THAI from Bangkok to Taipei

My second trip for the new job, and my first where I am working (as opposed to undergoing I boarding) is to Taipei. I will facilitate three days of workshops for the local team. 

Here is a quick photographic tour of my flight over. 

 
My flight was scheduled for 7:15am, meaning an early departure from home. I made it to a very crowded Thai Airways Royal Orchid lounge where I enjoyed a bit of breakfast. 

  

From my seat I watched the first sliver of orange on the horizon erupt into a rising fireball as a Cathay Pacific Airbus A330 pushed back for the early Hong Kong departure. 

  
By the time I walked to the gate, the concourse was bathed in a warm light. As a morning person, I find this a peaceful and pleasurable time of the day. Even when traveling. 

  
Despite being the hometown airline, THAI still uses remote gates for many departures. This means boarding a bus and driving a few kilometers across the airport. I enjoy it as it afforded me a chance to snap this photo of an Airbus A380 in the distance. 

  
And this Boeing 747-400 parked at the stand next to ours. 

  
To protect passengers from the sunlight – or perhaps to stymie our photo-taking – the boarding stairs are covered in a plexiglass canopy. 

  
Our climb out of the airport was smooth. I had an aisle seat so needed to be creative to get my picture. 

  
The choices of inflight meals were pancakes or fried rice with chicken. I had the rice. It was fine but nothing memorable. 

  
The rest of the 3-hour flight was smooth. I watched “Good Will Hunting” again. Enjoyable movie and glad they show some classics. The seat buckets are a bit uncomfortable. By the end of the flight my tail bone was already aching.  

All in all, the flight was uneventful, the hard product (seat, food, entertainment) was acceptable but not extraordinary, the soft product (customer service) was friendly but not outstanding. 

Cooking Various Thai Street Food

In my continued unemployment (well, at least I’m not formally employed full-time), I am assisting my friend Chow with testing recipes for the updated edition of her guidebook to Thailand’s best street food. This involves going out to try different dishes in their original context – i.e. on the street – and then returning to her kitchen to try and recreate the dishes, taking notes for how cooks in other countries can modify or substitute techniques and ingredients as necessary. It is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

For this group of recipes, we went to a long-established Isaan style street food vendor on Soi Suan Phlu, off Sathorn Road. “Isaan” refers to the northeastern region of Thailand, a dry, poorer portion of the country and also home to a large percentage of the total population. Isaan food is spicy and often uses fermented foods (shrimp paste, fish, chili paste, etc.) to add flavor. While foreigners (and for that matter, many Thais from central Thailand) can find the food a bit too strong, many of the dishes have gained admission to the pantheon of popular Thai cuisine. Chief among these are som tam (green papaya salad), gai yang or moo yang (grilled chicken or pork), and larb (chopped meat and herb salad).

Here is the street vendor’s version of kor muu yang – grilled pork neck. Thai pork is moister and more flavorful than the pork available in the United States, which has been bred to be low-flat and, thus, bland. The neck has plenty of fat and the meat undergoes a quick marinade and then grilling over blazing hot charcoal. Though simple, the flavors are very rewarding to eat.

Another dish we tried is the yam plaa muk – squid salad. “Yam” (which means “mix”) refers to a style of salad that originates in Isaan, although of course it wouldn’t originally be served with fresh squid since that region is a long way from the ocean. Regardless of the main ingredients, the dressing always includes shallots or onions, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar (usually palm), and fresh chilies. That’s the holy quartet of Thai cuisine: sour, salty, sweet, and spicy.

Back at Chow’s kitchen, we tried our hand at yam pla muk. In addition to the fresh squid (it must be fresh or else it will be rubbery), which is cleaned, cut, and boiled very briefly (it must be brief or else it will be rubbery), we added Chinese celery (substitute the leaves and thin ends of regular celery), onion, and tomatoes. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl, along with the sauce ingredients I mentioned in the previous paragraph.

The end result is a refreshing, ceviche-like dish that makes for a perfect summer salad. If you don’t like squid or can’t find any, you could use shrimp or fish, too. You could also use chicken, beef, pork (sliced and cooked), or even pomelo. Lots of options.

We also tried our hand at muu yang, the grilled pork. Lacking a grill, we seared on a cast iron griddle and then finished the pork beneath the broiler. We were focusing more on the marinade rather than the way the meat was cut and discovered that the marinade recipe will be trickier to figure out than we expected! This will require more experimentation. The red sauce is a bottled sweet chili sauce that is available in most Asian food markets. Served also with some sticky (glutinous) rice, another Isaan staple.

While we were at it, we also tried our hand at satay. Satay are skewers of meat (in this case, pork and chicken) that are marinated, brushed with coconut milk, and grilled. They actually come from southern Thailand by way of Indonesia. We didn’t focus on cutting the meat into thin strips and instead went for chunks. We did make the peanut sauce from scratch. A lot of recipes available to foreigners substitute peanut butter instead of ground peanuts. Yes, you can do that… but it really doesn’t taste the same. Served with cucumbers, shallots, and chilies briefly pickled in a rice wine vinegar and sugar brine.

The experience of cooking with Chow is always fun. For all the years I’ve lived in Thailand, I’m woefully ignorant of how my favorite Thai dishes are made. When there is such inexpensive and tasty street food available, there is little incentive to cook these dishes myself. (Especially since some of the ingredients and cooking processes come with a strong smell. Fermented shrimp paste anyone?)

 

Cooking Thai Food

A few weeks ago, my friend Chow, a prolific food writer who publishes at BangkokGlutton.com, invited me to help her write some Thai food recipes to include in the updated version of her handy book, “Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls”. One or two afternoons a week, we have gathered ingredients in her kitchen and tested and modified different recipes to try and make ones that are easily accessible to home cooks anywhere in the world.

While I can’t share the recipes here, I will share some pictures of two of our recent dishes: pad thai and tom yum goong.

Pad thai is a common fried noodle dish that is notable for its distinct, sweet-sour sauce. Thai restaurants in the west sometimes try to make a tomato based sauce or use ketchup as a flavoring, but that isn’t an acceptable substitute for the main ingredient: tamarind. These days, tamarind is increasingly common in many countries, thanks to its use in Latin American and Indian cuisines, cultures that have large diasporas. Not long ago, I was in suburban Seattle and was able to find fresh Mexcian tamarind, using the flesh to make a sweet and sour sauce for steak. 

The pad thai also makes use of (moving left to right from the top row, down) pickled daikon radish, garlic, eggs, shrimp, the tamarind sauce, lime, toasted peanuts, bean sprouts, green onions, firm tofu, dried shrimp, and red chili flakes. Most of these ingredients are readily available. The pickled daikon can be replaced with well-rinsed sauerkraut in a pinch. Not shown are the dried rice noodles that form the base of the dish. These are available at any Asian market and at better-stocked supermarkets with an Asian foods section.

 

The end result is a stir-fry of all the ingredients with an engaging flavor that is tangy and sweet, slightly spicy, and a little bit sour. A perfect balance of flavors. Now, one thing about Thai cuisine that non-Thais don’t always understand: noodle dishes (both soups and stir-fries) are generally a single-plate food. Most Thai food is served family style, with various curries and other dishes in the middle of the table to be shared and eaten along with rice. Noodle dishes, though, are usually ordered for lunch, a snack, or dinner and are consumed by a single person. So when you go to a Thai restaurant and, along with all your other dishes, order some pad thai to share, it is a little strange. I’m not saying you can’t do it – by all means, order whatever you want – but it isn’t the way the dish is eaten by Thais.

The next dish we made was a tom yum soup. This herbal soup is not only rich in flavor but has significant health benefits from all the different herbs. The main ingredients, from top left, are lime, peppercorns, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, chilies, galangal root, cilantro, and mushrooms. We also added prawns, called “goong” in Thai. You could also make it with chicken or tofu.

The soup is made by bruising the herbal ingredients (literally beating them with a cleaver, mallet, or other heavy object) to release the oils. These are then simmered in water or, cheating a little, some broth. The fish sauce is added to make the flavor more complex and many people also add fermented chili paste. The mushrooms are cooked and then prawns are added a minute or two before serving.

The end result is a clear broth with lots of herbal flavor, a delicately cooked prawn, and a bit of spice. An alternative version of this soup, tom kor gai, is made with chicken and is finished with some coconut milk to add richness. Usually served near the start of a Thai meal, the soup is like an appetizer, with the herbs whetting your appetite and preparing you for the complex flavors of the meal to follow.

I will share more photos as we continue to experiment with the recipes.

 

THAI Airways Bangkok to Los Angeles

When I moved to Bangkok more than seven years ago, I flew THAI Airways’ nonstop flight from New York JFK Airport to Bangkok. In the years since, THAI has discontinued both the New York and Los Angeles to Bangkok nonstop flights. In their place is a one-stop flight via Seoul Incheon Airport to Los Angeles. When shopping for tickets for our recent flight to the United States, this Bangkok-Incheon-Los Angeles flight was the cheapest option offered by a Star Alliance carrier. 


Click here to view the HD version on youtube.

I’ve edited a nice video that overviews the flight, the cabin, the amenities, and meals served. If you would rather view the pictures and read the story, those follow here:

The flight departs Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport at 7:10 am, a bit earlier than ideal. Thankfully, we were packed the day before and made it to bed at a reasonable hour. Still, the 3:00 am alarm came much too early!  The queue at the airport was short and the wait was less than fifteen minutes to check in. There were no lines at either the security screening or immigration counters. 

Just past immigration is a large scale sculpture of one of the most famous episodes in Hindu mythology, the samudra manthan or “churning of the milk ocean”. It is an impressive sculpture that illustrates that this mostly Buddhist culture has strong Hindu and Vedic Brahminist roots.

We made our way to one of the many THAI Airways Royal Silk lounges. These lounges offer a nice respite from the stresses of air travel: a quiet ambience, comfortable seating, and a selection of reading materials, food, and beverage.

Since we had departed home so early, I helped myself to a latte, some small pastries, and (something I never eat!) a box of chocolate breakfast cereal. Maybe this is because my mother would never allow us to have so sugary a cereal in the house when I was a child, now I enjoy having a bit every now and then as a special treat.

Our Boeing 777-300 was waiting at the gate as the sun slowly climbed above the hazy horizon. The windows of the terminal were not very clean, making for this poor-quality image. Boarding commenced a few minutes late but the passenger load was only about 60% so boarding did not take long. 

The economy class product is comfortable and modern. The seat maps provided on THAI’s website indicated that certain rows of this plane had 34″ pitch. I brought a small tape measure and samples several rows and found a consistent 32″ pitch. Comfortable enough and an inch more than most US-based carriers, but nothing special. Asiana, Korean, and All-Nippon offer 34″ pitch and EVA offers 33″ pitch as the standard in their long-haul economy class.

The morning breakfast option was pancakes and sausage or (my choice) stir-fried pork with ginger, rice, and pumpkin and egg. The food was tasty enough, although nothing very special.

About four-and-a-half hours later, we arrived at an overcast Incheon and were soon at the gate and off the plane. The same aircraft would take us to Los Angeles but all passengers were required to disembark so the plane could be serviced and a new crew could board.

This is my first time transitting Incheon since they opened the new mid-field concourse. It is a bright, sun-lit place with modern architecture. Within a few minutes, we had cleared the security screening and returned to the departure level.

Despite only having about 80 minutes on the ground, we took the time to stop by the Asiana Airlines lounge. As a holder of the United Club card, I have access to Star Alliance member lounges. This is a nice perk for long-haul travel and this new lounge in Incheon is very nice, with a faux library and a baby grand piano. I wonder what would happen if a guest decided to begin playing it?

The selection of food wasn’t very interesting, but I did help myself to some salad and a glass of draft beer. Truth be told, the beef was very hoppy and as I’m not much of a beer drink, I had only a few sips. On our return trip from Los Angeles, we had a slightly longer layover in Incheon and I took the opportunity to use the individual shower rooms to freshen up. 

Returning to the gate area in preparation for boarding, I admired the nice combination of steel, wood, and glass. Despite being very modern, the terminal does not feel cold and impersonal, probably because of the wood floors and many plants.

One sore point about flying through Incheon is that there is a pre-boarding security inspection. All liquids must be disposed of, including any bottled water purchased in the terminal. The claim is that this is for US TSA security reasons, but that makes no sense because at Taipei and Tokyo, passengers can bring liquids from inside the terminal aboard US-bound planes. I hope this restriction is lifted soon because not bringing your own water aboard is an inconvenience that does nothing to improve security.

The flight out of Incheon was only about 50% full, leaving lots of space including an empty seat between Tawn and me. There was only one person in the row ahead of us and she sat in the middle seat, so her recline did not affect our leg room. Once airborne for our 10.5-hour flight to Los Angeles, service began with cocktails. Unlike some airlines that have miniature liquor bottles, THAI carries full-size bottles and mixes drinks to order. 

Drinks are served with a retro stir stick featuring THAI’s original 1960s logo. I managed to collect several of these between our four flight segments, figuring they will make a nice collection in the future.

Menus were distributed out of Incheon. Interestingly, the menus include information for both the Bangkok-Incheon and Incheon-Los Angeles segments. I am not sure why menus were not handed out as we departed Bangkok. You could argue that there is really no point of menus but I think it is a nice touch that makes the service appear more sophisticated. Certainly, it is nicer to think of your meal as having four courses rather than just being a single tray of food, even if all four courses are in fact delivered on a single tray!

I opted for the Korean style beef bulgogi, which wasn’t as interesting as I was hoping. It was tasty, though. Note that each tray comes with a package of kimchi! The dessert was a raspberry chocolate cream cake and the appetizer was smoked salmon.

The other selection, which Tawn chose, was a pork green curry served with Thai jasmine rice. Curry is an excellent choice for airplane food because at high, dry altitudes, your sense of taste is diminished. Curry has plenty of flavor and remains enjoyable. Notice, too, that the utensils are metal, even the knives. We can’t bring water aboard but are given an admittedly dull metal knife.

Slightly less than halfway through the flight, we crossed the international date line and jumped back to the start of our day. I dozed only a bit on this flight, instead watching several movies and television programs on the on-demand video service. Gone are the days of sheer boredom on a plane. There are plenty of ways to distract yourself as the hours go by.

Mid-flight, snacks were available in the form of instant noodles and sandwiches. About two hours before landing, a second full meal service was provided. I opted for the boiled glass noodles (made from mung beans) with sauteed beef tenderloin. Actually, I didn’t find any beef in my serving! 

The other option, which Tawn chose, was sauteed yakisoba with chicken teriyaki. Neither of these dishes were that interesting and while quality was fine, the meals weren’t as interesting on these flights as they have been on other recent THAI flights.

It was a beautiful day as we descended into Southern California. Because the passenger load was so light, I moved to a window seat to take in the view when we landed. Rain storms had passed through recently, so the sky was clear and visibility was better than normal.

After landing on runway 24-right on the north side of LAX airport, we taxied the long way around to our gate. This took us past the United Airlines hangar where one of their Boeing 787 aircraft sits, stranded by the FAA’s grounding of these new composite jets in late January. Hopefully, the fleet will be released to fly again soon.

Pulling into our gate at the Tom Bradley International Terminal, we had neighbors from China and Japan. Had the price been right, I would have liked to fly All-Nippon on this trip.

All in all, the THAI flight was a pretty good experience. From departure in Bangkok to arrival in Los Angeles was less than 17 hours, one of the shortest routes between the two cities. Service was good and the flight was reasonably comfortable, given that we were traveling in economy class.

 

Flying the THAI Airbus A380 for the First Time

As good fortune and careful scheduling would have it, the return leg of my Hong Kong trip was aboard THAI Airways’ new Airbus A380. The A380, affectionately known as the Whale Jet because of its profile, is the world’s largest passenger jet, eclipsing the venerable Boeing 747’s floor space by almost half. 

The first A380 went into service in October 2007 with Singapore Airlines after lengthy production delays. These delays produced a roll-over effect and THAI Airways, the ninth operator of the type, just received its first aircraft this past September. (Only 92 aircraft delivered in five years…) Initially, THAI used the airplane for Singapore and Hong Kong flights before adding Frankfurt and Tokyo.

Unlike the Boeing 747, which has only a upper deck for only part of the length of the aircraft, the Airbus A380 has a full upper deck. This means that airport receiving regular A380 service need to have passenger jet bridges that can reach doors on both the upper and lower deck. In Hong Kong, one jet bridge is used for each level, although in many airports there are two lower level jet bridges and one upper level.

Most airlines reserve the upper deck for First and/or Business Class passengers. In THAI’s configuration, there is a small economy class cabin on the upper deck, the final eight rows of the plane. When you book your flight online and choose your seat assignment, the small upper deck cabin is not visible. Knowing that those seats existed, I had to visit a THAI ticket office and request an upstairs seat. Above, a view of this economy class cabin, which has a pair of exits in the middle of it, making for some generous leg room.

I was able to secure the last available window seat, the one you see on the left-hand side of the picture with the bin open next to it. One of the nice things about the upper deck is that there are small storage bins underneath the windows to supplement the overhead bins. This makes it easy to store small bags out of the way, freeing up your leg room while keeping items close at hand.

A look forward past the economy class cabin into the large business class cabin. Two interesting things I observed: there is a small security camera in each of the bulkheads, allowing crew members to see what is happening in each cabin, even if the curtains are closed. Also the overhead bins above the center seats have a different shape in business class than they do in economy. Usually, a single design is used in most aircraft.

Another nice feature of the A380 is the tail-mounted camera. You can watch the view on your seat back monitor. Unfortunately, there appeared to be some dirt (bird poop?) on the lens, making the view a bit less enjoyable. I have been on other airplanes that have cameras located under the fuselage looking forward or down, but this tail camera seems to be a consistent feature of the A380.

Taxiing to the runway, you can see a Russian made cargo jet and on the mountain behind, the tower from the Nong Ping 360 gondola. Here’s the view from the gondola at just about that tower, as I wrote about in this entry.

The view of the New Territories about a minute after takeoff. I lived in Hong Kong in 1998-99, not long after the new airport opened. In those days, there was significantly less development in this part of Hong Kong. Nowadays, there are clusters of high rise buildings everywhere as the city continues to grow, mostly vertically.

Inflight dining: chicken and greens served over egg noodles. There was also a salad of chicken and mixed vegetables and a panna cotta with berry coulis for dessert. The food was decent. 

As a comparison, here is the food we were served out of Bangkok, a Penang curry with chicken and bitter melon. It was very tasty, actually so much so that if they served it from a restaurant, I would seek it out. Also interesting that the service out of Bangkok had sturdier dishes for the main course as opposed to the aluminum ones out of Hong Kong. The salad was a so-so shrimp salad and the dessert was a mediocre chocolate mousse.

If you would like to see highlights of the entire trip, include a tour through the business class and first class cabins upon landing, please view the six-minute video above. Coincidentally, on my way out the business class cabin, I was recognized by one of the flight attendants, a friend of one of Tawn’s friends.

Another video covering my flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong aboard a Boeing B777-200, is located here.  

In this final shot from the gate in Bangkok, you can see that there are three passenger jet bridges attached to the plane, two on the lower level and one on the upper level. They have to be very careful as the bridge are close to each other.

Here is a view of the two forward bridges taken from the window on the upper deck bridge. I hope you enjoyed the trip!

 

TG Business Class to Chiang Mai

For our trip to Chiang Mai for the wedding, the grooms thanked us for Tawn’s help with the maids of honor’s dresses by flying us on THAI Airways business class. Of course, a 55-minute flight hardly needs business class, but it was a nice treat!

Our plane, an ancient Airbus A300-600. Despite its age, the plane was clean and in good condition. Before departure, we were able to relax at the Royal Orchid Lounge in the domestic terminal. They offer comfortable seats and a range of snacks and beverages.

The interior of the plane, which is used mostly for domestic routes and near-regional routes, is a bit of a throwback to a bygone era of decoration. The seats are equivalent of domestic (US) first class, comfortable but without a lot of extra leg room. Of course, it is perfectly comfortable for such a short flight.

Tawn settles in for his flight, complete with a pink pillow, hot towel service, and a selection of pre-departure beverages. Pretty impressive for such a short flight!

Despite the flight’s brevity, they actually serve a snack service, complete with crisp white linens, real silverware, and porcelain dishes. On the flight north, there was a poached chicken breast with a green apple salad.

The dessert was a sweet sticky rice covered with coconut cream, fruit, and black beans. In addition to a variety of herbal drinks, coffee and tea service were provided. The pacing of the service was relaxed and we didn’t feel rushed at all.

On the southbound flight, we were served cold chicken larb patties – chopped chicken with Thai spices, and fresh vegetables. The dessert was a coconut pudding with fresh fruits. Very tasty.

Our plane parked at the gate in Chiang Mai. Service both ways was very attentive and friendly. If I ever have the means, I’ll make business class my regular choice when flying!

The Ville of Urban Eatery

A few weeks ago, I shared some pictures of signs I had seen in Shanghai that were good examples of odd translations into English. While the signs in Thailand are generally more accurately translated, I did just recently run into one that made me pause.

An office building across from Central Chidlom department store is being renovated and rebranded as The Mercury Ville @ Chidlom. The tag line: “The Ville of Urban Eatery. The Venue of Urban Dining Flagship in Town.” I have no idea what that means.