Coffee and Culture Shock in Bangkok

An August Smithsonian Magazine article from the excellent Food and Think blog asked the question “Why Don’t Other Countries Use Ice Cubes?” It’s a very basic question, one that many travelers don’t even contemplate because in the grand scheme of things, do ice cubes really matter? But if the comments to the article are any indication, they do. Apparently, people are passionate about ice cubes. And in my own travels, I’ve found that a decision to have a drink served warm instead of on ice in Bangkok was (excuse the pun) an icebreaker of its own.

When I settled in Bangkok in 2010, I lived in an area called Victory Monument, chosen (of course) for its full gamut of street food options and relative isolation from the expat scene. On one side of the monument is Ratchaprarop, a road with plenty of friendly bars frequented by the expat community, and lots of street stalls in between. On the other side, where I lived, was a highway over a tiny klong river and a sprawling series of night food markets that opened up after 4pm. On the narrow sois leading away from the highway were low-rise apartments, tiny shops and lots of Thai students.Pickup trucks with fruit and vegetables would wind up and down the streets, blasting their specials on a loudspeaker. I preferred this side of the tracks – it had so many more layers to discover.

A new coffee stand had opened near the corner of Rajwithi Soi 6, overseen by a smart, earnest woman with the brightest smile in the district. She spoke no English but it didn’t stop her from getting her point across, muttering under her breath as she prepared the drinks with flamboyance and a wink. Her iced coffee was built in tiers – sweetened condensed milk, espresso, chocolate and topped with sweet cream. By all accounts, it was incredible. But I am not an iced coffee person and instead ordered a simple hot coffee with milk.

Best coffee in all of Bangkok!

Best coffee in all of Bangkok!

It became apparent that this would not do.

The first time I stopped by, I asked for a hot coffee in Thai but she shook her head as though she misheard, and opened her vat of ice, pointing forcefully in its direction. “No,” I said, “hot coffee”. Shaking her head and muttering, she made me a hot coffee, strong and delicious. Off I went. The next day, I returned on the way to the subway, and asked for the same. She seemed more agitated than the day before, gesticulating and talking to me in Thai, which I could not understand. On the third day, she was prepared: she had asked a friend who spoke English to sit vigil until I showed up. The moment they saw my face the coffee lady exploded into rapid-fire Thai, punctuated by wild hand motions.

“She wants to know” the friend said slowly “what is wrong with you that you drink hot coffee on a hot day.”

Coffee, translation and culture shock in Bangkok

Coffee, translation and culture shock in Bangkok: me with my favourite coffee lady and her tailor-translator friend.

I grew up in Montreal with weekends spent in the Eastern Townships and many of them helping my dad’s friend Wes on his farm. He would drink hot tea from a thermos throughout, even on the hottest days of summer. Once, I asked him why and his response stuck with me since: drinking the hot liquid cooled your body on a warm day.

Old wives tale? Perhaps. It’s been tested, and there is a shred of truth to the assumption, but certainly not enough to make it absolute. That said, I do love my hot coffee, regardless of whether it merely adds to the rivulets of sweat pouring down my face in muggy Bangkok. At some point, I simply gave up on trying to cool down and stuck to the drink I love.

I explained as much to my favourite coffee lady and her tailor friend, but they remained skeptical, reminding me that it was, in fact, close to 40C outside. I was resolute; hot coffee or no coffee. For the remaining months in town, I’d wander by the stand in the morning and perch precariously on a stool near the side of the road, drinking my coffee and sweating. Each and every day, I’d be rewarded with a wry smile, as if to say “one day she will stop being so stupid and get an iced drink.”

Coffee never looked so good.

Coffee never looked so good.

Over a year after I left Bangkok, I returned with friends to take them to my favourite haunts. I was living up in Chiang Mai, and wanted to pay a visit to the great people I missed in Thailand’s capital. Of course, my coffee stand was on the list, but I wasn’t sure she would remember me. Instead, not only did she crack up when I walked into her field of vision, but she made me a hot coffee on the spot, without my even asking it.  She also whipped out her cell phone and called her friend to come by and say hello – “the crazy lady who drinks hot coffee is back!”

While hot coffee might not be the drink of choice in Victory Monument, at least it made me a new friend.

-Jodi

P.S. I had no idea September 29 was National Coffee day in the USA, but apparently this post was more timely than I realized!