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:

 

And Now Back to Bangkok!

Bangkok, Thailand – 15 & 16 October 2017

A mostly uneventful flight from SGN to BKK. I say “mostly” only because when we were served a box of spaghetti as our snack onboard, I suggested we ask for fresh parmigiana – and Ak found this unamusing. So humorless!

Made it through immigration quickly and immediately spied one of my favorite sights at any airport – a driver holding a sign with my name on it, waiting to whisk me away. And soon enough we were climbing out of the cab at my usual home in Bangkok, Le Méridien. As we’ve come to expect, the staff recognized us as soon as we got out of our car and welcomed us back – despite our last visit being six months ago. I could honestly quibble with some aspects of the hotel – mostly related to the room decor feeling like it could be refreshed despite it being as comfortable as ever – but the staff here are delightful, delivering service that is excellent, genuine and effortless. It’s absolutely my favorite hotel in SE Asia for this very reason.

We were quickly settled in and then grabbed a bite to eat before it was time to take care of the first glamorous order of business: schlepping a couple of bags of dirty drawers and stanky t-shirts to the laundry. It was exhausting! So much so that we dragged ourselves to Dahra Spa for a couple of hours of massage therapy…

Feeling much revived, it was nearly time for dinner. First stop was at Above Eleven, a rooftop bar with a nice view of Bangkok by night. Then downstairs for dinner at Charcoal, an Indian place that specializes in tandoori – and amazing cocktails.

I had the Muffety Mai – described as “a whimsically floral and refreshing combination of Bombay Sapphire gin, fresh cucumber, tarragon, lemon, jasmine, and chat Masala.” It was sensational – some of my absolutely favorite flavors all in one cocktail! Plus it was gorgeous, with a lattice of decorative spice adorning the glass.

As for dinner, it was great! Seekh kebab were pretty good, though perhaps a bit softer than I care for – but the flavors were great. Tandoori prawns were meaty and delicious. But the two standouts were the chicken biriyani – tender and fragrant – and the special dal. This was the best dal I’ve ever had – our server explained that it’s cooked for 14 hours to bring out all the richness of the ingredients. The spices made the dish complex and so tasty. Even Ak, who’s not a big fan of legumes declared it fantastic!

Monday we headed first to Nightingale Olympic, a store that’s been on my list of places to see in Bangkok since my first visit. It’s an old department store housed in a cool, somewhat brutalist looking structure. Once you walk inside, it’s a literal time capsule of products from 60s and 70s: faded hairdo accessories, rusting “vibrating belt” weight loss machines, weirdly out-of-date clothing, wooden tennis racquets. The place is theoretically an actual business, with plenty of sales clerks there despite the dearth of customers. I actually wanted to buy something displayed in one of the dusty showcases – but the clerk could not be bothered to interrupt her phone call. The place is weird and amazing and I hope it’s around for another hundred years.

Spent the rest of the afternoon wandering Chinatown and the Sampheng Market – which literally sells everything: phone accessories, fake flowers, toys, notions, designer knock-offs. It goes on for what seems forever and it’s kind of a madhouse and it’s pretty fun.

Also in Chinatown are tons of shops selling car parts and various metal rods, slats and other fabrication materials. It was hard to winnow down all the photos I took of them – the colors and shapes at each place seemed more amazing then the last. Same could be said for all the shops selling LED lights.

This was all very exhausting of course, so we also needed to break for lunch, stopping for dry tom yum noodles and fried wontons at Tock Long Moo Noodles, one of Ak’s favorite places. It was delicious – of course! We also managed to find time to pop into Siam Center and have a bit of dessert.

As I write this, I realized that I’ve visited Bangkok enough times (this was my fifth visit!) that, while there is still plenty for me to see and do, I spend a great deal of time doing my absolute favorite thing: eating! I really do think Thailand has the best food in the world and I’m lucky that my friend Ak is there to take me to places I’d never know about as a farang.

Anyway, that evening, we ate a little neighborhood place specializing in Isaan style food called Larp 3. Dinner was great – we had larb (natch) and som tom tai and moo krob – plus they were playing one of the many fascinating Thai soap operas on the TV inside.

Walking home afterwards, we got caught in a crazy downpour – so we had no choice but to duck into Eat Me down the street and wait out the rain with some drinks: a couple of very good cocktails for me and some excellent craft beer for Ak.

A fine way to wrap up our evening. The rain had let up after a couple of rounds, so off we toddled back to the hotel. Tomorrow: more food!

More from Bangkok

Woke up early and we were contemplating getting a massage at Wat Pho before breakfast in the guest house cafe – just a nice leisurely morning. But then we both said, “Eff that – let’s get the luggage into a taxi and get over to Le Méridien, with its delightfully cool and pleasantly-scented lobby and its large rooms outfitted with luxurious bed linens and Toto Washlets and fancy shampoo.” And so we did!

And you know what? Returning to Le Meridien was even better than I expected. As soon as we walked into the lobby, several of the staff recognized us and welcomed us back as if they’d just seen us yesterday, not six months prior. This is why I love to come to this hotel – the service is both impeccable and effortless.

Anyway, once we were checked in and bags were upstairs, we had time for breakfast in the neighborhood at my favorite place for moo dang noodles – having a favorite local place for breakfasts is really one of the things I love about returning to any city I’ve visited before. I had a little time to wander around Silom and get settled into the room – and then it was time for lunch, obviously.

Ak was at work, so I met him near his office – conveniently located about a 15 minute walk from our hotel. I had a quick look around the Mariamman Temple, but I was too lazy to take off my shoes and explore inside, so I just enjoyed the exterior views.

Lunch was at a local hole-in-the-wall serving excellent massaman curry (along with some fish cakes). I’m really lucky to have Ak acting as my local guide every time I visit Bangkok – I get to eat the best food, most of which I’d never find on my own.

I spent the afternoon mall-hopping – and once again scoring some great local t-shirts at Terminal 21. As satisfying as my shopping expedition was, let’s be honest – I was really just killing time until my next meal. And tonight’s meal was at my favorite local place in Bangkok, Jae Koi. And I’d never have learned about this place on my own, so thanks again Ak!

Since my last visit, Jae Koy has really upped their ambiance game: AC to go along with the glaring fluorescent lights and metal tables and stools! Frankly, the addition of AC was great – but the food here is so good, who cares? Ak’s friends Koi and Jesse joined us for dinner – another boon since it meant ordering even more food. We had BBQ chicken, larb, tom yum, clams, grilled beef and som tum – and maybe a few beers to wash it all down. The damage for this feast? THB830 – which is about USD25. Amazing.

Thursday I visited the Museum of Contemporary Art. It was rather a schlep to get there, as it’s located out toward Chatuchak Market and involves taking both the subway AND a taxi. The building itself is rather impressive – though the galleries inside were mostly bereft of natural light.

As for the collection? Well, let’s just they could easily re-christen this place the Museum of Contemporary Bewbz. There A LOT of boobs on display! Don’t get me wrong – I have no issues with boobs. But they really seemed to be over-represented in this large collection. This made a bit more sense, I guess, when I learned later that the museum was created by a local billionaire as a place to show off his large collection of art – and his particular aesthetic was quite clearly on display in this museum.

Back into town for lunch with Ak, which was unmemorable despite going to a well-reputed place for khao moo dang. Lucky for me though, I had time for a quick snack beforehand: a street cart serving up potato slices deep-fried to order, then covered with the two flavor mixes of your choice. I got larb and spicy and it was awesome.

Spent the afternoon at Dahra Spa and got an amazing massage at a great price – and for three hours! It’s just a short walk from Le Méridien, so I’ll definitely be visiting them again next time I’m in Bangkok.

That evening, Ak and I headed out the Rot Fai Night Market. SO MUCH FOOD! It was pretty difficult to decide what to get – plus it was a little confusing to me how things worked. For example, there are lots of little sitting areas, but apparently one is only allowed to sit in them when eating food from that particular vendor – but it was never quite clear to me which one went with what. And somebody who shall remain nameless (but whose name rhymes with Wak…) grew tired of all my questions and got a bit snippy. But we managed to work things out in the traditional manner – by eating more food…

While it already felt like I’d been on vacation a long time, the weekend was fast approaching. Just a few more days (by which I mean meals) until I’d be winging my way back home. I’d better make the most of it!

First Day in BKK

Although it was certainly no picnic staying awake for pretty much the entirety of my 24-hours door-to-door journey from SF to BKK, it was absolutely worth it to wake up early Thursday morning in my hotel room with pretty much no jet lag.

I started off by engaging in an OCD and for-me relaxing bout of unpacking, complete with hanging up shirts, folding my underwear and putting it in the dresser and calling the front desk to ask them to empty the mini-fridge so I could feel it with beer from 7/11. I had a bit of time to spare before my spa appointment downstairs at my quite lovely hotel, Le Méridien, so I decided to start things off with an authentic Thai breakfast: a bacon-egg-and-cheese bagel sandwich at Au Bon Pain. Yes, I am indeed the worst – the FWIW, the place was filled with Thai, so perhaps I’d gotten a more authentic start than I’d realized!

Back to the hotel for my “Jet Lag” treatment – and hour of foot massage and an hour of Thai massage. Delightful, obv. Then met up with my good friend Ak, a local fellow I’d met last October with whom I shared the bond of misanthropy and love of cats – truly BFF material. We headed around the corner to Ruenton Coffee Shop, a decidedly peculiar venue that looked a bit like a ‘70s Marie Callendar’s knock-off (and located in the cast-in-amber early ‘80s splendor of the Montien Hotel – like I said, peculiar) yet is reputed to have some of the best khao man gai (Hainanese chicken – basically boiled chicken and rice) in BKK. It was… serviceable. Now granted, I’m no expert – but Ak agreed that the chicken left something to be desired texture-wise. It was bit too soft – bordering on slimy. The rice, however, was especially good – unlike many khao man gai places on the street that use oil to prepare the rice, this rice had obviously and deliciously been made with fresh chicken stock and fat. YUM. Oh, and both of us took a pass on the side of coagulated chicken blood…

Next up was my idea to take the architectural walk laid out in one of my guidebooks. And we kinda did – though it really wound up being Ak leading me on a meander through the Charon Krung neighborhood. I must say, he’s a wonderful guide. One of the highlights of our walk was a view of the “ghost tower” – a huge, unfinished condominium tower whose owners went bust and could afford to finish construction of the 47-story building and so abandoned it. It’s been topped off, but none of the interiors were finished (including windows) and it now sits empty and graffitied and is a magnet for thrill-seeking visitors to climb to the top.

Nearly as thrilling at this was our next stop – Dairy Queen! Now I love me some Dairy Queen. And I especially love me some Mango-Sticky Rice Sundae at DQ BKK! OK, the mango syrup was a little cloying, but sticky rice solves pretty much any problem.

Next stop Siam Paragon to meet up with some of Ak’s friends. He’d engaged me as his wholesaler and transporter for about a dozen Colourpop Ultra Matte Lip. Apparently, it’s all the rage with the kids these days and is also unavailable in Thailand. Honestly, I was happy to bring them, because I know as well as anyone the great joy that accompanies being asked where one can acquire some element of one’s wardrobe or “look” and being able to respond, “Oh, it’s from (place very far away). You can’t get it here. It’s impossible.” Though after making the delivery, I was advised the product was popularized by one of the Kardashians – which had I known initially would’ve elicited a “HARD NOPE” from me, as those people are the fucking worst.

We also got to see the 1600 Pandas exhibition – 1600 papier maché pandas on display, representing the total number of pandas still in the wild. The pandas were pretty cute – but it also certainly drove home the fact that these creatures are very much on the edge of extinction.

ANYHOO. Back to my hotel so we could freshen up and head out for what I anticipated would be a great dinner at Issaya Siamese Club. And TBH? Not so much. The place has a certain charm – though the restaurant’s location in an old house was a bit shabbier than it was chic. The staff were all lovely and attentive; and their cocktail game was spot-on, with my Ginger-Basil Kicker a particular favorite. To start, we had BBQ baby back ribs which were OK, though too fatty for my taste and served at a high enough temperature that the sticky glaze posed serious risk of injury to one’s fingers. The banana blossom salad needed more texture – it was bland and kind of mushy.

For mains, we had a simply grilled chicken breast that was finished with a Thai whiskey flambé at the table. It was tasty and well-cooked. Also had a Mussamun curried lamb shank which was the star of the meal – tender and spicy. Dessert was also a favorite: jasmine panna cotta with rice ice cream and rice tuiles. The panna cotta’s texture was perfectly creamy and the jasmine discreet and not too perfumey.

All in all, the meal was fine – but considering the prices and the long list of plaudits the place has received, I left feeling disappointed and with a considerably lighter wallet.

Ak and I stopped for a nightcap at Small’s and then I headed back to my hotel. Slept like a baby and was up early Friday for Day 2 of my adventures!

SFO to BKK

My flight from SFO to HKG was nearly 15 hours, thanks to some quite strong headwinds which added about an hour to the already long flight. Seatbelt sign was on for most of the first two hours of the flight, thanks to some rather choppy air. It was a very bumpy ride for awhile there, but otherwise AOK.

Of course, it didn’t help that I intentionally stayed awake for most of the trip in an effort to combat jet lag once I arrived in Bangkok. I slept for maybe 45 mins toward the end of the flight, but other than was up watching TV and movies: all season 2 of “Catastrophe”; “Legend” starring Tom Hardy as twins (!) with laid-on-thick Cockney accents (hot); “The Big Short” which was pretty good, though don’t understand why Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carrell all had to be so distractingly made-up and bewigged to look like their non-famous real-life characters; and a large dose of “Family Guy” and “Archer.” So, yes I was clearly bringing my intellectual A-game…

As for flying business class (using miles obviously) on Cathay Pacific? Well, it was pretty darn great. The experience at SFO was a delight. No line to check in; priority lane through security; then an hour or so in the lounge enjoying made-to-order won-ton soup and a bit of champagne in a spacious, comfortable and quiet space. When boarding was announced, I walked from the lounge and directly onto the plane, with no queuing for the jetway or battling fellow passengers for overhead space or armrests.

Now, while I’m certain I was more comfortable than all the folks back in coach (both regular and premium varieties), I did have some difficulty finding a comfortable position for the seat (I know, I know – #RPP). When reclined into the sort of lounge chair position, my feet kind of hung over the edge and it was awkward to rest them on the ottoman. Of course this was partially due to the fact that my same hamstring injury that was bothering me on my last trip to BKK was making it just generally uncomfortable to sit. The seat also afforded me a great deal of privacy and I really didn’t see much of my fellow passengers, so that was a huge plus.

Flight attendants, in addition to being super-friendly and helpful, address passengers by name. “More champagne, Mr. Cohen?” always gets a favorable response from me… The food was all quite good, too – the on-demand “snacks” of won ton soup and cheeseburger were both quite impressive for being prepared at 35K feet over the Pacfic. 

Layover in Hong Kong was fine. The airport is huge. Popped into The Bridge lounge which was just steps from the transit security line (which was basically non-existent since I was about the first person off the aircraft) and had a shower, which left me feeling refreshed, though still exhausted. I’d really wanted to check out the Noodle Bar at The Wing lounge, so I schlepped (and it was quite a schlep) down there. And honestly? Sure it’s nice to have this type of food on offer, by my dan dan noodles were just OK – though the accompanying pork bao was pretty tasty. I headed back to the The Bridge, since it was closer to my gate and really had the superior atmosphere – quiet and comfortable – to wait for the the last leg of my journey.

Cathay’s regional business class is certainly nice – though the seats are more “old school” – that is, they aren’t “pods” but large and roomy recliner-stye seats. There were only four passengers in biz that evening so I had a window seat and no one around me. They served dinner, but I skipped it and slept for half of the 2.5 hour flight to BKK.

Again, I was first off the plane and made a beeline for immigration, hoping I wouldn’t need to forfeit my “priority” pass for the business express lane, given that the pass is undated and could come in handy when I’m back to flying coach into BKK. I thought I was done for when I got caught between four huge groups of elderly tourists on the moving sidewalk, but they had to stop and re-group before immigration. Happily, lines were short – even more so when I shot an “Are you in line?” at the two farang backpacker types who were attempting to maintain their place in line while simultaneously filling out their immigration forms which they were finding to be quiet baffling apparently. “Oh, no, you can go ahead!” – which I did.

My bag was about the sixth to hit the carousel – those “PRIORITY” tags really work! –  and I was soon in the main terminal and spotted my driver holding up the sign with my name on it. A half-hour drive into the city, a quick and friendly check in at Le Méridien and I was finally here. 26 hours door-to-door from my place in SF. Slept well and was up-and-at-’em by 9AM with no jet lag and enough time before my spa appointment downstairs to unpack and really settle in. Now to start another adventure in Bangkok!