The Royal Orchid Sheraton is very close to Chinatown, which is the first stop on our walking tour this morning. I suppose it would be more accurate to say walking, boat, bus and tuk tuk tour, but we will get to that soon enough. The first challenge for my friends is fighting the jet lag and getting to the lobby by 8:15 to meet our guides.
Thursday, February 14, 2019
We’re skipping breakfast this morning because our tour involves snacks. So many snacks. Bangkok Vanguards is a small tour company that leads travelers behind the scenes to less visited and sometimes endangered parts of the city. I arranged for a private tour version of the Bangkok 360 so that we could follow our own pace. I was excited to meet our guide, company founder Michael Biedassek, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Bangkok. I had first seen Michael in a YouTube video with Mark Wiens, who blogs about Thai food. Their discussion of Chinatown convinced me that this was a tour I needed to take, so I’m glad my friends took my suggestion. Michael’s “wingwoman” for today was Gay, another Bangkok native.
Our first stop was the public pier next to the hotel, Si Phraya, where we chatted about Bangkok while waiting for a river taxi to take us to Chinatown. Before the subway, before the elevated train, before the automobile, traveling on the waterways was a primary mode of transport in Bangkok. Over time, many canals have been paved over, but that’s a story for another day. Soon we were standing unsteadily on the boat for a couple stops before disembarking at Rajchawong pier and pushing our way up the crowded sidewalks of Chinatown. Michael pointed out significant old buildings, and we all admired the crazy wiring.
We turned down an alley and entered a maze of narrow passages with a mix of commercial and residential uses, emerging in front of a Chinese temple fronted by a motorcycle/scooter parking area between the temple and a stage. Michael and Gay described the use and purposes of various of the objects in the ornately decorated neighborhood temple as regulars quietly attended to their business. After about 15 minutes away from the world of commerce, we plunged back into the busy alleys around Sampeng Lane where wholesalers supply vendors from a wide area, and we could get an icy drink, delicious nibbles cooked over a tiny charcoal brazier, or socks, for those who preferred to cover their feet when visiting temples. We also explored quiet alleys where goldsmiths were at work in their shops while older residents enjoyed board games in the shade of their homes. It is unclear how long this neighborhood will survive, considering the intense pressure for development.
We crossed a canal and entered a different world. The neighborhood around Phahurat Road is sometimes called “Little India,” and here we visited the Sikh temple, Gurdwara Siri Guru Singh Sabha. Everyone is welcomed, hair coverings are provided, and they store your shoes on shelves like a bowling alley. Even more remarkably, they serve hundreds of free meals every day. Although we were late and they were in the midst of clearing up, we were able to eat our fill of lentil stew, a creamy vegetable curry, rice, bread, and chai tea. Tables were available for those who would have difficulty sitting on a rug on the floor. Thus fueled, we ascended several levels in the temple to a room where musicians were playing, and we could approach the holy books, bow to show respect, and receive a blessing (with a little lump of something sweet to eat). Michael quietly explained all of these unfamiliar traditions as we went. After reclaiming our footwear and using their bathrooms, we headed back out into the neighborhood, where we picked up bottled waters to help combat the heat, fantastic samosas, pakoras, and various sweets. Lunchtime was nearly upon us, but we were getting full already.
Eventually we wandered into the Old Siam Shopping Plaza and made a beeline for the food section. We enjoyed several servings of miang kum, a green pyramid comprised of a wild pepper (bai chaplu) leaf filled with a savory dried shrimp sauce and pungent bits of ginger, shallot and lime, served on a skewer. It’s a fun bite. Khanom krok coconut “pancakes” featured a range of sweet and savory toppings from taro chunks to shreds of sweetened duck egg yolk. Then we went out the back door to a bus stop where a city bus whisked us several blocks up the street to Wat Suthat. Inside, a service was in progress, and as we sat slightly uncomfortably on the floor, it seemed everyone else knew the words except us. Once the service ended, we could admire and photograph the unusually attractive Buddha image and murals, and learn from Michael about the history of this temple. It was now early afternoon and the jet lag and heat were taking their toll, but we had many places yet to go.
We wandered up a street filled with stores that cater to temples and monasteries, with Buddha images in every imaginable size, bells, gongs, and other essentials. Through one side road and then the next, we made our way to a local temple with a casual coffee shop where we could join saffron-robed monks in ordering an iced latte or other mid-day pick-me-up. After a few minutes to cool down and recharge, we headed to a main street where Michael hailed two tuk tuks to take us to the river. It’s not clear how four people were able to squeeze into a seating area designed for two or at most three slim Thais, but we did it.
Disembarking near Tha Chang pier after a slightly bumpy ride we were happy to be able to stretch out in a private longtail boat. The boat was in great shape, with some splash protection along the sides and a full cover for shade. We crossed the river and headed into the canals, observing a few traditional houses and a bit of wildlife before stopping at Khlong Bang Luang, a small village (possibly named after after the canal) which has become known for the Artist’s House here. Before visiting the house, we wandered over the bridge and along a narrow walkway to a home-based restaurant for a late lunch. If I recall correctly, the home is owned by a retired government employee on a limited pension, so they have to be creative in supplementing their income. Having us in for a home-cooked meal should help. We made a good-sized dent in bowls of coconut soup, basil pork, Chinese broccoli, a red curry, and a fifth dish before stumbling back out into the sunshine.
We reached the Artist’s House (Baan Silapin) after 4:00, so we mostly had it to ourselves. The works on exhibit were interesting, but most of what was for sale at a modest price was fairly simple. Oh, they also have coffee. By 4:30 we were back on the canal and heading for a small pier in Chinatown where we would disembark and amble through alleys and back streets of the Talat Noi neighborhood toward our final stop. We were in a little bit of a hurry because we had 7:00 dinner reservations, but as we had just eaten, I suppose we could afford to be a little bit late.
The rooftop of the River View Guest House had a dynamite view, and we enjoyed a few drinks here in the golden light of a Bangkok evening. It’s a fascinating neighborhood that deserves more time, but in order to stay more or less on schedule, Michael and Gay led us back to the hotel and helped us figure out how to get to dinner, since we had a phone number, but not a specific address. It’s too bad we won’t have time to take another tour with them before we leave Bangkok, because we definitely feel like we have only scratched the surface.
After a quick change, we summoned a van for our trip to the home of Chef Pam and began our slog across town. Chef Pam (Pichaya Utharntharm) currently is a judge on Top Chef Thailand, after a career full of accolades for her cooking in Thailand and abroad, including several years at Jean-Georges in New York. We didn’t know quite what she had in store for us tonight, but after the painful uncertainty of making a reservation (it’s complicated) and the agony of Bangkok’s terrible rush hour traffic, it was a relief to see the electric gates open and be greeted warmly as we climbed out of our van. Our driver decided to camp out in Chef Pam’s garage rather than find another fare, so we also could rest assured that we would have a ride home.
We were ushered into the warmly lit house (previously owned by Chef Pam’s parents) and in a side room we exchanged our shoes for slippers. After taking our places at the large dining room table, we started with a little non-alcoholic welcome drink and an interesting purple potato roll. The table was an elegant slab of wood, and our first course continued the theme: a log was placed in front of each of us, on which we were served three different bites of pork. I can’t remember now which was the neck, the jowl (or cheek), and the other part, but they each presented an interesting contrast of flavors and textures that mixed Thai and Western influences. I’m pretty sure that third one had a Texas-style barbeque sauce. We next received an egg shell balanced on a pile of rock salt on a nest. Inside the shell, imported French morels flavored a luscious custard. For the vegetable lovers, the next plate paired roasted cauliflower with a pumpkin puree. This was followed by tender ravioli filled with house made ricotta; unfortunately, I can’t recall what was in the sauce, but altogether, this was a delicious bite. A thick slab of salmon was served with a fruity sauce, and topped with a “skin” made with seaweed (and probably some other seasonings). A palate cleanser of sorbet helped prepare us for a plate of rich wagyu beef with krones. As one of my dinner companions was feeling a little too full, I happily helped him with some extra slices. We moved into dessert with a rich sabayon and a plum sorbet, followed by a “river rock” cake and ice cream. When a game board arrived, featuring pieces topped by mignardises — fruit jellies, chunks of fudge, and other treats — I found it difficult to clear the board, especially after some of our favorites were replenished. I did my best. Regrettably, the pleasantly dim lighting made for poor photos, but you can get the general idea:
Throughout our meal, we were free to wander into the kitchen to observe the preparation and ask questions. Chef Pam also visited our table a couple of times to take questions and ask how we liked it. Fortunately, we liked it very much, and if we hadn’t gotten up early, or if we had been less jet lagged, we might have lingered in one of the comfortable-looking seating areas. Maybe next time?
A private tour, a private dinner with a celebrity chef, and a van to drive us around, are affordable luxuries in Thailand, at least for now. I can’t help thinking I shouldn’t get too used to it.
Tomorrow we’ve booked a morning cooking class, but our afternoon is free for visiting museums, shopping, massages, or maybe even some relaxation.