I arrived about 12 hours ahead of the group and settled in at the Hotel Rex. The New Years revelers across the street just could not stop the music. I struggled to stay asleep, waking at 3:30 and finally around 6:50. Perhaps this will help with my adjustment? Checking e-mail over wi-fi brought potentially disappointing news: due to flight schedules, we might not make it to A. Mallika, the traditional and delicious first lunch stop. I crossed my fingers and prepared for the day.
Our rate at the Hotel Rex includes a breakfast set. Eggs and ham sounded much too boring, so I chose the rice porridge with pork meatballs. I was a bit concerned when it arrived because there was a large transparent area next to one of the meatballs that looked like it might be oil. But actually it was part of the raw white of an egg that I uncovered and stirred until decently cooked by the hot broth. With white pepper and a liberal helping of thinly sliced vinegar-soaked chillies, the porridge provided a solid start to what is likely to be a very spicy day.
The Mythical Smartphone SIM Card
On my last trip, I tried 3 different DTAC stores before scoring the Smartphone SIM card, which is the overall best value for calls and data. This time I went straight to the fanciest of the stores, in the Siam Paragon mall, and of course they were sold out. So I picked up the Internet SIM, which provides an allowance for data by the minute. That’s fine if you do not want your data connection on at all times, but much less useful for modern devices. I will have to add some megabytes in the near future.
One of the very irritating things about these SIM cards is how many restarts are required to get everything working. Phone calls and text messages seem to work fairly automatically, but data coverage required entering an APN manually, then restarting the phone. The phone then could browse the web and retrieve email, but could not send. About 20 minutes later, suddenly, it could send emails. I haven’t tried using the phone as a modem for my computer yet; that also might take several tries.
SRT Airport Link
I decided that despite the possibility of having a less wonderful lunch, it still was worth meeting up with the arrivals at the airport. Bangkok now has a rail link from downtown, and the price for the local line is very modest: less than $2, compared with a taxi fare in the range of $15. Reviews on TripAdvisor warned of inconvenient staircases in the connecting BTS Skytrain station (similar to BART’s above-ground lines), but as I was just toting my backpack, this did not seems like a problem. From the Phaya Thai BTS station, there are signs everywhere pointing the way to the SRT rail station. It really is pretty easy, and the trains are clean and quiet. Space could be an issue: if you don’t get a few inches on one of the hard plastic benches, it’s standing room only (or, for the guy next to me, squatting room only).
The airport link arrives on level B1 at Suvarnabhumi airport. A few levels up and I was reunited with Kasma and her husband Michael, and our two drivers. Within about an hour, we were joined by seven new arrivals and we headed out into the heat of the day.
Lunch at A. Mallika
Our traditional favorites here were delicious as usual. First up were khanom krok coconut treats. Made with coconut milk, rice flour, a bit of salt and a bit of sugar, these snacks are cooked on a very hot pan so they have a browned bottom but a smooth, custardy, barely set texture in the center. The small green onion rings add a bit of zip. These were followed by a miang plah, featuring a grilled mackerel salad with a spicy hot and sour dressing. In the U.S., you more typically find miang kum, which features a sweet sauce; Mallika’s mackerel dressing is bracingly sour. After placing a bit of salad in a lettuce leaf, you could add to your taste: small cubes of ginger, bits of shallot, tiny segments of lime (including both peel and pulp), hot Thai chillies, roasted peanuts, toasted coconut shreds, mint and cilantro.
We moved on to dishes served with rice, and managed to polish off everything before turning to desserts: crispy fried cha om, a treat I’ve never seen in the U.S.; slices of ostrich cooked with garlic, chillies, and fresh young green peppercorns; tender (i.e., not too old) water mimosa stems with a light bean sauce flavor; deep fried soft-shelled crab topped with crispy holy basil leaves; and crispy duck fried to the point that many small bones were edible, served with plum sauce and a Chinese vegetable. The young coconut sorbet was very helpful for cooling down an angry tongue. I think this group likes it hot.
Back at the hotel, Kasma negotiated a switch for me to a small room on the first floor near the lobby. This will be helpful when racing the clock to check out Wednesday, but even now, it’s blissfully free of cigarette odor. There wasn’t time for a full two hour traditional Thai massage, but I was able to squeeze in a one hour reflexology foot massage. I was so drowsy that once reclined, I fell asleep several times. This passed without incident several times (and the light snoring is amusing to everyone else), but once I think I kicked in my sleep which may indicate that you need some conscious awareness to disregard the pain. More research on this theory may be possible during the next few weeks.
Dinner at Thon Krueng
Before dinner, I met three more group members, bringing our number to 11. We drove several blocks to Thon Krueng, where we had a semi-private dining room (there are windows, but the doors close) and could loudly swap travel and food stories. There definitely are some good talkers in the group.
We started with a salad of crispy rice and crumbled sour sausage in a hot and sour dressing, with roasted peanuts and deep-fried whole dry chillies along the sides for additional (optional) flavor and heat. Sour sausage is made by mixing sticky rice (steamed and cooled down) with raw ground pork and seasonings, stuffing it all into casings, and leaving it out at room temperature for a day or more until the rice begins to ferment. Salt helps prevent the growth of unwanted microbes. The crispy rice holds up well to the dressing, making for a fun texture. We probably will have this dish several times in the North.
Thon Krueng makes a luxuriously smooth red curry fish mousse, steamed in individual portions on a unique ceramic pan with individual lids. We probably should have saved these milder bites until after we had eaten a dish with more firepower: a shrimp and lemongrass salad red with chillies. A deep fried cottonfish (a kind of trevally) was topped at the table with a green mango sauce. After a long delay, our hot and sour soup arrived. Unlike the more familiar lime-flavored hot and sour seafood soups, the broth of this beef and beef tendon soup was made sour with the pulp from tamarind pods. We canceled our vegetable order and went straight to dessert. I once again consumed the glutinous rice balls stuffed with black sesame paste served in a hot ginger broth. (But I dug in so quickly that I forgot to get a photo. Stuff happens.)
Our itinerary for tomorrow is contingent. If the Grand Palace is too crowded with folks making New Year offerings, then we will explore the local canals instead. But first, there is a 7am market walk culminating in a noodle shop breakfast. Must not miss.
Our story continues: Grand Palace, Grand Feasts