Under the Banyan Tree
The restaurant I visit more often than any other in Ayutthaya is called “Sai Tong” (ไทรทอง) , which means “large banyan tree”. In the centre of the establishment is, indeed, an enormous banyan tree. These trees are considered sacred, and under their branches is considered a suitable place to dispose of old spirit houses. Like most banyan trees here in Thailand, there are bands of coloured fabric tied around its trunk. There’s also a small altar for offerings of food and drink to the spirits which live in the tree.
The restaurant is next to the Chao Phraya river, close to a ferry which takes passengers and motorbikes across the river for a few tical a time.
Today the river was exceptionally high, with water lapping at the lawn of the temple opposite. The remnants of a tropical storm have brought heavy rain to the north, and that water is now making its way down to the sea. As is government policy, the land around Ayutthaya is being flooded to protect Bangkok. The local farmers don’t like this, but there’s nothing they can do. And the government does pay some compensation for the lost crops.
The sky is overcast. There’s a light breeze. And the flags in a row outside the temple make desultory attempts at fluttering before giving the task up as in vain.
When I arrived there was one other table occupied by a group of four. However, there’s a long table set out. I surmised it was for a group of teachers or bank workers. But I was wrong.
I’m glad I arrived before the big group, since such groups put a great strain on the kitchen, and I might have had to wait too long for my lunch.
Then the group arrives. They’re tourists, Americans in their 50s and 60s. They’re clearly excited to be in Thailand and everything around them fills them with awe.
I watch with a feeling of trepidation as they sit down to dine. The plastic chairs, which in the West would be considered cheap, outdoors furniture, might be unable to bear the weight of these portly visitors.
Not that they stayed seated for long. After a few moments many of them were up and wandering around the restaurant. It felt as if I were dining in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. I was not exactly thrilled.
And, oh, they were all so loud!
Madam, I’m not interested in how you feel you should sit at the end of the table because you’re left-handed.
Sir, yes, you do take a little food from the communal dishes and put it on your plate.
And yes, you can have a small bowl of fish sauce laced with potent chillies (even though it’s totally inappropriate for the sweet, Chinese-derived food that has been set in front of you, and nobody is remotely interested in your attempt at demonstrating machismo by partaking of more chillies than anyone else).
(The guide had done a good job of ordering the least-challenging food items on the menu for her charges – nothing too spicy, nothing too interesting. Of course, the fried rice has to be served in a hollowed-out pineapple – that’s what tourists like – and the meat comes on a hot metal pan, just like one gets at ethnic restaurants back home. Chinese, Thai, Korean – they’re all the same, aren’t they?)
And no, Sir, you can’t get a discount on the bottle of beer you’ve ordered because you don’t want the bottle of water that’s included in the set price. Do you realise how much of a cheapskate you appear to be? You want to save 25 cents?
I’m sure these were good people, thrilled to be visiting a country strange and exotic to them. I’m happy they were enjoying themselves so much. And I wish I didn’t feel so curmudgeonly. But as it was, I couldn’t leave the restaurant fast enough.