Bangkok in Rainy Season

For nearly six months of the year, from May through October, Thailand experiences the monsoon season. It has its own rhythms, its own challenges and its own joys.

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Much of the time, rainy season days are humid in the morning as the pavement dries out after overnight rain. The skies are mostly blue and the fresh air provides no filter to the sunlight, which bakes anyone unfortunately enough to be outside the shade like ants under the magnifying glass of a cruel, petulant child.

As the day progresses, cumulonimbus clouds build like fluffy albino cotton candy reaching into the stratosphere. They darken over the afternoon, their shade growing ever more menacing. Often, one half of the sky will still be sunny and blue while the other half will be an advancing, sheer wall of dark grey.

Once the wind picks up, you know that it is just a matter of minutes – at most a half-hour – before the rain starts to fall. Often, this happens in a fierce opening of the heavens, fire hoses turned on full force, a deluge turning roads to canals and canals to lakes. The torrent can just as rapidly cease, leaving the temperatures considerably cooler and, if the clouds vanish, the stars clearly visible even in a city with so much light pollution.

Sometimes, though, the rain stays around at varying degrees of intensity, snarling traffic, stranding pedestrians and leaving behind flooded sois (alleys) that take hours to drain. Thankfully, this does not happen too often and when it does, you just alter your plans and either stay in (if you were caught at home) or stay out (if you had not yet made it home).

Patience is called for.

The joy of rainy reason comes in the moderately cooler weather – each degree of reduction is appreciated – and the breezes. This year, while our rainfall has been heavy, there has been minimal flooding. The greatest joy of rainy season is the cool season that follows it, though.

Sky Lane at Suvarnabhumi Airport

There are a lot of times when infrastructure in Bangkok leaves me underwhelmed. But sometimes, the planets align and we have a piece of infrastructure that impresses. Such is the case with the recently-reopened “Sky Lane” bicycle track around Suvarnabhumi Airport.

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The 23.5-km (14.6-mile) track opened originally in late 2014 or early 2015 and was so well-received that they closed it for five months to upgrade it, with the corporate sponsorship of Siam Commercial Bank. The track reopened in November and is been a big success. Some highlights of the project:

  • The track is double-width, striped with a passing lane and distance markers every quarter-kilometer, and paved to international standards
  • More than 600 light poles allow for after-hours riding. Currently the track opens at 6:00 am and last entry is 7:00 pm; I understand you can ride until 10:00 pm
  • Four sets of clean, large men’s and women’s restrooms are located in each quadrant of the track
  • Entry is controlled by snap bands with RFID chips, which can be obtained for free by registering with a photo identification
  • There is a 1500-space parking lot with security guards, lighting, closed-circuit cameras and plenty of room to safely on- and off-load bicycles and change gear
  • There is also a shorter 1.6-km training track near the parking lot, allowing families and those who need a shorter route to ride; this track has a parallel jogging track
  • I have made three trips there so far, all in the morning. Arriving at 6:30 this morning, the parking lot was busy and hundreds of riders were already on the track. Despite this, the facility did not feel crowded.

One thing you discover is that out in the open fields on the outskirts of Bangkok, there is a stiff breeze! Along one side of the track, it was easy to average a speed of 30 km/hour. On the other side, heading into the wind, it was tough to stay much above 20 km/hour!

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As the track surrounds the airport, I enjoy the opportunity to watch the planes. There are a few good vantage points, although you are set back from the action, not right up against it. There are a few early morning arrivals and departures of larger jets and I suppose a true enthusiast could time his or her riding with the schedules of the most interesting airlines.

There appears so be some construction near the entry of the Sky Lane, presumably for some shops and hopefully restaurants. I’ve read on the website that bike repair facilities will be coming, too. Bicycle rentals would be an obvious addition, I hope.

All in all, this is a world-class facility that gives the every-growing cycling community a safe space to ride. If you have the opportunity and are so inclined, I would encourage you to check it out.

 

Thai street food: khanom tang taek

There was a time when I wrote a lot more about Thai street food. In the years since I had to stop working from home and started getting a real job, I’ve had a lot less time to write – but rest assured I haven’t stopped enjoying Thai street food! In the past few months, I’ve discovered a tasty treat that I had not encountered in more than ten years here: a snack named after a broken barrel.

Called “khanom tang taek” this snack is basically a pancake cooked in a deep pan, filled with shredded fresh coconut, black sesame seeds and sugar.

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Baked until crisp, it is folded in half (the breaking of the “barrel”) and served while still warm.

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It isn’t the fastest treat to make, perhaps one of the reasons you see so few street vendors making it. But the flavor and texture and wonderful and I count myself lucky to have a vendor who is regularly found at lunchtime across the street from my office.

 

Street Food on the King’s Birthday

His Majesty the King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, turned 88 this past Saturday and the entire country was out to celebrate. His Majesty’s birthday is also Father’s Day, making it a celebration for the entire family. Together with my food writer friend Chow (follow her blog Bangkok Glutton), we took some new friends, recent arrivals to the city, out for their first street food crawl.

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Our main stop was Yen Ta Fo Rot Sadet, located on Mahachai Road in the old part of the city, also known at Rattanakosin Island. This stall specializes in yen ta fo, a type of fish noodle soup made with a broth flavored with red fermented bean curd. They also sell a variety of other noodle dishes.

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Our guests on the two sides, along with Chow and my husband Tawn. For first-timers, they were taking it all in stride and were not at all picky are delicate about the environment, cleanliness, plastic stools, etc. This is a good sign for their future as street food aficionados!

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The yen ta fo itself has this color that is a bit unsettling: bright pink, which comes from the fermented bean curd. The whitish items are a variety of fish cake and fish balls. The greens add a nice contrast. Their broth is nicely balanced: sweet and sour, spicy and salty all in the correct amounts.

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From there, we walked up the street to Thip Sa Mai, which is probably the most famous Thai street food vendor. Famous for their pad thai served wrapped in a thin omelet, the lengthy queue outside their shop has reached ridiculous lengths.

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We enjoyed a look at their scalding hot woks, from which another serving is turned out every fifteen seconds. (Click here to see a video of it!)

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We then walked down to Ratchadamnoen Avenue, or the “royal path,” which is modeled on Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. It was festively decorated with beautiful lights and crowded with families strolling along it. The streets were packed as people cruised to view the decorations celebrating His Majesty’s birthday.

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There were numerous vendors selling snacks and treats of all sorts including this gentleman, who was selling khanom tang taek, or bankruptcy treats as “tang taek” means “broken bucket,” a euphemism for bankruptcy. This is a rare dish to see these days, a thick pancake filled with freshly-scraped coconut meat and sugar with black sesame seeds in it.

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The end result is crispy and chewy at the same time, with savory coconut meat inside. This vendor also had kernels of sweet corn added, for additional flavor. It was a really interesting dessert. (A bit more about it and a video can be found here.)

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Lovely view of Loha Prasat, or the metal castle, one of only three ever built in this style anywhere in the world and, if I understand correctly, the only one still extant.

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We walked down to the Democracy Monument to another famous shop, this one for desserts. There is a variety of sweet and savory toppings to be added to your dessert, which is then covered with shaved ice, syrup, and coconut milk.

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The dessert’s heritage is very much Chinese, something very similar to what you will find in many Asian countries.

And that concluded our street food adventure and a fantastic celebration of Father’s Day and the birthday of His Majesty the King. A happy occasion all around!

 

Rainy Season Finally Arrives

This has been an unusually dry monsoon season in Thailand. So much so, that much of the country has been suffering from drought. September is typically the rainiest month by far, and true to form, it brought relief from the dry weather.

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For the most part, the rains have been tolerable. Sometimes heavy, but none of the severe flooding that torrential monsoon rains are known for. Our soi (small street) is prone to flooding after as little as 30 minutes of heavy rain. So far, there has been no need to put on the waders!

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The thing I like best about the rainy season is the cloudy, overcast weather. It amazes me, how much cooler the temperatures are when we are not baking in the direct sun. This time of year is also breezy, which helps keep temperatures more tolerable.

Now that October has arrived, the rains should decrease in frequency and by November, the relatively cooler “cool season” will arrive. This coincides with the start of a new job, which I will take as an auspicious sign.

 

Vanilla Home Cafe

About two years ago, I asked Jarrett Wrisley, the American food writer and proprietor of Soulfood Mahanakorn and two other restaurants in Bangkok, what he thought the next food trend would be here in the City of Angels. His response: home style Thai food cooked by locals with really good quality ingredients and refined technique.

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He was spot on. In 2014, we started to see more and more restaurants here in Bangkok that serve what you might call “Grandma’s food” – dishes that you rarely see most Thai restaurants serve, especially outside of Thailand. There are many places that are doing this trend well, and in this entry I visit Vanilla Home Cafe.

Located in the basement of the recently remodeled Silom Complex, Vanilla Home Cafe comes from the same family-run business that owns the S&P chain of eateries. Interestingly, some of the “Grandma’s food” menu items from Home Cafe are making their way onto the S&P menu, which I count as a good thing.

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Appetizer of Gratong Tong – crispy golden cups with minced chicken and sweet corn. This isn’t the rarest of dishes but is one that be a candidate for the endangered list. Crispy cups with a chicken and corn relish. What’s not to like?

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Yam som-oh – pomelo salad with a dressing of lime, palm sugar, fish sauce, shallots, and chilies. This is also pretty common. The “yam” style salad can be made with countless ingredients but the pomelo version is one of my favorites. Perfect balance of flavors and not too sweet.

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Naamprik mamuang gunghaengbon plaasalidpuu – green mango chilli relish with crispy fish. The “naamprik” is really the dish that set this “Grandma’s food” trend in motion. There are many different versions of this dip, all of which are served with blanched vegetables and other condiments. Some are fiery, others not so much. This version with green mangos has a really nice balance of flavors. Spicy, but with just a small amount with some veggies to cool the fire, it is fantastic and fantastically healthful.

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Gaeng kuahaed paw – Earthstar mushroom curry, a forest mushroom in a rich curry that isn’t as spicy as you might expect. Served with an interesting local green that has the same effect as asparagus on your urine’s smell.

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Kaijiaw gapraw muusap – minced pork with chili and basil omelet. Probably the most common dish but a classic that grandma would be remiss not to serve!

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Muutod plaakhem – deep fried pork patty with salted fish. Yes, at first you think it is just a pork patty. And then you taste the salted fish. And the chilies. And the shallots. And the lime. And the coriander. Wow, there is a lot of flavor going on here!

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Plaahaeng taengmo naamkaengsai – crazy obscure dessert. Perfectly ripe watermelon served over crushed ice with dried fish. Yes, you read that right. Think of it this way: you know how sweet watermelon and salty feta cheese is all the rage these days? This is the non-dairy version of that flavor combination.

Location: Basement of Silom Complex, adjacent to Saladaeng BTS station in Bangkok.

 

Questions About Visiting Bangkok

A friend is visiting from Japan. And like the countless friends and friends-of-friends and colleagues-of-friends (and so on) that visit each year, he asked for some suggestions of what to see, where to eat, and where to sleep. Having been asked that question countless times before, I sent the PDF lists I have.

It occurred to me that I should be using this website for that purpose. After all, it is much easier to keep the pages updated and much easier for people to check in instead of passing around a PDF that is likely to be out-of-date the minute it is received.

Walking Map of Central Rattanakosin

So this evening I took some time to transfer those lists to the website. This all-purpose page may be of interest to you or someone you know. It has links to a page showing all the must-see sights in Bangkok for a first-time visitor; many of the recommended restaurants; and many of the recommended hotels at different price points.

One of these days, I will create a page showing the “hidden gems” of Bangkok – the things you should do if you have already seen the main attractions or want a different perspective on life here.

So please feel free to visit these pages, provide your comments and feedback, and share them with friends, friends-of-friends, and so on.

Family Visit Part 2

The second half of my family’s trip to Thailand was spent in the south, in the Andaman coastal province of Krabi.

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For midwesterners, a trip to the beach is a highlight of any trip to Thailand. Amber waves of grain don’t have anything on the warm tropical waters in Thailand.

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For the one-hour flight to Krabi, we once again flew Nok Air (“Bird” Air) which was a big hit with the girls. The planes are painted like birds, which they thought was pretty cool.

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We stayed at a resort right on the beach, giving us a spectacular sunset view every evening.

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The resort is small – only about 50 rooms – and quite out of the way. While this limited the ease of travel elsewhere in the province, the two pools and the beach provided enough attractions.

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We did sneak out one day for an elephant ride – here, my sister and youngest niece pet a baby elephant – and a visit to a spectacular crystal clear natural spring in which you can swim.

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While out, we had a chance to stop in the main town for authentic southern Thai food – Hat Yai style fried chicken, a steamed fish mousse, and “Chinese style” rice noodles with curry sauce and fermented vegetables. I’m glad that everyone gave the food a try and for the most part, seemed to like it. Well, the fried chicken at least.

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Every day at sunset we were on the beach. Here, recreating some picture from a childhood, I give my sister a push on a swing.

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One of my nieces also provided the gymnastic antics to create this beautiful picture.

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Our last full day there, we hired a long-tail boat to take us to a pair of islands about 10 kilometers off the coast. The nieces weren’t too happy about the boat ride but the rest of us enjoyed the experience.

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One nearly-deserted island had an interesting isthmus that largely disappeared at high tide but provided a comfortable spot to enjoy the breeze and take in the views of the steep limestone cliffs.

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At a second island, we cruised into a lagoon in the middle of the island that is only accessible during high tide. The water was less than three feet deep and the cliffs surrounded the lagoon on all sides except for a narrow opening to the sea.

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Finally, we docked at the other side of the same island (called Koh Hong) where there is a large protected beach. It is part of a national park on employees keep a careful eye on visitors to ensure there is no littering. While the waters were a bit cloudy because of the monsoon season, we did a little snorkeling near the large rock and were able to see quite a few schools of fish.

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All in all, I think it was a very enjoyable four days for everyone and a good final experience for Thailand. I’m glad we saved the beach for the end of the trip.

 

Visiting Mae Sot with my Family

My parents, sister, brother-in-law, and their two girls are visiting for two weeks. During the first part of the trip, we flew to Mae Sot, a town on the border with Myanmar, to visit an orphanage and other related facilities at which I’ve volunteered before. Here’s a look in pictures at our visit there.

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Boarding our Nok Air flight out of Don Meuang Airport in Bangkok, arriving in Mae Sot one hour later. As we touched down in Mae Sot, the ground was dry. By the time we reached the end of the runway and taxied back to the terminal, a torrential rain shower had unleashed.

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At a secondary learning center (essentially high school) for Burmese migrant students, my nieces helped prepare the afternoon meal: a big wok full of fried rice cooked over a gas fire.

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Stopping at the orphanage where I’ve previously visited, my family quickly started interacting with the approximately 80 children who are there. There is nothing these children seem to cherish more than love and attention. My dad sat on the floor and had a queue of children waiting to sit on his lap.

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My brother-in-law, who had missed his regular workouts, used some of the younger children to catch up on his weight-lifting.

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The first day we visited was my sister’s birthday, so we brought cake for everyone and they sang her “Happy Birthday”. Afterwards, many children kept coming up and saying “Happy birthday!” and pretending to make cake for everyone.

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These two fellows cleverly repurposed a Superman plush toy to turn it into something of a sled. Here’s a brief video capturing the hilarity of their new ride:

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The following day we traipsed through muddy rice paddies to visit a four-day-a-week day care center run by the same orphanage. It provides some education and a free meal for the children of migrant workers from the surrounding fields.

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One of the volunteer coworkers leads the children in a prayer before they eat their mid-day meal. For many of the children, this will be their only complete meal of the day.

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Later in the day we were back at the orphanage, where my eldest niece started kicking the ball around with several of the children. Football (soccer) is very popular here.

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Several of the girls, all of whom wear their hair very short, were captivated by my younger niece’s long locks and proceeded to braid them in all sorts of creative ways.

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My mother was spending time with one little girl who seemed like she needed some extra attention. When I was feeding her the day before, she cried every time I tried to pass the spoon off to someone else.

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There is one young boy who is both blind and suffers from polio. My father spend a while massaging his legs, trying to stretch and strengthen the muscles.

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The new craze we introduced was walking on the visiting adults’ shoes. I don’t know why this was so popular, but we were followed by a queue of children waiting for a ride.

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As it neared dinner time, everyone began to wash up for the evening meal and we took our opportunity to leave for the airport and our flight home.

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The winner of the unintentionally ironic t-shirt contest. I want to go buy a bunch of funny t-shirts and donate them to the orphanage. It is just too cute when they wear something like this.

If you are interested, here is a short video I shot up in Mae Sot when I was there over Christmas with a group of Singaporean volunteers. It shows some of the work we did at the day care center to bring a bit of holiday spirit to them.

 

Coup Deux – Come Visit

Thailand is a country that likes its “collect stamps” cards. Patronize a business ten times and get a free coffee, or the like. When it comes to coups d’etat, it seems to have a similar proclivity. Depending on your count, this is the 17th, 18th, or 19th coup since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. For me, I have collected two “coup stamps”. After my fifth, I get a free t-shirt.

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The last coup was in 2006. A link to some of my entries about it is here. As for why Thailand has so many coups, there is an interesting article here. And if you want some insight into what is going on and what the next steps may be, the Economist has a useful article here.

As soon as the coup happened, and even when martial law was announced two days earlier, I was flooded with messages from friends who were worried for my safety. Thank you to everyone for your concern, but I’m afraid the important message is this:

Keep Calm

The words “coup” and “martial law” seem to prompt a visceral response, aided and abetted by the media showing close-up photos of soldiers, protesters, and political violence. In reality, the political violence over the last six months has been limited – only 28 people killed. Not to minimize the importance of that loss of life, but we regularly have bus crashes on the road here that take that many lives.

Considering the size of the country, and even the size of the city, political violence in Thailand is not sufficient reason to be alarmed or for governments to issue travel alerts warning their citizens not to travel to Thailand.

The last thing this country needs is for its economy (which is teetering on the edge of recession) to be further damaged by tourists staying away. It is an excellent time to visit the country – the weather in the early summer has cooled a bit from the Songkhran highs but the full monsoon has not yet arrived. Plus, hotel prices are amazingly low because… well, because of the political unrest.

I would ask you to help me be a de facto ambassador for Thailand. As you hear people talk about the country, let them know that your friend Chris lives there and assures them it is okay to visit. And, if anyone you know is considering travel here, urge them to come! They can always contact me for recommendations!