Bikes and Boîtes in Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand – 18 & 19 April 2018

Presented myself at Grasshopper Adventures for my Bangkok bike tour. As it turned out, I was the only person taking the tour that day, so it was just me and my guide for the day, Tick. It was a pretty great day! We rode across Chao Phraya then through mostly quiet residential areas and narrow paths surrounded by greenery and water. I didn’t actually take many photos – which I suppose I regret, but honestly, spending most of the day in the saddle was great for me. I miss riding when I travel and it’s good for me physically and mentally – and I hope it helped me work off my vastly increased intake of condensed milk, thanks to my love of Thai ice tea.

Tick figured out right away that I am a fairly experienced urban rider, which meant we kept up a pretty good pace. Of course, some of the narrow paths had very sharp turns or were slippery or had no railings or all of the above, so my adrenal glands def got a bit of a workout – but I only had one near death experience… Not really, of course, but I did almost leave the path at what would’ve been a very inopportune moment.

We stopped at a couple of temples along the way, which were lovely as is pretty much always the case here in Thailand. Tick was really knowledgeable and told me about various conservation and construction efforts underway at our various stops. We also saw lots of dogs and a few cats, which was not only great, but made me think of Calvin, whose ashes I scattered in Chao Phraya two years ago, not too far from where we were riding…

Next to one of the temples there were food vendors and I had some pad Thai which was absolutely delicious – one of the best I’ve had! It was a great day and a great tour and I really loved it.

After Ak finished work, we headed to Vogue Lounge, an old favorite of both of ours, and enjoyed a couple of cocktails outdoors under the shadow of Mahanakhon Tower. Next stop was Iron Balls Bar, a new place from A.R. Sutton (I’ve still not been to his OG place) and my opportunity to finally try locally-distilled Iron Balls gin.

The bar was pretty cool looking and our drinks were good – but the atmosphere was pretty terrible. The place wasn’t crowded but it was mostly folks who seemed like they were all very impressed with themselves. The staff all seemed fairly unhappy to be there – though the bartender who made my drink was pretty friendly once we ordered. Anyway, it’s not a bar I’ll go back to – not really my kind of vibe, I guess.

Dinner was just up the street at a place called Thai Lao Yeh – chosen mainly for its proximity to the bar. Well! It turned out to be excellent. Located in the lovely Cabochon Hotel, the colonial-style dining room was looked after by an extremely friendly staff.

And the food! Like Thai Niyom the other night, this was Esan style food and it was all delicious – though also like Thai Niyom, the simplest dish was my favorite: steamed clams with lemongrass. The plump clams were impeccably fresh and tender and the lemongrass lent just a bit of perfume to the dish. Wonderful! And this being Esan food, of course we had sausages – juicy and spicy and sour and so tasty. Our shaved ice dessert with tapioca pearls and condensed milk was the perfect end to the meal – and très, très léger…

Thursday was pretty quiet. Ak and I had breakfast at the bbq pork noodle place near our hotel, then he headed off to work. I dropped off some laundry and then spent the day shopping at Bangkok’s amazing malls. And I may have found time for a few hours of massage therapy…

Drinks that night at Salon de Japonisant, a great little bar tended by Kei Sawada from Japan. The place is simply decorated and the “art” on the walls is really cool labels from Japanese liquor bottles. The drinks are intricately handcrafted without being fussy and are gorgeous to behold. They’re pretty delicious too!

The crowd was bit hi-so for our taste – and due to the painstaking construction of each cocktail (including hand-carving ice into the appropriate shape), the pace can be slow. We were the first to arrive at 7:30, so our first round was served quickly. But next time I go, I’d probably try to get there at opening at 7PM so the second round could’ve been served to us a bit more quickly.

Dinner at Soul Food Mahanakhon, another old favorite – I think we’ve eaten here every time I’ve visited! Food was all tasty per usual, though my favorite is always the miang kham. We did both nearly sprain our eye-rolling muscles (Ak especially!) when the farang at the next table claimed to his companions to know everything about Thai food while butchering the pronunciations. Eh, I guess I shouldn’t judge, since I’m sure I’m no better – but judge I did!

We met an adorable kitten outside the restaurant – obv the highlight of the evening – on our way to Rabbit Hole for a quick nightcap. Then back to the hotel and ended the night with another argument about the correct method of taking photographs. At least we’re consistent! Tomorrow is TGIF for Ak and the start of my last weekend in Bangkok. Sigh…

Visiting Hoi An

Hoi An, Vietnam – 11, 12 & 13 April 2018
Our flight to Da Nang was perfectly pleasant and passed quickly. Arrived on time with all of our luggage, bought local SIM cards right next to baggage carousel and were soon off to our home for the next five nights, the Lantana Riverside Boutique Hotel.

There’d been a bit of a mix-up with our room, insofar as it was not available the first night of our stay due to overbooking. It was a bit irksome, given that I’d bought and paid for the Lantana Suite months ago – but it’d been a long day and the alternative room we were provided was more than adequate. Ak and I both slept soundly that night. We were moved into our originally booked room the next afternoon and it was a nice upgrade, thanks to a better layout and a nice view of the river.

Ak and I both felt a little unsure about Hoi An at this juncture – not unhappy with it per se, but it was also not as we’d pictured it. What little we’d seen on the ride in made it seem more touristy and less charming than I’d thought – but we’ll see if that holds true. And as nice as our hotel is, I’d probably prefer something a bit closer to old town were I to visit again.

Wednesday morning we were up early for a trip to visit the temple ruins at My Son. It was a nice small group: our guide, the two of us and three people from France. The drive out was about an hour and we spent maybe 90 minutes or so taking in the sights. Frankly, it was just about the perfect amount of temple ruins for this philistine – and compared to someplace like Angkor Wat, it was wonderfully uncrowded. The ruins themselves are interesting and learning about their construction and conservation was great. A really nice morning!

On the way back into the city, we stopped at a place for local handicrafts – which in actuality was mostly a shop trying to hard-sell us clothes, lanterns and silk ware. Not the end of the world, but certainly not my favorite type of tourist experience.

After wrapping things up and having a bit of a lie-down, we headed into the center of Hoi An to meet up with our food tour for the afternoon. Our guide was Emma and we were joined by one other traveler, a German woman closer to my age than Ak’s who was about halfway through her three month backpacking tour of SE Asia.

As we ambled about we stopped and had beef noodles, Madame Khan’s world famous (and deservedly so) banh mi, black sesame pudding and pork dumplings from White Rose – to name a few. We wrapped things up at a local home where we helped to prepare and cook spring rolls and savory egg pancakes before tucking into them along with a couple of cans of beer. It was a great way to spend an afternoon and a really fun way to get some local insight into Hoi An’s food. Emma was a wonderful guide – teaching us not just about the food we ate but about everyday life in Hoi An and Vietnam.

Walked around Old Town for a bit and had some really tasty cocktails at Q Bar. I was especially enamored of the gin/cucumber/lime concoction they offered.

Another early start on Thursday for ANOTHER food tour, this one run by an ex-pat Aussie. When he came to collect us at 7AM and had not presented ourselves in the lobby (we were literally in the elevator on our way down) he had hurried into the breakfast room to ensure we’d not disobeyed his very explicit instructions to not eat anything before the tour. And this was no joke – when we were presented with the menu later, there were over 40 different dishes for us to try!

Four other Aussies joined us on the tour and the first part of the day was spent with Ms Sen, a local woman who took us through the market and then to a variety of stands and shops for all sorts of tastings. Our favorite of the morning was mì gà – essentially chicken noodle soup – with a golden broth that was sublime. We also had some outstanding banh mi here. Oh, and barbecue pork. And after a short walk we had some super delicious ice cream – coconut for me, taro for Ak. Uh, and I also had a coffee ice cream. They’re very small!

The latter half of the morning was spent back at the tour company’s HQ, all of us seated around a table sampling a huge variety of local foods while Neville regaled us with his stories, opinions and history.

It was all good tour, though also quite A LOT of food. As much as I enjoyed this tour, it was perhaps just a bit much by the end. I have to say, the tour we took yesterday was more interesting and more fun – I suspect largely since it felt a lot more like a local perspective on things rather than that of an ex-pat Westerner.

Surprisingly enough though (OK, not all that surprising), we were hungry again by 5PM after wrapping up the tour at noon. After stopping for a quite lovely massage at La Luna Spa, we had dinner at The Seashell, an outpost of the well-reputed Nu eatery here in town. The food was Vietnamese fusion – and TBH, we’d both’ve preferred something a bit more authentic – though the orange chicken rice bowl was delicious and I had a quite tasty glass of wine with dinner. Wandered around Old Town after dinner a bit, but made a relatively early night of it.

The next morning, we taxied into Old Town to Heaven and Earth Bike Tours for a tour of the countryside, along with our guide Tram and a lovely Welsh couple called Caroline and John. We started off with a boat ride (along with our bikes) and I had a chance to do perhaps the straightest and male-est thing I’ve ever done: chatted up John about his photography equipment. Happily, he offered me some excellent insight – and I really do need to save up my pennies and replace my bulky DSLR. I was quite envious of John’s compact little Lumix which he told me provides excellent images and has interchangeable lenses.

We covered about 14 km before lunch at a local homestead – though we stopped several times along the way, including at the home of one of the guides who rode part of the way with us. Her mother makes rice noodles in her village and we got to see the process and sample her wares. Amazing!

We pedaled through rice fields and shrimp farms – and passed by a duck farm where a few hundred ducklings hustled out of our path and into their pond. We also saw water buffalo, plenty of cows and dogs and a nice variety of local birds. And all along the way friendly locals yelled “Hello!” as we rode by.

As lovely as all this was – and as delicious as our lunch was – the heat of the day proved a bit much, so Ak and I decided to call it a day and to pass on the 9 km remainder of the ride. And special thanks to our guide Tram and fellow tourists John and Caroline who were all patient and supportive when we found ourselves really needing to slow the pace of the trip toward the end, thanks to both the heat and general exhaustion.

Despite pooping out, we really loved this tour. Getting away from the center of Hoi An and out into the quieter countryside was a nice change – and again, like with our first food tour, getting perspectives from a local resident offers so much more insight into local life. It was a really fun ride.

Made it back to town and then to the hotel for a lie-down and some electrolyte-laden sports drinks and we seem to have made a full recovery from the day’s exertions. Heading into town for early dinner and cocktail. Tomorrow: cooking class!

A Day in Ayutthaya and a Night in Silom

I’d booked a bike tour of Ayutthaya for Wednesday – and since I am a sad, Mary-Ann-Singleton solo traveler, it meant having to make my way to Ayutthaya on my own via the local train, rather than being picked up in a van like all the superior tourists traveling in pairs. OK, maybe that’s a bit hyperbolic – but solo pick up meant paying a $50 premium and frankly, I think I can figure out how to take a train. Nevertheless, I wanted to be sure to give myself plenty of time to get to the station and purchase my ticket – so I was in a taxi to the Hua Lamphong Station by 6AM.

No snags encountered (well, other than the taxi driver dropping me at Hua Lamphong metro station rather than train station – they are close to one another, so NBD, but the intersection I had to navigate was particularly treacherous…) and I got my ticket easily enough. I even sprang for the super-luxurious, extra-fancy 2nd Class ticket, which set me back about US$2.00, rather than the US$0.75 for 3rd Class! It took me a bit to locate the appropriate carriage, but once I did, the 95-minute ride to Ayutthaya went off uneventfully. I even managed to doze for a good portion of the trip, which was nice.

Arriving at my destination and shaking off a highly persistent tuk-tuk driver offering me a tour of the area, I schlepped up the road armed with the highly-stylize map of directions provided by the Recreational Thailand Biking, the operators of today’s bike tour. Even with the assistance of Google Maps, this proved to be quite the most difficult navigation of the day. They referred to the spot I was going as their “office” – which I pictured as something along the lines of a storefront with a sign announcing “Recreational Ayutthaya Bike Tours” or something. Not so much – the office consisted of a non-descript dwelling behind a wall with no indication of what business might be conducted there. The only reason I even found it is was because one of RTB’s vehicles was parked in the field next door and the fellow behind the wheel ushered me over to the “office” – which was really just the small courtyard in front of where the bikes were kept locked up.

I should also add that the advice I was given by the company was to take the 7AM train from Bangkok – which certainly gave me plenty of time, but also meant sitting around waiting for the tour to start for over an hour in a bare courtyard. Perhaps not the most auspicious of starts, but oh well…

Anyway, 10AM finally rolled around and the other bikers and our guide showed up. We hit the road pretty quickly. After a pretty decent ride of several kilometers, we stopped at a rice paddy, where our guide Amm gave us an interesting and comprehensive overview of the role of rice in Thailand’s farming and diet.

The next stop was a local elephant camp. The tour description makes it clear that an elephant camp visit is included – and frankly, that should have been enough for me to re-think this particular tour, but I didn’t. After my wonderful visit to Elephant Nature Park, this camp was pretty grim. Most of the elephants had leg shackles and were chained to poles to keep them from roaming. At least two were chained by their necks to poles right next to them, meaning they could not roam even a few feet. I also saw a number of elephants demonstrating repetitive behaviors like rocking and head shaking associated with stress in captivity. It was difficult to witness and I really did not like being there. I simply sat out the activities there, like feeding and posing with the elephants (for a fee), and hoped the time would go quickly.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s absolutely true that I was unhappy with the situation for these captive elephants – but I also recognize that this camp undoubtedly provides employment and livelihood for plenty of local residents. And Zeus knows that as a meat-eater, frequent airplane flyer and resident of the earth’s most wasteful, energy-hogging nation, I am hardly innocent. But I really could have done without visiting this particular elephant camp…

Happily, we were back on our bikes soon enough and the next stop was for lunch. A simple open-air place along the river where we served a whole passel of yummy Thai food. We’d been on our bikes for a couple of hours at that point, so the food was super satisfying. And it was another nice group of folks: a couple of gays from Seattle, a mother and her teenage son from the Netherlands and a couple from San Diego. Amm, our guide, was genial and easy-going. We all really enjoyed sharing a meal together.

Back on our bikes and we started making stops at the various temples, ruins and statues in Ayutthaya. This was the main attraction for my visit and I really enjoyed the combination of sightseeing and cycling. Amm was extraordinarily knowledgeable about each location we visited and was well-versed in Thai history, weaving the information together so that we learned about how the different places we visited fit into a historical context.

And while all this history was fascinating, at our penultimate stop, we encountered something really incredible: PUPPIES! We were just standing around, minding our own business, when all of a sudden I felt something around my ankles – and it was the most adorable little white puppy and he was obviously in love with me! I only managed to get one or two decent selfies with my new friend. The fellow from Seattle snapped a few more – but he never sent them to me as requested. The nerve!

At this point we were given a choice of continuing on to one more location or calling it a day. The San Diego folks decided to pack it in – and I was wavering myself, as it was hot as Hades and I was filthy with sweat, dirt, sunblock and puppy drool. But since the other folks were willing to soldier on, so was I.

And I was glad I did! We had a pretty lengthy ride to get there – which was great! Part of the reason I like to take bike tours is because I miss my daily cycling at home. So it’s nice to actually put some miles on (and maybe work off some of that coconut ice cream I’ve grown so fond of…). And our last stop was, I think, the most intact and complex of the sites we visited. We headed back to our starting point – including crossing the river, bikes in tow, aboard a small river boat – and wrapped up a really fun afternoon.

And I’ll confess right now – as much as I enjoyed visiting all the different Wats, I neglected to take any notes. So while I think my photos below are pretty great, I could not tell you specifically which wat is what. Of course, my philistinism is well-known, so this should not come as any great surprise…

I was also able to hitch a ride back in the van to Bangkok. The train would’ve been fine, but I was happy for the AC, comfy seats and no wait. I was under the impression I was getting dropped at my hotel but instead was let out at the Skytrain station. I could’ve taken it a couple of stops to the subway and transferred, but instead I just did the 20-minute schlep. I was already filthy, so why not?

After a glorious and lengthy shower, I met up with Ak and we headed over to Soi 4 and the Telephone Bar, where my friend Nicolas was waiting for us. He’s Swiss and works as a flight attendant – so when he heard I was going to Bangkok, he arranged his work schedule so that he’d be on a two-night layover during my trip! This was great, especially since he’s been to Bangkok many times and knows his way around.

After dinner upstairs, we meandered up to Bas Bar for a few more cocktails. After being suitably liquored up, our next stop was DJ Station (which for reasons I cannot explain I kept mistakenly referring to as DJ Superstar… In fact, that’s the name of the place I gave to the two fellows on my tour that day. Perhaps that’s why I never got those puppy pix. But I digress…), Bangkok’s most well-known gay dance club. I’ll be frank – it’s at this point in the evening that my memory is a bit hazy (jet lag, I’m sure…) but a fine time was had by all and I even got to break it down on the dance floor a bit (though Ak was decidedly unimpressed with my rendition of The Robot. Shows what he knows…) Eventually made it back to my hotel (apparently) and the next morning, I did not wake up with a stranger lying next to me nor with any new piercings or tattoos. If that’s not a successful evening, I don’t know what is!