Jan 042010

Bangkok (January 4, 2010)

Our early morning getaway began under cover of darkness around 5:45AM. We were split among two vans, and unfortunately we became separated. Our driver in the second van is actually a mechanic, so he is not as familiar with the twists and turns of Bangkok as would be ideal. Directions came by mobile phone and from locals on the streets. One road we turned down had giant humps, large enough to hide a vehicle, far too frequently. Snoozing dogs barely looked up from the edge of the road as we desperately tried to escape the city. Eventually, we made it to the highway and caught up with our fellow travelers. We would arrive at the floating market about 20 minutes later than planned, but at least we would be together.

Damnoen Saduak (January 4, 2010)

The town has streamed banners across its main street every block or so welcoming visitors to the floating market. Although it is possible to rent a long tail boat just off the highway, we drove all the way to the heart of the market to rent the more traditional motor-less boat, where a single oarsman or oarswoman steers and propels the boat from the back. Gliding silently up the canals, peering into houses on stilts, offers a view of traditional living that is difficult to appreciate from a loud and fast-moving diesel-powered craft.

On one of the smaller side canals, we stopped at a property with numerous coconut palms to sample (and purchase) their wares. To make coconut sugar, a slit is made in the blossoms, and the sap collected. This is boiled down to a caramel colored hunk of sweetness, but we tasted the boiling sap at an early stage, when it less concentrated and very refreshing. We picked up a number of treats here, some to consume with a beer, perhaps, and some to take home.

As we encountered some of Kasma’s favorite food vendors, she delighted them with photos from previous trips. Many others vendors had taken the day off because they had worked so hard over the New Years weekend. Still, we enjoyed a wide variety of treats from vendor boats, including grilled pork-on-a-stick, coconut pancakes, khanom krok, and cleansing slices of slightly sweet, grapefruit-like pomelo. Once we were almost full, it was time for a bowl of “boat noodles.” Literally cooked on a boat, this hot and sour noodle soup differed from the 2008 version in its emphasis on fish cake in place of some of the pork. (I think the pork version was better, but the couple that runs that operation was nowhere to be seen.)

Peaceful Canal at Damoen Saduak Floating Market

Navigating a Side Canal at Damoen Saduak Floating Market

Vendor Making Boat Noodles at Damoen Saduak Floating Market

Boat Noodles at Damoen Saduak Floating Market

Coconut Pancakes on the Griddle at Damoen Saduak Floating Market

Rush Hour Congestion at Damoen Saduak Floating Market

In addition to the prepared food vendors, there were fruit boats, hat boats, trinket boats, and others, all demanding our attention. In some cases, the even reached out and grabbed the edge of the boat to force us to hear their pitch. That’s one of the problems with the market becoming such a major tourist destination: the fevered competition between vendors. The full court press did not end once we returned to shore. Ladies hawking “tiger balm” would push jars into your face and scoop up some goop that without evasive action could end up on your arm. By contrast, the clothing vendors were downright civilized.

When we had had our fill of snacks and shopping, we headed North.

Nakhon Pathom (January 4, 2010)

Since we were in the neighborhood, we planned to stop at Phra Pathom Chedi, reputed to be the tallest Buddhist monument in the world. Originally built in the 5th or 6th Century, presumably along more modest dimensions, it contains some of the Buddha’s ashes. As we neared the temple, it was clear that some kind of festival was taking place. The street was full of vendor stations and there was no parking. New Years strikes again? We headed to the nearby Donwai Market, another extensive system of stalls offering everything from fruit, fish, meat, and snacks to clothing and toys.

The market was very hot, and the most intense heat was generated by cauldrons of boiling ducks. The restaurant behind the cauldron was situated on a river, and we enjoyed a slight breeze there as we watched rafts of water lilies float by. Our duck noodle soup was basic: duck and noodles in a strongly star anise-flavored broth. The fish cake appetizer was remarkably tender, but also much too oily for my tastes. (Given the tiny dimensions of napkins at most Thai restaurants — okay, they actually are squares of toilet paper — it was difficult to blot away all the oil. I suggest sticking with the duck soup.) Thus fortified, we were ready for the next leg of our journey.

Ayutthaya (January 4, 2010)

Ayutthaya, or Ayuthaya, was the capital of Thailand before the present capital was established in Thon Buri and Bangkok. While Ayutthaya was thought to be invincible because it was surrounded by rivers and a city wall, this proved not to be the case when Burma invaded and ransacked the city, melting down the gold and leaving the capital and temples in ruins. Neglected for centuries, the restoration of the ruins has been incomplete, in part because treasure seekers have removed everything from small caches of treasure to the heads and hands of Buddha images. Despite the damage, the scale of the architecture was remarkable and we can try to imagine the city’s grandeur in its heyday.

Our first stop was Wat Chai Wattanaram, a temple that stood off “the island” (outside the circle of protective rivers). The brick structure has been partially restored, and some of the stucco or plaster covering the bricks remains, providing a layer of detail atop the general shape of the buildings. The towering central prang, built in the Khmer style, is surrounded by eight Khmer style chedis. While damaged by time, they fared better than the Buddha images, nearly all of which have been decapitated for the antiquities trade.

We rolled into town and checked into the Ayothaya Hotel, offering clean rooms, strong air conditioning, and plywood-firm beds (and using the original spelling of the town’s name). I dropped by the local Amporn Department Store to grab a roll of toilet paper (useful for squat toilets now that we have started to encounter them) and a couple bottles of iced tea to address a caffeine deficit.

For dinner we took down a large table at a family-run riverside restaurant with, as far as I can tell, no English name. The mildness of the stir-fried morning glories may have lulled us into a false sense of security, quickly shattered by the spiciness of the green curry. Featuring tender fish dumplings (fish balls, but not at all rubbery), sections of long green eggplant, and bitter pea eggplants, the rich curry had a nice balance of sweetness and heat. Our salad was a catfish larb; made in the style of a ground pork larb, the catfish was cooked and then crushed to tiny bits that readily absorbed the tasty dressing. Next up was one of the restaurant’s specialties: a large river prawn halved lengthwise and presented like half a lobster. The tender tail meat could be dipped in a citrus-chilli sauce, or spread with the tomalley (liver and other innards, blended into a sauce and poured back into the body section of the shell). Last but certainly not least was a plate of pork neck, a fatty cut that excels when grilled. For dessert we shared a variety of fruit from the market, including green guava slices and “dragon eyes”. The texture of green guava is at once crisp and slightly spongy, somewhere between a green apple and a zucchini. Neutral in flavor, it is refreshingly moist and pairs well with dip of salt, sugar and chillies. We first had dragon eyes (lum yai) the other night. Similar in physical design and flavor to a lychee, the hard skin gives way to a tender layer of translucent flesh around a large black seed. It doesn’t quite look like any eyeball I’ve seen, but then, I’ve never seen a dragon.

Our stay in Ayutthaya is brief: tomorrow morning we check out, visit several more sites, and then hit the road for a long drive to Sukhothai, the better preserved ruins of the kingdom that predated the rise of Ayutthaya.

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