Khao Soi In the Shadow of the Bastard
By Max Bonem
I’m ruined, it’s over. I’ve seen too much, I’ve crossed the bridge as the current washes away the brick and wooden path that has taken me to the other side. I could blame myself, but I’m not the sole guilty party. The old women out front, they’re only guilty by association. The real culprit, the man with blood on his hands, is that wirey, gray haired bastard, Bourdain.
Two years ago, Anthony Bourdain came to Chiang Mai, the epicenter of everything happening in northern Thailand. Accompanied by his guide and partner in crime, Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker, Bourdain ate, drank, and tuk-tuk’d his way around this funky town, taking in everything from blood soup to the ladyboy cabaret, which is actually quite something to behold, but that’s another story. Although he ate a plethora of delicious northern thai specialties, there was one in particular that I didn’t just want, I needed it: khao soi.
A simple dish really, noodles in a light coconut curry broth, coupled with your choice of protein and garnished with shallot, cilantro, pickled greens, and as much chile paste as you’re willing to imbibe. Of course, as a specialty of the area there is no shortage of khao soi shops throughout town. Even when you google “best khao soi in Chiang Mai,” you get fifty different recommendations. However, I had Bourdain’s selection as a starting point and I figured he probably went there after it was suggested to him by Ricker or one of their local fixers. The choice was spot on.
Khao Soi Lam Duan is off the beaten path. It’s not out of reach to tourists, but it doesn’t stand in plain sight either. Although I was pleased that the rain had finally ceased after two days of straight downpour, it was unseasonably hot in Chiang Mai and I decided a four mile walk from my hostel to Lam Duan wasn’t in the cards for me. As one does in Thailand, I hailed a tuk-tuk and a thai gentleman in his early fifties pulled over to escort me to my lunch destination. I showed him on a map where I wanted to go and without missing a beat the driver tells me, “Oh Lam Duan!? Very, very good. Best khao soi in Chiang Mai. You choose very good.” That bastard chose well.
Anytime the locals, and especially taxi drivers of any kind, a group that always seem to know where the good stuff is hiding out, tell you that you’re going somewhere good than you should be very, very excited. We sped off northward on Mun Mueang Road, the eastern border of Chiang Mai’s old city, weaving through the onslaught of motorbikes, cars, trucks, bicycles, and pedestrians. At the pace this guy was driving, it was almost as if I’d struck a chord with his own hunger. Oddly enough, it seems I actually had.
Ten minutes and a few close calls later, we arrived at Khao Soi Lam Duang, a nondescript roadside restaurant covered in family photos and shrines. As we parked, I noticed an entire lot full of tuk-tuks next door and I realized that yes, this was definitely, 100% going to be good. After paying the driver and walking inside, I saw him park his tuk-tuk and then walk inside to have a bite with his fellow drivers. I chuckled and looked over the menu, already knowing what I’d be having.
“One khao soi, chicken.”
“One som tum (green papaya salad).”
“You like spicy? Ok.”
“One sai ua (northern thai sausage).”
On the table sat the holy trinity of thai condiments: fiery chili paste, cane sugar, and pickled green chilis. Additionally, soy sauce and fish sauce joined the party as add ons if needed. Before I could even grab a pair of chopsticks, my food arrived and the moment in all its glory was here. Before adding in the additional pickled mustard greens, shallots, and lime, I got my nose as close as I could into the bowl without dipping it into the broth itself and inhaled. I knew I was in trouble.
After adding in a small spoonful of chile paste, a squeeze of lime, a hearty pinch of greens, and a splash of fish sauce, I stirred, and grabbed a mouthful of noodles and broth. It might seem silly, but in my mind time slowed down and the room went silent as I took that first bite, that first contact with the next realm. As I opened wide, my mind went blank. Everything I’d wanted and hoped for, everything I yearned to experience in Southeast Asia was there. I might’ve started mildly hallucinating.
It’s silly, thinking a bowl of noodles is worth a trip to the other side of the planet, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that this humble meal was worth every penny of my plane ticket. For travelers, or maybe more specifically for those who yearn to travel, TV and movies and magazines are our gateways into other worlds that we assume we’ll never see, smell, taste, or touch. Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, and No Reservations before that, has sparked the curiosities of so many people, both young and old, and fueled their needs to leave their own worlds behind and go into uncharted waters.
That bowl of khao soi, on the dusty side road, decibel levels away from the tourist center of Chiang Mai, proved that sometimes even the things we stare at from a distance, and from the comforts of our sofas, is accessible if you simply deem it be. I might not have dined with the man himself, but his presence lingered at the tables of Khao Soi Lam Duan and even if I had to sit in his shadow to experience the truly sublime, he’s one bastard for whom I’m willing to embrace the shade.
Originally published at bonematlarge.com on September 21, 2015.