Today we’ll fly to Bangkok and wrap up our adventure in Southern Thailand with the traditional feast of Northeastern food and entertainment — my tenth. It’s remarkable that after all these years I still can’t predict whether my purchases will fit in my bags and meet the weight limit. But then, it wouldn’t be travel without surprises.
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
With ambitions of picking up snacks at the morning market, a fellow traveler and I made our way downstairs, only to discover that another group member had already done all the legwork and brought the booty back to the Srisawara Casa’s dining room. You know it’s a foodie trip when we’re all thinking about early morning runs to the market. We supplemented these Thai specialties with some eggs and toast from the ABF (American breakfast) offerings, and finished packing for the airport. Our vans were (miraculously) on time and in good shape, and our flight was only briefly delayed.
After landing in Bangkok and resolving some confusion about where we were all meeting, we drove to Aw Taw Kaw market (also romanized as Or Tor Kor market) for lunch and a tour of favorite vendors. Sometimes compared with Whole Foods Market for the beauty of its produce displays and its high prices, it’s a clean, safe market that anyone could love (unlike many small town markets we’ve visited). The stewed duck noodle soup was delicious as usual, moo ping (pork on a stick) was amazing, and the sour sausage balls were quite good. The real standout was the “golden pillow” durian. On past trips, I was never converted to a durian lover but this special (expensive) grade was remarkably creamy, slightly sweet, and not too oniony. Sure, it smells like durian, but that can be forgiven under the right circumstances. The vendor gave us a box of tissues to clean our fingers before continuing down the aisles for sesame cashews, jackfruit chips and other dried fruits, dried shrimp, curry paste, Moringa seed oil, and GABA rice.
Eventually, our vans reached the Salil Hotel where we lugged our bags, purchases, and odds and ends to our rooms, and picked up any items we had left behind with the bellhop before heading South. Perhaps because it was Valentine’s day, there were foil wrapped hearts on my pillows. I set those aside and rushed to the local post office for a couple of size “E” boxes, which will provide some structure to a large fiberglas bag that will hold purchases and various clothing, and hopefully provide safe passage for glass bottles of fish sauce and delicate woven baskets.
Before long, we were assembling in the lobby for our final feast, in a more relaxed and festive mood than in recent days. The stresses of traveling in close quarters, meeting (or not meeting) morning deadlines, fighting ocean currents and eluding storms, the relentless pace, and loading in and out of vans, at times threatened to fracture the group. We survived! And now we’ll celebrate at Vientiane Kitchen, a large nearby restaurant with a stage for musicians and dancers, and one of the best fried pork legs in the business.
The first dishes to appear on our table were mild stir-fried chayote greens, and deep fried sour fish. Raw fish is made sour by packing it with steamed rice that is cooled and mixed with garlic and salt. This is set aside at room temperature for several days while the rice starts to ferment. (Like other forms of pickling, the salty environment favors “good bacteria.”) The rice is removed and the fish cooked in a fryer. If you have a taste for salty food, you might give it a try.
The portion of pork leg served by Vientiane Kitchen appears modest compared with the one served by Ban Suan Sudaporn in Trang, and some pieces are arguably over-fried, but the meat and fat are infused with a delicious smokiness that makes it a pleasure to (over)eat. Next up was a crispy rice salad with sour sausage, served with lettuce leaves for wrapping, and sprigs of basil, mint, and cilantro. It was a wonderful reminder of trips to Northern Thailand where this dish is more common. A coconut soup with chicken (Tom Kha Gai) was nicely creamy, and a salad of fried eggplant topped with shrimp was good as well. Finally, we got a large fried fish that had been butterflied to allow easy access to the meat, along with the traditional bits and pieces of miang plah, including tiny cubes of ginger and shallots, thin rings of lemongrass, peanuts, and toasted coconut shreds. These were to be combined in a wild pepper leaf with a sweet sauce. Despite valiant efforts, we couldn’t finish that one.
Meanwhile, the band was playing and the dancers were dancing. It soon was time for the audience participation segment, as I was unexpectedly called to the stage to sing Handyman with the lead singer of the band. It appears to have gone over okay. Then there was the bamboo dance, in which dancers step between long bamboo poles while they are apart, and then the poles are smacked together. The pace of the music gets faster and faster, so it’s not wise to have too much alcohol if you are going to try it. Our table appeared to be the largest party in the dining room, and we did have a couple takers, but there were several tables of Japanese men with Thai women, and they got into the action more than we did. While the party would go on without us, after desserts of ice cream or Thai favorites (I got the black sesame mochi in hot ginger tea), we were a bit groggy so we returned to the hotel where we handed tip envelopes to our drivers and said various goodbyes.
I’d be lying if I said I stayed up and organized all my stuff. Tomorrow morning I will be doing that, and trying to squeeze in a two hour Thai massage, all while not missing the checkout time by too much.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Between packing and email, I wasn’t quite ready for breakfast until nearly 8:00. The Salil’s buffet was merely okay, but with all the trip member chit-chat, there really wasn’t time to run around picking up snacks on the street. I headed around the corner to Hatthai massage and they didn’t have anyone available until 10:00. Uh-oh, that math does not work. Fortunately, one masseuse was able to start me off until the next one came in, so I finished and was back at the hotel around 11:30. At which time panic packing ensued. Some of it will get sorted out at the airport, while other decisions would be irreversible. Still, I managed to get checked out without extra charges, so mission accomplished.
The hotel called me a cab, so all seemed to be going well. Then I noticed my cab driver had a cough. At times, he was coughing on his hands every minute. One notices because the passenger pays the expressway tolls, and those hands returned my change to me. Hmm, hope I don’t catch whatever that is. But he got me to the closest part of the terminal and hefted my bags, so I was happy to tip him and leave him with a big smile as I pushed my cart into the terminal. Just inside the door was the shrinkwrap station. Since both handles of my fiberglas bag tore in transit, this extra layer (well, maybe 10 layers) of protection and overlaid plastic handle was essential this trip. I should have taken before-and-after photos. Next time!
Each trip, while wheeling a comically large bag or box full of purchases to check-in, I wonder whether I’ll have problems. Fortunately, my duffel weighed in at only 19 kilos and the bag was 20 kilos, so no problem there. They didn’t blink at my carry-ons, security was fairly easy, and passport control didn’t seem to mind that my face no longer matched my photo. Soon I had the difficult task of finding some place for lunch. Thai food seemed most logical, but it’s painful paying 4x the outside price. A green papaya salad and some rice, and a few snacks from the duty free food stores, should tide me over to an airline dinner. I picked up some coffee gifts and popped open my laptop to do a few blog updates.
On board the 777-300ER, I was pleased to find the middle seat next to me unoccupied for my flight to Taipei. EVA Air’s Elite class offers nicer seats and silverware, but the food was poor today. Chicken in a bland brown gravy with instant mashed potatoes is a real letdown after four weeks of feasting. I can make up for it with some tasty dumplings during my layover.
Arrival at Taoyuan Airport was smooth, and surprisingly the transfer security line was nearly nonexistent. I was soon near gate C4 ordering a set of xiao long bao dumplings at a counter currently labeled (Chinese characters) 1993 Tasteful. I’ve certainly had better, but for about $6.50, they were worth it. With extra time on my hands, I dropped by the spa for a shampoo and blow dry. This turns out to be a lengthy process of scalp scratching and pressing of various points, presumably in accordance with reflexology principles. My hair can’t hold a blowstyle for more than a few minutes, so the $10 was mostly for the entertainment value. Next I bought some crispy pork strips. These can’t be imported to the U.S., so I’ll need to eat all 100 grams of them within the next 14 hours. I think I can manage it. Finally, there are the free massage chairs, with tokens available at the Information desk. I only lasted 7 minutes as they creaked and groaned and shook and generally bore no resemblance to a real massage.
My longer leg boarded promptly and remarkably, there is again an empty middle seat next to me for stowing blankets, bottled water, and other essentials. Dinner service was better prepared, but the beef entrée was gloppy, so there’s room for improvement. After a nap, I turned to the serious work of eating crispy pork sheets. I hadn’t counted on the high sodium level, which is pleasant for the first couple of sheets, but starts to become onerous after five or six. Perhaps I won’t try to finish them after all. The rice porridge with pork seemed a more logical breakfast than a seafood pasta (to be fair, it’s only breakfast in Taiwan time; it’s a mid-afternoon snack in the Pacific time zone).
Some of my fellow travelers had recommended Global Entry to expedite departures and especially returns to the U.S. I failed to plan ahead, but after my last experience, I had faith that CBP was doing its best to streamline the process. We landed nearly an hour early, but all of that time and more was consumed in getting back into the country. The kiosk couldn’t match me with my file information — could the culprit be a change in facial hair? Eventually the tiny staff of friendly officers was able to clear me and my bags, and release me to a clear, crisp, San Bruno evening.
It’s unclear when I’ll get back to Thailand. Kasma’s trips have been filling quickly after she announced she will be retiring in a few years. While I couldn’t see and do so much without such expert guidance, perhaps a more relaxed pace would suit me? At least I feel confident that even if I’m on my own, I know enough Thai to never go hungry.