Two Beautiful Shots of Bangkok

Turning away from the politics, the Xanga fundraiser, and all that serious stuff, I just wanted to share with you two pictures of Bangkok taken the past few days. This isn’t a particularly pretty city, but these two pictures do manage to capture the city’s nicer side.

Taken by visiting Singaporean friend David Chein (follow him on Instagram at davidchein), this is a view of Lumphini Park taken from the Dusit Thani Hotel. On the left side you see the Silom Skytrain line running past the headquarters of the Thai Red Cross. In the distance are the upscale hotels and offices in the Ratchadamri neighborhood. In the foreground is the statue of King Rama VI, which sits at the corner of Rama IV and Ratchadamri Roads. We have had strong winds the past few days so very little haze.

Late yesterday afternoon, I took this picture of Terminal 21, a mall, office tower, and service apartment complex located at the corner of Asoke and Sukhumvit Roads. With the setting sun behind it, the building took on a glow that looks just like a computer illustration. It was a real photo, though!

Pictures like this remind me that while Bangkok can be a bit scruffy sometimes, there is still beauty to be found.

 

Rainy Season in Bangkok

About six months of the year. That’s how long our rainy season lasts here in Thailand. Starting in May and concluding in October, nearly every day sees some precipitation. 

A typical Bangkok afternoon this time of year looks like this. Big, ferocious clouds darken the skies. They move quickly, forming close to the ground like wisps of steam in reverse. The wind begins to pick up, a sure sign that rain is imminent. In fact, with the picture above, while I had a good view at least a kilometer down the tracks, within ten seconds (literally) of taking this picture, the rain had started and within thirty seconds, the view had diminished to what you see in the following picture.

The rain came down with such force that visibility was reduced to just a few hundred meters. Anything beyond that was lost in the grey mists. Thankfully, I was at the Skytrain station and could sought shelter. 

The intensity of our storms is often matched by a surprising brevity. I boarded the train within two minutes of the storm starting. It took eight minutes to travel west four stations (less than six kilometers). I exited at Phloen Chit finding the rain finished, very wet pavement and large puddles the only signs of its visit. That is the nature of our rainy season – one corner of town will receive a downpour and another corner is enjoying sunshine.

 

In terms of volume, there are peaks at either end of the season. So far this year, we have had pretty normal rainfall. Look out for September, though! While this amount of rain would probably drive lots of people (except those from Seattle) crazy, I actually like the rainy season. Yes, there are the flooded streets and the torrential rains for which an umbrella does absolutely no good. But the cloudy skies offer a respite from the otherwise cruel sun and the breeze usually picks up, helping lower the ambient temperature.

 

Châteaux Faugères Wine Lunch at Quince

This week, Tawn and I were invited to join a small wine-tasting lunch at local restaurant Quince, featuring wines made and distributed by Châteaux Faugères. The four-course menu was tasty, complemented by an overwhelming number (eight or nine – I lost count) of enjoyable wines.

Châteaux Faugères is located near Saint-Émilion in the Bordeaux region of France. I do not know a great deal about French wines and enjoyed the opportunity to listen to the owners talk about the differences between the different varieties. They seem very passionate about their wines and I look forward to searching some of them out in local wine markets.

 

The meal began with a crab cake served with a beet puree and fried squid. It went very well with a number of whites wines, including a very crisp Bordeaux Blanc. 

By the second course, we were into red wines. The dish was a poached egg served with a Parmesan foam, slice of duck breast, and soybeans. Very tasty dish.

There was a bit of a pause between the second and third courses. By this point, we had more wine glasses going that I could keep track of. The conversation was fascinating as we had the opportunity to network with food and travel writers as well as other interesting people, some of whom we had met before, others of whom were new acquaintances.

The third course was a nicely cooked piece of steak and a slice of potato galette. Very simple but executed well and attractively plated.

Final course, dessert, was a passion fruit panna cotta, served in two halves of the fruit with passion fruit gelato, whipped cream, and candied corn flakes. Very nice conclusion to the meal.

This was our first visit back to Quince since original chef Jess Barnes left. (He is at the newly opened Opposite Mess Hall which we tried last weekend and I will soon write about.) Being a big fan of Jess’ cooking, I was curious how the quality at Quince has held up. From the looks of it, the new chef, Wilfrid Hocquet, seems to be putting his own take on the menu while not departing too far from the style of cooking that Quince has become known for.

 

Food in Bangkok: Elvis Suki

Elvis has left the building and is now selling Thai sukiyaki on a street-side restaurant not far from the Hualamphong Railway Station. Recently, my foodie friend Chow (author of the Bangkok Glutton blog and the helpful street food guide, Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls) invited me to join her family for dinner at Elvis Suki. One does not decline a street food invitation from Chow and, once again, her choice was excellent.

Sukiyaki is a Japanese style hot pot dish. The Thai version bears only a faint resemblance to the original Japanese version. While there is still a hot pot component available at some restaurants, at other restaurants like Elvis Suki, “suki” refers to a bowl of vegetables and meat, with or without mung bean vermicelli, and with or without broth. The one thing it always has is a super-fiery dipping sauce made of chili paste, chilies, lime juice, and cilantro. The above example is a seafood suki with broth.

For a little more clarity into what’s inside the bowl, here’s a “dry” version (no broth) of a pork suki. Lots of green veggies and, despite being pork, a piece of squid made it into the bowl. The suki is satisfying, inexpensive, and easy to eat. The dipping sauce is seriously spicy. Be warned.

Elvis Suki is also known for their grilled seafood. Here is a plate full of cockles served with the dipping sauce. The seafood is very fresh, although I’m not a big fan of the flavor of cockles.

 

A very un-Thai specialty are these scallops grilled with a piece of fatty pork, slathered in butter and loads of garlic. You wouldn’t think scallops and pork would go together, but they actually make a nice pairing. And with all that butter, who could complain?

One other specialty is this hard-to-see whole fish served wrapped in banana leaf and covered with pandan and kaffir lime leaves. The brownish mixture is actually a fine mixture of chopped herbs including lemongrass and galangal root (related to ginger). Needless to say, the fish has this incredible aroma after having been grilled with these herbs.

Elvis Suki is worth a visit if you enjoy experiencing true local cuisine. There is also a good homemade ice cream shop right next door so you are covered for dessert, too. Usually it is hard to explain where you can find these types of restaurants but Elvis Suki’s owners make it easy: the GPS coordinates are on the menu!

 

Sunset on Rattanakosin Island

The core of Bangkok is the old city, the section of Phra Nakhon district known as Rattanakosin Island. It was here, in 1782, that King Rama I established Krung Thep Maha Nakhon – what we foreigners call Bangkok.  In addition to being the home of the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, and many government buildings, there are many vibrant communities on Rattanakosin Island and plenty of great food. The other evening, I took a canal boat into the old city as a brilliant sunset bathed the City of Angels (for that is what the Thai name for Bangkok means) in gold.

This is a fascinating little neighborhood nestled just next to Fort Mahakan (see the map below) looking east towards Wat Sakhet, also known as Golden Mount. Fort Mahakan is one of only two forts that remain from the original 14 that defended the old city. Wat Sakhet itself predates Bangkok by many years, but the man-made hill was built during the reign of King Rama III. It was originally meant to be a giant chedi, or stupa, but the ground could not support the structure and it collapsed mid-construction. Over many years, it was covered with brush and locals came to refer to it as “Phu Khao” or Golden Mount. Under King Rama V (late 1800s), a small chedi was built on top of the hill and is said to contain relics of the Buddha, brought from India.

Looking the opposite direction from nearly the same spot as the first picture, you see a plaza with a statue of King Rama III. Wat Ratchanadda is in the background. This plaza used to be filled with a grand old cinema – the Chalerm Thai (pics here) – that was torn down in 1989 to create more inviting views along Ratchadamnoen Avenue. While I generally hate the idea of destroying old single-screen movie palaces, the view at this important corner was definitely improved with its removal.

A few blocks away, we stopped for an early dinner on a small soi just off Thanon Tanao, is the center of the map below, right north of the intersection of Thanon Bamrung Mueang. This cute little neighborhood, called Phraeng Phuton, features one of the first automobile repair shops in Thailand (still in business and has a collection of classic Aston-Martins and Mercedes parked inside) and it was also Bangkok’s first driver’s license bureau. 

This is one of the corners of the city, just a few blocks away from the noisy (and very foreign) Khao San Road backpacker neighborhood, that deserves more attention from visitors to Thailand. In many ways, it is a time capsule, very easy to slip back and see what life was like in Bangkok many decades ago.

The Wikipedia map, in case you want to reference the locations of the above pictures. Original and larger versions here.

Let Them Eat Cake

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Not only is “Let them eat cake” the phrase commonly misattributed to Marie Antoinette, it is also the name of a cute patisserie and dessert bar on Sukhumvit Soi 20 in Bangkok.

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Dessert shops are plentiful in the City of Angels but most western style desserts are rarely worth the calories they contain. Let Them Eat Cake proves to be a delicious exception.

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Located in one of the “community lifestyle malls” – smaller, open air shopping centers that have sprung up across Bangkok like mushrooms after the rain – Let Them Eat Cake is charmingly decorated but a little small. Waits can get long at key times so come early or be prepared to wait.

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I am sorry to say that I don’t remember the names of each of the desserts we tried. I do know that this is a chocolate St. Honoré, an elegant combination of puff pastry, creme filling, and caramel.

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A tart of some sort with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Don’t know if I ever tried this or just took a picture!

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A tarte au citron – lemon tarte. Was tasty but I found the crust a bit tough.

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I don’t remember what this pink, rose-shaped dessert was. A gelatine and with something inside, I think.

All in all, Let Them Eat Cake offered better, more authentic French style pastries than a lot of shops here in Bangkok. I look forward to my next visit and I promise to take more careful notes – and to sample a wider variety of desserts!

 

Katsu at J Curry

There is a small Japanese curry stand located on the basement level of the UBC II Building at the mouth of Soi Sukhumvit 33. Outdoors, directly across from the entrance to the Londoner Pub, the J Curry shop is impossible to see when you pass by on the street level. Nonetheless, its excellent homemade curry is worth seeking out.

Made from ground spices, apples, and other fresh ingredients, the curry is tangy and sweet and loaded with antioxidants and vitamins. Combined with your favorite vegetables, some protein (I love their breaded lean pork cutlet, or katsu), a scoop of Japanese rice, and a small portion of pickles, the curry makes for a healthy and satisfying lunch. How they manage to stay in business with such lack of visibility is a mystery, but I’m glad they do!

Afternoon Trip to the Temples

We have had a steady stream of visitors over the last few weeks, with more to come before year’s end. I took an afternoon to accompany one of our guests to the old part of the city, Rattanakosin Island. When I have guests, I try to show them more than just the typical tourist’s view of the city, even when going to see the popular tourist sights.

To be a good host, you have to know just how much excitement your guests can handle. In this case, I figured Jordan could handle a ride down the city streets on the back of a motorcycle taxi. Maybe I should have set expectations ahead of time, as I think he was a bit shocked when we first set off.

After a ride on the Khlong Saen Saeb canal boat and a connection to a tuk-tuk, we arrived at the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha. This is the must-see tourist site, the most important temple in Thailand and one of the most spectacular examples of the overwhelming decoration of Thai religious architecture. But it is tourist high season and the complex was flooded with tour groups.

I tried to work around the outside of the complex, looking for angles and vantage points that were free of tourists and that allowed for greater appreciation of the ornate beauty of the temple. This shot, taken on the side of the main hall which houses the Emerald Buddha, shows a worker applying a new coat of paint to the base of the building. The paint was a brilliant shade of red and the man worked with slow, methodical strokes of his brush. His activity seemed almost meditative.

A short walk away is Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. This is another popular tourist spot, but most tourists just walk into the main hall with its huge image of the reclining Buddha, and then leave. The temple complex, which predates the founding of Bangkok, is much larger than one might think and is worth exploring.

In the back section of the temple is a large Buddha image hall that I find more impressive than the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. As we were sitting there, admiring the detail, an older monk arrived. He prayed in silence for several minutes and then after the grandfather clock struck 5:00, he flipped a switch, illuminating the statues. Other monks had trickled in and they began their evening prayers, beautiful chants in the Pali language that echoed off the mural-covered walls.

As the sun set into the muddy horizon, we wandered around the rest of the nearly-deserted temple complex. A white cat napped beneath the legs of an old statue of a Chinese lion. A few tourists wandered by, looking for the massage school located on the temple grounds. It was a very different experience than the one you get in the usual rush to see the sights. Hopefully, it was memorable.

Bangkok by Train, Boat, Bus, and Tuk-Tuk

A few weeks ago, I was visited by a quartet of friends, several of whom are transportation geeks… er, enthusiasts. Reprising a transportation-themed tour I led two years ago, I took my guests on a six-hour excursion around the metropolis. This time, the number of modes of transportation increased from seven to ten: Thong Lor red bus, Khlong Saen Saeb canal boat, taxi, third-class heavy rail, non-air conditioned city bus, Chao Phraya express boat, ferry, tuk-tuk, Bus Rapid Transit, and Skytrain.

I hope you enjoyed the journey!

 

Eat Responsibly Day at Bo.Lan

Each first Saturday of the month, the upscale, down-home Thai restaurant Bo.lan hosts a farmers’ market they dub “Eat Responsibly Day.” Located on Sukhumvit Soi 26 in Bangkok, chefs Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava and Dylan Jones’ commitment to slow, local, organic, and sustainable food shines at this market, which is held on the front yard of the restaurant.

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Tawn and I visited in early April. We arrived shortly before 11:00 on a hot morning that threatened rain, midway through the market’s run, which begins at 8:00 and runs until 2:30. At least a dozen local vendors were present, selling everything from produce to prepared foods. Here is a selection of what was offered:

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From Samut Songkhram province, one vendor had fluer de sel (sea salt – left) and palm sugar (right). These are two staple products made in the smallest of Thailand’s 77 provinces and I had to chuckle a bit as the palm sugar comes from the sub-district where I used to volunteer as an English teacher. Every time I went down there, it was all I could do not to return home carrying several kilos of the palm sugar. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I could have repackaged it with a nice label and sold it as an artisinal product!

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Another vendor was selling freshly-baked bread and jars of homemade roasted tomato relish. This relish was amazing, full of whole garlic cloves and cooked at a low temperature for several hours until the flavors combined beautifully. The lady who makes it brought the recipe back from Europe and has been making it for friends, who would wash and return their empty jars, asking her to fill them up the next time she made a batch. April was her first time at the market, and I certainly hope she returns.

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Maarten Kaspersma runs a busines selling microgreens, evenrything from mustard greens to carrot, kale to mizuna. The business name is Mr. Maarten’s Microgreens and you can find them on facebook.

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We bought a pair of trays. I recall that one was mustard but I don’t remember what the other was. They certainly make for an interesting way to spice up the flavor of salads or sandwiches. I could also use a pair of tweezers and artfully decorate a plate with them and charge an extra few dollars. (If I was charging for my food!)

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Joe Sloane of Sloane’s Sausages made an appearance with his grill. Joe has gained fame around Bangkok as a purveyor of fine pork products. He doesn’t yet have a retail outlet so he informs his customers whenever he has purchased a hog or two (always organic breeds that come from up-country) and has more products for sale. In the near future, he hopes to open a proper storefront so he has more processing space.

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Cumberland sausages and fresh chorizo. These were so nice, I see no further need for me to experiment with sausage making at home!

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Homemade sauces and onion relish with which to tart up your sausages.

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Fresh baguette from Le Blanc on Sukhumvit Soi 39 with a heap of onion relish, fire-roasted tomato ketchup, and a chorizo sausage. Heaven on a Saturday morning.

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Accompanying Joe Sloane’s sausages was galangal porter, brewed at home by our friend Brian’s Happy Cat label. Hopefully, he will one day turn this into a proper business and make his fine hand crafted brews available for retain sale.

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We stopped by the table hosted by Pattaya’s own Lulu and Daisy Goat Cheese company and bought two rounds of medium-aged goat cheese. Nice and tangy, we’ve been shredding this on salads for a wonderful, rich flavor and aroma.

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Organic, free range eggs. Not sure if I understood correctly that these came from hens that live on the restaurant’s property. Perhaps I’m mistaken. They were tasty, though.

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The restaurant does have its own mushroom hut and so we purchased mushrooms freshly harvested on-site. While it has been more than two years since I wrote a review on Bo.lan, at which time I found the food very tasty but the prices just a little dear, I have to commend the chefs’ commitment to local and sustainable foods. Quite an emphasis on quality!

Breakfast

When we returned home, Tawn whipped up an omelet using the eggs, mushrooms, goal cheese, microgreens, and tomato relish that we had purchased at the farmers’ market. Another Eat Responsibly Day will be held on Saturday, 5 May and will continue on the first Saturday of each month at Bo.lan restaurant, Sukhumvit Soi 26. I already have my calendar marked!