Feb 182015

Our time in Thailand is drawing to a close. A bit more shopping and eating is all we can fit in before boarding our onward flights.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

This morning the Srisawara’s kitchen has congee again, and it’s a nicely seasoned fish porridge. For extra carbo-loading, toast is served on the side, even though it normally does not come with Thai breakfast. Obviously they are new at this. The waitress sweetly asked where we would be heading today and seemed disappointed to hear we were checking out.

We took a couple hired vans to the airport and joined the extremely slow check-in line. Ever since I missed the luggage cut-off for a flight to London, I am somewhat paranoid about close calls. But our plane wasn’t even at the gate yet, so I needn’t have worried about it. On board, Thai airways distributed snack boxes and hot beverages with remarkable efficiency. The contents of the “chicken bun” remain a mystery to science. Unfortunately, lab tests will not be possible because despite the unidentifiable crunchy items, I ate the entire specimen.

Once we picked up our bags in Bangkok, we headed out for lunch and a brief spin through Bangkok’s fanciest fresh market and nearby specialty shops. The food court at Aw Taw Kaw market (or Talaat Or Tor Kor) consists of about two dozen tables at one end of the market surrounded by a huge range of food options. We sat near the duck stand, which was convenient because most of us had duck in various forms: roasted and served over egg noodles; stewed and served in soup; or stir-fried with basil and potent Thai chillies and served over rice. Kasma visited some of her favorite stands elsewhere in the market to bring us grilled pork-on-a-stick (moo ping), little segments of sour sausage, and highly concentrated passion fruit juice. We were quickly sated.

When I visit Aw Taw Kaw market, I must come home with dehydrated jackfruit chips. The stand I usually patronize was still there, so that was easy. I also purchased three kilograms of specialty rices, but we couldn’t find the fragrant and delicious black sticky rice variety known as “Forget Husband” rice. Kasma took us to the health food store where we considered purchases of Moringa oil, a popular ingredient in cosmetics for its anti-aging properties, which is more economical in its pure form. I still have a little bottle I never remember to use, and it’s a bit awkward to give as a gift, so I didn’t pick up more bottles this time.

After fighting through the rush hour traffic, we arrived back at the Salil Hotel. It was time to gather all of our stuff in one place and figure out how it would make its way home. I rushed over to the post office for some boxes, selecting a large #5 box and a couple smaller boxes to help with internal organization. My stuff almost fits. I won’t know until morning whether I need to upsize my box. Certainly I need to keep adding to my bottled water stores: it is so hot and humid here in Bangkok.

(The Salil has a notice in my room that there is a 500 baht fine for smoking, but it’s not working: the room, air conditioner, and even the towel “elephants” reek of cigarette smoke. I’m not sure whether I was unlucky this time or lucky on my previous visit; I suspect the latter.)

Our “final feast” was at Vientiane Kitchen. The restaurant is walking distance, but with the hazardous traffic and two story climb through the Skytrain station to cross busy Sukhumvit avenue, we chose to drive. The band was already playing as we seated ourselves for a long evening of Thai food, music, and celebration. (I chose a seat away from the stage because I know you tend to get “volunteered” if you sit down in front.)

Vientiane Kitchen makes a fantastic fried pork leg, which adds the smokiness of bacon to the plush richness of gobs of succulent, sweet pork fat. (It tastes better than that sounded.) But don’t fill up on the fried pork, there are several excellent dishes on the menu, including: crispy rice and sour sausage salad, served with leaves for rolling; a miang where you combine a chunk of fried whole soured fish with tiny bits of ginger, lemongrass, shallot, peanuts, toasted coconut and optional hot chillies in a wild pepper leaf; a powerful hot and sour soup with pork ribs; an unusual salad of crispy-fried eggplant (similar to tempura) topped with stir-fried seafood; and water mimosas, a stemmy vegetable, stir-fried with fermented soybeans, garlic, and Thai chillies.

Finally it was time for random people around the room to get called up on stage for the bamboo dance. You have to step from one side of the bamboo poles, between them, and to the other side, without getting a cracked ankle. A graceful Thai dancer holds your hand, counts the rhythm, and shows you the steps. This may or may not help, depending on your levels of coordination and alcohol consumption. I declined the honor this year, but was called up later for a strange dancing in the round game where the tourists (whose finger joints do not bend backwards in their sockets) were supposed to mimic the pros. We did our best to look only a little bit ridiculous. But hey, who’s ever going to see those videos?

Since I’ve developed a chest cold, I ordered a hot dessert: glutinous rice balls stuffed with sweet black sesame paste, floating in a sweet ginger tea. We presented our drivers with tip envelopes to thank them for their tireless support, which included hefting our bags around, helping us into and out of boats, interceding with vendors to help bridge the language barrier, sourcing whiskey from affordable shops, and in some cases literally catching us when we were falling. Thanks guys! Before we headed back to the hotel, the band and dancers wished us a safe journey home with a Northeastern tradition of tying strings around our right wrists. They hope to see us again soon; I hope to eat this pork leg again, so it’s certainly possible.

Tomorrow we will take advantage of our late flight times to pack at a slightly more leisurely pace than previous trips, and importantly, to visit A. Mallika for one last great meal before heading to the airport.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

I worked at packing until about 8:15, at which point I was optimistic enough to proceed to breakfast. After another cross-cultural buffet, I returned to discover that the laws of physics just could not be broken. I ran over to the post office for the larger #6 box and managed to get everything repacked and downstairs just in time. Since I have three carry-on items (roller bag full of camera gear, backpack with a laptop, and a tall thin box with two shadow puppets), I’m hoping the EVA counter staff will be kind to me.

We arrived at A. Mallika around noon, and the pace of service was leisurely. (I was watching the clock because my flight departs at 4:00.) Eventually we received two dozen kanom krok, rich coconut confections more commonly seen at temple fairs or prepared by street vendors. Each half-sphere is cooked to a lacy brown crisp on the outside while the center has the texture of just barely set pudding. Topped with a tiny piece of spring onion, it is both comforting and decadent. And filling: already we were struggling to maintain our usual pace.

Our other dishes included: a miang featuring a tangy grilled mackerel salad and lettuce leaves for wrapping; crispy pieces of soft-shelled crab topped with crisped holy basil leaves; slices of tender ostrich meat stir-fried with garlic, Thai chillies and green peppercorns; a “nest” of cha om, a popular herb, fried to a crisp and topped with a spicy sauce of pork and mixed seafood; and a generous bowl of massaman curry chicken which could have been a meal in itself. After all that spiciness, it was impossible to decline young coconut sorbet, even though it’s probably not good for my throat right now.

Checking in at the airport was pretty easy, but juggling three items, plus shoes, laptop, liquids, etc., through security was a challenge. The millimeter wave scanner directed the screeners to an object in my back pocket. There, I discovered a used tissue. Perhaps that is a dangerous item in my condition? Next, I was directed toward passport control, specifically the line for Thai citizens. Sensing my puzzlement, the staff informed me “same same.” That’s a phrase I probably won’t be hearing for a while.

Since I was the only one of our group on the 4:00 flight, I parted ways with my fellow Bay Area travelers and headed to the gate. Whether to save energy or due to some glitch, the terminal was very warm. I also wondered whether I might be a little warm; I took two ibuprofen in case I had a fever. I definitely don’t want to be quarantined in Taipei. I did a little work while I still had 3G available, and soon it was time to board.

Surprisingly, my flight seemed less than half full. This is the busy Chinese New Year travel season, but I had one empty seat to my right and two to my left. A guy further down the row to the left put his legs on the armrests of the seat in front of him. That’s legroom. Our meal was okay; my favorite part actually was the seaweed snack: bits of toasted buckwheat and almond sandwiched between two layers of seaweed, with just a touch of sugar. I must investigate further.

Once in Taipei, I decided to wait for my compatriots before sampling the dumplings down by gate C4. Perhaps unsurprisingly, without 90 minutes to build up an appetite, I had no takers and proceeded to sample them alone. In the mini food court, the middle counter has the xiao long bao. I couldn’t find the dumplings alone, but 200 NTD ($7) buys a set with 8 dumplings, a small plate of edamame, and a chilled tea. Very juicy, nicely tender skins, but somewhat bland meatball, and in my opinion, too much soy sauce to black vinegar in the dipping sauce (although they were generous with the ginger). Then again, I have a cold, so my senses might be dulled a bit by now.

One of the nice features of the Taipei airport is water machines to refill your bottle. For the longer leg, EVA also provides a bottle at each seat. Once the doors closed, I realized I had no seatmate in the window seat, so I ended up with three bottles of water. Possibly enough to cover a ten hour flight. But I’m sure you’re more interested in the food. For dinner, I tried the “Seafood Creole” which is not a dish from Louisiana but instead an assortment of fish cakes and segments of Chinese sausage over seasoned rice. Odd, but strangely tasty. Since it’s Chinese New Year, our dessert was a tiny moon cake whose filling tasted mostly of pineapple. I slept through the snack, but many hours later they turned on the lights for breakfast. The rice porridge contained bits of pork, edamame, barley, and the occasional lotus seed. Not bad, but I missed the crispy fried garlic and hot chillies from the Thai breakfast table.

Arriving at SFO I expected to go through agricultural inspection because I checked the fruit box on the form. When I said I had snacks, the agent did not require my bags to undergo extra x-rays. I juggled my five items out to the curb where eventually a shuttle would appear. Waiting in the fading glow of evening, for the first time in weeks, I had to put on a light jacket. But the cool, clean air felt great. I’m home.

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