Bangkok (Southeast Asia Part I)

I’ve been getting worked up for months about this trip – and now I’m finally on it. And it’s incredible. This is my first time in Asia; before this adventure I’d done a lot of traveling in Europe and spent some time in South Africa, but I never made it to the Far East. I’m on the road with my friend Shanti (another recently minted J.D.), and we just finished the first of five legs of our trip: Bangkok.

Just a note: I’ve been taking a LOT of pictures. These posts are going to be epic, regardless, but I’m trying to avoid reaching Lord of the Rings length – I’ll stick more to the Crime and Punishment range.

Also, a note for foodie followers: I have lots of yummies in here, but you’ll have to excuse the general narrative “what I did today” bits – friends and relatives insisted.

Anyway, we decided to stay in real hotels on this trip; I decided on my last backpack-style adventure (Barcelona, where I wound up in a bunk below a drunken, gaseous Brit) that I’m starting to get over the hostel thing. Also, hotels here are intensely affordable. We stayed at the Old Bangkok Inn for our first nights; it’s a B&B in the old center of the city, and was utterly adorable. The breakfasts they served were also pretty epic – best of all, they gave us an awesome introduction to the many, many fruits of Southeast Asia. The variety you see below barely scratches the surface; it’s “Fruit 101.”

I got pretty into these coconut custard pancakes; I’m hoping I can try to make them at home with an ebelskiver pan.

On Day 1, we set out from out Inn and started out with the biggest nearby tourist attraction: the Grand Palace. This complex includes an eighteenth-century Western-style palace building, and a Thai-style temple group built from the same period.  The palace is still very much in ceremonial use; part of the grounds were closed for funerary rites.  We were joined for fooding and sightseeing by Shanti’s friend Tim who nipped over from Taiwan, where he’d been studying.

For lunch, we popped into a nearby branch of local chain S&P Restaurant. I had salmon with a “spicy bean thread noodle salad” – sadly not as spicy as it could have been, but still tasty.

I kind of still regret I didn’t get these banana sweets for dessert. There’s just so much street food in Bangkok, though (seriously, almost every single block has stalls), that we had to pick our battles.

Instead of binging on bananas, we wandered through the amulet market that lines the road behind the Grand Palace.

We spent the afternoon at high “wat”-tage (ok, that was really bad, but I couldn’t resist); we checked out the massive Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, then crossed the Chao Phraya River bisecting Bangkok and climbed the precipitous steps of Wat Arun (below).

One of the most amazing things about these temple complexes was the fact that they’re in active use; Thais get into the temple portion of the Grand Palace free, and a large number of people were evidently there to worship and make offerings.  Where European preservation ethics dictate that most churches be left in their antique state, Thais evidently have no qualms about repainting and repairing antique devotional buildings; given my Western archaeological training, I found this both shocking and alluring – it’s a shift from what I’ve been taught, but it’s also pretty great to see historical buildings in perfect repair.

Another unexpectedly common sight: monks.  I knew Thailand was an observant Buddhist country, but I sort of expected monks to be more…cloistered.  Instead, they’re evidently a full part of everyday life – on the commuter ferry, on the street…overseeing checkers games played with bottle caps.

Anyway, back to food.  We wound up Day 1 at May Kaidee, a Thai vegetarian restaurant on the outskirts of backpacker-ridden Khaosan Road, to the north of our hotel.  The lighting here was terrible, but I managed to get a halfway decent picture of one of several dishes we sampled: tofu with fried Thai basil leaves.  This was washed down with a Chang – a local Thai brew.

Day 2 started out with a tour of the fabulous house of Jim Thompson, American silk merchant expat and probable spy (he disappeared in 1969 in “mysterious circumstances”).  This residence was cobbled together from several traditional Thai teak houses, and decorated with impeccable taste.

Food courts are apparently a Big Thing in Bangkok, so for lunch, we ventured to the one at MBK Shopping Center.  Which was the most large and hectic mall I’ve visited to date.

After being utterly overwhelmed with food options, I wound up grabbing an Indonesian chicken dish whose name I’ve sadly blanked on.  It was awesome.

Shanti had an amazing tom yum soup with prawns.  And some rice which came in a heart shape.

It’s monsoon here and it was raining after lunch, so we took a covered walkway across the road to check out some modern art at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center.  The top floors of the Center are exhibition space, but levels 2 through 4 are divided into small galleries.  In one of these was “IceDEA” – a concept/design-driven ice cream shop.  I was unable to resist the flavor titled “Global Warming”; I was kind of disappointed (but a little tickled) that it was a cooling mint chip.

After the rain let up, we wandered and shopped and visited a fertility shrine randomly tucked away near the staff quarters behind a chic Swissotel.  The theme is pretty self-explanatory.

It started raining again right before our planned food stall crawl on Yaowarat Road in Chinatown, but we still managed to duck under awnings and get some grub.  Our main stop was T&K Seafood.  We were starving, and ordered some fried rice as ballast.  It was ordinary and good – except for the exceptionally delicious vinegar chilis on the side.  I think I’m addicted to this condiment.

The best part of the meal, hands down, was crab shells stuffed with crab meat and fried vermicelli.  This was accompanied by quick-pickled cucumbers and onions, and a sweet sauce.  Salty + sour + sweet + crunchy + fishy = heaven.

To round things out, and add something for the rice to soak up, we ordered a squid curry.  It was on the mild side (Tim tossed on the hot sauce and chilis) but the flavors were well balanced.

Though we were pretty soaked at this point, we also stopped for fish ball soup.

And, thankfully, we found a bakery selling mooncakes for the Mid-Autumn festival.  These sweets originated in China, but have become popular across Asia; we were in Chinatown, in any case, so finding them was not a surprise.  I’m kind of nuts for Chinese and Japanese sweets, so I ate an entire mooncake myself.  A great bad idea.  I got into the Thai spirit of things, by the way, by getting a durian-filled cake.

My sweet tooth, however, is insatiable.  No sooner did I recover from my mooncake coma on Day 3, but I encountered new and tantalizing sweets.  I came across these in a market in Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand, an hour and a half bus ride from Bangkok.  I only sampled the coconut cakes below – they were too macaroon-like to prompt me to buy.  Instead, I purchased some small sesame and peanut rice flour-based candies.  See above re: obsession with seriously Asian sweets.

Tim wound up getting one of the peanut brittle discs being fried below.  They were apparently as crunchy and peanutty as they appear.

We also stopped for lunch at a stand in the market (sitting for 2 hours really works up an appetite).  I was feeling a little delicate after mooncake, so I went for a simple option: Thai omelet on rice.  Which I then doused in hot sauce and smothered with vinegar chilis.  Felt way better after.

When we stopped to buy tickets for one of the Ayutthaya ruins, this motorbike pulled up alongside.  The woman driving it delivered something to the ticket sellers, and I realized something awesome: those small colored bags all contain Thai iced coffees and teas with condensed milk.  Buyers untie the top of their baggie of tea, hold it by the top edges, and stick a straw right in to drink.  Brilliant.

Anyway, it wasn’t all food and games.  We had some serious sightseeing to do.  Sadly, we only really got down to business as monsoon rains started.  They’re kind of unpredictable, so we tried to wait it out.  We made it through one round and got some dramatic shots as things dried up.

Just when we though we were safe, however, Round 2 started.  We quickly dashed to one last monument, but the rains (as you can see) were getting rather torrential.  So, we hopped in the back of an open tuk tuk rickshaw cab and high-tailed it to the bus station.

That night you can guess what we did…

Um. OK, no, just kidding.  That logo is the closest we got to any of red light districts.  It cropped up in a perfectly reputable cab, though, so you can see how the sex trade is weirdly ubiquitous in Bangkok.  Actually, we went with another vice: food.  I tried to get us a table at Bo.lan, the hippest, most-recommended place for contemporary Thai cuisine in Bangkok.  It was booked up, however, so we wound up going with Plan B: Lan Na Thai, the Thai branch of Pan-Asian Face Restaurant Group.  This place was definitely foreigner-oriented (the design and decor was pretty much lifted straight from the Jim Thompson House), but the food was delicious, and it showed facets of Thai cuisine one doesn’t encounter in the U.S.  We were started out, for example, with an amuse bouche type thing of noshies wrapped in kefir leaves.

We started with a pomelo salad with prawns.

I went with an amazing sauteed crispy duck with eggplant and more kefir lime leaves.  Kefir = another thing I will have to hunt down in the States.

Shanti had a seafood curry steamed in a coconut.

To finish, I had mango with sticky rice.  Not crazy, but way better than any I’ve had before; the key is to up the mango-to-rice ratio.

A lovely meal with great company, in all.  And the Bo.lan saga has a new chapter: Shanti and I are in Bangkok for one last night before we head back Stateside – guess where we got a reservation.  Keep tuned for a blow-out multi-course tasting menu.  In the nearer future, you can look forward to some Hanoi adventures.  And now, I’m off to bed – good night!  Or perhaps, as it’s midnight here and a new day is starting, I should say…Good Morning Vietnam!