Bangkok: Thai One On

Thai Ronald McDonald shares the national trait of politeness.

Imagine saying to yourself one day, “Self, I could go for a nice, refreshing salad. Maybe something with sliced mango, and a handful of fresh coriander, and a generous splash of lime juice. And perhaps some crushed peanuts. And some sprouts. Why not some dried, fermented shrimp, and some minced red chillies, garlic, and ginger? And some fish sauce? Yeah, that would probably be quite tasty.”

And then, imagine saying, “Now, it would be even better if that salad could be prepared in about 45 seconds, by a sweet lady with a beaming smile, under the most impeccable standard of hygiene, for about 95 cents.”

Such is the reality in Bangkok – as far as we could tell, anyway. One can really get spoiled fast wandering around and having only to imagine a fantastic combination of flavours before it suddenly appears on the street ahead. There are stalls, literally, on every corner, offering such delights as barbecue pork and sticky rice, banana coconut pancakes, grilled squid, prawn dumplings, sour garlic sausages, pineapple spears with chillie powder… that’s really just a brief sampling. Riccardo has been indulging his penchant for chicken pad thai, and I’ve been ordering tom kha gai. Spending some time in such a street-food friendly town has really reaffirmed the absurdity of the anti-street culture we live with at home. Sigh, Montreal – wake up already.

There are extraordinary noodle soups can be found under the Siam Skytrain station - you feel like a troll, but it's worth it (note: soup not pictured - that's just a plate of garnishes found on each table)

In fact, our preoccupation with the fantastic food – coupled with our having submitted to the colossal consumerism at some of the shiny new malls – has left little time for other, more culturally significant pursuits. The number of temples, museums, and monuments we visited in Bangkok is rather low (zero, actually, if you must know), but we could (and will) argue that roving the various neighbourhoods on foot and via public transit has provided far more interesting insights into the psyche of this truly fascinating metropolis. The limited knowledge we previously had of Bangkok (basically, originating from Jean-Claude van Damme movies and the 80’s classic track by Murray Head) has been expanded impressively.

Culinary delights notwithstanding, we have been in love with Thailand since we arrived. In direct contrast with the trials of doing, well…  anything at all in India, it was an absolute dream getting a SIM card, changing money, navigating the brand-new superfast public transit system, finding our fantastic and immaculate guest house, and procuring a ridiculously tasty late-night snack and cold beer.

First CPT (chicken pad thai) - about 600% better than anything you get in Montreal

We spent the rest of our time in Bangkok day wandering around awe-struck, admiring the relative cleanliness and efficiency. Riccardo’s admiration of Bangkok reached new heights when we got to Pantip Plaza, a five-storey shopping complex containing every conceivable technological accessory available today. While certainly impressive, I feel it would have been wise to throw in at least one or two clothing shops to keep girlfriends from pacing aimlessly.

Yet another food photo - sorry.

Speaking of clothes, Thais have great style. It’s been refreshing seeing girls with different looks instead of all saris, all the time (Riccardo particularly agrees with this point.) Streetside racks are filled with cute dresses you’d easily pay eight times more for at home, and the malls are chock-a-block with great brands (Asian brands being cheaper than American and European ones,  naturally).  Riccardo treated himself (and me too, darling man!) to a few cool things, and we ceremonially burned our India clothes (just kidding, we shipped them home). One slightly negative point about shopping here: vendors insist on cheerfully offering me an extra-large of whatever I’m looking at, even though (despite all the street food) I haven’t actually reached that particular size as yet.

As luck would have it, New Year celebrations are in full swing among Bangkok’s sizeable Chinese population. It’s the year of the dragon! We made our way to Chinatown to check out the gigantic but orderly street festival, which featured about a zillion street stalls of every description, performances of Chinese dance and culture (sadly, the Chinese are fond of soaring ballads screeched out in the highest possible pitch), and of course, the obligatory dragon procession. We watched the proceedings (with cold pitchers of Chang’s) from a terrasse on the street, accompanied by our new friends, Belgian Kenny Rogers and his son. Disturbingly, the tradition of  shark fin soup as a New Year delicacy is alive and well in this part of the world – but we did see a news article about its decreasing popularity.

Other highlights of Bangkok included:

  • Waiting out a torrential downpour with an accidental but serendipitous visit to Siam Ocean World (only the largest aquarium in southeast Asia, that’s all – they have sharks, otters, penguins, jellyfish… I’ll stop now)
  • Briefly surveying the skyline from a 55th floor hotel lounge, then leaving upon surveying the less than stellar atmosphere and obscenely priced drinks
  • Sipping a truly delicious cocktail of lemongrass vodka, soda, and fresh lemongrass by the river at the Mandarin Oriental, where no backpacks or sleeveless tops are allowed after 6pm
  • Grabbing the Chao Phraya Express (a water taxi that wends its way up the river) to some of Bangkok’s tourist meccas: the Grand Palace, Wat Pho and the horrifying Khao San Road
  • Trying to best each other in extremely competitive rounds of the game we invented, “Spot the Sex Tourist” (these can easily be identified: look for a middle-aged, paunchy western man whose equally middle-aged, paunchy western partner is conspicuously absent)
  • Chatting with a friendly Chicagoan slacker on a random bus ride who generously decided to give us his Lonely Planet book before disappearing from our lives forever
  • Meeting our adorable guest house host for the first time in the last hours before taking off; discovering he has a gorgeous hair salon next door; accepting his enthusiastic and insistent offer to blow dry my hair (first time my hair has been dried properly in over a month – I almost cried); then playing drinking games (involving vile local rum) with him and his handsome, high-heel clad posse on the verandah outside the darkened salon until we suddenly realized we were about to miss our bus and hightailing it to the station.

Celebrating Chinese New Year at the uberflashy Siam Paragon Centre

Sampling of chip flavours in a Bangkok SevenEleven

My divine lemongrass cocktail at the Mandarin Oriental

A polite request from the Mandarin Oriental - good thing we left the backpacks behind

Tuk-tuks lined up next to a pile of chopsticks from a street stall and some sort of sacred tree

Helpful map of McDonald's locations on the Skytrain (also, notice the sign reminding you to offer this seat to monks)

First contact with a hair dryer in over a month

Happiness in the form of straight hair and a cocktail. Thank you, An!

We’re now in the delightful northern city of Chiang Mai, and Riccardo is napping because despite last night’s overnight bus being the best one we’ve taken so far in terms of comfort, spaciousness and service, we had the pleasure of sitting across the aisle from a young man we dubbed Pig-Boy because of his outrageously loud, hog-like snoring the entire time. We spent the ride alternating between quiet, zen-like resignation, considering awakening him, realizing this could cause a bus-wide scandal (Thai people are exceedingly polite), and fantasizing about trap doors and eject buttons. In the morning, upon observing his peaceful and well-rested countenance as we got off the bus, I shot him a withering glare which he apparently mistook for a friendly gesture and responded with a wide smile.

More on Chiang Mai soon!

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6 thoughts on “Bangkok: Thai One On

  1. Great piece…love Thailand! After all my trips to Asia – I think about 15 – I would spend the weekend in Thailand (or Singapore) for some R & R before heading back up to the great white north.

    I absolutely adore Thai food as it hits all 5 senses – very few cuisines can do that. The shopping bargains are fantastic – tons of stores/stalls, ‘flea markets’, Chinatown, Pat Pong market etc.

    I spent a fair amount of time in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and south to Phi Phi island (the place where the tsunami hit hard) and beautiful (hopefully still non-commercialized) Koh Samui. Wasn’t into Pattaya…exactly like Pat Pong market in Bangkok except rougher, louder and cruder on a much larger scale.

    There are some great restaurants and shopping in Erawan – I mostly stayed on the that side of the Chao Phraya river at the Grand Hyatt Erawan – yes, I was on company expense!.

    There are quite a few boat trips offered on the Chao Phraya – I liked this guided tour on this converted rice barge with the all-you-can eat & drink feature!

    Koh Samui is divine! Beautiful beaches, friendly people and more of the laid-back tourist interested in the quiet idyllic lifestyle. I would gladly spend the winter months there….come to think of it….I just might in another couple of years….or Goa!

  2. Love this post…as it happens, we spent the night on a lovely train to Haridwar where Rich and I had the pleasure of sharing our cabin with 3 pig-boys/men and 1 pig-girl (somehow she was the worst offender). Only headphones with volume on max could block out the snores…There was no sleep to be had for either of us, but I was really pleased that the snorers looked 100% rested this morning. Glad you guys are having a good time in Thailand so far and it was great to meet the two of you!! Lisa & Richard

  3. @Mike: Wow! Didn’t know you spent so much time in Thailand. Such an interesting culture. I think the Patpong scene has probably gone downhill a little since you were there last. Thanks for all the tips!

    @Lisa&Richard: SO sorry to hear about your Pig-Boy experience! We loved meeting you guys too – enjoy the next leg of your journey!

    @Audrey: Thanks dude… it’s fun to write! And yes, spontaneity has been key on this trip – we’re just actually discussing where to go next.

  4. Love following your adventures! It’s so nice to have people to live vicariously through… Glad you are enjoying your trip!

    Melissa

  5. Good piece, Caro. I remember the wonderful flavours, hot chillies and fresh, fresh veggies in Thai food.

    Reading Michael’s comment reminded me of our stay in Koh Samui in a more tranquil time, pre-airport days. We hauled a bottle of Bombay Dry Gin with us on the ferry to the island, and every night attracted different drinking buddies, happy to help us finish it!

    The gin was bought for Aunty Phyl in Karachi, our next stop, but when we called her, she advised us not to risk having it confiscated. On arrival, were totally ignored by customs officials and could have brought in several bottles of gin.
    C’est la vie…

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