Bangkok Days…

Bangkok, Thailand – 16 & 17 April 2018

Started the day in a shameful – though nearly traditional at this point – breakfast at Au Bon Pain. In our defense, due to Songkran holiday, many places closed, including our favorite bbq pork noodle place, so here we are.

The streets this morning were eerily quiet. Silom Rd. is generally teeming with people and traffic pretty much 24/7 – but everyone is either out of town or still hungover from yesterday’s Songkran craziness, so Silom was weirdly empty.

Anyhow, we got ourselves to Wat Saket (The Golden Mount) and climbed up to the top. It’s magnificent! The wat itself is lovely and the view is amazing – high enough above Bangkok to see a huge swath of the city but not so high that you can’t see life teeming below you. Set in the old part of Bangkok, it was especially great to see all the old shops, houses and other buildings in the immediate neighborhood.

While gazing up at the golden stupa at the crest of the wat, I had a bit of a moment. Not full-blown Stendhal Syndrome, but certainly something akin to it. I seem to experience it once or twice every time I travel somewhere and find myself in a place that is particularly beautiful or simply just so of its place and I marvel at the fact that I am there and that I have the great good fortune to see and experience these things – especially along with my dear friend Ak, who is always proud and happy to teach me about his home city and country. Ok, sometimes it’s tinged with exasperation with my ignorance, but still! It was a wonderful way to start my day in this city that I never tire of visiting.

Next stop was at Wat Suthat, another temple nearby – and another place I’d never visited. The interior of the temple was beautifully painted – all the columns, walls, doors and ceiling. And we saw a couple of workers doing some restoration on the paint.

Lunch at Krua Apsorn, an old favorite that I first tried back in October 2015 – my very first visit to Bangkok! – after reading about their justly world-famous crab with yellow curry. It’s a bit pricey by Thai standards at THB500, but it’s piled high with huge chunks of crab meat that are fresh and tender – and require no extrication work by the customers and certainly not a bib… We also had a really tasty larb moo and some stir-fry pork.

Ak observed a rather hilarious – and not just a tad depressing – interaction with a couple of Western hippie backpacker types (you know, the ones always in search of authenticity) and their server. Anyway, despite a menu that was in both English and Thai and that had photos of every dish, these two ordered massaman curry – which is not in fact on the menu. Next, they requested pad Thai (because of course) and were advised that pad Thai was also not served in this establishment.

At this point, they decided to leave – not willing to give up on the authentic Thai food they craved at this clearly-not-authentically-Thai restaurant. It was laughable at best – but honestly, if you mention Krua Apsorn to just about anyone who’s been to Bangkok (or has Google), the response would be, “Oh, that place with the fantastic crab curry? You have to go!” #ohfarangs

Next we stopped for some shaved ice with noodles, sticky rice, fruit and one or two other items thrown in for good measure. So tasty on a hot day! Our next stop was Nuttaporn ice cream for Round 2 – but they were closed for the holiday. #tripruined

Onward, though, to the Grand Palace and a visit to Queen Sirikit’s Museum of Textiles. There was a special exhibit celebrating 200 years of friendship between Thailand and the US. Lots of diplomatic documents and communications from the 1800s on up to display of some of the beautiful Thai nielloware presented to various US Presidents and their families.

Of course, my favorite part of this museum is always seeing the selections from the Queen’s personal wardrobe, most of them from the 60s and 70s, designed to her specifications by Pierre Balmain and typically incorporating Thai silks and patterns. The materials are all so gorgeous and the workmanship is unbelievable.

Went back to the hotel to freshen up and decided to try a new place for dinner, Thai Niyom. I’d read a little blurb about it online somewhere, as it’d just recently opened and it wasn’t too terribly far from our hotel.

WELL. I don’t mean to engage in hyperbole, but it was one of the best Thai meals I’ve ever had – and Ak thought it was pretty amazing too and he’s Thai. We had spicy beef soup (tom sep) which was simply prepared – tender brisket in a deep, rich broth. And super spicy! But the kind of spicy that’s so delicious, you can’t stop eating it.

We also ordered a deceptively plain sounding dish of cabbage stir-fried with nam pla and garlic. The ingredients were straightforward – but the preparation was perfection. This is dish I will never forget eating – truly one of the most amazing things I’ve ever had.

We had a couple of kinds of Esan sausage and a seafood salad. Everything was great! We were so delighted to try someplace new and have it turn out to such a fantastic meal.

Tuesday, Ak was back to work (#poorhim), so I was on my own. On my way out, I had the pleasure of meeting Killian Donoghue, the GM at Le Meridien, who had been so helpful in resolving my issue with check-in. In his email yesterday, he’d said he hoped to meet me during my stay and I responded that he should just be on the look-out for a bespectacled farang with a crazy gray beard – so obviously, when I was walking through the lobby, he had no problem identifying me. Anyway, he was as gracious as could be – and I thanked him again for his assistance. I’m happy to report that the rest of my stay at Le Meridien was just as great as always – thanks to a really fine staff who all deliver top-notch service and make it all seem effortless. I’m looking forward to my next stay this autumn.

Next up was a visit to Terminal 21 for some shopping. I usually find some cute t-shirts there (assuming I can find any large enough to fit me. Sizing in Asia is not kind to farangs…), but had no luck this time – though I did get a cute aloha shirt, which everyone wears during Songkran, so the selection was good. I was looking at another shop where I’ve had some success in the past, but as I was looking at shirts on the rack, the lady running the place announced, “Not for you. Too small.” and shooed me over to small selection of what might actually fit me. As I said to Ak later, “I think this was the Thai version of ‘We only carry sizes 2 and 4. Maybe you should try Sears.’”

I consoled myself with a massage later at Infinty Spa. It was lovely! The Thai body massage was fine – nothing to write home about – but the subsequent foot massage was superb. And I’ll say the same about the post-massage snack of mango sticky rice – so good!

Met up with Ak at Eat Me for a couple of cocktails, base on Thai street food – my first was Kaeng Tai Pla: mezcal, shallot, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, curry and lime. Just enough tart, savory and umami to make a great drink. Second was larb – a similar flavor profile but a bit limier and served with a strip of crispy ham (#nom). Ak had a sake spritzer with elderflower which he loved (I agreed when I got a taste).

Dinner near the hotel at a ramen place, then made an early night of it. Wednesday morning would be an early one for me, as I had to be down near Old Town before 9AM to go on a bike tour.

 

A couple of videos from our visit to Wat Saket:

 

Monday and Tuesday in Bangkok

One of the best things about being on vacation is that Monday is just as delightful as every other day of the week… My agenda for the next couple of days was mostly re-visiting places I’d enjoyed last October or that I’d not had time to visit. But breakfast first, of course! Back to the little joint near my hotel that specializes in pork and noodles – and that’s exactly what I had (again): pork and noodles. Though this time I got barbecue pork and noodles rather than crispy pork belly. No lie, I’d be happy to eat this for breakfast every morning forever.

Next, on to Wat Pho! I’d actually been here a couple of times last visit to Bangkok, but I had foolishly neglected to avail myself of the massage services available from the students at their world-renowned massage school and the spiritual home of Thai massage. Ak and I each went for the full treatment: one hour foot massage followed by one hour Thai massage for the extremely reasonable price of ฿840 each. The surroundings are not fancy and the massage platforms and chairs are tightly-packed. No matter though – the services are, as one would expect, top-notch. I enjoyed my foot massage – but I loved my Thai massage! My therapist really seemed intuitive and by the time I left, my recurring hamstring injury felt nearly cured. Ak found the Thai massage a bit on the intense side for his taste, but really loved his foot massage. À chacun son goût…

Massage leaves one surprisingly hungry, so I was happy that our next destination was Krua Apsorn, where I could once again scarf down some of their amazing crab curry and crab omelet. We walked there – NBD under ordinary circumstances, but BKK’s temperatures that week had been referred to online as “face-meltingly hot” and that was not wrong. The high that day was something around 97° – so our half-hour walk left us rather worn out, despite popping into one of BKK’s ubiquitous 7-11s to ostensibly buy some water but really just to luxuriate in the chilly AC (and also for me to observe all manner of fascinating items for sale!).

But we made it and the meal at Krua Apsorn was as delicious as I remember. And good thing – someone was getting a bit hangry while we waited to be served…

After lunch, a rather short stroll to a place that had been on my list to visit last time, but that I coudn’t fit into my schedule: Nuttaporn Ice Cream, a tiny place that has been turning out coconut-milk-based ice cream for 60+ years. Ak and I each went traditional and ordered the coconut ice cream, me with corn and palm jelly, his with peanuts and palm jelly. It was really good! Deeply coconutty, though with a texture more like sorbet. And rather dainty portions too – which was frankly a relief, since it meant we could order a second round!

I went with coffee, Ak with the fresh mango – no toppings for either of us. OH. EM. GEE. I immediately declared without hyperbole that the coffee ice cream was the finest I’d ever had. The texture was creamy, though a bit less so than one made with cow’s milk. The flavor was intense and only barely sweet. Sublime. As for the mango? It was as if a mango had been plucked off a tree and magically transformed into ice cream. As my nephew accurately observed when he visited Nuttaporn (on my recommendation, natch) last November, “it was the bomb!”

And while Nuttaporn is clearly doing something right – they have been in business for longer than I’ve been alive (which frankly seems impossible, given my childhood spent along the Euphrates…) – it’s quite astonishing to me that the place doesn’t have a line around the block everyday. Bangkok is already a mecca for “foodies” (ugh) and this is place has all the hallmarks of a cult favorite: hole-in-the-wall, simple, inexpensive, delicious, a bit off-the-beaten path. Don’t get me wrong – I’m kinda glad they are just keeping on as they have in the past. Part of its charm is certainly that it’s a local place with a totally neighborhood vibe.

Anway, def go here while you’re in BKK – but don’t ruin it please!

After ice cream, we hopped on the canal boat and wound up, per usual, at Siam Paragon. I think we just passed through on the way to the Skytrain station – or maybe it’s because we can’t seem to avoid popping in at least once a day for whatever reason. Whatever the case, back to my hotel for a little downtime and then time to get ready for more eating – which, if I’m being totally honest, was probably one of the main reasons I returned to BKK so quickly after my last visit, i.e. I had waaaaaaay more food to eat!

This evening, Ak  was taking me to one of this favorite local spots. We met up with his friend Koi and headed to Jae Koy. Super-local, super-simple and not a place I’d likely to have wandered into on my own – in fact, I was the only farang in the place. I loved it! Food was all great – som tum, beef salad, tom yum and gai yang. I think the beef was my particular favorite, thanks to being spicy and tangy and fragrant. Just all of it so delicious…

Toward the end of our meal, I saw a Western couple come in and sit down, as I thought to myself, “Well, they must be really dialed in to the local food scene if they are here.” And then I noticed their Thai companions bright green shirt – it was Olive, the guide who’d taken me on a marvelous floating market tour last October! That’s one great thing about having my crazy beard, nerd glasses and septum piercing – when I started waving, she def remembered me. Anyway, she came over and we chatted a bit – and she pointed out that whoever took me here must really know their food, because the place is excellent. Nice job, Ak! Not that I expected anything less from him…

Had an early night since the plan was for us to meet up early and check out the Teak and Dusit Palaces on Tuesday morning. Met Ak at the BTS station and then we clambered onto a bus for a short-ish ride to the palace grounds.

First stop, the Teak Palace. Lovely both inside and out. And, while I would’ve loved to have taken some photos of the interiors, cameras and phones are strictly prohibited since this is still a royal residence. Visitors are required to store any and all gear in a locker before entering the building. Honestly? It’s kind of nice to just take in the surroundings without trying to get photos of everything – or, as is more often the case, being pushed and shoved by tourists who don’t look at anything that doesn’t appear on their iPhone screen.

Shoes are also not permitted, so off we padded after leaving our shoes in the rather fragrant repository. The palace itself was quite lovely inside. It’s a little disappointing that there’s not much in the way of information about what one is seeing, so it’s mostly just, “Oh! This place is lovely.” Though Ak was able to provide me with some of the history and context – one of the many benefits of having a Thai friend to squire me around!

After the Teak Palace, we schlepped (srsly, it was kind of a schlep – plus it was literally one million degrees out) over to the Dusit Palace. Wow! The palace is as impressive as the lines are long! Similar drill here, too – no cameras or phones allowed. We locked up our stuff and then joined the enormous line in the blazing hot sun with no shade anywhere. This was gonna be a challenge!

Now, one of the things I’ve learned in my travels is that it is very easy to slip into making broad generalizations about the relative lack of social grace possessed by various specific nationalities. However, I’ve learned that this is not primarily a product of varying social mores (though they play a role) but rather that when you get large tour groups of people from anywhere, they tend to behave like boors. And other than Ak and myself, every visitor at the Dusit Palace had just bussed in from whatever the version of Bumfuck is from their respective countries of origin.

Happily, though, this turned out to be a boon. As we waited amongst the loud and jostling crowd, one of the line wranglers saw us and waved us up to the front of the line for immediate entry. Not really sure why (I imagine because we were not part of the massive group that had descended), but quite sure I don’t care why – I was delighted to be inside not just to look at the quite marvelous collection of objets but to experience the blissfully frigid AC.

The various gold and jewel encrusted thrones, litters, boats and other objects were certainly impressive – as were the soaring ceilings and the various painted scenes upon them. But I must say, the huge carved wood panels were breathtaking. The intricacy of the work and the realism of the subjects was astonishing. There were also some silk embroidered panels that were just lovely.

So, enough with the local sights – it’s time for more food! Lunch was at Som Tum Nua, in the Siam Center shopping center. We had som tum (duh), wings and some kind of noodles that Ak chose and were (duh) abso-effing-lutely delicious. Dessert was across the way at Siam Paragon where I managed to eat an extremely dainty matcha-cream-filled pastry, since I myself am dainty AF.

That afternoon was pretty quiet. Had a lie-down and a swim, then grabbed some tasty katsu curry around the corner for dinner, before finishing up packing. Tomorrow would be a travel day – off to Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit the temples. More to come on that in my next post!

A Mellow Friday in Bangkok

Despite Thursday evening’s large and fancy dinner (accompanied by wine and cocktails, duh), I was up and at ‘em pretty early on Friday morning. I wanted to get to the Jim Thompson House when they opened at 9AM in hopes of avoiding the crowds.

And so I did! Today’s Skytrain ride was uneventful, insofar as I was able to get to my destination without any detours or wrong stops. I got a bit turned around getting from the station to the JT House, but still managed to present myself at the ticket window promptly at 9! Oh, and speaking of JT House, when I’d been texting with Aek the prior evening about how excited I was to visit JT House, I told him I couldn’t wait to meet Justin Timberlake because I am a dork and also hilarious.

ANYWAY, my early arrival wasn’t all that helpful given that the first tours don’t start until 9:30. But I spent my time wandering about the grounds outside the house, which are just marvelous, filled with beautiful plants and trees, small ponds and fountains and beautiful flowers. And it’s relatively unassuming – not a huge plot of land, and with traditional Thai structures that are of nice size, but by no means palatial. It’s a quiet little oasis in the middle of bustling Bangkok and it was undoubtedly one of the loveliest places I’ve ever visited.

The tour of the place was short but quite interesting. No photos permitted – which is kind of good for me every now and again. I think I’m OK at putting down my camera regularly, but it’s always good to have it occasionally enforced. The interiors are an amazing mix of authentic Thai and Western antiques. It felt genuinely comfortable and homey – this guy knew how to live. In fact, take a moment to read a bit about Jim Thompson – including the surprise twist at the end.

After this wonderful start to the morning, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I had a three-hour spa treatment scheduled for 1PM, so not a whole lot of time to kill. I consulted my map and discovered I was not too far from Siam Paragon (IKR?) so this seemed like the perfect spot to grab lunch.

And it was! I had headed over there with the intention of trying the ramen place I’d spied on my last visit. But in addition to having some difficulty locating it (I’ve been to casinos in Las Vegas with more easily navigable floor plans), I came across the “street” food section. All the usual suspects on offer, so I went with classics: chicken & rice, then som tum tai. The lady who prepared my som tum asked how spicy, so I said spicy. She raised an eyebrow and grabbed a huge handful of birdseye peppers. “Spicy?” Jeez, OK, I’m not Thai! “How about medium?” She laughed – but with me, not at me! Or so I told myself…

Now off to Divana Spa, recommended by my friend Nicolas. I made it there with time to spare – but lucky for me, I was just outside Terminal 21, another one of BKK’s super-cool malls. And this place was no exception. There was some kind of crazy bra sale happening on the main floor, so I headed upstairs to “London.” Oh, did I mention that each floor is named after a different world city? And decorated to match? And the top floor is San Francisco and includes a replica Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 (cleverly called Pier 21? Because it’s all true.

“London” was really great – all tiny pop-ups with groovy t-shirts and such. There was one place in particular that had a fine assortment of designs – but apparently stocked only size M. Asian size M. And I’d already learned my lesson in that regard, so I didn’t even bother. Sigh… But I still enjoyed my amble.

Divana was lovely. I sat and relaxed with some tea while they had me smell the different fragrant oils to choose the one for use during my treatment. I had reserved for “Gentlemen Exclusive Care” with scrub, steam, bath, massage and facial. Oh, boy – it was great! The scrub was with some kind of mud which covered me from the neck down. They left it on me and sat me in a steam room for 15 minutes to let it soak in. This was followed by a nice soak in a milk bath replete with bright pink flower petals. Next a relaxing massage and finally my facial treatment (to what little of my face is accessible behind my hobo whiskers). I must say my hamstring injury was still bugging me, so this very relaxing and gentle treatment was a nice contrast to the rather intense series of Thai massages I’d had earlier in my trip. I walked out feeling like a million bucks – despite the disappointment of assuming that my post-treatment snack was balls of fresh pineapple sorbet, when in fact it was just fresh pineapple…

Back to Siam Paragon to meet Ak at the Kinokuniya Bookstore. This would actually be my first time in the mall above the ground floor food hall. Well, this place is even crazier than I thought. In addition to the usual Gucci-Tiffany-Vuiton and their ilk, there was also a Rolls Royce dealership – complete with floor samples. Oh, and another for Bentley. And one for Lamborghini, because why the hell not? I’m going to have to perform a much more in-depth investigation of this mall on my next trip to BKK…

I’d read several accounts of the amazing yellow crab curry at Krua Apsorn before I arrived in Thailand and I really didn’t want to miss it, so Ak agreed to accompany me. It’s over in the older part of town, closer to the river, which means Skytrain isn’t really an option.

“I’m beat, let’s just cab it,” I said.

“No, we ought to take the canal boat. It’s faster, “ Ak replied.

Yes, please! Not only was it faster, it was another bit of adventure. We waited at the stop along with the other folks and along came our boat. It kinda stopped at the pier – I mean it definitely slowed way down and came quite close to stopping. Everyone scrambled on (standing room only!) and grabbed onto something, because the fellow at the wheel was doing whatever the nautical equivalent of putting the pedal to the metal is. A couple of stops later and there we were. And no dallying! I’m pretty sure that boat was already throttling back up to full speed while I had one foot on land and the other still on the boat. Happily, despite a bit of teetering, I did not wind up in the canal.

As for Krua Apsorn, Ak led us there directly. Very crowded, formica tables, bright fluorescent lights and well-worn laminated menus. In other words, the ambiance was nothing to write home about. But, oh that crab. The yellow crab curry was several crabs-worth of large meaty chunks – and nary a shell to be cracked. I mean, who doesn’t like crab? But the normal process back home involving hammers and tongs is a lot of effort for very little reward. At Krua Apsorn, it’s all reward! Ak also ordered a crab omelette – I was almost going to complain about a surfeit of crab and was so glad I didn’t, since this dish was as delicious as the other. This was certainly one of the best meals I had in Thailand.

Also in the neighborhood was Nuttaporn ice cream, another place I’d read about. Been making ice cream for 60 years and supposed to be amazing. Ak told me they close at 5PM, but I insisted we find it anyhow, “just in case.” Well, it does indeed close at 5PM. So, to the bars!

We actually had a nice walk until we wound up back near Wat Pho and then wended our way down an alley across the street to the Sala Rattankosin, a little boutique hotel. Climbed up five stories to the roof where we settled in for a couple of cocktails along with a lovely view of the river and the Temple of Dawn. A fine way to wrap up another marvelous day in Bangkok.

N.B.: Yes, I realize I’m waaaay behind in wrapping up my trip to Thailand – I’ve been back in SF for nearly a month! But this is my penultimate entry. And part of the reason I’ve been too busy to write is that I’m already planning my next trip back to Thailand. Yes, I loved it that much.