Little Bao opens in Bangkok

There are a handful of restaurants in this world that I love and always look forward to visiting again. Little Bao, a hole in the wall Chinese burger bar in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels, is one name on that short list. The good news is, I no longer need to travel to Hong Kong to enjoy the inventive, well-executed food: Little Bao BKK just opened!

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Tucked in the back of the 72 Courtyard community mall on Thong Lor, Little Bao BKK is nearly as hidden as its HK sibling. But once you spot the giant neon bao boy, you know you’ve found it! We visited on the second day of business and the chef, May Chow, saw us from the doorway.

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The space is several times larger than the original location and is designed with a contemporary feel that is influenced by classic Hong Kong diners of the 1950s and 1960s. They still do not take reservations, but with the larger space I suspect a seat will be easier to get than in Hong Kong.

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The menu is largely the same as the original location with just a few extra dishes. The execution meets the same high standards as the original with only a few minor exceptions, all of which are understandable given the newness of the team. Above, yellowtail with black bean ponzu and okra. Tasty combination of textures and flavors.

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The pulled short-rib pan fried dumplings with coleslaw is a favorite from the original menu. The meat is very tender and the dumpling has a crispy side, again offering a contrast of textures that is fun to eat.

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We ordered two of the classic bao, the steamed Taiwanese style buns that are sliced in half and then filled hamburger-style. In the foreground is the pork belly with shiso leek, sesame dressing and hoisin ketchup. In the bak, the Sichuan chicken with black vinegar glaze, Sichuan mayo and coleslaw. Both met expectations, although I found the chicken sauced a little more heavily than in HK, causing a bit of bun failure.

Interestingly, the HK branch makes a bit deal about having a “no bao cutting” policy, but in the new location, knives were provided. I do agree, though, that cutting the bao smashes the bun and destroys the product’s integrity.

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One special item is the “under the bridge” crab fried rice with chili garlic, black bean and shiso. The texture of the fried garlic is a pleasing contrast but it was a bit overpowering after a few bits. Also, you’ll notice that the “shiso” isn’t shiso at all, but green onion tips. We inquired about this and after a few minutes, the wait staff explained that the kitchen was out of shiso. Which is a shame, because the citrus flavor of shiso would have helped tame some of the heat of the garlic.

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For dessert, we ordered my all-time favorites: the fried ice cream bao. The bao buns are deep-friend, allowed to cool slightly, and then filled with ice cream: green tea with condensed milk in the foreground and salt ice cream with caramel in the background. This was almost as good as in HK but I found the buns a bit oily and the green tea ice cream tastes chalkier than I remember it in HK.

Overall, the restaurant is off to a good start. We noticed a few disconnects where supporting items on the menu did not match the ingredients that arrived on the plate. The staff was less engaging than in HIK and also less proactive. Again, we visited on their second day of business so these are things that we can expect to be resolved soon.

Meanwhile, I recommend this to everyone in Bangkok and any friends who are visiting. If you haven’t caught Little Bao in HK, here’s your chance!

Little Bao BKK
72 Courtyard
Thong Lor
Open daily from 6:00 pm
Reservations not accepted

 

Skyline View of Bangkok

A week ago, a couple we know was in town from Chicago. They had a twenty-four hour layover on a cruise making its way from Singapore to Hong Kong. We met them for drinks at the rooftop bar on the Marriott Sukhumvit Hotel.

The hotel opened less than a year ago and is only a few blocks from our house. I had never been there but was amazed at how spectacular the views are – the roof affords a full 360-degree view of the city.

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This first view is looking to the east and southeast along Sukhumvit Road. You can see the BTS Skytrain running along the road and Ekkamai station is just blocked by the red condo building, located between the Gateway Mall (also red) and the temple complex. That makes for an interesting contrast, no?

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This photo picks up from where the previous one leaves off, looking from the southeast to the west. You can see that we are actually not very far from the Chao Phraya River and the port area – if you look really closely, you can see their cruise ship docked. You will notice that the main part of the city is to the west, where the concentration of high rises is much denser.

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This picture continues from the far end of the bar in the previous picture. It looks from the west to the north and covers the entire Thong Lor neighborhood where I live. The BTS Skytrain station is on the left and you can see the line running into town along Sukhumvit Road. This neighborhood is more residential with lots of condominium towers, restaurants, and shops.

One thing that really amazes me about Bangkok, compared with many cities, is that there are high rise buildings all over the place with no real defined “centers” for the city. On one level, I think it makes the skyline a bit bland as there is no focal point. But at the same time, maybe being so spread out saves us from all having to commute to just one area. Who knows?

 

New Pedestrian Bridges at Asoke and Thong Lo

For a city of about 8 million people with generally poor mass transit systems, Krungthep (Bangkok) can sometimes surprise you with the usefulness of some of its infrastructure development.  A good example of this are the pedestrian bridges built to connect some of the BTS Skytrain (elevated rail) stations to surrounding buildings.  In a city with lots of traffic congestion, poor air quality, and even poorer footpath quality, an elevated way to get from the station to the buildings is a big incentive to get out of the car and into the mass transit.

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The junction of Asoke and Sukhumvit roads is an example of this bridge building trend.  One of the busiest intersections in the city, crossing at street level has long been a hazardous activity for pedestrians.  Located at the intersection of the MRTA subway and the BTS Skytrain, this junction houses three high-rise offices each with a few floors of retail, two large hotels, and a nine-story mall that is under construction.

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The pedestrian bridge built under the Skytrain viaduct, heading east from the Asoke station.

In the past two years, pedestrian bridges were built to the west of the BTS Skytrain station, connecting the two hotels and one of the three office buildings.  Then a large bridge was built to the east under the Skytrain tracks on Sukhumvit, crossing Asoke in a single cantilevered structure.  On the east side of the junction the pedestrian bridge connected to the building in the southeast corner, but not to the newer building on the northeast corner.

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The northeast corner of the Asoke-Sukhumvit junction. 

Before the pedestrian  bridge opened across Asoke, you had to descend from the Skytrain station to the subway station, cross under Asoke road in the subway station, and then reemerge at the base of this building.  The subway entrance is in the lower left of the photo, near the large umbrellas.  The new pedestrian bridge is on the right that connects directly to the building is on the right.  What follows are some pictures of the connection under construction over the past two months:

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Taken about six weeks ago, you can see in this picture how the new extension of the bridge will connect from the existing pedestrian bridge (shown in the very first picture in this entry) to the third floor of the building.  At this point, just a part of the metal framework has been put into place.

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A few days later, crossbeams have been added and some of the concrete flooring is in place.  You can also see how a stairwell to the street level – a requirement for all the bridges that connect to buildings to allow after-hours access to the pedestrian bridge – fits into the design.

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A few days after that, the columns for the roof structure are mostly in place.  The following week, the roof itself has been added and most of the side panels are installed.

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Finally, about two weeks ago the bridge is finished and is nearly open.  Lighting is working, as you can see.  This will be much more convenient to access the building and its businesses.  Certainly much easier than having to pass through the subway station to get there!  Plus, you can now descend to the street and access businesses along this side of the street more easily.

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A second example of new pedestrian bridges is going up on the west side of the Thong Lo Skytrain station.  This is my neighborhood station and it lies just to the east of the junction of Thong Lo and Sukhumvit Roads, two stops to the east of the Asoke station.

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Looking west from the foot of the Thong Lo Station

The main driver behind this bridge is the Noble Remix condo (the purple building) which will have two floors of retail below about 35 stories of residences.  While the retail floors will get traffic from the residents, there’s no hope of anyone else traipsing over there unless it is convenient, and that means a pedestrian bridge. 

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Looking west from the station’s westbound platform.

Looking from the station platform to the west, you can see the condo on the left and the entrance to my alley on the right, just under the tracks before the first column.  The rationale for needing a pedestrian bridge is that someone walking along the sidewalk has to go along the petrol station and then cross a small but busy alley between the petrol station and the condo.  By building the bridge, it is safer and more convenient for pedestrians. 

At the same time, some stairs will be built on the north (righthand) side of the road in front of the international school – the building that is wrapped in blue construction tarp.  This should be safer for students and their parents to access the Skytrain station.

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Looking back from in front of the international school towards the BTS Skytrain station, you can see the condo to the right and the first columns of the pedestrian bridge.  This is about two months ago.

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As of four weeks ago, box frames were built around the train viaduct’s columns.

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A few weeks later, the bridgework was added to connect each of the support columns.  For the past two weeks, no further work has been done including the connection to the station itself.  I’m curious to see how quickly they will finish this project.  It seems like it should not be difficult but each step has moved quite slowly.  In the end, it won’t benefit me very much but it is another sign of progress in making the Skytrain more accessible to the area surrounding the station and and more user-friendly to potential passengers.

 

Food in BKK – 4 Garçons

Krungthep is awash in restaurants started by youngish members of high society who have a fair amount of cash, lots of ego, and little to no experience running restaurants.  Heck, many of them wouldn’t even qualify as foodies.  So a few weekends ago I was a bit apprehensive when trying out a new French restaurant in the Thong Lor neighborhood called 4 Garçons.

Located on Soi Thong Lor 13 in the warren of small alleys that lead to Samitivej Hospital, 4 Garçons occupies a generous space on the ground floor of the recently-opened Oakwood service apartments.  The four young men referred to in the restaurant’s name are four yuppie friends (guppies, too?) who decided their interests in food and wine should be expressed through the opening of a restaurant.

It turns out that one of the partners, the one who seems to be managing the front of the house, is the friend of a friend of our dining companions for the night, Ben and Jason.  And the partner who is overseeing the kitchen is a doctor that Ben knows from Brumrumgrad Hospital.  As Jason observed, it is odd to see your doctor in a chef’s outfit working in the kitchen.

In talking with the manager, he explained that the doctor loves to cook as a hobby and throw dinner parties frequently, which was their point of inspiration to go into business together.  Somewhere (maybe in Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential?) I recall reading that being good at hosting dinner parties is not the same as being a chef.

Nonetheless, 4 Garçons manages to effectively avoid the curse of most of these hi-so hobby restaurants: lackluster food.  The food at 4 Garçons was well-prepared and tasty, if somewhat lacking in distinctiveness.

Let’s take a look:

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The interior of the space isn’t its strong suit.  Another of the friends – maybe he’s an architect? – did the interior design.

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The space feels too open to be a nice brasserie and too cold to be a comfortable bistro.  Some furniture (shelves?  counters?  plant stands?) could have broken up the space more effectively, avoiding the long row of tables seen in the first picture and the large open areas that feel conspicuous.  Maybe this has to do with the “see and be seen” desire of Bangkok hi-so diners, for whom a more closed, intimate space would have minimized face time.  Thinking of other local restaurants like Extra Virgin, though, I think the interior could be improved by breaking it up a bit.  Tawn wasn’t keen on the murals, either.

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It seems that an order of fries is brought out as an amuse bouche.  Steak cut fries seem oddly un-French to me but they were really nice, crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, not greasy at all.  Maybe it is a break from the shoestrings frites one expects at a French restaurant, but it is a welcome break.

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Jason, Tawn, and I ordered some appetizers to kill the hour or so before Ben was able to join us from work.  We ordered this house-made pate, which was really tasty.  I keep asking myself why I don’t make pate at home.  The answer is probably because I don’t have a food processor.  But it isn’t that difficult to make and it reminds me of my days as a young child eating Triscuit crackers and Oscar-Meyer liverwurst for lunch with my paternal grandparents.

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A goat cheese tart with mixed greens was another nice appetizer.  Lots of onions and very tasty.

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I assume the bread was not baked at the restaurant although it was pretty good quality and it was generously provided.

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And if you have bread, you need melted butter and garlic to sop up, so we had escargots.  These were really tasty and are a good illustration of the principle that anything tastes wonderful if you put enough clarified butter and garlic on it!

Service is friendly and attentive, if a bit uninformed.  Basic questions like “What’s the soup of the day?” required a pop into the kitchen by the order-taker to answer.  It seems like the first lesson from Waitering 101 that you would know that type of information before approaching a table.

After Ben arrived we placed our orders.  The menu covers all the usual suspects of French cooking without any specific regional focus or stylistic emphasis. 

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One interesting thing was the availability of duck confit two ways: one prepared in duck fat for 6 hours, the other for 12 (if I have my numbers right).  The second one, which Tawn ordered, was saltier than normal and had a “gamey” flavor.  It was  quite good with a moist interior and crunchy exterior and was worth coming back for.

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Ben had the beef stew, which was flavorful and very tender.

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I had the lamb shoulder, which was also tender and flavorful although it had sort of a “one note” nature to it and could have used something – a few olives, maybe? – to distinguish it.

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The lamb came with a side of potatoes au gratin, which were tasty but a tad undercooked.

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Jason settled for the not-very-French choice of pasta with a meat sauce, which he seemed to enjoy.

Getting pretty full, we managed to find room for a little bit of dessert, just so there would be pictures to post on my blog.  (The things we do for you… ha!)

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Tarte au citron – lemon tart.  The lemon curd was lumpy and uber-sweet without any hint of tartness that makes for a great tarte au citron.  A little over-sauced, too.  We couldn’t bring ourselves to finish this, one of the rare occasions when I leave a dessert unfinished.

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A fresh fig tart was was a pleasant find on the menu, something you don’t see often.  The figs were lovely but the base of the tart didn’t add anything to them.  The amount of saucing was appropriate, though.

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The best dessert was the tarte Tatin.  The apple was really lovely and had this luscious caramel flavor.  I’d go back just to order this dessert, despite it being lost in a sea of vanilla cream.  I wonder if a few grains of coarse sea salt sprinkled on top would have added anything to it?

Upon reflection, I realize what marks a major difference between “fine dining” restaurants here versus in the US (and, I suspect, many western countries).  The restaurants here seem to have little definable chef’s vision and the dishes come across pretty much as textbook examples of whatever cuisine they purport to represent.  It is as if the owner lays out a bunch of recipes and hires some cooks to prepare them – which is what happens at any restaurant – but in this case it seems that the owner either doesn’t put a unique signature on the dishes or else doesn’t ensure that the cooks understand more than just the technical steps for preparing the dishes.  In other words, there’s no passion behind the cooking.

For what it is worth, 4 Garçons serves up food that is well-prepared and tasty, even if the entrees do manage to arrive one at a time in Thai style instead of all at once as you would expect in a French restaurant.  If any of these dishes had been served to me at a dinner party (or had I served them at my own home) they would be very impressive.  Put into the context of a restaurant they are still good but fall a little shy of where they need to be in order to make a stand-out impression on diners.

For the price – about 500-700 baht (US$15-22) per entree – the food is a fair value for Bangkok fine dining.  When I factor in the ambience, which isn’t the restaurant’s strength, and the quality of the food, I would say that 4 Garçons is a “worth visiting” but not a “must visit” restaurant.  I’d like to make a return and see how things shake out as they get into their second month of operations, if for no other reason than to eat the tarte Tatin again!

 

Denuded and Exposed

Last December I wrote about some of the changes happening to the landscape in the Thong Lor neighborhood of Krungthep (Bangkok), where Tawn and I live.  Most notably, for selfish reasons, is the demolishing of two houses adjacent to our condo.

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One Sunday morning last December laborers started demolishing the internal structure on this first house.  You can see our condo building – one of two U-shaped buildings that face each other around a swimming pool – in the background. 

Thankfully we live on the back side of the building from this picture so the noise and dust didn’t affect us all that directly.  But like any property owners, we were curious what was going on.  Was this adjacent property going to become a thirty-plus story monstrosity like the one to our southeast?

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A few days later, heavy equipment came in and the building, an old single-family home dating from the 1960s, was razed.  Once most of the rubble was carted away, everything was quiet for several weeks.  Then about a month ago they started the same process with another house in the property to the left of the one pictured above.

On behalf of the panicked residents, uncertain about what was going to be built just outside their balconies, the homeowner’s association pressured the juristic office to contact the Wattana District office.  The news came back that the properties are owned by an elderly woman who is building houses for her two sons.  There would be no large condos, just new single-family homes.  Of course there are plenty of examples on our street of “single family homes” that become extended family six-story apartments.

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Then two weeks ago, once again on a Sunday morning, the construction crews arrived and started cutting down all the trees and vegetation on the two, now one since the wall between them had been demolished, properties.  A few days later they also cut down two beautiful old trees that were at the back of their property, situated so that they provided a nice green backdrop for our pool area.

Last Sunday morning was the annual homeowner’s association meeting.  At the meeting, the head of the association, a Thai man about my age who lives in the mirror image condo from ours on the same floor, explained that he had personally contacted the homeowner and offered to compensate her for the trees so that they could remain standing.

She explained that her sons were going to build a pool and didn’t want to deal with the leaves falling into it.  Bleh.  How’s that for a lame excuse?  If you can afford to tear down old houses to build new ones, I think you can afford a pool boy.  They are inexpensive here.  (I keep suggesting we hire one but Tawn says no.  Ha ha… just kidding.  I mean just kidding about hiring one, not about Tawn saying no.)

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The view from our balcony now includes a clear view of the denuded property and the soi (alley) beyond.  There used to be two really beautiful trees that would put forth these large pink blooms twice a year.  I’m hoping they will plant some new landscaping but it could take a decade to get our verdant view back.

At this homeowner’s association meeting there were four vacancies for the committee.  Three people, including Tawn and a British expat who has lived here more than seven years, volunteered for the positions.  One of Tawn’s big issues is greenery – both aesthetically and also since it affects our property value – so I’m sure this will be an issue that gets addressed at the next committee meeting. 

Also, the British guy (John) and several other people have offered to help pitch in money to plant trees on our side of the property to replace the ones cut down.  We’ll see how that goes as the planter area is less than a meter wide, so I don’t think the large root ball of a tall tree could be accommodated.

Anyhow, we’re feeling more exposed these days, now that our neighboring land has been denuded.

 

Coming to you live from Raintree Villa

… and we pick up right where we left off, except 3.5 km to the southeast down Sukhumvit Road.

It is Tuesday evening and I’m using a “borrowed” weak wifi connection that someone has here in the building.  Hopefully DSL will be up and running in the next week or so.  Meanwhile, there is a daily trip to Starbucks for some high-speed internet connection and a latte.

The move was smooth, all things considered.  Sunday night was our first night in the place and other than being woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of a pack of soi dogs barking loudly and sounding very dangerous, it was comfortable.

I’ll tell you the story through pictures taken over the course of the Thursday through Tuesday period:

 

Thursday

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Above: Installing spray foam insulation to fill the gap in the concrete wall where the stove hood vents to the balcony.  Below: The hole, before and after.

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Above: Organizing herbs and spices on the pull-out spice rack drawer.  What seemed like a good use of space may be a little inconvenient in my middle age as I try to bend over and read the fine print on label jars all the way on the bottom shelf!  Below: More storage, this time in the bathroom.  Make note of the not-yet-installed toilet paper dispenser sitting on the marble shelf over the toilet.  More about that in a moment…

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Friday

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Above: A design feature I have not previously shared with you is our faux fireplace.  It will not give off any heat (that’s kind of unnecessary here, really) but will provide a place to hide the DVD player and stereo system and run the wires through the wall in case we put a TV above it.  The handyman pictured here, his face hidden to protect his identity, was responsible for this next fun discovery…

Below: … the incorrectly installed toilet paper dispenser.  This guy has worked with our contractor on many projects and yet even though I specifically showed how I wanted it installed, the dispenser ended up ninety degrees off kilter.

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Below: Our mattress arrived on Friday, a good two weeks before the bed frame will be finished.  Shockingly, this is the deepest mattress (the highest mattress?) that I’ve ever seen.  It is so tall it barely needs a frame.

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Above: Returning to Asoke Place on Friday afternoon after moving some things to Raintree Villa, I was reminded why I’m so happy to be leaving Asoke.  Look at the crazy traffic at 4:00 in the afternoon.  And none of these cars is moving when I took the picture.

 

Saturday

Saturday morning, Tawn waits in the Asoke Place apartment for the movers to arrive.

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Above: During a shopping trip to the housewares section of Central Chidlom department store, I see a special Winnie the Pooh toilet sheet that proclaims – without any trace of irony – that underneath the lid is a “Pooh Splash Zone”.

Below: Halfway through the move on Saturday, Tawn waits for the movers to arrive with more of our things.  The small bedroom was eventually filled halfway with boxes.  By Tuesday evening there are only six boxes left to sort through.

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Sunday

The move has largely taken place and all that is left is the cleaning out of a few items in the old apartment and the official moving in into the condo.  I met Tawn at the condo, waiting outside the front door, just before the appointed auspicious time of 8:30 am.  Tawn was carrying a Buddha image selected for him from his father, along with garlands and incense.

In an interesting mixture of animism, Brahmanism, Hinduism, and Buddhism (and a pinch of plain old superstition), we opened the front door and announced to the spirit of the dwelling that we were asking permission to move in.  Then, holding the Buddha statue, we prayed that by following the teachings and lessons of Buddha we would have a harmonious and happy life in the house.  We entered, then placed the image on the mantle of the fireplace, adding jasmine garlands and lighting incense.

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We then went back to the front of the building where the condo’s spirit house is located.  This is where the spirit (spirits?) of the land that were displaced in the construction of the building live.  We lit incense there and offered garlands to the spirits.  The spirit houses often contain images from Brhamanist and Hindu belief systems.

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Sunday afternoon we took a break from the unpacking and met up with Otto, who was in town from Singapore with his partner Han.  Otto, you may recall, is the teacher at Singapore’s prestigious Raffles Institute prep school who made waves a few months ago when he came out of the closet as a gay man in an open letter to his colleagues.  Needless to say, the last few months have been a roller coaster ride for both him and his partner and it was nice to see them.

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Above: Rather artistic shot as Tawn and Otto ride the escalator at Playground shopping centre on Thong Lor.  Below: Tawn and Otto pose at Starbucks in a picture designed mostly to capture the mirror, which Tawn thinks would look good in the front hallway.

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Below: Sunday evening after several hours of moving the last few items out of the apartment, I’m ready to say goodbye and head out the door.  Lights out!

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Above: Driving back to the new condo on some of the back sois, we passed this lovely compound that has an elaborate front gate.  Thais seem to really like their elaborate metal gates.

Below: Sunday dinner was at Grand Ramen restaurant on Thong Lor (which is Sukhumvit Soi 55, for those of you playing along at home).  This is a very good ramen restaurant that caters to the Japanese expats.  At four tables sat four Japanese salarymen, each at the same corner seat at each table so they looked like schoolboys sitting in a row.  Each read the newspaper, drank beer, are noodles, and watched the football game on the television.  The pork tonkatsu ramen was very tasty!  Oishi des ne!

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Monday Morning

Monday was our first morning in the new place.  Most important of all, the coffee machine was plugged in and I was able to heat milk for the coffee on the new induction stove.  No more microwave here.

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Finally, since it is now just after midnight, I’d like to wish His Majesty King Bhumibol, Rama IX a very happy 80th Birthday.  May this man, who has been an inspiration and source of pride for his subjects, enjoy a long and healthy life.  Below, a mother and daughter sign their birthday wishes in a greeting book at the Sukhumvit subway station, one of hundreds set up at various public points through the Kingdom.

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