Bangkok: My Old Friend

Bangkok, Thailand – 19-25 November 2018

As I’ve been lucky enough to say half-a-dozen times, I’m back in Bangkok. One of my favorite cities and home to my friend, Ak. The city here is both familiar and brand-new every time I visit, thanks in large part to the extremely lively bar and restaurant scene – and on this particular trip, the first ever Bangkok Art Bienniale, with displays and installations throughout the city.

I was soon enough checked into my home-away-from-home here, Le Méridien – and, as usual, I was welcomed by the staff like they’d just seen me yesterday. I really do love this place.

One of the things that’s so nice about coming back to Bangkok is that, while in some ways I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything there is to do and see here, I’ve certainly made a dent in my previous six visits. And there’s something very relaxing about being able to explore a big city like this at a leisurely pace.

For the most part, I’ll let my photos tell the story of this visit, though there are of course some places I’ll need to call out specifically, either because they are new – or just continue to be amazing.

In the latter category is the restaurant Thai Niyom. Ak and I discovered this place last time I was in BKK. It was still new then and was pretty quiet both times we ate there. But the food! So good. The most amazing dish I ate last time was cabbage stir-fried with fish sauce and garlic. Simple and simply fantastic. And this visit? Same dish, still amazing! We ate here twice again. I can’t recommend this place highly enough. And they got a Bib Gourmand mention – very deservedly so. I was happy to see the place is doing a brisk business – not only because they should be but so that I can look forward to more meals there next time I’m in BKK.

Ak and I also had a lovely afternoon tea at Peacock Alley in the new Waldorf Astoria. Tea in fancy hotels is a bit of hit-or-miss prospect in my experience, with style often winning out over substance all too frequently. I’m happy to report that this tea was mostly quite good. It was absolutely stylish, a sunlight-filled modern room overlooking the Royal Bangkok Sports Club. There was a nice selection of tea-infused cocktails which were as tasty as they were delicious. The sweets and savories were really gorgeous – clearly made with Instagram in mind – but were also quite tasty. There were a few duds, but overall everything was quite good. Granted, I’d’ve preferred a higher savory-to-sweet ratio, but that’s been true just about everywhere I’ve had afternoon tea.

Another very special evening was spent at Sawaan, a new-ish fine dining restaurant serving Thai food – and the recent recipient of a Michelin star. Since this was a “fancy” dinner, I’d reserved for Thanksgiving – which is obviously not celebrated here, but it felt like a good reason to celebrate.

Well, this place was delightful. The service was just lovely – warm and welcoming and the entire staff really went out of their way to make sure our evening was special, as I’d mentioned in my reservation that it was Thanksgiving for me and a belated celebration of Ak’s 25th birthday. They served us a complimentary round of drinks for the holiday and presented Ak with a wonderful extra dessert at the end of our ten-course meal.

And the food? Just wonderful. Large multi-course tasting menus can feel daunting at times, but this one worked really well, not just in terms of the food but in the pacing. Several of the dishes were served with some theatricality, though it didn’t feel precious – and the food itself was amazing.

A few standouts: Fresh amberjack minced tableside with a dozen different herbs and other flavorings. A fat, buttery oyster presented in a bowl, into which a ewer of mushroom broth was poured, gently poaching the mollusk. A slice of Iberico pork, cooked simply but with a complex marinade of Thai herbs and spices.

It was a wonderful meal – and a really fine way to spend Thanksgiving. And I was indeed thankful – not just to be spending the holiday with my good friend Ak, but also being reminded once again of how very lucky I am to get to travel to amazing places like Bangkok.

We also visited the just-opened Icon Siam, a huge new shopping mall on the banks of Chao Phraya. The place is pretty swanky and includes an indoor “floating market” with plenty of local food and snacks for sale. Of course, for us, the best part turned out to be the outdoor promenade along the river – it provided many excellent opportunities for us to pose for our lives. And honestly, I wish I had Ak around as my personal photographer on the regular – he always manages to make me look good in photos.

While I didn’t come close to seeing everything on display for Bangkok’s first Bienniale, I did see quite a bit. Choi Jeong Hwa’s (South Korea) work was displayed in several locations and was always colorful and engaging. I especially liked Sornchai Phongsa’s (Thailand) installation at BACC – it was fascinating to see and was given particular depth when I learned that the artist had hired undocumented immigrants to build the structure, a commentary on the many stateless residents of Thailand. 

Thanks to all the amazing food, cool bars, great art and fun times with Ak, my six days in Bangkok flew by. Soon enough, I was winging my way back to real life in SF. Looking forward to my next visit to Thailand in October!

 

Last Weekend in Bangkok

Bangkok, Thailand – 21 & 22 April 2018

Sigh… My last weekend here. I guess we’d better make the most of it! Friday was pretty quiet and we got dinner at Suppaniga Eating Room, an old favorite that’s not too far from the hotel.

Got an early start on Saturday and heading to the subway, we walked up the alley right next to Le Meridien. I can’t believe we’d never walked up here before! It was really quiet and local – hard to believe we were just a few dozen meters from the craziness of Patpong. And there were cats, so it was a double win!

Took subway to Chatuchak Market (of course!) with a stop for breakfast at Or Tor Kor Market (of course!). I scored big time on t-shirts – which made me really happy, since I’d mostly struck out during my visit to Terminal 21 earlier in the week, my usual spot for cool shirts. Ak found several great-looking shirts at his favorite thrift stall.

After the market, we decided to check out Papaya Vintage Market. I’d read about it in the NYTimes and it sounded pretty cool. Granted, I’m probably not going to have room for a vintage mid-century occasional table in my luggage, but always fun to check out what’s for sale. WELL! This place was kind of amazing – a large, multi-story warehouse crammed with everything from Danish modern coffee tables to 70s stereo consoles to giant Ultraman figures. We probably spent about an hour just wandering and gawking and we loved it.

Next stop was at the old race track, slated for demolition, where they were having a special pop-up market. Took as a while to get there, thanks to the usual crazy traffic in town – but not long enough as it turned out. We arrived at 3:00, only to discover that the market doesn’t start until 4:00. Oopsie! So, given the heat and that we were kind of hungry, we made the only logical decision and headed to the mall.

The Siam Paragon food halls usually have one large section with a special theme and today it was “Floating Market” – so Thai street food! We shared a variety of sweet and savory coconut tarts and some deep-fried pork – you know, just a little snack to tide us over ‘til dinner…

Of course, before dinner comes cocktails and tonight we decided to try the Penthouse rooftop bar at the recently-opened Park Hyatt. The interior of the hotel is swankily modern. The bar, a bit less so. It’s a cool space with great views and I really liked being seated under the large swoosh of aluminum that crowns the building. But the decor was a little out of place to me, feeling rather “generic suburban hotel.” It wasn’t terrible by any means, but the vibe didn’t seem to match the quite spectacular architecture of the building – and the chairs were oddly proportioned, with a too-shallow seat making them not so comfy. Drinks were decent and rather reasonably priced for this being a bar on top of a fancy hotel.

Downstairs from the rooftop is another bar and restaurant – and, hidden away on the other side of the top floor, The Whisky Room. Ak’s friend who writes about the bar scene in Bangkok said it was a must-visit – and she was not wrong!

The space is really cool. Kind of old-school clubby feeling, but with some mood lighting to jazz the place up – plus some giant windows to take in the city. We sat at the bar. I don’t know much about whiskey, so I stuck with an old favorite, Maker’s Mark. Prior to ordering, I didn’t engage our extremely friendly barkeep in deciding what I ought to try – a mistake, as it turned out, since he was extremely well-versed in his inventory. He shared lots of his knowledge and opinions with us and I can’t wait to come back and try some of the pricier-though-not-crazily-so whisky that he recommended. But we had several other bars on the list for evening, so I was trying to pace myself…

For dinner, we went back to Thai Niyom – and it was excellent again, especially the cabbage with nam pla. Dessert was sticky rice served with a caramelized shredded coconut and it was fantastic.

Next stop: Tropic City, a rum bar with a tiki vibe and an extraordinarily friendly staff. Then we cabbed over to Asia Today – the sister establishment to (and around the corner from) Teens of Thailand – in Chinatown for a final couple of rounds of very tasty drinks, made with less-commonly-found ingredients like Tiger Ear and local honey.

Despite the many venues, we didn’t overdo it and were up at a reasonable hour Sunday morning. Decided to walk through Lumphini Park – and were rewarded with several cat sightings! – on our way to lunch at Eathai in Central Embassy. I had my favorite char siu and we shared some moo ping and fried dumplings. Did a bit of shopping. Posed for my now-obligatory photo in front of the Gaysorn sign. And then it was time to get back to the hotel and say our farewells – always the most difficult part of my visits. I hate saying goodbye to my friend Ak and to this city that I love coming back to and getting to know a little better each time.

Of course, the sting of leaving was soothed a bit by getting to fly Cathay business class back to SFO. It was certainly comfortable – though the food was unremarkable (especially compared to the really tasty meals I’d had on SWISS when I flew here). My prior flights with Cathay had seemed more impressive – though this was an overnight flight from HKG, so maybe it was just low key due to the late hour. Anyway, all went smoothly and I arrived in SF, whizzed through Immigration thanks to Global Entry and was home on my sofa less than 60 minutes after I was wheels down on the runway. Pretty great! Well, except for the fact that I’m home and not in Bangkok and that real life starts bright and early the next day as I return to work. Good thing I’ve already got my tickets booked for my next trip this autumn!

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: