Friday, January 30, 2009

Thailand-Part One


After leaving Tokyo in the frigid early morning, we flew the seven hours to Bangkok. It was clear from the moment we hit the jet way that Thailand was going to be hot! It’s humid and very warm here but it was actually welcome weather change after the cold days in Japan.

It was 5pm when we arrived at our beautiful hotel. The (Mandarin) Oriental is a small (ok. maybe not so small) paradise in the middle of the city’s chaos. Mary Risley (a.k.a. Tante Marie), who had organized the trip, made the plan for all of us to meet here and WOW was it incredible. Night number one was dinner with a friend of a friend. Dave, an Italian American from the Bronx is now an ex-pat married to a wonderful Thai woman named Teh. They took us to a local pub and restaurant that is owned by a friend of their family. Called “That’s It" the restaurant was part bar, bar night club, and part restaurant. We told them to order the food, which kept on coming. We tried a green curry loaded with two kinds of local eggplant-a small round one about the size of a pea and very bitter and another little orb that was tender and more familiar. There was crab with curry, herb roasted chicken, green papaya salad, sautéed Morning Glory (a green a bit like Chinese broccoli), and a delicious Thai Grilled Beef with chili sauce. It was a great introduction to local food accompanied by two locals singing in the club. Imaging eating your green curry to a live version of a Thai woman seeing “Top of the World” by the Carpenters. Yep, it was funny in a strange kind of way.

Friday morning we met Tante M. for breakfast at the hotel then had a workout to sweat off some of the gluttony. Penny hit the pool, Margaret took a cab to tour Jim Thompson’s famous house, and Jen and I hit the streets in our neighborhood. After walking a few blocks north noticed a side street filled with vendors. We were first attracted to a man selling giant white pomegranates-a variety of the fruit we’d never seen. Further down the street we saw all kinds of local produce (mangosteens, whole lychees, Thai basil, cilantro, and garlic chives). There were local men and woman with small food stands making curries, noodles, shrimp balls, fish cakes, and even ice cream (which the locals were topping with corn kernels). Many of the smells were amazing until we got reached the butcher’s stall. Imagine a sweaty 90 degree day filled with people in every direction. Now add a table with a red-checkered table cloth and top it with fresh raw meat (I think it was all pork): ground, ribs, belly, etc. just sitting on the hot table. The Thais must have stomachs of steel because as Jen and I walked around we saw many more people with meat and fish baking in the sun with no refrigeration. This is what people mean when they tell you to be careful about what street food you eat. That said, these are people full of pride and joy in what they are doing. They are each making one thing and probably doing it incredibly well. Until our walked down one sketchy alley full of viscous looking stray cats and suspicious men in dark door ways, we were loving everything we saw.

The hotel offered us a lunch in their restaurant across the river. We took their boat over and were greeted with more smiles and a huge, but elegant, buffet of Thai specialties. We loved the made-to-order green curry, the Massaman curry of beef and potatoes, the chicken stir fry with young ginger and onions, the crunchy condiments made with dried fish and herbs, and the shrimp salad with cellophane noodles. It’s nice to see a hotel meal, a buffet none the less, be made with so much care and love.

Late afternoon we boarded a long tail boat with an English speaking guide to explore the rtiver and it’s canals. This 235 mile river runs not only through Bangkok but 16 other cities as well. It is the best way to see how many of the locals live. Houses built on stilts over the river where the poorest of the poor live next to luxurious teak homes built in the traditional Thai style. We stayed on the boat for two hours with the exception of a stop at Wat Arun (the temple of the dawn). It is a STUNNING Buddhist temple covered in mosaics made from Chinese porcelain and made with so much detail it would take forever to see it all. We climbed about half way up the steep main tower of the temple and went shutter crazy taking pictures of everything in site.

The day ended with drinks where we met Sue, our guide (a former San Franciscan now living in Bangkok) for the following day. She recommended we have dinner around the corner at Harmonique. Sadly the place was full of tourists and the food was just okay. There was another good green curry with chicken and I loved that it was served in a clay pot shaped like a chicken. Margaret and I sat by the river after dinner taking in the magnificent boats glimmering like Christmas trees.

Saturday morning it’s off with Sue to explore food markets, local restaurants, and more food markets. I think it’s time to head to the gym again….

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