On Kasma’s Southern trip, we have a couple days here in Thailand’s enormous capital city before heading for the beautiful coast of the Andaman Sea. If all goes according to plan, there will be delicious meals, bargain hunting, massages, and good internet connectivity. Unfortunately, this year the air will be even more polluted than usual. In truth, I don’t mind having another excuse to avoid strenuous outdoor activity in the tropical heat, but I brought masks just in case.
Thursday, January 24, 2019
News reports of heavy particulate pollution over several parts of Southeast Asia appear to be on point. We descended through an ugly smog, and more people than usual were wearing face masks around the terminal. Exiting from Royal Silk business class, sprinting to immigration, finding my bags, and the ATM were quicker than usual. Next up: mobile phone and data plans.
Although my carrier Ting offers reasonable roaming rates (20MB of data is only $5), I find it convenient to have a local SIM card, not least because I won’t get spam phone calls at random hours of the day and night. The DTAC shop always has a crowd around it, but there was no waiting once you negotiated your way through the luggage carts. I indicated that I wanted a 30-day plan, and my phone and plan were set up in a flash, before I realized they sold me many more gigabytes of data than I expect to use. Oh well, I guess I can watch more videos.
On My Own
I’m a day early, so I’m on my own to get to the Salil Hotel Thonglor Soi 1 (website). As they have several branches, I feel fortunate to have their map with Thai directions for the taxi driver. But apparently the instructions are not very complete: my driver starting trying to drop me off two blocks early. I was able to urge him all the way to the lobby entrance and soon I was checked in and lightening my heavy pack.
After a shower and a change of clothes, I headed over to Hatthai/Prangthip for a one hour foot massage, the first of several hours of torture I will undergo voluntarily for their health benefits. It now seems to be called Wadee, at least on the window outside, and there was no waiting. After a brief foot scrub, a young woman showed me to a recliner and started work. I hid my wincing face with my phone as I researched dinner options with a sense of foreboding: since my last visit to Bangkok in the Winter of 2017, the authorities forced many street food vendors off the sidewalks around Bangkok. Will my old favorites still be open or close by?
Once my time was up and I was in shoes again, I headed around the corner for a bowl of wonton noodle soup with red-cooked pork and crispy pork. The soup was tasty, but I forgot how humid open air restaurants can be. I picked up a container of sticky rice with mango to finish back at the hotel. This indulgence, too, was for its health benefits: my mood is much better now.
Tomorrow I will meet up with Kasma, her husband Michael, and this year’s group of intrepid travelers. Let the feasting begin.
Friday, January 25, 2019
Our rate at the Salil includes their breakfast buffet. Aside from the continental breakfast items and cold cereals, they have an omelet station and various prepared dishes such as fried rice, fried noodles, porridge, and a hot water station for making soba noodles. Some eggs, fried noodles, and fruit would tide me over until lunch. On my way out, I ran into two trip members I knew from our 2010 Southern trip. They travel much more adventurously than I do, so it will be fun to catch up in the coming weeks. For now, they are going out sightseeing, and I’m going for my second massage.
A two hour traditional Thai massage is a bargain at $20 (including tip), but Wadee is not a luxurious spa. I lay on the center mattress on a low wooden platform under a room air conditioner. Before work begins, you change from street clothes into a light shirt and “fisherman pants” which provide flexibility for all the new positions your legs will be moved into. The masseuse uses all of the tools in her possession from fingers, palms, and forearms to elbows, knees and feet. It can be a bit painful for those of us with tight hamstrings, tight quads, tight knuckles, well, you get the picture.
Communication was mostly by gestures and grunts because I know so little Thai and she speaks little English. At one point she asked me how old I am and upon hearing my reply, she said it was the same as her papa. Suddenly I felt much older, but Kasma reminds us that Thai culture reveres those with more mileage on the odometer, so it shouldn’t be taken as a negative comment. There isn’t any part of me that doesn’t feel like it wasn’t punished, but I’m hoping these sore calves will be less prone to cramping at inopportune times — during snorkeling is the worst — having been loosened up a bit today.
After a quick shower, I met five other trip members (plus Kasma, Michael, and our two drivers), fresh from the airport, at My Choice restaurant. It really is our choice: we will eat here twice more before leaving Bangkok. We could choose among three lunch sets including the usual Shrimp Pad Thai or Salted Black Olive Fried Rice, and a new option: a mound of coconut rice with fried pork shreds, a bowl of green papaya salad, and a piece of fried chicken. The chicken was miraculously crispy, and the green papaya salad very pleasant and moderate in its heat. My Choice included a few bai cha plu leaves for wrapping up little packages of our choice of ingredients. Incredibly, I did not see one camera come out, we just chowed. I will have to do better.
After learning when we will meet for dinner, I headed out for a little shopping. I needed to replace the audio cable I left at home, and searched the Maps app for electronics stores. Most had terrible reviews, but one of the innumerable mobile phone stalls in MBK Center had stellar reviews and it was clear from the photos that they had every imaginable accessory. I had trouble explaining that I wanted a cable with a 3.5mm stereo plug on each end. The salesperson thought I was looking for a splitter, but when I saw the box that I would end up buying, he said, oh, an AUX cable. With a generous discount, it was about $6, which works for me.
My next stop was the Gourmet Market at Terminal 21. Their delicious candied ginger may come in handy for van rides on winding roads, or boat trips on unsettled seas, if you catch my meaning. I browsed some other sections of the shop, but couldn’t find anything else I really wanted. In the area in front of the market, numerous stands offered various savory and sweet items. I roamed around sampling from the open bins: coconut flakes, fish skeleton, dried, um, what was that I just ate? The most incredible item was a young coconut that had been extracted from its shell, kind of a thin balloon of coconut meat filled with coconut water. Without even thinking, I asked how he did it, but of course, this did not translate, or his response did not translate. I settled for a bottle of passion fruit juice from another stall. It had pulp and seeds, but it wasn’t as naturally tart as I expected. I think I violated my rule against sweetened drinks, but without a label to check, or the knowledge of how to ask the question, mistakes are going to happen.
After another brief train ride, I was back at the Salil and able to cool down under the breeze of my room aircon. It is so hot in Bangkok this year.
For dinner, we shared some of our longtime My Choice favorites. First up was a salad of thinly sliced “winged beans.” In cross section, they resemble the shape of an X-Wing Fighter from Star Wars, but this is hard to see at first because the salad is generously topped with a dollop of coconut cream and a thick layer of crispy fried shallots. Sweet and crunchy, it’s a dish you could power through if you don’t restrain yourself in anticipation of five additional courses.
Next up was a stir fry of squid “pad cha,” featuring the strong flavors of krachai (“lesser rhizome”) and young green peppercorns, as well as a decent amount of chillies. Our next course was gentler on the palate, as it was a rich coconut milk curry. My Choice served its massaman beef curry with a roti pancake and cucumber relish. This is one I’m sure most people who’ve tried Thai food could imagine; just turn it up to 11. Our second salad was one of my favorites. Slender long green eggplants are grilled to the point that they are tender but not floppy. The skins are stripped off, and the eggplant cut into segments and topped with pungent slices of fresh shallot, shrimp, and tiny Thai chillies. The versatile tangy-sweet lime juice-based dressing is one of my favorite sauces in Thai cooking.
Our last two courses brought the heat. A Southern Style Chicken Curry uses a dry curry paste: thoroughly smashed chillies and other herbs and spices are sauteed in oil to release their flavors and fragrances. Once the chicken, sadtaw (stinky beans), and vegetable chunks (Thai eggplant, baby corn, bamboo shoots and more) are coated, it is difficult to see how hot it really is. More rice, please. And finally, we had a coconut milk soup with mixed seafood. If you are familiar with sweet and mild coconut soups from the U.S. — not that there’s anything wrong with that — this one would be a huge shock. Of course, I have to assume Kasma ordered it this way, and that Western tourists would normally get a milder version.
As on previous trips, eating Thai food seems to increase my gravitational effect on objects around me. More specifically, all the unfinished plates of food eventually end up in front of me by the end of the meal. I can’t explain it, but that might be because my mouth is too full. At least I was able to stick to my plan of skipping dessert. Yes! Tomorrow will be the next test of my “Thai diet.”
Saturday, January 26, 2019
Unfortunately, I have not adapted to Thai time and was up early, my mind flooding with thoughts of email. At least I was able to get an early start on the Salil’s breakfast buffet, where I tried a fishball noodle soup in what tasted like a dashi-daikon broth. Truly a Thonglor area fusion.
Soon we were off to the vast Chatuchak Weekend Market, with more shops than it is possible to visit. I browsed aimlessly, as I was only looking for a “striped bag” to store (and schlep home) purchases. I enjoy browsing the artist work areas at the far end of the market (Section 7), but they are not for taking home. Maybe if I need to furnish a Bangkok condo someday? At the PHUFA shop, one of the royal shops, a bright red shirt with an embroidered golden pig caught my eye. This is just the thing for Chinese New Year.
I also wandered through the underground MRT station to Aw Taw Kaw (or Or Tor Kor) market to look for decent tea. The walkway into the market goes right by a good durian stand, so I accepted samples to taste. The first was firm and mild in flavor; not bad. The second was very soft, the way that ripe brie is very soft, and had a more pronounced flavor. I decided that two tastes actually was enough durian, and I wouldn’t buy any to take back to Chatuchak. One of the Royal Project shops had two varieties of ball-rolled oolong tea in 100 gram bags. For a total of about $8, it’s certainly inexpensive enough to try.
For lunch, we squeezed into an air conditioned dining room at Toh Plue, a restaurant with surprisingly fancy presentation for a flea market, presumably intended to wow tourists. Our Red Curry Seafood was served in a young coconut, which has the additional benefit that the tender coconut meat can be scraped into the sauce. The green curry chicken, on the other hand, is presented in an ornately carved Thai pumpkin (looks like a kabocha), which holds just the right sized bowl and is not intended to be consumed. Fried fish cakes are held by an edible taro strip basket. But it’s not all silliness: the fried fish topped with green mango salad, the pork neck larb, and the stir-fried morning glories were delicious despite their boring appearance.
After lunch, two more hours were allotted to shopping, so I took public transit to the hotel where I promptly passed out. Soon we were headed back to My Choice for dinner, reaching further into the menu. We had two new salads: water mimosa and banana blossom. Water mimosa has a satisfying crunch; fresh shallots added bite, while shrimp and coconut cream added a touch of sweetness. Banana blossom is naturally astringent, but is made edible by pairing it with rich coconut cream. The fried shallot topping tilted it toward a sweet flavor balance, similar to yesterday’s winged bean salad. Tender roasted (or braised?) duck was covered by a generous mat of dtam leung leaves, also known as the ivy gourd vine. A few drops of the acidic chilli condiment served on the side helps cut through the duck fat and amplify the flavors.
Our three curries were tender sliced beef in a rich, slightly sweet panang curry sauce; gaeng som, a soupy Southern-style sour curry with prawns and cha om omelet squares; and fried catfish chunks coated with red curry. All were delicious, but the panang beef is a stand-out. Finally, slices of grilled pork neck with a tangy dipping sauce rounded out the selection. If we had another night, we probably could find six or seven more delicious new dishes from the extensive menu. But alas, it will have to wait for a future trip.
Tomorrow, dark and early, we depart for Southern Thailand. Soon, we’ll be 60 kilometers offshore, spending our days face down in the ocean. I can’t wait.