tandoori red around the edges, a scattering of sliced spring onion greens, a few slivers of crisped garlic, golden brown in colour, angel hair noodles, and beansprouts. The nod to vitamins is the single piece of kale that somehow found its way into my bowl on the back of a spoon.
Four pots of garnishes are thrust at me - pounded dried chillies with what looks disconcertingly like a pube sticking out, an explosive chilli vinegar, sugar, and crushed peanuts. A bottle of fish sauce, toothpicks, and a plastic drum of napkins complete the street food decor.
Except I was wrong about the lack of greenery. As I delve deeper into the last loop of noodles, a piece of water spinach appears in the bowl. For some reason, I think of a story I heard about the Vietnam War, or American War if you live in Vietnam. About how the Americans were literally hoist with their own petards when they bombed the vastly underequipped but ruthlessly cunning Viet Cong making their way from north to south through the mountain passes of the Ho Chi Minh trail.
The passes were marked and American bombers flew over blowing holes in the mountainside. The men with their shoes made from old truck tyres were slowed but still they came, clearing the rubble and finding other trails. And as the monsoon rains started, the bomb craters became pools.
Messages were passed and the next group of Viet Cong brought live fish with them and stocked the pools, and the fish slowly multiplied in their new mountain home. Then they planted water spinach cuttings, which quickly spread - long, hollow stalks with a few leaves at the top, delicious when fried with garlic and fish sauce. As each unit of National Liberation Front militia arrived, they found pools full of fish and swamp cabbage to feed them.
I bite into the tube and imagine those fighters sitting around a pot, sleeping off their evening feast provided by the bombs that were meant to kill them. I sip away at my ice-cold Singh beer as the last of the light fades, the car lights come on, and Bangkok puts on its neon clothes and waits for the hustle and shrieks of night.
The noodle cook sends her young son to fetch more beer from a nearby store. Outside it is a newspaper stand packed full of today’s editions of German and British tabloids - they know their tourist market in Bangkok. At the bottom is The Sun. “Pleb And Buried” is the headline. “Cop slur minister quits at last.” London seems a long way away.