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Reflections on historical memory: Bangkok

Written by Chaz on 21 June 2011

One of my mantras lately has been that all life is an expectations game. That is, we’re only really able to judge things in relation to our previously-held expectations. We can be delighted by something about which we had low expectations but disappointed by the same thing if our expectations were too high. So in thinking about Bangkok and about Thailand in general, it seems like I have to start with my expectations.

First, as I wrote before, I really didn’t have too much of a frame of reference for Thailand, so in terms of specific expectations, I didn’t have many. But broadly, I expected a developing country that’s been doing much better than many of its neighbors, aside from recent political instability. I expected a flourishing native culture, impacted by Western influence but never colonized. And, naturally, I expected to find out why people have called Thailand the “Land of Smiles.”

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All of my expectations proved reasonable, both in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and as a result, I had a terrific time in Thailand and really enjoyed the country. But, from the perspective of historical memory, there were plenty of other things we observed in the country that came as a surprise or were otherwise remarkable.

The biggest thing that struck me right away about Bangkok was what a huge city it was, both by population and area. Our hotel was at the western end of one the Skytrain’s two lines, and the city went on for miles after that. As we finally figured out once we got a good map, the city was full of different neighborhoods, all busy and worth exploring. Every day of the week, the train was packed, and as we learned the hard way, the roads are terribly congested to the point that driving is nearly futile. Taking a cab is less luxury and much more torture.

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The city’s sprawling development seems to have gotten away from it, and though bandaids like the Skytrain and river ferries have helped significantly, there will still need to be significant investment before Bangkok is easy to get around. As the New York Times wrote, if you can’t reach place on the river or the Skytrain, it’s hardly worth going at all. The problem is compounded by how difficult it is to walk even short distances, because the streets and drivers are so unfriendly to pedestrians. Such improvements will become easier as the country continues to develop, but there will need to be careful attention paid to planning as the city keeps growing.

From a food perspective, as the city has exploded in size, the native cuisine has remained intractable. From the streets to the finest hotels, Thai food is everywhere. This is a very different feeling than a place like the U.S. or even much of Europe, where “native” cuisines are common but are just one of a wide range of choices. Though both Bangkok and Chiang Mai had plenty of world cuisines all over the place, it seemed very clear in both places that globalization hasn’t yet erased or even really watered down the country’s cherished eats.

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Even so, I did also get the sense of a proud kingdom that has translated itself poorly into the modern era. At Jim Thompson’s house, we got a picture of the kingdom of Siam, a prosperous, well-run society that held its own against intruding cultures and even inspired newcomers to stay awhile. Today, after a few politically tumultuous years, Thailand will hold a national election on July 3 in which the sister of an exiled leader will run as a proxy candidate amid royalist opposition. We saw literally thousands and thousands of campaign signs all over the country with huge pictures of the candidates, but it’s unclear to what extent the election will be seen as legitimate by the Thai people and world observers. Last year’s protests appeared to call for a serious discussion of the issues, and glamour-shot posters and military crackdowns on demonstrations don’t foster that.

The monarchy’s continued influence also adds an interesting dynamic to Thai politics. Even should the election turn out fairly, it’s hard to take modern democracy 100 percent seriously in a country that posts pictures of its monarchs on every street corner. At the National Museum in Bangkok, the exhibits ended with a gushing gallery about the royal family and the great things they’ve done for the country. In a democracy, royals don’t usually get to take much credit, and propagandistic museum exhibits reflect a naive approach to making the country appear modern and productive. Though perhaps that kind of thing plays well at home, it’s unlikely to inspire confidence especially in the Western world.

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Criticisms aside, Thailand absolutely trounced my expectations. There’s construction all over the place, both from private industry and public infrastructure, and it often feels like a very developed country. Some of the roads we drove on were significantly nicer than America’s crumbling highways. Thai culture and food felt both historically rooted and rapidly developing, yielding delicious fusion food like at Eat Me and more traditional fare like at the Mandarin Oriental. Bangkok was a vibrant, lively city, and I’ll be extremely interested to visit again in a few years to see how it’s changed.

Guided by Miss Chanandoler Bong

Written by Chaz on 20 June 2011

When we first arrived in Bangkok, we were totally disoriented. The city’s sprawl, combined with the in-your-face commerce happening on the street and off, totally overwhelmed us. Thanks to our guidebooks, though, we found Nancy Chandler’s map of Bangkok, which both oriented us and gave us lots of ideas for things to do and see in the city.

Because the bookstore in which we found her Bangkok map had stocked her map for Chiang Mai right next door, we were able to arrive in the northern city with a map already in hand. Which means that, for almost two weeks now, we’ve been making jokes based our mapmaker’s last name and a scene from one of our favorite television series, Friends.

“I need to take a quick look at Chanandoler” is not an uncommon thing for us to say on the streets of Chiang Mai. “Did you remember to bring Miss Bong?”

From central traffic to northern serenity

Written by Emmy on 20 June 2011

IMG_1077We began Wednesday, our last day in Bangkok, with our final breakfast at the hotel. Bangkok Loft Inn, a boutique-y hotel we discovered because it was a TripAdvisor pick in 2011, was small and cozy. Daily breakfast orders were taken via a little slip of paper, filled out the afternoon before at the front desk. We had a selection of American options (eggs) and a selection of Asian options (spicy chicken, soups), as well as the plentiful buffet of fresh regional fruits we have come to enjoy.

The breakfast itself was served in the Terrace Restaurant, a little room whose low ceilings Chaz became all too acquainted with:

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We continued our morning with a trip down memory lane and visited the city’s National Museum, a treasure of archives found in the oldest part of the city, among the temples and palace remains. The museum encompasses several different buildings, many of them former royal residences and temples.

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IMG_1714We inspected the various exhibits, ranging from dioramas reminiscent of the Museum of Natural History to rooms crammed full of Buddhas. We got to see some of the relics rescued from Ayutthaya, a fun discovery after having been in the ancient temples ourselves. There were so many beautiful items on display, but they seemed to have been thrown together with little rhyme, reason or explanation — just jeweled Buddha upon Buddha, heaped together in a dark room. Other parts of the museum left us with the feeling that we were watching an advertisement for the royal family.

After walking around the museum for a couple hours, we hopped into a taxi to go have lunch. We knew taking a taxi midday in traffic-filled Bangkok was a risky maneuver, but the museum is in a location difficult to reach by Skytrain. But after 30 minutes of nauseating traffic, we realized we had made… a huge mistake.

With a familiar-looking Skytrain station in sight, we hopped out of the cab at a red light and made a beeline for solid ground. It was an unfortunate way to spend our final afternoon in Bangkok, if only because it cemented the image of a disorganized and hectic city.

The Bangkok Loft Inn had originally offered us only a complimentary pickup at the airport, not return service. But it turned out that they were picking someone else up around the time that we needed to go to the airport, so they offered to take us back at no charge, which was very generous of them. After hitting even more traffic in the hotel’s van, we arrived at Bangkok’s enormous new international airport, which, on Wednesday, was particularly empty. So we quickly made our way through it and onto the short Air Asia flight that brought us into Chiang Mai around 7 p.m.

The capital of the northern region and of its namesake province, Chiang Mai is lauded as one of the developing urban centers of the country with a huge business in tourism. Compared to Bangkok, the city might as well be a small countryside town. Quiet, calm and surrounded by mountains, Chiang Mai is walkable and easy to navigate, and the only buildings even resembling skyscrapers are the hotels.

Our various guidebooks led us to a riverside wooden building, home to Antique House, for a late dinner upon our arrival in Chiang Mai. Northern Thai food is a little different from what we had been eating in Bangkok and from what we are used to, so we were eager to dive into a new menu. We didn’t wind up straying too far into the unknown in our first dinner, starting with golden bags and enjoying two different chicken stir fry dishes.

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The menu featured many spicy salads, an item we have come to enjoy immensely, and so we decided to try out the mango salad with catfish. What we received was not at all what we expected: the fish had been fried into crumbs, beyond the point of recognition, and then reassembled into the shape of a fish. Served alongside it was a small, but spicy, mango salad. Definitely interesting.

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We headed back to our hotel after dinner to get some sleep in preparation for Thursday’s big activity: cooking school!

The center of the action

Written by Chaz on 20 June 2011

On Tuesday, our last full day in Bangkok, having obtained a good map, we set out to explore the center of downtown: Siam Square and its surroundings. After breakfast at our hotel, we took the Skytrain to the Siam station, where the train’s two lines intersect, and descended to street level to explore the mazes of little shops and stalls selling every possible good, every day of the week. From one entrepreneur’s stand, we heard the unmistakable strains of Bad Romance, performed by someone significantly more mellow than its original artist. Six dollars later, we had a CD of fifty different American songs that had been smooth-jazzified by various Thai artists.

Before long, we grew hungry (it happens remarkably quickly here), and we made our way to a huge food market. It appeared to be Bangkok’s answer to Whole Foods’ prepared food section.

Though the food was slightly more expensive that some other food stalls we’ve had the pleasure of buying from, we ended up with an amazing lunch consisting of spicy glass noodles with pork, tom yum noodles in soup, what we believe was chicken and noodles in a basil chili sauce, and a delicious cranberry apple smoothie without spending ten dollars. We ate at a long row of tables that were busy enough to necessitate a vulture-like approach to finding seating. I was reminded of the tables at the center of the Reading Terminal Market in my beautiful hometown of Philadelphia.

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We began the afternoon by exploring Bangkok’s three upscale malls, which are conveniently located next to each other and connected by skywalks. Each is full of fancy, boutique shops and various Western brands, and each has its own branch of the iStudio chain, which looks and feels exactly like an Apple Store. After checking out fine clothes, chic decor, and table after table of random English books, we took a long, unpleasant walk through central Bangkok to the less upscale shopping centers. After a hot, crowded walk along a narrow sidewalk made even less passable by street vendor after street vendor, we arrived at Pratunam Market, the city’s wholesale clothing outlet, where hundreds of stalls were selling underwear, tuxedos, sequin suits and everything in between.

We crossed the street and headed to Pantip Plaza, the city’s technology mall. I’ve never seen anything like it: five floors of stores selling every conceivable technology item, each less trustworthy than the one before it. There were stores selling iPads that weren’t the right size, stores selling software in paper sleeves with the title written on in magic marker, and stores whose only items were cell phone cases in every color and design imaginable.

After cleaning up at our hotel, we ventured out again on the Skytrain to Lan Na Thai, reputed to be one of the city’s finest Thai restaurants. Named after the former northern Thai kingdom, the restaurant is part of a beautiful complex designed in traditional Thai architecture that also includes an Indian resturant, a Japanese restaurant and a spa. Our dinner, though in too dark a setting to produce beautiful photographs, was phenomenal. We started with a papaya salad and a delicious appetizer platter that included chicken wrapped in banana leaves, both new to us and very tasty. We moved on to stir-fried red snapper with pineapple in sweet and sour sauce and a chicken penang curry. Both were great.

We retired early, tired from our relatively busy day and ready to pack and travel to Chiang Mai on Wednesday.

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Interview at Bangkok’s Eat Me

Written by Chaz on 19 June 2011

After our delicious meal at Eat Me, we had the pleasure of talking to Adit Vansoh, our host for the evening, about the vision behind Eat Me, the story of its menu and ingredients, and the future of the Bangkok restaurant scene. Check out the video:

Thanks again to Adit for so graciously talking to us!

From Australia to Bangkok: Eat Me

Written by Emmy on 19 June 2011

In the story of “Alice in Wonderland,” the title character finds herself wandering around the woods, where she encounters several bottles and pills with directives like “Drink me.” This playful and somewhat provocative trope is the inspiration for Bangkok’s highly acclaimed Eat Me, a restaurant influenced by the Australian owner’s native cuisine, as well as those from around the world and around the Thai markets.

The spectacular setting — an outdoor patio, flanked with tall grasses that helped you to forget the bustling traffic just outside — enhanced what was already a delightful epicurean experience.

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Encouraged by an enticing menu and a friendly staff, we over-ordered a bit in our attempt to explore the fullness of the offerings. We started with a rocket salad with pears, parmesan and a truffle dressing. Though simple in preparation, the salad played on the freshness and distinct taste of each ingredient. The scallop ceviche with grapefruit and avocado was at once sweet, citrusy and almost spicy. Dubbed nachos by the menu, the mountain bread with gruyere and diced tomatoes resembled more of a fancy bruschetta.

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We followed the appetizer parade with two entrees that could not have been more different: spicy lemongrass chicken with mango and penne and clams in betel pesto. When the former was placed on the table, Chaz proclaimed that it looked like pieces of Ratty grilled chicken. But upon further inspection, the local spices used in preparing the dish had soaked into every bite, creating a sensational flavor that paired beautifully with the thinly sliced mango. The penne took advantage of the versatile and rich betel leaf to create a more vibrant pesto than basil lends itself to. Betel, the subject of much fascination here at the checkpoint, is used in everything from sauces to lettuce wraps. Lettuce wraps in Asian restaurants in the U.S. are almost always composed of iceberg or romaine, and the leaves do nothing but serve as a vehicle for the food. Betel, on the other hand, enriches the flavors of whatever is inside.

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We finished off our meal with an interesting conversation with Adit, a native Thai who has worked at the restaurant for over a decade. In a soon-to-be posted interview, he provided us with insight into the culinary design of Eat Me and the future of the Bangkok dining scene. Update: The interview is live!

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Jim Thompson and the Peninsula

Written by Chaz on 17 June 2011

On Sunday, after visiting Wat Arun and having our street picnic, we set out on the Skytrain to downtown Bangkok to visit the house of Jim Thompson. Thompson had been stationed in Thailand in 1945 by the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA, and while there, built a business around exporting Thai silk. Thompson vanished mysteriously without a trace in 1967 while visiting friends in Malaysia. His house, which was carefully designed by Thompson himself and made up of traditional Thai houses brought from around the country, is maintained today as a gallery of the beautiful art and crafts that Thompson amassed during his time here.

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Touring his house felt like traveling back in time, to an era when this country was called Siam. Though Thailand was never colonized, that didn’t prevent Westerners like Thompson, enthralled with Thai culture, from coming in and getting rich. Thompson’s house brought the feeling of that era to life, especially thanks to the tour, which was extensive, thorough and delivered by an incredibly chipper woman.

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We stopped by the cafe that’s been set up on his land for a papaya salad, one of our favorite Thai dishes, and the unexpected extreme spiciness of its dressing nearly blew our heads off. It was still incredibly delicious and fresh, but I was kicking myself that I had to have wine instead of beer with our snack.

We headed further into town to check out the Suan Lum night bazaar, but found that it had been demolished a few months earlier. After a frustratingly long walk back to the Skytrain, we went back to our hotel to get ready for our dinner plans.

Coming off a string of two excellent dinners — one at Blue Elephant and one at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel — we had planned to indulge ourselves one more time at Bangkok’s Peninsula Hotel, which is also reputed to have an excellent Thai restaurant, Thiptara. Unfortunately, it turned out that we had pressed our luck just a bit too much. Though the setting of the dinner, again on the bank of the Chao Phraya River, couldn’t have been nicer, the food did not measure up to the two wonderful meals we had just had.

We started the meal with two phenomenal appetizers: spicy mango salad with crispy sea bass and chicken satay with peanut sauce. The mango salad was state of the art. The fruit was delicious, the dressing perfect and the fish crunchy but still extremely flavorful.

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But the entrees let us down. We might have ordered wrong, but the menu wasn’t that compelling either. We had deep-fried soft shell crab with chili and basil, served with sweet and sour sauce, and a curry with eggplant, chicken and chili that was prepared without coconut milk. The crab was fine but not remarkable. As with a lot of deep-fried food (in my opinion), the taste of the crab meat itself was nothing like it could have been if prepared differently. The curry was almost like a soup — it was much thinner than an average curry, and perhaps as a result, it didn’t taste that much and was actually rather bland.

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All in all, the Peninsula was a disappointing experience, especially for the money. Though our appetizers were great, the restaurant wasn’t able to keep it up for our main course. The cards were absolutely stacked against them, though, since our meal there came after two such phenomenal dinners.

Some like it hot

Written by Emmy on 16 June 2011

I love spicy food. I’m not sure at what point I realized that — no one in my family is a huge fan — but on most ethnic menus, I first look at the items with chili peppers or little bonfires next to them. Sometime before we left on our trip, Chaz and I were talking about spicy food with our friend Joanna. She is not a huge fan, and commented that she doesn’t usually like spice because of the tongue-numbing feeling that comes along with it. In most cases, I can ignore that feeling as long as the underlying flavors still come through. In certain moments I do agree with her. At my favorite Thai restaurant in Providence, I had to downgrade from four-star to three-star spiciness on a frequently ordered chicken and eggplant dish after I lost all sensation in my mouth.

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When Chaz and I were sampling hot-and-sour soup in Hong Kong, something new struck me about the familiar dish. Whenever I order hot-and-sour soup at home, my father predictably tries it and proclaims that it tastes “like battery acid.” And to be fair, hot-and-sour soup can have that tendency and often is hit or miss. Too much hot and there’s no flavor; just eye-watering liquid. The soup we had in HK was spicy, but there was more to the spice than there ever is at home.

Hot and sour soup

The same was true of the chili pepper chicken we had at a Szechuan dinner in Hong Kong. Yes, it blew my head off. But when the steam cleared, there were tastes on my tongue I had never experienced before. The spices had been soaked into the chicken in a way that never happens when I try to make chicken myself.

The food here in Thailand is incredibly spicy, but every dish is a different kind of spicy from the next. The herbs and peppers we have seen in the markets resemble nothing I have ever seen before, and the resulting flavors are just as colorful as the ingredients they come from. In several different restaurants, we have been presented with tiny chopped-up spicy peppers to season our dishes. The effect of these peppers versus, say, dolloping hot sauce on your food is like day and night. Even buying street food comes with a delightful spicy experience: a plastic baggie of sauce, ranging from red to green, sticky to liquid, spicy-sweet to almost lime flavored. The ingredients just taste different here, and help to accent the vegetables, noodles and meats, rather than mask the natural flavors with indiscriminating heat.

The spiciest thing I have eaten on our trip to date was a papaya salad. Papaya salad is very common here, sliced and diced in the middle of bustling streets and beautifully prepared at the city’s nicest hotels. At one of Bangkok’s most visited sites, the Jim Thompson house, we took a recommended mid-afternoon break at the museum’s cafe. The papaya salad, garnished with peanuts and fresh shrimp, truly lit a fire in my mouth.

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Normally when I think of spicy food, I think of peppers (like the ones above) or goopy sauces. And yet, it was the subtleties of a citrusy salad dressing that sent sparks shooting through my head. (Truly: it took about 10 glasses of water and two pieces of gum before I felt totally normal again.) The appreciation for market ingredients and how they fit together continues to surprise me as we try new foods. It seems like there is just so much more attention paid to detail in the cooking here.

In one of our first meals in Bangkok, we ordered papaya salad on a street corner. Though not as beautiful as the one photographed above, it was still spicy and flavorful, with a light sauce picking up on the natural crunch and zest of the fruit. The woman serving us barely spoke English, and so we had ordered mostly by pointing. Before serving our food, she brought over a spoonful of warm broth for me to try. It was the dressing for the salad: she had been stirring in spices over a simmering pot and wanted my approval on intensity before she poured it over the salad.

And when all is said and done, just in case the food isn’t blowing your mind in every sense of the phrase, every table comes with a full selection of extra spices, ranging from baby jalapenos to finely grated red pepper. So until I lose all feeling in my tongue, bring on the heat. For now, it tastes delicious.

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The luxury of street food

Written by Chaz on 16 June 2011

Thanks to an incredibly favorable exchange rate, Emmy and I have had the luxurious privilege of dining in most of Bangkok’s best restaurants. It’s been a real treat, and I’ve had some of the best meals of my life. We’ve also been able to get some really delicious Thai cuisine on the street for just a couple dollars. And though the dining experiences are obviously quite different, it turns out that the entrepreneurs who set up pop-up restaurants on a street corner have a lot in common, food-wise, with the chefs in the city’s finest hotels.

One of our food gurus once wrote that, when eating ethnic food in the U.S., one should order dishes that derive their quality from their recipe, rather from the inherent quality of their composition. The reasons for this are simple: the ingredients that ethnic restaurants in America use — the produce, meat and spices — have trouble competing well with the ingredients that can be had in the native countries of most ethnic cuisines, because most ingredients produced in the U.S. just aren’t as good as those found elsewhere. As a result, when one travels straight to the source, as we have, you can switch back, giving preference to ingredients over recipe when ordering.

One of the interesting consequences of this that we’ve discovered is that it’s relatively easy for street food to be both insanely cheap and extremely delicious. Because the ingredients are so fresh, tasty and inexpensively available, street vendors are able to produce a great mango salad or basil chicken with rudimentary cooking equipment at a very low cost, especially after converting from Thai baht to U.S. dollars.

The difference, then, between street carts and luxury restaurants lies in the quality of their recipes and cooking process, to say nothing of some of the incredible settings in which we’ve been lucky enough to have dinner. To showcase the difference, I’ll look at two of the best meals we had in Bangkok. One was at Sala Rim Nam, the Thai restaurant at Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and one was on a street corner in a part of Bangkok that remains unidentified because we had gotten a bit lost.

IMG_1190Our street picnic came after we had been visiting Wat Arun, a temple across the river from Bangkok’s other well-known temples. We were sort of wandering away from the temple toward some other sights when we spotted a German family being led on a tour by a guide. Since they were going in the same general direction that we had been heading, we followed them. Though we lost them before long, we found ourselves in the middle of a huge street food market, and before we knew it, we were buying various items for lunch from a bunch of different vendors. After stopping by a 7-Eleven to buy a couple waters, a beer and a soda, we plunked down on a random corner, next to a woman selling cell phone charms, and had a feast.

The picnic was fantastic — the betel leaves, in particular, really stood out as a simple but delicious meal made possible by the power of good ingredients. And the excitement of buying such diverse and wonderful food at a street market was great, too. But I thought the pad thai and the spicy tofu — in other words, the dishes that relied on their recipe and cooking — weren’t nearly as dazzling. Don’t get me wrong, it’s absolutely incredible that such good street food is so widely and cheaply available, but those two dishes weren’t as lip-smackingly good as the ingredient-based ones.

The Oriental was a different story. We arrived a bit late for our reservation — we had just had cocktails at Vertigo Bar, on the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel, overlooking the entire city, and we had lost track of time a bit.

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As we walked into the hotel, which overlooks the Chao Phraya River that runs through Bangkok, we found the hotel directory to point the way to the restaurant. The location of Sala Rim Nam? “Across the river,” the directory advised. Could we really have gone to the wrong place?! I didn’t remember reading that the Oriental’s restaurant was anywhere but, well, at the Oriental.

We asked for directions to the restaurant, crossing our fingers that the directory was some kind of mistranslation, but no — the real answer was much more fitting for a luxury hotel. We were directed to the hotel’s river pier, from which the hotel runs boat shuttles throughout the day and night back and forth between the hotel and its restaurant.

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After a quick ferry trip, we were seated at a beautiful table overlooking the river, which is an unfortunate shade of brown during the day and thus only actually attractive after the sun goes down. But the sun had long since gone down, and the setting of our meal couldn’t have been nicer.

After another round of cocktails (they just sounded so good…), we began our meal with an appetizer sampler. Many of our favorite Thai dishes are appetizers, and the idea of a whole platter of little bites sounded delicious. The Oriental managed to beat our expectations by a long shot, serving us fresh crab dumplings, chicken and nut dumplings, prawn fresh rolls and fried mushrooms, replete with a selection of dipping sauces. We also had a papaya salad before moving on to a penang curry and a chili basil chicken for our main course.

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The quality of the ingredients showed through immediately, especially in the crab dumplings and the papaya salad, whose main ingredients couldn’t have tasted more fresh. But the best part of the food came in its elegant and careful preparation, which both highlighted the flavors of the best ingredients and combined them to create an even greater explosion of flavor. The sauce on the penang curry was thick without being dry. The dumplings were tender and flavorful without being soggy. Altogether, the meal absolutely knocked my socks off, and its beautiful setting was just an added bonus.

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The high quality of produce and other ingredients here is absolutely wonderful, and it makes for a wonderful bite on the street. But there’s no substitute for excellent cooking, here or at home. I’m just grateful that we’ve had the opportunity to explore the finer side of things during our time here.

How do you say 22 in Thai?

Written by Emmy on 14 June 2011

I love birthdays. I especially love my own, but in general, I just love birthdays. An extra special feature of our trip to Thailand is the fact that I got to celebrate my birthday in Bangkok. Serious upgrade from the last two summers when I had to work on my birthday…

IMG_1078When I asked our friend at the front desk to help me make dinner reservations the other day, I casually mentioned that Saturday was my birthday. “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Birthday!” she said. Clearly it was noted down, because on breakfast at Saturday, I got a mini cake with a candle in it from the hotel. Though it was awkwardly delivered to me while I was standing at the toaster, all up in the breakfast buffet, it was still very exciting.

We spent the bulk of the day at the Chatuchak Weekend Market. One of the world’s largest markets, we never could have navigated it without the well-renowned Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok. The 27-acre 15,000-store market had its layout posted on a couple big signs and there were relatively clear markings about which “street” was which, but our map — or Nancy, as we called her — helped us understand where to find textbooks versus beach dresses versus live fish.

Official Chachutak map

IMG_1139Wandering from booth to booth, we checked out the wares, inspecting everything from gimmicky t-shirts to elephant-shaped pillows. We perused the book aisles and spotted several back issues of various American magazines, Chaz’s ninth grade Spanish textbook and our summer reading from freshman year: “How Proust Can Change Your Life.”

IMG_1138Some of the market stalls seemed more legitimate than others; we walked through the Fifth Avenue of the marketplace, which was lined with fancy clothing stores that had real doors and air conditioning. The entire market was packed from wall to wall; frequent signs warned about watching your valuables and I noticed the police chiding tourists for being too cavalier. One saleswoman did complement me on my super secure zipper-and-snap closure messenger bag and double-zip wallet. (Thanks, mom!)

IMG_1136In the middle of the shops was what the map called a Thai “food court.” And this was unlike any mall food court I’ve ever seen. Woks over open flames, with noodles being thrown into them; roasting spits; frying spring rolls; rapidfire chopping and assembling; and a whole lotta Thai people yelling. We chose a picnic table filled with people and their emptied plates. Always a good sign.

IMG_1123We ordered iced coffees and pad thai. Pad thai is the most common dish in American Thai restaurants, from the cheapest holes-in-the-wall to the fanciest, and the same is true in the motherland. Pad thai is made and consumed everywhere from grungy street corners to Bangkok’s Mandarin Oriental. The recipe is always the same: rice noodles tossed in a tangy-sweet sauce and garnished with lime, bean sprouts, scallions and peanuts. The best pad thai recipes — from my totally objective standpoint, of course — contain chicken, egg and tofu, and maybe a few vegetables. The risk one runs with ordering pad thai in a restaurant is often that it is too sweet. Alternatively, Chaz and I once tried to make pad thai and put in way too much soy sauce, resulting in a dish far saltier than intended.

The pad thai we ate in Chachutak was perfect: the sauce was not too sweet, the tofu was browned to perfection and the noodles were soft, without being gummy. Our waitress was clearly amused by the degree to which we fawned over our food, but trust me, it was worth it.

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Revived by our lunch, we continued perusing the market, getting lost in its many sections and alleyways. After finding our way out of the maze a few hours later with souvenirs in hand, we boarded the SkyTrain to head back downtown. Throughout our time in the bazaar, the weather was sweltering. Right now, it’s the rainy season in Thailand, which means that Bangkok is about 90 degrees at all times, except during the mid-afternoon monsoons we’ve found ourselves in a couple times. On Saturday, the rain held off (it never rains on my birthday! Seriously!), and so the heat was rather oppressive.

On our first day in Bangkok, we had wandered into one of the city’s nicest five-star hotels to check out the restaurants and the air conditioning. While inside, we had taken note of the luxurious pool. We had also taken note of how easy it would be to return to said luxurious pool. And so as a bit of birthday adventure, we did exactly that — this time with bathing suits. It could not have been more amazing. (Special shout-out to my Uncle Steven, for planting this idea in our heads long ago.)

We made a brief trip to the top floor of the State Tower, one of the city’s tallest buildings, for a drink and the view. On the ground, Bangkok is hectic and gritty, but from up above, the skyline is beautiful. It helps that at night you can’t tell that the river running through the city is, well, brown.

IMG_0881We ended a fantastic birthday at Blue Elephant, Bangkok’s most renowned (and fanciest) cooking school, where a gorgeous restaurant serves all of the dishes that have been perfected within the school. We began with a complementary house tasting: a bite of a fresh spring roll and a betel leaf with something spicy inside. The difference between a fresh spring roll in a gourmet restaurant in Thailand and one in the U.S. is that in the states, it kind of just tastes like rice paper with some vegetables hanging out inside. Here, every single flavor is pronounced — from the fresh scallions to the crunchy carrots to the shrimp. We ordered what basically amounted to a banquet, but given the setting and the occasion, we felt compelled to just go all out.

We started with the betel leaves we have come to enjoy so much already, golden bags stuffed with shrimp and crab and fish cakes.

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Due to technical difficulties (i.e. we did not bring my big camera and I am incapable of using Chaz’s iPhone), we do not have photo evidence of the main course. However, the crab curry and the spicy mango salad were both absolutely phenomenal. Both were very hot, but in different and very flavorful ways.

The meal finished as all birthdays should. There were some language barriers when Chaz tried to covertly order my birthday dessert, but all turned out beautifully nonetheless:

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