Goddess Tubtim Shrine

Tucked behind the Nai Lert Hotel, alongside the San Saeb canal and underneath an ancient ficus tree, lies a shrine dedicated to the goddess Tubtim.  Originally a spirit house, the place where the spirit of the land (who was disrupted by your building on it) would reside, the shrine evolved over time into an unintentional fertility shrine as more and more worshipers brought offerings of phalluses.  Ranging from the symbolic to the highly realistic, the collection fills the area around the shrine.

While my friend David and Chor Pharn were visiting from Singapore, we stopped by for a look.  Here’s a short video to give you a sense of the setting.

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A healthy selection of phallus-shaped offerings left around the largest ficus tree at the shrine.  The irony is, sex toys are illegal in Thailand so if you were to try to bring a legitimate dildo into the country, you would be stopped.  By highly realistic phalluses for the purpose of spirit worship?  That’s okay.

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Some of these phalluses are quite detailed.  And at least one has studs in it, perhaps representing the Folsom Street Fair community?

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Normally, spirit houses have some small sculptural figures meant to represent both the spirits as well as those who are there to entertain and serve them.  So many figures have been added that they are arranged on two adjacent shelves.  You can see the San Saeb canal in the background.

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The figures include representation of parents as well as a host of animals.

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Also, there are more than 100 traditional Thai dancers to keep the spirits entertained.

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And, inexplicably, a pair of male dolls.  Barbie’s gay brother Eric and his lover Stephen?  The women on the upper shelf are all ladies in waiting.

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Who’s living in the spirit house?  I spy a kitten!

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This one seems to have a fungal infection.  Experiencing any itching or burning sensation?

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On a tangential note, I thought I’d share this picture of the jasmine garlands that are sold by local flower vendors.  These are the types of garlands that Tawn and Chor Pharn were trying to make in this entry.

 

Food in BKK: Le Normandie

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The Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, which traces its history to 1876 as the first hotel in the Kingdom of Siam, remains one of the finest hotels in Asia.  Its legendary service and refined elegance leaves you half-expecting to find such famous visitors of years past as Somerset Maugham and Noel Coward sitting in the lobby or the colonial-style Authors’ Lounge. 

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Sitting atop the 10-story Garden Wing, which was home to Thailand’s first elevator (1958), is the most famous French restaurant in town: Le Normandie.  It was there that we gathered for lunch Sunday afternoon to celebrate the marriage of one of Tawn’s university friends, Ko.  She and her husband Per were married in a civil ceremony in Sweden a few weeks back.  He will move here later this year and their Thai wedding celebration, certain to be much more lavish, will be held in December. 

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Photo courtesy of the Mandarin Oriental Group

Joining Ko, Tawn, and me was their other university friend, Bim.  Both Bim and Ko are foodies, so this seemed as good a place as any to indulge and celebrate.  Le Normandie, which is elegantly appointed in buttery yellow silks, mirrors, and fine chandeliers, has a view and a price tag to suit.  What isn’t widely known is that each summer, which is low season here in Thailand, Le Normandie offers a summer prix fixe menu – this summer only 1100 baht  ($35) for three courses.

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In addition to the beautiful wall treatments and lighting fixtures, both sides of the room have floor-to-ceiling windows offering spectacular views of the city on one side and the Chao Phraya River on the other.  The dining room is decorated with beautiful arrangements of fresh flowers, too.

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Something that you are paying for at Le Normandie is the service, which is every bit as prompt and attentive as you would expect in a fine restaurant in Paris.  The roast is carved tableside, plates are placed at the table simultaneously by the waiters, the proper utensils are discreetly placed on the table between courses, etc.  Living in a city where most of the fine dining restaurants struggle to get the diners’ main courses to the table within ten minutes of each other, having the plates gently placed on the table at the same moment is a thrill!

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Fresh breads of all sorts were brought before and throughout the meal, a variety of brioche, whole grain bread, sourdough, baguette, etc. that were freshly baked that morning and served warm.  The butter was molded with a italicized “N” on top, served in a proper glass dish with silver lid.

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After ordering, the chef sent an amuse bouche to tease our appetite.  Sorry that the focus on the right isn’t sharp.  The shot glass is a tomato jelly with avocado soup and a passion fruit foam.  On the left is a slice of squash mousse with broccoli salad topped with a roll of chicken mousse wrapped in thinly sliced duck breast.  Yummy!

Entrées

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Tawn and I both ordered this beautiful dish: buisson d’asperges vertes, crème aux graines de pavot, œuf de poule prise en gelée, tartare de légumes safranés , which is a “buisson” or pile of green asparagus with poached egg, poppy seed cream, and saffron scented vegetable tartar. 

Translating that further, that base was formed of asparagus spears set upright in an aspic, or gelatin, base.  The poached egg, served cool but with a runny yolk, was inside the “crown” of asparagus and held into place with a little more aspic.  The vegetables around the base were mostly tomatoes and pepper and had a nice saffron aroma.  Once the plate was served, the waiter came over with a sauce dish of warm poppy seed cream and spooned it into the center of the crown. 

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When I cut into it, the cream and egg yolk came running out in what was both an amazing, and an amazingly beautiful, mess.  The dish was really nicely prepared and what was especially pleasing about it was the amount of effort and technique that had gone into it.  It was a good example of the elevation of food to art.

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Ko ordered esquinade d’araignée, courgette et salicoque e la vapeur, émulsion au chorizo, which was a spider sea crab meat with poached prawn and zucchini, served with chorizo sausage sauce.  I didn’t try it but she said it was very nice.  Beautiful plating, too. 

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Bim ordered the vibrant green cuisses de grenouilles en fricassée, raviole Provençale, parmesan et sherry Tio-Pepe – a frog leg fricassee with Provençale ravioli, parmesan and Tio-Pepe sherry sauce.  She really enjoyed this dish.

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Between courses, here are the beautiful and intelligent Bim (left) and Ko (right).  While there were many other friends who couldn’t make it, I can’t imagine anyone who would have been better to enjoy this meal with.

Plat Principal

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The main courses were just as artful and tasty as the entrées.  Bim and Ko both had the filet de Saint-Pierre confit, croustillant de lard Ibérique a l’abricot et jus a la vanille, which was a John Dory fillet with apricot wrapped in Iberico ham and a vanilla-berry essence.

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Tawn had the cabillaud à la Boulangère, vin de Jura, cappuccino des sous-bois et sauce au café , which was cod fish Boulangere style with Jura wine, forest mushroom cappuccino and a coffee sauce.  The fish was beautifully prepared, moist and flaky.  The sauce was interesting as it had just the faintest hint of coffee to it.

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I didn’t stray far from convention, enjoying a flavorful pièce de bœuf rôti, gratin de tomates cerise, échalote en chemise et sauce au poivre, or roasted beef with cherry tomato gratin, shallot and pepper corn sauce.  It was very tasty.

Desserts

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After the main course, the dessert cart was rolled over, featuring a half-dozen types of cakes and four stewed fruit compotes including fig and rhubarb.  We could choose two selections and the waiter prepared each plate, saucing and decorating it differently.  It took about five minutes per plate but the results, as you can see below, were beautiful.

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A cappuccino cake that was calling to me from the dessert cart, although I settled on this one instead:

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My marscapone cheese cake with vanilla sauce and rhubarb compote.

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A raspberry mousse cake and a chocolate cake – Tawn’s selections.

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While tea and coffee were served, two trays of beautiful and tasty macarons were served: chocolate-raspberry, caramel, chocolate-orange, and green tea.

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While we didn’t partake of them, there was a cart loaded with fine after dinner drinks.  I’m not a brandy drinker, but there is something about an after-dinner drink that seems very refined.

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After an enjoyable, nearly three hour dining experience above the banks of the Chao Phraya River.  What an elegant and pleasant way to celebrate a friend’s wedding.  If only her new husband had been there to enjoy it, too!

 

Results of the Staycation

Wow, it has been six days since my last entry.  My longest break from Xanga in a long, long time, and one that was very much enjoyed.  So much of my work is done on the computer that when I combine it with recreational computer use, it seems like I’m plugged in online too much of my time.  The weekend completely unplugged and week mostly away from recreational computer use has reminded me of the importance of establishing some boundaries in terms of how much, and when, I use computers and the internet.

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As for the two-night staycation at the Peninsula Hotel on the west side of the river here in Bangkok, it was fantastic.  The hotel truly is world-class with wonderful service.  It is very easy to spend three days in a cocoon and not really feel like you’re in the heart of the city, although from the balcony of the room, you could see that we were.

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Upon check-in we were upgraded from the “Deluxe” room (funny how the lowest grade of room is usually given a fancy name) to a balcony room, which is two rungs up the ladder.  All the rooms in the hotel face the river, laid out along one side of a W-shaped floor plan.  Our room was very spacious, about 60 square meters or about 600 square feet.  There was a separate walk-in closet/dressing room and then a large bathroom beyond the bedroom, making it feel especially spacious.

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The Chao Phraya River runs past most of the nicest hotels in the city, including the Shangri-La (pictured here), Sheraton, Oriental, Hilton, Peninsula, and Marriott Resort.  For sightseeing, the location of these hotels is a little less convenient.  But if you’re staying at one of these places you can probably afford to hire a car and driver for the day, so convenience isn’t that much of a problem. 

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The hotel has a gorgeous swimming area, spa (the building behind the pool), and workout facility.  The first afternoon we headed down to the pool but a typical afternoon thunderstorm quickly blew in, with winds gusting in advance of the rain, causing umbrellas to overturn and towels and chair pads to go flying into the pool.  The remainder of the weekend had gorgeous weather, though, and we spent much of Saturday afternoon laying in the shade below one of these pavilions, sipping mango smoothies and reading.

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The hotel’s interior design is very beautiful.  Clean lines with an Asian theme but not in an overwhelming “Oriental” way.

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The main lobby, where we stopped for a pre-dinner drink the first night, is very comfortable.

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Even the public hallways, this one leading to the River Cafe and Terrace, are tastefully decorated with live orchids.

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Friday evening we ate outdoors alongside the river.  The full moon was rising just behind the tower at the Shangri-La Hotel.  I’m amazed by how busy the river is even well into the evening.

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Our room rate included a set dinner for two but since their occupancy is fairly low, they were serving a buffet.  It was actually a cleverly done buffet, offering a large range of prepared dishes that could be served at or near room temperature – salads, cold cuts, etc. – with soups, fresh seafood, a wide selection of breads, etc. to round it out.

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The main feature was their grill.  They offered a wide range of meats from seafood to satay to fine cuts of beef, lamb, and pork, grilled to order and served with a variety of sauces.  This is actually a very smart way to do a buffet as there is much less waste.

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My selections included a cut of snowfish grilled in a foil pouch with ginger and other seasonings, a very tender cut of Wagyu beef, and some foie gras.

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There was a large dessert bar in the center of the dining room featuring all sorts of desserts and fresh fruit.  There were three flavors of homemade ice cream including both raspberry and mango sorbets that were amped up with flavor.

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A selection of desserts: a raspberry mousse, a ginger creme brulee, green tea and chocolate-orange macarons, and an interesting twist on sticky rice and mango that included a mango mousse.

Both evenings we retired to the room to watch episodes from season two of True Blood, the southern vampire series based on the novels by Charlaine Harris.  Since we don’t have HBO here in Thailand, we haven’t been able to watch the series in real time.  And since I generally don’t want to support piracy, I’ve waited patiently until the episodes were released on iTunes Store instead of buying them on the street.

 

The breakfast buffet was also included, featuring just about everything you might want for both Asian and Western style breakfasts, including to-order egg dishes.

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The pastries were really nice.  Could I just have eaten one of everything and called it a day?

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The bread was amazing, perhaps the best European style bread I’ve found in Bangkok.  They also served raw honey fresh from the honeycomb, with the comb hanging on the table with the honey dripping down a trough and into a bowl.

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Enjoyinga healthy breakfast!  The service was very attentive and we got into a discussion with one of the restaurant managers about the silver tea service they use, a design that Tawn has had his eye on.  The manager took his name and number and called him a few days after the trip, connecting him with an unofficial resource to buy his own set.  Shhh!  Don’t tell anyone.

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The tropical fruits were the finishing touch, though.  I don’t know where they buy their fruits but the mangos were the tastiest, sweetest mangos I’ve eaten in Thailand and the dragonfruit, which I usually find quite bland, was actually full of flavor. 

By the time we checked out Sunday at noon, we had de-stressed quite a bit, promising ourselves that we would do more weekend getaways in the months to come.  What’s the point of living in a tropical paradise if you don’t get out to enjoy it?

 

Bangkok Staycation

Through some great bit of good fortune, this year both Thailand and the United States have a three-day weekend at the end of May.  This doesn’t happen often as the Thai holiday is a Buddhist one, which moves around based on the lunar calendar.  We’re going to take advantage of our long weekend to get away, but not very far away.  In fact, we’re just going across the river to Bangkok’s Right Bank, Thonburi.

One of the positive side effects of all this political turmoil (which has been going on pretty much since right after I moved here in 2005 – coincidence?) is that tourism has been down.  This means that the local hospitality industry is desperate to attract business, turning to locals with some amazing deals.  Now, this usually happens during the low season, which coincides with the rainy season here and summer elsewhere in the northern hemisphere.  But these deals are turning out to be a regular feature of Thailand life.  Not offered to tourists, though.  Only Thais and foreigners residing here for work or retirement are eligible.

Originally, we were going to drive three or four hours south to Hua Hin or Cha-Am.  But that’s what all the Bangkok residents will be doing this weekend, so prices at those hotels we’re nearly as nice.  We originally wanted to stay somewhere for about 2000 baht a night, about US$60.  But the options we found, while nice, weren’t super nice and would require the expenditure of gas money and time.

When I saw a newspaper ad on Wednesday from the Peninsula Hotel, Tawn and I decided to explore the offer.  The Peninsula consistently ranks as one of the top hotels in Asia and we’ve visited it many times when guests have stayed there.  Their standard rooms often go for at least US$300 a night, and usually for much more than that.


Their rate for this promotion?  Only 3000 baht (US$91) a night, inclusive of breakfast for two and a choice of either a set dinner for two or 50 minute massage for two.  The promotion also provides full use of facilities and a 25% discount on other food and beverage.  Drinks at the river bar, anyone?

It seems that if you calculate the cost of fuel and time, driving all the way down to Hua Hin doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Instead, we’re going to hunker down at the Peninsula, not leave for two days, and enjoy the luxury.  I’m also going to leave my computer at home.  No Xanga for 48 hours…

Here’s to hoping we have a fun weekend away. 

 

Life in Bangkok Gets Busy

Life in Bangkok gets busy very quickly.  The handyman actually showed up on Sunday and spent several hours installing pipe through the empty space above our ceiling, connecting the bathroom water supply with the balcony outside our bedroom.  He’s to return this morning and finish the job so (and I think I’ve written this before) with any luck we’ll have the ability to wash our own clothes by dinnertime.

Tawn left yesterday afternoon for an overnight business trip to Singapore.  One of his clients, HP, is holding a press conference announcing some new development in the world of technology, and he is chaperoning some Thai and Malaysian journalists to the event.  He asked if I wanted to go along, but it was such a short trip with no down time for him, so there wasn’t much of a point. 

 

Fortunately, I did have an opportunity to have dinner with Masakazu and his partner, Mitsu.  Mitsu is now pretty much fluent with Thai, Masa is learning, and I’m still a beginner.  An early beginner, at that!  We had dinner at a really nice Laotian/Issan (Northeast Thai) style reastaurant in the Silom area called Cafe du Laos.

The restaurant is in a lovely colonial-style 2-story house that is surrounded by skyscrapers.  Service was attentive and the food was really nice.  We had a version of somtum (green papaya salad) made with pomelo, a grapefruit-like fruit.  Mmm… tasty.  Also a beer-marirnated pork with spicy chili sauce.

Speaking of skyscrapers, there are many condominium developments occurring here in the City of Angels.  In the debate of whether or not to purchase a condo in the near future, I’m inclined to wait a bit because I see a lot more housing stock coming on the market in the next 2-3 years, which I would imagine should either drive down prices or at least hold them steady.  The above picture is for a development that is just two blocks down the street from us called Millennium Sukhumvit.  It will be about 500 feet from the Metro station, so the location is spectacular.

There’s another development happening adjacent to our building, but to the north.  The land has been graded and there are occasional bouts of activity, but true construction has yet to begin.  Maybe they’re waiting for more phone lines to be installed!

Well, only two days to go before Thai language classes start at Union Language School.  Mitsu tells me that he has friends who have gone there and that it is quite reputable, but they actually assign homework and give exams, unlike American University Alumni Association, which he attended and Masa currently attends.