Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fiery curry means a fiery Buddha belly

Well, my Thailand adventure is nearly at its end. I'm in Tokyo during a layover and reflecting on my favorite experience during this trip. I'm torn between the elephant trek and the cooking class we took yesterday that included a market visit to sample ingredients.

I definitely know flying wasn't my favorite part...still 16+ hours to go...but I did get fed a ton on my flights and a pretty Thai orchid corsage. (I had tofu and udon noodles with ginger on my last flight..mmm. Phil says it's possible that I'm a giant udon noodle in disguise since I love them so much.) Business class gets a whole separate entrance to board the flight so they don't have to mingle with the riff raff. The cost was six times the flight of economy, so I'll stick with being a commoner for now.

Yesterday, we took our class at the Blue Elephant Cooking School, which is also a well-known restaurant. In the morning, our eight-person class took the Sky Train one stop to the Bangrak market. We tried red sticky rice with coconut and a concoction of duck egg, coconut milk and brown sugar. Usually I turn my nose up at coconut, but this was incredible. It was served on a banana leaf. We also sampled more spring rolls (been downing these from stands all week) and tried Thai coffee, which was iced and served in a plastic bag like the ones you were given back in the day when you won a gold fish in at the fair. Lots of milk in it and it was really tasty.

We smelled and touched a million herbs and veggies I have never seen or heard of before. Need to find some lemon basil stat at home since it smelled so refreshing. And, the sweet lemongrass iced drink everyone served us throughout the trip might be my new favorite refreshment.

For anyone who makes it to Thailand someday, I recommend taking the cooking class early in your trip to remove any intimidation of navigating the market for good eats. Mary and I sampled food beforehand, but I still wish we had taken the class sooner.

I really enjoyed the way the class was structured. After our market visit, we watched our instructor prepare our first recipe, tasted her dish, and then went in the kitchen to our own station to recreate it on our own. Other instructors were around to keep an eye on our progress, so I never felt abandoned when I got stuck. We repeated this series for four recipes. Then at the end of the class, all of the students sat in the restaurant and ate all of our own prepared dishes. It was fun!

I feel like I learned a lot and my curry will be much better because of the class (at least I hope so). I also learned about some spices in our spice cabinet at home that I've never used, like coriander, which is actually dried cilantro...ohhhh.

For my curry dish, I got adventurous and used a lot of bird's eye chiles and left the seeds in some of the other peppers to notch up the spice. At first, I thought I burned my curry, but it actually turned out really good with lots of color. I learned that you need to stop stirring every now and again to let the oil rise to the top to mature the color. At lunch, my dish made my eyes water, but it was nothing like the curry dish I tried later at dinner that torched my mouth on fire.

I also realized that the pee scent I smelled in pockets of the market was not urine, but actually shrimp paste. I do not like shrimp paste. To me, it tastes as cucka as it smells.

During the class, I kept eyeing a mortar and pestle set our instructor used to pound chilles and herbs for our dishes, so I asked her if I could find one like it at the market. She told me it was from a shop near where we visited that morning and explained how to find it and how to pronounce what I wanted in Thai. She also wrote it down in Thai for me in case I had trouble.

Our teacher's visual cues were on the money, and we didn't have trouble finding the little shop. Her Thai note came in handy because the shopkeeper didn't understand me when I tried to tell her what I was looking for in Thai (dammit). To me, the pronunciation sounded like "clok hin," but apparently I got it wrong. Oh well. At least I'm the proud owner of an awesome mortar and pestle from Thailand! I hauled that thing around for quite a while before we got back to the hotel.

Thankfully we had a massage in between the class and our hotel to get out the kinks, cuz that baby was heavy. I happily checked it this morning at the airport.

Speaking of the massage, Thai masseuses use lots of pressure, which can be uncomfortable to some people. If so, ask for gentle pressure. My masseuse used her body weight to exert even more. She practically folded me into a pretzel! And, she softly pounded what looked like a powdered sugar shaker on my head. It was really interesting, but still relaxing. I did like my Wat Pho massage better though. A girl can get used to daily massages on the cheap quite easily!

After we got to the hotel, we had our final suit fitting in our room. The jury's still out on my suit design, but I love the pretty grey blue silk.

Continuing our packed pace, we headed back out for dinner on the Chao Phraya River at the famous Oriental hotel, which also included a traditional Thai dance performance. Turned out dinner was prix fixed and 11 courses. It was our last night in Bangkok, so we went with it.

I tried my first Thaijito (love the name!) with maekhong whiskey (good stuff), brown sugar, lemongrass, lime and ginger. Really good, but a different presentation that the traditional mojito.

I had a love/hate relationship with my duck curry dish. It was so delicious, but it was absolutely fiery. I had to wait for the burning sensation on my tongue and lips to subside a bit before I went back for seconds. And, my eyes watered continuously. Mary thought it was hysterical! But the flavors were wasn't just all fire. Definitely had heartburn later on, but it was worth it.

The performance was broken up into a series of short dances, and each one told a story relating to Thai history. The female dancers were very beautiful, the costumes were ornate and the fight scenes were elegantly choreographed.

The river at night is very picturesque with its lighted, wooden boats. Also it feels very Venice-like, which might explain why I kept catching myself almost saying "gratzie."

This trip made it clear why people can get the Thailand bug so easily (by the way, there were no bugs to speak of at all). It's a beautiful country with lots of culture and friendly people. The exchange rate is certainly attractive as well. I hope I can come back someday and see Chiang Mai in the north and the beaches in the south. Such a great trip!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Buddha, truffles and Soi Cowboy

We got in pretty late last night, so I'm uber late with posting yesterday's recap. Yesterday we took a river boat on the Chao Phraya River to see the Grand Palace/ Wat Phra Kaew and Wat Pho. These visits were originally on our agenda for our first day in Bangkok, but plans got derailed since they've been closed because of the king's sister's funeral ceremonies.

We were turned away at the palace by people who told us everything was closed until Friday. We didn't panic because we had been warned to be leery of people who would say places are closed and then try to get you to go in a tuk tuk for one of their tours. However, it turned out the Grand Palace was really closed (we made friends with another Thai professor who walked around with us and talked to some of the guards), but Wat Pho was open. Whew. I'm sad we won't be able to see the Emerald Buddha since the palace was closed during our entire trip, but at least we got to be part of the cremation festivities.

At Wat Pho, we admired the ginormous Reclining Buddha that's 150 feet long, and then dropped 100 coins into bowls along his side for a blessing. But first we removed our shoes before entering the temple, per Thai custom.

Wat Pho is also home to the famous Thai massage school, and we scored fantastic 30-minute massages for the equivalent of $7. During the massage, you lay on a bed inside an air conditioned area that overlooks the temple. It was the perfect combination of relaxation and reflection. My masseuse melted away the soreness in my neck from falling asleep in weird places over the past few days to catch shut eye whenever I could. Afterward, we sipped refreshing iced green tea.

Finally, we rubbed Buddha's belly for good luck. For a donation, you're given a flower, incense sticks, a candle and a few pieces of paper with a square gold fleck inside. After your reflections, you rub the gold flecks on Buddha's belly....

For lunch, I met up w a NYT reporter at Biscotti, an Italian restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel. He's been living in Bangkok for three years and covers all of Southeast Asia...quite the territory. It's truffle season, so he treated me to a fantastic funny to eat Italian in Thailand and have my first taste of freshly grated white and black truffles in a scallops dish. I also had a fantastic potato and saffron soup. Although he covers foreign affairs, he's a foodie, and it delighted me when he said he heard Cleveland has great restaurants. I found out from the reporter that gas is so cheap in Thailand because they use natural gas. The price is about 20 baht per liter, which is less than 60 cents. Take note America!

Mary and I met up again and visited the Jim Thompson house. Jim Thompson was an American entrepreneur who's credited with rescuing the silk trade and establishing the Thai Silk Company that became a world-class designer brand. His home is now a museum and features integration of traditional Thai houses into one main house.

Next, I grabbed a drink with a Financial Times reporter who's only been in Bangkok for six weeks. Met up at the Foreign Correspondents Club for a few brews and chatted about his views on the best culinary destinations in the world since he's lived so many places (he's originally from London). His vote is for Australia because of their expertise in using local ingredients. He's a huge pork fan, so I told him he'd love Michael Symon and should visit Cleveland sometime. :)

Cleaned up at the hotel and then ventured off to score some food since we were starving. We wandered to Soi Cowboy, a short, lively street like none other I've seen anywhere, since it was recommended by one of the reporters. Giant neon signs glowed on go-go clubs, girls were everywhere and when we sat down to try some Thai liquor, a random elephant walked by. We saw her walking across the highway later on in the evening. At least she had a reflector tied to her tail. :( The animals we've seen in Bangkok certainly have a tough life.

Thankfully, we didn't have to use any of the pick-up rejection lines recommended in our phrase book like, "easy tiger" or "you just want to use me for sex."

For dinner, we wanted to try a restaurant recommended by locals, Hazara, which we were told was on Soi 36...not so much. After walking for a while, we stopped off at a bar that was playing country music just because it was funny. We were practically the only ones there and hot and sticky since yesterday was sweltering, so we asked the staff to point a fan at us. They ended up pointing a huge fan in front of us and one behind us so we were in a giant wind tunnel and we couldn't stop giggling. It sure felt good though. As I was walking to the bathroom, I saw a small animal climbing up a tree and assumed it was a chipmunk (don't know why). When I looked a little closer, I realized it was a Siamese kitten. Made me think of my little Ava at home.

We found out at the bar that the restaurant we were looking for was a couple sois over (@$&**!!), so we headed back. After 20 feet, we grabbed a motorcycle taxi who drove us a couple minutes to Soi 38. So, now we've used just about all forms of Thai transportation: tuk tuk, Sky Train, taxi, motorcycle taxi, bus.

Time is running out since we head home on Wednesday, but still lots to explore...

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Amazing Kanchanaburi one-day trekking trip

Today's jungle adventure was fantastic! I had heard that Chiang Mai in the north offers incredible scenery, but since we only have five full days in Bangkok, we decided to opt for a destination within a half-day's drive of Bangkok, which led us to a Kanchanaburi one-day trekking trip.

We got picked up at our hotel at 6:30 a.m. this morning and made the drive to Kanchanaburi in a comfy van. There were only four of us, so we had room to stretch out and snooze along the way. At one point we were at a dead stop since a herd of cattle was walking in front of us on the road. Thai cattle have a distinct look and they reminded me of a cattle version of a Siamese cat...very lean and gaunt. P.S. Thailand used to be called Siam, so maybe that's why. :)

Today we had our first exposure to non-Western Thailand toilets, which are pretty much bowls in the ground on a raised platform. You have to squat (there's about a foot drop down to the start of the hole) and you have to throw your TP away (which you had to provide yourself). Then you use a ladle to pour water in the bowl to "flush. " Uber cucka.

Our first stop was the WWII cemetery, which houses the graves of allied prisoners who perished with building the Death Railway (of which we took a train on), which also includes the bridge over the River Kwai. (Phil and I saw The Bridge On the River Kwai movie a couple summers ago during Playhouse Square's Cinema on the Square summer series. Who knew I'd visit in person?!)

We walked across the bridge over the River Kwai, however, no one mentioned that trains still cross it, so it's an understatement to say we were surprised to see an oncoming train headed our way when we were half-way across. We scrambled to a platform on the side to dodge the train, which started crawling once it approached the bridge.

Next, we took a crazy train ride over the Death Railway. At first there was no where to sit or stand, so we were hanging off the side, but we eventually wiggled inside. We were packed like sardines and the only thing to hold on to was the ceiling. (I kept thinking that Phil would have killed me if I made him go along for this part of the trip since he's not a big fan of crowds.) Quite the bumpy ride, but really great scenery. Lots of bamboo, sugar cane, banana crops. We even saw a pagoda on top of a mountain.

Then we rode over to a floating restaurant with some fellow travelers from Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands. We haven't met any other Americans yet in Thailand...mostly Aussies and Europeans. Lunch was light and satisfying. Thai beer was extra refreshing before we took a long tail boat to our bamboo raft for some lazy rafting down the river.

As we rafted, we noticed this Indiana Jones-esque wooden bridge with a jacked up hump in the middle. Some people were trying to cross it, and we laughed at them because it did not look easy...actually it looked crazy. Then I felt a flash of panic when our rafting guide gestured for us to climb up the hill because I guessed what was coming.

This bridge was insane! Tons of boards missing, swayed like crazy. Mary and I laughed and squealed like fools as we crossed...well, I mostly laughed and she mostly screamed since she's afraid of heights. I had nail marks in my left arm from her clinging to me as someone ahead of us started purposely swaying the bridge. It was an unbelievable and exhilarating experience! Indie would be proud.

Then we finally arrived at an elephant camp for a 30-minute trek through some light jungle on an elephant's back. Our elephant was an 18-year-old little girl. We found out most elephants live to be 100 years old. She flapped her ears against my feet, and her prickly hairs on her leathery skin tickled my legs. Every now and then she grabbed a branch to chew.

Afterward, we fed her bananas. Her trunk was like a big suction tube! She was eager to eat and got a bit pushy with asking for more treats. We were happy to oblige. Such a fun experience.

Finally, we stopped off at Sai Yok Noi waterfall and hiked up to the top to splash around in the refreshing water after a humid day. Some of our travel mates agreed to keep an eye on our shoes and snap our photo once we got to the top. It was a bit slippery navigating up the rock; however, coming down was more difficult and we slithered down the rock until we were back on solid ground.

Got back to our hotel around 7:15 p.m. and decided to stay in since it's raining, and we're exhausted.

One more thing to mention: we read in the paper this morning that more than 100,000 people paid their respects at the palace last night and many stayed over night to observe all of the festivities. Read more here.

Tomorrow is a more thorough visit of the Grand Palace a
nd the temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Keow). Also plan to get to Wat Pho, the temple of the Reclining Buddha and also home to the Thai massage school. Lots of history awaits!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A dent in our navigating confidence

Whew. Today was a bit of a doozy. I'm sure I'll be laughing about this later, but for now, I'm glad to be back at the hotel. We got a bit over-confident with our ability to navigate around and pretty much earned a "stupid Americans" moniker for the day. Damn T-shirt man's curse from last night!

Our morning started off great with a visit to the weekend market to peruse souvenirs, home décor accessories, quirky clothes, food and pets. Mary scored some interesting finds (see video and photo) consider this your PG-13 warning. We also had a delicious lunch from one of the food stalls for about 75 cents. That's what I'm talking about!

Then we decided to go to Pattaya Beach, which was more like ghetto beach. Long story short, the half-dozen or so guide books we consulted all said bus transportation was about 2-2.5 hours for $4, but instead, we ended up with a four-hour bus ride from hell.

At first the blaring Thai heavy metal music was funny (at least it helped to camouflage our driver's incessant honking), and I giggled whenever the crazy ramps over the klongs (canals) left me airborne. But then the constant stopping got old, and I was tired of people getting on to peddle fruits and drinks.

The scenery was kind of cool...rice marshes, roadside portraits of the king and queen, palace ruins, etc. And, we were amazed that English was still prevalent on signage way outside the city limits.

But as 2.5 hours ticked by and then three, w
e started to get nervous since we didn't appear to be anywhere near the water and the area was getting shadier by the minute. There were two other farangs (foreigners) on the bus, too, and they were just as freaked out as we were, so at least we weren't alone.

When we finally reached the last stop at the water's edge, the area was less than desirable. And, when we checked at the bus station, they said we had to go somewhere else to get picked up to go back to Bangkok. Oh, I asked in my best Thai if they understood English and they said, "huh?" Mary asked the same question in English and they started laughing and said "yes." So embarrassing.

We started looking for a reputable hotel to ask for help and came across a taxi stand for the airport and were able to negotiate a ride back to Bangkok for about $30 (again, the exchange rate rocks). While we waited, we chilled out with giant beers. A motorcycle taxi pulled up, and I said, "oh hell no," under my breath, but then a bonafide cab pulled up. There must not be open container laws in Thailand because our cabbie said, "You've got beer; I've got nuts" and showed us his snacks. First thing that was funny in four hours.

The drive back took two hours; however, our driver was going 140 kilometers per hour. Honestly, I didn't mind at all. I just wanted to get back and eat something.

At dinner I realized that I misplaced my
wallet, which didn't help my mood, but Mary found it in the room not long after. Whew! We ate at a yummy Indian joint and licked our wounds with my favorite dish: paneer makhani.

We read in the paper this morning that the Grand Palace would be h
osting royal cremation ceremonies for Princess Glyani Vadhana from sunset to sunrise, so we took the Sky Train to the last stop and then negotiated a fare with a tuk tuk driver to take us the rest of the way to the palace.

Our driver ended up being an a-hole and took us to a jewelry shop instead. When we protested, he took us to a dark alley and told us to get out. We reamed him a new one and he took us back to the Sky Train and then we got a new driver. Ugh!

There were thousands paying their respects at the Grand Palace tonight. Really cool to see, but the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds made me a bit claustrophobic. We listened to beautiful chanting for a little while and then decided to head back.

We made sure to stop at a shrine near our hotel to give thanks to Buddha for our safe return. Hopefully he didn't mind that we asked for a fun day tomorrow, which includes elephant riding and rafting. For me, this is the highlight of the trip!

Friday, November 14, 2008

A royal funeral, silk suits, good eats & a curse

Today began a six-day royal cremation ceremony for the king's elder sister, so our plans to visit temples and the palace were derailed since they are closed until Monday. Although the princess died in January, the royal urn took several months to make and will house her bones. Her ashes will be kept separately. Very sad that the country is in mourning since it loves its royal family dearly.

We started off our morning with an awesome breakfast of pancakes, hash browns, sushi, dim sum, curried noodles and cheeses...can't beat that mix of Western and Eastern dishes. Then we explored the fashion district near our hotel. It's amazing how westernized Bangkok is...English is enormously prevalent. However, we learned quickly that people love it when you try to speak Thai because it gives them an opportunity to practice their English, which was much, much better than the few Thai phrases I've been able to cobble together.

We chatted with a pharma science professor and then a manager of a nail salon (you know we got manipedis on the cheap!), who were very helpful and kind with sightseeing suggestions. The manager told us he's getting married soon and wants to take his family (60 people!!!) to London for their honeymoon. He urged us to go to a tailor and have suits custom made, and went so far as to wave down a tuk tuk (a pimped out golf cart with A LOT more speed), negotiate a fare for us and send us on our way.

Mary and I hadn't discussed having suits made, but we figured what the hell and obliged. I picked out a pretty blue silk and a skirted suit design. We'll see how it turns out. We need to go in Monday for a fitting and they should be ready on Tuesday. Fairly reasonable, so if I hate it, oh well.

We ended up hiring our tuk tuk driver for a good part of the morning, and he would take us to a shop and the
n wait outside for us to return. He took us for typical American tourists and dropped us off at a few shops that ushered us into secret passageways to view "genuine" luxury purses. Funny, but no thanks. With a generous tip, our driver rental amounted to about $6. The exchange rate is crazy.

Riding in the tuk
tuk was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time because of the awesome breeze and heart-attack feeling whenever our driver zoomed head-on into traffic, which was often. I have never seen traffic like Bangkok's. It's like Rome and NYC x 10. Oh, and the pollution can be extreme on the roads. Many people, especially motorcyclists, wear masks.

After a morning of exploring, we headed back to our hotel and grabbed a late lunch at Cabbages & Condoms, a
quirky restaurant that promotes safe sex and helps fund Thailand's Population and Community Development Association. The idea is that if condoms were as prevalent in Thailand as cabbage, the country would a safer place. Male diners can score a free vasectomy next door at the clinic after their meal. Uh, no thanks.

Hysterically, all kinds of life-size figures are concocted out of condoms and birth control pills, even Santa Claus. All the light fixtures are
made from condom designs, and they're actually pretty! The food was good too. I had a yummy tofu Phad Thai. And, unlike what I've heard, we rarely saw prostitutes...just a few on the walk home late tonight (where I also was cursed by a vendor for refusing to buy his cheapo elephant shirt...even though he didn't have my size and I said "no thank you" in Thai! It really bothered me.)

We power napped at our hotel (super convenient to the Sky Train...I love it even more today) and then wandered nearby. The streets we walked hours before were completely different...bodies were packed like sardines on the sidewalk and smells from food cooking in sidewalk stalls both delighted and disgusted me...not so crazy about fish-head soup.

The we wandered toward Old World Bangkok toward the west and went to dinner at Breeze in The Dome at State Tower, which was on the rooftop and offered spectacula
r views. I ordered us Shanghai dumplings, spinach tofu (not so good) and awesome beef hor-fun (okay, I admit I wanted to order it partly because the name made me giggle). The beef dish featured thick noodles and wok-braised wagyu. And, the chef gave us candied cashews to nosh before our meal and five dipping sauces with crunchy, clear veggie sticks (no idea what they were).

Bangkok reminds me of a cross between NYC because of its dense population and abundant sky scrapers and Vegas since it lights up at night with turbo neon everywhere. Such an interesting place. Tomorrow we're headed to the weekend market...15,000 stalls!!!...and maybe the beach.

Sawatdee ka!