My Lonely Planet book on Phuket told me the best pad thai in all of Thailand could be found at a local shop "spilling out of a woman's front porch" just minutes from the Hilton Resort where Chris' points had been scoring us amazing free breakfasts and bottomless happy hours. On the eve of our departure, it was time to find out if the guidebook could be trusted. I set out in the pitch dark, walking along the side of a busy road, dodging speeding motor scooters and the bidding hands of Thai go-go dancers to find "the Pad Thai Shop." After a mile of walking, I was still alive, standing outside the Ping Pong Bar (its across from another fine establishment simply called "the Drunk bar" - which gives you an idea of the district in which I found myself!). I ventured inside to see if anyone could point me in the direction of culinary ecstasy - only to find another go-go dancer, this time with a pole. No English, no problem. I left, and after several more inquiries and another half-mile of hiking, and I gave up and headed home dejectedly.
Thankfully, Leah was so thankful that I returned home still alive that she was all too happy to encourage me to take a taxi back for one last look. This time, I found the place - literally, as the LP book said, spilling out of a woman's house, with a sign in Thai such that a lowly American like me could not have hoped to locate it. Bafflingly, just inside the front porch hung a floor-to-ceiling banner with the Lonely Planet review under huge letters that declared "the Pad Thai Shop," though why this wasn't in plain view was beyond me at this point. I was just thankful two hours of trekking had brought my taste buds within reach of nirvana. So I ordered a pad thai. Medium.
While bliss in a banana leaf was being created, the proprietor accosted me, wondering where I came from and how I had got here. I told her about the review, that I had wandered up from the HIlton and had my would-be backpacker intentions thwarted, been ripped off by a taxi driver to come back, and that I just wanted some good non-room service food. For good measure, I mentioned LP's ringing recommendation of her food. Unconcerned about the obvious fact that I spoke no Thai and she didn't care for English, she demanded my guidebook, looked at it proudly, and then jabbered at me with gestures and a tone that could have only meant something to the effect of "you poor stupid American bastard, you are a sad strange little man and you have my pity - but you are here so you can't be all that stupid. I like you." Thanks Pad Thai lady.
More jabbering. Then two young men come forward who seemed to be her sons. She pointed to me, to the road, and then said, "you no pay. He take you back. Free." I liked this last word as much as I understood it. With a hungry child, wife and brother-in-law waiting back at the hotel, I was all too thankful to accept such hospitality and care. I asked her for her name - she said "Momma Pad Thai." Ok then Mama Pad Thai, do you own your own copy of the LP guidebook? A shaken head. So I gave her mine, feeling she should have hard proof of her prowess, a small consolation for the fact that her best-in-Thailand Pad Thai was located on the opposite side of the island from where the usual reader of such books would normally venture. She beamed, gave me a big hug, and then handed me a gigantic steaming package of goodness incarnate wrapped in a banana leaf.
Then she pointed to an old blue scooter. The kind that island people who believe the shortest distance between two points is as many dodges, weaves, and zig zags between cars as can be made while going 70mph down narrow unkempt roads in the dark of night. But I wanted my pad thai. So taking a cue from Big Buddha, I emptied my mind, asked prayers of the Blessed Virgin and commended my spirit to Jesus, climbed on, and clung to a strange Thai teenager with as much strength as would keep me alive without making things more awkward then they had to be. From the shop to the hotel was all downhill. It was the longest two minutes of my life. And also some of the most thrilling. As was the pad thai. It really was that good.
I'm not ready to go off and start an intentional community named "Momma Pad Thai's" in honor of the hospitality and care I received at the hands of strangers. But on the other side of the world, lost, hungry, dejected, and weary, a woman who did not speak my language treated me like Christ, and so showed me the meaning of my vocation to share the works of mercy with others. The food would have been reward enough - her love, just desserts. I went out looking for my daily bread - and found a lesson in what it means to be the bread of life for the world. Thank you Momma Pad Thai.