We have just one full day in Bangkok and we’re going shopping. With hundreds of vendor stalls, Chatuchak weekend market almost certainly has what you’re looking for (even if you don’t know until you see it). But with its confusing layout and crowded walkways, will you find it before the heat and stuffiness force you to the periphery for a refreshing beverage? Fortunately, refreshing beverages are everywhere you look. You might even find a full bar nestled among the souvenirs.
The Salil Hotel is close to the intersection of Sukhumvit and Soi Thonglor where street vendors set up carts offering a variety of delicious snacks, as well as flowers, incense, lottery tickets, and the other essentials of Thai life. On previous trips, Kasma has led trip members down the crowded sidewalks selecting various goodies from favorite vendors. The recent completion of a large Marriott hotel has changed the complexion of the market, so this time we are going to simply browse the hotel’s breakfast buffet and meet to go over the next several days. With indoor and outdoor seating, and items ranging from an omelet bar and dry cereal to fried rice and sushi, we had many choices. I still ran up the street, past the grilled chicken and pork stick carts, to see whether I could get some kanom krok, the delicious salty-sweet coconut milk “pancakes.” No such luck; maybe in the next town.
We gathered in the Salil Hotel’s “Conference Club” room for a briefing, and to draw room assignments from a hat for Koh Surin, where we were not able to secure enough cabins. Although I was willing to tent camp, I preferred to have one of the three rooms where campers would stash their stuff and charge their electronics during the few hours that power is available in the evening. I got my wish and just hope I can be a hospitable host during the time I’m often equally likely to pass out.
We arrived at Chatuchak weekend market just before 10:00 when many stalls were still setting up, and I wandered with little hope of finding nice casual pants. Jeans, especially distressed jeans, and casual beach wear with loud prints were the main selections for men. A smattering of fishermen’s pants and traditional hill tribe designs rounded out the offerings. No thank you. None of the souvenirs were compelling, so I just grabbed a little snack for a later happy hour (rice crackers similar to Japanese arare crackers, but flavored with and shaped like pieces of squid). A roasted coconut provided refreshment through a straw and sustenance through its meaty flesh.
At noon, we made our way to one of the air conditioned rooms of Toh Plue, a restaurant I have enjoyed several times before. This year, the presentation of dishes was surprisingly fancy, with some serving bowls presented in a hollowed out Thai golden pumpkin draped with strings of flowers. I didn’t check to see whether the prices have become correspondingly fancier.
On each visit here, I’ve enjoyed their red curry with mixed seafood presented in a young coconut shell. Youth is important in this case because you can easily scrape strips of tender coconut meat to enjoy with or after your curry. A fish was butterflied and fried to a crisp, and topped at the last moment with shreds of green (under-ripe) mango dressed in a tangy lime-based dressing. Strips of grilled pork neck meat, a fatty cut favored by the cognoscenti, was doused with a spicy Northeastern-style dressing and accompanied by fresh vegetables and aromatics, including segments of green bean, cucumber, cabbage, and whole spearmint leaves. A good quantity of rice is recommended with that one. Our milder dishes included pieces of roasted duck topped with a mixed seafood sauce (shrimp, crab meat, squid, mixed vegetables), a brothy green curry, and mixed vegetables stir-fried with Thai oyster sauce. About two-thirds of the way through my mango and sticky rice I realized I was getting too full. This could be an issue for my next activity.
During lunch, four of us made appointments by phone for massages at the Asia Herb Association, a classy spa on Soi Thonglor (http://asiaherbassociation.com/en/shop/index.html). I arranged for a 90-minute combination of traditional Thai massage with an “herb ball” treatment. Although for a while there was some soothing music, the purpose of a traditional Thai massage is essentially therapeutic: using hands, feel, forearms and elbows, the masseuse is working to unblock energy in your body using principles similar to acupuncture, while attempting to loosen up your bones (pulling your fingers and toes until the joints crack) and make you as flexible as Gumby. Because I chose a 90 minute massage, a lot of work had to be squeezed into half the usual time. In the middle of the session, the masseuse left and returned with the “herb ball,” a set of fragrant ingredients sewn into a fabric ball. I was completely surprised by how hot the ball was and recoiled a bit, which she probably has seen before. Soon, though, it did not seem unusual to feel hot touches on my skin. I’m not sure whether the herb ball adds enough to the process to do it again in the future; a more leisurely two hour traditional Thai massage might be a better choice for me.
Previously, I’ve been of the view that an effective Thai massage opens up your senses so you can appreciate the flavors and aromas of Thai food even more thoroughly. I tested that theory at My Choice restaurant, which I’ve enjoyed on every previous trip, and it was delicious as usual. Salads of winged beans and grilled long green eggplant are vegetable presentations that even children would like. A winged bean is a long flattish bean that has a double edge on each side, so when thinly sliced crosswise, their profile resembles an X. Dressed with lime juice, a bit of rich coconut cream, and generously topped with crunchy naturally sweet deep-fried shallots, the combination of flavors is irresistible and always the first plate to be cleaned. Grilled eggplants, meanwhile, are stripped of their skins and tender (but not mushy) segments are dressed with a somewhat spicier lime-based dressing and a few fresh shrimp. Having made this dish a couple times, it is tricky to perfect the texture of the eggplant, and it’s helpful having the chance to sample the “reference model” now and then.
We amped up the heat with a Southern-style dry curry of sliced chicken, Thai eggplants, green beans, and sadtaw bean coated with a merciless dark red curry paste. The coconut soup with mixed seafood (tom kha talay) provided no relief from the heat: unlike the smooth and slightly sweet version served back home, My Choice’s version definitely features the hot and sour aspects of classic. Beef with panang curry and stir-fried squid continued the theme. Only the fatty beef tongue in rich massaman curry, served with squares of crisy fried roti dough, helped soothe the palate. The ultimate cure, though, was found in the delicious house-made coconut ice creams, my favorite featuring plump, slightly gelatinous lemon basil seeds for texture.
The Thonglor neighborhood is under relentless development, with luxury condos going in and smaller businesses moving out. My Choice, like Thon Krueng, will be moving to a new location further off the main road, but I’m sure it will continue to be worth searching out.
Tomorrow, we arise early to hit the road South. The beach is within sight (metaphorically speaking).