Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Eating and Drinking around Bangkok

I have just come back from a four week South East Asia holiday where I traveled with my friend Nicola to Thailand (Bangkok and Ayutthaya), Laos (Luang Prabang) and then Nicola’s German friend Kat joined us for Vietnam (Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hue, Hoi An and Danang). We were traveling in the rainy season and the rainfall this year has been particularly bad with a lot of flooding occurring, but we managed to miss most of the badly affected areas, sometimes by just a few days.

I had a fantastic time and ate a lot of amazing food but it’s nice to be back home. Over the next few weeks I will be blogging about the highlights of my travels.

First stop – Bangkok (4 nights, 4.5 days)

We caught the red eye flight from Perth to Bangkok, 9hrs20mins later with a brief stopover in Singapore we arrive at our destination. After going through customs and immigration/passport control we try to find a taxi to get to our hotel. On our way to the airport taxi stands, a well dressed man approached us and asked “Do you want a taxi?” In my half asleep dazed state I was drawn to him like a magnet thinking how nice it was that this man was offering me a taxi. Nicola tugs my arm and leads me away from the man. “What are you doing?”….then I realized that I had broken the first rule in Lonely Planet – if a smartly dressed man approaches you offering something, assume that he is a professional con artist and about to offer you a well-rehearsed scam. At this point it hit me that I was in Bangkok and I needed to be more alert. I should have known it, there were key signs that I should have picked up.

1.    Taxi drivers do not wear suits.
2.    There are signs everywhere in the airport that direct you to the taxi stands, I didn’t need someone to show me the way.
3.    How did he know I needed a taxi? It is unlikely that he could read my mind. Sure I looked like a tourist but maybe I was getting picked up or I just wanted to go to the toilet or something…

The first rule of traveling in South East Asia is  - “You call all the shots”

If I want a taxi I will get one myself, I will tell the taxi driver how much I’m willing to pay and I will tell the taxi driver exactly where I want to go. I call all the shots – no one needs to offer or tell me what I want.

We made our way down to the taxi stand and hailed a taxi. I got into the back seat and reached for my seat belt but I couldn’t find one. This was the second time within 5 minutes where I was hit with the reality that I was in Bangkok.

Goodbye Nanny State!

So my journey begins….

 (View from the taxi)

My first meal in Bangkok was a simple fried noodle dish at a street stall near our hotel. We were tried and hungry after a long flight so we pretty much settled on the first place that we saw. It was pretty tasty and I loved the noodles which had a more glutinous and chewy texture than what I have been was used to. It was great to see everything being cooked fresh out in the open.

On our first night in Bangkok we thought that it would be nice to treat ourselves to a fancy dinner at Nahm Thai. Nahm is owned by David Thompson who is considered an authority on Thai cuisine. He’s a chef that I have a lot of respect for and I own his cookbooks. Eating at Nahm was on the top of my list of places to eat.

In the afternoon we caught a taxi to Siam Square which on the map looked like it was close to Nahm to check out the shops around there until it was dinnertime. It turned out to be a bit of a journey getting to Nahm from Siam Square. On the map Nahm didn’t look like it was that far from Siam Square but we found that maps can be deceiving, and what looks like it is within walking distance sometimes isn’t. After walking for a while against the heat, humidity and peak hour traffic we gave up and got a taxi. This ended up being a very smart decision when we saw how far the taxi had to drive to get to Nahm. If we had continued walking, by the time we got there, I’m sure that everyone in the restaurant would have been onto their desserts. 

(Nahm Thai is at the Metropolitan Bangkok Hotel on South Sathorn Road
Tungmahamek, Sathorn, Bangkok 10120, Thailand)

Arriving at Nahm felt like one of those “I can’t believe that I am actually here moments”. Here I am in Bangkok, at a high class fine dining restaurant owned by ‘the’ David Thompson, one of my favourite chefs, at a five star hotel … wearing my traveling clothes and shoes. I had packed lightly for this trip, everything that I had for a four week holiday in South East Asia was in a small carry on luggage bag.  While it may surprise some people what little I had with me, I think that this is the best way to travel, it makes it such a breeze to travel to different cities. It also makes you realize how much crap you don’t need, especially when you are often exposed to the situations of those who are less fortunate and have practically nothing.

A great way to experience what Nahm has to offer is to go with the set banquet dinner which costs 1700 baht (~$53 AUS). It includes all the five canapés listed on the menu, a choice of one main dish from each of the five categories – salad, relish, curry, soup and stir fry, and dessert. Plus, we got a complimentary starter and petit fours.

I have eaten a lot of Thai food before but nothing like this. All the dishes were exceptional. For one of the dishes, Nicola commented that she had eaten this style of dish before when she lived in Melbourne but felt that the one she had then tasted nicer…nicer?... The flavours of all the dishes served at Nahm were strong and bold, the dishes were not just dressed up to please our taste buds but to confront them with what authentic Thai cuisine is meant to taste like. This was the real deal and it changed what I thought Thai food was supposed to be. I was experiencing different and new tastes. It was a rewarding eating experience. The staff at Nahm were also really lovely, each dish had a story that was explained to us in detail – where it was from, the ingredients used and its links to Thailand. Food wasn’t just food anymore, its existence was integral to the history and culture of a place.

There is a lot to do in Bangkok and many sights to see. We filled our second day there with some sight seeing including the Grand Palace and Wat Pho.

The Grand Palace is a complex of buildings that has served as the official residence of the Kings of Thailand from the 18th century onwards. It is very lavish, with almost every building adorned with gold it is majestic to look at but also seems a bit excessive.

Please note that appropriate dress is required for entering the Grand Palace. A fun game to play while you are there is to spot the “rent a pants guy”. See that guy below on the left who is wearing baggy ridiculous looking pants, well they obviously don’t look like his pants of choice. He was probably wearing shorts and had to rent some long pants from the numerous street vendors waiting outside preying on the ignorance of foreignors.

Wat Pho is one of the largest and oldest wats in Bangkok. It has Thailand's largest reclining Buddha image (46 meters long and 15 meters high) and the most number of Buddha images in Thailand, so if you are going to visit a wat in Bangkok make sure that it’s this one.

Before my trip I had spent some time researching places to eat and I got the most recommendations for places to eat in Bangkok thanks to a Gourmet Traveller article that Max sent to me. So after sight seeing we decided to try finding Chote Chitr. It took us two tries to hail a taxi. Bangkok is a big city, taxi drivers do not always know where you want it to take you. The first one didn’t understand where we were asking him to take us and we were successful the second time because I showed the driver a print out of directions from google maps (!) 

I had printed it for my own reference to see how far Chote Chitr was from where we were staying, but it turned out to be useful for the taxi driver as it helped him to place where we wanted to go. Well he managed to drop us off at Thanon Tanao which was the main road that the small street Soi Phraeng Phuthorn is off, which is where the restaurant is located. We walked along Thanon Tanao to find Soi Phraeng Phuthorn. The streets are not very well sign posted and after a few minutes we realized that we were in heading in the wrong direction. We turned around and eventually we found Chote Chitr. 

 (Chote Chitr - 146 Soi Phraeng Phuton, Bangkok)

Chote Chitr has renowned recognition and its walls are plastered with acclaims from numerous reviews from around the world. I ordered the spicy eggplant as it was the dish that is often quoted in reviews and it did not disappoint. It was drenched in a sweet, sour and salty sauce that had a hit of smokiness. It had a balance of flavours unlike anything that I have ever had before, and with every mouthful I found something new to appreciate about it and I understood why people rave about this dish. I wanted to try a curry dish and settled on the yellow curry with deep fried pork. The flavour of the curry was really good but what really made it was the toasted coconut on the bottom which added texture and a layer of taste that took this dish to another level.

 (Spicy eggplant)
(Yellow Curry with deep fried pork and toasted coconut)
(Toasted coconut FTW!)

The menu is expansive with over 300 dishes to choose from and it was so cheap with three dishes and rice with 2 drinks totaling 540 baht ($17 AUS).

Khao San Road is the main backpacker district in Bangkok and I have a love-hate relationship with it. I hate it because it feels like a McDonaldisation of an area of Bangkok for foreigners, you will find practically every fast food franchise known to man here. It also feels unsettling seeing so many foreigners congregating together in the same place acting as they would back in their own country, hanging out at bars that have been recreated to look like a Western bar complete with a shitty cover band playing all the hits, eating all the tourist friendly food (for Perthies – think Northbridge).

(Khan San road at night)

But there is stuff to love about Khao San road – there are a lot of cute little cafes around that would not look out of place in Japan which are great to grab a drink at and for some R&R after a long day out.

(Cute cafes that we found around Khan San road - their names and location escape me)

On Khao San road you can buy knock-off clothes, shoes, sunglasses, music CDs and DVDs etc. (always fun to have a little browse through) and of course you have to check out the dodgy little street stall that can make you that degree you have always wanted, certificates, drivers license, fake ID – you name it, they've got it. Khan San road is a great place to practice your haggling skills and be introduced to the phrase “same same but different” (which will forever haunt you for the rest of your trip). Visiting Khao San is a necessary part of your travel experiences in Bangkok, but just don’t stay there too long especially at night, after a while it all gets a bit too much.

(Joy Luck Club - 8 Phra Sumen Road, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok)

One night we ate at Joy Luck Club which we found while wondering around the Khan San area. We had walked for a while trying to find somewhere to eat, confronted with so much choice, how does one decide? Well it was easy when I saw the teddy bear in the window and the cure decorations inside. I was sold to the vibe of Joy Luck Club but had some reservations as I sat down that maybe this place was all image with no substance. My concerns were dismissed as I tucked into the pad thai that I had ordered which was done justice with a good balance of flavour. There was one woman running the whole joint and she was really friendly, plus Barry Manilow cranking over the sound waves the whole time we were there. What more could I ask for?
(My pad thai at Joy Luck Club)

A place that we really enjoyed visiting was the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre. Full of amazing contemporary artwork, an array of exhibitions and installations, we spent hours wondering around. 

There was an installation where the floor was just covered with an assortment of wool and threads, and like the kids that had come to the art centre after school, we played in it – rolling and falling over into it.

(This is me about to fall over....)

Located throughout various levels of the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre building are shops, cafes, galleries and design studios. On the 4th floor of the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre is IceDEA, a concept ice cream shop and food design store. 

(Football ice cream)
(Rice tea ice cream)

There are a number of interesting ice-cream concoctions on display and a variety of flavours to choose from including flavours that you wouldn't normally get like Global Warming and Wasabi. We both got the Tonkatus ice cream which was vanilla or matcha green tea ice cream coated with bread crumbs, then deep fried and topped with chocolate sauce. Fried ice cream trying to imitate a popular Japanese pork cutlet dish?! I was sold.

(Tonkatus with green tea ice cream)

A trip to Bangkok would not be complete without checking out a bar or two. On our second last night in Bangkok we checked out The Nest. Even though The Nest might not be the tallest rooftop bar in Bangkok we loved the vibe of it. It was unpretentious and had great food and cocktails, and the DJ played a whole bunch of classic hits from the 90s. Nostalgia overload we requested the DJ play some TLC and he played “Creep”. 

(The Nest Rooftop Bar at Le Fenix Hotel Bangkok - in Sukhumvit Soi 11)
  (I apologise for the fuzziness of these photos, I took them after a few cocktails)

The main bar that we wanted to check out in Bangkok was Bar 23 which we went to after The Nest as it was open late and off the same road. The Nest and Bar 23 are both off Sukhumvit road, The Nest is on Soi 11 and Bar 23 is on Soi 16. Nicola had googled “indie+bar+Bangkok” and it came up with Bar 23. It was just want we wanted - a cool little bar which played indie music. How cool is this bar? Well we requested some TLC and the DJ/owner Go just looked at us and said “we don’t play that kind of music here” and proceeds to play us some Beck instead. We had a great time at this bar and paid for it the day after. 

 (Bar 23 on Sukhumvit Soi 16)

On our last day in Bangkok we were hangover from bar bouncing good times the night before. We decided to take it easy and made the trip to Chinatown to have a little wonder around. This was not such a good idea as Chinatown hurt our heads. It was the busiest part of Bangkok that we had encountered, it’s packed with shops and stalls set up on every available sidewalk space, a maze of streets and alleyways, crowds of people and a flurry of activity, it’s really insane. We only stayed for a little while as it was too chaotic for the state that we were in.

 (Chinatown = Chaos)

Before leaving Bangkok I wanted to check out another restaurant from the Gourmet Traveller article - Krua Apsorn. According to the article, the easiest way to get there was by a ferry - taking the Chao Phraya ferry to Thewet pier and then walking the 20 minutes or so to the restaurant. So that night I dragged our hungover arses to catch the ferry for the first time. You can catch the public (local) ferry or a tourist ferry (which is a little bit more fancy) is also available but the public ferry is the only way to go because I want to live like common people, I want to do whatever common people do. Catching the public ferry was an experience. We waited at the dock until we saw the ferry coming. There was no platform to the boat, a loud whistle signals its arrival, it pulls up close to the pier and we quickly hop on. The boat was quite packed and we tried to grab anything that we could hold onto, to stay put as the boat rocked on up the river. Everything happened so fast, it felt like we were being herded on like cattle. There was little time to think or even comprehend what was happening but a moment later we realized that we had caught the wrong ferry as we were heading in the opposite direction to where we wanted to be. We got off at the next stop and the right ferry was just about to dock so we ran through, quickly paid for our tickets and got on it. It was dark and raining, and we were trying not to get splashed on as the motor would drive water up the sides of the boat and the rain would come in through the sides. At the Thewet pier, we got off and walked huddled under my umbrella in the direction that we thought the restaurant was, we passed what would have been the colourful fish, flower and vegetable markets which were now closed. Along the way we stopped at a 7 Eleven to check that we were still going in the right direction, all the while I was hoping that Krua Apsorn was actually open. After what seemed like forever, we finally found it and it felt like a “hallelujah” moment. 

 (Krua Apsorn - 503/05 Samsen Road, Bangkok)

Mission accomplished, we settled in for our final dinner in Bangkok before we left for Ayutthaya the next day. On the back of the menu there were reviews from The Observer and the New York Times, I used these and the Gourmet Traveller article to select dishes to order. I ordered the fried crab meat and beans with yellow chillies, and we also ordered the fried vegetable dish, a house specialty made with a local flower vegetable, fried with minced pork and oyster sauce. All the dishes we ordered were as good as the reviews had said they were. 

After our mains we wanted to order some ice scream coconut sorbet but we were told the kitchen was closing and it was only 8pm. We were lucky that we got there in time to have dinner as it closes early.

I have to say a big thanks to my friend Nicola who let me drag her from one side of Bangkok to another, wondering around unfamiliar streets through heat, humidity and rain to find the restaurants that I wanted to eat at. This was the first holiday where I was on a foodie mission. We were surrounded by tons of places to eat in Bangkok but I was determined to seek out the best places to eat. I was like a child who would go screaming and kicking at the shops until mum bought the chocolate bar that I wanted. I would sit down and pretty much ignore most of the menu except for ‘those’ dishes that I had seen mentioned in reviews, ordering the dish that every foodie who goes there must order. I could feel the waiter rolling their eyes at me, I was like a fan seeing a band and only wanting to hear their hit songs. I felt like such a cliché foodie at times.

But not every meal was a chosen one, some were random, some just happened to be the closest. I’ve had some amazing meals and also some average ones. It’s good to mix it up, to have no expectations and get a surprise – good or bad. Otherwise there would be no fun in traveling! Travelling is more than just about eating and there is more to the experience of eating than just eating – it was an adventure along the way. Our journey to find the places that I wanted to eat at broke our Bangkok virginity – with our attempts to communicate directions to taxi drivers, catching the public ferry for the first time, straying away from the touristy areas, stumbling into unfamiliar territories… suffice to say - I believe I can make my way to any place in Bangkok now and I can say that I have eaten some of the best food that this city has to offer.

1 comment:

  1. Looks like you had a great time during your stay there in Thailand. The dress code in entering the Buddhist temples really caught lots of tourists unaware that's why they resort to renting some clothes. I enjoyed looking at those photos that you posted.