Feb 192006

Krabi (Wednesday, February 15, 2006)

Suddenly, It’s All Over

The group’s last full day in Thailand began quietly at the Maritime’s breakfast buffet. We arrived at the airport and despite some inefficiency at the check-in counter, we had plenty of time to shop and chat before boarding our flight from Krabi to Bangkok. The plane was packed, and the snack wasn’t very interesting, but we had a big lunch and an even bigger dinner to look forward to.

Gathering outside the baggage claim, we learned that one of our drivers’ vans had broken down, so we had a temporary second van. Between the unpleasant scent of the air conditioning system and the driver’s use of short jabs to the accelerator, a few of us didn’t feel so good by the time we got to the market. But the allure of beautifully presented fruit, sausages, meat-on-a-stick, even fresh fish, soon perked us up. This market was relocated or remodeled since my last visit. It now has high ceilings with a lot of light and fresh air, while retaining the crowded aisles. We heard that celebrities shop here on weekends, and it definitely is a big step up from some of the darker, dingier, smellier markets we have visited.

Last year we nibbled incessantly, but this year we focused on taking photos and did most of our eating at some tables near the noodle and rice plate stands. We had choices of individual plates of roast duck with basil and garlic over rice, mussel omelet, or pad thai. Supplemental items included a roasted coconut (like young coconut, to drink and to eat); Northeastern style sour sausage balls (wow, major pork fat); small steamed dumplings stuffed with chives, served with a sweet soy dipping sauce; charcoal grilled pork-on-a-stick; durian fruit, with its odd blend of creamy texture and green onion aroma and taste; and the best pork rinds I’ve ever had (I even bought a bag to go).

Sparkly clean remodeled Aw Taw Kaw Market

Ready-to-eat pineapple at Aw Taw Kaw Market

Making fishballs at Aw Taw Kaw Market

Pork at Aw Taw Kaw Market

Sausage bites at Aw Taw Kaw Market

Bigger than jumbo shrimp at Aw Taw Kaw Market

Colorful fish at Aw Taw Kaw Market

Whole durian at Aw Taw Kaw Market

Roasted young coconut at Aw Taw Kaw Market

Noodle shop across the parking lot

Before returning to the hotel, we made a 75 minute shopping stop at Narai Phand (AKA Narayana Phand). This emporium of handicrafts and Thai souvenirs is surrounded on the sides and in the basement by small vendor shops willing to bargain, so it makes sense to check around before committing your money. Of course, that’s not always possible. I could not seem to escape the men’s ties department without buying something, which turned out to be a blue and black woven Thai silk number not much cheaper than what I could buy at home ($16). In the basement I later found a bizarre $3 tie featuring what at first appear to be ghosts with various faces and accessories, but which, on closer inspection, turn out to be condoms. Which one of you will be getting this tie for Christmas? Someone naughty, for sure.

Because I plan to go back to the immense Chatuchak market on Saturday, I postponed my other souvenir purchases. At the hotel we unloaded our accumulated goodies, and I was missing most of my loot, which had been in two boxes under the seats in the broken down van. Fortunately, these arrived just before dinner and, combined with the few items I had left at the hotel, it appears that I’ll have room in my big box (to travel as checked luggage) for a few more purchases before I leave town.

For dinner we ventured around the corner to Vientiane Kitchen. Like last year’s final feast at Banelao, the food and live entertainment were much more Northeastern/Laotian in character than Southern, but that’s okay: the food was very good and we’ve had plenty of hot Southern curries! Seated near the stage, our cameras were under constant attack from a steady stream of mist sprayed down from a high tower and blown to all corners of the restaurant by fans. Some flash photos look as though they were taken in a snow storm. The beer drinkers were treated to an odd spectacle of a tall tube of beer served by a “beer girl” in a short skirt. But I digress: you want to know about the food.

We started with miang plah, a fried fish dish eaten in a unique way. You take a large green leaf and fold in part of the edge so it forms a little cup. Then you add a small amount of fish and each of several condiments: cloves of garlic, peanuts, a pinch of toasted coconut, pieces of ginger, lime, lemongrass and shallots, and, optionally, hot little Thai chillies. Then you eat the leaf as a gently closed packet (not rolled like a taco, although no one would object if you ate it that way). Next up was a not-very-hot salad of beef slices, accompanied by a large plate of raw vegetables that would be more suited to a hotter salad. Our second salad combined toasted (but not puffed) rice with tasty bits of Northeastern sour sausage, shallots, peanuts and other stuff. Compared with the assemble-it-yourself rice salads we ate in the South, this one was very plush and rich, without any throat-scratching stems. A fried fermented fish was good in small quantities; it seemed to me to have some similarity in aroma and taste to European aged cheeses, but no one around me shared my opinion on that. Our soup was quite sour, and somewhat forgettable. Fish steamed with (preserved?) bamboo shoots in a banana leaf reminded me of Hawaiian lau lau; I will have to go to Hawaii to confirm the similarity. The biggest hit was the deep fried crunchy pork legs. Although not quite the relevation of the version we had in Trang, this one was excellent. Hmmm, maybe I will come back here before I leave.

After a few rounds of Thai dancing, the band took a break and there was an audience participation segment with sword fighting and faux Thai boxing. At one point there was a collision near us and my water glass poured into my backpack and then fell off the table and shattered. That was enough participation for me, but two members of our group got pulled up into the show, with comical but difficult-to-photograph results. Maybe “next year” I will bring a camcorder?

The band returned, and the dancers came and went. For dessert I tried a confection of sweet black sesame paste, inside a mochi-like sticky rice ball, served in piping hot ginger tea (or soup, not sure of the translation). These components were not especially nice by themselves, but combining the chewy stick rice with the sweet sesame and the spicy ginger made for an excellent taste sensation. Eventually we came to our own “closing ceremonies,” Kasma’s traditional presentation of gifts. Each person chooses a slip of paper from a basket listing a location on our trip, and has to answer to the hints given about that place. My place was Songkhla and my gift was a shadow puppet: very appropriate because I had secretly regretted not buying one. Of course, I still have the problem of how to protect and present it, but I can work on that back home. We presented envelopes to our regular drivers with tips from the trip members (our temporary driver might have felt a bit left out, but we hadn’t planned on having him there… oh well).

Singha beer saleswoman at Vientiane Kitchen

Musicians playing at Vientiane Kitchen

Ingredients for miang plah at Vientiane Kitchen

Assembled miang plah at Vientiane Kitchen

Beef larb at Vientiane Kitchen

Rice salad with sour sausage at Vientiane Kitchen

Fried fish at Vientiane Kitchen

Chicken (?) soup at Vientiane Kitchen

Steamed fish at Vientiane Kitchen

Deep fried crunchy pork leg at Vientiane Kitchen

Dancers performing at Vientiane Kitchen

Dancers performing at Vientiane Kitchen

Dessert of ginger soup with sesame rice ball at Vientiane Kitchen

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Not much time to do anything else after such a huge meal. While everyone else finished their packing, I reviewed guidebooks and tried to figure out how to spend another three and a half days in Bangkok. So much to do, such hot weather.

Bangkok (Thursday, February 16, 2006)

On My Own

A few of us gathered in the lobby for a final “street meal” of noodles and miscellaneous goodies. The regular noodle stop closes on the sixteenth of the month, so we tried a new place. The fish cake there is not as interesting, but it still was a bit better than the buffet. (I checked later when I got a couple shots of black tea.) I saw the group off to the airport, put a little sunscreen on my face and neck, and headed out. The plan was to take the Skytrain to the station on the river, and take the river ferry/taxi to various stops. I ended up buying the tourist special: a 100 baht ticket good for unlimited stops and starts within the first two zones of the system. As with any “all you can eat” deal, I immediately knew I had to do all my river stops today, heat permitting.

I rode all the way to the furthest point and transferred to a second boat that crossed the river to the Royal Barges Museum. The water is brown and a bit foamy, and the boats spit streams the color of squid ink into the river when they change direction. So it was good that these boats were designed to avoid getting the passengers wet. Even so, some spray occasionally landed on exposed skin; I just tried not to get any too close to my mouth. There were photo ops all up and down the river, ranging from temples and bridges to ramshackle houses on stilts and busy markets. I’d probably need to make another round trip on the left side of the boat to get all the angles… maybe next year.

The royal barges are very long, narrow, and ornately decorated boats used only for ceremonial processions. The museum charges 30 baht for entry and a surcharge of 100 baht to take still photos; more for video. Without a strong flash gun, photo opportunities are limited, but I bought the permit anyway, to support the museum. Returning down the river a few stops, I exited at Tha Tien, the pier for Wat Pho, famous as a school for Thai massage. To get me through the next half hour, I bought a fresh-squeezed tangerine juice from a street vendor who had a very cute tangerine tree on his cart. Perhaps I should have bought two: I took a wrong turn and ended up walking around the entire outer wall of the Grand Palace. It was quite warm and I began to think about putting some sunscreen on my arms (I was wearing long pants for temples, so legs were not an issue). I thought I could hold out, and tuk-tuk drivers couldn’t resist talking to me so I didn’t want to stop moving. I found Wat Pho and viewed the immense reclining Buddha. The temple was very busy and the statue is so large it almost can’t be photographed. The mother-of-pearl decorations inlaid on the soles of the feet seemed to trick the camera’s autofocus every time; or perhaps the camera was just hot and tired like me. I race-walked through the rest of the temple grounds looking for shade, or a massage, or just the exit.

Back around the corner I found an “Internet and Games” place with strong air conditioning and stopped in to check email. I was planning dinner with a professional colleague and did have a message, so it was very timely. And after about 20 minutes, I was mostly refreshed and thinking about lunch. Nothing on the way back to the pier seemed quite right, except a young coconut, which turned out to be deliciously fresh. I jumped on the cross-river ferry (3 baht, not included in the tourist special) and after finishing the juice, I set the coconut on my thigh and dug at it with a plastic spoon I keep in my backpack. The coconut had been soaking in ice water, so by the time I was done, it looked as though, well, it didn’t look so good. Fortunately, wet clothes dry quickly in the heat of the day here.

I am not learning very much about the temples I’m visiting. Whatever I pick up from the Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide gets all mixed around. So I can’t remember why I wanted to visit Wat Arun, but it was picturesque, and it did have a clean bathroom, which is a big plus. I had a few sweet black sesame treats to tide me over. On the ferry ride back, I accidentally left my camera’s UV filter on my seat when I changed to another row with a “window” seat. By the time I realized this, the person who took my former seat had slipped it to the floor thinking it was some leftover garbage. After a bit of searching, it turned up with no harm done. Just another fingerprint or two.

A few stops later we were back at the Skytrain station ready to head home. Except that it was getting a bit late to buy lunch, so I checked the carts around the pier. Chilled drinks, chilled drinks, grilled squid — and then I saw her: a thin young woman with a big smile tending a huge wok of boiling oil. “Gai,” I asked, wanting to know if she was making chicken. It was, but it wouldn’t be ready for 10 minutes. Tough call. I had no idea whether her chicken would be good, but it had one big advantage over all the other vendors: it would have been freshly made. So I loitered around the station until I could get my chicken and headed for the hotel. The hot steam from the chicken almost scalded my hand, while the chilly air conditioning in the Skytrain made for a sharp contrast.

Back at the hotel, there was a delay before lunch because my keycard had become deactivated. This always seems to happen when we switch from group billing to personal billing; anyway, one extra elevator ride took care of it. I stripped off my sweaty clothes and ripped into the still-warm chicken, devouring the crispy skin and white meat (foreigners always get the white meat) with the included sticky rice and a touch of sweet-sour-hot sauce. Add a bottle or two of cold water, and I almost feel normal again. Get up tomorrow and do it again.

In the time available before dinner, it would be difficult to squeeze in a two hour Thai massage. Instead I tried a 1 hour “foot” massage. This reaches well beyond the feet to the lower legs, including the sensitive nerves the masseuses like to gouge with their strong fingers. But the most novel part compared with regular Thai massage is the use of a dowel to rub and press various points on the feet. Some were quite sensitive, but I don’t know how to interpret that: these pressure points are said to correspond to other parts of the body so perhaps the problem is not in the foot after all?

After changing into a dressier shirt (a batik featuring sailfish) I took the Skytrain downtown to meet my hosts and have dinner at a Chinese restaurant at the Landmark hotel. The food was mostly good here, with presentation quite different from that in California. For example, a duck was served in two courses: first rectangles of crispy skin were served with round wrappers a bit thicker than moo shu pancakes but much tastier than flour tortillas; a couple courses later, the duck meat was served with (somewhat undersized) iceberg lettuce cups. In between we had our soup and salad courses. I tried the fish maw soup which only later was translated as fish stomach. It was okay, but perhaps I won’t order it again unless I desperately need its purported longevity benefits. The salad was really not a salad: deep fried pockets contained a large shrimp with a creamy sauce reminiscent of lemon chicken plus walnut prawns were served over crispy fried mung bean threads. Despite my desire to be polite, I couldn’t bring myself to eat all of the gooey filling. The whole steamed fish was served last, and it was very fresh. Oddly, we each were given a tiny dish of very salty thin soy sauce, but the sauce on the fish itself was a bit undersalted for my tastes. I suppose the goal of a hotel restaurant is to offend as few people as possible, and in that they succeeded.

After dinner, my Thai host went back to the office, and his American colleague showed me a bit of the neighborhood. We had a couple of beers in an Australian bar and discussed Thai culture. Across the alley, the notorious Eden Club apparently fulfills stereotypes about Bangkok’s allure to Western men. The Skytrain whisked me home again, and I fell into bed without doing a lot of planning for the next few days.

Bangkok (Friday, February 17, 2006)

Wardrobe Malfunctions

I grabbed the alarm clock and reset it for a more decent hour. My only immediate deadline was the 9:00 AM laundry call. I wanted to clean and press my long pants, especially the one with massage oil marks from the foot massage (note to self: wear shorts next time). Over the hotel’s buffet breakfast, perusing the guidebook, I realized that I should have kept one pair handy, just in case I decided to drop in on a temple. Oh well, I guess it will have to be a shopping day until evening, when I get my best shot at seeing some Muay Thai (Thai kick-boxing) matches.

I bought a card to use up to 10 hours of the hotel’s wireless Internet access. After doing some research on Muay Thai boxing schedules, and updating the wiki, I was getting a little light headed. Time to find something to eat. I headed back to the MBK food court for the good papaya salad. I had that plus a forgettable rice plate of ground chicken with Thai basil and sliced pork with green beans in a red curry. My allocation of coupons did not cover a sticky rice and mango dessert; sticky rice and durian would have been an option, but since good durian is much pricier than mango, it sounded like it could have been a big mistake. Coconut ice cream with sticky rice and red beans used up a few more coupons, but I cashed in the extras and headed out to find the Jim Thompson house.

Jim Thompson, an American who settled in Thailand, liked to collect art and popularized Thai silk when the industry was succumbing to competition from other fabrics. Today his “house,” assembled from numerous teak houses he gathered from around the country, is a museum operated by a foundation. The tour guide had a great command of English, but our group was just a little too big for some of the rooms and the only air conditioning was in a separate special exhibit — and the gift shop. I picked up some very nice Thai silk pillowcases, but if you have cats or kids, or don’t like elephants, they probably are not for you. Enough shopping; it’s 3:30 already and time to head back.

Dinner and boxing are penciled in for later, but for now, perhaps another Thai massage would be a good way to hide out from the heat of the day? I think the masseuse was the same as four weeks ago, and I was confident that the foot massage had worked out a lot of the pain in my lower legs so that it would be less traumatic this time. Wrong. Those pressure points still hurt. The pajama coverups were comically tight, being made for a short, thin person. And I wonder why they all find my grimaces so entertaining? I think this will be my last Thai massage for quite a while. I didn’t get out until 7:00, so dinner became the top priority. I walked around the corner to My Choice, where I had eaten four weeks ago, for the delicious smoked eggplant salad. Seeking a protein course, I ordered the Southern-style chicken curry which had seemed so brutally hot before. It was still really hot, and the eggplant salad was again excellent.

With rice and a lime juice, I was more than too full, even for sticky rice and mango at the local night market, so I decided to take a walk up Soi Thonglor in pursuit of the young and hip and tragically trendy boys and girls of Bangkok. (Reference: To Be Young and Hip in Bangkok, The New York Times, Nov. 20, 2005, travel section; thank you to Mike Lee for the link.) I walked to the canal, where a seedy club marks the end of the wedding stores and chic coffee shops. On the way back I stopped at playground!, a three story boutique of trendy clothes, furniture, and toys, fashioned around play spaces. There are some swings suspended from the ceiling, and in keeping with a Love theme around Valentine’s Day, there is a giant mouse in a wedding dress out front, brightly lit with soft pink spotlights. Interesting place, but I suspect not a good value.

A couple blocks later on the opposite side I found J Avenue; the “J” might refer to Japan or Japanese, but it’s just a guess. Anchored by a Japanese supermarket (with sashimi assortments at about half the price of Nijiya in Mountain View), and featuring several Japanese restaurants, this little mall features numerous hangouts for the younger set, such as Au Bon Pain, a dessert joint next door, and Greyhound Cafe. Three little tents show off custom Mini Coopers. Let me just grab a cold iced tea and get back to the hotel. About 3 miles round trip, but it felt like more with the heat-and-humidity multiplier.

In the morning I head back to the Chatuchak Weekend Market for souvenirs, then I have to pack everything I can for departure Sunday, and after dinner, I will check out the late boxing matches at Lumphini Stadium, and the nearby night market. I better plan on squeezing in a nap there somewhere.

Bangkok (Saturday, February 18, 2006)

Shopping and More Shopping

Getting a bit of a late start, I picked up some hot-from-the-pan khanom krok (kruk?), the little half-sphere coconut milk confections. Crispy on the outside and blistering hot and creamy on the inside, I ate them as fast as I could until I got into the Skytrain station and had to put them aside for the half hour ride to the Chatuchak weekend market. A wave of young shoppers exited the station, and more hopped out of buses, a tide of humanity entering through the narrow gate. Many vendors were still opening up, burning incense and doing their various rituals to help their businesses, but the place was busy already at 8:40AM. And hot. I roamed around examining various wooden elephants and bulky “axe” pillows, but ended up buying a few other items. I stopped for dim sum and sugar cane juice, but when I was all shopped out it was too early for lunch so I headed back to the hotel to hit the local vendors. I wanted charcoal-grilled pork-on-a-stick, but a hot and sour soup of soft, wide rice noodles with fish cakes of various shapes and ingredients was a good tide-me-over.

I checked email for a while and hung out in the smoky hotel lobby while my room was made up. Hungry again, I found my pork-on-a-stick and a large portion of sticky rice with mango around the corner, and devoured them with a bottle of iced tea. The trend of overeating continues; what will dinner bring? I switched the TV on and found a local station showing a Muay Thai match. My law firm hosts had suggested this the other night, and it seemed like a good idea. The first match quickly ended with an elbow to the jaw that sent one boxer to the canvas. A second match involved many knees to the torso before there was some final blow to the head. I don’t think I want to see this in person, even if the fan behavior is the main show. I think I will rearrange my schedule.

After a few hours of web surfing and figuring out how to pack my stuff for the flight back, I headed out to the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, a market adjacent to the boxing stadium where I had planned to have dinner. Like Chatuchak, Suan Lum features individual vendors and narrow aisles, but the clothing is much more trendy, the furniture is chic, and the atmosphere is like a big party. In fact, much of the food court seating area has been converted into a huge “beer garden” where beer girls try to sell Heineken, Tiger, Chang, and many brands I didn’t recognize. I couldn’t find a table, so I sat down next to a German couple who had a spare seat. Big screens showed the sporting event of the day: not boxing, but Liverpool vs. Manchester United. During the half time break, bands performed on a stage under one of the screens. For dinner I had roast pork neck, rice, and a hot green papaya salad. When the woman making the salad asked if I wanted Thai chillies, I said “phet mak mak” which roughly translates to “burn my taste buds off.” The salad was good but, while walking around looking for a table, I sloshed some of the dressing on my shirt and pants, so I will have to use an extra laundry bag when I pack.

Walking the market, I didn’t see anything irresistible. I did spot an organic tea stand, and remembered that someone who took Kasma’s Northern trip had said the Thailand-grown tea was good. I stopped for a taste and ended up buying two different oolongs. Not cheap, but not out of line for organically grown tea. The t-shirts at this market were particularly scandalous. None seemed appropriate to bring home, but maybe next year I can wear one around town and fit in better.

I decided to pass on the boxing and head for home. Lumphini Stadium and the Suan Lum market are served by the subway (MRT). This system is more modern than the Skytrain in every respect. You select your destination on a touch screen without having to figure out any zones; insert your fare in coins or paper money; and receive a round plastic token. You simply hold the token close to a panel on the gate to enter the system, and on your way out it reads the token and tells you to deposit it in a slot. The track area is safely isolated behind glass, and sliding glass doors open simultaneously with the train doors. The stations are air conditioned, which is an advantage over the Skytrain. On the other hand, there’s no view from the subway. Hmmmm. I like the view.

Tomorrow’s a big travel day, but I do have a few hours for last minute “stuff.” What will make the cut? Find out in our next exciting episode.

Bangkok (Sunday, February 19, 2006)

The Longest Day

Feeling utterly lazy, I decided that my entire itinerary for the day would be to eat and get a foot massage. After checking email, I arranged for a late checkout and picked up a jolt of caffeine and a few pieces of fruit at the hotel’s buffet. Then I headed out onto the street for one last order of khanom krok. The problem with street food is where to eat it, and I ended up back in my room with the air conditioner on full blast. After further packing, I decided to get a stick poked in my feet and headed around the corner for one last round of pain and relaxation. They are starting to recognize me, but I saw a number of other “regulars” come and go, so I am not alone.

My plan to pick up a few more small boxes at the post office to organize my big box fell through: it’s Sunday and the doors were shuttered. Oh well, have to make do with plastic bags and other “stuffing” to try to lend order to the chaos. Soon enough it was time for lunch and I wandered across the main drag using the tall staircases of the Skytrain station for safe passage. I wanted an order of the fried pork legs at Vientiane Kitchen, but they didn’t seem to have any customers and there was a strong paint or paint thinner odor from some work nearby. Back to the noodle shop for another bowl, this time “dry style,” which is exactly how you order it in Thai, too. Fetching another box of mango with sticky rice, I headed back for the final pack-up.

At checkout, I asked for some help with my big box and other luggage, and before I knew it, they packed me into a cab and sent me off to the airport. I regretted that I couldn’t check email one last time, or give anyone the password to use the last 2 hours and 40 minutes of my prepaid internet card, but after enduring long, slow lines at the airline check-in counter and at passport control, I had the sense that they knew what they were doing back at the hotel. I bought a fresh-squeezed pineapple juice and was down to my last 68 baht. No bottle of rum for me this year. I got a Thai iced tea and boarded our 777. The “Elite” class on this plane is a step up from the “Evergreen Deluxe” class on the 747s I flew over. In addition to an upgraded movie screen with on-demand movies, noise canceling headphones, games, and an interactive flight map, there is a power outlet for the laptop and the seats seem a bit wider. Certainly I haven’t gotten any narrower.

Our dinner choices were fish and chicken. I tried the fish, which turned out to be a round, hocky puck-sized fish cake that seemed to have the texture of steamed food but was somehow browned on the outside. This was served in a strikingly orange sauce that looked like cheddar but tasted like brown gravy. Carrots and celery, and slightly undercooked potato wedges, respectively, flanked the puck. The salad might have been green papaya, but tasted old, and the fruit also had passed (or never reached) its peak. I skipped the wine, which always seems to disappoint. Perhaps better than coach, but they will have to do better to live up to the “Elite” billing. (The cashew chicken didn’t look any better.)

We touched down in Taipei at around 9:20PM, and my only thought was “steamed pork dumplings,” the treat I had enjoyed so much on my last stopover at this airport. Would they still be open? Woo-hoo, yes, they’re open and the line was not too long. Delicious. And there’s still an hour before boarding. Maybe I’ll have room to stuff in a second round.

The Taipei-San Francisco leg is almost 11 hours, and after an initial dinner of chicken with slightly dried-out noodles and forgettable vegetables, I slept as much as possible. About two and half hours before arrival, they woke us up for the next round of food and beverage service. The “pork and beancurd hamberger” [sic] sounded irresistible, and it was a peculiar hybrid: breakfast sausage meets shiitake mushroom gravy with Japanese-style rice and cauliflower florets. Most people took only a bite or two, but I was hungry and ate the whole thing, even though it was a bit pink inside. Hopefully no harm will come of that. We landed smoothly under magenta skies, and I got through Customs with minimal hassle — they didn’t seem too interested in fruit chips and curry pastes — and returned to chilly Winter weather.

When do we eat? ;-)

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