Today we return to Bangkok for a final feast and lots of farewells, and tomorrow morning I have a few bonus hours for shopping and, of course, frantic packing. But first, we must pick over the Tanya Inn’s breakfast buffet one last time and dash to the Chiang Rai airport where, true to form, a delay will have us cooling our heels. Same same.
January 24, 2016
Due to the schedule, we won’t be able to visit Aw Taw Kaw market upon arrival in Bangkok. It’s usually difficult to slog through the traffic, but it’s Sunday and we get in later than other trips, so we’ll have to be content with a consolation visit to a decadent chocolate shop with great sorbet and gelato. Already I’m scheming how to get to the market Monday morning without blowing the schedule. It’s going to be tight.
We drove to our neighborhood favorite, My Choice, for a one-dish lunch. I had pad thai noodles, which were served with a segment of astringent banana blossom. By itself, these mouth-puckering leaves are barely tolerable, but eaten with coconut milk or eggs, they add a nice flavor. Just make sure to have the ameliorating ingredient already on your tongue when biting into the banana blossom. A short distance away, but in Bangkok traffic, at least a 30 minute drive, Melt Me offered samples of various premium priced Hokkaido-style chocolates, reminiscent of the soft centers of chocolate truffles. I nibbled, but the mousse-like candies are difficult to transport, so you’ll just have to imagine them if you weren’t there.
We checked into the Salil Hotel for our last night in Thailand, and rushed off to our afternoon appointments. For some, this involved the upscale Asia Herb Association spa for a high class massage. I, on the other hand, sought out a budget traditional Thai massage around the corner at Prangthip. During the two hour treatment, it felt a bit like torture, especially with my inflexible hamstrings, but when I was out and about on my feet, I felt free from backpack induced shoulder pain, so I give this one high marks.
Our final dinner would be at the traditional location, Vientiane Kitchen, a restaurant serving Isan-style (Northeastern Thai) and Laotian cuisine, and live entertainment with audience participation. The restaurant was pretty full for a Sunday, with Thais, Japanese tourists, and us. I broke with my recent convention of not filling up on bubbles and had a little beer before dinner. This might coincidentally make me more willing to make a fool of myself on stage, but I suspect it’s mostly a coincidence.
I always look forward to the fried pork leg here. Of course it is crispy with succulent fat, but somehow it also is infused with a delicious smoky flavor. I must learn the recipe someday. There were many other winners on the menu, including a crispy rice salad with sour sausage and tender pork skin; Northeastern style grilled chicken; a hot and sour soup with mixed seafood; crispy fried eggplant spears (somewhat like tempura) topped with a tangy seafood salad; mild stir-fried water mimosa; and a sour fish best consumed in tiny (salty) bites. Our dessert choices were many, but I stuck with the glutinous rice balls filled with molten black sesame, served in a warm, sweet ginger tea (perhaps a little too sweet this year).
Meanwhile, up on stage, band members demonstrated a variety of traditional instruments, including pipes, what looked like a xylophone, and others less familiar. The dancers demonstrated the famed Thai qualities of grace and flexibility. Soon, it was our turn. Two long bamboo poles were brought out for the customary tourist-embarrassing ritual of having us put one foot in, then out, then across, etc., while the poles were banged and smacked together in time with an accelerating beat. I did pretty well for a while, but it’s surprisingly strenuous. When it came time to imitate the dancers, I pleaded that I needed a bathroom break, which was true. At some point, various Japanese men started appearing on stage with the band to sing Japanese songs, which seemed a bit odd. Suddenly I was invited up to sing Country Roads. I demurred, explaining that I didn’t know the song very well, but they just would not take No for an answer. Halfway through the first verse, I turned to Google for lyrics and was able to fake my way through pretty well. What did we do before smartphones?
Back at the hotel, we continued the tradition of providing tips to our drivers, and surprised Kasma with enough to get herself a massage. She’ll need some immediate relaxation, because she starts a Southern trip in just five days. We said farewells to those with early departures and turned in (or started packing, for those more organized among us).
January 25, 2016
I got a late start and met a few trip members at the breakfast buffet before heading out to Aw Taw Kaw market. Although it is easily reached by public transportation, the trip is not short. The moment I arrived, I was already behind schedule. My first and most critical purchase was a large bag of jackfruit chips from my usual supplier. Around the corner, I picked up a bottle of Kasma’s favorite fresh-squeezed passionfruit juice (without the slippery pulp and seeds in the versions we bought on Doi Tung). I then headed to the SUPPORT Project shop for their wonderful 4-grain GABA rice blend and — they weren’t open yet. Not knowing how long it might take, I searched the market for other rices. Most vendors were selling each type of rice individually, often in bulk. The little birds around the edges of the market demonstrated their preference by flying down and nibbling grains of red cargo rice. Finally, I discovered a Royal Project store in the back that carried a 3-grain GABA rice blend at a higher price. I’ll try it, and also a non-GABA blend that I just need to soak for 24 hours or so before cooking. (Commercial GABA rice is “germinated” meaning it is soaked in water to the point that the grain starts showing evidence that it might sprout, but is then dried before it can actually sprout. This improves its nutritional profile. You can germinate your own rice at home, although the time required is somewhat temperature dependent.) Since I had eaten lightly at the buffet, I grabbed two pork sticks as a quick snack and noticed that the SUPPORT store was now open. So I ended up with 2.5 more kilos of rice than planned; I hope I can find a way to pack it all without exceeding the weight limit.
Back in the neighborhood, I stopped by the local post office for a couple of boxes. These would go inside the large teddy bear bag and provide protection against crushing of jackfruit chips, tea, and coffee, as well as a little extra protection for ceramics. As the clock ticked down to the noon checkout time, my selection of which items to jam into which bag became a bit more random and haphazard. I threw on my long pants and airplane shirt, but had no time to tuck in the tails, or put on shoes. I lugged my bags into the hallway and ran down to the desk and handed over my keycard. As I was hopping around on one foot putting on a sock, I noticed that Premier rooms have an extended checkout time of 4:00. Whaaat? Well, too late now; best to stay on the planned schedule so I get to the airport on time.
For a spicy lunch, I strolled around the corner to Kua Kling Pak Sod, a family-owned Southern style restaurant. Seeking a dish that included both a protein and a green vegetable, I settled on one of Kasma and Michael’s favorites, a curry of crab meat (in huge leg-sized lumps) with bai chaploo, the wild pepper leaves used to wrap miang kum snacks (Gaeng Pu Bai Cha Plu). On a previous visit, I found this dish bitter, but today it was well balanced, if perhaps a bit heavy on the krachai. The curry comes with small skeins of rice vermicelli, so I used that as my starch, as one would eat Khanom Jin. All was going well until, of course, I whipped a noodle in the wrong direction and splashed the sauce on my shirt. The brilliant yellow stains told the world that I enjoyed a dish high in fresh tumeric. There’s no way it’s coming out before I get home, so I’ll just have to wear it as a badge of honor. It’s good for you, even if it’s bad for your clothing.
I caught a taxi from the hotel, and as we slogged through the Bangkok traffic, I watched the meter. I didn’t have much Thai baht left, and I would still need some funds at the airport. I needn’t have worried: even with a tip, the taxi fare used only half of my funds. Once at Suvarnabhumi, I took the opportunity to rearrange a few items between bags. My carry-on is overweight and I don’t know how strict they will be; since my duffel bag can’t possibly accept any more items, I will depend on their kindness and if necessary, carry my extra camera bag. For the first time, I used the “shrink wrap” service to protect against my fiberglass bag splitting. It’s difficult to describe, but they place your bag on a wheel and spin it while applying a plastic film. Then they flip the bag sideways and wrap the other way. Finally, they create a “handle” by wrapping a less clingy plastic from bottom to top a few times, applying packing tape to get the shape just right. All this for about $5. But if the USDA pulls me out of line for food inspection, it’s going to get ugly.
At check-in, no objections were raised to the weight of my bags, thank goodness. I drained my water bottles and headed through security to passport control. I was in the middle of a crowd of Russians when a man pulled several of us out of line over to the side wall, and then directed us through a side door. You can only imagine the alarm bells going off in my mind, but all was well: we took advantage of the underutilized priority lanes to get through just a bit faster. Finally, we emerged into the heavily perfumed aisles of the duty free shopping area. Bleah. As quickly as possible I found a quiet seat to type these updates (hello!) and to finish the last of the fried pork leg from last night. I had taken it home and popped it into the room refrigerator without a clear idea of how or when I would eat it. I’m hoping that after sitting for three hours at dinner and another three hours in transit since I checked out, the pork was still healthy to eat. Doesn’t smoking preserve food? I should know in a few hours whether this was a major digestive faux pas. For now, I just need to keep cleaning my fingers between bites.
Our first leg on EVA in Elite class takes us to Taipei, where we were scheduled to arrive around 9:30 PM. Depending on the transfer line, it could be quite a while before I get to have good dumplings. For now, our dinner/snack was the oddly named Roasted Chicken Thigh in Garlic Oyster Sauce Dong Kong Style Served with Chicken Flavor Rice. “Chicken Flavor Rice” sounds a bit like Khao Man Gai, and it certainly was very generous on the fat; that should tide me over. I don’t think I’ll be too hungry for a while.
When boarding, I picked up today’s Bangkok Post and was stunned to read that areas we had just visited and found to be between pleasant and warm had plunged in temperature, Nan to 55 degrees and Bo Klua to 41 degrees (versus high 70s/low 80s when we were there). Yikes! Luck is so important in travel, and we rarely had to break out the fleeces and thermals, which made our lives so much easier.
Upon landing in Taipei, the transfer line was so short that I had to chug half a bottle of water to get the empty through security (there are free refill machines in several locations). The wi-fi was strong, and I found a delicious crispy pork jerky sample to nibble along the corridor. Unfortunately, the U.S. prohibits travelers to bring back pork in any of its delicious forms. I suggest writing your Congressional representatives about this problem immediately.
I wasn’t very hungry, but I felt I would regret leaving without an order of juicy xiao long bao dumplings. Luckily, the restaurant near my gate stays open until 11:00 PM, so it was not too late to fulfill my quest. Within minutes thereafter, we were boarding. The flight went smoothly: there was plenty of room for my big roller bag; beef goulash edible, if uninteresting; some sleep; my last rice porridge breakfast for a long time; and an early arrival into SFO. The new automatic passport check does seem to speed things up, so I was soon in a SuperShuttle home.
Kasma and Michael have offered me a special incentive for my tenth trip to Thailand, suggesting I join them on another trip to Southern Thailand. But should I really go back again so soon, just a year from now? It’s true that I haven’t snorkeled for quite a while. Hmm…