travel : bangkok part 1
Somewhere in Bangkok’s Grand Palace.
As we walk out of Suvarnabhumi airport, the big city smells hits us. It’s pollution, chaos and urban growth, altogether familiar and foreign. As usual, traffic is ferocious, it’s either break neck speeds or frustrating standstills. We pass shacks of corrugated iron, concrete graveyards of would-be buildings and hives of skyscrapers. On the street the manicured parks, beggars, polished hotels, cunning touts and glittering temples are contradictions that make up this city called Bangkok.
Some people would say Paris, London or New York is their favourite city, but for me (I haven’t been to New York yet so don’t hold me to it) Bangkok is my number one. I love this city to bits. The shopping is great. The people are so friendly and gracious. The food is fantastic – eating is a sport and they do it like its going out of fashion.
Basically, we packed our eating pants.
(My tip for Bangkok is to get Nancy Chandler’s Map. With a city of this scale, the map is indispensable.)
Baan Klang Nam
The Chao Praya river is the life blood of Bangkok. The tide carries overburdened barges downstream, while long tails and tourist boats zigzag frantically around and about them. Despite the river’s day time frenzy, at night its banks offer a cool and pleasant location for dinner.
Tourists are suckers for views so most of the waterside restaurants are stocked with multicultural menus and entertainment that can pump out K pop, Britney Spears and Chinese classics from one song to the next. As amusing as that may sound, these restaurants also serve sauerkraut, sashimi and pad thai all at once. Skipping these farang restaurants, we decided to go to Baan Klang Nam, where the order of the day is lots of seafood, Thai style.
The original Baan Klang Nam is bit more adventurous to get to compared to the newer Baang Klang Nam 2. It’s down a very narrow, very dark alley. At one point we could have reached out of the taxi and changed the channel on someone’s TV. At the end of the road is the restaurant, a house on stilts perched over the water with an isolated, peaceful view of the river.
Baang Klang Naam.
River prawns that were more like lobsters…
(I don’t say this about many places but it was quite romantic – this is a good place for a date…)
With live seafood on the mind, we were keen on crab. The crab is picked wriggling from the restaurant’s clean pools and it’s just big enough for two of us. (When we thought about it, they could have easily gouged us with an oversized crab…)
A few minutes later, river ‘prawns’ the size of small crayfish arrived. These were simply split and grilled in the shell. The tail flesh was dreamy, clean, white and firm – a lot like lobster. Sometimes river prawns taste muddy but these prawns definitely did not come from the river ebbing beneath us. The tomalley was left undisturbed, forming a custard like ointment that’s heavenly on salted fish rice. YUM.
Crustaceans can be cooked pretty much any style you want but Thais have an affinity for deep fried garlic. (When in Rome…) So out came a crab covered in a shower of hot garlic. Waitresses swirled around the table, dishing out plates, napkins and claw crackers, making sure we were comfortable for the assault. The garlic is sweet and crisp – quite wonderful with the crab’s soft, sweet flesh that we pry out from its thick shell.
Som tum, paw paw salad. Minus the pickled crab!
We wolfed down a plate of salt fish fried rice, which wasn’t half bad, plus a huge plate of som tum paw paw salad, a must order in Thailand. Paw paw in its unripe state is more vegetable than fruit. It’s finely shredded, then bruised in a clay mortar and pestle with tomatoes, snake beans and condiments like peanuts and fish sauce.
Traditionally a tiny, whole pickled crab is tossed into the salad and it’s pounded with the shredded paw paw for its funky saltiness. It’s always worth asking about the crab or you may be in for a dismembered crabby surprise! (Smashed crab anyone?) The thing is, the locals like paw paw salad very, very hot. Believe it or not, it’s best when it’s as scorching as you can bear.
My favourite mall in the city centre but it’s not only good for shopping – it’s great for EATING. The ground floor is dedicated to food, food, glorious food and it’s massive. On this floor alone there’s a food court with decent local food, a village of affordable restaurants and more upmarket, posh restaurants.
It’s here you will also find famous chain eateries. Beard Papas (the best cream puffs in the world), Cinnabon, Swensens (oh the ice cream hot chocolate fondue) and MOS Burger are all in close proximity.
There’s also Laduree, the Mandarin Oriental cafe (the hotel’s Author’s Lounge is well worth a visit for high tea enthusiasts) and a Four Seasons Hotel restaurant. The Japanese restaurants are particularly noteworthy, with both matsutaka and wagyu beef and fresh sashimi (still wriggling) imported direct from Japan.
Obviously these aren’t grass roots experiences, but this is pure, unadulterated, air conditioned foodie heaven. (Of which there is an Ocean World beneath!)
You can also do serious damage to the credit card shopping in Paragon, so get a tourist discount card from the information kiosk to get the most bang for your buck!
The reclining Buddha just fits into the building!
Wat Pho (The Reclining Buddha) & the Grand Palace
Forget Khao San Road (how that and the Skytrain?! – made Getaway’s top ten list I have no idea), the two sights every first time visitor cannot miss are Wat Pho and the Grand Palace. Go straight past the megamalls and see these sights first.
(No, Wat Pho is not temple of noodle soup – wrong country. Phooey)
Apart from holiday snaps, these two sights give insight into Thai culture and religion. They are within walking distance from each other and an early morning visit means less crowds, less heat and most importantly, more time for shopping later on.
(To get there: in the morning take a taxi – otherwise take a ferry.)
As we traipse into Wat Pho, we realise we’ve entered through the back door and stumbled into a blessing ceremony for locals. Oops. The hush and smell of incense falls on us quick smart and we tip toe past as best as we can. Wat Pho is a major attraction but despite the throngs of tourists, it is still obviously very much in use. Being one of the holiest and most important temples in Mahayana Buddhism, it’s Thailand’s oldest university, a monastery and the birthplace of Thai massage.
Navigating through the maze of stupas and chedi, we peer into the main building and glimpse the reclining Buddha. It is stunning. No, it’s awesome. Okay, I’ve run out of superlatives.
Slipping off our shoes, our bare feet on the cool tiled floors, it’s impossible not to admire the statue’s size. Its shoulder almost touches the ceiling. At the end of the passage is in my opinion, the highlight of the visit. The buddha’s intricate, adorned feet, inlaid with 108 mother of pearl dioramas. Note each of the toes are the same length, a sign of his divinity.
Behind the Buddha, a repetitive pinging resonates through the wat. Slipping a note into a donation box, we each pick up a bowl of coins and join the chorus, dropping a coin into each of the 108 bowls along the wall.
Left: Somewhere in the Grand Palace. Isn’t the roof detailing just gorgeous! Right: K dropping coin alms into 108 bowls.
As we slip out of the temple, throngs of tourists continuously mob the entrance. A short walk down the road and we encounter another classic Bangkok feature.
It’s not a must-see, but a must-avoid: the tout.
These guys are the reason you should never, ever hire a tuk tuk in Bangkok. They often inhabit the streets around, but out of sight of a major attraction. They’ll claim the attraction is closed and want to take you on a great trip around Bangkok in their tuk tuk. Accept and you will end up at jewellery shop/tailor/dodgy temple being conned out of your money.
Ignoring the tout completely, we follow the path to the entrance of the Grand Palace. Which is open, of course.
Hello there! Me and about two thousand other tourists.
Even with two previous visits, the Grand Palace will always be an awesome sight. Where as the reclining Buddha is quite subdued, the palace is over the top. Retrieving my jaw from the ground, our eyes eventually acclimatize to the gold and the elegant, gilded buildings. I’m not going to say much here, because the opulence of the palace really has to be seen to be believed. It is reminiscent of Versailles (especially the newer buildings – you’ll see later on) and just as stunning.
Wearing sandals or easy to remove shoes, pants with knees covered and a modest top (covered shoulders, no cleavage) is a good idea, especially if you’d like to enter sacred or holy areas like Wat Phra Kaew or, Temple of the Emerald Buddha.
There are heaps of wats and buildings to peer into, but Wat Phra Kaew is the most awe inspiring. We take off our slippers and enter the hall, shuffling to find a spot on the floor while not pointing our feet at the Buddha which seems downright impossible (there’s no pointing with fingers either). At 66 centimetres tall, the Buddha is carved from a single piece of jade and is said to bring prosperity to the country it resides in. The statue is seriously sacred – only the King of Thailand is allowed to touch it and change its clothing. Three times a year, the statue’s cloak is changed to reflect the summer, winter and rainy seasons and these changes are said to usher in good fortune.
Once seated among the praying public and those who exchange donations for a lotus bud offering, it’s easy to admire the mountains of flowers, statues and offerings in front of the Buddha. The hall is also remarkably cool and provides respite from the heat.
Left: Lighting joss sticks. Right: Prayers with flowers dipped in water, incense sticks and a paper of gold leaf.
Behind the Jade Buddha hall was an area choked with incense. Within this area, devotees gave their thanks. Small donations are exchanged for bundles of lotus or rose buds, a small piece of gilt paper and joss sticks. The joss sticks are lit and stood in ashes at the end of the prayer. Then, dipped in water, the glistening lotus buds arre piled by the many statues of Buddha, to which each pilgrim would press an infinitesimal gold leaf onto the Buddha. Eventually the statue would be entirely covered in gold.
After prayers, adding a bit of gold leaf to a Buddha statue.
After staring at one too many stupas, we head to the newer palace compound. Fronted by elephant statues and ever present standing guards, the palace is an interesting fusion of European and Thai styles. In fact, some of it would look quite at home in Europe. There was more amazing architecture to gawp at (see below) but we made a quick exit before the coach tours descended on the sites.
A gorgeous pavillion part of the Phra Maha Prasat group.
Phra Thinang Chakri Maha Prasat which contains the throne room, has a European lower facade and a Thai roof.
Whatever you do, don’t skip dessert at Nahm.
I’m sure most of you know who David Thompson is. If you don’t, David’s the Aussie superstar of Thai cooking. Yep, he’s a non-Thai doing Thai food in the capital. (Brave!) Nahm is the Bangkok outpost of his London previously Michelin starred restaurant. I adore David Thompson’s cookbook, Thai Food, not only for its hot pink cover but the meticulous recipes within. The book is invaluable – David’s writing is well researched and respectful, the recipes genuine as well as laborious.
Nahm is located in the lobby of the Metropolitan Hotel and is a rather dark and hushed restaurant. Looking around, there are a lot of Aussie fans eating here too. Once seated, a flurry of waiters take our orders and settle us in. My tip is to just go for the tasting menu (about 1800 Thai baht). It’s great value and you get to choose a set number of dishes from the a la carte menu, with individual soups and desserts. Just go crazy and strap yourself in for one of the most interesting, lovely and insightful dinners you’ll ever experience.
It’s mostly photos from here on; but the highlights were the relish (which was OMG good), the curry (elegant and pungent) and the dessert.
Ma hor (or ‘galloping horses’).
First up was the amuse bouche of ma hor (translated to galloping horses) – minced pork, chicken and prawn on pineapple. The small bite to start the dinner was both sweet and savoury and has a sticky, fleshy texture.
Left: Smoked fish and tapioca dumplings. Right: I cannot for the life of me remember what this was – only it was very delicious! It’s a spicy crab curry in a rice flour griddle cake that forms a ‘pocket’ to hold the curry.
Spicy pork with betel leaves.
The large Betel vine leaf, is eaten raw wrapped around the pork. The leaf has a slightly bitter and medicinal taste and is surprisingly addictive.
Lon (or relish) of minced prawns simmered in coconut cream
A lon is a mild relish that’s often stewed, as opposed to nahm prik, which is a textured puree made in a mortar and pestle. The lon of minced prawns was sumptuous from the fresh, thick coconut milk and unlike the rest of the meal, was not particularly pungent or strongly flavoured. The relish came with a bowl of freshly picked vegetables – saw tooth coriander, pennywort, white tumeric and logs of cucumber to be dipped in and eaten with the relish.
Crisp crab, prawn and chilli salad.
In the style of a traditional Thai meal, the main course consists of soup, curry and salad served all at once. To the left is smoked fish dumplings over pork, mushrooms and glass noodles. To the right is a bowl of clear mushroom soup with roasted duck. At the back (the orange bowl) was a fantastic curry of crab and lime.
Our mains did not disappoint – all the dishes had succinct flavours, whether they be soothing, earthy or acidic. Even through the mess of strong flavours, the one dish that stuck out was the curry of blue swimmer crab (orange bowl in the photo above – sorry did not get a clear photo of it). It’s amazing what freshly extracted coconut cream can do… the curry was rich, fragrant with coconut and earthy from turmeric – not to mention the sweetness of the delicate crab meat. That bowl was licked clean!
The two other dishes – the soup and fish dumplings, (I think) had Chinese origins so had very familiar, bland but soothing flavours.
After the main meals, we were totally stuffed but there was more to come! As soon as our mains were cleared by the almost over attentive service, a palate cleanser was served: a single piece of mouth puckering green mango coated with chilli sugar.
Black sticky rice, longans, young coconut with bird’s nest (deep fried taro).
Alone, the bowl of longans and black sticky rice would be a fulfilling, pleasant way to finish the meal. But paired with strands of simultaneously deep fried and caramelised taro and it was far beyond pleasant – it was heavenly. The taro was caramelised as far as the oil would allow it and eaten with the chewy black rice and silky coconut cream, this dessert is a study in how texture, taste and burnished sugars should work together. I would come back to Nahm for this dessert alone.
Petit fours at the end of the meal.
Baan Klang Nam
288 Soi Ban Klang Nam Bang Khlo, Bang Kho Laem, Bangkok 10120, Thailand
248 Thanon Thai Wang Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200, Thailand
Thanon Na Phra Lan Phra Borom Maha Ratchawang, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200, Thailand
991 Siam Paragon Shopping Center, Rama 1 Rd., Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330
27 South Sathorn Road, Tungmahamek, Sathorn Bangkok 10120
T: +662 625 3388
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