Thailand, Part 1: Bangkok to Chiang Mai
Posted on March 17, 2014
Here I’m going to do the equivalent of inviting you over for Swedish meatballs, blender margaritas, and a long, long slideshow featuring every detail of our family spring break trip to Thailand. I’ll try to keep it food focused.
We arrived in Bangkok late at night following a twenty-four-hour series of flights—it’s a long way from Nebraska—and were wide awake when we checked into our riverside hotel so we set out onto Th. Phra Athit, a bustling street near the Old City. Just down from our hotel was a beer garden of sorts, so we stopped in for Chang beer (Derek), “Thai herbal whisky” (me), Sprite (the kiddo), and fried peanuts. The whisky was sweet and bitter, almost like an amaro, and was especially good washed down with some of Derek’s cold beer. We were encouraged to ladle some free soup from a communal tureen—this was excellent drinking food: sour, salty broth with rice and big chunks of chicken, and there was ground toasted dried chiles, fish sauce, and some sort of clear liquid (vinegar?) for sprinkling and drizzling in to taste. It was about 2:30 a.m. when we got back to our room and crashed. Hard.
The next morning we wandered down along the river through the Thammasat University grounds, which were surprisingly lovely, picking up Americanos at the university bookstore coffee stand on the way. We had breakfast in a little restaurant at the northern end of the Amulet Market. I had my first laap-style dish in Thailand, a salad of thinly sliced pork in a classic lime–fish sauce–chile dressing with ground toasted rice, red onion, scallions, and a scattering of herbs (not terribly much)—it’s on the yellow plate below, with jasmine rice. Thalia wanted squid but somehow ended up with an assortment of bouncy-textured boiled fish balls, of which she ate only a few, and a Fanta (it’s vacation!). Derek had crisped pork belly and sausage with a sort of chile sauce and rice (on the green-bottomed plate).
I went nuts in the university bookstore buying pretty tape and pencil cases (spending a total of about $11). Thalia went nuts at the Amulet Market, street after street of vendors selling good-luck charms, apparently to people engaged in dangerous occupations like taxi driving, and strange, wonderful doo-dads and gimcracks. She carefully picked out a 20-baht Buddha amulet; it looked just like about six thousand other ones for sale on the same street, but that’s the one she wanted. Amazingly, it has not yet been lost.
For lunch, we hailed a tuk-tuk to head to some restaurant I’d read about—it was incredibly hot, and we needed an indoor, sit-down arrangement. It was our first tuk-tuk, and the experience was fairly typical: The driver didn’t really know where he was going, stopping to ask other drivers for help, and for about twenty minutes after we eventually got where we were going I had an exhaust- and pollution-induced cough. The restaurant was closed, but we found another comfortable air-conditioned one nearby. My first true laap was here (it’s the dish piled with sprigs of mint below): minced catfish, complete with all the bones. Crunching through it was work, but it was tasty. Thalia again tried to order squid—I didn’t know she liked squid so much—but shrimp was delivered instead. It was actually really good: a sweet-tart stir-fry with lots of fragrant basil.
Dinner that night was in a goofy bar on Phra Athit, and while it surely wasn’t the best beef curry in town or even on that street it was better than about 95 percent of the Thai food I’ve had in the United States: fairly spicy, deep-flavored, with the usual Thai green eggplants the size of golf balls, quartered, as well as whole pea eggplants (makua puong). It was served with triangles of greasy and delicious roti. We also got a plate of fried chicken wings, which were tiny, pinkie-finger-sized—these were really good; the frying seemed to concentrate their flavor, and they were chewy and crisp.
I think I had a couple of breakfasts the next morning. I went out on my own early and found, down a narrow alley, a guy (Thai Muslim, I assume) making small roti, so I asked for one of those and sat down at a table in a covered area to one side of the alley and separated from it by a partial wall and blinds. It was quiet and peaceful, just the sizzling of the roti on the griddle and the whir of electric fans, lots of them. The roti was cut into little squares and drizzled with a sort of caramelized sweetened condensed milk and sprinkled with coarse sugar (something like this recipe might be worth trying). The man came around a little later with a tray of drinks: each person was given a mug of hot sweet black tea with milk and a glass of hot unsweetened pandan tea (I think).
Thalia had my next breakfast with me (Derek went down the street to a coffee shop and ended up having French toast with jam, which he said was better than anything at any restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska): tangy, dark brothy soup with wide, rough-cut rice noodles, cubes of the meltingest beef, crunchy fresh bean sprouts, and the most tender bright stems of greens. I put ground toasted chile in mine, as well as some of that greenish slurry you can see me spooning up above. What was that stuff? Does anybody know? I couldn’t tell exactly what was in it other than lemongrass, garlic, chiles, all topped off with water. It was funky and incredibly flavorful, and I’d love to make it at home someday.
Following is a montage of the rest of the day. We had to kill time between checking out of our room in Bangkok and getting on the train at 7:35 that night. It was unbearably hot and muggy, and the smog seemed downright unhealthy, so we did the tourist thing and spent a lot of time in Bangkok’s famous giant indoor malls—one of them rambling and downscale, the other extremely high-end, both excellent for people watching. Click through for captions.
And then the train. I’ve always been a romantic when it comes to long-distance train travel, and have fond memories of an overnight trip from Virginia to Boston I took with my parents and brother when I was in middle or high school. So instead of booking a quick, cheap, one-hour flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north I put my family on an overnight train. The taxi driver who delivered us to the station asked us where we were headed, and when we told him he laughed and said, “Long, long trip, lots of stops” and made a “cha-chug, cha-chug” sound and gesture to indicate achingly slow, lurching progress.
Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok is a bit forbidding, but the signage is clear, the PA announcements at least as easy to understand as those in Penn Station in New York. We bought cans of beer from a cooler of ice to drink while we waited to board our train, the #13 to Chiang Mai, and stocked up on snacks and bottled water. I won’t say much about the next fifteen hours here except that (1) Derek and I are still married, and . . .
(2) it might all have been worth it for the view at first light the next morning as the train slowly, slowly trundled through the foggy, jungle-choked mountains, Heart of Darkness style, and I cozied up with Thalia and a cup of hot instant coffee and Derek finally slept.
(Read the second and last part, here.)