Jan 232020

It’s difficult to believe our trip is coming to an end. But after all the temples, fried fish, and clothing shops, it is time to fly back to Bangkok for our last shopping and eating adventures before returning home. We will miss the North’s cooler weather, but we can have all the cool weather we want in the Bay Area, so perhaps a little Bangkok Winter heat is just what we need?

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

We enjoyed a final visit to the Rasa Boutique Hotel’s peaceful dining room for breakfast before meeting a couple of rented vans for the trip to the airport. For once, it seems, our flight back to Bangkok stayed on schedule. Thai Airways served a light snack, which fortunately now features a bottle of water rather than sugary mystery juice, although the mystery continues as to the contents of the sandwich. After arrival, our luggage took its time finding its way to the baggage carousel, but we still would have plenty of time for lunch and a final burst of food shopping.

Aw Taw Kaw market (more commonly Romanized as Or Tor Kor) is the fanciest fresh market in Bangkok, as far as we know, with both a Royal Project Shop and a Queen’s SUPPORT Foundation shop, innumerable food stands, and a seasonal fair offering clothing. About the only thing in short supply is air conditioning, which undoubtedly limited our purchases.

We started with lunch in the food court area, where duck was the star, including braised duck soup noodles (my choice), roast duck over rice, and a spicy stir-fry of duck with basil. To diversify our diets, Kasma brought each table orders of moo ping (pork on a stick) and grilled sour sausage balls from other vendors. Tasty passionfruit juice also was available.

After lunch, our group snaked through the market admiring the beautiful displays, sampling familiar and unfamiliar foods, and making various purchases. Fiery Southern curry pastes and an especially mild kapi (fermented shrimp paste) were available in the seasonal fair section. The stall with dried fruits and honey-sesame cashews was another popular stop. At the far end, we ducked into the air conditioned Royal Project Shop for Doi Tung macadamia nuts, coffee, and any other items we didn’t pick up in the North. The little market was busy with Bangkok residents buying fresh produce; we might have been the only Westerners here. Back at the other end of the market, we found the tasty and inexpensive GABA rice blend sold out at the Queen’s SUPPORT Foundation shop. How about wooden spoons, cheap knives, regional fashions, seeds, or moringa oil? Eventually the heat got to me and I found myself lingering in air conditioned dessert shops to cool down. Fortunately, I managed to avoid emerging with armfuls of perishable confections.

[photos TBD]

Back at the Salil Hotel, there was a snafu with our reservations which took a good 30 minutes to sort out. I’m back in the building with the smaller rooms, but it’s manageable. Since I’m staying an extra day, I’m not under as much pressure to sort and pack, so I have time to cool down a bit before dinner.

Our farewell feast is again at Vientiane Kitchen, which offers a stage show of traditional Thai music and dance, as well as more contemporary music such as the former King’s jazz compositions and various pop songs played on traditional instruments. So many flutes!

As the show progressed on stage, we ate heartily as usual. My favorite dish here is the smoky fried pork leg, with crispy skin, succulent fat, and tender meat. The sour sausage and crispy rice salad also is addictive. Our pork selections were balanced by a salad of fried eggplant batons topped with spicy seafood, a chicken soup, chayote greens, and a delicious fried fish larb. As usual, we had too much food, and a persistent cat kept rubbing against us which we interpreted as requesting leftovers. But I just couldn’t: Sorry, kitty, I might need another helping.

[photos TBD]

If you’ve read accounts of past farewell feasts, you know there is always some kind of audience participation. I never know what people are saying about me in Thai, but I was invited on stage to sing James Taylor’s Handy Man and the regional favorite, Country Roads. I don’t know the lyrics to Country Roads, other than the chorus, so I had to cheat a bit with my phone as people in the audience sang along from memory. So embarrassing. Must do better next year.

After finishing a dessert of black sesame dumplings in sweet ginger tea, and helping with some mango sticky rice, I began to get drowsy, and I was not the only one. Eventually, we headed back to the hotel where we gave our drivers fat tip envelopes and said many goodbyes.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

I had booked a full day food tour for today, but due to lack of other sign-ups, the tour was canceled and I need to find other ways to occupy myself. Of course, eating remains on the agenda.

After a random sampling of Thai and Western foods from the buffet, and goodbyes to various trip members, I headed out to run some errands. These included changing my last $100 (for 3,025 baht this time), dropping off laundry, picking up another box at the Post Office, and grabbing one last banana sticky rice snack. I had thought it would be amusing to speak with a real estate agent about a Bangkok condo — there are so many choices — but after soaking through my shirt on this brief outing, I thought better of it. I couldn’t handle living here!

After cooling down, I took the BTS Skytrain in the direction of the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center (BACC), but since it was nearly lunchtime, I took a detour to the Ari station. From there I wandered over to Lay Lao, a restaurant that fuses seafood styles from Hua Hin with spicing from the Northeast (Isaan) region. I had first spotted them at ICONSIAM in February 2019, but due to being next to the waterfall, it was very loud at that branch. The original was quieter, and a “Bib Gourmand” section, if you care. When reviewing their recommended dishes, I couldn’t resist the grilled pork neck (listed on the menu as pork shoulder) and deep fried little squids stuffed with squid eggs, each of which came with a little (not so) spicy sauce to drizzle on. As a light vegetable course I added cabbage seasoned with garlic and fish sauce (tender and delicious), and got a tiny serving of sticky rice on the side. I’m not sure how I ate all of that; if I return, I’ll ask them for the spicier versions of the sauces and try one of their numerous variations on green papaya sald.

BACC has a couple of floors for artists to show and sell their work, but the currently highlighted exhibits are photos from the Crown Princess’s new photo book, and art addressing LGBTQ issues in Southeast Asia. Perhaps because admission to BACC is free, there were numerous school children in these exhibits viewing the art and making notes in notebooks. Fortunately, it wasn’t too crowded to read the tiny letters on signs next to the works, or to peer over their heads.

On the way back, I stopped at the large and confusingly laid out EmQuartier shopping center(s). A trip member had raved about Bordier’s compound butters (seasoned, for example, with Yuzu or seaweed). Unfortunately, their cold pack is only rated for two hours outside of a refrigerator, so it didn’t seem wise to bring any home. On the ground level, there were numerous food stands featuring Chinese snacks, perhaps in anticipation of the upcoming lunar new year.

I got back to Thonglor in time to squeeze in a one-hour foot massage before dinner. It was quiet at Wadee Massage, and laying in a recliner with subdued lighting and soft music was very relaxing. I hope my snoring was not too loud. I might have napped the rest of the day away, but I had an errand to run: I needed to pick up my laundry at 6:00.

I had dropped off a shirt, t-shirt, and socks for my flight home early in the day when Soi Thonglor was brightly lit by the morning light. At dusk, by contrast, the heavy traffic made crossing the street much riskier. I waited with other pedestrians for a minor break in the traffic before racing across the crosswalk hoping to beat the motorcycle to the other side. I would not enjoy doing this every day.

Since I was on the other side of the street and needed a bit of cool-down, I took the opportunity to browse the local outpost of Lemon Farm, a small chain of natural and organic food stores that carries a range of premium products, including Doi Tung macadamias. I resisted further purchases, except for one: dried butterfly pea flowers, which can be used to make an herbal infusion or to add a shocking blue color to other foods, and I know someone who might be interested.

Although I wasn’t yet extremely hungry, I walked up Soi Thonglor to Supanniga Eating Room to see whether they had any openings. They accommodate single diner at their L-shaped bar, where I sat at the center (or the corner, depending on how you look at it). Seated to my right, two young men speaking Japanese were well into their beers and snacks; another guy sat down at my left shortly after me. The restaurant claims to cook Grandma’s recipes, transported to the contemporary context. I had no idea what that is supposed to mean. I noticed it is popular with other pale-skinned foreigners, so their marketing seems to be on point.

Unlike a nearby table ordering massaman beef curry, I tried some more unusual offerings: fish cakes made with soured fish, a pomelo salad, and a stewed pork curry with cha muang leaves. The fish cakes were somewhat similar to Western-style crab cakes, with chunks of soured fish — fish mixed with rice and allowed to ferment for a day or three before cooking — formed into good-sized pucks for frying. One order turned out to be a bit of a salt overload for a single diner, so sharing is definitely recommended. The pomelo salad was sweet and a bit spicy, with great texture. Although it was a good-sized portion, it was easy to finish. The pork curry was not sour, as I expected from the online description of cha muang (Garcinia cowa Roxb.) leaves, but instead reminded me of a slightly sweet pot roast. I had plenty left over to take home for tomorrow.

On the way back, I detoured to Mae Varee for a box of sliced mango, enough for a bit tonight and a bit tomorrow when I hope to finish off my pork curry. The front desk arranged a late checkout, so perhaps I’ll have time for a proper lunch?

Thursday, January 23, 2020

My alarm woke me, which I think is a sign that I’m tired enough to return home. Packing will be a challenge: there are heavy glass jars of macadamia nut butter that need protection from breakage, and delicate dried flowers that I somehow need to avoid crushing. Between cardboard boxes from the Post Office and various clothes, I hope that I won’t need bubble wrap. Time will tell.

The breakfast buffet offered the usual ho hum, but to avoid sweating through my clothes, I’m not venturing out unless absolutely necessary. So how will I get my grilled eggplant salad fix before leaving town? Although I don’t use food delivery services at home, I was intrigued by Grab Food, a feature of the Grab app I have used for taxis and vans in the past. For a delivery charge of about $1.00, someone on a motorcycle will pick up my order and bring it to me. No sweat.

My Choice restaurant is listed in the app, but it’s lengthy menu is entirely in Thai. With heavy use of Google Translate for screenshots of the menu, I was able to place an order. The app showed a little motorcycle heading to My Choice, and then once he arrived, the order would actually be placed. Since the price was higher than listed on Grab’s menu and there was an additional 7% charge (VAT?) — the driver called me to confirm he should place the order. Yes, please! I was surprised the driver had to wait around until the food is ready; how do they make any money? When I met him outside the hotel lobby, he seemed grateful for a modest tip.

The grilled eggplant salad and winged bean salad were delivered in multiple layers of plastic: a tub for the basic ingredients, and baggies for the toppings, collated into individual bags for each dish, and one outer bag for the entire order. I’m definitely contributing to the single use plastics problem today, but as a benefit, I could drain excess (flavorless) eggplant moisture that would have diluted the dressing, and the fried shallots for the winged bean salad were super-crisp. Together with my reheated pork curry from last night it was an extremely filling and delicious lunch (followed by the few extra pieces of mango left in my mini-fridge). Now I can pack up and leave at my leisure, without having to worry about a last minute change of sweaty clothes.

The hotel’s scale was broken, but I can still manage my bags, which makes me think I’m nowhere near the weight limit. I used the Grab app to summon a taxi; unlike Grab Car, which you pay through the app at a fixed price, Grab Taxi has you pay the driver the fare on the meter plus a 20 baht surcharge. Even though there is no obvious financial advantage, my chatty driver said he prefers Grab customers. Perhaps this is because he knows in advance who he is agreeing to pick up? Traffic was light, so I arrived at the airport before the check-in lines opened. No problem, I have an errand to run. I found a shrink-wrap station to stabilize my big zip bag full of boxes, making sure the various clothing items draped around the boxes would stay in their intended locations as the bag tumbled through the baggage handling system. The only remaining concern was whether they would ding me for a too-heavy roll-aboard bag.

Turns out everything went very smoothly, until I emerged from the immigration counter into the overly perfumed air of the duty free shops. For some reason, the air conditioning in the departure area is completely insufficient. Those of us flying Economy and Premium Economy, not eligible to use exclusive airline lounges, had few options to cool down. Another reminder of what it might be like to retire here. Hmm.

The overhead bin above the middle section on our 777 to Taipei was a bit small, so I was fortunate that the other passenger sharing the bin did not have a big bag. Our dinner, featuring a chicken patty with black mushroom sauce and egg noodles, blended Asian and Western ingredients and presentation. Pretty good, but quite filling. Before landing in Taipei, I had to perform the delicate operation of switching my phone’s SIM card back to my regular provider. Samsung doesn’t make this easy, placing the tiny nano-SIM and microSD card on the same tray. Luckily, nothing got lost so I could enjoy roaming service upon arrival.

After clearing transfer security in Taipei, I found my way to the food court for soup dumplings, and surprisingly, I was too full to order them. Perhaps my brain is already adjusting my appetite back to its slightly more moderate pre-travel volume? More likely, it’s just the late hour. Either way, I decided not to force the situation. Airport dumpling are good, but not that good.

In the airport, and on our second leg, I was surprised by the higher than usual number of people wearing face masks. I had not been following the news about the novel Coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, so it didn’t occur to me that I should be wearing a mask. I did put one on during the flight while I was asleep. I don’t know whether it protected me from any viruses, but it does reduce dehydration a bit because some of the moisture you lose in your breath is retained in the mask where you inhale it again. It probably doesn’t reduce the sound of snoring.

The empty seat next to mine was occupied by a young boy, and his father asked whether I would switch for his window seat. Selfishly, perhaps, I declined saying I needed an aisle seat. That’s not only to fetch stuff from the overhead bin, but also for ready access to the restrooms and galley to meet mid-flight needs. We ended up doing a three-way switch where the passenger behind me took Dad’s window seat and gave me his aisle seat. Crisis averted.

EVA soon served my second dinner of the evening, where I opted for the less risky roasted chicken with mashed potatoes over the wok-fried fish with rice. Fortunately, the chicken pieces were juicy thigh meat, so that worked out well. Around half-way home, in a cabin too dark to see, we were offered mysterious pita sandwiches with a warm meat filling, that I later learned was ginger-soy pork. Turns out I’m not a picky eater at 36,000 feet. Before landing, after a quick wipe-down with a refreshing towel, we had the usual rice porridge breakfast, this time with chicken and chunks of pumpkin. The only disappointment was the tea. Why do they serve black tea instead of their tastier oolong tea? Surely this isn’t what others on this flight prefer.

Arrival into San Francisco went smoothly. I used the Mobile Passport app to submit my customs form once I had a signal, and that line was short as usual. They didn’t seem to think my motley connection of snacks and ingredients merited detailed screening, so once my bags emerged onto the carousel I was free to go.

After waiting briefly in the crisp, clean air of a Winter evening, I caught a Lyft and everything was proceeding swiftly until we got caught in the backup behind a five-car accident on Highway 101. Now I feel like I’m back in the Bay Area. My driver persisted and got me home with my oversized souvenir bag intact. I suspect I’ve seen these less visited parts of Thailand for the last time, but Kasma is offering one last snorkeling trip in 2021, so if all goes according to plan, this won’t be my last trip to Thailand.

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