So I am sitting in a Thai restaurant. In the middle of Thailand, to be precise in Lopburi province north of Bangkok. It is a warm evening, the restaurant is open air and I am overdressed in a collared short sleeve shirt and tailored shorts. The rest of the customers are in t-shirts, long trousers - mainly denim jeans - with thongs or sandals on their feet.
The restaurant is best described as shanty built. Uneven planks of wood comprise the floor. Solid uprights support a roof comprised of a mix of saw milled timber and gathered sticks nailed together to support what looks like galvanized iron. There is no ceiling.
My seat is near a railing, looking over this railing I see that this part of the restaurant is on stilts and partially over a large pond. My table is a solid slab of wood with a rudimentary design either carved our routed into the sides. Seating is provided by cheap red stackable, medium back chairs.
I am sitting as the guest of a Thai family that has befriended me. The mother, similar age to myself, has taken a shine to me on a previous visit and we are now spending time getting to know each other. Tonight we are out with her son, his wife and their two children. Conversation for me is stilted as I have very little Thai language skills and their English is not good.
On the other tables there is a mix of clientele. What looks like a sporting group or committee having a celebratory dinner. Some families, some couples, some males in 2's and 3's. The lighting is subdued (OK then it is dim), the atmosphere despite the large group of males is quiet. I am the only foreigner in the place.
The waiting staff are quiet and efficient. Service with a genuine smile and our waitress is serving the children with the same alacrity and efficiency as she does the adults. The children are drinking cola and the adults are drinking Thai whiskey. Before your glass is empty it is whisked away, filled with ice, a shot of whiskey added and then it is topped up with soda. Diluted like this the whiskey is cool and refreshing but it can still pack a punch.
Most of the waitresses are wearing standard uniform comprising impossibly skin tight trousers, often cut short or turned up to calf length, a tight t-shirt and thongs. Most look so young that they should still be in school. Long black hair tied up into pony tails or pig tails heightens the school girl impression. They are almost without exception slim. They work quietly and efficiently with a ready smile and a few words with their customers as they serve or take orders.
Out on the nearby main road I can hear the traffic. Motorbikes and cars form a customary background but the heavy trucks are noticeable especially those that are overloaded with sugar cane or bales of straw stacked high and overflowing their sides. Their engines labour as they take off from the traffic lights and their exhausts belch black smoke as they run up through the gears. The exhaust sound betrays an engine overdue for service and rebuild but the diesel engines seem to live forever despite their hard life and continue to give service long after their manufacturer intended.
Fortunately the smell of the exhaust wafts away from where I sit. The smells that I get are the background smells of the tropical air after a hot day. Nearer still is the blend of spices, herbs and oils of the food as it is prepared. Occasionally the smells of cooking become stronger as a plate of food is carried past.
Nearby I can see several buckets filled with the dirty dishes and food scraps collected from the tables. Two cats are tugging determinedly at something half in and half out of one of the buckets. It is long and cylindrical in the darkness it could be a rolled up dish cloth but I fail to see that exciting the cats. One of the cats manages to dislodge part of whatever it is and makes off with its prize. By now I am imagining that it is maybe a half eaten eel (not sure if that is on the menu here). I get distracted and when I next remember to look the object and the cats have all disappeared.
We order our food from a menu written in Thai with no pictures. I am asked what I want and all eyes are turned expectantly towards me. My preference is to have someone order on my behalf. I cannot disappoint nor avoid this choice so I say "Tom Yum Koong". A heated discussion with the waitress ensues and some head shaking. I gather that my soup will not be served tonight but honour has been upheld and something else is ordered on my behalf.
After ordering, a selection of melamine plates, Bowls and cheap cutlery are delivered to the table. These are meticulously wiped clean with tissues and distributed around the table.
By this time the food is being delivered, when it does come it is simple but delicious. The food is delivered into the centre of the table and everyone helps themselves, except for me that is. Willing hands load my plate up for me and whenever it looks like I might have a chance of emptying the plate more is piled on. I keep eating until it occurs to me that I have to stop eating for them to stop refilling it. So I stop with a half full plate hating the waste but that was the only way to stop being force fed.
Between us we eat a whole fish grilled with a honey chilli coating. It is sweet and sticky. A green chicken curry, vegetables, a prawn dish and a mixed seafood dish all accompanied by rice done the Thai way that is white rice with a small amount of dark rice mixed in.
Soon everyone is full with only feeble attempts to pick the fish skeleton clean. One of the children bravely attempts dessert something that looks like multicoloured jellies with ice cream but even he has to concede defeat.
We talk on as the contents of the whiskey bottle is slowly lowered. I lean back and ponder a question that has been on my mind for some time now. It is my fourth visit to Thailand. Each time has been different but each trip includes a mix of touristy stuff and non touristy stuff such as spending time with this family. The question that has been preying on the Bludger's mind is this.
When exactly am I going to experience the "real" Thailand?