Our flight landed on time at Suvarnabhumi Airport, but the lines at immigration were insanely long. When we emerged from the terminal onto the walkway to the parking structure, the heat didn’t seem so bad. By the time I was in full sun, and full humidity, the memories flooded back. I will need more bottled water.
One trip member wanted to search for his lost sunglasses, which delayed our departure from the airport. Add heavy Friday traffic, perhaps due in part to the Chinese New Year holiday, and we barely made it to our lunch spot before the kitchen closed.
Lunch at A. Mallika
Located well away from downtown, A. Mallika still had customers when we rushed into the dining room. Our table was set for eight and three courses were waiting: khanom krok, which are tender, rich confections of coconut milk, rice flour, and sugar; slices of ostrich stir-fried with garlic, basil and hot chillies; and pork rib bits seasoned in a spicy kua-kling style with innumerable flecks of red pepper. The latter was served with some raw vegetables, which helped to cleanse and sooth the palate.
A thick coconut milk soup featured a favorite local dried fish in place of the usual chicken or shrimp, and young tamarind leaves (I mainly recall their stems, as the leaves tended to strip off and wilt). These ingredients added novel dimensions to the flavor. A mild Chinese broccoli sauteed with garlic and Thai oyster sauce provided some heat relief.
My favorite memory from this restaurant in 2010 was crispy fried cha om topped with stir-fried squid and (I think) ground pork. It was wonderful to see the brilliant green vegetable (fried in peanut oil without any breading), and savor its crunchy sweetness. Probably very high calorie, but I eat it extremely rarely: cha om is unfortunately very hard to find in the Bay Area.
Finally, a miang plah gave us the opportunity to play with our food. Holding a small leaf of lettuce, you add some grilled mackerel salad, and your choice of mint leaves, cilantro, roasted peanuts, bits of lime, tiny cubes of ginger and shallot, shreds of toasted coconut, and extra chillies, making a package you pop in your mouth and chew to combine the flavors. The combination of refreshing lime and bracing ginger with the crunch of the peanuts and toasted coconut never gets old.
We were quite full by now, but the non-dairy coconut ice cream (young coconut juice and flesh combined with coconut milk) provided a cooling finish. It was fun trying leftover miang plah toppings on it (coconut, peanuts, and ginger worked; didn’t try the shallots, limes, and chillies).
The Rex Hotel
On previous trips, we always stayed at the Grand Tower Inn, a modest hotel catering to Japanese businessmen. It certainly had a great location, but one of its major drawbacks was that they had no concept of nonsmoking rooms, much less nonsmoking floors. (Recently they even began stocking the mini-bars with cigarettes.) It also was becoming overpriced, so this year we bookend our trip with nights at the Rex Hotel, a few blocks from the Grand Tower Inn. The lobby seems quite plain, and the hallway near my room has two tall mounds of linens headed for the laundry, but the rooms are perfectly fine inside. The hanging light fixture and use of recessed lighting make the decor feel 50 years old, but I think the very large, very hard bed must be a more recent acquisition. It’s too warm to use the tiny outdoor sitting area (mercifully screened to exclude insects) today; maybe tomorrow?
There are no traffic controlled intersections within a block of the Rex, but there is a crosswalk where motorists will try to avoid hitting you. They do this not by stopping, but by changing lanes and speeding up to get past you. The strategy of local pedestrians seems to be to wait for a partial break in the traffic: as long as you can get through two lanes safely, you probably can get through the third one as well. Just on the other side is T Super, a small outpost of the T. Thai Charoen Market chain. I was here for some bottled water and bottled iced tea, but noticed their offerings span a broad range from produce, meat and seafood, to paper products, cutlery, and school supplies. Even a six-outlet power strip. I picked up a tea strainer that might come in handy. At current exchange rates, it was about $1.60, which doesn’t feel like a bargain, but this is the new reality of travel in Thailand.
The Mythical SmartPhone SIM Card
My main errand of the afternoon was to pick up a Happy Smartphone SIM card for my phone. I headed out with a chilly bottle of green tea and took the air conditioned, BART-like BTS Skytrain a few stops down to the Tesco Lotus at On Nut, an immense supermarket anchoring a busy shopping center. DTAC, one of Thailand’s major mobile phone companies, has a shop inside. After a long wait while I watched a new iPhone 4 being set up, they informed me they were sold out of the cards, but would I like a Happy Internet SIM card? The main difference is that the newer Smartphone SIM charges for data usage in megabytes, while the older Internet SIM charges in minutes. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have purchased that card, because other Happy SIM outlets (e.g., local 7-11 stores) didn’t have any special cards, just the cheapest basic one that didn’t include data features. Hmmm… where to go next?
By 5:15, it was time to rest my feet. Or more specifically, to have them massaged back to some semblance of normalcy at Hatthai, one of the local massage places known to be reliable and not specializing in extras. I’ve had reflexology massages here and in the U.S., but never with swollen calves and feet. My one hour massage went a little overtime as the masseuse squeezed and pushed and poked, only occasionally causing serious pain. (The worst is my left ankle, which I did rehab from a bad turn, but which still is not as flexible as it should be.) For less than $10 (plus tip), it’s very affordable, and compared with the massage therapists at the local $25 foot massage places on the peninsula, she worked at least twice as hard. I might be back for another round tomorrow.
Dinner at Thon Krueng
Friday evening traffic was terrible, and by the time we got to the highly rated and popular Thon Krueng, they had given away our table and had to improvise another one. We’re only a party of eight this year, compared with fourteen in 2010, so this probably will happen more often.
At first sip, a hot and sour soup of free range chicken and mushrooms (tom yum gai) struck me as very hot; most of the rest of the meal was quite moderate. I certainly remember the fish mousse here: fish paste blended with red curry and coconut milk, and steamed into little tender pucks, er, quenelles. We also had fish paste in the more conventional format: deep-fried fish cakes with spicy-sweet cucumber salad on the side. Chayote greens (seldom picked this young in California) were tender and garlicky, with a hint of fermented soybean flavor.
A crispy rice salad with mildly sour pork sausage bits was delicious as is, and could be further customized by adding peanuts, shallots, cilantro and dried chillies. The accompanying lettuce leaves provided a possible wrap for the dexterous, but as with many Northern salads, it was simpler to nibble different ingredients in turn to blend the flavors in your mouth. Speaking of dexterity, I took the initial turn at separating the meat of a deep fried fish from its skeleton, a complicated operation because it was smothered in a rich, vividly orange choo chee curry. We managed to finish several extra helpings of rice soaking up the tasty (mildly spicy) sauce.
Making sure to store up extra energy for the islands (bonus: body fat helps with buoyancy), we had desserts of bananas in warm salty-sweet coconut milk and black sesame filled glutinous rice balls (mochi) in warm ginger tea. All good.
We returned to the Rex for a bit of orientation on our schedule. We asked the desk staff about the wireless never connecting, and he pointed skywards, saying something about the antenna, or the weather, and saying it should be better by noon tomorrow. Noon! I’ll miss the entire business day in California. It would be a forced vacation. But it turns out there is a cable I can connect to in the lobby if I don’t mind the lack of A/C and the abundance of mosquitoes. We’ll see how that works out.
(Tip for travel in Europe: based on another traveler inquiring about the problem, apparently they pronounce it “wee-fee.” Did they call Hi-Fi “hee-fee”? I’m so confused.)
Tomorrow we will visit the enormous Chatuchak Weekend Market to search for gems amongst the tourist bric-a-brac. The deals can be sweet, but with crowded aisles and no air conditioning, you definitely have to work for them.