Jan 022010

Bangkok (January 2, 2010)

The Grand Tower Inn is located at the corner of Sukhumvit, a major boulevard, and Soi Thonglor (AKA Sukhumvit Soi 55), a busy commercial street. (Crossing Sukhumvit is like a live action version of Frogger; it is safest to transit through the overhead BTS Skytrain station if possible.) Kasma usually schedules her trips to arrive on Friday, so the first breakfast can be bought in individual nibbles from the extensive “market” of street vendor stalls near this corner every Saturday morning. Covering the full range from raw fish to dumplings and desserts, the market is fun but the sidewalk gets crowded when a dozen Americans are peering and poking and taking pictures.

Before first light, I turned off my new travel alarm. Regrettably, although it contains a calculator, thermometer, and individual time zone quick change buttons for more than half the world, the display has no backlight, so I can’t use it in the dark. The first order of business was cooling (I leave the A/C off overnight) and rehydration. I sipped the sugar-free “Oishi Green Tea Slim c600” I picked up at 7-11. It is sweetened with something, but the label doesn’t list the ingredients in English. Further research will be required.

Perhaps because of the New Year holiday, some of the usual street vendors were missing, such as the guy who roasts small bananas over a charcoal grill and serves them with a palm sugar syrup. Still, we managed to pick up fresh papaya; khanom krok (coconut milk and rice flour half spheres, cooked crispy on the outside and custardy on the inside); chive-filled dumplings and chive cakes (chewy glutinous rice squares) with sweet soy sauce; pork on a stick; and sliced mango with sweet sticky rice. We hauled these treasures to the noodle shop, where we ordered variations on fish cake and noodles, from a mild soup to a dry style with hot and sour seasonings. A sprinkle or two of chopped peanuts from the communal jar on the table, and it’s just about the perfect (albeit spicy) breakfast.

We arrived at the Grand Palace in a crush of visitors and, with the overcast lifting, the full heat and humidity of a Bangkok morning. It was difficult to see the more popular attractions, and there’s a good chance we are in someone’s photos. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, perhaps the most significant religious site in the country, posed a special challenge. Everyone in our group mentioned the gentle pressure from the crowd as wave after wave of visitors pushed up the narrow stairs into the building. Once inside, many of the Thai visitors stopped to pray and make offerings. This was perfectly appropriate, but made the traffic pattern even more confusing. I stood off to the left to take in the scene and catch a little air from a fan. In front of me, a mother pressed her hands together and prayed while her daughter stuck her face directly in front of the fan.

The temple complex is only one part of the Grand Palace, but it’s quite large with many photogenic subjects. Besides the towering gold chedi and sparkling artworks, all around the inside of the enclosing walls are murals depicting the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana. As these were in the shade, I gave them extra attention.

For lunch we crossed the Chao Phraya river to Thon Buri, settling in at the Yok Yor Marina Restaurant. Dockside, we had a prime view of river traffic, consisting mostly of long tail boats for sightseers, but also barges and other craft. Many of the menu items Kasma planned to order were sold out due to large New Years parties, but we didn’t go hungry. After an extended delay, our first dish featured large prawns and peppery crystal noodles (mung bean threads) cooked in the style of a clay pot and served with a garlicky dipping sauce. This was followed by a stir fry of squid topped with fried garlic; soured pork ribs cured with salt and flavored with fermented rice, then fried to a crisp and served with peanuts, shallots, green onions, ginger, and tiny chillies, to be assembled by simply nibbling them in sequence; a cuttlefish larb, the Northern salad more typically made with chopped pork; and finally, much later, a fried fish. The fish was a freshwater Snake Head Fish commonly consumed in the North, opened from throat to tail, and fried in its skin so that I could be served skin side down with a generous dousing of lime juice, hot chillies, thin rings of lemongrass, shallots, peanuts, and dried shrimp. The fish was delicious, and one of our Canadian travelers even managed to eat the crispy fish head.

Our next stop was the Queen’s SUPPORT Museum, featuring works created in the style of traditional Thai crafts. The works here are exquisite, and would be very expensive in a boutique. Hopefully we can find a few affordable versions in our future shopping ventures. Our last stop was the “Marble Temple” built, as the name suggests, of marble left over from the construction of the parliament building. While this is a regular tourist stop, the temple has the feel of a regular neighborhood place, completely unlike the Grand Palace. On our way in, we passed young monks draping the low walls around the temple with enormous runs of bright yellow, pink, and blue fabric. Inside, the enormous gold-colored image of the Buddha smiled down serenely on locals and tourists alike. The rear courtyard is ringed with reproductions of Buddha images from around Thailand during various periods, showing a few of the postures typically depicted in such images, and a wide variation in facial features and body shape over time and among different ethnic groups. One could study this for quite a while, but a bottle of cold water and an air conditioned van beckoned.

For dinner, we made a short journey up Soi Thonglor to the festively decorated Thon Krueng. This popular restaurant was amazing on my last trip, but my current visit started inauspiciously: they had mis-recorded the reservation and didn’t have a table for us. This soon was remedied, as we were seated away from the chaotic courtyard area in a quiet room in a separate building. Our first dish was a salad of toasted rice and crumbed Northern-style sour sausage. The fried rice “crispies” soaked up the lime-based dressing, so they were tender and tasty but less crunchy than expected. Instead, peanuts and shallots provided the crunch, while roasted red chilli pods could be munched for additional heat. I definitely would order this again. Next we had a tender fish mousse, steamed and served on a terra cotta plate with seven indentations and seven matching covers. A coconut milk base contributed to the rich silky texture, while red curry seasoning added excitement to the flavor. Our fried fish this evening was a sheatfish, a variety of local fresh water catfish, dressed with a bright orange but fairly mild choo chee curry. Last but not least was a fried duck, chopped into manageable pieces alongside a mound of glossy dark green ribbons reminiscent of Easter basket “grass” (but more likely fried holy basil). At first bite, the level of star anise or five-spice flavor was just right, and the duck had been fried long enough to render out the subcutaneous fat, making each piece a pleasure to eat. (I might make an exception for the skinny, bony neck pieces, which were quite a challenge to eat with any degree of decorum.) For dessert, I tried a dish I had enjoyed at other restaurants. A bowl of steaming hot ginger tea holds four glutinous rice balls, each sufficiently translucent to see the crushed black sesame filling. Unfortunately, Thon Krueng’s sesame balls lacked the volume necessary to offset the powerful ginger taste, and were a bit too firm, lacking the jelly-like delicacy of the best places.

Tomorrow we would rent a boat and tour the local canals, and then quite soon we would be leaving Bangkok for the central plains, the heart of Thailand.

  2 Responses to “Palaces, Temples and Food, Food, Food”

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  1. The Saveur 100 – #81 Kasma Loha-Unchit !! (p. 70-71)

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