Friday, January 14, 2005 — Bangkok
I touched down at Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport, about 15 miles outside of the city, around 1:30 AM local time (15 hours ahead of California). Passage through immigration and customs was smooth once the baggage got sorted out. It’s not completely fair to say that I have no sense of adventure when it comes to airport transportation — I often have opted for inexpensive, doubtful, and even dangerous options — but in light of the hour, I took the advice of the travel books and chose a “metered” taxi to my hotel. By 2:30 AM, the traffic was very light.
I was grateful that our fearless leaders provided me with the hotel’s business cards in both English and Thai, and they illustrated a common problem in transliterating the Thai language for English speakers, as well as some of Bangkok’s unusual street naming conventions. The hotel is just off Sukhumvit Road; on this there is no disagreement. The cross street is known both as Sukhumvit Soi 55 (or Sukhumvit 55 or Soi 55 for short), and as Soi Thonglor (or Soi Thongloh or Soi Tonglaw) — all by the same hotel! It’s just a bit confusing, and for Googling addresses, it’s a nightmare. But I digress.
The Grand Tower Inn at Sukhumvit 55 advertises itself as providing quality accommodation in a good location at a bargain price. As I wrote this on Friday morning, my squeaking room air conditioner still was struggling to keep the temperature in the 70s and the strange odor in the bathroom (camphor? bug spray?) refused to dissipate. I think I need to get up and do something!
The rest of my group was scheduled to arrive in the afternoon. With a business center and spa on site, I had little incentive to leave the building. Except that I was getting hungry and the hotel restaurant’s breakfast buffet left a lot to be desired. After checking email, I walked around the block and settled on Grand Ramen for lunch. The restaurant was full of large groups, and I was seated at the counter overlooking the kitchen, where two cooks were very busy with the lunch rush. The ebi yakisoba was quite good, with freshly stir-fried ramen noodles, cabbage and bean sprouts, a few shrimp on top for decoration, hot mustard and red pepper powder on the side. Low protein but filling.
I was now ready to try a Thai massage. Our old hands recommended Hatthai Massage, just around the corner, where a two hour session goes for 300 baht (about $7.50). They start by washing your feet, giving you a pair of slippers, and leading you upstairs to a room with several futon-style mattresses separated by curtains. Here you change into a pair of lightweight pajamas and your masseuse begins work, moving methodically over two hours from the feet and legs to the back, neck, head and shoulders. In addition to fingers and palms, the Thai masseuse applies pressure using elbows, knees, and feet. Now and then, I experienced unexpected pain, both from direct pressure and from stretches of muscles that I probably haven’t used for 20 years. During the first 10 minutes, I thought there was no way I’d make it through two hours, but by the end, I was surprised that so much time had passed. Time now for a nap and a bit more web surfing.
I met most of the rest of our group in the hotel lobby, and we proceeded down Soi 55 to Thon Krueng for dinner. The festively lit restaurant has numerous rooms for private parties, and we soon were in our own world of food and travel talk. Highlights of dinner included a deep-fried cottonfish (some kind of trevally) in a panko-like batter with a light sour-sweet sauce similar to a salad dressing, containing shreds of green mango; a spicy fish curry mousse served as individual steamed cakes on the ceramic plate (with individual wells and covers) on which it was steamed; morning glories (sometimes known in California as Thai water spinach) sauteed with garlic; and an appetizer of mini-rice cakes with chunky (but not overly thickened) peanut sauce. The soup was a tasty beef-based hot and sour, but the beef (I think it was beef) had become too tough to enjoy. The crispy duck straggled onto the table last. Seemingly bred and cooked for maximum crispy skin, the duck offered perhaps too little meat for the picking.
With dinner we tried a rice-based distilled beverage they locally categorize as “whiskey.” I believe it was the Mekong brand, and it was not meant to be sipped and savored, if you know what I mean. Before, during, and after dessert, Kasma held up various maps of Thailand and took us through much of our itinerary for the coming month. As Kasma had advised us, Thon Krueng’s coconut ice cream contained various items in addition to coconut, such as frozen pieces of bland green-colored noodles and a few bits of fruit. Since we had to be ready to go at 8:30 AM for our trip to the market, or at 7:00 AM for an early bird tour of the neighborhood’s food carts, I thought it best to turn in early.
Saturday, January 15, 2005
It was 5:15 AM, 79 degrees, and I couldn’t get back to sleep. Time to write up some notes before heading out onto the streets. After tonight, we are going to have very little Internet access for about 5 days, and I might even be parted from my computer (I’m not sure locking my tent is going to provide appropriate security.)
At 7:00 AM, we headed down Sukhumvit Road with Kasma making small purchases here and there: mango, fried dumplings filled with chives, and various other items. We then repaired to a noodle shop (on Sukhumvit, half a block Southeast from Soi 55, you’ll see someone cooking behind glass in the doorway) where we ordered the house special, either with soup or “dry style.” Both featured thin rice noodles, garlic and chili, a homemade pork meatball (shaped roughly like a football), and fish cakes in various shapes and textures. With chopped peanuts on the table for sprinkling in, it made a very filling breakfast. And that was before the mango with sticky rice. It was the biggest breakfast I can remember eating for a long time… and I was hungry again by 11 AM.
We departed at 8:30 for Chautuchak weekend market, also known as Jatujak or JJ. An enormous collection of individual vendor stalls, the market serves Thais as well as tourists. The clutter is overwhelming, but fortunately most items are available from more than one seller because you could never get to all the stalls. I bought two shirts, which were a high priority for me, for about $6 each. (I was not comfortable bargaining, so the sellers took pity and discounted the prices about $1 on their own.) I also picked up a couple of gift items, but left many others behind. I mean, who really needs a wooden model “tuk tuk” taxi?
At noon, we gathered in the enormous Toh-Plue Restaurant for another large meal of Thai favorites. Fried fish cakes and squid salad would be familiar to anyone who has eaten at a Thai restaurant in California, but seafood curry served in a young coconut (with extremely tender flesh) was a novelty I could not get enough of. The “fried catfish” was the most unusual dish: deep fried flakes were served over shredded cabbage, and dressed at the table with a light lime-chili sauce; I still don’t understand how the catfish was transformed into those featherweight flakes. A stir fry of fatty pork neck meat rounded out the meal. Afterwards, we had another 45 minutes to roam the market for priceless souvenirs.
At this point, our group split up. Five of us took taxis to the Western end of town to visit the Grand Palace. When we arrived, a man loitering on the sidewalk indicated that my shorts were in violation of the dress code, and that I would have to walk down to a different entrance to “borrow” some long pants (at no charge). As we headed in that direction, another man approached and complained about one of the women’s dresses (perhaps the calves were too exposed). He said there was a Buddhist ceremony inside, and that we should come back at 3:30, and in the meantime, two tuk-tuk drivers would take us on a tour of 4 local sites for only 20 baht for all of us! It was one of those “too good to be true” offers, and after our first stop to see the “standing Buddha,” we got the word: they needed us to visit a jewelry shop so that they could get vouchers to buy gasoline for their vehicles. Okay, we went along. Turned out that the shop had really nice restrooms, which made it all worth it. It was about 3:10 by now, and an argument broke out. The drivers claimed that we had missed the time to buy tickets to the Grand Palace (3:00), so we should continue on the tour with them. We insisted that we go back. My Rough Guide said they were open to 3:30, so I told them to “drive fast.” They did. We made it there with only a couple of minutes to spare, I put down a 100 baht deposit on a pair of long pants, we hired as a tour guide a man who wouldn’t leave us alone, and entered the dazzling palace grounds.
As my pants were due back at 4:30, and the palace shop had closed, we thought we would head across the street to a bookstore for some postcards. The moment the light turned, as if on cue, at least a dozen young people (some small children, others teenagers or older) sprouted long strings of postcards from their hands and charged into the streets, swarming everyone. We made it back into the shop, but on the way out I ended up buying two packs of cards before we could all squeeze into the cab for our journey back to the hotel.
Thinking that traffic would be horrible, we took a taxi only to the first Skytrain station. The ride was interminable (although seeing dozens of shops selling Buddha statues and related items was a blast). When we reached the station, we got oriented, got change, and took a fast, air-conditioned, BART-like train back to within yards of our hotel’s driveway. With 50 minutes to spare before dinner. All things considered, not a bad outing.
For dinner we walked across busy Sukhumvit Road (by taking the Skytrain staircases) to My Choice Restaurant. This was by far the hottest food we had eaten, and the meal is a bit of a blur (my notes are sketchy). We began with a dish of a tender green vegetable (looking somewhat like a smaller version of snow pea greens) over stewed duck. This was followed by a salad of finely chopped wing beans covered with fried shallots, and a Southern style curry of chicken and vegetables (no coconut milk, like pat prik king curry, only much hotter and less sweet). A musuman curry of fatty beef tongue, and a red curry with crispy fried catfish completed the main course. A coconut ice cream with basil seeds, which swelled to resemble tapioca beads, helped to cool the palate.
Despite my best intentions to rush out to the Internet cafe and post this, I simply passed out after dinner and we had to be up quite early to head out to Ranong.