CRAIG SAUERS goes on a culinary journey with Chili Paste Tours and comes back lighter of mind but heavier of body
It’s not even 9am and the temperature is already 33 knee-buckling degrees, but Chinnapatt “Chin” Chongtong looks cool and composed as she climbs the stairs at Krung Thonburi BTS station, our meeting point for a street food tour through the Old Town. The young and diminutive entrepreneur is wearing sunglasses and light linen clothing, looking altogether prepared for the weather, as well as the next seven hours on our feet. When she crests the last stair, however, she lets out a little yelp and fans herself. “I led two walking tours yesterday, and the last one through Chinatown went until after 11pm,” she explains.
Today it’s just the two of us, though, and I reassure her I’m easy—I’ll eat anything, anywhere. But, as I will soon discover, Chin’s Chili Paste Tours involve a whole lot more than eating.
Within minutes, we’re in a taxi, crossing Memorial Bridge and passing the so-called Flower Market, and she’s talking about the neighbourhood’s gentrification. “The vendors can’t set up on the sidewalks until 8.30 at night anymore,” she says. “Yesterday, the tessakij [city inspectors] were out here, watching the vendors to make sure they weren’t selling early. At 8.30, someone rang a bell and they all started racing around to set up [their stalls].”
Chin is a dynamo, a one-woman street-combing machine with as much know-how of this country’s cuisines and cultural mechanisms as any chef this side of David Thompson—and more spirit than a Muay Thai prize fighter. Chili Paste Tours is the outlet for her creative energy. Or, rather, her hunger. Up to seven days a week, she guides avid, curious, or even first-time eaters of Thai food around Thonburi or Rattanakosin. She also leads canalside cooking classes in Samut Songkhram. And a few times a year, she takes small groups to her home village outside Ubon Ratchathani for three-day food and farming retreats.
“In the beginning, I just liked to eat, and eat, and eat,” she tells me. But she and her tours have evolved. Nowadays, even when she isn’t working, she visits markets to sample produce, as much to gather information for tours as to source ingredients for cooking classes. “I love to cook, so I’m very picky,” says Chin; only vendors selling the freshest goods make the cut. Yet even when she’s fashioned a routine she’s happy with, she’s always on the prowl for new curry paste purveyors, satay sellers, and hor mok hawkers to include in her tours. In fact, the destinations change throughout the week—where she takes customers differs from Monday to Friday.
Our tour begins not with a headfirst dive into a wet market, but rather Akha Ama coffee beans and her homemade cho muang at World Café & Books, an organic-focused café and seller of fair-trade Thai goods located near Wat Ratchabophit. Here, Chin presents me with the beautiful, lavender snack she made from scratch, explaining the process step-by-step: dye the dough (a blend of tapioca, rice, sticky rice, and cassava root flours) with butterfly pea flower, stuff it with a pork-based filling, shape it to resemble a petal, and finally steam it. No easy process, but Chin doesn’t seem like the type to enjoy taking shortcuts in life.
Chili Paste Tours began in 2012, shortly after floodwaters swallowed up Chin’s former office in Pathum Thani. Suddenly she had time to explore local markets, sharing her favourite foods with friends. At the suggestion of one such friend—not to mention the realization that renovating her previous space would cost the same as starting her own company—she mustered up the courage to turn pastime into full-time. Since then, Chili Paste Tours has survived protests, a coup, market closures, and more. Despite the upheaval, Chin’s tours have remained a bright spot in Old Town communities, uniting some of Bangkok’s unsung heroes with travellers in meaningful ways.
“It’s not just about money,” says Chin. “The local people share their culture with my customers. They [the locals] are happy to walk with them, cook with them, eat with them. And I teach customers what to order and how. I want everyone to learn [from one another].”
After the warm-up of cho muang and cappuccino, Chin leads me around the corner of Feung Nakorn Road to Trok Mor Market on narrow Soi Thesa. Unlike the cavernous Flower Market and Khlong Toey, this market saw very little foreign foot traffic before Chin began to form relationships with its vendors. Now, nearly each day someone new is sampling khao lam, the sweet and aromatic sticky rice steamed in bamboo, or taking their first bite of a tiny fried frog. This little alleyway is full of surprises for me, too—among other rare finds are “moon flowers,” a wild vegetable that can be stir-fried or eaten raw with nam prik, as well as one of the better versions of khao soy I’ve had in this city, lightly sweetened and ideally spiced.
Eating our way down the alley, Chin takes me into a small shophouse to get some shade and sample Isaan food the way she likes it. She orders som tam pu pla ra, not normally the foreign man’s preferred varietal of papaya salad, but in this case only a little funky, with stalks of green papaya that are “crunchy, how they’re supposed to be,” according to Chin. Paired with smoky nam tok mu, the meal serves as a reminder that much of the city’s workforce has come by way of domestic diaspora, moving to the capital to fashion more fruitful lives for their families and bringing with them the flavours of their fatherlands.
But this tour isn’t just a bacchanalian joyride into Bangkok’s culinary frontier. Chin takes me down an even narrower alley—an alley within an alley—where Buddha images are spray-painted gold and bought as gifts to give to temples. She explains how this alley and others beside it evolved when the main road, Bamrung Mueang, was cleared out centuries ago to allow for more convenient transportation between the Grand Palace and Wat Suthat, our next destination.
Between noon and 1pm each day, the abbot of Wat Suthat chants blessings beneath its 800-year-old Buddha image. So, naturally, the temple has become a tourist rite of passage. Tuk tuk drivers line the road outside, waiting for willing customers. Inside, on the other hand, an almost palpable sense of calm pervades. As inspiring as the temple may be, with its intricately painted murals and lines of Buddha statues, the number of locals who visit during lunch to channel their energies into spiritual practices is perhaps most remarkable.
As we clamber into our own tuk tuk outside, the monks’ sonorous chants still humming in our ears, Chin mentions that the road we’re about to putter down, Mahachai, leads to Pratu Phee, literally “ghost gate.” In the 19th century, during an outbreak of cholera, dysentery, and malaria, the dead were sent outside the walls of the capital, through Pratu Phee, either to a mass grave site or to Wat Saket, where a small patch of land had been reserved for sky burials. While vultures no longer exist in Thailand—and mass grave sites have gone the way of the vulture, too—the street retains its eerie legacy in name alone through such legendary shophouse restaurants as Pad Thai Pratu Phee, sometimes called Pad Thai Thipsamai. Since we’re on the hunt for more serious street food than typically bland pad thai, we give it a pass.
Nang Loeng Market, our next stop, yields more unique flavours—and even more unique personalities. The market has been around since 1900, and it’s hard to imagine it in any other state than ramshackle. Before we can traverse its narrow passageways, Chin seats me in a small restaurant beside its entrance and skips away, leaving me alone with a mango shake for a few minutes. When she returns, she does so toting three dishes: kua khling, a spicy southern specialty of sliced pork stir-fried in curry paste; pak mo yuan, a fresh spring roll filled with peppery Vietnamese-style pork called mu yor; and a fantastic yam makhuea yao, a salad of fresh shrimp and roasted eggplant dressed in herbs and lime juice.
Three satisfying mini-meals, yet only another prelude. Inside the market, Chin introduces me to a variety show of vendors who urge—more like command—me to try their unusual treats, including tom saeb with stewed chicken’s feet, numerous kinds of sausages, a dense ho mok pla (red curry paste with fish steamed in banana leaf), a sweet fish jerky that accompanies khao chae, miniature saku sai mu from the fabulous Mae Sa-Ing, and a kind of egg custard topped with fried shallots called mor geng, which Chin says is the best version of the dessert she’s had in Bangkok. I have no reason to doubt her, nor can I deny any of the ladies and gentlemen who have plied me with sweets and savouries and seriously warm smiles.
Over the past five years Chin has become close not only with vendors and owners of fair-trade shops, but rather with people. Nowhere is this more apparent than when we depart Nang Loeng Market—after a token look of wonderment at the wooden cinema—and stroll down the sidewalks. First she takes me to a shop, where women dressed in long-sleeved shirts, gloves, and cotton trousers that make me sweat just looking at them fry bananas in massive vats of oil all day. She buys a bag of what she says are the best around. While I eat, she chit-chats. “I’ve been coming here for five years. So how many of your bananas have I eaten by now?” she jokes with the owner, who’s seated on a red plastic stool. When we leave, she asks the migrant workers, whose job it is to sell bags of bananas to people in cars waiting for stoplights to turn green, how many they’ve sold today. Up the road, she stops to say hello to an old man who sells jewellery, the owner of a toy store, and three women in a pharmacy.
The communities, she tells me, have been around for over a century—a hundred years of parents passing down businesses to their children, who pass them down to their children. Within this framework, Chin has managed to become a fixture despite being an outsider. And when we arrive at Phraeng Putthon, a true cultural enclave bestowed upon select families by Rama V, it’s easy to see how her charm and veracity has curried her favour. Chin mostly works alone, unless the volume of requests requires the help of a friend. So rain or shine—even very aggressive shine, as is the case on this Friday in March—she laces up her walking shoes and hits the streets, stoking relationships every step of the way.
In Phraeng Putthon, she leads me to one of her favourite restaurants, a tiny home kitchen called Krua Som Hom, where we enjoy two standout dishes: pla goong, or fresh prawns topped with a sweet and spicy sauce leavened with sliced lemongrass, and truly toothsome bites of fried chicken with stir-fried lemongrass tacked to their coating. I can see why she lists this little house among her preferred haunts. At least she doesn’t keep it a secret.
“At the end of the day, I want people to bring some happiness back home with them, to tell their friends how good it is in Thailand,” says my gregarious tour guide.
Curiosity and a service-oriented mind might have led Chin to start a company, but her exuberance for Thai food and culture continues to shape her evolution. So when she says, “Let’s go to the Flower Market now,” even though the thought of eating another bite makes me nauseous, if not self-conscious of the fact that I need to unbuckle my belt to walk comfortably (I’ve had 12 meals by 4pm), I realize that, for Chin, the tour is never truly over. The experience is constantly evolving, too. Vendors move around and retire, markets are razed or rebuilt or shellacked to within an inch of existence, and in the years to come hundreds of other people with innumerable tastes will scour the Old Town for tasty street eats with Chili Paste Tours. Luckily for us all, Chin’s appetite for exploration is insatiable.
Chili Paste Tours is accredited by the TAT. All tours can be adapted according to personal tastes and allergies, and children are more than welcome to join in the fun. For more details, visit foodtoursbangkok.com. Chin can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 09 4552 2361 or 08 5143 6779.