Since United keeps raising the number of award miles required for a First Class seat, I am again flying EVA’s Premium Economy (“Elite”) class. Compared with United’s Economy Plus, you get a better seat, better food, more personalized service, two free checked bags, and expedited check-in. I think it’s worth the extra cost, and now I can accumulate United miles because they joined Star Alliance. Oh, hold on, those are the miles I can never redeem. I must be a glutton for punishment.
By departing San Francisco around 12:30AM Thursday, we will arrive in Bangkok around noon Friday, which is a convenient time to queue at passport control, pick up a local SIM card, and eat a delicious lunch. Easy to say, but the fourteen hour first leg to Taipei feels interminable. It would be easier if they could put you in a state of suspended animation. Since that is not currently offered, I will have to amuse myself with eating and wandering the aisles until I can fall asleep.
We arrived about 20 minutes early in Taipei, but the transfer security line was epic, so it wasn’t possible to squeeze in both a shower and two meals. One meal would have to do, which turned out to be a 250 NTD set at the “Great Food Town” food court. Seven xiao long bao dumplings were accompanied by side dishes of kim chee, edamame sprinkled with crushed black pepper, soft tofu with oddly firm bonito shavings, vegetable tempura, and a small pot of jasmine tea. The dumplings were pretty good, but the usual vinegar-soy-ginger dipping sauce was absent. The tempura dipping sauce worked pretty well as a substitute. Later I discovered a second “Great Food Town” location near gate C4 which sells 7 XLBs for 180 NTD without the random side dishes. Sounds like a better bet for the return passage.
Bangkok’s international airport, Suvarnabhumi, has soaring ceilings and long, long, long hallways. We were delayed at Immigration by passengers from other flights cutting into the lines where they saw friends or family members, and someone whose broken bottle of duty free liquor created a puddle in the midst of the line. By contrast, the DTAC phone service counter sold, installed and activated SIM cards with astounding efficiency. In part, they do this by simplifying the seemingly innumerable options and packages available on their website to only the few most expensive “unlimited” plans designed expressly for tourists. One benefit is that they offer 30-day unlimited data plans so you don’t need to figure out how to add more data mid-trip when you might be in a town without a DTAC shop, or shy about stumbling through a call with customer service. The confusing part is “maximum speed” 9GB, which means that after the first 9GB of 3G or 4G data, speed drops to 384KB. For more high-speed data, assuming you are in an area which supports it, you can buy an add-on package later.
Since we were running late, we skipped the traditional lunch choice and ate at Thon Krueng, an excellent restaurant nearer the hotel where on past trips we’ve typically had dinner. Since there were only a few hours between lunch and dinner, we didn’t want to overstuff ourselves, so we shared two sets of plates instead of three. Impressive as usual was the red curry fish mousse (hoa moke), which is steamed in a dish with little round wells so they resemble quenelles. The powerful punch of slivered kaffir lime leaves immediately lets you know you are enjoying Thai cuisine, while the tender, just-holding-together texture reveals the hand of a master. Fish also featured in two other dishes: a deep fried serpent fish (also known as snake head fish), topped with bits of shallot and cilantro, mint leaves, and optional fried whole chillies, was accompanied by a spicy sauce for spooning over; fish cakes (tod mun) were nicely fluffy if a bit chewy after being dressed with a tangy cucumber salad. A salad of sour sausage bits, crispy rice, shallot slices and thin ribbons of tender pork skin was accompanied by lettuce leaves, cilantro sprigs and fried peanuts for making tasty (if messy) packages. A simple stir-fry of tender young chayote stems, and a platter of grilled chicken, rounded out the set. To ensure that I wasn’t going to lose any weight, I ordered a dessert of mixed items in sweetened coconut milk (ruam mit). Mistake! It was good, but I need to pace myself.
After a lengthy struggle through rush hour traffic, we arrived at the Salil Hotel. It’s my first stay here, and they definitely make a good first impression with their attractive lobby, friendly service, and the pair of cute elephants on your bed (composed of a carefully formed hand towel trunk and ears on a bath towel body). As with many hotels, you must place your keycard in a slot on the wall to get electricity in your room, so you can’t leave the A/C on all day or run around while your electronics recharge. (The rooms in building 2 are a decent size, but the word is that rooms in buildings 1 and 3 are rather cramped.)
To help recuperate from my flight, I walked down Soi 53 to Sukhumvit, and ambled over to Hatthai massage for the customary hour of leg and calf work. The squeezing and poking (Thai reflexology massage uses a wooden dowel in addition to hands and elbows) helped restore my circulation, but I was so relaxed I almost didn’t notice that my phone was set an hour slow. I barely made it to the lobby in time to meet the group for dinner.
Tonight we began a new tradition of commencing a Southern trip with a multi-course feast of fiery hot Southern cuisine. And I don’t mean Cajun. Two of Southern Thailand’s most incendiary creations were represented right here in Bangkok: gaeng som (sour curry), a broth colored a vivid yellow by fresh turmeric and featuring chunks of fish and large slices of tender fresh bamboo shoots, and kua kling, a dish typically made with chopped beef (sometimes chicken) and seasoned with a dry curry paste consisting largely of Thai chillies pounded in a mortar until so fine that you hardly notice them until it’s too late. The restaurant takes its name from this second dish. A green (?) curry with crab meat and wild pepper leaf (bai chaploo) was surprisingly bitter, completely different in flavor balance from the green curries we love back home. A stir-fry of sadtaw seeds (stinky beans) did not provide any heat relief. The two milder dishes were a fish marinated in a ginger-turmeric paste and deep fried to a crisp, covered with slices of fried ginger and turmeric, and deliciously rich chunks of fatty pork belly that had been braised with star anise. There was plenty of everything to go around, as some of us had not yet recovered our full appetites.
We had a short schedule debriefing in the lobby and headed to our rooms, where I washed my face, brushed my teeth, and promptly passed out. Every hour or so I woke up thinking, I had better charge my phone/laptop, I should turn off the noisy air conditioner, et cetera. Jet lag is no fun, but I’m heading out for a full day of activities Saturday regardless.