Coffee, Conversation…and Reconnection in a Secret Garden Hidden in Bangkok’s Most Caffeinated Neighborhood | Eat Drink

At the end of a bustling soi in Bangkok’s Ari district is a hidden cafe surrounded by lush greenery. — Photos by CK Lim

COMMENT, March 17 — Ari, one of Bangkok’s liveliest areas, is always bustling. Even if you wake up early in the morning when there is hardly any daylight, you will spot dozens of early bird birds scurrying here and there on the streets below.

There are the fitness fanatics, of course, the joggers, and the random guys doing pull-ups on the playground. Pensioners and housewives queuing for the freshest batch of patongko (fried crullers) and hot soy milk to take home for breakfast.

Students chatting over skewers of moo ping (grilled pork) and packets of sticky rice. And office workers, rushing to make the last carriage at the BTS Skytrain station, stopping only for that much-needed to-go cup of Kafae Yen (iced coffee).

This last run is perhaps the easiest of the lot. Because there’s a cafe on every street in Ari. More than one coffee per so I (Thai for street or alley), actually.

You’ll find a Café Amazon (a thriving and ubiquitous Thai coffee shop chain) outlet on every corner. Filter coffee lovers flock to Some Time Blue for the excellent cups of 2016 National Thailand Brewers Cup champion Sutida Srirungthum.

Start the day with a long black and Yellow Lane Vegan Peanut Butter Banana Cake.
Start the day with a long black and Yellow Lane Vegan Peanut Butter Banana Cake.

Then there’s Nana Coffee Roasters along Soi Ari 4, with its renovated 50-year-old house and lush parking lot filled with all manner of luxury vehicles. Not to mention the Kid Mai Death Awareness Café, where you can choose between the skeleton or the coffin for your seating arrangement.

In Ari, there is a café for everyone and for all tastes, macabre or not. This is easily the most caffeinated neighborhood in Bangkok.

But sometimes all we want is a little peace and quiet. A space for us far from the raging crowd.

That’s why I find myself here at the end of the busiest street in Ari, Soi Ari 1. Here, further from the main road (Soi Ari, also known as Soi Phahon Yothin 7 – we s’ eventually accustomed to the naming conventions of the city), there is a hidden cafe surrounded by lush greenery.

In fact, it’s at the very end of the alley, which recalls the name of a Neil Gaiman novel, The ocean at the end of the road. Instead of a vast body of water, however, I discover a place for espressos and cappuccinos, tables where dukkah– Poached eggs in a crust and grilled haha tuna tacos are served.

The warm and serene interior of Yellow Lane, a brunch cafe in Ari, Bangkok.
The warm and serene interior of Yellow Lane, a brunch cafe in Ari, Bangkok.

I find a secret garden in Bangkok’s coffee sanctuary and a brunch cafe called Yellow Lane.

But it’s not about cafes or brunches, although it may sound like it. We’re in no rush to get to our destination, are we?

First, I need a coffee. Start the day with a long black and you’ll be fine, that’s my motto. (Or should be.) Upon entering Yellow Lane, I am struck by its warm and serene interior. There are a few customers here, deeply focused. Digital nomads, perhaps.

The barista at the counter persuades me to order their peanut butter vegan banana cake. Or she thinks she persuaded me; my better half, who is a peanut butter snob, had already tasted it and gave it a fervent stamp of approval.

We should all pay more attention to our spouses and loved ones; they understand us with more clarity than we possess and marry their observations with tender, unconditional love.

The writer and longtime barista friend, before the pandemic (left) and during (right).
The writer and longtime barista friend, before the pandemic (left) and during (right).

The best partners, in any case. (As I advised my niece recently – and perhaps many times – don’t settle for less. And work hard to be such a good partner in return.)

I take a seat and wait for my coffee and my cake. Soon, I am deeply focused, just like other cafe digital nomads. I am brought back to the present by the sound of a cup and saucer delicately placed on my table.

I look up to thank the waiter. And we stare at each other for a second or two, mentally erasing the masks we wear. Yes, it’s Toon, my longtime barista friend whom I hadn’t seen since the start of the pandemic!

Let’s go back a bit.

Before Covid-19 became a fixture in everyone’s daily vocabulary, I used to regularly visit a cafe in Bangkok’s Ratchada district. And with frequent visits, I soon learned the name of every barista who worked there.

Yellow Lane burrito bowl with Mexican beans, 'pico de gallo', avocado, sour cream and jalapeños.
Yellow Lane burrito bowl with Mexican beans, ‘pico de gallo’, avocado, sour cream and jalapeños.

I had my favorite, of course: a young guy named Toon (all Thais have nicknames; it’s a lovely part of their culture) who was also studying business part-time. He was the friendliest and most curious about what I did for a living, what Malaysia is like etc.

That’s how conversations and friendships start, you see.

Toon knew my usual commands by heart: a no long (Hot Americano) in the morning and a cappuccino in the afternoon. When I was peckish, I had chicken pasta with pesto or Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes; it was that kind of Scandinavian-inspired cafe.

But nothing lasts – that’s the beautiful and terrible truth – and on a trip back to Bangkok I passed by the cafe to find that it had closed. We took things for granted, and neither Toon nor I had thought of exchanging contacts. We assumed that the store would still be open, that he would still have a job there, that I would still come back to Bangkok.

The pandemic has taught us a lot, and one of the biggest lessons is to never take anything – or anyone – for granted.

A secret garden for coffee and conversations... and reconnecting.
A secret garden for coffee and conversations… and reconnecting.

So color me very surprised by Toon serving me coffee in a completely different cafe two, three years since I last saw him. Entirely by coincidence, of course, but life is full of coincidences.

Toon and I continue to catch up; we exchanged contacts this time, wiser now, so I could see the coffees he attends on his Line newsfeed. I suspect he’ll find a way to merge his barista and business sides; it’s a lesson in humility and an honor to see the people around you grow.

One day for lunch I had the Yellow Lane burrito bowl stuffed with peppercorn pulled pork, Mexican beans, pico de gallo, avocado, sour cream, jalapeños, corn chips and infused rice. It’s not chicken pesto pasta or Swedish meatballs, but it’s something new and it tastes fantastic.

Nothing lasts except what lasts, like a friendship. sometimes you can go home; it’s just different but what matters remains the same. The beautiful and touching truth is that we can open ourselves to the wonders and magic of life.

That’s why we keep walking and wandering. Why we explore new paths, to see where they lead us. Sometimes that little trip comes down to a secret garden at the end of an alley, a place to grab a coffee and chat…and reconnect.

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